Author Archives: Mara Bujor

About Mara Bujor

Mara is a student preparing to take the plunge and go to college. She's always been interested in anything new and intriguing as long as it made her think. She considers herself far from being a scientist but rather a seeker on his way to new and exciting answers and she's trying to make the internet educate people and show them the interesting part of science.

Photo: snapshot from the Wolf of Wall Street.

Science is dominated by the 1%

Photo: snapshot from the Wolf of Wall Street.

Photo: snapshot from the Wolf of Wall Street.

I’m not referring to the world’s billionaire elite, but to an exclusive group of researchers that have become so prolific they are now dominating the scientific community. To be more precise, fewer than 1% of researchers publish one or more papers a year. Moreover, this elite is responsible for publishing 41% of all papers, according to recent findings published in the journal PLOS ONE. These numbers are definitely surprising, but in the end they may raise more questions than answers.

The science elite

John Ioannidis of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California led the study which mined the Elsevier’s Scopus database  and looked at which names popped out more often and how frequent. In total, the team analyzed countless paper authored by 15 million scientists worldwide in many disciplines between 1996 and 2011.

“I decided to study this question because I had seen in my life a large number of talented people who just did not survive in the current system and with the current limited resources,” Ioannidis said.

Publishing papers is both the most desirable and daunting task a scientist can ask for, yet there are very few researchers that can hope to churn out papers year in, year out. However, even the team that made the meta analysis was caught off guard by this disproportional amount of scientists who are simply dominating the whole community. The ranks thin out even more as the study filtered out for authors who published more than one paper a year, as follows:

  • Two or more: 68,221
  • Three or more: 37,953
  • Four or more: 23,342
  • Five or more: 15,464
  • 10 or more: 3269

So, what do these numbers tell us? Well, if we wouldn’t know better, it would mean that most of the world’s  scientific contributions come from a tiny fraction of the community, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. There are only a couple of people who genuinely have the time, patience and dedication to publish more than two or three papers a year. What typically happens is a lead researchers will supervise the work of his doctoral students and often drop his name in the paper, and thus get indexed. Then there’s always the case of doubtful quality. There are millions of papers published each year, some in top journals, while other in rather modest journals. Considering the kind of articles get across, even in peer-reviewed journals, it’s no wonder we see so many ‘prolific’ authors.

To me at least, this means either millions of students all over the world are getting exploited or there’s genuinely a 1% elite that’s responsible for less than half of the world’s scientific contributions. I’m leaning towards the first.

Photo: littleanswer.com

Most left-handed males are born during the winter

Photo: littleanswer.com

Photo: littleanswer.com

Researchers at the School of Psychology, University of Vienna surveyed 13000 adults from Austria and Germany and found that most left-handed males are born during the winter. The difference is statistically significant, suggesting there’s a lot more at play than just chance. Namely, the findings seem to back the Geschwind-Galaburda theory of cerebral lateralization, which states high intrauterine testosterone levels delay left brain hemisphere maturation and thus promote left-handedness.

Lefties are cool

Only one in ten people in the world are left handed, and like most people living in a minority, lefties often get marginalized. Apparently, every mass produced good is made to work right handed, whether we’ll talking about cooking tools, musical instruments or gadgets. Some get even forced to write with their right hand in pre-school (which I believe is a really stupid thing to do!). Of course, if you’re a lefty, then by now you’ve learned to deal with it, and if you’ve been smart about it, you’ve learned to use it to your advantage. It’s no secret that lefties are much better are sports. For instance, just because all the other players are right handed, they find a lefty opponent unpredictable and harder to win against. Ask any right handed boxer about this and he’ll share some painful stories. Left handed people are also better artists, since they’re better at divergent thinking, a method of idea generation that explores many possible solutions. Also, people seem to vote for lefties: four of the last seven U.S. presidents were left-handed – quite a few, considering they’re a minority. Don’t feel too bad because you’re right handed.

Winter is coming… so are the lefties

Using a discovery-and-replication-sample design, the Austrian researchers found that, overall, 7.5 percent of women and 8.8 percent of men were left-handed. They were surprised to find that significantly more people were born left-handed in November, December, and January. On a monthly average, 8.2 percent of left-handed men were born during the period February to October. During November to January, this number rose to 10.5 percent. Why?

Clearly, the discrepancy is too high to account for a statistical anomaly. Instead, the results seem to point to a theory brought forth in the 1980s by US neurologists Norman Geschwind and Albert Galaburda, that posits that testosterone delays the maturation of the left brain hemisphere during embryonic development. Right handed people are left-hemisphere dominant, while left handed people are right-hemisphere dominant.

Testosterone is the adrogen hormone responsible for the development of many male defining sexual characteristics. During fetal development, the testosterone level of the mother and external factors may affect the baby’s testosterone levels. Specifically, more daylight during the summer time may increase testosterone levels, making a seasonality effect plausible. According to the current findings, there is a small, but robust and replicable, effect of birth seasonality on handedness. Considering differences in seasonal left handedness were only measured in man gives further credence to the variable testosterone theory. Previous, similar studies however have delivered mixed and inconsistent evidence. The causation needs to be further investigated.

