Dyscalculia & the Flu | SciByte 78

Dyscalculia & the Flu | SciByte 78

We take a look at dyscalculia, the flu, laser communication, viewer feedback, spacecraft updates, Curiosity news and as always take a peek back into history and up in the sky this week.

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Show Notes:


  • Researchers estimate that as much as 7% of the population has dyscalculia, sometimes called number blindness, which is marked by severe difficulties in dealing with numbers despite otherwise normal, or well above normal, intelligence
  • A cognitive scientist who studies numerical cognition and a learning disability likened to dyslexia for mathematics works on identifying its cause as well as ways to help those who suffer from it
  • Approximate number sense
  • Approximate number sense, distinguishes larger quantities from smaller ones, be they dots flashing on a screen or fruits in a tree.
  • A second ancient number system allows humans and many other animals to instantly and precisely recognize small quantities, up to four.
  • People who are poor at distinguishing approximate quantities do badly in maths, suggesting that the approximate-number system is crucial.
  • Some work shows that dyscalculics are poor at recognizing small numbers, suggesting that this ability is also fundamental to numeracy
  • If, dyscalculia is at heart a deficiency of basic number sense and not of memory, attention or language, as others have proposed, then nurturing the roots of number sense should help dyscalculics
  • Testing
  • The team tested 31 eight- and nine-year-old children who were near the bottom of their class in mathematics but did well enough in other subjects.
  • Compared with normal children and those with dyslexia, the dyscalculic children struggled on almost every numerical task, yet were average on tests of reading comprehension, memory and IQ.
  • The study confirmed for some that developmental forms of dyscalculia are the result of basic problems in comprehending numbers and not in other cognitive faculties
  • Determining exactly what those problems are would prove challenging
  • Approximation and a sense of small numbers, while critical, are not enough for humans to precisely grasp large numbers,
    argues that another cognitive capacity is even more fundamental to number sense
  • ‘Numerosity coding’
  • ‘Numerosity coding’ is the understanding that things have a precise quantity associated with them, and that adding or taking things away alters that quantity.
  • Young children who could not yet count past two nonetheless understood that adding pennies to a bowl containing six somehow altered its number, even if the children couldn’t say exactly how.
  • If numerosity coding is fundamental, it predicts that dyscalculics struggle to enumerate and manipulate all numbers, large and small.
  • Number Sense Games
  • The Number Sense games are intended to nurture the abilities that might be the root of numerical cognition and the core deficit of dyscalculia — manipulating precise quantities.
  • One game involves a number line, then the child is asked “What is the number that is right in the middle between 200 and 800? Do you know it?
  • A classic sign of dyscalculia is difficulty in grasping the place-value system,
  • A soft computer voice tells “Christopher” to “find the number and click it
  • The game involves zooming in and zooming out to rescale the number line, with the computer talking him through each move, a strategy that is encouraged, however it takes him more than a minute to locate 210
  • A Tetris-like game called Numberbonds, in which bars of different lengths fall down the screen and the person has to select a block of the correct size to fill out a row
  • This game emphasizes spatial relationships, which some dyscalculics also struggle with.
  • In a game called Dots to Track, for example, children must ascribe an Arabic numeral to a pattern of dots, similar to those on dice.
  • When they enter the wrong value the game asks the children to add or remove dots to achieve the correct answer.
  • Three months into the study one student seemed to be faring better at the number-line game, going so quickly that he is asked to slow down and explain his reasoning for each move
  • Dyscalculic children tend to learn much more quickly when they talk through what they do
  • It is also believed that his maths anxiety, a near-universal trait of child and adult dyscalculics, is fading
  • Other Studies
  • In 2011 a Swiss team reported that a game that involves placing a spaceship on a number line helped eight- to ten-year-old dyscalculics with arithmetic
  • They studied the children in an fMRI scanner during a task that involved arranging numbers.
  • One month after training, the children showed increased activation in the intraparietal sulcus and reduced neural activation elsewhere in the parietal lobes – a hint that their improvements in arithmetic were related to changes involving brain areas that respond to number.
  • There are now hopes to monitor the brains of students such as they practice Number Sense, to see if their parietal lobes are indeed changing
  • Scans of people with dyscalculia suggest that their intraparietal sulci are less active when processing numbers and less connected with the rest of the brain compared with numerate children and adults.
  • However these may be seen as a result of these consequences, not causes, of the poor numerical abilities that characterize dyscalculia.
  • Complications
  • While some students improve Other students are improving more slowly, but it is not easy to say why
  • Dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder are common among dyscalculics, and it can be difficult to untangle these problems,
  • In 2009 Number Race, a game developed, modestly improved the ability of 15 dyscalculic kindergarten children to discern the larger of two numbers, but that it had no effect on their arithmetic or counting
  • With the right practice and attention from teachers and parents, dyscalculic children can thrive, computer games are a supplement, not a replacement, for one-on-one tutoring.
  • In addition the games are designed with the interest of the children to have a fun game full of ideas and variety, is not very compatible with an analytic approach
  • Funding
  • Currently it is hard to get funding as dyscalculia doesn’t attract much attention or money
  • In the United States, the National Institutes of Health spent $2 million studying dyscalculia between 2000 and 2011, compared with more than $107 million on dyslexia.
  • Cubans, curiously, are putting money into this, even though they’ve got very little
  • The Future
  • The team now has tentative plans to evaluate its software with researchers at the Cuban Neurosciences Center and the University of Pedagogical Sciences in Havana next year
  • There are also plans to place the games in other countries, including China and Singapore.
  • There are hopes that Number Sense, if it can improve dyscalculia, will help the academic debate over the cognitive basis of numeracy there are some difficulties however
  • Multimedia
  • YouTube clip How many Dots?
  • YouTube clip | Counting dots in groups
  • YouTube Understanding Dyscalculia at Western | WesternUniversity
  • YouTube Discovering Dyscalculia | tvoparents
  • YouTube What Is Dyscalculia? | NCLD1401
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • Dyscalculia Forum
  • Numbers Games Devised to Aid People with “Dyscalculia” | Scientific American


