April 23, 2014

The Symbiotic Machine is a Robot Powered by Algae

The Symbiotic Machine is a robot powered by algae. It has a mouth, stomach and anus.

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CTBTO Has Detected 26 Major Asteroid Impacts in Earth's Atmosphere Since 2000

The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization detected dozens of major asteroid impacts in the Earth's atmosphere since 2000.

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April 22, 2014

Brain Stimulator Offers Hope for Individuals With Uncontrolled Epilepsy

A recently FDA-approved device has been shown to reduce seizures […]

New Electric Knifefish Species Discovered in Brazil's Negro River

Researchers have discovered a new genus and species of electric knifefish in several tributaries of the Negro River in Brazil.

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Virtual Earth plays out fate of life on the planet

The first computer model to simulate the interaction of life on Earth allows us to see how an infinite number of ecosystem changes affect the environment

Mini robot doctors that could swim in your bloodstream

Robots that can be operated using magnetic fields could one day be injected into your body with the parts to make therapeutic devices

The coolest biology is under the microscope

Almost everything important takes place in the microbial world, argues Nicholas Money in his lively but rather disorganised book The Amoeba in the Room

Asteroid strike map built from nuclear watchdog data

The network that monitors for covert nuclear weapons testing helped detect 26 asteroids entering Earth's atmosphere since 2000 – this movie maps them

Hitachi Building High Speed Elevator That Travels 95 Floors in 43 Seconds

Hitachi is building a high speed elevator that will travel 95 floors in just 43 seconds. The elevators are to be used in a skyscraper being built in Guangzhou, China.

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The annual spring peeper hocus pocus

(While our host convalesces, here is one of his essays from the archive. This musing originally appeared in The Boston Globe, 22 April 1991. —Tom)

The spring peepers are in full fortissimo chorus.

On Nantucket they call these noisy little frogs pinkletinks, presumably because that’s how Nantucketers hear the sound. I’m not sure how I’d describe the peeper’s call. Pinkletink doesn’t do justice to the volume. Not peep-peep either. The peeper’s voice is shrill and high pitched, and when the water meadow is in heady voice it’s like a zillion wedding guests clanking on glassware with spoons.

The peeper is only an inch long, but it’s all voice box from stem to stern. Most frogs call by inflating air sacs under their chins; peepers inflate their whole bodies. The air is not expelled with each peep. The peeper uses its body like a bagpiper’s bag; keeps it pumped up for the duration of its amatory calls.

This year the chorus began on March 28. A week later I stood by the side of the water meadow and the whole place seemed to sing. You’d swear they were everywhere; a carpet of sound stretched away from my feet. But not a peeper to be seen. I scanned the water with binoculars. The weeds and the bushes. Not a sign of the elusive frogs. Pure, disembodied pandemonium. The water itself seemed to be emitting the noise.

Off with the shoes. Roll up the trousers. Into the water. Out to the very middle of the water meadow. Silence, as if someone has pulled the plug on the amplifier. I stand still as a statue. Five minutes, ten. Then, it starts up again, that ear-splitting carpet of sound. The peepers are still invisible.

It’s the male frog making all the noise, and we know why. It’s that old spring business all over again: finding a mate. But why the tumultuous decibels? Why the din? Is the female peeper deaf? Does she choose a mate by the amplitude of his call? Has evolution cranked up the volume of this chorus by finding some connection between the loudness of the love song and reproductive fitness?

Or is it something else, something you won’t find in the biology books—pure excess vitality, a capacity of water and muck to make noise, to celebrate.

Of course I’m being facetious, but not altogether so. I’m talking about the astounding resiliency of life, its ability to survive the harshest conditions and to spring up in the unlikeliest places. The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder wondered about all those frogs coming out of nowhere in the spring with their outrageous racket, and attributed it to an “occult operation” by nature. In other words, magic. Slight-of-hand. Hocus-pocus.