Findings appeared in the journal Cortex.

caltech_brain_imaging

Part of the brain subjectively encodes information related to human emotions

Primates are among a couple of mammals that have a dedicated system for processing faces, something that involves a lot of neuropower and energy expenditure. While there are people that resemble each other, no two humans have the same exact faces (not even identical twins). Some people see, and thus analyze, thousands of faces each day, depending on how much they go outside. Recognizing emotions is an even more complicated process, one that gives even the brain some problems.

caltech_brain_imaging

Photo: Ralph Adolphs / Caltech. Arrows indicate responses from single neurons.

Researchers at Caltech, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena targeted brain activity in the amygdala, the region of the brain responsible for encoding information related to emotional reactions. Their findings suggest that some brain cells recognize emotional face patterns based on a subjective approach (i.e. the viewer’s preconception), and not through an entirely objective process that should have revealed the true emotional pattern. This is the first time neurons in the amygdala were shown to encode the subjective judgment of emotions shown in face stimuli, rather than simply their stimulus features.

[RELATED] Remembering faces is influenced by genetics

Participants in the study were shown images of partially obscured faces and asked to decide which emotion they were showing. They did not see the red circles shown here to outline the areas where the faces appeared. - See more at: http://www.caltech.edu/content/sorting-out-emotions#sthash.hOjJsi1h.dpuf

Participants in the study were shown images of partially obscured faces and asked to decide which emotion they were showing. They did not see the red circles shown here to outline the areas where the faces appeared. Photo: Ralph Adolphs / Caltech

For their purpose, the researchers investigated over 200 single neurons in the amygdalae of 7 patients treated for epilepsy who had surgically implanted depth electrodes. MRI image of the patients’ brain activity were taken while the participants were shown images of partially obscured faces showing either happiness or fear. Each participants was asked to judge which of the two emotions was shown. Here’s what the authors report:

“During trials where subjects responded correctly, we found neurons that distinguished fear vs. happy emotions as expressed by the displayed faces. During incorrect trials, these neurons indicated the patients’ subjective judgment. Additional analysis revealed that, on average, all neuronal responses were modulated most by increases or decreases in response to happy faces, and driven predominantly by judgments about the eye region of the face stimuli,” from the abstract of the paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

What this means is that the amygdala doesn’t necessarily respond to what’s actually there in the world, but to what SEEMS to be there, after it passes an internal filter. Things become more interesting when you take into account the fact that the amygdala is linked with a number of psychiatric diseases like depression or autism. Many of these afflictions might be due to a skewed perception of the patient’s surroundings.  That doesn’t mean the amygdala alone is responsible for all of this.

“Of course, the amygdala doesn’t accomplish anything by itself.  What we need to know next is what happens elsewhere in the brain,  so we need to record not only from the amygdala, but also from other brain regions with which the amygdala is connected,” says Shuo Wang, a postdoctoral fellow at Caltech and first author of the paper. 

A myriad of optical elements employed by the dutch researchers.Photo: TUDelft

Teleportation is possible, and is already a reality at the quantum scale

A myriad of optical elements employed by the dutch researchers.Photo: TUDelft

A myriad of optical elements employed by the dutch researchers.Photo: TUDelft

When people think of teleportation,  inevitably a Star Trek reference like “beam me up, Scotty’ comes to mind. You’ve got to admit though, it’s a really cool idea – how many times did you think about instantly traveling to some place distant? I used to wish for teleportation every single day of my life when I was a kid and had to walk to school really early in the morning. “If only I had a remote control and pushed the right button,” I thought. I outgrew teleportation of course, but some people, luckily, haven’t. Some researchers are giving practical thought to the idea made famous by Star Trek and actually pushing it towards reality. Although it might take many, many years or it might never happen at all, researchers today are making the first steps in this direction, and results so far have been impressive.

”What we are teleporting is the state of a particle,” Prof Hanson, from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, said.

”If you believe we are nothing more than a collection of atoms strung together in a particular way, then in principle it should be possible to teleport ourselves from one place to another.”

”In practice it’s extremely unlikely, but to say it can never work is very dangerous.

”I would not rule it out because there’s no fundamental law of physics preventing it.

”If it ever does happen it will be far in the future.”

Teleporting information

In a paper published on Thursday in the journal Science, Prof Hanson’s team showed for the first time that it was possible to teleport information encoded into sub-atomic particles between two points three metres apart with 100% reliability.

Unlike Star Trek, where people, their clothes or any kind of matter could be teleported atom by atom to a remote location, quantum teleportation works by transferring so-called quantum information — in this case what is known as the spin state of an electron. It relies on quantum entanglement or what Einstein used to call “spooky action at a distance”. If one of two entangled particles changes its quantum state, it influences the other and directs a instant change no matter if the two particles are spaced apart at the other ends of the universe. Giving one particle an ”up” spin, for instance, might always mean its entangled partner has a ”down” spin.

