Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Journal: Journal of the Royal Society, Interface / the Royal Society


The study of social identity and crowd psychology looks at how and why individual people change their behaviour in response to others. Within a group, a new behaviour can emerge first in a few individuals before it spreads rapidly to all other members. A number of mathematical models have been hypothesized to describe these social contagion phenomena, but these models remain largely untested against empirical data. We used Bayesian model selection to test between various hypotheses about the spread of a simple social behaviour, applause after an academic presentation. Individuals' probability of starting clapping increased in proportion to the number of other audience members already ‘infected’ by this social contagion, regardless of their spatial proximity. The cessation of applause is similarly socially mediated, but is to a lesser degree controlled by the reluctance of individuals to clap too many times. We also found consistent differences between individuals in their willingness to start and stop clapping. The social contagion model arising from our analysis predicts that the time the audience spends clapping can vary considerably, even in the absence of any differences in the quality of the presentations they have heard.

Concepts: Scientific method, Psychology, Mathematics, Sociology, Observation, Empiricism, Social psychology, Applause


Several recent studies hint at shared patterns in decision-making between taxonomically distant organisms, yet few studies demonstrate and dissect mechanisms of decision-making in simpler organisms. We examine decision-making in the unicellular slime mould Physarum polycephalum using a classical decision problem adapted from human and animal decision-making studies: the two-armed bandit problem. This problem has previously only been used to study organisms with brains, yet here we demonstrate that a brainless unicellular organism compares the relative qualities of multiple options, integrates over repeated samplings to perform well in random environments, and combines information on reward frequency and magnitude in order to make correct and adaptive decisions. We extend our inquiry by using Bayesian model selection to determine the most likely algorithm used by the cell when making decisions. We deduce that this algorithm centres around a tendency to exploit environments in proportion to their reward experienced through past sampling. The algorithm is intermediate in computational complexity between simple, reactionary heuristics and calculation-intensive optimal performance algorithms, yet it has very good relative performance. Our study provides insight into ancestral mechanisms of decision-making and suggests that fundamental principles of decision-making, information processing and even cognition are shared among diverse biological systems.

Concepts: Bacteria, Decision making, Biology, Organism, Eukaryote, Microorganism, Computational complexity theory, Physarum polycephalum


The cell walls in plants are made up of just four basic building blocks: cellulose (the main structural fibre of the plant kingdom) hemicellulose, lignin and pectin. Although the microstructure of plant cell walls varies in different types of plants, broadly speaking, cellulose fibres reinforce a matrix of hemicellulose and either pectin or lignin. The cellular structure of plants varies too, from the largely honeycomb-like cells of wood to the closed-cell, liquid-filled foam-like parenchyma cells of apples and potatoes and to composites of these two cellular structures, as in arborescent palm stems. The arrangement of the four basic building blocks in plant cell walls and the variations in cellular structure give rise to a remarkably wide range of mechanical properties: Young’s modulus varies from 0.3 MPa in parenchyma to 30 GPa in the densest palm, while the compressive strength varies from 0.3 MPa in parenchyma to over 300 MPa in dense palm. The moduli and compressive strength of plant materials span this entire range. This study reviews the composition and microstructure of the cell wall as well as the cellular structure in three plant materials (wood, parenchyma and arborescent palm stems) to explain the wide range in mechanical properties in plants as well as their remarkable mechanical efficiency.

Concepts: Eukaryote, Plant, Fungus, Cell wall, Lignin, Cellulose, Wood, Plant cell


Classic beam theory is frequently used in biomechanics to model the stress behaviour of vertebrate long bones, particularly when creating intraspecific scaling models. Although methodologically straightforward, classic beam theory requires complex irregular bones to be approximated as slender beams, and the errors associated with simplifying complex organic structures to such an extent are unknown. Alternative approaches, such as finite element analysis (FEA), while much more time-consuming to perform, require no such assumptions. This study compares the results obtained using classic beam theory with those from FEA to quantify the beam theory errors and to provide recommendations about when a full FEA is essential for reasonable biomechanical predictions. High-resolution computed tomographic scans of eight vertebrate long bones were used to calculate diaphyseal stress owing to various loading regimes. Under compression, FEA values of minimum principal stress (σ(min)) were on average 142 per cent (±28% s.e.) larger than those predicted by beam theory, with deviation between the two models correlated to shaft curvature (two-tailed p = 0.03, r(2) = 0.56). Under bending, FEA values of maximum principal stress (σ(max)) and beam theory values differed on average by 12 per cent (±4% s.e.), with deviation between the models significantly correlated to cross-sectional asymmetry at midshaft (two-tailed p = 0.02, r(2) = 0.62). In torsion, assuming maximum stress values occurred at the location of minimum cortical thickness brought beam theory and FEA values closest in line, and in this case FEA values of τ(torsion) were on average 14 per cent (±5% s.e.) higher than beam theory. Therefore, FEA is the preferred modelling solution when estimates of absolute diaphyseal stress are required, although values calculated by beam theory for bending may be acceptable in some situations.

Concepts: Interval finite element, Finite element method, Model, Biomechanics, Solid mechanics, Beam, Torsion, Structural analysis


A new tool for visualization and analysis of system dynamics is introduced: the phasegram. Its application is illustrated with both classical nonlinear systems (logistic map and Lorenz system) and with biological voice signals. Phasegrams combine the advantages of sliding-window analysis (such as the spectrogram) with well-established visualization techniques from the domain of nonlinear dynamics. In a phasegram, time is mapped onto the x-axis, and various vibratory regimes, such as periodic oscillation, subharmonics or chaos, are identified within the generated graph by the number and stability of horizontal lines. A phasegram can be interpreted as a bifurcation diagram in time. In contrast to other analysis techniques, it can be automatically constructed from time-series data alone: no additional system parameter needs to be known. Phasegrams show great potential for signal classification and can act as the quantitative basis for further analysis of oscillating systems in many scientific fields, such as physics (particularly acoustics), biology or medicine.

