US troops Afghanistan in 2010
'Field operatives need technology that can help to identify and assess threats': US troops in Afghanistan, 2010

Two very different research projects announced this month on opposite sides of the Atlantic are seeking to improve the decision-making of fighters in the heat of battle.

In Britain, the University Defence Research Collaboration (UDRC) has embarked on a five-year project to help soldiers assess their surroundings more quickly and accurately, by developing software to assimilate the information provided by the huge range of sensors present in the modern battlefield, from radar and sonar to mobile phones.

In the US, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) has a four-year plan, based on cognitive, behavioural and neural science, to help sailors and marines harness their “gut instincts” when they’re faced with the unexpected.

Although the two programmes are unrelated they could be complementary, says Mike Davies of Edinburgh University, director of UDRC. The £4m UK project aims to give military personnel the information most useful to them, without any confusing extraneous signals. Then the US research can kick in, using psychology to enhance their decisions.

“A seasoned war-fighter develops a gut instinct through experience,” says Brent Olde of ONR. “If we can characterise this intuitive decision-making process and model it, then the hope is to accelerate the acquisition of these skills through simulation – thus providing our sailors and marines with years of experience in a matter of days and greatly improving their ability to make split-second decisions.”

His colleague Peter Squire talks about harnessing a “sixth sense”, something like the “spider-sense” with which Spiderman detects danger – although of course this research has nothing to do with the supernatural or superheroes. “But first, we have to understand what gives rise to this so-called sixth sense,” he says. “And is there a way to improve it through training?”

Examples given by ONR include detecting roadside bombs from a moving vehicle and deciding whether an airborne object just spotted off the coast is a missile or an airliner. People in similar situations would benefit from the UK project too. “Operatives in the field,” Davies says, “need technology that can help to identify and assess threats, housed in equipment that’s portable and easy to manage.”

The idea is to let computers handle what is most effectively done by automation and leave humans to deal with what they do best. “Take underwater mine detection,” Davies adds. “In an uncluttered environment [computer] algorithms will outperform human operators; but when the environment is very cluttered with rocks, the human eye and brain are still best.”

The Neanderthal guide to childcare

Neanderthals enjoyed a socially rich childhood within caring families, according to a new interpretation of the evidence by researchers at York University.

“The traditional view sees Neanderthal childhood as harsh, difficult and dangerous,” says Penny Spikins, lead author of the study published in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology.

“This accords with preconceptions about Neanderthal inferiority and decline,” she says. “But our research found that a close attachment and particular attention to children is a more plausible interpretation of the archaeological evidence.”

That evidence is sparse, because relatively few Neanderthal children’s remains have been discovered. Most of it that survives comes from child burials.

“More than 20 have so far been recovered, typically illustrating great care of the very young at death,” the York team says.

The bodies were generally laid to rest in special poses and often accompanied by stone implements or animal bones which probably had some symbolic significance. Most Neanderthals lived in small and relatively isolated groups, typically of 25 to 30 people, who rarely came into contact with outsiders. This would have led to a “natural emotional focus on close internal connections”.

The team also points to “tantalising glimpses of adult involvement in children’s learning and emotional development”, through discoveries of small and poorly made stone artefacts that are thought to be the work of children trying to replicate grown-up tools.

Spikins warns against interpreting the tough living conditions of many Neanderthal bands as necessarily giving children a hard time. “There is a critical distinction to be made between a harsh childhood and a childhood lived in a harsh environment,” she concludes.

Half-a-billion-year-old blood vessels

The oldest cardiovascular system in the fossil record has been identified by scientists at London’s Natural History Museum. It belonged to a predatory arthropod that lived 520 million years ago, during the evolutionary burst known as the Cambrian explosion.

fossil of Fuxianhuia protensa
This old heart of mine: the fossil of Fuxianhuia protensa

The cardiovascular system of Fuxianhuia protensa, which appears as a dark carbon trace, moved oxygen and nutrients around the body, with a heart in the middle and blood vessels leading to eyes, antennae, brain and legs.

The discovery, made in China’s Yunnan province and described in the journal Nature Communications, proves that an ancestral arthropod had developed a complex organ system reminiscent of some modern species.

“The specimen is really unusually preserved,” says Greg Edgecombe, a palaeontologist at the museum. “The external structures are relatively decayed, but one internal organ system is pristinely preserved as a carbon trace.”

Fuxianhuia protensa was 11cm long. Its moveable eyestalks, which had concentrations of nerve tissue inside them, could rotate in a wide arc to spot prey.


When tornadoes attack

A study at Purdue University, Indiana, in the heart of US tornado territory, has drawn interesting conclusions about where twisters are likely to touch down – which is far from random.

Analysis of 60 years of data from the National Weather Service shows that most touchdowns occur in places where very different landscapes come together. The most significant are the borders between open farmland or prairie and urban areas or woodland. So in cities tornadoes are more likely to affect the outer suburbs than the centre, leading to rings of increased activity.

Olivia Kellner, co-author of the study in the journal Earth Interactions, says a change in “surface roughness” can affect the column of air in an incipient tornado and trigger its intensification.

“Forecasting severe weather risks such as tornadoes is a difficult and societally important task,” adds Dev Niyogi, Indiana’s state climatologist and a co-author of the paper. “We might need to pay more attention to areas featuring transition from rough to smooth, flat to sloped, or wet to dry. These changes in landscape may provide triggers for severe weather.”

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