Category - Science

Chinese speakers use more of their brain than English speakers

Quartz, By Lily Kuo, February 27

If you speak Mandarin, your brain works differently. That’s according to a recent study published in the Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences. The report is the first to conclude that those who speak tonal languages like Mandarin exhibit a very different flow of information during speech comprehension, using both hemispheres of the brain rather than just the left, which has long been seen as the primary neurological region for processing language.

After analyzing brain imaging data from Mandarin and English speakers listening their respective languages, researchers from Peking University and other universities found that native Mandarin speakers and native English speakers both showed evidence of activity in the brain’s left hemisphere. But Mandarin speakers also saw activation in the right hemisphere, specifically in a region important for processing music, via pitch and tone, that has long been seen as largely unrelated to language comprehension.

Since at least the 1950s, researchers in the field of neurolinguistics have been questioning how languages influence perception, and physiological behavior. This latest study supports one emerging theory, connectionism, that maintains that some languages require interactions across the entire brain. The findings are important for better protecting language-related regions during brain surgery as well as understanding the “constitution of knowledge of language, as well as how it is acquired,” according to the study.

‘Gerbils replace rats’ as main cause of Black Death

BBC, By Rebecca Morelle, February 24

Black rats may not have been to blame for numerous outbreaks of the bubonic plague across Europe, a study suggests.

Scientists believe repeat epidemics of the Black Death, which arrived in Europe in the mid-14th Century, instead trace back to gerbils from Asia.

Prof Nils Christian Stenseth, from the University of Oslo, said: “If we’re right, we’ll have to rewrite that part of history.”

The study is in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

[…]

And because this was a period when trade between the East and West was at a peak, the plague was most likely brought to Europe along the silk road, Prof Stenseth explained.

Exonerated!

Are Siberia’s mysterious craters caused by climate change? Scientists find four new enormous holes in northern Russia

The Daily Mail (UK), By Will Stewart, February 23

Moscow – Four new mysterious giant craters have appeared in the Siberian permafrost in northern Russia, sparking fears that global warming may be causing gas to erupt from underground.

Scientists spotted the new holes, along with dozens of other smaller ones, in the same area as three other enormous craters that were spotted on the Yamal Peninsula last year.

The craters are thought to be caused by eruptions of methane gas from the permafrost as rising rising temperatures causes the frozen soil to melt.

[…]

‘We know now of seven craters in the Arctic area,’ Professor Bogoyavlensky told The Siberian Times.

‘Five are directly on the Yamal peninsula, one in Yamal Autonomous district, and one is on the north of the Krasnoyarsk region, near the Taimyr peninsula.

‘We have exact locations for only four of them.

‘The other three were spotted by reindeer herders.

‘But I am sure that there are more craters on Yamal, we just need to search for them. I would compare this with mushrooms.

‘When you find one mushroom, be sure there are few more around. I suppose there could be 20 to 30 craters more.’

The Siberian Times: Dozens of new craters suspected in northern Russia

Mysterious Indo-European homeland may have been in the steppes of Ukraine and Russia

Science Magazine, By Michael Balter, February 13

What do you call a male sibling? If you speak English, he is your “brother.” Greek? Call him “phrater.” Sanskrit, Latin, Old Irish? “Bhrater,” “frater,” or “brathir,” respectively. Ever since the mid-17th century, scholars have noted such similarities among the so-called Indo-European languages, which span the world and number more than 400 if dialects are included. Researchers agree that they can probably all be traced back to one ancestral language, called Proto-Indo-European (PIE). But for nearly 20 years, scholars have debated vehemently when and where PIE arose.

Two long-awaited studies, one described online this week in a preprint and another scheduled for publication later this month, have now used different methods to support one leading hypothesis: that PIE was first spoken by pastoral herders who lived in the vast steppe lands north of the Black Sea beginning about 6000 years ago. One study points out that these steppe land herders have left their genetic mark on most Europeans living today.

The studies’ conclusions emerge from state-of-the-art ancient DNA and linguistic analyses, but the debate over PIE’s origins is likely to continue. A rival hypothesis—that early farmers living in Anatolia (modern Turkey) about 8000 years ago were the original PIE speakers—is not ruled out by the new analyses, most agree. Although the steppe hypothesis has now received a major boost, “I would not say the Anatolian hypothesis has been killed,” says Carles Lalueza-Fox, a geneticist at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain, who participated in neither of the new studies.

Up until the 1980s, variations of the steppe hypothesis held sway among most linguists and archaeologists tracking down Indo-European’s birthplace. Then in 1987, archaeologist Colin Renfrew of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom proposed that PIE spread with farming from its origins in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, moving west into Europe and east further into Asia; over time the languages continued to spread and diversify into the many Indo-European languages we know today.

Scientists urge global ‘wake-up call’ to deal with climate change

Climate change has advanced so rapidly that work must start on unproven technologies now, admits US National Academy of Science

The Guardian, By Suzanne Goldenberg, February 10

Climate change has advanced so rapidly that the time has come to look at options for a planetary-scale intervention, the National Academy of Science said on Tuesday.

