12-30-18 The 5 biggest scientific breakthroughs of 2018
From cloned monkeys to the birth of a planet.
- Cloning monkeys: More than 20 years after researchers cloned Dolly the sheep, scientists in China cloned two monkeys — the first time the technique had been used on primates.
- Was there life on Mars? NASA scientists discovered the strongest evidence yet that microbial life might once have thrived on Mars.
- Helping paraplegics walk: Three people paralyzed from the waist down are walking again after having electrodes implanted in their spines.
- Treating muscular dystrophy: Scientists corrected the mutations behind a form of muscular dystrophy in dogs, raising hopes that the same can be done in humans.
- Witnessing the birth of a planet: Astronomers this year captured the first-ever image of a new planet being formed.
12-18-18 Palaeontologists behaving badly, and other bitter feuds in science
What killed the dinosaurs? Does string theory count as science? Is Pluto a planet? Get embroiled in five explosive debates that have put researchers at each others' throats. OPEN debate and freewheeling disagreement are science’s special sauce. But this sauce can sometimes get a little sticky. When the temperature rises, egos inflate, insults bubble over and sparks fly. The clash of ideas becomes the clash of the minds that hold them. Think Newton against Leibniz on who invented calculus. Or “Darwin’s Bulldog” Thomas Huxley against “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, debating evolution. Or Tesla and Edison and the battle for supremacy between alternating and direct current (a battle that indirectly led to the electrocution of an elephant). Or, indeed, any number of instances of scientists behaving badly in the present day…
- An asteroid killed the dinosaurs: Thankfully, velociraptors and their ilk are now confined to museums and movie theatres, but some of the primal violence of their world seems to have spilled over into the lecture halls where scientists discuss their disappearance.
- I have the proof: It’s as simple as ABC – except when that ABC is the ABC conjecture. Back in 2012, mathematician Shinichi Mochizuki of Kyoto University, Japan, claimed a proof of this problem, variously described by New Scientist as “a long-standing pure maths problem” and something that “explores the deep nature of numbers”.
- Pluto is a planet: Perhaps it is just sentimentality, or the influence of Disney’s lovable floppy-eared pup, but few scientific decisions have caused as much consternation as when Pluto had its planet status revoked in 2006.
- This is the missing link: No collection of scientific feuds would be complete without mention of those studying our human origins, where dusty old bones are ripe for picking. Few of these spats spill out onto prime-time television, but that’s exactly what happened when Richard Leakey and Donald Johanson appeared on Walter Cronkite’s Universe in 1981.
- String theory works: Peter Woit is unusual among scientists: he is known not for proposing an idea, but for opposing one. Since 2002, the mathematical physicist at Columbia University in New York has been the brains behind the blog Not Even Wrong.
11-21-18 The colonization of space
Humanity is inching closer to establishing colonies on other worlds. Is it really feasible? (Webmaster's comment: Human beings will not do well in space. We are designed by evolution to survive and breed in a one g, low radiation environment. 1/6 g on the moon and 1/3 g on Mars, and high radiation at both locations, will make successful raising of healthy children impossible. Their bodies will not grow as they should.)
- What’s the timeline? The best guess is that humanity will set up shop on the moon or Mars or both sometime in the 2030s. NASA says it will develop the ability to establish a lunar colony within six years, but currently has no such plans. Russia says it will establish a lunar outpost by 2030.
- Why would we do it? There are lots of practical reasons for a moon base. Private companies could mine the trillions of dollars’ worth of gold, platinum, rare Earth metals, and helium-3 under the lunar surface.
- Where will we go first? The moon is a logical first step. It takes only a few days to get there, and such proximity allows for near-real-time communications and robotic remote control.
- Can humans live on Mars? In theory. Mars has plenty of water, but it is concentrated in polar ice caps, atmospheric vapor, briny soil moisture, and subterranean lakes. The challenge is accessing it—and making it potable.
- How much would it cost? A lot. NASA estimates it could pull off its lunar station for $10 billion, or roughly the cost of an aircraft carrier. As for Mars, any figure is purely hypothetical, since the necessary technology doesn’t exist.
- What are the environments like? The airless moon is not very hospitable. Daytime lunar temperatures reach 250 degrees Fahrenheit in direct sunlight, and at night dip to minus 250. Mars is comparatively balmy, getting into the 60s during the day and around minus 81 at night. Mars has about 38 percent of Earth’s gravity—better than the weightless environment of space, but still potentially damaging to colonists’ muscles, bones, and brains.
- A different breed of humans If humans do colonize space, there’s a chance they’ll come to act—and even look—different from earthlings. Cameron Smith, a Portland State University anthropologist, speculated that isolated colonies could develop unique languages and cultures—and perhaps evolve new biological traits—in as few as 300 years.
The Chinese Take The Lead!
5-11-19 AI recommends 'fashionable' outfits to millions of people in China
What shoes go with that dress? Or this pair of jeans? Artificial intelligence is now answering those questions automatically for online shoppers in China, thanks to an algorithm developed by web giant Alibaba. The system recommends entire personalised outfits to users as they browse, mixing ensembles from recently viewed items and other items judged to coordinate well with them. A live trial of the tool has already recommended outfits to more than 5 million users. The aim is to enhance the experience for customers by encouraging more fashionable shopping behaviour, says Wen Chen at Alibaba. To build the system, Chen and her colleagues assembled a dataset of more than 1 million sample outfits created manually by staff at Alibaba’ online shopping site Taobao. An algorithm used this dataset to learn what clothing items are compatible with one another. Once knowledge of what goes with what had been gained, the outfit generation tool was able to select compatible clothing for items recently clicked on by users. Endless combinations can be continuously created as the customer shops. In a live test on Taobao’s iFashion designer clothes app, the suggested outfits were clicked on about 25 per cent of the time, compared to a 15 per cent click through rate from other approaches. The system can also build up a sense of customers’ fashion profiles based on their clicks, which could potentially be used for targeting customers with other items. Online shoppers are often faced with a “tyranny of choice” that can be overwhelming, says retail adviser Doug Stephens. Offering suggestions of outfits that genuinely look good would therefore be welcome. “It’s a great problem to solve, given that one of the consumer’s most significant apparel challenges is the coordination of items — particularly online where there’s an absence of human assistance,” he says. (Webmaster's comment: And where is American Consumer AI? In the toilet.)
4-5-19 Doctors in China are using 5G internet to do surgery from far away
The future of surgery could be remote. Doctors in China successfully directed a team hundreds of kilometres away to perform heart surgery using a 5G mobile internet connection. This follows on from a surgeon who recently used the same technology to remotely control a surgical robot during a procedure. The appeal of long-distance surgery is that the leading specialist can help with or even intervene in operations far away from where they live. But having a reliable and fast enough connection has been a stumbling block. On 3 April, cardiologist Huiming Guo directed surgery on a 41-year-old woman who had a hole in her heart due to a birth defect. Guo was in Guangdong General Hospital in Guangzhou, whilst the patient was in Gaozhou People’s Hospital about 400 kilometers away. Before the procedure, Guo’s team worked out a surgical plan based on a 3D model of the defected heart. The model was put together by an artificial intelligence using medical images such as CT and MRI scans and then 3D printed, according to a press conference held on Wednesday in Guangzhou. Guo and his colleagues gave instructions, such as where to make cuts and stitches, through video conference to the operating team whilst watching a live-stream from the operating room in 4K—ultra-high definition. The team also monitored the procedure via a live video from a camera probe inserted through the patient’s chest and heart ultrasound. The surgery lasted 4 hours. “Advanced internet technology can save our doctors a lot of time because they don’t have to travel as much. They can use that time to safe more lives,” said Zhiwei Zhang at Guangdong General Hospital in a press conference. A similar surgery to correct a patient’s deformed chest wall was performed at Yangshan Hospital in Guangdong with doctors 200 kilometers away in Second People’s Hospital in Guangdong giving instructions. (Webmaster's comment: They didn't copy this from the United States. They have now taken the lead in almost all technolgy. We should be copying them!)