Prof Hanson’s experiment involved three entangled particles – a nitrogen atom locked in a diamond crystal and two electrons – at low temperatures. The temperature and the diamonds effectively create “miniprisons” in which the electrons were held. Four possible states were transmitted, each corresponding to a ”qubit”, the quantum equivalent of a digital ”bit”.

A classic bit can only have one of two values – “1” or “0”. Quantum bits, or qubits, can however be 1, 0 or a superposition of the two. Using this data system, quantum computers are predicted to outperform the classical computers we know and use today by far. For their experiment, the researchers were able to establish a spin, or value, for electrons, and then read the value reliably. A more ambitious experiment, involving the teleportation of information between buildings on the university campus 1,300 metres apart, is planned in July.

Prof Hanson said: “The main application of quantum teleportation is a quantum version of the internet, extending a global network that we can use to send quantum information.”

“We have shown that it’s possible to do this, and it works every time that you try. It provides the first building block of the future quantum internet.
One application nearest to a real life application is secure communication. What you’re doing is using entanglement as your communication channel. The information is teleported to the other side, and there’s no way anyone can intercept that information. In principle it’s 100 per cent secure.”

Troy Van Voorhis, professor of chemistry (left), and Marc Baldo, professor of electrical engineering (right). Photo: MIT

Excition fission model could vastly improve solar cell efficiency

Troy Van Voorhis, professor of chemistry (left), and Marc Baldo, professor of electrical engineering (right). Photo: MIT

Troy Van Voorhis, professor of chemistry (left), and Marc Baldo, professor of electrical engineering (right). Photo: MIT

The most basic principle of a solar cell is that it works by transferring the energy from an incoming photon (light) to a molecule, which causes one or more electrons to become displaced until an electrical current is formed. That’s the absolute gist of it, only besides electricity, some of the incoming photon energy gets lost as waste heat. Oddly enough, however, there are some organic materials that behave in the opposite way: when extra energy is given, more electrons form.

Weird physics

A team of researchers at MIT used both experiments and theoretical models to explain the mechanics of this phenomenon – called singlet exciton fission – and thus help solar cells become vastly more efficient.

The phenomenon was first observed in the 1960s, yet the exact mechanism involved has become the subject of intense controversy in the field. MIT’s Troy Van Voorhis, professor of chemistry, and Marc Baldo, professor of electrical engineering, led a team which investigated this odd behaviour. They synthesized and gathered materials made of four types of exciton fission molecules decorated with various sorts of “spinach” — bulky side groups of atoms that change the molecular spacing without altering the physics or chemistry. They then subjected these to various experiments to determine their fission rate.

The MIT team turned to experts including Moungi Bawendi, the Lester Wolfe Professor of Chemistry, and special equipment at Brookhaven National Laboratory and the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, under the direction of Richard Friend.

Experimental data and theoretical models confirm once and for all what was first proposed some 50 years ago: when excess energy is available in these materials, an electron in an excited molecule swaps places with an electron in an unexcited molecule nearby. The result: one photon in, two electrons out. “

“The simple theory proposed decades ago turns out to explain the behavior,” Van Voorhis says. “The controversial, or ‘exotic,’ mechanisms proposed more recently aren’t required to explain what’s being observed here.”

As such, the results provide a solid guideline for designing solar cells with these sort of exotic materials. They show that molecular packing is important in defining the rate of fission — but only to a point. When the molecules are very close together, the electrons move so quickly that the molecules giving and receiving them don’t have time to adjust. Indeed, a far more important factor is choosing a material that has the right inherent energy levels.

David Reichman, a professor of chemistry at Columbia University who was not involved in this research, considers the new findings “a very important contribution to the singlet fission literature. Via a synergistic combination of modeling, crystal engineering, and experiment, the authors have provided the first systematic study of parameters influencing fission rates,” he says. Their findings “should strongly influence design criteria of fission materials away from goals involving molecular packing and toward a focus on the electronic energy levels of selected materials.”

The results are reported in the journal Nature Chemistry. 

Dogs to help children improve their reading skills

large_read-to-dog-3-11

Wonderful companions. Check. Reliable and intelligent. Check. A cure for loneliness. Check. Wonderful reading tutors? Acoording to recent research all these are perfectly true about dogs. Not only do these pets enrich or lives and teach us what responsibility is but they also prove to help young students improve their reading skills, or at least this is what recent research shows.

St Michael’s Primary School in Bournemouth, Dorset developed in April a program in which seven or eight-year olds read for 45 minutes each day to a dog.

The teachers consider the scheme to  be a very valuable one as progress was clearly noticeable, the impact it had on children being described as “significant”. This is hardly surprising as now children are really looking forward to read to their furry friends at school but also at home. Moreover, there’s no pesky adult to listen  just in order to criticise them or schoolmates to laugh at their mistakes or become impacient. Dogs are simply non-judgmental.

