Science & Technology


Animal magnetic sense comes from protein that acts as a compass

© Donna Apsey/EyeEm/Getty
Quick - can you tell where north is? Animals as diverse as sea turtles, birds, worms, butterflies and wolves can, thanks to sensing Earth's magnetic field.

But the magnet-sensing structures inside their cells that allow them to do this have evaded scientists - until now.



New dwarf planet most distant object observed in our solar system

© Scott Sheppard, Chad Trujillo, and David Tholen
A newly found object named V774104 was found using the Subaru Telescope.
It has been estimated that there may be hundreds of dwarf planets in the Kuiper belt and Oort Cloud of the outer Solar System. So far we've found - and actually seen - just a few. This past week, one more dwarf planet was added to the list and comes in at the most distant object ever seen in the Solar System.

This newly found world, initially named V774104, is about 15.4 billion kilometers from the Sun. At 103 AU, it is three times further from the Sun than Pluto, and is more distant than the previous record holder, Eris, which lies at 97 AU.

The discovery of V774104 was announced by one of the astronomers who found the object, Scott Sheppard, from the Carnegie Institution for Science, at the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences fall meeting last week. Sheppard, along with Chad Trujillo and David Tholen used Japan's 8-meter Subaru Telescope in Hawaii to make the find.

Astronomers say this newly spotted dwarf planet shows the depths of our Solar System.

"The discovery of V774104 is more proof that the Solar System is bigger than we thought," said astronomer Joseph Burns from Cornell University, who was not associated with the discovery. "We need a little more time to pin down the orbit and determine the object's exact size, but it must be big to see it at this distance."


Changing ourselves by changing the brain

© Wikimedia
McKay Savage, Close-up of the Buddha head in the banyan tree at Wat Mahathat.
"Does mind exist?" asks neuroscientist Daniel Siegel, as he opens a two-day conference on his favorite subject, interpersonal neurobiology. Siegel is on a mission to tell the world that by working to make changes in your mind you can reorganize the neural pathways in your brain. He insists that if you work at it, you can spend more time in "Beginner's Mind" and improve your personal relationships. Unsatisfied by the old scientific definition that the mind is what the brain does, he says that "such a view essentially reduces the mind to an MRI." As he sketches an upside-down triangle with mind and brain at the top two corners and relationships at the lower vertex, he explains that "The mind is an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information. There are two worlds—that of physical reality, and that of mindsight." Siegel defines mindsight as "our human capacity to perceive the mind of the self and others. It is a powerful lens through which we can understand our inner lives with more clarity, integrate the brain, and enhance our relationships with others."

Comment: Changing Brains for the Better: Article Documents Benefits of Multiple Practices

2 + 2 = 4

The ideal therapist doubts their professional skills, but loves themselves as a person

Given a choice, you might think it better to undertake psychotherapy with a confident therapist than a self-doubting one. After all, you want a firm hand to guide you through a storm. But in fact, there's evidence that therapy clients do better when their therapist has professional self-doubts. In a new paper published in Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, Helene Nissen-Lie and her colleagues tested their idea that therapist self-doubt might not always be helpful, and specifically that the ideal mix is professional doubt combined with personal self-compassion.


Hubble views a lonely galaxy

© ESA/Hubble & NASA and N. Gorin
Only three local stars appear in this image, quartered by right-angled diffraction spikes. Everything besides them is a galaxy; floating like a swarm of microbes in a drop of water, and brought into view here not by a microscope, but by the Advanced Camera for Surveys on the Hubble Space Telescope.

In the foreground, the spiral arms of MCG+01-02-015 seem to wrap around one another, cocooning the galaxy. The scene suggests an abundance of galactic companionship for MCG+01-02-015, but this is a cruel trick of perspective. Instead, MCG+01-02-015's unsentimental naming befits its position within the cosmos: it is a void galaxy, the loneliest of galaxies.

The vast majority of galaxies are strung out along galaxy filaments—thread-like formations that make up the large-scale structure of the universe—drawn together by the influence of gravity into sinuous threads weaving through space. Between these filaments stretch shallow but immense voids; the universe's wastelands, where, outside of the extremely rare presence of a galaxy, there is very little matter—about one atom per cubic meter. One such desolate stretch of space is what MCG+01-02-015 reluctantly calls home.