3-23-19 Italy joins China's New Silk Road project
Italy has become the first developed economy to sign up to China's global investment programme which has raised concerns among Italy's Western allies. A total of 29 deals amounting to €2.5bn ($2.8bn) were signed during Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Rome. The project is seen as a new Silk Road which, just like the ancient trade route, aims to link China to Europe. Italy's European Union allies and the United States have expressed concern at China's growing influence. The new Silk Road has another name - the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) - and it involves a wave of Chinese funding for major infrastructure projects around the world, in a bid to speed Chinese goods to markets further afield. Critics see it as also representing a bold bid for geo-political and strategic influence. It has already funded trains, roads, and ports, with Chinese construction firms given lucrative contracts to connect ports and cities - funded by loans from Chinese banks. The levels of debt owed by African and South Asian nations to China have raised concerns in the West and among citizens - but roads and railways have been built that would not exist otherwise. On behalf of Italy, Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, leader of the populist Five Star Movement, signed the umbrella deal (memorandum of intent) making Italy formally part of the Economic Silk Road and The Initiative for a Maritime Silk Road for the 21st Century. Ministers then signed deals over energy, finance, and agricultural produce, followed by the heads of big Italian gas and energy, and engineering firms - which will be offered entry into the Chinese market. China's Communications and Construction Company will be given access to the port of Trieste to enable links to central and eastern Europe. The Chinese will also be involved in developing the port of Genoa.
3-22-19 China is Number One in computing power
The U.S. is building a $500 million supercomputer that can reach “exascale” performance. That’s a quintrillion calculations per second, seven times faster than today’s fastest system. China has 227 machines on the top 500 list of the world’s most powerful computers, compared with 109 for the United States.
3-6-19 China plans world's first deep sea base, complete with robot subs
IMAGINE a structure thousands of metres under the ocean surface that is home to autonomous robots. One by one, the vehicles leave, mapping terrain and looking for unusual creatures. We know very little about life at these depths, but such robots could uncover a bit more with every trip. As their power runs low, they return to tell HQ what they have discovered and recharge their batteries. This is the vision for China’s ambitious plan to build the world’s first deep-sea base. Details are scarce, but there are clues to what it may be like in prototypes, documents from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which is leading the project and which aims to have results within five years, and comments from China’s president Xi Jinping. The base itself will probably include a chamber to trap passing organisms, such as the weird eels, sharks or sea cucumbers that inhabit the deep ocean. If brought to the surface, these creatures often die. So being able to study them in the base will help our understanding of how they survive at these depths. Below about 200 metres, hardly any sunlight penetrates, so solar panels are useless. A base will need a power cord that can reach a surface ship or the shore. China has built several prototypes of robot submarine docking stations in recent years. Each looks like a giant megaphone and a torpedo-shaped submarine docks in the cone part to recharge and transmit data. Currently, the docking system has only been tested to a depth of 105 metres. The ocean floor is still largely unexplored. Less than 1 per cent is currently mapped in detail. So robot submarines will include sonar to reveal what is where with much greater resolution. One advantage of a permanent base is it allows you to see how things change over time, rather than just getting a snapshot by sending down a submarine for a single visit, says Jon Copley at the University of Southampton, UK. (Webmaster's comment: Chine is taking the lead in remote-control automonous operations, first on the moon, and now on the ocean floor.)
2-15-19 Meet the man who made CRISPR monkey clones to study depression
Hung-Chun Chang hopes his work will lead to new treatments for depression and schizophrenia. One year after the birth of the world’s first two cloned primates, a team in China has used CRISPR gene editing and cloning to create monkeys that show some symptoms of depression and schizophrenia. While some researchers have praised the work’s potential for helping us understand psychiatric disorders in humans, others have raised ethical concerns. Lead scientist Hung-Chun Chang, of the Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai, told New Scientist about how he hopes the monkeys will help us better understand mental health and find new treatments. (Webmaster's comment: Note that the cutting-edge research is being done in CHINA!)
- How did you create these monkeys? We are working on the BMAL1 gene, which affects how our body responds to the day-night cycle.
- What symptoms do these monkeys have? The most direct result is that they are not getting enough sleep.
- How can you know that these aren’t just symptoms of sleep deprivation? It’s impossible to separate the effects of sleep deprivation on monkey’s mental state from their genetic mutation.
- What are you hoping to learn from this work? We will use these monkeys for drug testing
- Couldn’t this research be done in mice or people? Monkeys have an identical body clock to humans.
- Is it ethical to genetically engineer monkeys to be depressed? Gene editing in cynomolgus monkeys, the species we used here, is permitted worldwide.
- What else is your team is working on? We are trying to create an Alzheimer’s model.
1-15-19 First moon plants sprout in China’s Chang’e 4 biosphere experiment
A sprouting cotton seed on China’s Chang’e 4 lunar lander is the first plant ever to germinate on another world, heralding a new era for life in space. Seeds of cotton, oilseed rape, potato and arabidopsis were carried to the moon as part of a biosphere experiment, along with fruit fly eggs and some yeast. Pictures sent back by the probe show cotton, rape and potato seeds sprouting and growing well, the scientist leading the experiment, Liu Hanlong, told South China Morning Post. Chang’e 4 landed on the far side of the moon on 3 January and this image was dated 7 January. The organisms are kept in a sealed chamber, protected from the extreme temperatures and intense radiation on the moon’s surface. Understanding how to grow plants in space will help lay the foundation for establishing a human settlement on the moon, Liu said. The six organisms could make up a mini-ecosystem, with plants producing oxygen and food to sustain the fruit flies. Yeast could process the flies’ waste and dead plants to provide another food source. In a future human settlement, potatoes could provide food, rapeseed could be a source of oil and cotton could be used for clothing. Plants have been grown before in orbit in the International Space Station, including cucumbers. Astronauts got their first bites of space-grown romaine lettuce in 2015. Algae have even managed to survive 530 days on a panel on the outside of the space station. (Webmaster's comment: But the fact remains, China is taking the lead in space achievements.)
1-3-19 China’s Chang’e 4 makes historic first landing on the moon’s far side
For the first time, a spacecraft has landed on the side of the moon that is always facing away from Earth – an area that, until now, we had only seen from orbit. The China National Space Administration’s Chang’e 4 lander launched on 7 December and has spent the past month reaching the correct orbit to attempt the historic landing. The CNSA also launched a lunar satellite in May to facilitate communication with the lander, as there is never a direct line of sight between the moon’s far side and Earth. That lack of visibility meant that Chang’e 4 had to make its landing almost completely autonomously, with no input from mission control. At 10.26 am Beijing time on 3 January, the lander successfully touched down on the surface in an enormous depression called the South Pole-Aitken basin. This basin is particularly important because it is thought to be a crater from a huge impact during the moon’s early years. The impact may have punched through the crust and dug up rocks from deeper underground. If so, the spacecraft will be able to study these rocks to learn about the moon’s past as well as its present. The mission will also help prepare for the moon’s possible future. Researchers are keen to send radio telescopes to the far side of the moon, where radio wave pollution from Earth’s communications and power lines is blocked out. Chang’e 4 is also carrying a “biosphere” with potato seeds, cress and silkworm larvae to see if they can thrive in a sealed container on the moon. (Webmaster's comment: China is now the undisputed leader in space technology. United states now only leads in its number of military killing machines.)
