shooting star in night sky


Shooting Stars

While it’s not actually feasible to catch a falling star and put it in your pocket, as Perry Como famously crooned, it is now possible—thanks to new findings out of NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences—to understand how they take shape.

Researchers in the Applied Mathematics Lab were studying erosion when they discovered that a lump of clay suspended in a fixed position in a flow of water would invariably undergo a very specific transformation. “Regardless of how the clay was shaped to begin with, and no matter the speed at which the water was flowing, the clay always formed a cone,” explains lead researcher Leif Ristroph. “We thought, because this phenomena is so robust, it must show up in nature.” And indeed it does, in the form of what’s known as an oriented meteorite.

While meteoroids—often referred to as shooting stars—aren’t sculpted by flowing water, they are, in a sense, eroded by air flow as they zoom through the atmosphere. And while they start out as chunks of rock, they heat up and melt as they fly, becoming more malleable. By the time they reach the Earth—at which point they experience a name change, from meteoroid to meteorite—they often form a cone shape with the exact same angularity that Ristroph and his fellow investigators saw in the lab.  

mock clay meteorite

Researchers used mock meteorites made of clay to study how they erode while moving through water. (Courtesy of Leif Ristroph/Applied Math Lab)

The rock cones—which account for about a quarter of meteorites found on Earth—are known as oriented since, explains Ristroph, “rather than tumbling in flight, they’re keeping a fixed orientation, so they’re seeing air flow from only one direction.” The shape, he points out, is self-sustaining. “And that’s kind of the magic of what we found,” he says. “Erosion tends to carve this special cone shape and this special cone shape is stable in flight, which then reinforces and maintains the shape. When it comes to these two phenomena, the stars align.”

—Jenny Comita

Guiltless Gaming

Popular game designers might need to level up in the face of some fierce competition from a team of academics. Jan Plass, the Paulette Goddard chair in digital media and learning sciences at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, and colleagues at CUNY and UC Santa Barbara have designed a winning trio of digital amusements. It’s not the cute characters, clean interfaces, and pleasing graphics that make them a win-win (though it doesn’t hurt). It’s that they were carefully designed to help boost memory, inhibition, and cognitive flexibility.  


Gwakkamolé hones control over attention, behavior, thoughts, and emotions by directing players to spare the hat-wearing avocados that quickly pop up, while smashing those without. All You Can E.T. trains the mental ability to alternate thinking about two different concepts or to think about multiple concepts at once, by instructing participants to provide either food or drink to the fickle aliens demanding it. And CrushStations targets working memory by requiring players to remember creatures’ features in order to save them from an octopus. As silly as they sound (and as diverting as they are to play), they’re drawn from serious inspiration: “We realized that cognitive skills—which are very important for a person’s success in life both professionally and personally—can be trained,” Plass says. “Many of the training tasks aren’t very well designed, though, and we believed games would provide an ideal way to engage people in the tasks.”

Among those who collaborated on the four-year project—funded by the US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences—are actual psychologists and neuroscientists, which is uncommon in the gaming universe. “It’s surprisingly rare that games [meant for] learning were built by teams involving researchers at all,” Plass says. “Our results showed the strategy has paid off.” Because while other designers falsely claim that their creations have cognitive benefits, the extensive research behind the professors’ games is undeniable. After just 20 minutes of play, for example, test subjects displayed improved executive function. The team was also surprised to find that the use of emotional design—the purposeful inclusion of features meant to induce strong emotions—significantly bettered outcomes. Given the clear merits of their games, they decided to make them available to the public for free, online and in the iOS and Google Play app stores.

That’s not to say that everyone should offload their other online entertainment or that there’s anything wrong with a little mindless fun—especially at a stressful time of social isolation for so many kids. “It is our belief that players learn something in every game they play, though what is learned is not always valued by society,” Plass says. “Even the most violent first-person shooter can [lead to] significant gains in players’ visual perception, and games involving tribes or clans can support players’ identity formation. The key is to make sure kids are also getting meaningful time away from screens, for reading, sports, art, and the like.”

—Rory Evans