Revealed: Honeybees are being killed off by a manmade pandemic

By Stephen John Martin, University of Salford

We live in a world where large numbers of people are connected by just a few degrees of separation. But while having friends of friends all over the globe can be great for holidays, trade and networking, travel also allows viruses to move like never before.

Zika is the latest “explosive pandemic” to be declared a global emergency by the World Health Organisation. But viruses don’t just target humans – they can infect all forms of life from bacteria to bananas, horses to honeybees.

A lethal combination of the Varroa mite and the deformed wing virus has resulted in the death of billions of bees over the past half century. In a study published in the journal Science, colleagues from the Universities of Exeter, Sheffield and I report how the virus has spread across the globe.

[Read more…]


Race is a social construct, scientists argue

Scientific American: More than 100 years ago, American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois was concerned that race was being used as a biological explanation for what he understood to be social and cultural differences between different populations of people. He spoke out against the idea of “white” and “black” as discrete groups, claiming that these distinctions ignored the scope of human diversity.

Science would favor Du Bois. Today, the mainstream belief among scientists is that race is a social construct without biological meaning. And yet, you might still open a study on genetics in a major scientific journal and find categories like “white” and “black” being used as biological variables.

In an article published today (Feb. 4) in the journal Science, four scholars say racial categories are weak proxies for genetic diversity and need to be phased out. [Continue reading…]


Imaginary conversations with imaginary atheists can reduce mistrust of real atheists

Pacific Standard reports: They’re feared and often loathed, viewed as non-conformists who pose a threat to our nation’s moral compass. But if more were open about their inclinations, and engaged in congenial conversation with members of the mistrusting majority, that prejudice might start melting away.

It happened with gays and lesbians. Perhaps it’s time for atheists to give it a try.

That’s one implication of newly published research, which reports simply imagining a positive interaction with an atheist is enough to increase willingness to engage and cooperate with them. [Continue reading…]


The significance of ‘untranslatable’ words


Tim Lomas writes: [‘untranslatable’] words exert great fascination, not only in specialised fields like linguistics or anthropology (Wierzbicka, 1999), but also in popular culture. Part of the fascination seems to derive from the notion that such words offer ‘windows’ into other cultures, and thus potentially into new ways of being in the world. As Wierzbicka (1997, p. 5) puts it, ‘words with special, culture-specific meanings reflect and pass on not only ways of living characteristic of a given society, but also ways of thinking’. Thus, ‘untranslatable’ words are not only of interest to translators; after all, many such professionals argue that it can be difficult to find exact translations for most words, and that nearly all terms lose some specificity or nuance when rendered in another tongue (Hatim & Munday, 2004). Rather, ‘untranslatability’ reflects the notion that such words identify phenomena that have only been recognised by specific cultures. Perhaps the most famous example is Schadenfreude, a German term describing pleasure at the misfortunes of others. Such words are not literally untranslatable, of course, since their meaning can be conveyed in a sentence. Rather, they are deemed ‘untranslatable’ to the extent that other languages lack a single word/phrase for the phenomenon.

The significance of such words is much debated. A dominant theoretical notion here is ‘linguistic relativity’ (Hussein, 2012). First formulated by the German philosophers Herder (1744–1803) and Humboldt (1767–1835), it came to prominence with the linguist Sapir (1929) and his student Whorf (1940). Their so-called ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’ holds that language plays a constitutive role in the way that people experience, understand and even perceive the world. As Whorf (1956, pp. 213–214) put it, ‘We dissect nature along lines laid out by our native languages … The world is presented as a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized … largely by the linguistic systems in our minds’. This hypothesis comes in various strengths. Its stronger form is linguistic determinism, where language inextricably constitutes and constrains thought. For instance, Whorf argued that the Hopi people had a different experience of time due to particularities in their grammar, such that they lacked a linear sense of past, present and future. This strong determinism has been criticised, e.g. by Pinker (1995), who argued that the Hopi experience of time was not particularly different to that of Western cultures. However, the milder form of the hypothesis, linguistic relativism, simply holds that language shapes thought and experience. This milder hypothesis is generally accepted by most anthropologists and other such scholars (Perlovsky, 2009). [Read more…]


Did the Vikings use crystal ‘sunstones’ to discover America?

