A War on Science

Why does society still reject science?

Science has done a lot for the world. And when we say a lot, we mean a whole lot. Cars, iPhones, electricity, medicine, Hubble – you can thank scientists for all those things. Not to mention its involvement in helping us explore the Universe, and understand our place in it. And yet we still see people reject science every day. As the latest episode of AsapSCIENCE explains, we’re in the middle of a war against science. And it’s been raging for a long time.

Since humans first evolved, science has consistently improved our lives, fuelling the enlightenment era, the industrial revolution, and now the digital age. But society has often been at odds with science. So much so, in fact, that Italian astronomer Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake in 1600 for suggesting that Earth wasn’t at the centre of the Universe. And Galileo was put under house arrest for supporting the theory.

Continue reading “A War on Science”

Seven Earth-sized planets orbit nearby supercool star

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A nearby ultracool star harbors seven Earth-sized planets, three with orbits that potentially put them in a habitable zone. That makes the system, around a star called TRAPPIST-1, a prime target in the search for signs of alien life. Its discovery also hints that many more cousins of Earth may be out there than astronomers thought.

“It’s rather stunning that the system has so many Earth-sized planets,” says Drake Deming, an astronomer at the University of Maryland in College Park. It seems like every stable spot where a planet could be, there is an Earth-sized one. “That bodes well for finding habitable planets,” he says.

Michaël Gillon, an astrophysicist at University of Liège in Belgium, and colleagues announced last year that they had found three Earth-sized planets around TRAPPIST-1, an ultracool dwarf star previously called 2MASS J23062928−0502285 (SN: 05/28/16, p. 6). The Continue reading “Seven Earth-sized planets orbit nearby supercool star”

NASA Spots Mysterious Spray of Organic Material on Our Biggest Asteroid

NASA has announced that signs of organic material have been spotted on the surface of the Solar System’s largest asteroid, the dwarf planet Ceres, adding to the long list of rocks in space containing complex, carbon-based molecules.

It seems like every other day astronomers are finding organic molecules on some asteroid, comet, or meteorite, so the discovery itself might not seem all that exciting – but it’s what the orbiter didn’t see that adds an intriguing level of mystery.

The material was spotted in and around the crater Ernutet on Ceres’ northern hemisphere, using NASA’s Dawn orbiting spacecraft.

Finding evidence of organic molecules on a major asteroid from an orbiting craft is a first in space exploration, and hints at exciting things to come.

“This is the first clear Continue reading “NASA Spots Mysterious Spray of Organic Material on Our Biggest Asteroid”

Physicists help to decode the brain

An increasing number of physicists are using their expertise to understand the human brain. Paula Gould spoke to several researchers who have made the move to neuroscience

Doctors know that they can control epileptic seizures without having to perform surgery by placing the patient’s brain in an electric field. In doing so, they are exploiting the fact that an electric field can cause neurons to fire in synchrony. But they do not understand exactly how the process works. Eun Hyoung Park, a research associate at the Neural Engineering Center at Case Western Reserve University in the US, believes that is important to understand the way in which the neurons respond to the field. “This is an area where mathematicians and physicists can help,” she says. “You need to understand why these therapies work.”

Park is one of a growing number of researchers who have opted to apply their physics training to problems in neuroscience. Park initially completed a PhD and postdoctoral work in chaos theory and phase synchronization. She then moved to Case Western to apply the same theoretical tools to medical applications. “I wanted to expand my knowledge into a more applied field,” she says. “Synchronization prevails in nature in a lot of different areas.”

Dominique Durand, editor in chief of a new Journal of Neural Engineering published by the Institute of Physics, believes that the contribution of physical scientists and engineers is crucial to understanding the brain. “While neuroscientists and engineers from varied fields such as brain anatomy, neural development and electrophysiology have made great strides in the analysis of this complex organ, there remains a great deal yet to be uncovered,” he says. “The potential for applications and remedies deriving from scientific discoveries and breakthroughs is extremely high.”

Continue reading “Physicists help to decode the brain”

Human Cell Atlas project aims to map the human body’s 35 trillion cells

Labs around the world will create the most comprehensive map of the 35 trillion cells that make up the human body under plans put forward by researchers on Friday.

