A boy genius, drugged-out elephants, the end of aging, and prairie voles in love!

A lidar image of a portion of the San Andreas Fault from the B4 project. Credit: Michael Bevis, Ohio State University

16-Year-Old Wiz Kid Solves Dirichlet Problem
Michael Viscardi, of the Josan Academy for the Gifted in San Diego, won the Siemens Westinghouse Competition for his solution to the Dirichlet Problem. The problem involves solving a partial differential equation within a region, given boundary conditions. Viscardi said his work can be used for engineering applications, such as heat flow.

“This solution was not known before,” said Peter Ebenfelt, Viscardi’s adviser and a math professor at the University of California San Diego. “The Dirichlet problem is a very old problem; it’s been around since it was formulated by Dirichlet in the 19th century.”

“Michael Viscardi is only 16 years old, yet he has produced work that is at or near the Ph.D. level,” said Siemens Westinghouse judge Steven Krantz via e-mail. “[His results] are in a subject area that I have been studying for more than 30 years, and yet he saw further than I have seen.”

Viscardi says he hopes to continue studying mathematics in college.

“I want to study math; I want to be a pure mathematician,” he said. “Also, I want to be as much of a musician as I can.”

Viscardi has applied to Harvard, hoping to take Math 55, the notoriously difficult introductory course, and to enter a joint program with the New England Conservatory where he will study either piano or violin. He will find out whether he has been accepted next week.

An Elephant Never Forgets Last Night
The word on the street—and in the South African bush—is that elephants like to get drunk off of fermented marula fruit. Not so, say a group of University of Chicago researchers in a forthcoming paper in Physiological and Biochemical Zoology. While elephants have historically displayed a taste for booze, and while the marula fruit can ferment when it falls off the tree, the researchers say the elephants clearly prefer the fruit on the tree. But don’t place any elephants on your DARE posters, yet. The elephants eat the bark of the marula tree as well as the fruit; a substance in the bark has been used to poison arrow tips. When the elephants act drunk, they’re probably on something harder than alcohol.

It’s Our Fault
In the most meticulous study ever conducted of the San Andreas fault, researchers have collected data that will serve as a before picture—hence the name “B4” Project—to compare to data they will collect after the next major earthquake. By contrasting these two sets, they may be able to determine what happens at a fault during an earthquake, and how the earthquake starts. The researchers combined two technologies—high-resolution GPS, and a radar-like system called lidar that measures the time it takes for light to reflect from a surface—to create a model detailed enough to include cows and small trees. (source: Ohio State University)

I’m Gonna Live Forever
A study in the forthcoming issue of Physiological and Biochemical Zoology discusses “late life,” a phase of life where age-related deterioration ceases. A sudden plateau in mortality rates after a certain age has been observed in several species, including people, but its human incarnation has always been tossed off as a result of our remarkable care for the elderly. Now it appears that this plateau is real and the process of aging eventually grinds to a halt. (source: University of Chicago)

Brains Make Gains, But Testes Are Bestes
Big-balled bats have higher reproductive success than their big-brained counterparts. A study published in UK biology journal Proceedings B showed that bat species with promiscuous females have smaller brains than species with females who are faithful to their mates. Lead author Scott Pitnick of Syracuse University said that if a female bat is promiscuous, the males’ sperm competes for access to an egg, and the male with the most sperm is likely to win out. Some bats have testes that account for as much as 8.5% of their body weight. Pitnick also said it is too demanding for bats to maintain both sperm and brain cells in large quantities, so bats with large testes have smaller brains.


  • Vole-atile Devotion: Male prairie voles only become devoted to females after the couple has mated, says a new study. When they copulate, male prairie voles get a huge dose of dopamine to the brain, making them feel good. They then lose interest in all other females. (source: the Guardian)
  • Pole Vaulting: Earth’s north magnetic pole has moved nearly 1,100 kilometers into the Arctic Ocean in the past century, scientists say. If it continues at its present rate, the pole could shift from Canada to Siberia in the next 50 years. (source: Oregon State University)
  • Roll Over, Beethoven: Scientists have concluded that composer Ludwig van Beethoven died of lead poisoning. The researchers focused the most powerful x-ray in the Western Hemisphere on six of his hairs and a few pieces of his skull to reach their conclusion. They still do not know the source of the lead poisoning. (source: the Washington Post)
  • OMG!!! J/K LOL: Teenagers hone subtle skills as they use instant messaging for linguistic communication, social networking and surveillance. They manipulate tone and diction, increase their social status by delaying responses so as to appear busy, and create alternate identities so they may survey the Internet unobserved. (source: Reading Research Quarterly)
  • See, Bee? Gee, Bee!: According to a new study, honeybees can recognize human faces, even though they only have 0.01% of the neurons humans do. Bees don’t identify faces the same way we do, but see a face as “a really strange looking flower,” said ethologist James Gould. (source: ScienceNOW)

Originally published December 12, 2005


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