New clues in old mystery of how Earth got its water

New research suggests that our planet Earth has had water since it was formed.
About three-quarters of the Earth's surface is covered with water. But how did it get there?

While some scientists believe water was delivered by icy space rocks smashing into the planet after it was formed, others have argued that water has been on Earth since its formation -- and new research indicates they might be right.

An international team of scientists has found new evidence that water may have been a fundamental part of Earth since its beginning some 4.5 billion years ago.

"Our data suggest that the majority of Earth's water was sourced from water molecules stuck to the surface of dust particles," Dr. Lydia Hallis, the earth scientist at the University of Glasgowin Scotland who led the research, told The Huffington Post. "These dust particles eventually accreted together to form the Earth. So the planet's water was brought in during Earth's initial formation."

Evil Rays

Ultrasonic sounds between smart phones, TVs, computers can compromise privacy

© Toria
Computer scientists have successfully transmitted data between laptop computers using only their built-in microphones and speakers
Privacy advocates are warning federal authorities of a new threat that uses inaudible, high-frequency sounds to surreptitiously track a person's online behavior across a range of devices, including phones, TVs, tablets, and computers.

The ultrasonic pitches are embedded into TV commercials or are played when a user encounters an ad displayed in a computer browser. While the sound can't be heard by the human ear, nearby tablets and smartphones can detect it. When they do, browser cookies can now pair a single user to multiple devices and keep track of what TV commercials the person sees, how long the person watches the ads, and whether the person acts on the ads by doing a Web search or buying a product.

Comment: See also:

Malware communicates at a distance of 65 feet using built-in mics and speakers [link].
Computer scientists have proposed a malware prototype that uses inaudible audio signals to communicate, a capability that allows the malware to covertly transmit keystrokes and other sensitive data even when infected machines have no network connection.
Using Inaudible Sound Waves to Transmit Data [link]


How language evolved from climate and terrain

Try shouting words into the wind, what sounds make it through?

© Gary Braasch/CORBIS
The lush forests in Hawaii may have shaped its language.
Speech may come with its own version of terroir—like the rounded, vowel-rich Hawaiian language or the clipped, consonant-heavy speech of the Republic of Georgia. Much like terroir, these differences might have risen from variations in the landscape from where they originated, according to new research presented last week at the Acoustical Society of America Meeting.

The researchers examined over 600 languages for their structure, including usage of consonants, vowels, and syllables and correlated these factors with climate and landscape features like precipitation and ruggedness, Zoë Schlanger reports for Newsweek. They omitted data from languages where speakers have spread beyond a single region and thus complicate the picture—such as English, Manderin Chinese and Spanish.

Comment: Tone languages: How one syllable spoken in a different pitch can have seven different meanings

2 + 2 = 4

Maternal mortality in U.S. higher than Canada

© Kelvin Murray via Getty Images
Women are twice as likely to die from causes related to pregnancy or childbirth in the United States than in Canada, a new global survey of maternal mortality published by the United Nations and the World Bank showed on Thursday.

The United States was also one of only 13 countries to have worse rates of maternal mortality in 2015 than in 1990 - a group that also includes North Korea, Zimbabwe and Venezuela.



Tone languages: How one syllable spoken in a different pitch can have seven different meanings

© China Stringer Network / Reuters
An ethnic Hmong boy plays the lusheng to welcome the new year in Guizhou province, China.
People don't generally speak in a monotone. Even someone who couldn't carry a tune if it had a handle on it uses a different melody to ask a question than to make a statement, and in a sentence like "It was the first time I had even been there," says "been" on a higher pitch than the rest of the words.

Still, if someone speaks in a monotone in English, other English-speakers can easily understand. But in many languages, pitch is as important as consonants and vowels for distinguishing one word from another. In English, "pay" and "bay" are different because they have different starting sounds. But imagine if "pay" said on a high pitch meant "to give money," while "pay" said on a low pitch meant "a broad inlet of the sea where the land curves inward." That's what it feels like to speak what linguists call a tonal language. At least a billion and a half people worldwide do it their entire lives and think nothing of it.