The spark of life and a burst of zinc fluorescence

For some religious believers, the idea that human life has a divine origin includes the notion that the biological event of conception has a divine component: the moment at which a soul enters a developing embryo.

It is now being claimed that this belief is supported by scientific evidence.

Citing a recently published study appearing in Scientific Reports, Catholic Online says:

Researchers discovered the moment a human soul enters an egg, which gives pro-life groups an even greater edge in the battle between embryonic life and death. The precise moment is celebrated with a zap of energy released around the newly fertilized egg.

Teresa Woodruff, one of the study’s senior authors and professor in obstetrics and gynecology at the university, delivered a press release in which she stated, “to see the zinc radiate out in a burst from each human egg was breathtaking.”

It’s easy to understand why images showing a burst of light as an egg is fertilized, might appear to provide scientific validation of religious belief.

But attaching religious significance to these findings requires ignoring a key detail in what has been reported.

If the zinc spark that’s been observed — a burst of zinc fluorescence that occurs as millions of zinc atoms get dumped out of the egg — actually bore a relationship with the arrival of a soul enabling the emergence of life, then no such sparks would have been photographed. Why? Because the experiment involved staging a facsimile of fertilization using a sperm enzyme, not live sperm.

Either the experimenters fooled God into placing souls into unfertilized eggs, or these “sparks of life” can be understood as chemical events — though no less wondrous to behold.

Moreover, for those who insist these zinc sparks are triggered by souls, they might need to make some theological revisions to accommodate the evidence that mice apparently possess souls too.

To understand the science in more detail, watch this:

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Google’s new YouTube analysis app crowdsources war reporting

Wired reports: In armed conflicts of the past, the “fog of war” meant a lack of data. In the era of ubiquitous pocket-sized cameras, it often means an information overload.

Four years ago, when analysts at the non-profit Carter Center began using YouTube videos to analyze the escalating conflicts in Syria and Libya, they found that, in contrast to older wars, it was nearly impossible to keep up with the thousands of clips uploaded every month from the smartphones and cameras of both armed groups and bystanders. “The difference with Syria and Libya is that they’re taking place in a truly connected environment. Everyone is online,” says Chris McNaboe, the manager of the Carter Center’s Syria Mapping Project. “The amount of video coming out was overwhelming…There have been more minutes of video from Syria than there have been minutes of real time.”

To handle that flood of digital footage, his team has been testing a tool called Montage. Montage was built by the human rights-focused tech incubator Jigsaw, the subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet that was formerly known as a Google Ideas, to sort, map, and tag video evidence from conflict zones. Over the last few months, it allowed six Carter Center analysts to categorize video coming out of Syria—identifying government forces and each of the slew of armed opposition groups, recording the appearance of different armaments and vehicles, and keeping all of that data carefully marked with time stamps and locations to create a searchable, sortable and mappable catalog of the Syrian conflict. “Some of our Montage investigations have had over 600 videos in them,” says McNaboe. “Even with a small team we’ve been able to go through days worth of video in a relatively short amount of time.” [Continue reading…]

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Exploding the myth of the scientific vs artistic mind

By David Pearson, Anglia Ruskin University

It’s a stereotype, but many of us have made the assumption that scientists are a bit rigid and less artistic than others. Artists, on the other hand, are often seen as being less rational than the rest of us. Sometimes described as the left side of the brain versus the right side – or simply logical thinking versus artistic creativity – the two are often seen as polar opposites.

Neuroscience has already shown that everyone uses both sides of the brain when performing any task. And while certain patterns of brain activity have sometimes been linked to artistic or logical thinking, it doesn’t really explain who is good at what – and why. That’s because the exact interplay of nature and nurture is notoriously difficult to tease out. But if we put the brain aside for a while and just focus on documented ability, is there any evidence to support the logic versus art stereotype?

Psychological research has approached this question by distinguishing between two styles of thinking: convergent and divergent. The emphasis in convergent thinking is on analytical and deductive reasoning, such as that measured in IQ tests. Divergent thinking, however, is more spontaneous and free-flowing. It focuses on novelty and is measured by tasks requiring us to generate multiple solutions for a problem. An example may be thinking of new, innovative uses for familiar objects.

Studies conducted during the 1960s suggested that convergent thinkers were more likely to be good at science subjects at school. Divergent thinking was shown to be more common in the arts and humanities.

However, we are increasingly learning that convergent and divergent thinking styles need not be mutually exclusive. In 2011, researchers assessed 116 final-year UK arts and science undergraduates on measures of convergent and divergent thinking and creative problem solving. The study found no difference in ability between the arts and science groups on any of these measures. Another study reported no significant difference in measures of divergent thinking between arts, natural science and social science undergraduates. Both arts and natural sciences students, however, rated themselves as being more creative than social sciences students did.