11-26-18 World’s first gene-edited babies announced by a scientist in China
A woman in China has given birth to two genetically edited baby girls, according to the Associated Press news agency. The aim of the experiment was to create children who are immune to HIV, but it hasn’t yet been independently reviewed or verified. The experiment has been widely condemned as unethical, even by those who are in favour of using gene editing in eggs, sperm or embryos to prevent diseases in children if it can be done safely. “If true, this experiment exposes healthy normal children to risks of gene editing for no real necessary benefit,” says ethicist Julian Savulescu at the University of Oxford. “There are many effective ways to prevent HIV in healthy individuals.” “There is no pressing need for this – it’s totally inappropriate,” says Greg Neely at the University of Sydney, Australia. HIV enters and infects cells by binding to a protein on the surface called CCR5. The team in China, led by He Jiankui of Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen, says it has used the CRISPR gene editing technique to try to disable the gene for CCR5. One aspect of the experiment that has come under criticism is that we don’t yet know if it is safe to delete both copies of the CCR5 gene – which is involved in immunity – in every cell of the body. “We don’t know what the full effects will be,” says Neely. Seven pairs of men and women reportedly took part in the experiment. All of the men were HIV-positive, and, according to the Associated Press, each couple was offered free IVF treatment in exchange for participating in what was described on ethical consent forms as an “AIDS vaccine development programme”. The team behind the work says the couples were fully informed about the experiment.
11-13-18 China may have developed a quantum radar that can spot stealth planes
A company claims to have created a quantum radar that can detect stealth aircraft and see through the radar jamming used to hide warplanes. Defence giant China Electronics Technology Group Corporation displayed the prototype at the Zhuhai air show last week. Stealth aircraft avoid detection by redirecting most of a radar system’s radio waves, which usually reflect off their surface and reveal their location. In theory, a quantum radar can overcome this by using two streams of entangled photons. These are pairs of photons that have a weird connection so a change to one affects the other, even if they are miles apart. The first photon stream is sent out, like a standard radar beam, and bounces off objects in the sky. The second stream remains inside the system. Because the photons are entangled, the returning photons can be matched with those in the stay-at-home stream, so all background noise can be filtered out. This includes deliberate interference, such as radar jamming or spoofing signals put out to confuse radar. What is left is a clear image of the target, with no extraneous signal. “Without being able to take the lid off what has been shown here, we can’t be sure if this is an elaborate hoax,” says Alan Woodward at the University of Surrey, UK. But China has form with quantum technology, having surprised the world with the speed at which it developed the first quantum satellite communications. If the quantum radar is real, it would be the first of its kind. This technology would significantly reduce the ability of stealth aircraft, such as some bombers, to remain undetected, says Justin Bronk at UK defence think tank the Royal United Services Institute. Although not necessarily grounding operations, it could make them more dangerous. (Webmaster's comment: So much for American military technological superiority!)
8-9-18 Organic solar cells set 'remarkable' energy record
Chinese researchers have taken what they say is a major step forward for the development of a new generation of solar cells. Manufacturers have long used silicon to make solar panels because the material was the most efficient at converting sunlight into electricity. But organic photovoltaics, made from carbon and plastic, promise a cheaper way of generating electricity. This new study shows that organics can now be just as efficient as silicon. The term organic relates to the fact that carbon-based materials are at the heart of these devices, rather than silicon. The square or rectangular solid solar panels that most of us are familiar with, require fixed installation points usually on roofs or in flat fields. Organic photovoltaics (OPV) can be made of compounds that are dissolved in ink so they can be printed on thin rolls of plastic, they can bend or curve around structures or even be incorporated into clothing. Commercial solar photovoltaics usually covert 15-22% of sunlight, with a world record for a silicon cell of 27.3% reached in this summer in the UK. Organics have long lingered at around half this rate, but this year has seen some major leaps forward. In April researchers were able to reach 15% in tests. Now this new study pushes that beyond 17% with the authors saying that up to 25% is possible. This is important because according to estimates, with a 15% efficiency and a 20 year lifetime, organic solar cells could produce electricity at a cost of less than 7 cents per kilowatt-hour. In 2017, the average cost of electricity in the US was 10.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
6-8-18 China to surpass the U.S.
China is on track to surpass the U.S. in spending on scientific research by the end of this year. The U.S. spends $500 billion annually on research, but China has been increasing its spending by an average of 18 percent a year, and is now luring foreign scientists and retaining Chinese who used to emigrate to the U.S.
5-21-18 China launched a satellite to help explore the moon’s far side
A satellite launched on 21 May will allow China's upcoming moon lander – the first to visit the far side – to receive commands and send data back to Earth. China is getting ready for a trip to the far side of the moon. On 21 May, the China National Space Administration launched a satellite that will relay information between Earth and a planned moon lander and rover, both set to launch in late 2018. The satellite – called Queqiao, which means Magpie Bridge – launched from southwest China’s Xichang Satellite Launch Center aboard a Long March 4C rocket. Chang’e 4, the moon lander, will be the first spacecraft ever to land on the far side of the moon, if all goes to plan. Because the far side always faces away from Earth, the lander will not be able to communicate directly with its operators – any commands sent to it, or data sent back, would be blocked by the moon itself. To solve that problem, a satellite that sits in the line of sight both of the lander and Earth’s surface is needed to relay information back and forth. There is a special spot in space that’s ideal for that, called L2, which is about 64,000 kilometres past the moon. At that spot, the combined gravity of the sun and Earth counteract the forces that could tug an object out of orbit. It’s a perfect spot to park a spacecraft, because it can sit there without constantly firing its thrusters. It’s also a place particularly well-suited for Queqiao. From L2, the satellite will have a view of the entire far side when the moon passes in front of Earth. Queqiao will be placed into a “halo” orbit that circles L2, so that it will still have a line of sight to Earth even when is the moon blocks out part of the planet.
5-20-18 China is set to launch a satellite to support a future lunar rover
The rover will be the first to visit the farside of the moon. The Chinese space program is set to launch a satellite aimed at supporting future communications from a planned mission to the farside of the moon. The Chang’e-4 mission, which will include a rover and a lander, would be the first to visit the moon’s farside. In the first of a two-launch plan to get all the pieces in place, the supporting relay satellite, named Queqiao, is scheduled to lift off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center on May 21, Chinese media report. The three-day launch window opens at 5 a.m. Beijing time (5 p.m. EDT on May 20), according to the Chinese online news site GB Times. Queqiao will go to an orbit beyond the moon that will allow it to communicate simultaneously with points on both the moon and Earth. It will also carry a Dutch-built radio telescope, which will be switched on in 2019 to search for long-wavelength signals from the universe’s first stars. The Chang’e-4 rover and lander were originally built as backups for the Chang’e-3 mission, which landed two spacecraft on the moon in 2013. Another 2019 mission, Chang’e-5, aims to bring back the first rocks from the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972.