By Stephen Harding, University of Nottingham

Ancient records tell us that the intrepid Viking seafarers who discovered Iceland, Greenland and eventually North America navigated using landmarks, birds and whales, and little else. There’s little doubt that Viking sailors would also have used the positions of stars at night and the sun during the daytime, and archaeologists have discovered what appears to be a kind of Viking navigational sundial. But without magnetic compasses, like all ancient sailors they would have struggled to find their way once the clouds came over.

However, there are also several reports in Nordic sagas and other sources of a sólarsteinn “sunstone”. The literature doesn’t say what this was used for but it has sparked decades of research examining if this might be a reference to a more intriguing form of navigational tool.

The idea is that the Vikings may have used the interaction of sunlight with particular types of crystal to create a navigational aid that may even have worked in overcast conditions. This would mean the Vikings had discovered the basic principles of measuring polarised light centuries before they were explained scientifically and which are today used to identify and measure different chemicals. Scientists are now getting closer to establishing if this form of navigation would have been possible, or if it is just a fanciful theory.

[Read more…]


Do chins have a purpose?


Ed Wong writes: “Little pig, little pig, let me come in,” says the big, bad wolf. “No, no, not by the hair on my chinny chin chin,” say the three little pigs. This scene is deeply unrealistic and not just because of the pigs’ architectural competence, the wolf’s implausible lung capacity, and everyone’s ability to talk.

The thing is: Pigs don’t have chins. Nor do any animals, except for us.

The lower jaw of a chimpanzee or gorilla slopes backwards from the front teeth. So did the jaw of other hominids like Homo erectus. Even Neanderthal jaws ended in a flat vertical plane. Only in modern humans does the lower jaw end in a protruding strut of bone. A sticky-outy bit. A chin.

“It’s really strange that only humans have chins,” says James Pampush from Duke University. “When we’re looking at things that are uniquely human, we can’t look to big brains or bipedalism because our extinct relatives had those. But they didn’t have chins. That makes this immediately relevant to everyone.” Indeed, except in rare cases involving birth defects, everyone has chins. Sure, some people have less pronounced ones than others, perhaps because their lower jaws are small or they have more flesh around the area. But if you peeled back that flesh and exposed their jawbones — and maybe don’t do that — you’d still see a chin.

So, why do chins exist?

There are no firm answers, which isn’t for lack of effort. Evolutionary biologists have been proposing hypotheses for more than a century, and Pampush has recently reviewed all the major ideas, together with David Daegling. “We kept showing, for one reason or another, that these hypotheses are not very good,” he says.

The most heavily promoted explanation is that chins are adaptations for chewing — that they help to reduce the physical stresses acting upon a masticating jaw. But Pampush found that, if anything, the chin makes things worse. The lower jaw consists of two halves that are joined in the middle; when we chew, we compress the bone on the outer face of this join (near the lips) and pull on the bone on the inner face (near the tongue). Since bone is much stronger when compressed than pulled, you’d ideally want to reinforce the inner face of the join and not the outer one. In other words, you’d want the opposite of a chin. [Continue reading…]


Keen to be healthier in old age? Tend your inner garden

By Claire Steves, King’s College London and Tim Spector, King’s College London

The world’s oldest man, Yasutaro Koide recently died at the age of 112. Commentators as usual, focused on his reported “secret to longevity”: not smoking, drinking or overdoing it. No surprises there. But speculation on the basis of one individual is not necessarily the most helpful way of addressing this human quest for the Philosopher’s Stone.

The “very old” do spark our interest – but is our search for a secret to longevity actually misguided? Wouldn’t you rather live healthier than live longer in poor health? Surely, what we really want to know is how do we live well in old age.

