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Environment & Science

Lab Notes: Smart mice, a giant squid and the physics of space trash




The giant squid was discovered in Antarctica's Ross Sea by a fisherman.
The giant squid was discovered in Antarctica's Ross Sea by a fisherman.
Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images
The giant squid was discovered in Antarctica's Ross Sea by a fisherman.
The giant squid was discovered in Antarctica's Ross Sea by a fisherman.
Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images
The giant squid was discovered in Antarctica's Ross Sea by a fisherman.
The giant squid was discovered in Antarctica's Ross Sea by a fisherman.
Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images
The giant squid was discovered in Antarctica's Ross Sea by a fisherman.
The giant squid was discovered in Antarctica's Ross Sea by a fisherman.
Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images
The giant squid was discovered in Antarctica's Ross Sea by a fisherman.
The giant squid was discovered in Antarctica's Ross Sea by a fisherman.
Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images
The giant squid was discovered in Antarctica's Ross Sea by a fisherman.
The giant squid was discovered in Antarctica's Ross Sea by a fisherman.
Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images
The giant squid was discovered in Antarctica's Ross Sea by a fisherman.
The giant squid was discovered in Antarctica's Ross Sea by a fisherman.
Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images


Every week, there are plenty of wonderful, wild or just plain weird developments in the world of science. To talk about some of them – we summon KPCC science reporter Sanden Totten for our regular segment Lab Notes.

Smart mice

For a study, mice were genetically modified to carry a human gene associated with speech and language. And when they were placed in simple mazes with clues indicating where a reward of chocolate would be, “humanized mice” mastered the maze four days faster than the regular mice.

The maze offered two types of clues for finding the chocolate: The animals could use landmarks like equipment in the lab, or by the floor's bumpy or smooth texture. When mice these smart mice had both clues, they did great. But when there was only one, they were just as slow as normal mice.

So what does that tell us?

The researchers think it shows the difference between declarative and procedural learning. Declarative learning requires you to be thinking actively – like reading a map to learn how to get somewhere. Procedural learning is the more automated learning you do by repeating something over and over – like driving to your friends house until you know the route by heart.

Researchers think the mice with the human gene did best when both clues were present because they were better at transitioning between these forms of conscious and unconscious thinking. And scientists think humans do the same thing for instance when we go from consciously learning new words to using them automatically in our daily speech.

Cleaning up space trash

If you’ve seen "Gravity," you know that little bits of debris of space trash can cause big problems. As we send more stuff into space, we need to deal with this ring of space trash we’ve created that could puncture our ships and harm astronauts. So, how do scientists plan to get rid of this stuff?

Many pieces are spinning so wildly that they would be dangerous to collect. If you send a small spacecraft, and you try to dock to a small, tumbling thing, you also are going to start tumbling.

To solve this problem, a team from MIT has come up with an algorithm that could let cleanup crews measure a target’s movement so they can plan an approach to safely snatch it up. They tested this recently on the International Space Station using spinning satellites called Sphere Satellites. They set one of these spinning and let another film it. The algorithm allowed the bot to gauge how fast this thing was spinning, it’s center of mass and much more, which in turn, theoretically will allow a robot to catch and contain the trash.

Colossal squid

Researchers in New Zealand recently performed a live autopsy on a squid, and not just any squid – this was a very rare Colossal Squid. Only two have ever been found intact, and subsequently studied. This one was found in Antarctica’s Ross Sea. It weighed 770 pounds, was the size of a minibus, and they had to use a forklift to move it.