Children are now regarding reading as something positive and not a burden, this being the beginning of their life as readers. The program is especially efficient in the cases of children with low self-esteem as usually it is not intelligence that they lack, but confidence.

Trained dogs like Yorkshire Terriers, Labradors and Shetland sheepdogs are used in the scheme so that the relations between children and animals could be easily established. After the reading sessions children reward their “audience” by playing with the dogs and petting them. After all, it’s not all about reading, but about the ability to communicate too.

The program was organised by the Caring Canines charity and other schools have also shown their interest towards it.

However, not everyone agrees with the method. For example, Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education claims that the fact that dogs cannot correct the children’s mistakes means that real progress is not actually made. The reading dilemma remains.

Echolocation: a new chance for the blind?

As much as technology has improved, the blind still struggle with many of the problems they faced say, 1000 years ago.

braille

However, as researchers from the the University of Alcalá de Henares (UAH) have discovered, the solution may be provided by nature, or more exactly by  other inhabitants of our planet: dolphins and bats. It seems that humans can be just as effective at using echolocation in order to avoid abjects and all it takes is a bit of training.

Several studies were conducted for this purpose. Firstly, the scientists had to discover the most effective sound that could be used, after analysing their physical properties. The conclusion was finally drawn:

The almost ideal sound is the ‘palate click, a click made by placing the tip of the tongue on the palate, just behind the teeth, and moving it quickly backwards, although it is often done downwards, which is wrong”

explained Juan Antonio Martínez, lead author of the study.

These particular sounds are similar to the ones used by dolphins, but at another scale as the sea mammals have special organs for this. The difference is clear: 200 “clicks” per second – the dolphins- to 3-4 “clicks” – the humans. Echolocation is three-dimensional as it allows one to appreciate the distance of an object based on the time that elapsses since the emission of the sound and the moment the echo is received as the sound wave is reflected by the surrounding objects.

echolocation

Moreover, a special method was developed so that people could use echolocation in their daily life. Firstly, one must learn to distinguish between their sounds and any other. Secondly, it is necessary to distinguish between objects according to their geometrical properties, like a sonar does. Although some time is necessary to develop this skill, the results are quite fast. Practising for about two hours every day for a few weeks should be enough for someone to learn to distinguish between a tree and a pavement.

Also the “sh” sount used to make someone keep quiet might prove useful. Moving a pencil, for example, in front of the mouth will definitely be noticed.

Finally, the “palate clicks” must be mastered as they must be properly emitted. in order to succeed, researchers used a laser pointer showing at which part of an object the sound should be aimed.

It seems that not only the blind could benefit fomt this technique, but also the deaf as vibrations are  perceived in the tongue and the bones and not only in the ear. Moreover, firemen, rescue tems or just people lost in the fog could use the technique too.

Echolocation could even prove to be more effective than eyesight in some cases. At first, researchers were only able to tell if someone was or not in front of them, but now they can detect internal structures like bones and even objects from a bag.

As complicated as it may seem, some people have learnt the technique “by trial and error”. A well-known case is the one of Daniel Kisch, the only blind person who was awarded a certificate which made him a guide for other blind people.

source: Plataforma SINC

How global warming made Scotland’s sheep shrink

sheeep

Each of us can easily feel the effects of global warming especially now when we practically melt in our homes. However, it seems that there are some more… peculiar effects. Scientists have discovered that a wild species of sheep from the island of St. Kilda has begun to reduce their size as a result of the changing climate.

The Soay sheep is an unique breed that has developed on this island since the Neolithic. They are far from being white and fluffy as their domesticated relatives, and the small, brown animals are , in fact, quite primitive.

The sheep lived undisturbed on their island chewing grass and jumping from a rock to another until scientists noticed that they had begun to shrink since the 80s. This is quite unusual as the evolutionary law says that whoever is bigger survives and breeds. So what happened?

sheeps

The answer is that in this case global warming gave a hand to the smaller individuals and so, they survived the winters, which are now shorter and warmer. In the past, the lambs had to gain as much weight as possible in order to reach the following spring. Now, smaller animals can do the same thing and they also have the opportunity to breed. But don’t think of cat-sized sheep roaming the island! In fact, their weight has dropped by 81 grams each year, which is hardly noticeable.

The discovery is nonetheless important as it shows that animals can adapt to climatic changes quite fast and that evolution has a say in this case. The same phenomenon was noticed in other species too but in those cases it was harder to reach a conclusion as other factors were involved. In the case of the sheep, there are no predators or competitors for the same food on the island.

Not even dogs are allowed on the island, so scientists had to get their own hands dirty in order to weigh the  animals, which happen to be expert jumpers.

Anyway, this is not the first time things became weird on an island. In some cases the animals became some real giants such as the tortioses in Galapagos or the extinct rats in Indonesia, which reached the size of a dog. In other situations being small meant surviving: the dwarf elephants in Malta or the pigmy hippos in Madagascar learnt this lesson before finally becoming extinct.

source: The Guardian

New chemical element in the Periodic Table!

chemimage1

Were you one of those students who used to complain about all those chemical elements you had to study at school? Well, I guess this particular piece of news will not exactly make you celebrate.

