Health & Science

How your childhood shapes your politics; How cooking made us smart; The volcanic soil of Mars; Why dinosaurs had feathers

How your childhood shapes your politics

Your decision to vote for President Obama or Mitt Romney this week may have originated in your childhood. That’s the implication of a long-term study into the voting behavior of 700 people, whose parents were interviewed about how they were raised and how they acted as children. Researchers found that regardless of race, economic status, intelligence, or gender, kids whose parents believed that children “should always obey their parents” were more likely to vote conservative when they reached voting age, while those whose parents believed that “children should be allowed to disagree with their parents” were more likely to become liberals. The study also found that people whose parents described them as having been fearful and cautious at ages 4 and 5 leaned Republican as young adults; those who were active and restless as young children tended to prefer Democratic policies later on. Scientists aren’t sure how our childhood temperaments and experiences lead us “to develop specific ideological positions,” University of Illinois psychologist R. Chris Fraley tells the Toronto Star. But it’s clear, he says, that how we behaved—and were disciplined—as kindergarteners at least partly determines our views on political issues like “abortion, military spending, and the death penalty.”

How cooking made us smart

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Why did the brains of our human ancestors experience a growth spurt some 1.8 million years ago, granting us intelligence that’s superior to that of other primates? Credit “the invention of cooking,” Brazilian neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel tells The Guardian (U.K.). She and her colleagues found that heating food—which speeds up chewing and digestion, and allows the body to absorb more nutrition per bite—enabled Homo erectus to ingest the calories needed to feed the human brain. Our brain makes up 2 percent of our body mass, or five times the proportion of a gorilla’s brain, and consumes 20 percent of our total energy intake—more than twice the percentage a gorilla’s brain requires. After examining the caloric requirements of a host of primate species, the researchers determined that had our Homo erectus ancestors stuck to a raw-food diet, they would have had to spend more than nine hours per day just ingesting food in order to fuel their larger brains. “Cooking,” Herculano-Houzel says, is the “most obvious answer to the question, ‘What can humans do that no other species does?’”

The volcanic soil of Mars

NASA’s Curiosity rover has completed its first analysis of Martian soil since its stunning landing in August, yielding a surprising conclusion, reports. The rover bombarded soil at its landing site in Gale Crater with X-rays, which revealed its makeup to be “similar to some weathered basaltic materials that we see on Earth,” such as the volcanic sands of Hawaii, says Indiana University mineralogist David Bish. The sample contained pyroxene and olivine, minerals common in Earth’s mantle, and a type of feldspar found in our planet’s crust—none of which had previously been observed on Mars. The minerals did not appear to be weathered by water, unlike another area Curiosity studied, which indicates that the Red Planet has a complex geological history and probably transitioned from a wet period to a very dry one. Researchers next plan to use another rover tool to search for lighter elements—such as nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen—that could have given rise to life.

Why dinosaurs had feathers

Dinosaurs developed feathers not to facilitate flight, but as a colorful means to attract mates. That’s the conclusion of scientists who closely studied the fossils of one of the earliest feathered dinosaurs ever found. Archaeologists had long been puzzled by the fact that the fossils of feathered dinosaurs unearthed over the past several decades were almost all of beasts far too big to fly. Now, a new analysis of the 75-million-year-old fossil skeletons of an adult and a juvenile Ornithomimus,unearthed in 1995 in Alberta, has established that only the adult—an ostrich-like creature that weighed up to 400 pounds—had the marks of large feathers on its forearms; the juvenile was covered only in a wispy down coat. “This suggests that the wings were used for purposes later in life, like reproductive activities such as display or courtship,” University of Calgary paleontologist Darla Zelenitsky tells Ornithomimus, which evolved some 155 million years ago, is among the earliest feathered dinosaurs yet discovered, so if his feathers served his amorous ambitions, the same is probably true for subsequent dinosaurs.

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