Thursday, April 21, 2016

Insects can teach us about the origins of consciousness

Are insects merely tiny robots? Or, in the phrase popularised by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, is there something it is like to be a bee?

Until recently, most scientists and philosophers would have laughed at the question. But now, research is challenging that dismissive attitude towards invertebrate consciousness.

It is worth clarifying what we mean when we talk about insect consciousness, since the term consciousness carries a lot of baggage. Everyone agrees that bees can take in environmental information and perform impressive computations on it.
We want to know something more: whether insects can feel and sense the environment from a first-person perspective. In philosophical jargon, this is sometimes called "phenomenal consciousness".
Rocks, plants and robots don't have this. Metaphorically speaking, they are dark inside. Conversely, most of us think that a dog running for its dinner isn't just a little guided missile. It smells its food, wants to eat and sees the world around it as it runs.

Each of these feel a certain way to us, and they feel like something for the dog too. If that is right, then dogs are conscious, at least in the minimal sense.

Does this ant look angry to you? Credit: r reeve/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Consciousness is sometimes used to refer to a much more complicated capacity: the ability to self-reflect. That is a rare achievement. Humans may well be the only animals that can become aware that they are aware. Even then, we are mostly just conscious in the more minimal sense, rarely pausing for true self-reflection.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Superadvanced alien civilizations probably don’t live in our cosmic neighborhood

If there are superadvanced civilizations out there in the nearby universe, they’re hiding themselves pretty well. So concludes an astronomer in the Netherlands who looked at a sample of galaxies that shine unusually brightly at midinfrared wavelengths—a sign that they may harbor a so-called Kardashev type III civilization, one that has the technology to harvest energy from stars across an entire galaxy. 

Russian astronomer Nikolai Kardashev proposed in the 1960s grading civilizations by the energy they used: the output of their home planet, their home star, or their home galaxy. A type III, galaxy-wide civilization could hypothetically surround all stars in energy-harvesting “Dyson spheres” (artist's representation above) but these would nevertheless leak a lot of waste heat in the midinfrared. A U.S. team last year drew up a list of several hundred bright midinfrared candidates from 100,000 local galaxies. 

But the new study, to be published this week in Astronomy & Astrophysics, compared the midinfrared output from 93 of those galaxies with their emission at radio wavelengths. Most of these measurements followed a rule called the midinfrared radio correlation, which applies to almost all galaxies. 
So, the study concludes, the midinfrared brightness of most of the sample galaxies probably comes from natural processes, such as dust clouds heated by regions of active star formation. 
And if there are Kardashev type III civilizations out there, they are either very rare or have the technology to hide their infrared emissions.

This new technology converts sea water into drinking water in minutes

Purifying dirty water is a notoriously difficult and expensive process - even in California, financial pressures affect what can be done to tackle the severe drought in the area. Those in developing nations have far less money to play around with, which is why a newly invented and ultra-cheap water cleaning process is looking so promising.
Developed by a team of researchers at Alexandria University in Egypt, the procedure uses a desalination technique called pervaporation to remove the salt from sea water and make it drinkable. Specially made synthetic membranes are used to filter out large salt particles and impurities so they can be evaporated away, and then the rest is heated up, vapourised, and condensed back into clean water.
Crucially, the membranes can be made in any lab using cheap materials that are available locally, and the vaporisation part of the process doesn't require any electricity. This means the new method is both inexpensive and suitable for areas without a regular power supply - both factors that are very important for developing countries.
The technique not only desalinates the seawater, it's capable of removing sewage and dirt from it too. The researchers combined expertise in oceanography, chemical engineering, agricultural engineering and biosystems engineering to come up with the solution, and their work has now been published in the journal Water Science and Technology.

Half of all marine life lost in 40 years: WWF report

The populations of some marine species have declined by 49 per cent in just four decades, according to one of the most extensive surveys of sealife ever compiled.

The Living Blue Planet Report, just released by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London, documents the extraordinary losses, which occurred from 1970 to 2012. Alarmingly, some fish species were found to have declined by almost 75 per cent.