4-27-18 Toughest ever heat shields made of springy sponge-like stuff
Chinese scientists have developed a compressible aerogel that has shown in early heat shield tests to be 5 times more resilient than previous materials. The first highly compressible yet heat-resistant material for spacecraft heat shields has been developed – and in early tests, it is proving five times more resilient to vibration and shock damage than any previous material. Heat shield tiles like those used on NASA’s space shuttle, which prevented it from being incinerated on re-entry, were often found to be heavily damaged when the spacecraft landed. This made reuse of the shuttle a slow and expensive business. The damage was due to the fragile nature of the ultralight, ceramic aerogel that the tiles were made of. This material has such low density it is known as ‘frozen smoke’ – its filigree-like structure of silicon dioxide nanoparticles means it weighs only as much as three times the same volume of air. But they are utterly miraculous heat insulators: it’s possible to hold a piece in one hand while blow torching the other side of it, with no ill effects. Still, their fragility has always been their downfall. Until now, that is. A team of chemists led by Bin Ding and Yang Si at Donghua University in China, have engineered a compressible aerogel that can cope with severe vibration without shattering. A traditional ceramic aerogel, says Si, is comprised of silicon dioxide nanoparticles strung together like discrete beads on a necklace, which is inherently brittle. Their new aerogel, called a ceramic nanofibrous aerogel, is made from continuous, flexible ceramic nanofibres which are much less prone to snapping. (Webmaster's comment: Another cutting-edge invention by the Chinese.)
4-26-18 Robot port in China to unload shipping containers without humans
Driverless vehicles will make the global shipping network cheaper and more efficient – and cost jobs. On an overcast spring morning in the port of Caofeidian in northeastern China, a vast ship-to-shore crane whisks a fully-laden shipping container through the air and onto an idling truck. Though there’s a human sitting inside, a careful observer would spot that the truck is calling all the shots. That’s because the vehicle is one of a fleet of five autonomous trucks that a Chinese startup called TuSimple is using to ferry containers around the terminal. A few other ports use trucks that follow paths marked by magnets or sensors embedded in the ground but Caofeidaian is the first to use vehicles that can navigate a port by themselves. It’s like moving from trams to cars. The goal of the pilot project is to demonstrate the ability of autonomous vehicles to perform the role of a so-called “terminal tractor,” bearing containers from the shore to the cargo yard. “At this stage, we want to achieve high-level reliability and consistency of autonomous terminal tractors rather than moving lots of containers,” says TuSimple’s Bruce Ouyang. By the end of the year Ouyang wants to replace all the human-piloted terminal trucks deployed at Caofeidian with 20 self-driving models. The cranes loading the containers will be autonomous too, with a central system coordinating the movements of both the cranes and trucks. In total, they will have to process 300,000 standard-sized containers per year to match the current throughput of the port.
4-18-18 Will China beat the world to nuclear fusion and clean energy?
In a world with an ever-increasing demand for electricity and a deteriorating environment, Chinese scientists are leading the charge to develop what some see as the holy grail of energy. Imagine limitless energy with virtually no waste at all: this is the lofty promise of nuclear fusion. On Science Island in Eastern China's Anhui Province, there is a large gleaming metal doughnut encased in an enormous shiny, round box about as big as a two-storey apartment. This is the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (or EAST). Inside, hydrogen atoms fuse and become helium which can generate heat at several times the temperature of the sun's core. Powerful magnets then control the reaction, which could one day produce vast amounts of electricity if maintained. Around the globe, they are trying to master nuclear fusion - in the United States, Japan, Korea, Brazil and European Union - but none can hold it steady for as long as the team in Anhui. Right now that's 100 seconds and it gets longer every year. Here they're already talking about goals which are 10 times as long, at temperatures of 100 million degrees Celsius. But there's a reason why fusion has eluded scientists and engineers since the early advances in the Soviet Union in the 1950s. It is really difficult. (Webmaster's comment: Notice it was the Soviet Union that led the way. My money is on the Chinese, the new leaders of high tech!)
2-2-18 Leaked photos suggest China may now have a hypersonic railgun
A ship-mounted electromagnetic railgun, firing projectiles at more than Mach 6 over great distances, could let China dominate the seas. Photos published online yesterday suggest that China may be testing a ship-mounted electromagnetic railgun. If confirmed it would make China the first nation to develop such a superweapon, with potential implications for the power-struggle between China and the US in Asia. A railgun uses electromagnetic force to fire projectiles along electrically charged rails at very high speeds. The US has been developing its own railgun technology over the last 10 years. In tests, prototype weapons shot projectiles at speeds around 7800 kilometres an hour – more than Mach 6 – with a range of around 150 kilometres. But after sinking $500 BILLION into the project, the US government pulled the plug last year. China appears to be ploughing ahead, however. Making a railgun that would be reliable in combat is hard because of the huge pressures exerted on the structure of the gun. Mounting it on a ship adds extra challenges. If China succeeds, it could change the balance of power at sea, says Justin Bronk at the Royal United Services Institute in the UK. “There isn’t really a known defence mechanism against a railgun shot at high Mach numbers,” he says. “It’s too fast and too small for current anti-ship missile and anti-aircraft defence systems.” “If they can get it integrated as a major component into their future fleet arsenal, it will give them a really significant edge over the US navy,” he says. (Webmaster's comment: Another first for China. They can make the technology work, the United States cannot. Their engineers are simply better than ours.)
8-23-17 First underwater entanglement could lead to unhackable comms
First underwater entanglement could lead to unhackable comms
A Chinese experiment suggests submarines could use quantum communication to send messages secured by the laws of physics. The weird world of quantum mechanics is going for a swim. A team of Chinese researchers has, for the first time, transmitted quantum entangled particles of light through water – the first step in using lasers to send underwater messages that are impossible to intercept. “People have talked about the idea of underwater quantum communication before, but I’m not aware of anyone who has done an experiment like this,” says Thomas Jennewein at the University of Waterloo in Canada. “An obvious application would be a submarine which wants to remain submerged but communicate in a secure fashion.” Entanglement starts with a beam of light shot into a crystal. This prism splits the light into pairs of photons with strangely linked behaviour. Manipulate one particle in a pair, and its partner will instantly react. Measure the first one’s polarisation, for example, and entanglement could ensure that its twin will have the opposite polarisation when measured. These entangled photons can theoretically be used to set up a secure communication line between two people, with privacy guaranteed by the laws of physics.
8-22-17 China’s quantum submarine detector could seal South China Sea
China’s quantum submarine detector could seal South China Sea
A major advance in SQUIDs, quantum devices that measure magnetic fields, could allow China to detect submarines at longer range than anyone else. On 21 June, the Chinese Academy of Sciences hailed a breakthrough – a major upgrade to a kind of quantum device that measures magnetic fields. The announcement vanished after a journalist pointed out the invention’s potential military implications: it could help China lock down the South China Sea. “I was surprised by the removal,” says Stephen Chen of the South China Morning Post, who raised the issue. “I have been covering Chinese science for many years, and it is rare.” Magnetometers have been used to detect submarines since the second world war. They are able to do this because they can measure an anomaly in Earth’s magnetic field – like one caused by a massive hunk of metal. But today’s devices can only detect a submarine at fairly short range, so tend to be used to home in on the location once the sub has already been spotted on sonar. You could widen their range if you had a magnetometer based on a superconducting quantum interference device, or SQUID. Superconducting magnetometers are exquisitely sensitive, but their promise has been limited to the lab. Out in the real world, they are quickly overwhelmed by background noise as minuscule as changes in Earth’s magnetic field caused by distant solar storms. Given that level of sensitivity, you can forget about mounting such a sensor on an airplane, for example. The US Navy gave up work on superconducting magnetometers to pursue less sensitive but more mature technologies. (Webmaster's comment: In other words the United States couldn't do it.)