The scientists were categorical that geoengineering should not be deployed now, and was too risky to ever be considered an alternative to cutting the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.
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No Big Bang? Quantum equation predicts universe has no beginning

PhysOrg, By Lisa Zyga, February 9

The universe may have existed forever, according to a new model that applies quantum correction terms to complement Einstein’s theory of general relativity. The model may also account for dark matter and dark energy, resolving multiple problems at once.

The widely accepted age of the universe, as estimated by general relativity, is 13.8 billion years. In the beginning, everything in existence is thought to have occupied a single infinitely dense point, or singularity. Only after this point began to expand in a “Big Bang” did the universe officially begin.

Although the Big Bang singularity arises directly and unavoidably from the mathematics of general relativity, some scientists see it as problematic because the math can explain only what happened immediately after—not at or before—the singularity.
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Planting false memories fairly easy, psychologists find

New study bolsters notion that memory is fragile and aggressive police interrogations don’t always serve justice.

The Toronto Star, By Sarah Barmak, February 8

Subject: “I remember the two cops. There were two. I know that for sure . . . I have a feeling, like, one was white, and one maybe Hispanic . . . I remember getting in trouble. And I had to like, tell them what I did. And why I did it, and where it happened . . . ”

Interviewer: “You remember yelling?”

Subject: “I feel like she called me a slut. And I got ticked off and threw a rock at her. And the reason why I threw a rock at her was because I couldn’t get close to her . . . ”

Interviewer: “So you threw a rock instead?”
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Charles Townes, Who Won Nobel for Lasers, Dies at 99


Charles Townes with wife, Frances after his sculpture was unveiled in his hometown, Greenville, SC
(The Greenville News/Heidi Heilbrunn, via AP)

NYT – Charles H. Townes, a visionary physicist whose research led to the development of the laser, making it possible to play CDs, scan prices at the supermarket, measure time precisely, survey planets and galaxies, and even witness the birth of stars, died on Tuesday in Oakland, Calif. He was 99.

In 1964, Dr. Townes and two Russians shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on microwave-emitting devices, called masers, and their light-emitting successors, lasers, which have transformed modern communications, medicine, astronomy, weapons systems and daily life in homes and workplaces.
more at the link

2014 officially the hottest year on record

NASA and NOAA scientists report 2014 was 0.07F (0.04C) higher than previous records and the 38th consecutive year of above-average temperatures

The numbers are in. The year 2014 – after shattering temperature records that had stood for hundreds of years across virtually all of Europe, and roasting parts of South America, China and Russia – was the hottest on record, with global temperatures 1.24F (0.69C) higher than the 20th-century average, US government scientists said on Friday.

A day after international researchers warned that human activities had pushed the planet to the brink, new evidence of climate change arrived. The world was the hottest it has been since systematic records began in 1880, especially on the oceans, which the agency confirmed were the driver of 2014’s temperature rise.

The global average temperatures over land and sea surface for the year were 1.24F (0.69C) above the 20th-century average, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) reported. Nasa, which calculates temperatures slightly differently, put 2014’s average temperature at 14.67C – 0.68C above the average – for the period 1951-80.

The scientists said 2014 was 0.07F (0.04C) higher than the previous records set in 2005 and 2010, and the 38th consecutive year of above-average temperatures.

That means nobody born since 1976 has experienced a colder-than-average year.

Robert Scribbler: Denying The Neverending Heatwave: NASA, NOAA, JMA Show 2014 Broke New Records; But Will Republicans Ever Listen to Science?

If you are younger than 29 years old, you haven’t lived in a month that was cooler than the 20th century average. — Dr. Marshall Shepherd, former President of the American Meteorological Society

Ocean Life Faces Mass Extinction, Broad Study Says

New York Times, By Carl Zimmer, January 15

A team of scientists, in a groundbreaking analysis of data from hundreds of sources, has concluded that humans are on the verge of causing unprecedented damage to the oceans and the animals living in them.

“We may be sitting on a precipice of a major extinction event,” said Douglas J. McCauley, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an author of the new research, which was published on Thursday in the journal Science.

But there is still time to avert catastrophe, Dr. McCauley and his colleagues also found. Compared with the continents, the oceans are mostly intact, still wild enough to bounce back to ecological health.

“We’re lucky in many ways,” said Malin L. Pinsky, a marine biologist at Rutgers University and another author of the new report. “The impacts are accelerating, but they’re not so bad we can’t reverse them.”

The Guardian: Inside the lonely fight against the biggest environmental problem you’ve never heard of – Clothing-shed synthetic microfibers reach the ocean.

Republican senator Ted Cruz to oversee Nasa in Congress

The Guardian, By Alan Yuhas, January 12

New York – Senator Ted Cruz will chair the committee that oversees science and Nasa in the new Republican-controlled Congress, raising fears that the conservative Texan will cut funding to the space agency and science programs.