The authors of the report attribute the dramatic population drops to human-driven climate change as well as to habitat loss, overexploitation and pollution.

"In less than a human generation, we can see dramatic losses in ocean wildlife -- they have declined by half -- and their habitats have been degraded and destroyed," said Mr Brad Ack, senior vice president for oceans at WWF.

"Driving all these trends are humans actions: from overfishing and resource depletion, to coastal development and pollution, to the greenhouse gas emissions causing ocean acidification and warming."

The findings were determined after researchers surveyed more than 10,000 populations of 3,038 marine species, including fish, birds, mammals and reptiles. The report estimates that close to one-third of the world's fish stocks are overfished, and one in four species of sharks, rays and skates are threatened with extinction.

Several shark species "have declined dramatically around the world due to overfishing," and other human-driven causes, said Professor Mahmood Shivji, director of the Guy Harvey Research Institute at Nova Southeastern University, who was not involved with the study.
Three-quarters of world's coral reefs threatened

Yet another key finding from the report is that three-quarters of the world's coral reefs are currently threatened. At current projected levels of warming and ocean acidification, all coral reefs are projected to be lost by the year 2050.

WOW!! A vast global ocean lies under the surface of Saturn’s moon, Enceladus

A huge global ocean is hidden underneath the surface of Saturn’s sixth largest moon, Enceladus, according to new research just announced by NASA.
NASA scientists made the discovery after noticing that the magnitude of Enceladus’s slight wobble as it orbits Saturn is too great to be accounted for if the moon’s outer ice shell were solidly connected to its rocky inner core, as was previously thought to be the case. The only explanation, says NASA, is that an uninterrupted body of water lies in between the ice crust and the moon’s inner core.
“If the surface and core were rigidly connected, the core would provide so much dead weight the wobble would be far smaller than we observe it to be,” said study co-author Matthew Tiscareno from the SETI Institute in the US in a statement. “This proves that there must be a global layer of liquid separating the surface from the core.”

Researchers explain human decision-making with physics theory

The next time someone accuses you of making an irrational decision, just explain that you're obeying the laws of quantum physics.

A new trend taking shape in  not only uses  to explain humans' (sometimes) paradoxical thinking, but may also help researchers resolve certain contradictions among the results of previous psychological studies.
According to Zheng Joyce Wang and others who try to model our decision-making processes mathematically, the equations and axioms that most closely match human behavior may be ones that are rooted in quantum physics.
"We have accumulated so many paradoxical findings in the field of cognition, and especially in decision-making," said Wang, who is an associate professor of communication and director of the Communication and Psychophysiology Lab at The Ohio State University.
"Whenever something comes up that isn't consistent with classical theories, we often label it as 'irrational.' But from the perspective of quantum cognition, some findings aren't irrational anymore. They're consistent with —and with how people really behave."

No Big Bang? Quantum equation predicts universe has no beginning

( —The universe may have existed forever, according to a new model that applies quantum correction terms to complement Einstein's theory of general relativity. The model may also account for dark matter and dark energy, resolving multiple problems at once.
The widely accepted age of the , as estimated by , is 13.8 billion years. In the beginning, everything in existence is thought to have occupied a single infinitely dense point, or . Only after this point began to expand in a "Big Bang" did the universe officially begin.
Although the Big Bang singularity arises directly and unavoidably from the mathematics of general relativity, some scientists see it as problematic because the math can explain only what happened immediately after—not at or before—the singularity.
"The Big Bang singularity is the most serious problem of general relativity because the laws of physics appear to break down there," Ahmed Farag Ali at Benha University and the Zewail City of Science and Technology, both in Egypt, told
Ali and coauthor Saurya Das at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, have shown in a paper published in Physics Letters B that the Big Bang singularity can be resolved by their  in which the universe has no beginning and no end.