Clearly as scientists we try to illuminate these questions using populations of people not just odd individuals. Many previous attempts have approached this question by looking for differences between young and old people, but this approach is often biased by the many social and cultural developments that happen between generations, including diet changes. Time itself should not be the focus – at least, in part, because time is one thing we are unlikely to be able to stop.

Yasutaro Koide made 112.

The real question behind our interest in people who survive into old age is how some manage to stay robust and fit while others become debilitated and dependent. To this end, recent scientific interest has turned to investigating the predictors of frailty within populations of roughly the same age. Frailty is a measure of how physically and mentally healthy an individual is. Studies show frailer older adults have an increased levels of low grade inflammation – so-called “inflammaging”.

[Read more…]


Ancient societies were far more advanced than we commonly assume

Pacific Standard reports: Trapezoids are, oddly enough, fundamental to modern science. When European scientists used them to simplify certain astronomical calculations in the 14th century, it was an important first step toward calculus—the mathematics Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz developed to understand the physics of astronomical objects like planets. In other words, trapezoids are important, and we’ve known this for nearly 700 years.

Well, the Babylonians knew all of that 14 centuries earlier, according to new research published in Science, proving once again that ancient societies were way more advanced than we’d like to think. [Continue reading…]


‘Half the confusion in the world comes from not knowing how little we need’


Pico Iyer writes: The idea of going nowhere is as universal as the law of gravity; that’s why wise souls from every tradition have spoken of it. “All the unhappiness of men,” the seventeenth-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal famously noted, “arises from one simple fact: that they cannot sit quietly in their chamber.” After Admiral Richard E. Byrd spent nearly five months alone in a shack in the Antarctic, in temperatures that sank to 70 degrees below zero, he emerged convinced that “Half the confusion in the world comes from not knowing how little we need.” Or, as they sometimes say around Kyoto, “Don’t just do something. Sit there.”

Yet the days of Pascal and even Admiral Byrd seem positively tranquil by today’s standards. The amount of data humanity will collect while you’re reading The Art of Stillness is five times greater than the amount that exists in the entire Library of Congress. Anyone reading it will take in as much information today as Shakespeare took in over a lifetime. Researchers in the new field of interruption science have found that it takes an average of twenty-five minutes to recover from a phone call. Yet such interruptions come every eleven minutes — which means we’re never caught up with our lives.

And the more facts come streaming in on us, the less time we have to process any one of them. The one thing technology doesn’t provide us with is a sense of how to make the best use of technology. Put another way, the ability to gather information, which used to be so crucial, is now far less important than the ability to sift through it. [Continue reading…]


How plants rely on friendly fungal bodyguards

By Alan Gange, Royal Holloway

Two plants of the same species grow side by side. One is attacked by insects, one not. On an individual plant, some leaves get eaten, some not. This doesn’t happen at random, but is caused by the fungi that live within the leaves and roots of the plant.

Imagine you are holding a shoot of the dahlia plant, pictured below. How many species do you have in your hand? The answer is most certainly not one, but probably somewhere between 20 and 30. This is because every plant has fungi and bacteria that live on its surface (called epiphytes) and within its tissues (called endophytes).

If the stem is still attached to its roots then the number of species would easily double. The roots contain lots of endophytes and a separate group of fungi, called mycorrhizas. These fungi grow into plant roots and form a symbiotic relationship in which the fungus donates nutrients (principally phosphate and nitrate) to the plant, in return for a supply of carbon.

Dahlia is full of fungi.
Alan Gange, Author provided

There has been a recent surge of interest in these fungi, as their presence can affect the growth of insects that attack plants. Research at Royal Holloway has shown that mycorrhizal fungi reduce the growth of many insects, by increasing the plant’s chemical defences. Our most recent work shows that endophyte fungi, the ones that live within plant tissue, can also cause plants to produce novel chemicals.