The international effort aims to decipher the types and properties of every cell a person contains, whether healthy or diseased, in a bid to speed up discoveries in medical science.

Named the Human Cell Atlas, the project amounts to the most concerted attempt yet to work out what we are made from and how illnesses develop when the building blocks of the body fail.

“Having an understanding of who we are is part of the human endeavour,” said Aviv Regev, a computational biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT in Massachusetts. “We want to know what we are made of. But this will have a substantial impact on our scientific understanding and as a result, on our ability to diagnose, monitor and treat disease.”

Many medical textbooks state that the human body contains Continue reading “Human Cell Atlas project aims to map the human body’s 35 trillion cells”

HOW OUR BRAINS MAKE MEMORIES

by Greg Miller

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Memories are stored in a region of the brain called the hippocampus, shown in red in this computer illustration. (Photo Researchers, Inc.)

Sitting at a sidewalk café in Montreal on a sunny morning, Karim Nader recalls the day eight years earlier when two planes slammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. He lights a cigarette and waves his hands in the air to sketch the scene.

At the time of the attack, Nader was a postdoctoral researcher at New York University. He flipped the radio on while getting ready to go to work and heard the banter of the morning disc jockeys turn panicky as they related the events unfolding in Lower Manhattan. Nader ran to the roof of his apartment building, where he had a view of the towers less than two miles away. He stood there, stunned, as they burned and fell, thinking to himself, “No way, man. This is the wrong movie.”

In the following days, Nader recalls, Continue reading “HOW OUR BRAINS MAKE MEMORIES”

POWER GENERATOR RUNS ON SALTWATER

by Jeremy Deaton

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Gaze at the end of a river, where saltwater and freshwater meet. It may not look like anything, but new research suggests this could be a massive source of electricity.
Imagine a tub divided in half by a semi-permeable membrane. On one side of the membrane, the tub is filled with saltwater. On the other side, it is filled with freshwater. Molecules from the freshwater side will squeeze through the membrane to dilute the salty side (such is water’s love of equilibrium). This process is called osmosis.
Osmosis can be used to generate power. As molecules passes through the membrane, the water level on the salty side of the tank rises. Rising water can move a turbine to run a generator. Historically, however, osmotic power plants have generated too little power to have any practical application.

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Recently, a team of researchers from Switzerland and the United States built a new kind of osmotic power generator that vastly outperforms any that came before. In their version, one side of the tank contains a higher concentration of seawater ions than the other side of the tank. The membrane, which is just three atoms thick, features a single opening through which only positive ions can pass. An electrode connects the two sides. When positive ions squeeze through the membrane, their electrons transfer to the electrode, producing a current.

The ultra-thin membrane and its microscopic opening are key to the success of the generator. Larger membranes with myriad openings could generate huge sums of energy. The researchers say a membrane just one square meter in size could produce 1 megawatt of electricity, enough to power roughly 750 homes.
A version of this technology could be deployed to river estuaries where freshwater and saltwater meet. Unlike wind turbines and solar panels, they would reliably generate electricity at all hours of the day, potentially enough to power entire cities.

Source: PopScience

What’s ahead for science in 2017?

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As science journalists look back on the top stories of the year, scientists push on, asking the next questions and chasing fresh data. What big discoveries might they deliver in 2017? Science News writers reveal what they are watching for — and hoping for — in the year ahead.


Bruce Bower
Behavioral Sciences
“I look forward to seeing where the reproducibility debate goes,” says Bruce Bower, referring to recent reports that many findings in psychology (and other sciences) don’t hold up in repeat experiments (SN: 4/2/16, p. 8). Some psychology journals now publish multilab replication efforts that often challenge influential findings, such as the claim that willpower decreases the more you use it. Continue reading “What’s ahead for science in 2017?”

The planet is heating up faster than species can migrate

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Visitors to the Santa Catalina Mountains just outside Tucson, Arizona encounter a very disturbing sight: patches of dead alligator junipers scattered across hillsides at the base of the range. Wildfires did not destroy these trees — climate change did.

The trees can’t survive where it’s hot, so many have moved to higher elevations, where it is cooler. But if the heat keeps rising, they will die there too, and eventually cease to exist entirely.

