Scientific American reports: It was just over 20 years ago — a blink of a cosmic eye — that astronomers found the first planets orbiting stars other than our Sun. All these new worlds were gas-shrouded giants like Jupiter or Saturn and utterly inhospitable to life as we know it — but for years each discovery was dutifully reported as front-page news, while scientists and the public alike dreamed of a day when we would find a habitable world. An Earth-like place with plentiful surface water, neither frozen nor vaporized but in the liquid state so essential to life. Back then the safe bet was to guess that the discovery of such a planet would only come after many decades, and that when a promising new world’s misty shores materialized on the other side of our telescopes, it would prove too faraway and faint to study in any detail.
Evidently the safe bet was wrong. On Wednesday astronomers made the kind of announcement that can only occur once in human history: the discovery of the nearest potentially habitable world beyond our solar system. This world may be rocky like ours and whirls in a temperate orbit around the Sun’s closest stellar neighbor, the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri just over four light-years away. Their findings are reported in a study in the journal Nature.
Although technically still considered a “candidate” planet awaiting verification, most astronomers consulted for this story believe the world to be there. Scarcely more than the planet’s orbital period and approximate mass are known, but that is enough to send shivers down spines. Proxima Centauri shines with only about a thousandth of our Sun’s luminosity, meaning any life-friendly planets must huddle close. The newfound world, christened “Proxima b” by scientists, resides in an 11.2-day orbit where water — and thus the kind of life we understand — could conceivably exist. And it is likely to be little more than one-third heavier than Earth, suggesting it offers a solid surface upon which seas and oceans could pool. In a feat of discovery that could reshape the history of science and human dreams of interstellar futures, our species has uncovered a potentially habitable planet right next door. [Continue reading…]
GrrlScientist writes: Birds have been disparaged publicly as “bird brains” for so long that most people have lost the ability to view them as intelligent and sentient beings. However, a group of researchers in Germany have conducted a series of studies with several captive European magpies, Pica pica, that challenge the average person’s view of birds and their cognitive abilities.
It is widely accepted in the scientific community that self-awareness is prerequisite for the development of consciousness. Previously, only mammals — humans and several of their cousins, chimpanzees and orangutans, as well as dolphins and elephants — were observed to have self-awareness by demonstrating that they could recognize themselves in a mirror.
However, a new study by a research group in Germany reveals that birds apparently also evolved self-recognition.
“[Our research] shows that the line leading to humans is not as special as many thought,” pointed out lead researcher Helmut Prior of the Institute of Psychology at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany.
To do their research, Prior and his colleagues carried out a series of tests with five hand-raised European magpies. [Continue reading…]
Ed Yong writes: Hurbert Walter Simmonds had only been in Fiji for a year before he was appointed as Government Entomologist in 1920. It was an unusual role, but an important one. The island was repeatedly threatened by agricultural pests, and so Simmonds would spend the next 46 years searching for predators and parasites that could bring these crop-destroyers to heel.
In his downtime, he collected butterflies. There are thousands of species in Fiji, and the blue moon butterfly (Hypolimnas bolina) is among the most beautiful of them. The name comes from the males, whose black wings have three pairs of bright white spots, encircled by blue iridescence. They are stunning, and all males look the same. The females are more varied: they are clothed in a wide range of spots, stripes and hues, many of which mimic other local butterflies. Simmonds wanted to know how these patterns are inherited, so he started capturing and breeding the insects.
That’s when he noticed that most of the females only gave birth to females.
Some 90 percent of them would produce all-female broods. They laid large clutches of eggs and around half the embryos died — presumably, the male ones. Simmonds didn’t know why. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: For a 2-billion-year-long span, ending about 715 million years ago, Venus was likely a much more pleasant spot that it is today. To observe Venus now is to witness a dry and toxic hellscape, where the planet heats up to a scorching 864 degrees Fahrenheit. A super-strong electric wind is believed to suck the smallest traces of water into space. With apologies to Ian Malcolm, life as we know it could not find a way.
But travel back in time a few billion years or so. Ancient Venus, according to a new computer model from NASA, would have been prime solar system real estate, to the point it may have been downright habitable.
That life would find Venus amenable hinges on two main factors. Venus would have needed much balmier temperatures, and it also would have needed a liquid ocean — which is a significant if, although elemental traces such as deuterium indicate water existed on Venus at one point. As Colin Wilson, an Oxford University planetary physicist, told Time in 2010, “everything points to there being large amounts of water in the past.”
