Science & Technology


Neanderthals had shallow gene pool

© Neanderthal Museum (Mettmann, Germany)
A girl goes nose-to-nose with a Neanderthal statue in Germany. Ancient DNA research is increasingly revealing the genetic links between modern humans and our extinct ancestors, including Neanderthals and the mysterious Denisovans.
Neanderthals were remarkably less genetically diverse than modern humans, with Neanderthal populations typically smaller and more isolated, researchers say.

Although Neanderthals underwent more genetic changes involving their skeletons, they had fewer such changes in behavior and pigmentation, scientists added.

Modern humans are the only humans alive today, but Earth was once home to a variety of other human lineages. The Neanderthals were once the closest relatives of modern humans, with the common ancestors of modern humans and Neanderthals diverging between 550,000 and 765,000 years ago. Neanderthals and modern humans later interbred - nowadays, about 1.5 to 2.1 percent of DNA of people outside Africa is Neanderthal in origin.
Top Secret

America's newest top-secret spy plane? Mystery aircraft spotted flying over Kansas, Texas

A mysterious flying object was snapped flying over Wichita, Kansas by Jeff Templin. It resembles a similar unidentified aircraft streaking across the skies of Texas last month.
  • A new image shows a mysterious aircraft flying over Kansas
  • The jet appears to be the same one that was spotted over Texas last month
  • Photographer Jeff Templin says it may have been as high as passenger jets
  • A retired Marine previously said the mysterious plane is the SR-72
  • The SR-72 is designed to cross entire continents in less than an hour
  • Developers at Lockheed Martin say the plane could be operational by 2030
A new photo of a mysterious flying object over Kansas has been revealed.

It appears to be the same aircraft as one that was snapped soaring over Texas last month.

The exact identify of the aircraft remains a mystery, but rumours abound that it could be a secret jet.

Fracking: Scientific review reveals public health hazards and data gaps

© Adam Gregor/Shutterstock
Researchers from the scientific organization PSE (Physicians Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy), the University of California, Berkeley and Weill Cornell Medical College conducted the first systematic literature review of public health effects and routes of exposure of contaminants associated with shale and tight gas development (i.e., fracking).

The research shows that many of the studies reviewed identified associations between the development of shale and tight gas and elevated levels of toxic compounds in the environment. The researchers note that while the scientific literature on this modern type of natural gas development has grown recently, more epidemiological studies are needed to investigate public health impacts.

The review, "Environmental Public Health Dimensions of Shale and Tight Gas Development" was published online in the peer-reviewed journal, Environmental Health Perspectives on April 16 at 12:01 a.m. Eastern.

Coming soon: The telescope big enough to spot signs of alien life on other planets‏

An artist's impression of the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT).
Cerro Armazones is a crumbling dome of rock that dominates the parched peaks of the Chilean Coast Range north of Santiago. A couple of old concrete platforms and some rusty pipes, parts of the mountain's old weather station, are the only hints that humans have ever taken an interest in this forbidding, arid place. Even the views look alien, with the surrounding boulder-strewn desert bearing a remarkable resemblance to the landscape of Mars.

Dramatic change is coming to Cerro Armazones, however - for in a few weeks, the 10,000ft mountain is going to have its top knocked off. "We are going to blast it with dynamite and then carry off the rubble," says engineer Gird Hudepohl. "We will take about 80ft off the top of the mountain to create a plateau - and when we have done that, we will build the world's biggest telescope there."

The biggest threat to humanity, far bigger than global warming/climate change, is about to get bigger, much bigger

© Unknown
The chelyabinsk asteroid fireball, a “near-Earth object” (NEO), an asteroid (likely made of rock) between 15 and 20 meters across (about the length of a school bus), which just happened to arrive in the same place as planet Earth that morning. The mass of the object was about 10 thousand tons. It struck the atmosphere moving at about 40,000 MPH (more than double the speed of the Space Shuttle).
A press release from some former NASA astronauts on the current asteroid impact threat to earth, based on data on in-atmosphere detonations since 2001, gleaned from a nuclear weapon detonation detection system has yielded some startling numbers.

The threat is 3 to 10 times higher than previously predicted. The data will be presented at the Seattle Flight Museum, Tuesday April 22, at 6:00pm PDT.

Just last night, another fireball was seen over Russia, caught on a dashcamera. See video.

Turning science on its head: Harvard researchers offer new views of body's insulating material

© Daniel Berger and Giulio Tomassy
The higher you look in the cerebral cortex, the less myelin you'll find, according to Professor Paola Arlotta. Not only that, but “neurons in this part of the brain display a brand-new way of positioning myelin along their axons that has not been previously seen," Arlotta added. Pictured is an image of three neurons.
Harvard neuroscientists have made a discovery that turns 160 years of neuroanatomy on its head.

Myelin, the electrical insulating material in the body long known to be essential for the fast transmission of impulses along the axons of nerve cells, is not as ubiquitous as thought, according to new work led by Professor Paola Arlotta of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) and the University's Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology, in collaboration with Professor Jeff Lichtman of Harvard's Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology.