[Read more…]


Finding a hunter-gatherer massacre scene that may change history of human warfare

By Marta Mirazon Lahr, University of Cambridge

The area surrounding Lake Turkana in Kenya was lush and fertile 10,000 years ago, with thousands of animals – including elephants, giraffes and zebras – roaming around alongside groups of hunter gatherers. But it also had a dark side. We have discovered the oldest known case of violence between two groups of hunter gatherers took place there, with ten excavated skeletons showing evidence of having been killed with both sharp and blunt weapons.

The findings, published in Nature, are important because they challenge our understanding of the roots of conflict and suggest warfare may have a much older history than many researchers believe.

Shocking finding

Our journey started in 2012, when Pedro Ebeya, one of our Turkana field assistants, reported seeing fragments of human bones on the surface at Nataruk. Located just south of Lake Turkana, Nataruk is today a barren desert, but 10,000 years ago was a temporary camp set up by a band of hunter-gatherers next to a lagoon. I led a team of researchers, as part of the In-Africa project, which has been working in the area since 2009. We excavated the remains of 27 people – six young children, one teenager and 20 adults. Twelve of these – both men and women – were found as they had died, unburied, and later covered by the shallow water of the lagoon.

Ten of the 12 skeletons show lesions caused by violence to the parts of the body most commonly involved in cases of violence. These include one where the projectile was still embedded in the side of the skull; two cases of sharp-force trauma to the neck; seven cases of blunt and/or sharp-force trauma to the head; two cases of blunt-force trauma to the knees and one to the ribs. There were also two cases of fractures to the hands, possibly caused while parrying a blow.

[Read more…]


Human sounds convey emotions clearer and faster than words

McGill University: It takes just one-tenth of a second for our brains to begin to recognize emotions conveyed by vocalizations, according to researchers from McGill. It doesn’t matter whether the non-verbal sounds are growls of anger, the laughter of happiness or cries of sadness. More importantly, the researchers have also discovered that we pay more attention when an emotion (such as happiness, sadness or anger) is expressed through vocalizations than we do when the same emotion is expressed in speech.

The researchers believe that the speed with which the brain ‘tags’ these vocalizations and the preference given to them compared to language, is due to the potentially crucial role that decoding vocal sounds has played in human survival.

“The identification of emotional vocalizations depends on systems in the brain that are older in evolutionary terms,” says Marc Pell, Director of McGill’s School of Communication Sciences and Disorders and the lead author on the study that was recently published in Biological Psychology. ”Understanding emotions expressed in spoken language, on the other hand, involves more recent brain systems that have evolved as human language developed.” [Continue reading…]


At work as at home, men reap the benefits of women’s ‘invisible labor’

Soraya Chemaly writes: Men today do a higher share of chores and household work than any generation of men before them. Yet working women, especially working mothers, continue to do significantly more.

On any given day, one fifth of men in the US, compared to almost half of all women do some form of housework. Each week, according to Pew, mothers spend nearly twice as long as fathers doing unpaid domestic work. But while it’s important to address inequality at home, it’s equally critical to acknowledge the way these problems extend into the workplace. Women’s emotional labor — which can involve everything from tending to others’ feelings to managing family dynamics to writing thank-you notes — is a big issue that’s rarely discussed.

In the early 1980s, University of California, Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild coined the term “emotional labor” in her book The Managed Heart. Hochschild observed that women make up the majority of service workers — flight attendants, food service workers, customer service reps — as well as the majority of of child-care and elder-care providers. All of these positions require emotional effort, from smiling on demand to prioritizing the happiness of the customer over one’s own feelings. [Continue reading…]


The new atheists’ faith in demons


John Gray writes: An American scientist visiting the home of Niels Bohr, the Nobel Prize-winning Danish physicist and refugee from Nazism who was a leading figure in the Manhattan Project, which produced the atomic bomb, was surprised to discover a horseshoe hanging over Bohr’s desk: “Surely you don’t believe the horseshoe will bring you good luck, Professor Bohr?” he asked. “After all, as a scientist . . .”

