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Science Notes/ Psychology, astronomy

Rats seem to display empathy

As charges of greed and self-interest fly in these partisan political times, humans might do well to look to rats for lessons in kindness and caring.

A University of Chicago experiment to determine how much empathy rats have for each other had some surprising results, which were published in the journal Science.

In laboratory studies, a rat was restrained in a small cage that could be opened only from the outside. A second rat, seeing the predicament of the trapped rat, immediately began tirelessly trying to find a way to free his fellow rat.

Eventually, the second rat taught itself to open the cage door, freeing the restrained rat, leading to what strongly resembled a triumphal celebration between the two. Even when faced with an alternative choice of chocolate chips, the free rat would not be deterred from helping its caged fellow rat.

As simple as it sounds, the experiment is being hailed as a new paradigm that will help scientists trace the development of emotion in mammals back through the evolutionary tree.

The experiment is the work of UC doctoral student Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal; her adviser, Jean Decety, a professor of psychology and psychiatry; and Peggy Mason, a neurobiology professor.

-- Chicago Tribune


A view of early cosmic history

For the first time, astronomers have detected ancient and pristine clouds of primordial gas, conceived when the universe was a very young, dark place.

This long-sought discovery of 12-billion-year-old pockets of gas by University of California, Santa Cruz, scientists offers a stunning snapshot of early cosmic history -- and adds more support to the widely accepted Big Bang theory about the origin of elements in our universe.

"It's thrilling. It describes all that we've been looking for," said J. Xavier Prochaska, professor of astronomy and astrophysics, whose study was published in the journal Science.

Staring into deep time within two patches of dark sky -- one in the constellation Leo and the other in Ursa Major -- the team found clouds of hydrogen and a hydrogen isotope, called deuterium. Those two original elements, relics of the Big Bang, are uncontaminated by more recent elements such as carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. The ancestral clouds are not visible to the naked eye. But computers in a UC Santa Cruz basement can analyze their spectral images, captured by Hawaii's Keck Telescope.

The discovery is significant because it props up the Big Bang theory of the origin of the elements. The primordial gas provided fuel for the very first stars -- lighting up the darkness. These early stars were monsters that burned hot, lived fast and died young. Their deaths sent newer elements exploding into space, seeding galaxies with everything necessary for life.

-- San Jose Mercury News