[Read more…]

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What the European Union can learn from CERN about international co-operation

By Roger Barlow, University of Huddersfield

Can Europe work? This is the real question being asked of British people on June 23. Behind the details of subsidies, regulations and eurozones lies a more fundamental puzzle: can different nationalities retain their own identities and work together, without merging into some bland United States of Europe?

I would like to suggest that there may be an example to follow in the history of CERN, the international research organisation based in Switzerland, and home to the world-famous particle accelerators used recently by teams of thousands of scientists from many nations to confirm the existence of the Higgs boson.

There are many similarities between CERN and the EU. The former was founded in 1954 and the latter in 1957, when the Treaty of Rome was signed (although it was then called the European Economic Community). Both CERN and the EU have grown over the years. The EU started with six countries and now brings together 28. CERN has grown from an initial 12 members, including the UK, to 21.

Both also emerged as a response to a post-war world in which the two superpowers dominated, not only militarily but also economically and scientifically. The US and the USSR were supreme on either side of the iron curtain, and with their great resources they pushed ahead with prestige research: space travel, electronics, and nuclear physics.

The European nations were impoverished by the financial and human cost of the war. Many of its greatest (often Jewish) scientists had fled to the US and were slow to come back. None had the people or the capacity to compete on their own.

[Read more…]

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Technology is not ruining our kids. Parents (and their technology) are ruining them

Jenny Anderson writes: Many of us worry what technology is doing to our kids. A cascade of reports show that their addiction to iAnything is diminishing empathy, increasing bullying (pdf), robbing them of time to play, and just be. So we parents set timers, lock away devices and drone on about the importance of actual real-live human interaction. And then we check our phones.

Sherry Turkle, a professor in the program in Science, Technology and Society at M.I.T. and the author, most recently, of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, turned the tables by imploring parents to take control and model better behavior.

A 15-year-old boy told her that: “someday he wanted to raise a family, not the way his parents are raising him (with phones out during meals and in the park and during his school sports events) but the way his parents think they are raising him — with no phones at meals and plentiful family conversation.”

Turkle explains the cost of too-much technology in stark terms: Our children can’t engage in conversation, or experience solitude, making it very hard for them to be empathetic. “In one experiment, many student subjects opted to give themselves mild electric shocks rather than sit alone with their thoughts,” she noted.

Unfortunately, it seems we parents are the solution. (Newsflash, kids aren’t going to give up their devices because they are worried about how it may influence their future ability to empathize.)

That means exercising some self-control. Many of us aren’t exactly paragons of virtue in this arena. [Continue reading…]

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Brain scans reveal how LSD affects consciousness

Researchers from Imperial College London, working with the Beckley Foundation, have for the first time visualised the effects of LSD on the brain: In a series of experiments, scientists have gained a glimpse into how the psychedelic compound affects brain activity. The team administered LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide) to 20 healthy volunteers in a specialist research centre and used various leading-edge and complementary brain scanning techniques to visualise how LSD alters the way the brain works.

The findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), reveal what happens in the brain when people experience the complex visual hallucinations that are often associated with LSD state. They also shed light on the brain changes that underlie the profound altered state of consciousness the drug can produce.

A major finding of the research is the discovery of what happens in the brain when people experience complex dreamlike hallucinations under LSD. Under normal conditions, information from our eyes is processed in a part of the brain at the back of the head called the visual cortex. However, when the volunteers took LSD, many additional brain areas – not just the visual cortex – contributed to visual processing.

Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial, who led the research, explained: “We observed brain changes under LSD that suggested our volunteers were ‘seeing with their eyes shut’ – albeit they were seeing things from their imagination rather than from the outside world. We saw that many more areas of the brain than normal were contributing to visual processing under LSD – even though the volunteers’ eyes were closed. Furthermore, the size of this effect correlated with volunteers’ ratings of complex, dreamlike visions.”

The study also revealed what happens in the brain when people report a fundamental change in the quality of their consciousness under LSD.

Dr Carhart-Harris explained: “Normally our brain consists of independent networks that perform separate specialised functions, such as vision, movement and hearing – as well as more complex things like attention. However, under LSD the separateness of these networks breaks down and instead you see a more integrated or unified brain.

“Our results suggest that this effect underlies the profound altered state of consciousness that people often describe during an LSD experience. It is also related to what people sometimes call ‘ego-dissolution’, which means the normal sense of self is broken down and replaced by a sense of reconnection with themselves, others and the natural world. This experience is sometimes framed in a religious or spiritual way – and seems to be associated with improvements in well-being after the drug’s effects have subsided.” [Continue reading…]

Amanda Feilding, executive director of the Beckley Foundation, in an address she will deliver to the Royal Society tomorrow, says: I think Albert Hoffman would have been delighted to have his “Problem child” celebrated at the Royal Society, as in his long lifetime the academic establishment never recognised his great contribution. But for the taboo surrounding this field, he would surely have won the Nobel Prize. That was the beginning of the modern psychedelic age, which has fundamentally changed society.