We are more hardheaded about it. We know the peepers have been there all along, buried in the mud throughout the long winter, just waiting for a couple of warm days to beckon them up into song. But what about life itself? What “occult operation” of nature conjured up life on the Earth nearly 4 billion years ago, out of water and muck? One minute the planet was lifeless (presumably), and the next minute (give or take a few tens of millions of years) the whole place was swimming with microbes—and it’s been swimming ever since.

Most biologists believe that life began spontaneously from non-living materials. Darwin imagined it happened in a “warm little pond” somewhere on the early Earth—the quietly simmering primeval soup so dear to generations of biologists. According to this theory, chemicals stewing in water formed themselves into proteins, RNA, DNA, and ultimately the first living cells.

But Darwin’s warm little pond may never have existed. Recently, planetary scientists have been telling us that Earth was a nasty place back at about the time life was starting. The surface of the planet was subject to rampant volcanism. Meteorites rained from the sky for hundreds of millions of years, the same incessant bombardment that pulverized the surface of the moon (on Earth the evidence of that early bombardment has been erased by erosion and tectonic activity). A few meteorites may have carried enough energy to completely vaporize the oceans.

It’s hard to imagine how or where in the midst of such chaos the complex and delicate structures of life were created and sustained. Perhaps it happened near volcanic fissures on the floors of the deepest oceans, even as the meteorites pelted down. Or perhaps in hot springs on continents as the bombardment waned.

Since no one knows how life began, I’ll opt for the theory that it was all more or less inevitable. Start with a hydrogen-rich environment, throw in some carbon, expose it to energy, and—presto!—you’ve got amino acids, phosphates, sugars, and organic bases, the chemical building blocks of life. Add cycles of heat and cold, dry and wet, light and darkness, maybe a catalyst like iron pyrites or clay, and any old planet with a reasonably moderate environment will pull the rabbit out of the hat. Or the peepers out of the pond.

I can’t prove it but I choose to believe that water and muck has a built-in tendency toward animation, and that life is ubiquitous, not only here but throughout the universe. I don’t mean to sound mystical, but if we’ve learned anything in the 20th century it is that matter—plain old matter—is subtle stuff, rich in possibilities of combination.

Just listen to that racket rising from the water meadow. That’s what the spring peepers’ hallelujah chorus is all about: the sheer, unstoppable ebullience of life.

Helmet to offer tongue-in-cheek gadget control

A device that senses tongue pressure through the cheek could allow motorcyclists and skiers to control their personal technology via their helmets

Stealthy surfaces make for psychedelic laser scanning

Lidar 3D laser scanning sounds ultra-precise – but real-world noise and confusion turns Berlin's Oberbaum Bridge into an ecstatic vision

Blue skies on tap, whenever you need them

A lighting system that combines white LEDs with nanoparticles can mimic a natural sunny day, even when the skies outside are grey and gloomy

3-Million-Year-Old Tundra Landscape Found Beneath Greenland Ice Sheet

Scientists have discovered an ancient tundra landscape preserved under the Greenland Ice Sheet.

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April 21, 2014

Heritage plaque: Our ancestors' health read from teeth

Ancient microbial DNA on fossil teeth has opened a fresh window on our ancestors, revealing that civilisation has altered our mouth flora for the worse (full text available to subscribers)

Smallest subversive: Mathematical fight for our world

At stake in the fierce 17th-century debate over a mathematical concept was nothing less than our modern world, says Amir Alexander in Infinitesimal

Shakespeare: Unleashing a tempest in the brain

The Bard's continuing appeal lies in his intuitive understanding of how the human mind works (full text available to subscribers)

Let me show you how to make your own glowing plant

Kyle Taylor, a founder of Glowing Plant, splices firefly genes into plants and wants to demystify the process by showing you how to do it at home

Unclaimed bodies are anatomy's shameful inheritance

Medical science must stop using the bodies of some of society's most vulnerable people for dissection, says anatomist Gareth Jones

Monkey mathematicians hint at brain's number perception

Monkeys have been taught to add, giving the best evidence yet for primates' maths skills and offering a path towards solving how the brain encodes numbers


I'm unwell. The porch is closed until further notice.