Venusian temperatures, too, appear to have been far cooler when the solar system was younger. NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in a report published Thursday in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, calculated that the average surface temperature 2.9 billion years ago was about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Such temperature would have made Venus, surprisingly for a planet closer to the Sun, a bit chillier than Earth was at the time. [Continue reading…]
Anna Bruce-Lockhart writes: Is life on this planet getting better? When it comes to the progress of nations, how do you measure what matters most? There’s wealth, there’s health, there’s basic human freedoms. These criteria, and others, make regular appearances in a variety of international rankings, from the Better Life Index to the Sustainable Economic Development Assessment and the World Happiness Report.
But a new study takes a different approach. The Happy Planet Index, which has just published its 2016 edition, measures health and happiness not in isolation but against a crucial new gold standard for success: sustainability.
The formula goes something like this: take the well-being and longevity of a population, measure how equally both are distributed, then set the result against each country’s ecological footprint.
In this calculation, the most successful countries are those where people live long and happy lives at little cost to the environment.
So which countries are they?
They’re not the wealthy Western countries you’d expect to see, or even the progressive Nordic ones that normally bag the lifestyle laurels. Instead, a list of the top 10 (the index ranks 140 countries overall) shows that when it comes to people’s ability to live good lives within sustainable limits, Latin American and Asia Pacific countries are ahead of the crowd. [Continue reading…]
Ross Perlin writes: n 2013, at a conference on endangered languages, a retired teacher named Linda Lambrecht announced the extraordinary discovery of a previously unknown language. Lambrecht – who is Chinese-Hawaiian, 71 years old, warm but no-nonsense – called it Hawaii Sign Language, or HSL. In front of a room full of linguists, she demonstrated that its core vocabulary – words such as “mother”, “pig” and “small” – was distinct from that of other sign languages.
The linguists were immediately convinced. William O’Grady, the chair of the linguistics department at the University of Hawaii, called it “the first time in 80 years that a new language has been discovered in the United States — and maybe the last time.” But the new language found 80 years ago was in remote Alaska, whereas HSL was hiding in plain sight in Honolulu, a metropolitan area of nearly a million people. It was the kind of discovery that made the world seem larger.
The last-minute arrival of recognition and support for HSL was a powerful, almost surreal vindication for Lambrecht, whose first language is HSL. For decades, it was stigmatised or ignored; now the language has acquired an agreed-upon name, an official “language code” from the International Organization for Standardization, the attention of linguists around the world, and a three-year grant from the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
But just as linguists were substantiating its existence, HSL stood on the brink of extinction, remembered by just a handful of signers. Unless the language made a miraculous recovery, Lambrecht feared that her announcement might turn out to be HSL’s obituary.
Three years after announcing its existence, Lambrecht is still unearthing her language sign by sign. She may be the only person in the world who still uses HSL on a regular basis, signing into a camera while a linguist named James “Woody” Woodward and a handful of graduate students from the University of Hawaii document her every move. [Continue reading…]
It is 25 years since cricket commentators Brian Johnston and Jonathan Agnew famously got the uncontrollable giggles on live radio, while reporting on that day’s Test Match between England and the West Indies. The pair were commentating on the wicket of England’s Ian Botham, when he stumbled on to his stumps and, as Agnew put it: “Didn’t get his leg over”.
The resulting infectious two minutes of laughter has since been voted the greatest moment of sporting commentary ever. It’s worth listening to again – see if you can help giggling along with them.
I research the neurobiology of human vocal communication, and recently I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at laughter, which is easily the most common non-verbal emotional expression which one comes across (though in some cultures laughter is rather impolite and can be less frequently encountered when out and about). There are four key features of the science of laughter that this the Botham clip illustrates.
Nature reports: Think of a spinning globe and the patchwork of countries it depicts: such maps help us to understand where we are, and that nations differ from one another. Now, neuroscientists have charted an equivalent map of the brain’s outermost layer — the cerebral cortex — subdividing each hemisphere’s mountain- and valley-like folds into 180 separate parcels.
Ninety-seven of these areas have never previously been described, despite showing clear differences in structure, function and connectivity from their neighbours. The new brain map is published today in Nature.
Each discrete area on the map contains cells with similar structure, function and connectivity. But these areas differ from each other, just as different countries have well-defined borders and unique cultures, says David Van Essen, a neuroscientist at Washington University Medical School in St Louis, Missouri, who supervised the study.
Neuroscientists have long sought to divide the brain into smaller pieces to better appreciate how it works as a whole. One of the best-known brain maps chops the cerebral cortex into 52 areas based on the arrangement of cells in the tissue. More recently, maps have been constructed using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques — such as functional MRI, which measures the flow of blood in response to different mental tasks.
