Big brains come with big social groups in whales and dolphins

Science - Posted On:2017-10-20 13:30:00 Source: arstechnica

Why are humans so smart? We must have evolved in an environment that made more intelligent individuals likely to survive. But this just raises new questions: what factors in the environment could have created an evolutionary pressure for intelligence? And how have other species that faced similar pressures ended up evolving?

One prominent hypothesis about our brains is that the human lineage became especially social, which required a suite of advanced cognitive skills to manage the relationships that were intertwined with survival. There’s evidence that social behavior is associated with bigger brains across the primate family, and the same correlation has been found in birds.

There's now evidence that whale and dolphin brains show the same relationship. The finding offers new support for the “social brain hypothesis," and it's an exciting discovery. But not all researchers agree on how this evidence should be interpreted.

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NASA chooses not to tell Congress how much deep space missions cost

Science - Posted On:2017-10-20 13:00:00 Source: arstechnica

This week, the US Government Accountability Office reported on progress the space agency is making to prepare the Space Launch System rocket, Orion spacecraft, and launch systems at Kennedy Space Center for future missions. NASA is making progress on these complex integration activities, the report finds, but the space agency has a long ways to go to make a test flight in late 2019 or early 2020.

One surprise in the report is that NASA still has not provided Congress (or anyone else) with cost estimates for the first crewed mission of the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft, which could occur in 2023 or later. This "Exploration Mission 2," which would entail flying a crew of four into deep space and possibly delivering the first component of a space station into lunar orbit, would mark the first human mission after 12 years of development of the rocket and nearly two decades of work on Orion.

"Establishing a cost and schedule baseline for NASA’s second mission is an important initial step in understanding and gaining support," the report states of NASA's exploration plans, which include building the deep space station and then going to the lunar surface or on to Mars. "NASA’s ongoing refusal to establish this baseline is short-sighted, because EM-2 is part of a larger conversation about the affordability of a crewed mission to Mars."

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NASA chooses to not tell Congress how much deep space missions cost

Science - Posted On:2017-10-20 12:45:00 Source: arstechnica

This week, the US Government Accountability Office reported on progress the space agency is making to prepare the Space Launch System rocket, Orion spacecraft, and launch systems at Kennedy Space Center for future missions. NASA is making progress on these complex integration activities, the report finds, but the space agency has a long ways to go to make a test flight in late 2019 or early 2020.

One surprise in the report is that NASA still has not provided Congress (or anyone else) with cost estimates for the first crewed mission of the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft, which could occur in 2023 or later. This "Exploration Mission 2," which would entail flying a crew of four into deep space and possibly delivering the first component of a space station into lunar orbit, would mark the first human mission after 12 years of development of the rocket and nearly two decades of work on Orion.

"Establishing a cost and schedule baseline for NASA’s second mission is an important initial step in understanding and gaining support," the report states of NASA's exploration plans, which include building the deep space station and then going to the lunar surface, or onto Mars. "NASA’s ongoing refusal to establish this baseline is short-sighted, because EM-2 is part of a larger conversation about the affordability of a crewed mission to Mars."

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Nightmare fuel: Trapped in airplane seat crawling with bedbugs

Science - Posted On:2017-10-20 11:45:00 Source: arstechnica

British Airways has apologized to a Canadian family who reported being feasted upon by a pack of bedbugs during an overnight flight from Vancouver to London earlier this month, CTV Vancouver reported.

“She was like, 'Oh ok, sorry about that. We're sold out. We don't have anywhere to move you',” Szilagyi told CTV.

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Thousands of DIY foodies sickened in outbreak from poor agricultural practices

Science - Posted On:2017-10-20 10:44:56 Source: arstechnica

As the trend of backyard flock tending skyrocketed in recent years, so has deadly infections, the Associated Press reports.

Since 2015, the number of Salmonella infections from contact with backyard poultry has quadrupled across the nation. This year, nearly every state has been pecked by outbreak strains; only Alaska and Delaware can crow about dodging them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed 1,120 cases. Nearly 250 of those involved hospitalization, and one person died.