8-10-17 Chinese satellite sends 'hack-proof' message
Chinese satellite sends 'hack-proof' message
China has successfully sent "hack-proof" messages from a satellite to Earth for the first time. The Micius satellite beamed messages to two mountain-top receiving stations 645 km (400 miles) and 1,200 km away. The message was protected by exploiting quantum physics, which says any attempt to eavesdrop on it would make detectable changes. Using satellites avoids some limitations that ground-based systems introduce into quantum communication. Complicated optics on the Chinese satellite protect messages with entangled photons - sub-atomic particles of light manipulated so that some of their key properties are dependent on each other. The curious laws of the quantum realm dictate that any attempt to measure these key properties irrevocably changes them. By encoding a key to encrypt data using entangled photons, it becomes possible to send messages confident that they have reached a recipient free of interference. Ground-based encryption systems that use entangled photons have been available for years. However, the maximum distance over which messages can be sent securely is about 200km. This is because the fibre-optic cables through which they travel gradually weaken the signals. Repeater stations can boost distances but that introduces weak points that attackers may target to scoop up messages. By contrast, laser signals sent through the atmosphere or via satellites in space can travel much further before being weakened. (Webmaster's comment: The Chinese increase their lead in this cutting-edge technology.)
7-25-17 China set to launch an 'unhackable' internet communication
China set to launch an 'unhackable' internet communication
As malicious hackers mount ever more sophisticated attacks, China is about to launch a new, "unhackable" communications network - at least in the sense that any attack on it would be quickly detected. The technology it has turned to is quantum cryptography, a radical break from the traditional encryption methods around. The Chinese project in the city of Jinan has been touted as a milestone by state media. The pioneering project is also part of a bigger story: China is taking the lead in a technology in which the West has long been hesitant to invest. In the Jinan network, some 200 users from the military, government, finance and electricity sectors will be able to send messages safe in the knowledge that only they are reading them. China's push in quantum communication means the country is taking huge strides developing applications that might make the increasingly vulnerable internet more secure. Applications that other countries soon might find themselves buying from China. So, what is this technology into which the country is pouring massive resources? (Webmaster's comment: Again China takes the lead. They are not cutting their investments in science, like Trump is cutting ours!)
7-7-17 China’s quantum satellite adds two new tricks to its repertoire
China’s quantum satellite adds two new tricks to its repertoire
Era of ultrasecure communication inches closer. China’s quantum satellite has met two more milestones, performing quantum teleportation and transmitting quantum encryption keys through space. Scientists teleported the properties of photons, or particles of light, from a ground station in Tibet to the satellite. A record-breaking quantum satellite has again blown away the competition, achieving two new milestones in long-distance quantum communications through space. In June, Chinese researchers demonstrated that the satellite Micius could send entangled quantum particles to far-flung locations on Earth, their properties remaining intertwined despite being separated by more than 1,200 kilometers (SN Online: 6/15/17). Now researchers have used the satellite to teleport particles’ properties and transmit quantum encryption keys. The result, reported in two papers published online July 3 and July 4 at arXiv.org, marks the first time the two techniques have been demonstrated in space. (Webmaster's comment: The Chinese have taken a clear lead in this cutting edge technology. In response Trump has cut our science budget.)
Begin Memory Report
10-24-18 Memory special: Is your memory normal?
Why do some people remember what they did years ago, whereas others have no clue, but never forget a face or are trivia masters? Here's how to make sense of it. How much we remember of events we have experienced seems to fall on a spectrum. At one extreme, some individuals are unable to form these kinds of memories at all. “People with severely deficient autobiographical memory syndrome would report an awareness of the fact they were at the dinner, but they don’t have a feeling of re-experiencing it. It’s more of a factual memory,” says neuropsychologist Brian Levine of the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those with “higher superior autobiographical memories”, who can recall in precise detail events from decades ago. The best-known case is that of a woman called Jill Price, who can recall most days of her life from the age of 11. The majority of us fall somewhere in between. Strong autobiographical memory skills are linked to the ability to form vivid visual memories of experiences, and probably to a strong sense of your own self-awareness. Known as “mind pops”, these involuntary recalls happen to all of us, on average about 20 times a day, although there is a lot of variation between individuals. “It’s a basic characteristic of autobiographical memory,” says Dorthe Berntsen of Aarhus University in Denmark, who studies this phenomenon. Once they pop into your head, they soon disappear. “They’re like dreams – if you don’t write them down, you forget all about them,” Berntsen says. We tend to experience more of these spontaneous memories as we age and retrieve fewer memories consciously, perhaps because we find it harder to inhibit thoughts as we get older. Berntsen’s work shows that they tend not to spring up when we are focused on a task, but are more likely to appear in dull moments. She thinks that, far from being an unwanted distraction, they are an important component of daily functioning.
10-24-18 Memory special: Do we even know what memory is for?
Remembering the past is useful, but the real purposes of memory may be quite different – from planning for the future to learning to communicate. AT FIRST, it seems obvious. Memory is about the past. It is your personal database of things you have experienced. In fact, this repository has a purpose that goes way beyond merely recalling information. Some of the best evidence of this came from studies of people with brain damage or amnesia. One iconic case was of a patient known as KC in the early 1980s. After a motorcycle accident, he was left with an impaired episodic memory: he could remember facts, but not personal experiences. The weird thing was, it also stopped him doing something else entirely. “By studying patients who have an impaired ability to recall the past, we find that they are also impaired at imagining the future,” says Eleanor Maguire at University College London. We now know there is a strong link between being able to remember past events and being able to plan for the future. Imaging studies, for example, show that similar patterns of brain activity underlie both. The key seems to be the ability to generate images of scenes in the mind’s eye. “If you think about it, recalling the past, imagining the future, and even spatial navigation, typically involve us constructing scene imagery,” says Maguire. It could be that being able to picture the past enabled us to imagine the future, and therefore plan – one of the complex cognitive feats that stands humans apart from many other species. If we can’t recall past events and preferences, our ability to make sound decisions crumbles too. This is because during the decision-making process, the brain uses previous choices and existing knowledge to assess options and imagine how they might turn out.
10-24-18 Memory special: What happens to memories over time?
Memories fade, but that's no accident. Forgetting is a useful trick of the mind, and even when memories are lost, they aren't always forgotten. MEMORIES fade quickly, as we all know too well. “All things being equal, it’s harder to remember things from a long time ago compared to more recent events,” says neuroscientist Marc Howard of Boston University. But forgetting doesn’t just happen by accident. Evidence suggests that it is largely down to active processes in the brain. In the hippocampus, for instance, which plays an important role in memory, new cells are formed throughout life. It takes energy to do this, yet these cells seem to overwrite established memories and induce forgetting. Why should the brain invest energy in dismantling its own memories? The issue isn’t storage space: given the number of cells and connections in the brain, there is reason to think we could remember much more than we do. According to Blake Richards at the University of Toronto, Canada, the goal of memory isn’t to store information indefinitely, but to optimise decision-making in the future (see “Do we even know what memory is for?”). And it seems that forgetting most of our experiences actually helps us learn important lessons. Each memory is thought to be stored in an interconnected network of brain cells. To retrieve a memory, you need some part of its content: for example, to recall who came to your last birthday party, you might start by picturing where the party took place.
10-24-18 Memory special: How can two people recall an event so differently?