Yet until now, most such maps have been based on a single type of measurement. That can provide an incomplete or even misleading view of the brain’s inner workings, says Thomas Yeo, a computational neuroscientist at the National University of Singapore. The new map is based on multiple MRI measurements, which Yeo says “greatly increases confidence that they are producing the best in vivo estimates of cortical areas”. [Continue reading…]
By Gaia Vince, Mosaic
If you read a sentence (such as this one) about kicking a ball, neurons related to the motor function of your leg and foot will be activated in your brain. Similarly, if you talk about cooking garlic, neurons associated with smelling will fire up. Since it is almost impossible to do or think about anything without using language – whether this entails an internal talk-through by your inner voice or following a set of written instructions – language pervades our brains and our lives like no other skill.
For more than a century, it’s been established that our capacity to use language is usually located in the left hemisphere of the brain, specifically in two areas: Broca’s area (associated with speech production and articulation) and Wernicke’s area (associated with comprehension). Damage to either of these, caused by a stroke or other injury, can lead to language and speech problems or aphasia, a loss of language.
In the past decade, however, neurologists have discovered it’s not that simple: language is not restricted to two areas of the brain or even just to one side, and the brain itself can grow when we learn new languages.
Ed Yong writes: In the 1870s, German physician Robert Koch was trying to curtail an epidemic of anthrax that was sweeping local farm animals. Other scientists had seen a bacterium, Bacillus anthracis, in the victims’ tissues. Koch injected this microbe into a mouse – which died. He recovered it from the dead rodent and injected it into another one – which also died. Doggedly, he repeated this grim process for over 20 generations and the same thing happened every time. Koch had unequivocally shown that Bacillus anthracis caused anthrax.
This experiment, and those of contemporaries like Louis Pasteur, confirmed that many diseases are caused by microscopic organisms. Microbes, which had been largely neglected for a couple of centuries, were quickly cast as avatars of death. They were germs, pathogens, bringers of pestilence. Within two decades of Koch’s work on anthrax, he and many others had discovered that bacteria were also associated with leprosy, gonorrhoea, typhoid, tuberculosis, cholera, diphtheria, tetanus, and plague. Microbes became synonymous with squalor and sickness. They became foes for us to annihilate and repel.
Today, we know this view is wrong – as I explain in my new book I Contain Multitudes. Sure, some bacteria can cause disease, but they are in the minority. Most are harmless, and many are even beneficial. We now know that the trillions of microbes that share our bodies – the so-called microbiome – are an essential part of our lives. Far from making us sick, they can protect us from disease; they also help digest our food, train our immune system, and perhaps even influence our behaviour. These discoveries have shifted the narrative. Many people now see microbes as allies to be protected. Magazines regularly warn that antibiotics and sanitisers might be harming our health by destroying our microscopic support system. Slowly, the view that ‘all bacteria must be killed’ is giving ground to ‘bacteria are our friends and want to help us’.
The problem is that the latter view is just as wrong as the former. We cannot simply assume that a particular microbe is ‘good’ just because it lives inside us. There’s really no such thing as a ‘good microbe’ or a ‘bad microbe’. These broad-brush terms belong in children’s stories. They are ill-suited for describing the messy, fractious, contextual relationships of the natural world. [Continue reading…]
Niko Besnier and Susan Brownell write: The parade of athletes in the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games often evokes strong feelings of national pride. After the 2012 Summer Games in London, the Armenian National Committee of America sent a letter of protest to NBC’s CEO and president, Stephen Burke, to complain about the short shrift Armenia received from the commentator, who only said four words about their country: “Armenia, now walking in.” Their grievance paled, however, in comparison to the Olympics-related protest that took place in 1996. Thousands of Chinese people and organizations in the U.S. and elsewhere collected US$21,000 to buy advertisements in prominent newspapers protesting the fact that NBC commentator Bob Costas mentioned human rights abuses, doping allegations, and property rights disputes as the Chinese delegation entered the stadium for the parade.
About a billion people are expected to watch the opening ceremony of the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games on television on August 5. For most people, the highlight will be watching their country’s athletes walk proudly into the stadium behind their national flag.
The parade of athletes displays a neat world order filled with proud, loyal citizens. But nations are not really the clear political units presented in this happy family portrait. Beneath the surface is a mess of transnational wheeling and dealing by power brokers as well as athletes seeking to get the most reward for their hard work and talent—for themselves and for their families and friends.
In the last few years, well-heeled Persian Gulf states have attracted athletes from other countries by offering them money, training facilities, and the possibility of qualifying for the Olympics more easily than in their home countries. The diminutive but oil-rich emirate of Qatar, for example, has until now played a very modest role in world sports. But in recent years the country has made huge investments in sports and adopted a liberal citizenship policy for athletes. The Qatari national handball team, which reached the finals at the men’s 2015 Handball World Championship, had only four players originating from Qatar on their 17-person squad — the rest had been recruited from overseas. By our calculation, more than half of the 38 athletes who will represent Qatar in Rio were born elsewhere. [Continue reading…]