899 posts tagged Science
read of the day: How Cosmetic Companies Get Away With Pseudoscience
Anti-aging creams make absurd claims that they repair DNA damage or use stem-cell treatments. When cosmetics companies and dermatologists partner to maximize profits, who is responsible for protecting the consumer?
• My mother is the least vain woman I know. She is a loyal patron of Supercuts, always keeps her nails clipped short and unpainted, and never leaves for work with more than a few swipes of eyeliner on her face each morning. She’s unmoved by the beauty products most women her age can’t seem to live without—except for a $15 drugstore anti-aging cream that she has used every night for as long as I can remember. Even my unfailingly modest mother is reluctant to watch herself age, and like many others, she’s willing to pay to keep the wrinkles at bay. The cosmetics industry is happy to oblige. By 2015, the worldwide market for anti-aging cosmetics, including creams, serums, and salves, is expected to hit $114 billion, up from an estimated $1.15 billion in 2005, according to a report published by the European Molecular Biology Organization. Within the next 10 to 15 years, that number is projected to double. (via How Cosmetic Companies Get Away With Pseudoscience - Pacific Standard: The Science of Society)
Geologists, climate scientists, ecologists – and a lawyer – gather in Berlin for talks on whether to rename age of human life
A disparate group of experts from around the world will meet for the first time on Thursday for talks on what must rank as one of the most momentous decisions in human history. The question confronting the scientists and other specialists is straightforward enough, even if the solution is far from simple. Is it time to call an end to the epoch we live in and declare the dawn of a new time period: one defined by humanity’s imprint on the planet? The 30-strong group, made up of geologists, climate scientists, ecologists – and a lawyer for good measure – will start their deliberations in a room at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, or House of the Cultures of the World, a contemporary arts centre in Berlin. Like many things in the world of geology, little moves fast at the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), the body that decides the time period we live in. But the arrival and informal adoption of the word “anthropocene” to mean a new epoch of humanity has somewhat forced their hand. The word came into common usage after Paul Crutzen, a Dutch chemist and Nobel prize winner, used the term in 2000. He arguedin an academic newsletter that the current geological epoch should be awarded the new name to reflect the major and ongoing impact of human life on Earth. The official arrival of the Anthropocene would mark the end of the Holocene, the geological time we live in now. Identified by a geochemical signal in Greenland ice cores that marks the onset of warmer and wetter conditions at the end of the last ice age, the Holocene defined a time when humans colonised new territories and the population swelled.
Tiny critters ‘pee’ enough to shift ocean chemistry
Tiny animals such as zooplankton make the world’s biggest migration—from feeding at the open ocean’s surface at night to hiding in sunless depths during the day. Their daytime ammonia output—the equivalent of urination—has a surprisingly big role in marine chemistry, particularly in low-oxygen zones. A study on the finding appears online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “I’m very fascinated by these massive migrations,” says lead author Daniele Bianchi, a postdoctoral researcher in the UW School of Oceanography. “To me, it’s exciting to think about the effects of animal behavior on a large scale in the ocean.” One might not think that peeing into the vastness of the oceans could have an effect. But the animals—which include tiny zooplankton, crustaceans such as krill, and fish such as lanternfish up to a few inches long—compensate for their small size with huge abundance throughout the world’s oceans. After a nighttime feast near the surface, these small creatures take a couple of hours to swim about 650 to 2,000 feet (200 to 600 meters) deep. Solid waste falls as pellets. The liquid waste is emitted more gradually. (via Tiny critters ‘pee’ enough to shift ocean chemistry - Futurity)
This year’s Nobel Prize in medicine recognises work on “cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain.” Those cells are found in the hippocampus. It is just one tiny part of the brain, but this structure gets at least its fair share of research attention. The hippocampus is located in the middle of the brain in a region known as the medial temporal lobe. Imagine travelling inward from your ear toward the centre of your head. It resembles a seahorse, with the name derived from the Greek words “hippo” for horse and “kampos” for sea. Its appearance and cellular arrangement are similar in all mammals, ranging from humans to rodents. The hippocampus has been called the “neural Rosetta stone” since the discovery in the 1950s that removing it in patients suffering from epilepsy prevented new memory formation. Damage to the hippocampus leads to trouble forming new memories of the time or location of an event. Impaired blood flow and the ensuing lack of oxygen, as occurs in a stroke, is one way the hippocampus can be damaged. It is also one of the first regions of the brain to degenerate in Alzheimer’s disease. Patients cannot recognise their surroundings and lose the ability to navigate from one place to another. Among the crucial cells are the so-called place cells. These cells – now famous due to this year’s Nobel prize – help determine spatial location and allow navigation from one place to another. They contain information about direction and distance. Place cells allow an animal to construct a map of the environment and its location within it. The hippocampus thus allows an animal to make decisions on the basis of distance and direction towards desired goals, such as food, or away from undesirable objects, such as a predator. Brain scans have shown that London taxi drivers have an enlarged hippocampus compared to non-taxi driver colleagues, thanks to the spatial abilities necessary to do their job.