We each have a personal memory style determined by the brain, so next time you argue with someone about what really happened, remember that you may both be right. IT IS the day after a blazing row and you are determined to clear the air. But the more you talk about the argument with your partner, the more you struggle to hide your incredulity. How can their recollection be so, well, wrong? It’s as if you are reading from different scripts. In some ways, you are. To understand how people can experience the same event but recall it so differently, we need to forget our assumptions about how memories work, says Signy Sheldon at McGill University in Canada. We tend to think of memories as information stored in the filing cabinet of the brain for future use. In fact, they are only built when we retrieve them. All the information you were bombarded with during that argument – what was said, the scene, your feelings and reactions – was just sitting there gathering dust. It wasn’t until you called the event to mind the next day that you created a mental representation of what happened. And of all the details you could have picked out, you can bet you didn’t focus on the same ones as your sparring partner. One reason for this is very basic. “We are now understanding that there are strong individual differences in how people remember,” says Sheldon. What’s more, these differences are etched in our brains. Hints at what is going on come from people who have aphantasia, the inability to form mental images in the mind’s eye. Unsurprisingly, such people’s memories also lack a visual component, even though they can recall facts. Sheldon and her colleagues wondered whether this might help in understanding the different ways other people remember things.
10-24-18 Memory special: Can you trust your memories?
Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus exposed false memories in historic sex abuse cases. Now there are new reasons not to trust your memories, she says. NO ONE has done more than Elizabeth Loftus to expose the fallibility of human memory. In the 1990s, amid growing panic over claims of satanic child sex abuse rings, the psychologist showed how easy it is for people to develop false memories of events that never happened. All it took was repeatedly being asked to imagine them. At the time, this was a common psychotherapy technique to recover supposedly repressed memories. Over the past three decades, Loftus, from the University of California, Irvine, has become well known for her work as an expert witness in legal cases. Her ongoing research on the fallibility of eyewitness testimony has taken on fresh importance in an era of fake news, the Me Too movement and digital image manipulation. I had already been looking at how reliable eyewitness testimony was, to see if people’s memories of the details of an event could be distorted. Like if the guy running away had curly hair, not straight hair. But in the 1990s, when there was an explosion of highly improbable satanic child abuse claims, it looked like people were developing whole memories for things that didn’t happen. We came up with the idea of trying to make people remember an event that never happened – being lost in a shopping mall when they were young. We told people we were doing studies of childhood memory, and we talked to their parents to get some stories. Then we would interview adults and present them with three true events from their childhood, and a completely made-up experience about how they got lost in a shopping mall, frightened, crying, and were ultimately rescued by an elderly person and reunited with the family. After they’d had about three interviews, we found that about a quarter of these adults fell prey to the suggestion and developed a partial or complete memory of being lost.
10-24-18 Memory special: Can you supercharge your memory?
Want to remember whatever you like with no effort? Superhuman enhancements in the form of memory prostheses and implants are just around the corner. SUPERHUMAN memory has a special appeal. Who could resist the idea of remembering everything they wanted to, without trying? Learning would be made easy, exams a breeze and you would never forget where you left your keys. Oh and memory-related disorders like Alzheimer’s would have met their match. So it is of little surprise that scientists have turned their attention to ways of enhancing human memory using techniques that stimulate, supplement or even mimic parts of the brain. The immediate goal is to treat memory disorders, but the idea of a memory prosthesis for everyday life is gaining ground. “We’re at the point now where on the one hand it’s very exciting, but on the other it’s controversial because we are not only treating disorders, we’re trying to enhance mental functions,” says Michal Kucewicz at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. One approach is deep brain stimulation (DBS), which involves zapping an affected brain area with an implanted electrode. This is already used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy, among other conditions. Implanting electrodes in brain regions responsible for memory, such as the hippocampus, seems to offer a short-term memory boost too. And small studies have even suggested that DBS might reverse some of the damage seen in certain people with Alzheimer’s disease, halting the shrinking of the hippocampus and potentially encouraging it to grow bigger.
10-24-18 Memory special: What happens to your memories while you sleep?
As you slumber, the brain is a whir of activity sorting and storing your memories. How does it know which to choose, and how can you game the system? THERE is an old wives’ tale that putting your revision notes under your pillow the night before an exam will make you remember more. That might be stretching the truth, but there could be something in it – you really do learn in your sleep. You don’t need sleep to create a memory. “But sleep plays a critical role in determining what happens to these newly formed memories,” says Bob Stickgold at Harvard Medical School. Sleep determines what goes into long-term storage. It can also select which parts of a memory to retain. And it links new memories with established networks of remembrances. It discovers patterns and rules, says Stickgold, “and it’s doing this every night, all night long.” One of the biggest unanswered questions is how the sleeping brain knows which memories to strengthen, and which to ignore. “We don’t know either the algorithms the brain uses to make these decisions, or how they are implemented,” says Stickgold. What we do know is that sleep is special. “During slow-wave sleep, there is this release, a kind of beautiful set of interactions between different brain areas, that is specialised, and it looks different than what we see during awake periods,” says Anna Schapiro, also at Harvard Medical School. There is conversation between regions key to memory, including the hippocampus, where recent memories are stored, and the cortex, where long-term memories end up. This chatter might be allowing the cortex to pull out and save important information from new memories.
10-24-18 Why memories are an illusion and forgetting is good for you
Rather than a filing cabinet in the mind, it turns out memory is an exquisite illusion that shapes our sense of self. Here's how to understand yours better. WHEN considering what makes us who we are, it is easy to think our memories are the answer. Aside from the physical traces of the passing of time on your body, your recollections are perhaps the only thing that links the you sitting here today to the many yous from every previous day of your existence. Without them, your relationships would mean nothing, not to mention your knowledge, tastes, and your many adventures. It might be no exaggeration to say your memories are the essence of you. With this in mind, it is not surprising that much of the burgeoning field of neuroscience has turned its efforts to understanding what makes a memory and how to keep hold of it. Perhaps the most intriguing idea to come from recent discoveries is a reimagining of the dark side of memory – forgetting. As cherished memories fade or when we fail to remember an important task it is easy to feel that memory is failing us. But what the latest findings show is that simply thinking of memory as either accurate or fallible is a mistake. Instead, our memories are malleable, and for good reason. Rather than existing in the filing cabinet of the brain, we conjure memories from scratch with our own style (see “How can two people recall an event so differently?”). As we sleep, the brain meticulously crafts them into the most useful versions (see “What happens to your memories while you sleep?”). Technology too, affects how we remember and might even create whole new recollections (see “Is technology making your memory worse?”). As for forgetting, as infuriating as it can be, we’d be lost without it. Because memory, it turns out, is an illusion – one we create every time we recall the past and that is exquisitely designed to help you live your life.
10-24-18 Memory special: Can you choose what to forget?
If you want to forget an embarrassing encounter, you may just need to try. Forgetting isn't a passive process – so here's how to choose which memories you lose. WE ALL have memories we would rather forget – and it is possible, if you try hard enough. It is easy to think of memories as something you can actively strengthen, whereas forgetting is a passive process. But we have started to discover it can be intentional too. Perhaps the easiest way to forget something is simply to try to suppress a memory. Jeremy Manning at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, has found that just telling people to “push thoughts out of their head” is enough to make them forget lists of words they have learned to associate with particular cues. “We don’t know how, but people seem to know how to do it.” This seems especially paradoxical because we also know that rehearsing memories helps to strengthen them. Suppression has been linked to decreased activity in the hippocampus, so we may be unknowingly reducing our hippocampal activity by focusing on the present, says Justin Hulbert at Bard College, New York. This won’t work for everyone. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) involves intrusive memories that keep coming back – often suddenly and unexpectedly. Studies have found that people with this condition are less able to suppress memories, even those unrelated to traumatic incidents. But other approaches for forgetting might help, including what are known as cognitive vaccines: interventions that can “inoculate” the brain against the onset of PTSD symptoms if administered soon after trauma.