"Myelin is a relatively recent invention during evolution," says Arlotta. "It's thought that myelin allowed the brain to communicate really fast to the far reaches of the body, and that it has endowed the brain with the capacity to compute higher-level functions."

In fact, loss of myelin is a feature in a number of devastating diseases, including multiple sclerosis and schizophrenia.

But the new research shows that despite myelin's essential roles in the brain, "some of the most evolved, most complex neurons of the nervous system have less myelin than older, more ancestral ones," said Arlotta, co-director of the HSCI neuroscience program.

Michael R. Eades, M.D.: Beware the confirmation bias

Recently, while alone and unsupervised, I allowed myself to be goaded into an ill-advised Twitter debate. With someone who calls himself Ducks Dodger, no less. (For those of you who didn't see it, you can go to my Twitter account, scroll back to April 8-9 and check out this tar baby I got caught up in.)

I soon realized the entire affair was an exercise in futility, so extracted myself from it. It was an exercise in futility because it was a blatant case of the confirmation bias writ large. But my aggravation hasn't gone to waste because I've been waiting for an excuse to write a little essay on the confirmation bias that plagues us all. Who knew fate, in the guise of Ducks Dodger, would give me the prod I needed.

Taktu cleaning fat from seal skin with an ulu
Cape Dorset (Kinngait), Nunavut, Canada, August, 1960
In a bit, I'll describe the details of this Twitter fiasco and how the confirmation bias reared its head. But first, let's look at provoker-in-chief of the confirmation bias: cognitive dissonance.

Comment: More food for thought: The Truth Wears Off.


Why there will be a robot uprising

© Mike Heywood/Shutterstock
In the movie Transcendence, which opens in theaters on Friday, a sentient computer program embarks on a relentless quest for power, nearly destroying humanity in the process.

The film is science fiction but a computer scientist and entrepreneur Steven Omohundro says that "anti-social" artificial intelligence in the future is not only possible, but probable, unless we start designing AI systems very differently today.

Omohundro's most recent paper, published in the Journal of Experimental & Theoretical Artificial Intelligence, lays out the case.

We think of artificial intelligence programs as somewhat humanlike. In fact, computer systems perceive the world through a narrow lens, the job they were designed to perform.

Microsoft Excel understands the world in terms of numbers entered into cells and rows; autonomous drone pilot systems perceive reality as a bunch calculations and actions that must be performed for the machine to stay in the air and to keep on target. Computer programs think of every decision in terms of how the outcome will help them do more of whatever they are supposed to do. It's a cost vs. benefit calculation that happens all the time. Economists call it a utility function, but Omohundro says it's not that different from the sort of math problem going in the human brain whenever we think about how to get more of what we want at the least amount of cost and risk.

For the most part, we want machines to operate exactly this way. The problem, by Omohundro's logic, is that we can't appreciate the obsessive devotion of a computer program to the thing it's programed to do.

Put simply, robots are utility function junkies.
Comet 2

Possible spectacular meteor shower from Comet 209/LINEAR in May

209P/LINEAR is a periodic comet discovered by the Lincoln Laboratory Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) survey on five images taken on 2004, February 3.40 (discovery magnitude ~18.1). Reported by LINEAR as an apparent asteroidal object, it has been found to show a narrow 1'.1 tail in p.a. 274 deg (slightly expanding toward the end) on CCD images obtained by R. H. McNaught with the 1.0-m f/8 reflector at Siding Spring on Mar. 30.8 UT. This comet has been assigned the permanent designation 209P on 2008, December 12 (previous designation were P/2008 X2 (LINEAR) = P/2004 CB).

We performed follow-up measurements of this object on 2014, April 14.95 with the 2.0-m f/10.0 Ritchey-Chretien + CCD telescope of La Palma-Liverpool (J13 MPC code). You can see our image below with the comet a about magnitude ~17.
Comet 209P/Linear
© Remanzacco Observatory
According to a prediction by E. Lyytinen and P. Jenniskens, comet 209P/LINEAR will possibly cause a big meteor shower on May 24, 2014.
Better Earth

Innovative axe chops through wood like it's butter

© Vipukirves
A traditional axe uses a wedge-shaped head to split the wood. The wedge, as you know, is a simple machine that gives a person a physical advantage over wood. (Other simple machines include the wheel and axle, pulley, inclined plane, screw and the lever.) For eons, humans have used the wedge combined with strength and some help from gravity, to splinter wood.

Even though the tool is simple, using it can be dangerous in unskilled hands. One uses a lot of power to drive the sharp tip into wood and once the head of an axe gets going, it's not easy to stop. The chopper can miss the wood and impale a body part or hit the log at the wrong angle, causing the axe to bounce and do little chopping at all.

But check out this ax from Finnish company Vipukirves. It's called the Leveraxe and instead of a wedge, this ax works more like a lever. The head is attached to the handle from the side instead of the center, which also moves the center of gravity off to the side. The specialized shape of the head also capitalizes on the natural kinetic energy of a person's swing. The tip is not strictly a wedge. A couple of inches from the tip, the blades widens. That causes the head to slow when it penetrates the wood, but the momentum from the swing is still there and because the head is off center, gravity forces the tip to rotate downward, which turns the blade into a lever.