Slow Moving Wyoming Landslide Splits Home in Two

A slow moving landslide in Wyoming has split a home in two. The landslide is moving at the rate of one inch per day.

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KIOST's Giant Crab-like Robot Takes a Walk

KIOST's giant crab-like robot takes a walk in this video. The car-sized Crabster CR200 is designed to walk on the ocean floor.

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April 20, 2014

Plant Biodata Found Stored in Impact Glass From Asteroid and Comet Impacts

Plant biodata has been found stored in impact glass from asteroid and comet impacts from millions of years ago.

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Mystery physics: What does the M in M-theory mean?

Some of the world's greatest physicists couldn't tell you why our leading theory of everything is labelled "M". Amanda Gefter hit the road to solve the mystery (full text available to subscribers)

Mississippi dams aren't to blame for flood risks

Dams on the Mississippi river aren't swallowing the sandy sediment needed to build up the river's delta and protect nearby cities from flooding

Make graphene in your kitchen with soap and a blender

A method for making large amounts of the wonder material graphene is so simple that it can be done with kitchen appliances and Fairy Liquid

April 19, 2014

When the internet dies, meet the meshnet that survives

If a crisis throws everyone offline, getting reconnected can be tougher than it looks, finds Hal Hodson

Shakespeare: The godfather of modern medicine

Epilepsy, psychiatric breakdown, sleep disorders – for all the crudity of 16th-century healthcare, Shakespeare's observations still inspire doctors today (full text available to subscribers)

Israeli Nanotechnology Company Plans to Turn Jellyfish Into Paper Towels and Tampons

An Israeli nanotechnology company is developing a technology to turn jellyfish into papers towels and other products.

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April 18, 2014

Silly Putty Ingredient Could Advance Stem Cell Therapies Say Scientists

Scientists at the University of Michigan say an ingredient in Silly Putty could help advance stem cell therapies.

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Red lettuce and dinosaur germs head to space station

SpaceX has launched its third cargo mission to the ISS, carrying gear that includes robot legs, a collapsible garden and a microbes from a dino fossil

MIT Researchers Say Floating Nuclear Plants Could Ride Out Tsunamis

MIT researchers present a design for a floating nuclear plant which they say could ride out tsunamis.

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Shakespeare: Did radical astronomy inspire Hamlet?

From a supernova in 1572 to the discovery of Jupiter's four biggest moons – astronomical discoveries of Shakespeare's time may pop up in his work (full text available to subscribers)

The LADEE killers: NASA has crashed probe into moon

The lunar spacecraft has been intentionally smashed into the far side of the moon after months spent measuring dust and testing laser-based broadband

Space shuttle carrier plane heads out on Texas convoy

One of the huge 747s that gave piggyback rides to space shuttles is headed to Houston to star in an 8-storey-tall museum exhibit

Viper Gets Partially Eaten by a Centipede it Swallowed

A juvenile nose-horned viper swallowed a centipede only to have the centipede eats its way out of its lower abdomen. Both creatures perished.

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Flesh-eating bacterium is a child of the 80s

In the early 1980s, a previously innocuous bacterium gained the grim weapons it needed to cause necrotising fasciitis, reveals a global genetics study

Feedback: Fenestration fun

Defenestrations in history, global flattening squashed, memetic engineering and you, and more (full text available to subscribers)

Females Have Penises in Cave Insect Species, Copulation Lasts 40 to 70 Hours

Scientists have discovered four species of cave insects with sex-reversed genitalia. Copulation lasts for 40 to 70 hours.

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NASA Confirms Discovery of First Earth-Sized Planet in Habitable Zone of its Star

NASA has confirmed the discovery of the first Earth-sized planet located in the habitable zone of its star. The planet is Kepler-186f.