After the discovery of the effects of LSD, there was a burst of excitement in the medical and therapeutic worlds – over 1000 experimental and clinical studies were undertaken. Then, in the early 60s, LSD escaped from the labs and began to spread into the world at large. Fuelled by its transformational insights, a cultural evolution took place, whose effects are still felt today. It sparked a wave of interest in Eastern mysticism, healthy living, nurturing the environment, individual freedoms and new music and art among many other changes. Then the establishment panicked and turned to prohibition, partly motivated by American youth becoming disenchanted with fighting a war in far-off Vietnam.

Aghast at the global devastation caused by the war on drugs, I set up the Beckley Foundation in 1998. With the advent of brain imaging technology, I realised that one could correlate the subjective experience of altered states of consciousness, brought about by psychedelic substances, with empirical findings. I realised that only through the very best science investigating how psychedelics work in the brain could one overcome the misplaced taboo which had transformed them from the food of the gods to the work of the devil. [Continue reading…]

Just to be clear, as valuable as this research is, it is an exercise in map-making. The map should never be confused with the territory.

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Yuri Milner is spending $100 million on a probe that could travel to Alpha Centauri within a generation

Ross Andersen writes: In the Southern Hemisphere’s sky, there is a constellation, a centaur holding a spear, its legs raised in mid-gallop. The creature’s front hoof is marked by a star that has long hypnotized humanity, with its brightness, and more recently, its proximity.

Since the dawn of written culture, at least, humans have dreamt of star travel. As the nearest star system to Earth, Alpha Centauri is the most natural subject of these dreams. To a certain cast of mind, the star seems destined to figure prominently in our future.

In the four centuries since the Scientific Revolution, a series of increasingly powerful instruments has slowly brought Alpha Centauri into focus. In 1689, the Jesuit priest Jean Richaud fixed his telescope on a comet, as it was streaking through the stick-figure centaur. He was startled to find not one, but two stars twinkling in its hoof. In 1915, a third star was spotted, this one a small, red satellite of the system’s two central, sunlike stars.

To say that Alpha Centauri is the nearest star system to Earth is not to say that it’s near. A 25 trillion mile abyss separates us. Alpha Centauri’s light travels to Earth at the absurd rate of 186,000 miles per second, and still takes more than four years to arrive. [Continue reading…]

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Technology, the faux equalizer

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Adrienne LaFrance writes: Just over a century ago, an electric company in Minnesota took out a full-page newspaper advertisement and listed 1,000 uses for electricity.

Bakers could get ice-cream freezers and waffle irons! Hat makers could put up electric signs! Paper-box manufacturers could use glue pots and fans! Then there were the at-home uses: decorative lights, corn poppers, curling irons, foot warmers, massage machines, carpet sweepers, sewing machines, and milk warmers all made the list. “Make electricity cut your housework in two,” the advertisement said.

This has long been the promise of new technology: That it will make your work easier, which will make your life better. The idea is that the arc of technology bends toward social progress. This is practically the mantra of Silicon Valley, so it’s not surprising that Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, seems similarly teleological in his views. [Continue reading…]

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FBI backs off from its day in court with Apple this time – but there will be others

By Martin Kleppmann, University of Cambridge

After a very public stand-off over an encrypted terrorist’s smartphone, the FBI has backed down in its court case against Apple, stating that an “outside party” – rumoured to be an Israeli mobile forensics company – has found a way of accessing the data on the phone.

The exact method is not known. Forensics experts have speculated that it involves tricking the hardware into not recording how many passcode combinations have been tried, which would allow all 10,000 possible four-digit passcodes to be tried within a fairly short time. This technique would apply to the iPhone 5C in question, but not newer models, which have stronger hardware protection through the so-called secure enclave, a chip that performs security-critical operations in hardware. The FBI has denied that the technique involves copying storage chips.

So while the details of the technique remain classified, it’s reasonable to assume that any security technology can be broken given sufficient resources. In fact, the technology industry’s dirty secret is that most products are frighteningly insecure.

[Read more…]

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Why science and religion aren’t as opposed as you might think

By Stephen Jones, Newman University and Carola Leicht, University of Kent

The debate about science and religion is usually viewed as a competition between worldviews. Differing opinions on whether the two subjects can comfortably co-exist – even among scientists – are pitted against each other in a battle for supremacy.

For some, like the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, science and religion represent two separate areas of enquiry, asking and answering different questions without overlap. Others, such as the biologist Richard Dawkins – and perhaps the majority of the public – see the two as fundamentally opposed belief systems.

But another way to look at the subject is to consider why people believe what they do. When we do this, we discover that the supposed conflict between science and religion is nowhere near as clear cut as some might assume.