“They can’t cope with the conditions,” says John J. Wiens, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona. “They simply can’t change fast enough.”

What is far worse, however, is that this is no isolated example.

The plight of the alligator juniper is but one obvious piece of a frightening pattern of local extinction currently underway “everywhere, all over the planet,” Wiens says, “It is happening among birds, plants, animals, in the ocean and in the freshwater environment.”

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Alligator juniper

Climate change could doom numerous species irreversibly, including those that people depend on for resources and food. “If it’s happening a little now, it will happen a lot in the future,” Wiens says. “We have a moral imperative to be sure that the future does not play out.”

The trend is especially troubling in tropical and subtropical environments––lowland places like the rainforest, where climate-threatened species have nowhere else to go. “For plants and animals that can’t move, they’re dead,” Wiens says.

Wiens recently examined the fate of hundreds of plant and animal species around the world, concluding that local extinctions already have occurred in nearly half of the 976 species he studied. His research, published today in PLOS Biology, found that 450 plant and animal species have disappeared locally, a result he finds especially striking, since mean temperatures have increased less than 1 degree Celsius since the pre-industrial era.

“Local extinctions are already widespread,” he says. “The results suggest that even modest changes in climate are enough to drive local populations in many species to extinction. They also suggest that local populations in many species cannot shift their climatic niches rapidly enough to prevent extinction. We know the climate is going to change even more, which bodes really badly for overall survival.”

Camilo Mora, assistant professor of geography at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, who has studied the impact of climate change on plant growth, describes Wiens’ work as an important new piece of evidence of “the massive destruction of nature” caused by human-induced warming.

“The fingerprint of climate change on nature is demonstrated yet again,” says Mora, who was not involved in Wiens’ study. “This is not rocket science. Whenever you heat up a place, species are forced to deal with it. Climate change, compounded by other stressors, appears to be too much for species to take. Clearly, we are making it hard for species to endure us.”

Jeremy Kerr, a professor of biology at the University of Ottawa who hasstudied the effects of climate change on bumblebees, called these growing extinctions “dangerous [because] we rely on a lot of these species for ecosystem services we can’t really do without, like pollination.”

“Some of the species that are disappearing serve critical functions,” he adds. “We all know about monarch butterflies, one of the most beautiful animals in the world. Climate change… is contributing to their decline. Other animals that are even more important for practical reasons are bumblebees, and we now know that climate change is part of the reason for their decline also. These losses chip away at the planet’s life support systems, which we need.”

Monarch Butterfly

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Monarch butterfly

David Inouye, a professor emeritus of biology at the University of Maryland who studies the impact of climjate change on the environment, agrees.

“Scientists have predicted for a while now that we are entering the sixth major mass extinction event in the history of life on the planet,” he says. “Evidence for this is now accumulating…this study provides insights into the range shifts that can already be documented in both plants and animals in response to the changing climate, and how the dynamics of range shifts can lead to local, and eventually, global extinctions.”

In fact, Inouye says, he has seen similar trends in his own research. “In my work in the Rocky Mountains, we have observed several species of animals, from moose to mosquitoes, moving up in altitude, and plants disappearing from the lower part of their former ranges,” he says. “Bumblebees are also moving up in altitude. If plants and pollinators don’t move at the same rates, historic interactions will be disrupted, potentially leading to more examples of local extinctions.”

Bumble bee

Pixabay

Bumble bee

Even those species that try to move upward may not be able to do so, according to the new study. Human factors, such as agriculture, roads, and increasing urbanization may impede their ability to relocate by leaving them no other live-able habitats, the study says.

Moreover, “many species are already confined to islands, peninsulas and mountaintops where dispersal to higher latitudes or elevations may not be possible,” the study says, adding: “Even if dispersal is unimpeded by human or natural barriers, it may simply occur too slowly to allow species to remain within their climatic niche.”

If the heat doesn’t kill directly, it can encourage potentially dangerous interactions, Wiens says. Certain plants may become vulnerable to beetle attacks, for example, and amphibians are prone to the deadly chytrid fungus, whose growth is stimulated by heat.

“In Arizona, we no longer have any natural Tarahumara frog populations because of the fungus,” Wiens says. “Climate is the basic cause, but the proximate cause may be something else.’’