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April 17, 2014

Ancient Shark Fossil Reveals Modern Sharks are Evolutionarily Advanced

A ancient shark fossil reveals that modern sharks are evolutionary advanced despite having retained their sharkiness for millions of years.

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Wikipedia searches and sick tweets predict flu cases

Flu cases across the US can be accurately estimated using Wikipedia searches, and fluey tweets from Twitter users also give the game away

April 16, 2014

What is Protomyxzoa Rheumatica?

A contact on Twitter mentioned an apparently newly discovered parasitic disease which goes by the name of Protomyxzoa Rheumatica or the “Fry bug”, named for its apparent discoverer Fry Laboratories of Scottsdale, Arizona. The discoverers have published no scientific papers about this organism as far as I can tell. Although protomyxzoa.org (registered in September 2012) says Fry has a PCR test for the pathogen and the person running the site says they were diagnosed by the labs in February of that year.

No reference to Protomyxzoa Rheumatica comes up with a search of the Fry website nor of PubMed, the US CDC, WHO, WebMD or generally anywhere else other than on what appear to be a few patient blogs and such. There is a brief reference to Protomyxzoa Rheumatica on the website of Fry Labs’ founder http://drstephenfry.com/ where it is described as a: novel protozoan but nothing else is said. Dr Fry himself is described as specialising in the cause and treatment of chronic inflammatory disease such as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and fibromyalgia. There is also discussion of diet and lifestyle being associated with the “symptoms” of this infection. A “Mary C Kline” appears in a patent search having invented a treatment for treating the biofilms and plaques purportedly associated with the infection, her other patents seem to be for treatments for what would be described as related pathogens.

There is one slightly more detailed page – http://www.personalconsult.com/posts/FL1953.html – that uses another name (an earlier name, in fact) for Protomyxzoa Rheumatica, FL1953, and discusses it in terms of its similarity to babesia (nutallia) or immature malaria but apparently unique DNA sequence. (FL1953 does not come up in a PubMed search either). The page also discusses how Fry showed the page’s author stained red blood cells apparently infected with Protomyxzoa Rheumatica in which the organism was on the edge or inside the rbc. Misdiagnosis of this novel infection is why treatment of Lyme disease and Babesia sometimes fail allegedly. Another patient-written site discusses a talk/interview given by Fry where FL1953 is described as “a new, unique protozoan organism that is found in people with CFS, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, ALS, and rheumatoid arthritis”. There is a lot of debate on LymeNet Europe that suggests that FL1953 has been controversial to say the least for several years.

One particular claim draws me to an almost inevitable conclusion regarding this pathogen. There are references to Morgellons syndrome in connection with FL1953. Morgellons, however, is apparently nothing more than a psychosomatic illness in which the patient believes that they are infested with disease-causing agents described as things like insects, parasites, hairs or fibres. While it may be a real condition it is not, it seems, caused by an actual pathogen, unless of course, that pathogen has corrupted the patient’s thoughts to create these beliefs (some parasites certainly can affect the brain).

I asked an expert in Lyme disease and related infections who had this to say: The owner of a private lab has claimed to have identified a new organism which causes many disorders including autoimmune. He apparently planned to conduct studies on this, but there have been no updates nor any peer-reviewed journal publications about it…in the meantime lots of people are being diagnosed with an illness no one knows for sure even exists…

What is Protomyxzoa Rheumatica? is a post from the science blog of David Bradley, author of Deceived Wisdom Subscribe to our Email Newsletter


April 01, 2014

Planetary cakes

Who wouldn’t want a spongy Jupiter or a vanilla Earth with tectonic icing? I do wish they’d not misspelled concentric, but never mind. Can I have a slice of Jupiter with the spot?