But that is likely just scratching the surface of the real numbers, according to CDC veterinarian Megin Nichols. “For one Salmonella case we know of in an outbreak, there are up to 30 others that we don’t know about,” she told the AP.

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Blue Origin Successfully Test Fires Game-Changing BE-4 Rocket Engine

science - Posted On:2017-10-20 06:14:57 Source: slashdot

Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin space venture has successfully test-fired its BE-4 rocket engine, marking a key step in the development of its own New Glenn rocket as well as United Launch Alliance's next-generation rocket. GeekWire reports: ULA has been waiting for months to get good news about the BE-4 tests in West Texas. The company wanted to see a successful full-scale test before going ahead with plans to use the BE-4 engine on its Vulcan rocket, which is due to have its first flight in 2019. A Blue Origin competitor, Aerojet Rocketdyne, has been waiting in the wings with its AR1 engine, which ULA saw as a "Plan B" for the Vulcan in case the BE-4 faltered. Wednesday's initial hot-firing didn't reach full power or full duration, but the test's success nevertheless reduces the likelihood that ULA would turn to the AR1. The BE-4 engine, which uses liquefied natural gas as fuel, is built at Blue Origin's production facility in Kent, Wash., and shipped down to Texas for testing. Assuming that it's accepted for ULA's use, engine production will eventually shift to a factory in Huntsville, Ala. Engines for the orbital-class New Glenn rocket will go to Blue Origin's rocket factory in Florida, which is due to be completed by the end of this year. Read more of this story at Slashdot.

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Scientists investigate why crows are so playful

Science - Posted On:2017-10-19 19:29:59 Source: arstechnica

Crows share an interesting set of behaviors with humans: they like to play, and they often use tools. We know that humans play to learn. When toddlers knock over a pile of blocks, they're developing the ability to build and measure objects in the real world. The question is, do crows play for the same reason? An international team of cognitive scientists played with some crows to find out. What they discovered gives us a new understanding of crow consciousness, but it still leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

Lund University cognitive science researcher Megan Lambert and her colleagues designed three experiments to figure out whether there's a relationship between crow play and their ability to use tools to solve puzzles. It's well-documented that wild New Caledonian crows make a variety of tools, from hooked sticks to specially-prepared leaf edges, to pull insects out of hard-to-reach spots in trees. But crows have also been observed doing all kinds of weird things with tools, often for what seems like the pursuit of fun.

In the YouTube video above, you can see a crow in Russia using a plastic lid to sled down a snowy roof. Researchers call these shenanigans "unrewarded object exploration." The crow doesn't get a "reward" because nothing about this activity aids its survival. Its only reward is the fun of sliding down a roof. But maybe, Lambert and her colleagues speculated, this type of seemingly goofy activity might actually lead to better tool use later on. The bird is learning about slipperiness, after all, and we even see it figuring out that it can't slide on the roof unless there's enough snow underneath the lid.

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Running chemical reactions in liquid metal makes atomically thin materials

Science - Posted On:2017-10-19 16:45:00 Source: arstechnica

The discovery of graphene—a one-atom-thick sheet of covalently bonded carbon atoms—inspired the research community to generate a variety of 2D materials. Graphene, its silicon equivalent, MoS2, and more all have distinct properties based on the chemical bonding among their component atoms. And it's possible to leverage these properties to create commonplace devices on an unprecedentedly small scale, like a three-atom-thick LED.

Obviously, the more materials we have to work with, the better we can fine-tune one of these devices to our needs. But producing 2D materials is a challenge, as there are a limited number of substances that lend themselves to the chemically bonded layers we know how to work with. Now, an Australian-US team (writing in Science) has devised a way to make a broad class of atomically thin metal oxides, including 2D versions of materials already in use by the electronics industry. Their secret? A room temperature liquid metal.

This is one of those cases where a series of simple observations led to a major development. In many cases, pure metals will react with oxygen in the air to form a thin oxide layer on their surface. This, it turns out, is true for one of the metals that is liquid near room temperature: gallium, which melts at 30 degrees Celsius. Leave some liquid gallium exposed to the air, and it'll form a thin film of gallium oxide on its surface.