Why you should start work at 10am

We shouldn’t make everyone come in at 9am just because it suits the boss’s sleeping patterns. It’s time to stagger starting times and let 30-somethings come in later, says one leading sleep scientist

Lots of us know we are sleep-deprived, but imagine if we could fix it with a fairly simple solution: getting up later. In a speech this week at the British science festival, Dr Paul Kelley, clinical research associate at the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at Oxford University, called for schools to stagger their starting times to work with the natural biological rhythms of their students. It would improve cognitive performance, exam results and students’ health (sleep deprivation has been linked with diabetes, depression, obesity and an impaired immune system).

It follows a paper, published last year, in which he noted that when children are around 10 their biological wake-up time is about 6.30am; at 16 this rises to 8am; and at 18, someone you may think of as a lazy teenager actually has a natural waking hour of 9am. The conventional school starting time works for 10-year-olds, but not 16- and 18-year-olds. For the older teenagers, it might be more sensible to start the school day at 11am or even later. “A 7am alarm call for older adolescents,” Kelley and his colleagues pointed out in the paper, “is the equivalent of a 4.30am start for a teacher in their 50s.”

Raising Children Without Religion May Be A Better Alternative, Suggests New Research

Gone are the days of the unyielding God-fearing mother as the archetype of good parenting, suggests a recent article from the Los Angeles Times. According to multiple reports, research has shown that a secular upbringing may be healthier for children. According to a 2010 Duke University study, kids raised this way display less susceptibility to racism and peer pressure, and are “less vengeful, less nationalistic, less militaristic, less authoritarian, and more tolerant, on average, than religious adults.” But the list of benefits doesn’t stop there.

Citing Pew Research, the Times’ Phil Zuckerman notes that there’s been a recent spike in American households who categorize themselves as "Nones" — their religious affiliation being “nothing in particular.” According to Zuckerman, modern nonreligious adults account for 23 percent of Americans. As early as the ’50s, that figure was only four percent. And with godlessness on the rise, researchers have begun analyzing the benefits of nonreligious child rearing more closely.

Global Marine Populations Have Halved Since 1970

The oceans are in a dire state. A new report released today by the WWF and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) has concluded that many marine species, including those critical to human food security, are in “potentially catastrophic decline” unless dramatic action is taken to stop overfishing and other major threats.

“In the space of a single generation, human activity has severely damaged the ocean by catching fish faster than they can reproduce while also destroying their nurseries. Profound changes are needed to ensure abundant ocean life for future generations," said Marco Lambertini, director general of WWF International. "Overfishing, destruction of marine habitats and climate change have dire consequences for the entire human population, with the poorest communities that rely on the sea getting hit fastest and hardest.”

The report tracked over 1,200 species of marine mammals, birds, reptiles and fish, and calculated their population trends over the last 45 years. The results are not good. The general trend is an overall decline in marine populations by 49%, but some species relied upon for food are faring even worse than that. Tuna and mackerel populations, for example, have dropped by a staggering 74%, while sea cucumber numbers have crashed by 98% around the Galapagos Islands and 94% in the Red Sea.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The chicken that lived for 18 months without a head

Seventy years ago, a farmer beheaded a chicken in Colorado, and it refused to die. Mike, as the bird became known, survived for 18 months and became famous. But how did he live without a head for so long, asks Chris Stokel-Walker.
On 10 September 1945 Lloyd Olsen and his wife Clara were killing chickens, on their farm in Fruita, Colorado. Olsen would decapitate the birds, his wife would clean them up. But one of the 40 or 50 animals that went under Olsen's hatchet that day didn't behave like the rest.
"They got down to the end and had one who was still alive, up and walking around," says the couple's great-grandson, Troy Waters, himself a farmer in Fruita. The chicken kicked and ran, and didn't stop.
It was placed in an old apple box on the farm's screened porch for the night, and when Lloyd Olsen woke the following morning, he stepped outside to see what had happened. "The damn thing was still alive," says Waters.
"It's part of our weird family history," says Christa Waters, his wife.
Waters heard the story as a boy, when his bedridden great-grandfather came to live in his parents' house. The two had adjacent bedrooms, and the old man, often sleepless, would talk for hours."He took the chicken carcasses to town to sell them at the meat market," Waters says.