Planetary cakes is a post from the science blog of David Bradley, author of Deceived Wisdom Subscribe to our Email Newsletter


May 06, 2010

A More Reality-Based Poll

Remember that strikingly inept poll analysis about the Tea Party movement from The New York Times last month? Well, the new Washington Post-ABC News poll addresses the same topic, and the Post’s analysis seems to actually be rooted in reality:

The conservative “tea party” movement appeals almost exclusively to supporters of the Republican Party, bolstering the view that the tea party divides the GOP even as it has energized its base.

That conclusion, backed by numbers from a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, also suggests that the tea party may have little room for growth. Most Americans — including large majorities of those who don’t already count themselves as supporters — say they’re not interested in learning more about the movement. A sizable share of those not already sympathetic to the tea party also say that the more they hear, the less they like the movement.

Overall, the tea party remains divisive, with 27 percent of those polled saying they’re supportive but about as many, 24 percent, opposed. Supporters overwhelmingly identify themselves as Republicans or GOP-leaning independents; opponents are even more heavily Democratic. The new movement is also relatively small, with 8 percent of supporters claiming to be “active participants” — about 2 percent of the total population.

(Emphasis added by me.)

These numbers are somewhat similar to last month’s New York Times-CBS News poll, which found that 18% of Americans support the Tea Party movement. Despite the Times doing as much as it could to hype these results, I pointed out that this wasn’t very meaningful, since that poll found that 78% of these “supporters” had never attended a Tea Party rally or meeting or donated money to the Tea Party cause. So, doing a little math, we find that about 4% of people could be labeled as active Tea Partiers based on that poll (compared with 2% in the current Washington Post poll).

The difference in both of these numbers (27% vs. 18% for supporters, 4% vs. 2% for active participants) could be due to a real drop in support for and participation in the Tea Party movement, or just a difference between the two polls. My point in bringing it up is that The Washington Post’s analysis actually makes sense.

On the side, it is also of note that there’s some good news in the poll for the Democratic Party:

The percentage of people who say the Democratic Party represents their personal values and is in tune with the problems of people like themselves hasn’t changed since November. The percentage siding with the GOP, however, has dropped by almost precisely the numbers now siding with the tea party.

Some 14 percent of Americans say the tea party is most in sync with their values, nearly matching the 15 percentage-point drop-off for the GOP over the past five months.

For more, check out a graphic on the poll results here and the full poll results here.

April 14, 2010

This Is a Very Dumb Poll

Actually, I should say that this is a very dumb analysis of a poll. The New York Times is really promoting its new NYT/CBS poll right now; as I write this, the top headline on the Times’ homepage reads “Poll Finds Tea Party Backers Wealthier and More Educated.”

When I first saw that headline and read the email news alert that the Times sent out, I did agree that these appeared to be interesting and surprising findings. And, as I read the article, my interest–and then skepticism–continued to grow. According to the article, these “Tea Party supporters” are “wealthier and more well-educated than the general public”, and they make up “18 percent of Americans”. Hmmm… interesting. Also, they “do not think Sarah Palin is qualified to be president”, and are “more likely than the general public to have returned their census forms.” Well, that’s quite a surprise.

The article goes on and on, but one thing should become clear: these “Tea Party supporters” sound almost indistinguishable from your run-of-the-mill establishment fiscal-conservative Republican. How could this be?

Well, if you look at the actual the survey results and methods, you’ll see that these “Tea Party supporters” are just people who answered affirmatively to the question “Do you consider yourself to be a supporter of the Tea Party movement, or not?” In fact, 78% (!!!) of these “supporters” have never attended a Tea Party rally or meeting or donated money to the Tea Party cause.

It’s no wonder that these “Tea Party supporters” sound nothing like the Tea Party activists we’ve grown so familiar with… because they’re not! Now, I’ll grant that the Times’ analysis never explicitly equates these two. But, especially by making statements like “Speculation and anecdotal evidence have often taken the place of concrete data about who supports the Tea Party movement, and the poll offers some surprising findings”, they’re really insinuating a lot.