Bohr laughed. “I believe no such thing, my good friend. Not at all. I am scarcely likely to believe such foolish nonsense. However, I am told that a horseshoe will bring one good luck whether you believe it or not.”

Dominic Johnson, who tells this story, acknowledges that Bohr might have been joking. But the physicist’s response captured an important truth. Human beings never cease looking for a pattern in events that transcends the workings of cause and effect. No matter how much they may think their view of the world has been shaped by science, they cannot avoid thinking and acting as if their lives are subject to some kind of non-human oversight. As Johnson puts it, “Humans the world over find themselves, consciously or subconsciously, believing that we live in a just world or a moral universe, where people are supposed to get what they deserve. Our brains are wired such that we cannot help but search for meaning in the randomness of life.”

An evolutionary biologist trained at Oxford who also holds a doctorate in political science, Johnson believes that the need to find a more-than-natural meaning in natural events is universal – “a ubiquitous phenomenon of human nature” – and performs a vital role in maintaining order in society. Extending far beyond cultures shaped by monotheism, it “spans cultures across the globe and every historical period, from indigenous tribal societies . . . to modern world religions – and includes atheists, too”.

Reward and punishment may not emanate from a single omnipotent deity, as imagined in Western societies. Justice may be dispensed by a vast unseen army of gods, angels, demons and ghosts, or else by an impersonal cosmic process that rewards good deeds and punishes wrongdoing, as in the Hindu and Buddhist conception of karma. But some kind of moral order beyond any human agency seems to be demanded by the human mind, and this sense that our actions are overseen and judged from beyond the natural world serves a definite evolutionary role. Belief in supernatural reward and punishment promotes social co-operation in a way nothing else can match. The belief that we live under some kind of supernatural guidance is not a relic of superstition that might some day be left behind but an evolutionary adaptation that goes with being human.

It’s a conclusion that is anathema to the current generation of atheists – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and others – for whom religion is a poisonous concoction of lies and delusion. These “new atheists” are simple souls. In their view, which derives from rationalist philosophy and not from evolutionary theory, the human mind is a faculty that seeks an accurate representation of the world. This leaves them with something of a problem. Why are most human beings, everywhere and at all times, so wedded to some version of religion? It can only be that their minds have been deformed by malignant priests and devilish power elites. Atheists have always been drawn to demonology of this kind; otherwise, they cannot account for the ­persistence of the beliefs they denounce as poisonously irrational. The inveterate human inclination to religion is, in effect, the atheist problem of evil. [Continue reading…]


Inferred planet ten times size of Earth has yet to be seen

Science magazine reports: The solar system appears to have a new ninth planet. Today, two scientists announced evidence that a body nearly the size of Neptune — but as yet unseen — orbits the sun every 15,000 years. During the solar system’s infancy 4.5 billion years ago, they say, the giant planet was knocked out of the planet-forming region near the sun. Slowed down by gas, the planet settled into a distant elliptical orbit, where it still lurks today.

The claim is the strongest yet in the centuries-long search for a “Planet X” beyond Neptune. The quest has been plagued by far-fetched claims and even outright quackery. But the new evidence comes from a pair of respected planetary scientists, Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, who prepared for the inevitable skepticism with detailed analyses of the orbits of other distant objects and months of computer simulations. “If you say, ‘We have evidence for Planet X,’ almost any astronomer will say, ‘This again? These guys are clearly crazy.’ I would, too,” Brown says. “Why is this different? This is different because this time we’re right.”

Outside scientists say their calculations stack up and express a mixture of caution and excitement about the result. “I could not imagine a bigger deal if — and of course that’s a boldface ‘if’ — if it turns out to be right,” says Gregory Laughlin, a planetary scientist at the University of California (UC), Santa Cruz. “What’s thrilling about it is [the planet] is detectable.” [Continue reading…]