Science & Research

Science & Research Roundup: Sept. 3, 2014

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Science & Research Editors
Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Carbon dioxide and copper prove useful

Rather than billowing into the sky as air pollution, excess carbon dioxide may provide an ingredient for manufacturing industrial chemicals, according to a study conducted by researchers at the University’s Center for the Capture and Conversion of Carbon Dioxide.

The new chemical recipe relies on the interaction of copper foam and carbon dioxide. Though scientists have long known that copper is able to reduce carbon dioxide into useful molecules, research has found that the reaction occurs at a relatively slow rate when using flat copper surfaces.

University researchers propose that copper foam may be the mystery ingredient necessary to speed up this conversion. Its rough surface provides more sites for the copper and carbon dioxide to interact, and thus seems to yield products at a higher rate, according to a University press release.

The main product is formic acid, which has a wide range of uses. The food industry often relies on formic acid to preserve livestock feed, and the leather industry uses it as a stain to darken leather.

“The goal is to find ways to produce some of the world’s largest-volume chemicals from a sustainable carbon source that the Earth not only has in excess but urgently needs to reduce,” said Tayhas Palmore, professor of engineering and director of the center, in the press release. This recent study on copper foam, published in the journal ACS Catalysis last month, is in line with the center’s overall mission, he said.

 

Snacking quality declines with age

Amidst rising concerns over childhood obesity in the United States, snacks have been implicated as a significant culprit. But a recent study from a Brown postdoctoral fellow suggests that snacks could improve the nutrition of elementary school children.

The study, published online in the journal Health and Nutrition, found two opposing trends. Snacks aided the health of children aged nine to 11, but detracted from the nutrition of adolescents aged 12 to 15.

Though the researchers could not conclusively determine why this split in snacking quality occurs, they noted that adolescents are more likely to select their own snacks, while parents, who may be more health-conscious, feed younger children.

“Snacks don’t have to be vilified,” said lead author E. Whitney Evans, a postdoctoral research fellow at Brown and Miriam Hospital, in a University press release.

In this study, Evans and her colleagues interviewed low-income children in the Boston area about their meals. At each of two interviews, the participants recounted their food intake over the 24-hour stretch before the interview, and this information was used alongside demographic information to determine the effects of snacking on the two age groups.

The researchers scored whether snacks aided or hindered health based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Health Eating Index. After controlling for other variables, the researchers found that snacking raised the diet quality of children but decreased the diet quality of adolescents.

 

Judgments of will determine blame 

Regardless of spiritual background and practice, people consider each other as independent beings with intentions and assign blame accordingly. This research, published online in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, explore people’s concepts of free will and blame.

Brown researchers conducted two studies. The first explored the relation between people’s conceptions of souls, free will and blame. Researchers randomly presented participants with one of five different agents — a human, a human incapable of controlled action or thought, a cyborg with a human brain, a human body powered by artificial intelligence and a robot, according to a University press release.

The agent committed seven different actions, the harm from which ranged in severity, and the researchers asked participants to rank the amount of blame the agent should receive based on the action. Participants were also asked to judge the capabilities of each agent.

The researchers found that participants assigned free will to the human brain, saying both the normal human and the cyborg possessing a human brain had free will. The participants also said that both types of humans, regardless of their capacity for thought, possessed souls.

The participants assigned the most blame to those with free will, but the agent’s possession of a soul did not influence participants’ judgments.

“The thing that seems to be most important, and that people do extremely reliably, is that they care about an agent’s capacity for choice-making,” said lead author Andrew Monroe PhD’12.

In the second study, a new group of participants was presented with similar scenarios. They were also asked about their personal beliefs on religion and souls. The researchers found that people’s own beliefs did not determine the amount of blame they would assign agents or whether they thought the agent was capable of free will.

“I find it relieving to know that whether you believe in a soul or not, or have a religion or not, or an assumption about how the universe works, that has very little bearing on how you act as a member of the social community,” said Bertram Malle, professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences and the senior author of the study.