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Spinner Dolphins, Neuroaesthetics and Fracking

• Which animal has the most teeth? Give up? It is the spinner dolphin (Stenella longirostris) that may bear 225 teeth in their long, beak-like mouths. These relatives of whales are the acrobatic champions of the ocean, leaping high out of the water, twisting and spinning horizontally, then plunging head first back into the sea. Spinner dolphins reach six feet in length and may weigh up to 200 pounds, and like whales, they communicate with one another with whistles, grunts, and clicks. Sadly, their population has declined by about 85 percent since the 1970s due to overfishing for meat and oil, especially by Japan and Sri Lanka. (Extreme Nature, Knowledge cards from the Sierra Club)

• Science has now confirmed what most of us already knew – that art and music bring us pleasure. Researchers at the Univ. College of London used MRI to scan the brains of 30 subjects while they viewed images of “great art” by famous artists. Participants were chosen for their lack of education in the arts. At 10-second intervals they visualized a series of famous paintings of landscapes, portraits, still life, or abstract works. Researchers found that paintings considered “great works” caused a 10 percent increase in blood flow to the medial orbitofrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with pleasure. Previous studies at McGill Univ. in Montreal involved scanning the brains of eight people while they listened to “great music” (by their own definition). It should be no surprise that dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure, was released in another specific brain region. Now that science is getting into the act of dissecting out why we find pleasure from art and music, a new name has been given to this approach: “neuroaesthetics.” The official definition is “the study of the neural bases for the contemplation and creation of a work of art.” A few critics, such as Scotsman Stuart Kelly of the Guardian and editor of Scotland on Sunday, said that this kind of research is “pure bunkum.” To make his point he used this kind of analogy: If you could take a piece of Leonardo da Vinci’s brain and put it under a microscope, it is not going to explain the Mona Lisa. (www.simonekeiran.com; Salimpoor et al, 2011, Nature Neuroscience, vol. 14, p. 257; “Art and Science Don’t Mix”, http://www.nohoartdistrict.com, Sept. 12, 2012)

• Early on many scientists wondered whether aggressive horizontal fracking to capture natural gas might cause earthquakes. The answer is yes. A study by the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., documented the dramatic increase in earthquakes in the Midwest associated with the fracking boom. From 1970 to 2000, the region had only 20 quakes a year measuring at or above magnitude 3.0 on the Richter scale. From 2000 to 2008, there were 29 quakes, but in the three-year period from 2009 to 2011, coincident with the fracking boom, there were 271 quakes. The fracking boom may be outpacing scientific studies to determine the safest and most cost-effective way to blow natural gas out of the ground. Ultimately, it will come down to weighing the benefits of fracking against the long-term risks, both to people and the environment. (Science News, Sept. 8, 2012)