Health & Science

Black sprinters’ navel advantage; Manufacturing good luck; The amazing shrinking proton; When a gorilla is ‘it’; Your future self, rich

Black sprinters’ navel advantage

To size up a sprinter’s potential speed, start by examining his navel. That’s the conclusion of researchers at Duke University, who dared to examine the historically verboten question: Why do Africans and African-Americans tend to run faster than whites? The answer, says Science Daily, lies with the bellybutton, which marks the body’s center of gravity. An analysis of prior studies of human measurements revealed that, on average, people of West African origin have longer legs than people with European heritage; the longer legs, and shorter torsos, place their center of gravity 3 percent, or roughly an inch, higher. Collating a century’s worth of sprinting records revealed that this height difference translates into a 1.5 percent boost in speed—enough to make a big difference in the results of sprints, in which fractions of a second separate winners from losers. “Locomotion is essentially a continual process of falling forward, and mass that falls from a higher altitude falls faster,” says research leader Andre Bejan. The converse holds true for swimmers: Europeans have a 3 percent longer torso than West Africans, which equals a 1.5 percent speed advantage in the pool. The researchers were careful to note that they focused on the athletes’ geographic origins and physical measurements, not race, which they deem a “social construct.”

Manufacturing good luck

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Good luck charms may lack magical power, but they do seem to provide their owners with a competitive edge, says It’s a matter of psychology, rather than wizardry: In a series of experiments, German researchers found that when people carried a lucky charm, they set higher goals and felt more confident than people who left their talismanic coin or favorite stuffed animal at home. In one test, subjects who’d been told a golf ball was “lucky” tended to perform better than those who were simply handed the ball. “Superstitious behavior won’t help you win the lottery,” says psychologist and study co-author Barbara Stoberock. “But it could help you win a sporting event or pass a test.”

The amazing shrinking proton

The tiny proton, one of the most common particles in the universe and a fundamental building block of atoms, just got tinier. The difference is slight: New measurements indicate the proton is just 4 percent, or about 0.00000000000003 millimeters, smaller than previously thought. But “the result has caused consternation” among physicists, says The New York Times, because it threatens to upset existing theories about the basic forces of nature. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Germany created the scientific uproar by using a new, more accurate technique for measuring the proton. “What you have is a result that actually shocked us,” says research team member Paul Rabinowitz. The new result may point to the effect of as-yet undetected particles, an error in the calculations, or a flaw in the foundation of quantum physics. “It’s a very serious discrepancy,” says Swiss physicist Ingo Sick. “There is really something seriously wrong someplace.”

When a gorilla is ‘it’

The game of tag may precede the human race. British biologists have found that gorillas play tag, in much the same way as people do. The researchers studied three years’ worth of videos of gorillas interacting in zoos, and saw a pattern of play that looked very familiar: First gorilla hits second gorilla, then runs away and tries to avoid getting hit back; swap roles and repeat. Higher-ranking animals can tag lower-ranking ones much harder, while lower-ranking animals usually just tap their betters. The game, researchers say, serves as a means for apes to test out what is acceptable with peers of various ranks. Playing tag “helps young gorillas to improve their social and cognitive skills,” study co-author Marina Davila Ross tells ABC Science. The finding, she says, also suggests that this form of play has deep roots in primates, and isn’t limited to humans and gorillas. “I think it’s very likely present in various species.”

Your future self, rich

Does your future self feel like a familiar friend, or more like a distant stranger? The difference may determine your spending habits, says Scientific American. Using functional MRIs to scan the brains of volunteers, studies have found that a certain region, the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, is more active when people think about themselves rather than another person. Stanford University researchers found that when asked to think of themselves years into the future, some subjects saw their future selves as “me,” while others’ brain scans showed that they thought of their future selves as “someone else.” People who thought of their future selves as “me’’ consistently chose to postpone receiving some money, so that they could receive more later. People who felt no real connection to their future selves made the opposite decision—they wanted the money upfront, even if it cost them in the long run. One key to saving, then, might simply entail picturing your future self with a lot of money, says study co-author Hal Ersner-Hershfield. “Even thinking, ‘If I were to call my future self right now, what would I think?’ might affect the decisions you make in the present.”

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