Concepts: Fundamental physics concepts, Physics, Logistic map, Chaos theory, Dynamical system, Nonlinear system, Bifurcation diagram, Seasonality


This paper demonstrates the significant utility of deploying non-traditional biological techniques to harness available volatiles and waste resources on manned missions to explore the Moon and Mars. Compared with anticipated non-biological approaches, it is determined that for 916 day Martian missions: 205 days of high-quality methane and oxygen Mars bioproduction with Methanobacterium thermoautotrophicum can reduce the mass of a Martian fuel-manufacture plant by 56%; 496 days of biomass generation with Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira maxima on Mars can decrease the shipped wet-food mixed-menu mass for a Mars stay and a one-way voyage by 38%; 202 days of Mars polyhydroxybutyrate synthesis with Cupriavidus necator can lower the shipped mass to three-dimensional print a 120 m(3) six-person habitat by 85% and a few days of acetaminophen production with engineered Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803 can completely replenish expired or irradiated stocks of the pharmaceutical, thereby providing independence from unmanned resupply spacecraft that take up to 210 days to arrive. Analogous outcomes are included for lunar missions. Because of the benign assumptions involved, the results provide a glimpse of the intriguing potential of ‘space synthetic biology’, and help focus related efforts for immediate, near-term impact.

Concepts: Solar System, Mars, Moon, Spacecraft, Space exploration, Human spaceflight, NASA, Robotic spacecraft


Ornithopters, or flapping-wing aircraft, offer an alternative to helicopters in achieving manoeuvrability at small scales, although stabilizing such aerial vehicles remains a key challenge. Here, we present a hovering machine that achieves self-righting flight using flapping wings alone, without relying on additional aerodynamic surfaces and without feedback control. We design, construct and test-fly a prototype that opens and closes four wings, resembling the motions of swimming jellyfish more so than any insect or bird. Measurements of lift show the benefits of wing flexing and the importance of selecting a wing size appropriate to the motor. Furthermore, we use high-speed video and motion tracking to show that the body orientation is stable during ascending, forward and hovering flight modes. Our experimental measurements are used to inform an aerodynamic model of stability that reveals the importance of centre-of-mass location and the coupling of body translation and rotation. These results show the promise of flapping-flight strategies beyond those that directly mimic the wing motions of flying animals.

Concepts: Bird, Flight, Wing, Fixed-wing aircraft, Flying and gliding animals, Aircraft, Airfoil, Ornithopter


Herding of sheep by dogs is a powerful example of one individual causing many unwilling individuals to move in the same direction. Similar phenomena are central to crowd control, cleaning the environment and other engineering problems. Despite single dogs solving this ‘shepherding problem’ every day, it remains unknown which algorithm they employ or whether a general algorithm exists for shepherding. Here, we demonstrate such an algorithm, based on adaptive switching between collecting the agents when they are too dispersed and driving them once they are aggregated. Our algorithm reproduces key features of empirical data collected from sheep-dog interactions and suggests new ways in which robots can be designed to influence movements of living and artificial agents.

Concepts: Scientific method, Sociology, Science, Artificial intelligence, Problem solving, Individualism, How to Solve It, Intelligent agent


The Radical Pair Model proposes that the avian magnetic compass is based on spin-chemical processes: since the ratio between the two spin states singlet and triplet of radical pairs depends on their alignment in the magnetic field, it can provide information on magnetic directions. Cryptochromes, blue light-absorbing flavoproteins, with flavin adenine dinucleotide as chromophore, are suggested as molecules forming the radical pairs underlying magnetoreception. When activated by light, cryptochromes undergo a redox cycle, in the course of which radical pairs are generated during photo-reduction as well as during light-independent re-oxidation. This raised the question as to which radical pair is crucial for mediating magnetic directions. Here, we present the results from behavioural experiments with intermittent light and magnetic field pulses that clearly show that magnetoreception is possible in the dark interval, pointing to the radical pair formed during flavin re-oxidation. This differs from the mechanism considered for cryptochrome signalling the presence of light and rules out most current models of an avian magnetic compass based on the radical pair generated during photo-reduction. Using the radical pair formed during re-oxidation may represent a specific adaptation of the avian magnetic compass.

Concepts: Electron, Magnetic field, Spin, Magnetism, Adenine, FAD, Magnetoception, Cryptochrome


Invention has been commonly conceptualized as a search over a space of combinatorial possibilities. Despite the existence of a rich literature, spanning a variety of disciplines, elaborating on the recombinant nature of invention, we lack a formal and quantitative characterization of the combinatorial process underpinning inventive activity. Here, we use US patent records dating from 1790 to 2010 to formally characterize invention as a combinatorial process. To do this, we treat patented inventions as carriers of technologies and avail ourselves of the elaborate system of technology codes used by the United States Patent and Trademark Office to classify the technologies responsible for an invention’s novelty. We find that the combinatorial inventive process exhibits an invariant rate of ‘exploitation’ (refinements of existing combinations of technologies) and ‘exploration’ (the development of new technological combinations). This combinatorial dynamic contrasts sharply with the creation of new technological capabilities-the building blocks to be combined-that has significantly slowed down. We also find that, notwithstanding the very reduced rate at which new technologies are introduced, the generation of novel technological combinations engenders a practically infinite space of technological configurations.

Concepts: Novel, Patent, Innovation, Invention, United States Patent and Trademark Office, Novelty, Inventive step and non-obviousness, Patentability