It seems that chemistry has yet a lot more to offer as the element 112 has just been recognised by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC). Now what the scientists at the Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt have to do it’s find it a name

The suggestion is to be submitted and in about 6 months the element will finally be “baptised”.

The new discovery has made all the scientists from Germany, Finland, Russia and Slovakia who were involved in the research extremely delighted even though it’s not the first time a chemical element has been discovered by GSI;  the elements: Bohrium(107), Hassium(108), Meitnerium(109), Darmstadtium(110) and Roentgenium(111) are also their discoveries.

The new element has already set a new record as it is the heaviest one in the periodic table, being 277 times heavier than hydrogen.

The story of the new element began in 1996 when the scientists created the first atom of the element by using an accelerator. Another atom was produced in 2002 and then more were created.

In order to give birth to the new element zinc ions were “fired” onto a lead target by using the accelerator. The resulted nuclear fusion gave birth to the nucleus of the new element 112, this number being the sum of the atomic numbers of lead (82) and zinc(30). The atomic number represents the number of protons in the nucleus of an element; neutrons are not taken into cosideration as they do not influence the classification of the elements.

So there it is: a new chemical element has been welcome by the scientific community but don’t worry: it will take some time before it gets into the Chemistry books!

source:GSI Helmholtzzentrum für Schwerionenforschung.

Komodo dragons are venomous

The Komodo dragon is definitely one of the most impressive and dangerous creatures to roam the Earth. Reaching 3 metres and more than 70 kilos and delivering one of the most fatal bites in the reptilian world, it’s no wonder that it inspired so many legends and fears. However, it does not all end here: it seems that this modern dragon is also among the few species of lizards that are venomous.

Until recently scientists had all kinds of assumptions related to the way the dragon kills its prey as it releases it after the bite. Did they let the prey die because of the severe bleeding or did the bacteria in their saliva finish the job?

Komodo dragons feed on large mammals such as wild boars, deers or goats and they spend hours motionless waiting for the prey to show up. The attack is surprising as the huge lizard ambushes it with its jaws open, which must be an image worse than any nightmare.

The mystery of its killing methods remained until magnetic resonance imaging scans revealed the fact that the bite, which is clearly weaker than the one of a crocodile for example, hid a dirty secret: venom glands.

komodo

After this discovery, the glands of a terminally-ill dragon from a zoo were removed for further study. It seems that the poison is similar to the one found in Gila monsters or snakes. The effect is sudden and devastating: it causes a sudden drop in blood pressure which sends the prey into shock. Moreover, it stops the blood from clotting, thus making the animal bleed to death.

The discovery suggests that other lizards may as well hide a trick like this; util recently only the Gila monster and the Mexican beaded lizard, both living in southern US states and Mexico were known to possess venomous glands.

source: The Guardian

Did sauropods walk with their necks upright?

They could get as long as 40 metres and as heavy as 100 tons, making the earth shake literally as they walked. These were the sauropods: the gentle giants that were believed to have sticked their necks out in front of them. Even though we’ve seen them this way in museums and documentaries such as BBC’s Walking with Dinosaurs, new studies come to prove that they had a majestic, swan-like posture.

The base of their necks was strongly curved upwards, so unless they held their heads totally different from any other known creature, the general opinion we have about sauropods is mistaken. Hard to imagine a 40-tonne swan?

Well, this hypothesis seems to be the most likely to be true after the scientists studied vertebraes from cats, rabbits, turtles or crocodiles. By putting the dinosaur bones together, an S-shaped curve emerged, a curve which proves the new theory. The bones alone suggested that the sauropod’s posture was horyzontal.

However, some still refuse to believe the new eveidence, even though that would mean that these dinosaurs held their heads in a way no other creature has ever done.

Of course, such mistakes are not abnormal in the world of paleontology. At first, when the elasmosaur was discovered the scientists placed its head on the tip of its tail, where it remained until someone noticed something was wrong.

But in this case, the shock was bigger as it  meant that most assumptions about their behavior are wrong. The way they spotted predators, the way they fed as they could reach other types of food, their part in the food chain, it would all have to change. Of course, it’s impossible to know for sure as these creatures have disappeared a long time ago. Other specialists claim that the sauropods may have had a vertical posture now and then, but that they had to come down in order to drink. So, no mistake in the way the dinosaurs are depicted in museums, right?