The War Against Flu

  • The flu knows how long it has to invade our cells and spread to other humans. So new treatments could fight the virus by resetting its clock.
  • Viruses
  • Viruses multiply by invading a host cell, hijacking its machinery and using it to make new copies of itself.
  • Cells have warning systems that can detect this invasion and call in reinforcements, but that can take a while.
  • The virus has to orchestrate its actions carefully–if it moves too fast, it won’t have time to make new copies of itself, and if it moves too slowly, it might be stopped by immune defenses.
  • The Flu Virus
  • Researchers have knows that the flu virus needs about eight hours to make copies of itself before a cell will notice it
  • In order to make enough copies of itself to infect another human, it needs about two days of continuous activity inside our cells
  • Researchers have figured out that the virus slowly gathers a protein it needs to make its exit, they tricked the virus into changing the amount of time it took to gather the protein.
  • In one case they made it acquire the protein too quickly, which caused the flu to leave the cell before it had made enough copies of itself.
  • In another they altered it to leave too late, giving immune cells enough time to respond and kill the virus before it escaped.
  • Of Note
  • Although currently a flu vaccine is still the best way to protect yourself against the flu, not everyone is eligible to get one
  • However, current vaccines must rely on an educated guess about which flu will spread throughout the population in a season, and there are only so many vaccines.
  • A treatment that targets the virus’ clock wouldn’t need a dead or weakened version of the flu–it would just need to fool the virus’s internal protein clock into losing track of time
  • Multimedia
  • YouTube Flu Attack! How A Virus Invades Your Body | npr
  • YouTube Clip Flu virus invading and being attacked | npr
  • YouTube Clip Flu virus copying and spreading | npr
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • The Flu Virus Can Tell Time. Here’s Why You Should Care | Popular Science