In the end, these results are pretty uninteresting, since this poll just describes a large bloc of the Republican Party that has been in existence for a long time. (For a much more reasonable analysis of the poll, check out CBS’s take.)

For a more relevant picture of what the Tea Party movement actually looks like, just take this recent sampling from the Times’ own pages:

Let’s not mince words here: the Tea Party movement has been fueled by misinformation, bigotry, and irrational violent anger at the government. If this new poll shows us anything, it’s just to what a large degree the Republican establishment has accepted and embraced this radical fringe.

September 17, 2008

This blog is changing!

After more than two years and 769 posts, the Short Sharp Science blog is changing.

All the blogs are merging to become one super-blog, a blog for everything New Scientist covers in the world of science, technology, environment, and ideas.

The changes also incorporate a new URL, so visit the new, Short Sharp Science blog here.

For those of you viewing in RSS, please update your readers to subscribe to this new feed.

Tom Simonite, online technology editor

September 15, 2008

Are happy kids dumb kids?

Did you live a coddled childhood filled with unbridled playtime and few reminders of the harsh real world? You might have been dumber as a result.

Children coaxed into a jovial mood performed worse on a simple test of geometric shape recognition than kids put in a dourer mood, report Simone Schnall, of the University of Plymouth, UK and colleagues in a recent issue of Developmental Science.

You may wonder whether these psychologists hate happy kids or just fun, but their conclusion is supported by other research. For instance, adults in good spirits do worse than sad adults on similar tests.

To uncover the same effect in children, the researchers, thankfully, didn't resort to insults or mind-altering drugs.

Instead they played one of two classical tunes to 10- and 11-year olds. Fifteen kids heard Mozart's jolly ditty Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, while the other 15 had to suffer through Mahler's doleful Adagietto. Previous research suggested these songs put kids in happy and sad moods, respectively, and Schnall's team confirmed that by surveying the kids.

While listening to the tunes the children played a game where they hunted for a specific geometric shape – a triangle joined to a rectangle, for instance – within a picture. The merry Mozart kids took noticeably longer finding the shapes than the children who were forced to listen to Mahler.

Not content with proving that happy pre-teens are daft, the researchers aimed their hypothesis at 61 six and seven-year olds. Instead of hearing classical music, the kids watched three movie scenes.

One, from Disney's Jungle Book, features the singing and dancing of an ebullient bear. A neutral scene from The Last Unicorn shows a knight reaching a castle. The sad scene comes from The Lion King, another Disney cartoon. Even this reporter, who watched the movie as a teen, shed a tear when Simba mourns his father's death.

In the same shape recognition test administered after the movie scene, the happy kids proved slower at picking out shapes than those who watched the neutral Last Unicorn or the lugubrious Lion King scenes.

Schnall's team offers several explanations for their results. Mood could directly alter cognitive thinking, and in a happy state people have little desire to question what they see, while "sadness indicates something is amiss, triggering detail-oriented analytical processing," they write.

Alternatively, happy people could be so caught up in their personal high that they ignore details or they distract themselves from the task at hand.

This could be hand-waving - it seems just as likely that Mozart and The Jungle Book are more distracting than Mahler and The Lion King. Because the kids tended to ignore the music played before the test, the researchers dismiss this possibility, but anyone who's taken a six-year old to a Disney film knows that the catchy songs don't vanish from their brains in just a few minutes.

But there's some encouraging news, at least, for cheerful kids and their parents. Children in a good mood perform better on tasks that demand creative and flexible thinking, previous studies show.

So the take-home message may be - contrary to popular opinion - that happy kids end up as artists and poets, while sad and angry children become accountants.

The paper's last sentence seems directed toward parents of these future artists: "Artificially inflating a child's mood may have unintended and possibly undesirable cognitive consequences."

Ewen Callaway, online reporter
(Image: Kaeli/Photobucket)