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Doctors To Breathalyse Smokers Before Allowing Them NHS Surgery

science - Posted On:2017-10-19 16:29:59 Source: slashdot

Smokers in Hertfordshire, a county in southern England, are to be breathalysed to ensure they have kicked the habit before they are referred for non-urgent surgery. From a report, shared by several readers: Smokers will be breath-tested before they are considered for non-urgent surgery, two clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) have decided. Patients in Hertfordshire must stop smoking at least eight weeks before surgery or it may be delayed. Obese patients have also been told they must lose weight in order to have non-urgent surgery. The Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) said the plan seemed to be "against the principles of the NHS (the publicly funded national healthcare system for England)." A joint committee of the Hertfordshire Valleys and the East and North Hertfordshire CCGs, which made the decisions, said they had to "make best use of the money and resources available." Patients with a body mass index (BMI) of over 40 must lose 15% of their weight and those with a BMI of over 30 must lose 10%, or reduce it to under a 40 BMI or a 30 BMI - whichever is the greater amount. The lifestyle changes to reduce weight must take place over nine months. Read more of this story at Slashdot.

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Blue Origin just sent a jolt through the aerospace industry

Science - Posted On:2017-10-19 15:59:59 Source: arstechnica

New space company Blue Origin has spent the better part of this decade developing a powerful rocket engine for use in its orbital rocket, New Glenn, and potentially other US-based launchers. This engine, the liquid natural gas-powered BE-4, has been closely watched both within the aerospace industry and in military space because it uses innovative new technology, has largely been developed with private funding, and is fully reusable.

However, while there was great promise with the new engine, it still had to perform. And so the aerospace community has been watching development of the engine to see if it could pass a key hurdle—a hot-fire test. After months of waiting, that's what finally happened on Wednesday at the company's facility in West Texas when the BE-4 engine fired at 50-percent power for three seconds.

— Blue Origin (@blueorigin) October 19, 2017

This demonstration sends a clear signal that there is a new player in the industry preparing to compete both for national security and commercial launches. Some have derided Blue Origin for its original focus on New Shepard, a suborbital vehicle that the company plans to use for space tourism trips in a year or two. However, the brawny BE-4 engine supports the idea that Blue Origin is gearing up for orbital and deep space missions, too.

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Blue Origin has successfully tested its powerful BE-4 rocket engine

Science - Posted On:2017-10-19 15:44:59 Source: arstechnica

New space company Blue Origin has spent the better part of this decade developing a powerful rocket engine for use in its orbital rocket, New Glenn, and potentially other US-based launchers. This engine, the liquid natural gas-powered BE-4, has been closely watched both within the aerospace industry and in military space because it uses innovative new technology, has largely been developed with private funding, and is fully reusable.

However, while there was great promise with the new engine, it still had to perform. And so the aerospace community has been watching development of the engine to see if it could pass a key hurdle—a hot-fire test. After months of waiting, that's what finally happened on Wednesday at the company's facility in West Texas when the BE-4 engine fired at 50-percent power for three seconds.

— Blue Origin (@blueorigin) October 19, 2017

This demonstration sends a clear signal that there is a new player in the industry preparing to compete both for national security and commercial launches. Some have derided Blue Origin for its original focus on New Shepard, a suborbital vehicle that the company plans to use for space tourism trips in a year or two. However, the brawny BE-4 engine supports the idea that Blue Origin is gearing up for orbital and deep space missions, too.

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Discovery of 50km Cave Raises Hopes For Human Colonisation of Moon

science - Posted On:2017-10-19 15:15:00 Source: slashdot

New submitter Zorro shares a report: Scientists have fantasised for centuries about humans colonising the moon. That day may have drawn a little closer after Japan's space agency said it had discovered an enormous cave beneath the lunar surface that could be turned into an exploration base for astronauts. The discovery, by Japan's Selenological and Engineering Explorer (Selene) probe, comes as several countries vie to follow the US in sending manned missions to the moon. Using a radar sounder system that can examine underground structures, the orbiter initially found an opening 50 metres wide and 50 metres deep, prompting speculation that there could be a larger hollow. This week scientists at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) confirmed the presence of a cave after examining the hole using radio waves. The chasm, 50km (31 miles) long and 100 metres wide, appears to be structurally sound and its rocks may contain ice or water deposits that could be turned into fuel, according to data sent back by the orbiter, nicknamed Kaguya after the moon princess in a Japanese fairytale. Jaxa believes the cave, located from a few dozen metres to 200 metres beneath an area of volcanic domes known as the Marius Hills on the moon's near side, is a lava tube created during volcanic activity about 3.5bn years ago. Read more of this story at Slashdot.