End Memory Report
9-28-18 Why haven’t we heard from aliens? Because we’ve barely started looking
The search for alien life has found nothing so far. But the part of the galaxy we’ve searched is equivalent to just a bathtub of water in the world’s oceans. Where is everybody? With billions of stars in our galaxy, many of which are thought to harbour habitable planets, surely there should be signs of life. Yet after decades of searching, we’ve found nothing. The mystery of this great silence is known as Fermi’s paradox, after physicist Enrico Fermi. Some have used it to argue that the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI) is doomed. But a new mathematical analysis of SETI activity by Jason Wright at Pennsylvania State University and his colleagues shows this is far from the case. The team claim that the basic assumption of Fermi’s paradox – that there’s nobody out there – is false. In fact, we’ve barely begun looking. Wright’s team analysed the many variables involved in SETI – what to look for, where to look, how often and for how long – and ended up with an eight-dimensional model. They then devised an equation that computes the fraction of the galaxy searched so far. “It lets you build the haystack, then calculate how much of it you’ve looked at,” says Wright. They claim that the volume of our galaxy searched so far is roughly equivalent to a bathtub of water in the world’s oceans. “You don’t have to do a calculation to say we’ve only just started,” says Duncan Forgan at the University of St Andrews, UK, who is a member of the UK SETI network. “But they’ve done a nice job of showing the huge scale of the problem mathematically.”
8-27-18 ‘Replication crisis’ spurs reforms in how science studies are done
But some researchers say the focus on reproducibility ignores a larger problem. What started out a few years ago as a crisis of confidence in scientific results has evolved into an opportunity for improvement. Researchers and journal editors are exposing how studies get done and encouraging independent redos of published reports. And there’s nothing like the string of failed replications to spur improved scientific practice. That’s the conclusion of a research team, led by Caltech economist Colin Camerer, that examined 21 social science papers published in two major scientific journals, Nature and Science, from 2010 to 2015. Five replication teams directed by coauthors of the new study successfully reproduced effects reported for 13 of those investigations, the researchers report online August 27 in Nature Human Behavior. Results reported in eight papers could not be replicated. The new study is an improvement over a previous attempt to replicate psychology findings (SN: 4/2/16, p. 8). But the latest results underscore the need to view any single study with caution, a lesson that many researchers and journal gatekeepers have taken to heart over the past few years, Camerer’s team says. An opportunity now exists to create a scientific culture of replication that provides a check on what ends up getting published and publicized, the researchers contend.
8-13-18 US mid-term elections: Truth-seeking scientists run for office
"Scientists are not natural politicians... but they solve problems and defend principles," says Valerie Horsley. She's one of a record number of scientists who are running for office in the US in 2018.
7-18-18 Move over, Hubble. This sharp pic of Neptune was taken from Earth
Cancelling out blur from Earth’s atmosphere lets astronomers focus like never before. A telescope on Earth has snapped pictures of Neptune at least as clear as those from the Hubble Space Telescope. The trick? Taking the twinkle out of stars. Released by the European Southern Observatory on July 18, the images come from a new observing system on the Very Large Telescope in Chile. The instrument uses four lasers to cancel out blurring caused by Earth’s atmosphere — the same effect that makes it look like stars are twinkling — at different altitudes. The system is an updated version of adaptive optics (SN: 6/14/03, p. 373), a technique astronomers have long used to focus telescopes. Lasers create artificial “stars” whose size and brightness are precisely known. That gives scientists a way to measure how the atmosphere is distorting their view of real, faraway stars at any given moment. Small motors then change the shape of the telescope’s mirror in real time to correct for that distortion and see the sky as it really is. The resulting images from the Chilean telescope are as sharp and clear as those taken from space. That’s good news, as Hubble won’t last forever, and planned future space telescopes won’t take images in the visible part of the light spectrum (SN: 3/17/18, p. 4). With adaptive optics, telescopes on the ground can pick up where Hubble leaves off. (Webmaster's comment: Neptune is 4 times the size of Earth and this is the best we can do.)
7-5-18 Most Americans think funding science pays off
But there is some disagreement over where that money should come from. Forget all the ridicule heaped on treadmill-running shrimp. About 80 percent of U.S. adults think that government spending on medical research, engineering and technology, and basic science usually leads to meaningful advances, a new survey from the Pew Research Center shows. The nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization queried 2,537 people from April 23 to May 6. No matter where they fell on the political spectrum, a majority of Republicans and Democrats shared that view. Of liberal Democrats surveyed, 92 percent said government investments in basic scientific research “usually pay off in the long run.” Of conservative Republicans, 61 percent agreed. That general agreement broke down when it came to private versus government spending. Two-thirds of conservative Republicans said that private investment alone would be enough to see that scientific progress is made, compared with 22 percent of liberal Democrats. Surveys in 2017, 2014 and 2009 by Pew also found similar support among Americans for spending taxpayer dollars on science. (Webmaster's comment: Conservative Republicans just want research on what makes them personally wealthy!)
6-27-18 How to think about… Scientific truth
All swans are white. Or are they? It’s difficult to establish absolute truths about the world, and science is the worst method – apart from all the others. VIENNA, 1919: a city scarred by lost war and empire. Navel-gazing is in order, and Sigmund Freud’s new ideas of the subconscious and psychoanalysis are all the rage. One young apprentice cabinet-maker is brooding – how could anyone prove them true, when the subconscious is unknowable? Karl Popper soon abandoned cabinet-making for a loftier pursuit. He wanted to find a way to demarcate ideas like Freud’s from what he saw as a truer kind of knowledge: science. It still isn’t at all easy. By its nature, science can’t rely on logical deduction alone, or build up knowledge purely from incontestable truths (see “How to think about… Logic”). It must make leaps into the unknown, just as Freud did, formulating hypotheses and searching for evidence of their truth. This is called induction, and it hides a niggle described by philosopher David Hume 150 years before Popper. The classic example involves checking the colour of as many swans as you can find, then extrapolating a rule to say “all swans are white”. That sounds like science. But it can’t lead to reliable knowledge, Hume argued, because you can never know a black swan isn’t in the next pond. Popper’s resolution seems oddly negative: science is about proving not truth, but falsehood. The crucial thing is that when you find evidence that disproves a scientific hypothesis, you discard or amend that hypothesis. You can never find truth exactly, but by slowly ruling out ideas, you edge closer to it. When at some point the weight of evidence seems overwhelming, your hypothesis becomes a scientific theory, like the general theory of relativity, the theory of evolution by natural selection or the theory of human-induced climate change.
2-5-18 Wikipedia has become a science reference source even though scientists don’t cite it
Phrases from Wikipedia pages on hot scientific fields end up in published papers, a study finds. Wikipedia: The settler of dinnertime disputes and the savior of those who cheat on trivia night. Quick, what country has the Nile’s headwaters? What year did Gershwin write “Rhapsody in Blue”? Wikipedia has the answer to all your burning trivia questions — including ones about science. With hundreds of thousands of scientific entries, Wikipedia offers a quick reference for the molecular formula of Zoloft, who the inventor of the 3-D printer is and the fact that the theory of plate tectonics is only about 100 years old. The website is a gold mine for science fans, science bloggers and scientists alike. But even though scientists use Wikipedia, they don’t tend to admit it. The site rarely ends up in a paper’s citations as the source of, say, the history of the gut-brain axis or the chemical formula for polyvinyl chloride. But scientists are browsing Wikipedia just like everyone else. A recent analysis found that Wikipedia stays up-to-date on the latest research — and vocabulary from those Wikipedia articles finds its way into scientific papers. The results don’t just reveal the Wiki-habits of the ivory tower. They also show that the free, widely available information source is playing a role in research progress, especially in poorer countries.