For his study, Wiens conducted a meta-analysis of dozens of existing studies demonstrating how species have shifted their geographic ranges over time in response to global warming. Using these “range-shift” studies, he found that local extinctions have occurred in the warmest parts of the ranges for nearly half of the plant and animal species studied.

His research also found that local extinctions varied by region, and were more than twice as likely to occur among tropical species compared to those in more temperate locations. This latter is important because most plant and animal species live in the tropics.

“If species live in a preserve in the topics, or in a place that has been deforested, it’s not really possible for them to move,” Wiens says. “They may be able to move up a mountain in Arizona, but that’s not going to work in a rainforest.”

“We are locked into a climate pattern, and things don’t seem to be able to adapt,” added Wiens. “This is only going to get worse if the climate warms further.”

Mora, of the University of Hawaii, agrees. “When places start failing to meet basic human needs for water… We will also very likely start seeing people moving as well,” he says. “Our planet is increasingly becoming unsuitable for many species, potentially even us.”

Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.

Original article on http://www.popsci.com/planet-is-heating-up-faster-than-species-can-migrate

This Mysterious Gliding Mammal Is a ‘Sister’ to Primates

By Mindy Weisberger, Senior Writer of Live Science.

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A colugo with its young hangs upside down, with the pink skin of its gliding membrane visible between its limbs.
Credit: Norman Lim

Gliding mammals called colugos sail through the air using membranes that stretch between their limbs and resemble the wings of bats. But these furry gliders are actually a sister group to primates, a new study finds.

Colugos are tree dwellers, with limbs connected by flaps of skin known as a patagium, or gliding membrane. These critters live in southeast Asia, and adults measure about 14 to 16 inches (35 to 40 centimeters) long and weigh around 2 to 4 lbs. (1 to 2 kilograms).

Scientists have debated colugos’ lineage for the past century. Some experts had linked them to tree shrews, with which colugos share certain physical traits. But recent genetic sequencing revealed that colugos are more closely related to primates — the group that includes great apes and humans. This finding could help scientists develop a clearer picture of evolution in the earliest primates, the researchers suggested. [Image Gallery: Evolution’s Most Extreme Mammals]

There are only two known colugo species — sometimes referred to as “flying lemurs,” though they are not lemurs and do not fly — and they are poorly understood for a number of reasons, according to study co-author William Murphy, a professor in the Department of Veterinary Integrative Biosciences at Texas A&M University.

Colugos’ unusual gliding adaptations have hampered efforts to keep them in captivity, Murphy told Live Science in an email. And their nocturnal lifestyle high in the tree canopies makes it difficult for scientists to observe and track them in the wild.

“Only a few publications have documented their [colugos’] ecology and habits,” Murphy said.

Obtaining fresh tissue samples from colugos for DNA sequencing was understandably challenging, Murphy noted. The first attempts to analyze colugos’ DNA — which represented only part of the colugo genome — didn’t provide any easy answers. The colugo lineage diverged from other mammals more than 80 million years ago, Murphy told Live Science. And early DNA analysis couldn’t pinpoint colugos’ location on the mammalian family tree, leaving scientists uncertain as to whether they were more closely related to primates, tree shrews, or the group that includes rabbits and rodents, he explained.

For the new study, researchers sequenced the complete genome of a west Javan colugo for the first time, comparing it to sets of protein-coding genes from 21 other mammal species. They also looked for certain rare genetic markers that, when found, are “very reliable indicators” of relationships between animal groups, Murphy said.

All of their research pointed to the same conclusion: that colugos were a sister group to primates. According to Murphy, understanding the nature of this relationship could affect how scientists interpret the fossils of extinct mammals that share characteristics with both colugos and primates.

At the same time, the researchers made another unexpected discovery. As part of their exploration of the colugo genome, they extracted DNA from tissue samples in museums, most of which were collected 50 to 100 years ago from colugos across all their known ranges. The scientists found that there were likely far more species of colugos than previously suspected, Murphy told Live Science.

“Our genetic results suggest that there are at least seven to eight colugo species, and possibly as many as 14,” he said, adding that further analysis of the specimens and documentation of their genetic data would be required before the final number of species can be confirmed.

The findings were published online today (Aug. 10) in the journal Science.

Original article on Live Science.