[Read more…]

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Dramatic change in the moon’s tilt may help us trace the origin of water on Earth

By Mahesh Anand, The Open University

Astronomers have found evidence that the axis that the moon spins around shifted billions of years ago due to changes in the moon’s internal structure. The research could help explain the strange distribution of water ice near the lunar poles – the tilt would have caused some of the ice to melt by suddenly exposing it to the sun while shadowing other areas. It could also help us pinpoint craters that have been shadowed for so long that they contain water ice from early in the solar system.

Identifying recent and ancient water ice in specific craters will help scientists map the history of water on the moon. And as the moon likely formed from the Earth colliding with a planet 4.5 billion years ago, it may also help explain how the Earth got its water – a longstanding puzzle.

[Read more…]

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Pluto defies all expectations

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Space.com reports: Pluto, known for more than eight decades as just a faint, fuzzy and faraway point of light, is shaping up to be one of the most complex and diverse worlds in the solar system.

Pluto’s frigid surface varies tremendously from place to place, featuring provinces dominated by different types of ices — methane in one place, nitrogen in another and water in yet another, newly analyzed photos and measurements from NASA’s New Horizons mission reveal.

“That is unprecedented,” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, who’s based at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

“I don’t know any other place in the entirety of the outer solar system where you see anything like this,” Stern told Space.com. “The closest analogy is the Earth, where we see water-rich surfaces and rock-rich surfaces that are completely different.”

That’s just one of the new Pluto results, which are presented in a set of five New Horizons papers published online on Thursday in the journal Science. Taken together, the five studies paint the Pluto system in sharp detail, shedding new light on the dwarf planet’s composition, geology and evolution over the past 4.6 billion years. [Continue reading…]

See also an infographic explaining NASA’s mission to Pluto. [Read more…]

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Computer’s Go victory reminds us that we need to question our reliance on AI

By Nello Cristianini, University of Bristol

The victory of a computer over one of the world’s strongest players of the game Go has been hailed by many as a landmark event in artificial intelligence. But why? After all, computers have beaten us at games before, most notably in 1997 when the computer Deep Blue triumphed over chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov.

We can get a hint of why the Go victory is important, however, by looking at the difference between the companies behind these game-playing computers. Deep Blue was the product of IBM, which was back then largely a hardware company. But the software – AlphaGo – that beat Go player Lee Sedol was created by DeepMind, a branch of Google based in the UK specialising in machine learning.

AlphaGo’s success wasn’t because of so-called “Moore’s law”, which states that computer processor speed doubles roughly every two years. Computers haven’t yet become powerful enough to calculate all the possible moves in Go – which is much harder to do than in chess. Instead, DeepMind’s work was based on carefully deploying new machine-learning methods and integrating them within more standard game-playing algorithms. Using vast amounts of data, AlphaGo has learnt how to focus its resources where they are most needed, and how to do a better job with those resources.

[Read more…]

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Blind faith in robots

Melissa Dahl writes: The fire alarm goes off, and it’s apparently not a mistake or a drill: Just outside the door, smoke fills the hallway. Luckily, you happen to have a guide for such a situation: a little bot with a sign that literally reads EMERGENCY GUIDE ROBOT. But, wait — it’s taking you in the opposite direction of the way you came in, and it seems to be wanting you to go down an unfamiliar hallway. Do you trust your own instinct and escape the way you came? Or do you trust the robot?

Probably, you will blindly follow the robot, according to the findings of a fascinating new study from the Georgia Institute of Technology. In an emergency situation — a fake one, though the test subjects didn’t know that — most people trusted the robot over their own instincts, even when the robot had showed earlier signs of malfunctioning. It’s a new wrinkle for researchers who study trust in human-robot interactions. Previously, this work had been focused on getting people to trust robotics, such as Google’s driverless cars. Now this new research hints at another problem: How do you stop people from trusting robots too much? It’s a timely question, especially considering the news this week of the first crash caused by one of Google’s self-driving cars. [Continue reading…]

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Astronomers just saw farther back in time than they ever have before

galaxies

The Washington Post reports: To look through the lens of a telescope is to peer back in time.

The light we view through it has spent hundreds, millions, even billions of years crossing the vastness of space to reach us, carrying with it images of things that happened long ago.

On Thursday, astronomers at the Hubble Space Telescope announced that they’d seen back farther than they ever have before, to a galaxy 13.4 billion light years away in a time when the universe was just past its infancy.

The finding shattered what’s known as the “cosmic distance record,” illuminating a point in time that scientists once thought could never be seen with current technology.

“We’ve taken a major step back in time, beyond what we’d ever expected to be able to do with Hubble,” Yale University astrophysicist Pascal Oesch, the lead author of the study, said in a statement. [Continue reading…]

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