Oxygen absorbing material may allow us to breathe underwater
Using specially synthesized crystalline materials, scientists from the University of Southern Denmark have created a substance that is able to absorb and store oxygen in such high concentrations that just one bucketful is enough to remove all of the oxygen in a room. The substance is also able to release the stored oxygen in a controlled manner when it is needed, so just a few grains could replace the need for divers to carry bulky scuba tanks. The key component of the new material is the element cobalt, which is bound in a specially designed organic molecule. In standard form – and depending on the available oxygen content, the ambient temperature, and the barometric pressure – the absorption of oxygen by the material from its surroundings may take anything from seconds to days. “An important aspect of this new material is that it does not react irreversibly with oxygen – even though it absorbs oxygen in a so-called selective chemisorptive process,” said Professor Christine McKenzie from the University of Southern Denmark. “The material is both a sensor, and a container for oxygen – we can use it to bind, store, and transport oxygen – like a solid artificial hemoglobin.” (via Oxygen absorbing material may allow us to breathe underwater)
Hacking Life’s Code: ‘Designer Genes’
Should there be limits on using genetic techniques to help couples conceive? What about using genetic engineering to make humans healthier—or even enhancing humanity by manipulating DNA? See geneticist George Church, fertility specialists Paula Amato and Jamie Grifo, and bioethicists Sheldon Krimsky and Nita Farahany mull our fast-evolving future in “Designer Genes: Fashioning Our Biological Future,” a program of the 2014 World Science Festival.
The expert guide to space colonies
Why should we take the idea of colonising space seriously?
With our rising planet’s population competing for space and resources, some people are convinced we need to look beyond Earth to help ensure humanity’s survival. As Elon Musk, the entrepreneur behind space tourism company SpaceX put it recently: “I think there is a strong argument for making life multi-planetary in order to safeguard the existence of humanity in the event that something catastrophic were to happen.” Even if you don’t believe this bleak vision, it’s hard to ignore the eternal human instinct to discover the undiscovered – an urge that could push people beyond the safety of our planet. And there might not be as many hurdles as you might think. “We are at the level of technology where we can imagine leaving the planet for a few nearby places in our Solar System,” former astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman, who will present his ideas at our summit, told BBC Future previously. “The Moon is just around the corner, and Mars isn’t that far away. We have the possibility of at least making the first steps of those voyages in our own lifetimes.” What could a space colony look like?
One possible idea goes as far back as the 1920s. Austro-Hungarian rocket pioneer Herman Potočnik imagined a circular spacecraft - rather like a flying saucer – that rotates to create artificial gravity while a large, concave mirror could focus sunlight for an energy source. As far-fetched as this may sound, the idea has lingered over the years – most notably in the mid-1970s by the late Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill, and again by the space think tank British Interplanetary Society. Before you dismiss the idea of floating colonies completely, it’s worth noting that the British Interplanetary Society predicted we would reach the Moon three decades before it actually happened. What about life on Mars? Or any other planet?
Other experts favour the idea of setting up home on firmer ground – a planet or moon – creating an artificial “biosphere” with all the necessary elements for human life to thrive. Mars has become a main focus of attention, and astonishingly, people are already trying to make steps to set-up a new civilisation there by 2025. The Dutch project, called Mars One, was launched in 2012 and it has already vetted 40 applicants from a pool of 200,000. They should now receive training as part of a reality TV show that is helping to fund the project. Needless to say, Mars One has its detractors – but it does at least show the vast interest in colonising space. SpaceX’s Musk is also rumoured to have his sights set on populating the Red Planet with a colossal vehicle called the Mars Colonial Transporter, which if it were reusable could cut the costs of return trips. As he told Aeon recently, that would only be the beginning: “If we can establish a Mars colony, we can almost certainly colonise the whole Solar System, because we’ll have created a strong economic forcing function for the improvement of space travel. We’ll go to the moons of Jupiter, at least some of the outer ones for sure, and probably Titan on Saturn, and the asteroids.” Even Musk draws the line at inhabiting other stars, however. “Alpha Centauri is four light years away, so if you go at 10% of the speed of light, it’s going to take you 40 years, and that’s assuming you can instantly reach that speed, which isn’t going to be the case… I just wonder what humanity will even look like when we try to do that.” (via BBC - Future - The expert guide to space colonies)
In October 2013, Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo unveiled a cyborg cockroach that could be controlled from a smartphone through electrodes attached to its antennae and a wireless unit on its back. Imagine in the coming years what would happen if we are able to go much smaller and nanoscale computing devices could be integrated with individual bacteria. And what if these hybrid devices could be designed to control colonies of bacteria? Of course a big problem could be powering such devices, but bacteria based batteries are already a reality. So should we allow this living technology to develop and be autonomous? If it was possible, then the extension of “the internet of things” to “the internet of biology” e.g., bacteria, molds, plants and crops should also be possible — in fact all living things could be networked and online. An online connection could enable living systems to be controlled by software allowing bioware “apps” to add functionality beyond that allowed by biology. What if the bacteria connected online could be turned into sophisticated swarms with collective intelligence spread over many miles, vastly exceeding the primitive-by-comparison biological sensing? What if the synthesis of bacteria and silicon-powered intelligence gave rise to a new symbiotic life form? I would imagine that these swarms could be used to remove pollutants, sent out to sense the environment, even monitor the emergence of new viruses in the wild. Perhaps even more exciting could be the direct control of the machinery within the cells. Enter the realm of cybernetic synthetic biology. What exactly is cybernetic synthetic biology? From my point of view I see this as the integration of biological organisms with small silicon-based computing devices and I’ve been pondering this concept — as well as the consequences — for around 12 months. In my own scientific work I am interested in understanding the chemical origin of life, creating new life forms, and investigating new ways of controlling chemistry and biochemistry. The taming of existing life forms using silicon seems extremely attractive, albeit a few decades off (although some would argue that silicon, such as in the form of smart phones, is already controlling us through social media and messaging).