12-25-17 Eight amazing science stories of 2017
It was a year of endings and beginnings: the plucky Cassini spacecraft's 13-year-long mission reached its finale, while the fledgling field of gravitational wave astronomy bagged the catastrophic collision of two dead stars. BBC News looks back on eight of the biggest science and environment stories of 2017.
- Star crash: In 2017, scientists detected Einstein's gravitational waves from a new source - the collision of two dead stars, or neutron stars.
- Cassini's final bow: The Cassini spacecraft arrived in the Saturn system in 2004. In the 13 years it was operational it transformed our understanding of the ringed planet and its moons.
- Paris pull-out: While he was on the campaign trail, Donald Trump said he would "cancel" the Paris climate agreement, taking the US out of the deal. But after winning the US election in November of that year, he made few public pronouncements on the topic of climate change.
- Multiple "Earths": But this year, astronomers discovered a planetary system with seven Earth-sized planets. What's more, these worlds seem to be locked in a strange "resonance" as they orbit their host star.
- Recent relative: In July, researchers unveiled fossils of five early humans found in North Africa that showed our species - Homo sapiens - emerged at least 100,000 years earlier than previously recognised. The finds suggested that our species did not evolve in a single "cradle" in East Africa.
- Dark skies: On 21 August, a giant shadow cast by the Moon swept across America, marking the first total solar eclipse since the country's founding in 1776 where totality made exclusive landfall in the US.
- Visitor from beyond: Though scientists had been predicting for years that we would be visited by an asteroid from interstellar space, 2017 was the first time we spotted one.
- Giant iceberg: One of the biggest icebergs ever recorded broke away from Antarctica's Larsen C ice shelf in July.
12-13-17 Is there a limit to what science can understand?
Maybe science can't answer all the complex questions. Where does that leave us? Albert Einstein said that the "most incomprehensible thing about the Universe is that it is comprehensible." He was right to be astonished. Human brains evolved to be adaptable, but our underlying neural architecture has barely changed since our ancestors roamed the savannah and coped with the challenges that life on it presented. It's surely remarkable that these brains have allowed us to make sense of the quantum and the cosmos, notions far removed from the "commonsense" everyday world in which we evolved. But I think science will hit the buffers at some point. There are two reasons why this might happen. The optimistic one is that we clean up and codify certain areas (such as atomic physics) to the point that there's no more to say. A second, more worrying possibility is that we'll reach the limits of what our brains can grasp. There might be concepts, crucial to a full understanding of physical reality, that we aren't aware of, any more than a monkey comprehends Darwinism or meteorology. Some insights might have to await a post-human intelligence. (Webmaster's comment: I've been saying the same thing for a long time. You could teach chimps how to drive a car but they'll never understand how to fix the engine. Humans are smarter than chimps, and they understand how to use many of the physical laws of the universe, but not why those laws are what they are and what's behind them. Human intelligence has its limits.)
11-13-17 Bad news: Carbon emissions have suddenly started rising again
Emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel are on the rise again. We desperately need more action to stop climate change, and that means putting a price on carbon. If the world does not do more to limit greenhouse gas emissions soon, the final slender hope of preventing global temperature rise being much above 2°C will slip away. Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industry are set to rise sharply this year, after remaining stable for the past three years. “This is really not good news,” says Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the UK, who led the research by the Global Carbon Project. The findings are yet more evidence that, despite the 2015 Paris agreement, the world is still not doing nearly enough to limit emissions. Yet there is wide agreement on what needs to be done: introducing a meaningful price on carbon. “We need to cost the negative effects of carbon into the activities that produce it,” says Le Quéré. “A carbon price is absolutely essential,” economist Nicholas Stern told a meeting in London organised by the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures earlier this month. “We may be on a path to 3°C. The risks are enormous.” The biggest global obstacle to investment in clean growth is governments’ failure to pursue clear, credible and predictable policies, Stern said. A well-designed carbon price is an indispensable part of any strategy for efficiently reducing emissions. The European Union does have a carbon trading scheme, but it has produced a low and erratic carbon price – which doesn’t incentivise cutting emissions. The scheme has been close to meaningless, says Wendel Trio of Climate Action Network Europe. Reforms announced last week won’t change this. “What businesses want to know is that the price of carbon is going to be high, and that the price will increase,” says Le Quéré. Le Quéré’s team previously found that, from 2014 to 2016, emissions from fossil fuels and industry remained flat despite continuing economic growth. This led some to hope that global emissions had peaked, although many experts warned it was too early to tell. Now fossil fuel and industry emissions are projected to rise 2 per cent in 2017, to a record 37 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide. Whether emissions will continue to rise in the coming years or flatten out again is not clear, says Le Quéré. “We can’t say what trajectory is going to be realised.”
11-3-17 Humans are driving climate change, federal scientists say
New U.S. report tallies impacts from hottest-ever years to extreme weather threats. Jakobshavn Glacier in western Greenland (its front edge, where ice is calving into the ocean is one of the world’s fastest-shrinking glaciers. A new U.S. report increases projections of average global sea level rise due to accelerating ice sheet melting if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated. It is “extremely likely” that humans are driving warming on Earth since the 1950s. That statement — which indicates a 95 to 100 percent confidence in the finding — came in a report released November 3 by the U.S. Global Change Research Program. This interagency effort was established in 1989 by presidential initiative to help inform national science policy. The 2017 Climate Science Special Report, which lays out the current state of scientific knowledge on climate change, will be rolled into the fourth National Climate Assessment, set to be released in late 2018. The last national climate assessment, released in 2014, also concluded that recent warming was mostly due to humans, but didn’t give a confidence level (SN Online: 5/6/14). Things haven’t gotten better. Ice sheet melting has accelerated, the 2017 report finds. As a result, projections of possible average global sea level rise by 2100 under a high greenhouse gas emissions scenario (in which emissions rise unabated throughout the 21st century) have increased from 2 meters to as much as 2.6 meters. In addition, the report notes that three of the warmest years on record — 2014, 2015 and 2016 — occurred since the last report was released; those years also had record-low sea ice extent in the Arctic Ocean in the summer.
See the Global Temperature History Charts
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10-30-17 Record surge in atmospheric CO2 seen in 2016
Concentrations of CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere surged to a record high in 2016, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Last year's increase was 50% higher than the average of the past 10 years. Researchers say a combination of human activities and the El Niño weather phenomenon drove CO2 to a level not seen in 800,000 years. Scientists say this risks making global temperature targets largely unattainable. his year's greenhouse gas bulletin produced by the WMO, is based on measurements taken in 51 countries. Research stations dotted around the globe measure concentrations of warming gases including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. The figures published by the WMO are what's left in the atmosphere after significant amounts are absorbed by the Earth's "sinks", which include the oceans and the biosphere. 2016 saw average concentrations of CO2 hit 403.3 parts per million, up from 400ppm in 2015. "It is the largest increase we have ever seen in the 30 years we have had this network," Dr Oksana Tarasova, chief of WMO's global atmosphere watch programme, told BBC News. "The largest increase was in the previous El Niño, in 1997-1998 and it was 2.7ppm and now it is 3.3ppm, it is also 50% higher than the average of the last ten years."
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