Mona Lisa to the Moon and Back

  • The low down
  • Typically, satellites that go beyond Earth orbit use radio waves for tracking and communication
  • As part of the first demonstration of laser communication with a satellite at the moon, scientists with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) beamed an image of the Mona Lisa to the spacecraft from Earth.
  • The iconic image traveled nearly 240,000 miles in digital form from the Next Generation Satellite Laser Ranging (NGSLR) station at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., to the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) instrument on the spacecraft.
  • By transmitting the image piggyback on laser pulses that are routinely sent to track LOLA’s position, the team achieved simultaneous laser communication and tracking.
  • Significance
  • This was accomplished without interfering with LOLA’s primary task of mapping the moon’s elevation and terrain and NGSLR’s primary task of tracking LRO.
  • The success of the laser transmission was verified by returning the image to Earth using the spacecraft’s radio telemetry system.
  • Precise timing was the key to transmitting the image, every pixel was converted into a shade of gray, represented by a number between zero and 4,095.
  • They divided the Mona Lisa image into an array of 152 pixels by 200 pixels with each pixel transmitted by a laser pulse, with the pulse being fired in one of 4,096 possible time slots during a brief time window allotted for laser tracking
  • The complete image was transmitted at a data rate of about 300 bits per second.
  • The laser pulses were received by LRO’s LOLA instrument, which reconstructed the image based on the arrival times of the laser pulses from Earth
  • Turbulence in Earth’s atmosphere introduced transmission errors even when the sky was clear, the team employed Reed-Solomon coding, which is the same type of error-correction code commonly used in CDs and DVDs.
  • Of Note
  • LRO is the only satellite in orbit around a body other than Earth to be tracked by laser as well.
  • The next step after LLCD is the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD), NASA’s first long-duration optical communications mission.
  • In the near future, this type of simple laser communication might serve as a backup for the radio communication that satellites use, in the more distant future, it may allow communication at higher data rates than present radio links can provide
  • Social Media
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • YouTube NASA beams Mona Lisa to Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter at the moon (w/ video)


Picture of the Moon



  • Safe Mode
  • The Kepler telescope went into safe mode on Jan. 17 for a planned 10 days, during which time the telescope’s reaction wheels — spinning devices used by the observatory to maintain its position in space —will be rested after researchers detected an unexpected increase in the amount of torque needed to rotate
  • Kepler officials say they are “Resting the wheels provides an opportunity to redistribute internal lubricant, potentially returning the friction to normal levels”
  • Once the 10-day rest period ends, the team will recover the spacecraft from this resting safe mode and return to science operations
  • When the Kepler spacecraft launched in March 2009, it had four functional reaction wheels — three for immediate use, plus one spare; however, one of the wheels failed last July
  • Opening the Data Sets
  • Researchers are now posting all exoplanet sightings by the Kepler observatory into a single, comprehensive website called the “NASA Exoplanet Archive.”
  • Instead of going through the long planet confirmation process before making data publicly available
  • So the day NASA knows about the list, the archive knows about the list. And then everybody,
  • In addition the list is dynamic so if anyone, including a community person, makes an observation and says, ‘Hey, I looked at this planet candidate but it’s really an eclipsing binary,’ then that entry in the archive will be changed."
  • The archive has information about the size, orbital period and other metrics of any possible planet discovered and investigated by Kepler
  • Planet Hunters, a collective of amateur astronomers, recently found 42 new alien planets using Kepler data that was publicly available prior to the launch of the new archive system.
  • Multimedia
  • Image Galleries | kepler.nasa.gov
  • Social Media
  • NASA Kepler @NASAKepler
  • Further Reading / In the News
  • Kepler Space Telescope | kepler.nasa.gov
  • Kepler Participating Scientist Program Announcement | kepler.nasa.gov
  • Alien Planet Archive Now Open to World | NASA Kepler Spacecraft | Space.com
  • Planet-Hunting Kepler Spacecraft Shut Down Temporarily After Glitch | Space.com



Looking back

  • Jan 24, 1948 : 64 years ago : Early computer : IBM dedicated its “SSEC” in New York City. The Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator handled both data and instructions using electronic circuits made with 13,500 vacuum tubes and 21,000 relays. It occupied three sides of a 30-ft x 60-ft room. On the back wall, three punches and thirty readers provided paper-tape storage. Banks of vacuum tube circuits for card reading and sequence control and 36 paper tape readers comprising the table-lookup section occupied the left wall. Most of the right wall was filled by the electronic arithmetic unit and storage. In the center of the room were card readers, card punches, printers, and the operator’s console. It was visible to pedestrians on the sidewalk outside.

Looking up this week

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