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Chronic gastrointestinal problems? Your dirty mouth may be partly to blame

Science - Posted On:2017-10-19 14:15:00 Source: arstechnica

Chronic intestinal disturbances may in part be handed down from above, according to a study published Thursday in Science.

Intestinal pathogens can lurk in the mouth and—at just the right moments—interlope in the gut to help trigger severe, recurring bouts of inflammation, researchers found. The study, based on human and mouse data, suggests that microbes lying low around our choppers may play a role in persistent gastrointestinal conditions such as Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis.

“Our findings suggest that the oral cavity may serve as a reservoir for potential intestinal pathobionts that can exacerbate intestinal disease,” the researchers, led by Koji Atarashi of Keio University School of Medicine, concluded.

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Turning the Optical Fiber Network Into a Giant Earthquake Sensor

science - Posted On:2017-10-19 13:44:59 Source: slashdot

Tekla Perry writes: Researchers at Stanford have demonstrated that they can use ordinary, underground fiber optic cables to monitor for earthquakes, by using innate impurities in the fiber as virtual sensors. "People didn't believe this would work," said one of the researchers. "They always assumed that an uncoupled optical fiber would generate too much signal noise to be useful." They plan a larger test installation in 2018. Their biggest challenge, they say, will not be perfecting the algorithms but rather convincing telcos to allow the technology to piggyback on existing telecommunications lines. Meanwhile, the same data is being used for an art project that visualizes the activity of pedestrians, bicycles, cars, and fountains on the surface above the cables. Read more of this story at Slashdot.

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Flying Insects Have Been Disappearing Over the Past Few Decades, Study Shows

science - Posted On:2017-10-18 20:59:58 Source: slashdot

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Guardian: The abundance of flying insects has plunged by three-quarters over the past 25 years, according to a new study that has shocked scientists. Insects are an integral part of life on Earth as both pollinators and prey for other wildlife and it was known that some species such as butterflies were declining. But the newly revealed scale of the losses to all insects has prompted warnings that the world is "on course for ecological Armageddon," with profound impacts on human society. The new data was gathered in nature reserves across Germany but has implications for all landscapes dominated by agriculture, the researchers said. The cause of the huge decline is as yet unclear, although the destruction of wild areas and widespread use of pesticides are the most likely factors and climate change may play a role. The scientists were able to rule out weather and changes to landscape in the reserves as causes, but data on pesticide levels has not been collected. The research, published in the journal Plos One, is based on the work of dozens of amateur entomologists across Germany who began using strictly standardized ways of collecting insects in 1989. Read more of this story at Slashdot.

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Intelligent People More At Risk of Mental Illness, Study Finds

science - Posted On:2017-10-18 20:14:59 Source: slashdot

schwit1 shares a report from The Independent: The stereotype of a tortured genius may have a basis in reality after a new study found that people with higher IQs are more at risk of developing mental illness. A team of U.S. researchers surveyed 3,715 members of American Mensa with an IQ higher than 130. An "average IQ score" or "normal IQ score" can be defined as a score between 85 and 115. The team asked the Mensa members to report whether they had been diagnoses with mental illnesses, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They were also asked to report mood and anxiety disorders, or whether the suspected they suffered from any mental illnesses that had yet to be diagnosed, as well as physiological diseases, like food allergies and asthma. After comparing this with the statistical national average for each illness they found that those in the Mensa community had considerably higher rates of varying disorders. While 10 per cent of the general population were diagnosed with anxiety disorder, that rose to 20 percent among the Mensa community, according to the study which published in the Science Direct journal. Read more of this story at Slashdot.