Raising pay can reduce smoking rates

In addition to restricting when and where tobacco is used at work, UC Davis Health System research shows that employers can do something else to reduce smoking: raise wages.

Published in the August issue of the Annals of Epidemiology, the study found that a 10 percent increase in wages leads to about a 5 percent drop in smoking rates among workers who are male or who have high school educations or less and improves their overall chances of quitting smoking from 17 to 20 percent.

"Our findings are especially important as inflation-adjusted wages for low-income jobs have been dropping for decades and the percentage of workers in low-paying jobs has been growing nationwide," said study senior author Paul Leigh, professor of public health sciences and researcher with the Center for Healthcare Policy and Research at UC Davis. "Increasing the minimum wage could have a big impact on a significant health threat."

Smoking rates are declining in the U.S., but it remains the leading cause of preventable deaths from illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer. Leigh and lead author Juan Du, who received her doctoral degree at UC Davis, wanted to know if wage changes could leverage a further reduction in the number of people who smoke.

Quantum spookiness has been confirmed by first loophole-free experiment

It's official: reality is freaking weird.

Physicists have confirmed that distant particles really can influence each other and act in strange ways that can't be explained by common sense or, for the most part, the laws of physics.

This bizarre behaviour is what's known as quantum 'spookiness', and despite plenty of experiments showing that it exists, this is the first time it's been demonstrated with a loophole-free test, proving that Albert Einstein was wrong about quantum mechanics.According to quantum theory, a particle's nature doesn't exist until it's measured, which means it just hangs out in a superposition state until someone decides to check in on it. Particles can also be entangled, which means that they're inextricably linked together, and their nature is only defined by being the opposite of the other one.

So that means when you measure a particle, you're not only determining its nature in that moment, you're also defining the nature of its entangled partner. And that definition happens instantly, no matter how far apart the particles are. It's for this reason that Einstein, and many other physicists, have doubted the existence of quantum entanglement, because it essentially means that information is passing between the two entangled particles faster than the speed of light (like we said, freaking weird).


Monogamy Is Not Natural But It’s Nice

David Barash

Monogamy is under siege from our biology itself. Men are typically larger than women, have more muscle mass, are more inclined to violence and become sexually and socially mature later. These traits are characteristic of an animal species in which one male competes with other males to mate with multiple females.

For men, the underlying evolutionary calculus of polygamy is clear: the possibility for a larger number of offspring and thus enhanced evolutionary fitness. For women, the reasoning is more nuanced: the possibility of better genes for their children, improved access to material resources and social advancement. It can be argued that a woman would be better off as the 20th wife of a very wealthy man than as the only wife of a pauper.

Robotic Limbs Get A Sense Of Touch

Advanced prosthetics have for the past few years begun tapping into brain signals to provide amputees with impressive new levels of control. Patients think, and a limb moves. But getting a robotic arm or hand to sense what it’s touching, and send that feeling back to the brain, has been a harder task.
The U.S. Defense Department’s research division last week claimed a breakthrough in this area, issuing a press release touting a 28-year-old paralyzed person’s ability to “feel” physical sensations through a prosthetic hand. Researchers have directly connected the artificial appendage to his brain, giving him the ability to even identify which mechanical finger is being gently touched, according to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In 2013, other scientists at Case Western Reserve University also gave touch to amputees, giving patients precise-enough feeling of pressure in their fingertips to allow them to twist the stems off cherries.
The government isn’t providing much detail at this time about its achievement other than to say that researchers ran wires from arrays connected to the volunteer’s sensory and motor cortices—which identify tactile sensations and control body movements, respectively—to a mechanical hand developed by the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at Johns Hopkins University. The APL hand’s torque sensors can convert pressure applied to any of its fingers into electrical signals routed back to the volunteer’s brain.