Cruz’s appointment to the space, science and competitiveness subcommittee comes amid a broad shift of power in the Senate, where the GOP won a majority in the 2014 midterm elections. Cruz was the top Republican on the subcommittee before the elections.

He has publicly stated support for Nasa but has also attempted at least once to cut the agency’s funding, arguing that larger government cuts necessitated changes to the space program’s budget. In 2013, Cruz both tried to reduce Nasa’s budget and said: “It’s critical that the United States ensure its continued leadership in space.”

Cruz has constituents invested in the space agency’s future – for instance, Nasa employees and contractors at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Cruz has also spoken out against decades of science that indicate climate change, telling CNN last year that in “the last 15 years, there has been no recorded warming” to support “a so-called scientific theory”. His vociferous opposition to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and his support of extreme budget cuts could spell trouble for Nasa’s less prominent programs, such as its own climate research and sophisticated supercomputers.

Men who take a lot of selfies ‘show strong links to psychopathic tendencies’

Sydney Morning Herald, By Eamonn Warner, January 9

As if we needed another reason to put a stop to selfies.

A new study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences has revealed that men who take a lot of selfies will score much higher on tests looking for signs of psychopathy.

Conducted by Ohio State University, the research shows that those very fond of a selfie display a wide range of antisocial behaviours.

Overall, 800 men between the ages of 18 and 40 were quizzed on their attitude towards posting photographs of themselves on social media.

Impulsiveness and a lack of empathy were among the most prevalent, while unsurprisingly the responders were also found to possess high levels of narcissism.

From a Pile of Dirt, Researchers Discover New Antibiotic

A new microfluidic device lets scientists identify a powerful drug from nature.

Technology Review, By Karen Weintraub, January 7

A plastic storage crate filled with backyard dirt might have yielded the most powerful antibiotic discovered in decades.

Employing a novel microfluidic device to grow soil bacteria, researchers in Boston and Bonn, Germany, say they have identified a new type of antibiotic that kills the bacteria that cause pneumonia, staph, and blood infections.

The antibiotic, named teixobactin, has yet to be tested in people. But it cured mice of these infections, and it is so different from current antibiotics that the scientists, who reported their findings today in the journal Nature, said they hoped germs might never become resistant to it.

Others said resistance to any antibiotic is inevitable, but they called the discovery important nonetheless. “It brings back the notion that there are lots of unanticipated surprises still lurking in the soil,” says Gerald Fink, a microbiologist at the Whitehead Institute, part of MIT.

[…]

Teixobactin appears to kill bacteria by binding to a fat molecule that is a building block of their cell walls. That’s an unusual mechanism, says Tanja Schneider, a researcher at the University of Bonn who worked on the project. Bacteria might not easily develop resistance to it, if ever.

Via the comments to the article, a link to another drug farther along the development pipeline: Brilacidin

Johann Hari: ‘I failed badly. When you harm people, you should shut up, go away and reflect on what happened’

He was the Independent’s star columnist whose lying and cheating destroyed his career. Now Johann Hari is back, with a book about drug-taking – including his own. But will anyone believe a word of it?

The Guardian, Decca Aitkenhead, January 2

When I heard that Johann Hari had written a book about the war on drugs, two immediate concerns sprang to mind. The first was whether anyone would trust a word he wrote.

The author used to be the Independent’s star columnist, a prolific polemicist and darling of the left, until his career imploded in disgrace when it emerged in 2011 that many of his articles contained quotes apparently said to him but in fact lifted from his interviewees’ books, or from previous interviews by other journalists. Worse, he was exposed as a “sockpuppet”, or someone who anonymously furthers his own interests online. Using a false identity, Hari had maliciously amended the Wikipedia pages of journalists he disliked – among them the Telegraph columnist Cristina Odone and the Observer’s Nick Cohen – accusing them of antisemitism, homophobia and other toxic falsehoods. Under the same pseudonym, he had also edited his own Wikipedia page, lavishly flattering his profile to, as he puts it, “big myself up”. The Independent suspended him, four months later he resigned, and no British newspaper has published his journalism since. He has never spoken publicly about the scandal, until now.
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India Takes First Step to Sending Astronaut to Space

The Wall Street Journal, December 18

It’s been a pretty amazing year for India’s space agency: reaching Mars orbit at first attempt and on a tight budget then clubbing together with the United States for future explorations of the Red planet. On Thursday morning the Indian Space Research Organization wrapped up 2014 with the successful launch of a rocket that will help it discover if it has the capacity to put an Indian astronaut into space, and bring them home again.

The rocket that lifted off from southern India at 09:32 Indian Standard Time carried an un-manned crew capsule that scientists wanted to ensure could re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere without burning up.

The so-called crew-module atmospheric re-entry experiment is part of India’s plan to send a person into space within the next eight years. The capsule separated from the rocket successfully at 126 kilometers above the Earth’s surface and re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere as hoped and deploying parachutes. It was expected to land in the Bay of Bengal and be recovered by the Indian Coast Guard.