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C-sections might be relaxing the evolutionary pressure against big babies

Science - Posted On:2017-10-18 16:15:00 Source: arstechnica

Theoretical biologist Philipp Mitteröcker is intrigued by the puzzle of dangerous human childbirth. Unlike other species, human babies are often too big for the birth canal, leading to dangerous—and possibly fatal—obstructed labor. Last year, Mitteröcker and his colleagues published a mathematical model that showed how the mixture of evolutionary pressures acting on humans would inevitably lead to an ongoing risk of obstructed labor in our species.

The model also suggested that C-sections are changing the rules of the game by increasing the likelihood that large babies and their mothers survive childbirth and pass on genes that promote this head/pelvis mismatch. The model predicted that we'd see an increasing risk of obstructed labor (and need for C-sections) over generations—but there was no real-world evidence of that happening.

Now, in a new paper, Mitteröcker and colleagues have published empirical evidence that this is indeed the case: women who were born by C-section seem to have a higher risk of needing a C-section themselves. And the real-world increase in risk is similar to what their model predicts.

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The risk of needing a C-section is partly inherited

Science - Posted On:2017-10-18 16:00:00 Source: arstechnica

Theoretical biologist Philipp Mitteröcker is intrigued by the puzzle of dangerous human childbirth. Unlike other species, human babies are often too big for the birth canal, leading to dangerous—and possibly fatal—obstructed labor. Last year, Mitteröcker and his colleagues published a mathematical model that showed how the mixture of evolutionary pressures acting on humans would inevitably lead to an ongoing risk of obstructed labor in our species.

The model also suggested that C-sections are changing the rules of the game by increasing the likelihood that large babies and their mothers survive childbirth and pass on genes that promote this head/pelvis mismatch. The model predicted that we'd see an increasing risk of obstructed labor (and need for C-sections) over generations—but there was no real-world evidence of that happening.

Now, in a new paper, Mitteröcker and colleagues have published empirical evidence that this is indeed the case: women who were born by C-section seem to have a higher risk of needing a C-section themselves. And the real-world increase in risk is similar to what their model predicts.

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New neural network teaches itself Go, spanks the pros

Science - Posted On:2017-10-18 15:45:00 Source: arstechnica

While artificial intelligence software has made huge strides recently, in many cases, it has only been automating things that humans already do well. If you want an AI to identify the Higgs boson in a spray of particles, for example, you have to train it on collisions that humans have already identified as containing a Higgs. If you want it to identify pictures of cats, you have to train it on a database of photos in which the cats have already been identified.

(If you want AI to name a paint color, well, we haven't quite figured that one out.)

But there are some situations where an AI can train itself: rules-based systems in which the computer can evaluate its own actions and determine if they were good ones. (Things like poker are good examples.) Now, a Google-owned AI developer has taken this approach to the game Go, in which AIs only recently became capable of consistently beating humans. Impressively, with only three days of playing against itself with no prior knowledge of the game, the new AI was able to trounce both humans and its AI-based predecessors.

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Herbal remedies embraced by naturopaths, alt med widely linked to liver cancers

Science - Posted On:2017-10-18 14:45:00 Source: arstechnica

Naturopaths and other gurus of “alternative medicine” love to tout the benefits of traditional herbal medicines. For instance, Aviva Romm—a Yale-educated doctor who publicly defended Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle site Goop then later called it a “caricature of everything alternative health for women”—sells her own line of unproven herbal remedies. Billionaire Susan Samueli—who donated $200 million dollars alongside her husband so the University of California, Irvine, could open an “integrative” medicine program—promotes homeopathy, naturopathy, and runs an active consulting practice versed in Chinese herbs.

Herbal remedies are often seen as harmless, soothing treatments that tap into the ancient wisdom of traditional healing. While that may be the case for some, there are also those that cause cancer—and sometimes it’s nearly impossible to tell one from the other.

According to a study published Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine, traditional components of herbal remedies used throughout Asia are widely implicated in liver cancers there. In Taiwan, for instance, 78 percent of 98 liver tumors sampled displayed a pattern of mutations consistent with exposure to herbs containing aristolochic acids (AAs). These are carcinogenic components found in a variety of centuries-old herbal remedies said to treat everything from snakebites to gout, asthma, and pain.

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