Well, this idea is far from being new as in the 50’s it was considered to be the correct one. However, it was later suggested that their blood pressure would increase to a catastrophic level because of the vertical posture. A two-tonne heart would be necessary in this case, which was way too big. But another “maybe” comes to discussion. What if they found a solution symilar to the one found by the giraffes?
Source: The Guardian

Why some people never forget a face while others can’t even remember who you are

Have you ever felt insignificant because someone didn’t remember your face (not to mention your name)? Have you ever freaked out because someone else remembered the exact time and date of your first meeting…three years earlier? Well, you’re not so unimpressive so as not to be recognized later and neither are the ones around you some weirdos. It’s just that some people can remember faces extremely well and others…can’t.
It seems that this skill varies from one individual to another so that some are very good at this, while others can hardly remember the people they saw at a party a day before. About 2% of the population even seems to have “face-blindness”, which is called prosopagnosia. On the other hand, some have turned this into a real superpower, literally never forgetting a face they focus on.
In order to assess better this ability the scientists used standardized face recognition tests, which were given to the test subjects. The results suggest that there is a lot more than having or not having this “talent”. What varies is the perception itself and also the spectrum of abilities one possesses.

Super-recognizers are able to recognize people far more often than they are recognized, so they have to pretend not to know who someone is so as no to create awkward moments. These people’s stories can really be amazing. They can recognize people who had been shopping at the same supermarket at the same day three months earlier even if they did not interact at all. One woman who was part of the study was even able to recognize on the street a woman who had served her as a waitress in a restaurant in another town five years before the study. The woman confirmed that she had in fact worked there.
Super-recognizers have even proved able to use their ability even if the person who they had seen changed his or her hair color or aged. The research proves to be highly important for eyewitness testimony, or for interviewing for some jobs, such as security or those who check identification.
The evolution of our society has made this particular skill an extremely necessary one. In the past a much smaller number of people interacted with each other. Now, in our huge cities and communities it is almost impossible to avoid unpleasant situations if you are unable to remember people’s faces.

In Madrid and Barcelona cocaine is in the air

It’s quite impossible not to be aware of the fact that someone is smoking marijuana somewhere around you because of its particular smell. However, who would have suspected that the air people breathe in a certain area of a city could in fact hide traces of 5 powerful drugs in it?

This is what researchers discovered when they analyzed the air from Barcelona and Madrid, where two air-quality stations detected something a bit out of the ordinary. The “little something” included traces of amphetamines, opiates, cannabinoids and lysergic acid, which is a relative of LSD. Cocaine was found in the biggest quantities.

But before thinking that everyone in these cities is a bit high or before buying your ticket to Spain find out that even though the drugs should not be in the air in so large quantities,  not even breathing it for 1000 years would be the equivalent of a dose.

The scientists have also pointed out that these levels are not the ones to be found throughout these cities. The areas where the air was analyzed were well-known for drug consumption. One test site was near a derelict building believed to be used by drug dealers and the others were close to universities.

Higher concentrations were noticed during the weekends when drug consumption is thought to be higher. Cocaine was found in quantities which varied from 29 to 850 picograms ( 1 picogram = 1 trillionth of a gram).

Even though the numbers may not seem very impressive, they are much superior to the ones found in Rome and Tranto ( 100 picograms).

The drugs were detected by using quartz microfiber filters in the air-testing stations, which allowed the research to have an anonymous character. This method is aimed at assessing drug consumption in a certain area of a city and the results are yet to be analysed.

source: The Guardian

Is it possible to inherit happiness?

So here it is: a new study comes to show that the way we feel throughout our lives may determine our children’s development. It’s all a problem of chemistry: the “chemistry” of happiness or sadness. However, don’t think that the fact that one’s parents had a bad day at work turned him or her into a emo kid. The other factors such as education, family situation and genetic traits remain just as important as before.

What Dr, Halabe Bucay of Research Center Halabe and Darwich, Mexico, wanted to suggest is that different moods lead to the release of certain substances and hormones by the brain, substances that could affect eggs and sperm, which means the offspring too. Some genes may be modified by these substances, which should ultimately influence the way a child develops.

So, one’s depression, generalised happiness or other mental states could lead to some changes at the time of the conception in the child to be born 9 months later.

Prior to this discovery scientists were fully aware of the effects endorphins or drug consumption, especially marijuana and heroin, could have on the development of a baby as they alterned the patterns of the genes.

And talking about genes: the genes you receive from your parents are also very likely to influence or maybe even determine your character ( the old nature versus nurture question).

And still, it seems very likely that one’s parents’ behavior and state of mind before the time of the conception may very well have a say in the way a child will evolve. The idea is more than intriguing and the debate is yet to start. More data is necessary before actually making parents reconsider their lifestyle and level of happiness before having a baby.

sourcr: Elsevier

Salamaders show that being different means staying alive

Remember when we were kids and everyone picked on the ones who looked peculiar in a way or another starting from their hair color and ending with their height? Well, whether you were a “victim” or a “predator” find out that there is a reason why some individuals of a species look at least a bit different. It simply makes predators look away.

As the researchers from the University of Tennessee discovered, birds are most likely to attack those salamanders that look like the majority. The scientists wanted to see how Blue Jays would react facing the prevalence of a dorsal stripe among a group of salamanders.

The discovery is quite intriguing as usually throughout a species’ evolution those traits that make an individual stronger, more able to find food or escape predators are the ones to “survive” while the other ones disappear. As an example those giraffes who had a longer neck were more likely to breed so that in the end the entire species possesses this trait.