Belief in Free Will Not Threatened by Neuroscience
A key finding from neuroscience research over the last few decades is that non-conscious preparatory brain activity appears to precede the subjective feeling of making a decision. Some neuroscientists, like Sam Harris, have argued that this shows our sense of free will is an illusion, and that lay people would realize this too if they were given a vivid demonstration of the implications of the science (see below). Books have even started to appear with titles like My Brain Made Me Do It: The Rise of Neuroscience and the Threat to Moral Responsibility by Eliezer J. Sternberg. However, in a new paper, a team led by Eddy Nahmias counter such claims. They believe that Harris and others (who they dub “willusionists”) make several unfounded assumptions about the basis of most people’s sense of free will. Using a series of vivid hypothetical scenarios based on Harris’ own writings, Nahmias and his colleagues tested whether people’s belief in free will really is challenged by “neuroprediction” – the idea of neuroscientists using brain activity to predict a person’s choices – and by the related notion that mental activity is no more than brain activity. The research involved hundreds of undergrads at Georgia State University in Atlanta. They were told about a piece of wearable brain imaging technology – a cap – available in the future that would allow neuroscientists to predict a person’s decisions before they made them. They also read a story about a woman named Jill who wore the cap for a month, and how scientists predicted her every choice, including her votes in elections.
Most of the students (80 per cent) agreed that this future technology was plausible, but they didn’t think it undermined Jill’s free will. Most of them only felt her free will was threatened if they were told that the neuroscientists manipulated Jill’s brain activity to alter her decisions. Similar results were found in a follow-up study in which the scenario descriptions made clear that “all human mental activity just is brain activity”, and in another that swapped the power of brain imaging technology for the mind reading skills of a psychic. In each case, students only felt that free will was threatened if Jill’s decisions were manipulated, not if they were merely predicted via her brain activity or via her mind and soul (by the psychic).
Nahmias and their team said their results showed that most people have a “theory-lite” view of free will – they aren’t bothered by claims about mental activity being reduced to neural activity, nor by the idea that such activity precedes conscious decision-making and is readable by scientists. “Most people recognise that just because ‘my brain made me do it,’ that does not mean that I didn’t do it of my own free will,” the researchers said.
As neuroscience evidence increasingly enters the courtroom, these new findings have important implications for understanding how such evidence might influence legal verdicts about culpability. An obvious limitation of the research is its dependence on students in Atlanta. It will be interesting to see if the same findings apply in other cultures.
Artificial intelligence program that learns like a child
Artificial intelligence programs may already be capable of specialized tasks like flying planes, winning Jeopardy, and giving you a hard time in your favorite video games, but even the most advanced offerings are no smarter than a typical four-year-old child when it comes to broader insights and comprehension. It makes sense, then, that researchers at the University of Gothenburg have developed a program that imitates a child’s cognitive development. “We have developed a program that can learn, for example, basic arithmetic, logic, and grammar without any pre-existing knowledge,” says Claes Strannegård. Starting from a set of simple and broad definitions meant to provide a cognitive model, this program gradually builds new knowledge based on previous knowledge. From that new knowledge it then draws new conclusions about rules and relations that govern the world, and it identifies new patterns to connect the insight to. The process is similar to how children develop intelligence. A child can intuit, for example, that if 2 x 0 = 0 and 3 x 0 = 0 then 5 x 0 will also equal 0, or they could draw the conclusion that the next number in the series “2, 5, 8” will be 11. And the same kinds of intuition carry across to other areas, such as grammar, where it’s easy to identify rules for standard verb conjugations from examples like sing becoming sang and run becoming ran in the past tense. “We postulate that children learn everything based on experiences and that they are always looking for general patterns,” Strannegård says. (via Artificial intelligence program that learns like a child)