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Testing the brain’s “physics engine”, lawnmower aurora alert and more


By Hamish Johnston and Tushna Commissariat 

You may not know it, but apparently you have a dedicated region in your brain that is your “physics engine”. At least that is what cognitive researchers from Johns Hopkins University are suggesting after they have pinpointed a specific region of the human brain that intuitively understands physics – at least when it comes to predicting how objects behave in the real world. According to the team, the engine is kick-started when we observe physical events as they happen and is “among the most important aspects of cognition for survival”. Surprisingly, the region is not located in the brain’s vision centre, but is actually the same area we tap into while making plans of any type. In the video above, the team has created a little game for you to test your engine’s horsepower – go ahead and tell us how you did.

What physicist can resist making a back-of-the-envelope calculation to test an outlandish claim, especially if it involves a race between a car and gravity? In his recent Forbes blog, physicist Chad Orzel has sharpened his pencil to try to work out whether the Tesla Model S can accelerate to 100 km/h on the track in less time than it would if it was dropped from a height. The car is electric, which means that it should be much faster off the mark that a conventional vehicle. But, “Can a Tesla Model S really accelerate faster than gravity?”.

What’s the difference between a dazzling display of the aurora borealis and a lawnmower? Not much, it seems, if you use a geomagnetic sensor operated by AuroraWatch at the University of Lancaster in the UK. On Tuesday the organization sent out a “red alert” to its e-mail subscribers telling them to look out for a big show of the northern lights. But alas, the apparent huge spike in geomagnetic activity seen in the AuroraWatch sensors was actually caused by the operation of a nearby lawnmower. Can you imagine what would happen if someone accelerated nearby in a Tesla Model S? You can read all about it here: “Red alert cancelled”.

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