However, in this case it seems that being different might keep predators away, thus allowing the individual to survive and breed. The regular back pattern of the salamanders makes them similar to the environment they live in, which makes them hard to see. The striped salamanders released by the researchers in the first day outnumbered the unstriped by nine to one or the other way around. On test days the numbers were evened out but the Blue Jays proved to prefer to attack those models that had seen most before that day. The birds were used to concentrate in order to spot a salamander on the forest floor, this constant effort making them not even notice the ones who were not striped.

So, it seems that the experiment proves a new theory: predators seem to avoid those individuals who look peculiar. Too bad it does not work for bullies too!

source:BioMed Central

World’s first genome transplant – a step forward towards creating synthetic life forms

Once the first transplant was conducted the entire history stated to change and since then science has broken a lot of barriers. Now scientists are preparing to create synthetic life forms (don’t think about badass creatures half robots half reptiles, it’s all about bacteria) in order to stop our dependence on fuels (so in a way, it’s even cooler than cyborgs).

An important step has just been made as scientists managed to transplant the genome from one species of bacteria to another species, which developed the same characters with the first one. In a nutshell, they managed to turn one species into another. The entire genetic code from Mycoplasma mycoides was extracted and then transferred to Mycoplasma capricolum, which turned into the first species and behaved like it.

The leader of the research team is Craig Venter, the same scientist who raced to sequence the human genome; now his new purpose being to create “green” microbes in order to produce Earth-friendly fuels for the future.

By practically transforming one species into another, the idea of creating synthetic forms of life seems no longer just a distant dream, but something very likely to happen in the following years. In order to create artificial life the researchers will have to design a new genetic code on the computer and then transplant it into another organism so as to create a new species.

The newly created organisms will produce environmentally-friendly fuels as natural waste products, these fuels breaking our dependence oil oil or coal. Both the fact that they destroy the atmosphere and create massive pollution and the fact that we are running out of traditional sources of energy make everyone pray that the researchers succeed in their attempt. Dr. Venter is quite optimistic: he claims that we will be using the new fuels within a decade.

The new scientific achievement is another sign that synthetic biology is becoming increasingly important. Researchers have already developed the tools to recreate the flu virus which killed millions all around the world in 1918 and they are planning to modify human cells and understand exactly how life works.

All these have clearly raised many questions related to the ethics involved in these experiments. Many fear the risk of terrorists or simply not-very-well-intentioned scientists creating devastating biological weapons. There is also the risk of these organisms escaping the lab and damaging the environment, which is not prepared for them.

However, most people agree with the research as most great discoveries involve a certain degree of risk and the success of this particular discovery could change the world.

 

Earth Day 2009 – don’t let it be just another day!

In case you didn’t know, today is Earth Day and this year we are celebrating it for the 39th time. If you gladly supported Earth Hour this is a great new opportunity to show that you do care about the environment and that you believe in a sustainable future ( see here how). If you spent Earth Hour watching TV then you’d better ask about how Earth Day is celebrated in your area and if there is something going on check it out: it is up to each of us to make a change for the best!

Earth Day was celebrated for the first time in 1970 thanks to U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson as an environmental teach-in. Now it is celebrated in 175 countries by about 500 million people. The UN is also celebrating an Earth Day on the March Equinox, which is often on the 20th of this month.

Oddly (or not), the first time Earth Day was celebrated coincided with Lenin’s one hundredth birthday, which was assumed by many to be a sign of the communist influence. However, out of 10 million people who celebrate their birthday everyday it’s a bit difficult to avoid such coincidences.

This year’s celebration will mark the beginning of The Green Generation Campaign, which will be the main aim of Earth Day 2010, the 40th edition (let there be a lot more!). Three main goals have been established:

– increasing the use of renewable energy sources up to the point in which society is no longer dependent on petrol and natural gas.

– get people involved so that they they will understand the importance of sustainable, responsible consumption and put their knowledge into practice

-the transformation of the economy into a green one which would offer jobs to many of the unemployed and also modifying the education system so that it will promote the right values, especially sustainability.

But until then see what it is that YOU can do in your area. A bit of energy, a lot of will, a good purpose and some good friends is what it takes to start something truly great! Happy Earth Day!

Body odour – now essential for online dating!

So, you’ve been talking with him/her on  the Internet for the last four months: personality? check. sense of humor? check. good looks? check. Ready to meet you perfect half? Well, don’t forget about checking the body odor first!

This is not a joke, as weird as it may sound. It won’t be long before online dating websites will allow members to see if they would find their partner’s smell pleasant or would make them go away fast.  And yes, there is serious scientific background to support this initiative: our sense of smell proves to be highly important when choosing someone and it is all a matter of having strong, healthy children. But let’s not rush things.

Biologist August Hämmerli, who started this initiative through the company Basisnote, claims that no matter how well we get along with someone, an unpleasant body smell would make us go away in the end. So, all you have to do in order to avoid possible unpleasant situations is to take a fast saliva test (which is somewhat similar to a pregnancy test) in order to determine your body odor and then enter it as a code in a database; in a matter of seconds you can find out if the person you were flirting with would be pleasant to you and the other way around, if he or she has entered their own code, of course. The whole thing should last for 20 minutes and it’s far from being complicated.

But what factors are involved when liking someone’s smell? Well, it is not a matter of personal hygiene and expensive cologne, but of choosing a partner who is as different genetically from you as possible so as to have strong, healthy children. And even if having a child is the last thing that crosses your mind when flirting with someone, the whole process takes part unconsciously, as the nose’s sensitive receptors are always active.

Mice and other mammals were known to choose their partners by smelling them but until recently no one thought people do the same thing too.

During an experiment in the 90’s female students were given T-shirts that had been worn by men and they were asked to say which smell was the most attractive and which one the least. The man whose immune system differed the most was constantly chosen.

The genes of the MHC, the Major Histocompatibility Complex, which are the ones who carry instructions for various compartments of the immune system, are the ones to be analysed. They bind fragments of foreign proteins such as in the case of an infection and pass them to the defence system, which triggers a reaction. The more different MHC molecules one has, the more pathogents he or she can fight against – and so will the offspring.

In humans, there are about 100 variations of each of the 9 basic MHC genes, and they are the ones to give you your personal scent. The more you differ from your partner, the more he or she will like your smell.

Now the researchers are negotiating with several online dating platforms but they are confident that the idea will catch on quickly. But don’t forget to be charming and funny! This is only the last phase and nobody wants to know how a jerk smells like!

source: ETH Zurich.


Touch and sight – more connected than previously thought

What you see may be very much related to what you’ve just felt. Even though we were taught at school that each sense is processed in another area of the brain it seems that this theory may be wrong and that there is a lot more to understand about the way human brain works.

As an example, a light ripple of pins moving up the fingertip tricked the subjects of a study into perceiving some lines moving on a screen as moving down, and the other way around. So, there is something going on.

Some recent studies have proved that the way our brain works –  in this case processes the most important senses – is far more complex than thought for decades. Firstly, it was discovered that hearing and seeing are related to each other, but now it seems that this is far from being the end of the story.

In order to take the theory even further, a trick of perception named aftereffect was used by scientists, a phenomenon that occurs for example when watching a waterfall. Staring at it for some time will eventually make one perceive the stationary rocks as moving up. This happens because the neurons which are in charge of the “down” get tired while the “up” ones are still fresh and create this impression.

But what interested the researchers was the aftereffect caused by the sense of touch. A small gadget of the size of a stamp made of 60 pins in rows was used throughout the study as the participants were asked to rest a finger on top of it. Some of the rows were raised at different times, thus creating a gentle prodding movement which was directed away or toward the person, for ten seconds. Then, the subjects were asked to look at a computer screen on which they could see common patterns of white and black horizontal lines. The lines were constantly moving and switching places, but their entire movement could be characterized as upward or downward.

Simple task, isn’t it? Well, not when the brain has a lot of stimuli to cope with. This is why the subjects who had felt the lines on the little device going up perceived the lines on the screen as going down and the other way around. This is the the visual aftereffect. A touch aftereffect can also be induced as watching lines going up on a screen made the participants feel the pins as going down.

Now it seems quite clear that sight and touch are connected to a larger extent than it was expected. Now, the next step is to find where exactly in the brain the connection is created.

source: Body & Brain

Cleaning products give birth to deadly antibiotics-resistant bugs

Disinfectants, all kinds of shampoos, fabric softeners…we love them , we use them and then they go down the drain. Nothing bad about cleanliness, isn’t it? Unfortunately, our foamy friends can prove to be a timebomb as they can create invisible monsters: bugs that are not affected by antibiotics.

Researchers from England have discovered this phenomenon while analyzing soil samples which contained such bacteria, which may have infected humans already. Only in this country 1.5 m tonnes of sewage sludge are produced, most of which ends up on farmland, and 11bn liters of water, which is usually thrown in rivers or estuaries. All these seem to have caused a worrying phenomenon, which could affect millions.

This study proves to be highly important as until now the apparition of these superbugs  was blamed on poor conditions in hospitals or the over-prescription of antibiotics. However the scinetists pointed out that MRSA, which caused thousands of deaths is not related to the disinfectants. Still, the problem remains

The quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs) from various household cleaning products were looked at by scientists as these substances kill bacteria when they are in large quantities, but cause their immunity when they are diluted.

In this case evolution seems to work against us, as the resistant bacteria survives and multiplies continuously. The piece of DNA responsible for this also confers resistance to antibiotics, so this is why the sewage may become the perect environment for some extremely deadly bugs. As they enter the food chain, the risk becomes enormous.

Agricultural workers are exposed the most to this phenomenon, especially as some samples of pig slurry that were analyzed included the dangerous bacteria.

Further research is to be made as the risk posed by the newly-developed bacteria cannot be ignored. And the cause of all these is right there in our closets…

source: www.guardian.co.uk