Science & Technology


Ancient mass extinction led to dominance of tiny fish, paleontologist shows

© Bob Nicholls
After the Hangenberg mass extinction, small fish dominated the oceans while larger fish mostly died out.
When times are good, it pays to be the big fish in the sea; in the aftermath of disaster, however, smaller is better.

According to new research led by the University of Pennsylvania's Lauren Sallan, a mass extinction 359 million years ago known as the Hangenberg event triggered a drastic and lasting transformation of Earth's vertebrate community. Beforehand, large creatures were the norm, but, for at least 40 million years following the die-off, the oceans were dominated by markedly smaller fish.

"Rather than having this thriving ecosystem of large things, you may have one gigantic relic, but otherwise everything is the size of a sardine," said Sallan, an assistant professor in Penn's Department of Earth and Environmental Science in the School of Arts & Sciences.

The finding, which suggests that small, fast-reproducing fish possessed an evolutionary advantage over larger animals in the disturbed, post-extinction environment, may have implications for trends we see in modern species today, such as in fish populations, many of which are crashing due to overfishing. The research is reported in Science.


New species of duckbilled dinosaur neatly fills an evolutionary gap

© Sepp Jannotta/Montana State University
Elizabeth Freedman Fowler, an adjunct professor at Montana State University, holds a drawing depicting the new species of duckbilled dinosaur.
A previously undiscovered dinosaur species, first uncovered and documented by an adjunct professor at Montana State University, showcases an evolutionary transition from an earlier duckbilled species to that group's descendants, according to a paper published in the journal PLOS ONE.

The paper was written by that professor, Elizabeth Freedman Fowler, and her mentor, MSU paleontologist Jack Horner, Montana University System Regents Professor and curator of paleontology at MSU's Museum of the Rockies. Their findings highlight how the new species of duckbilled dinosaur neatly fills a gap that had existed between an ancestral form with no crest and a descendant with a larger crest, providing key insight into the evolution of elaborate display structures in these gigantic extinct herbivores.

"It is really gratifying to see Dr. Freedman Fowler's work, which is essentially her dissertation, published in PLOS ONE," Horner said. "It is confirmation that she is an excellent paleontologist, helping further cement MSU's reputation for offering graduate students a chance to be part of something extraordinary."

In their paper, Freedman Fowler and Horner named the dinosaur Probrachylophosaurus bergei and suggest it is a previously missing link between a preceding species, Acristavus, which lived about 81 million years ago, and later form Brachylophosaurus, which lived about 77.5 million years ago.


Newly invented tiny supercomputer could revolutionize artificial intelligence

© Robert Galbraith / Reuters
One day, smartphones could seem pretty dumb. A new tiny computer module called the Jetson TX1, capable of a trillion floating-point operations per second, promises to revolutionize artificial intelligence in a variety of technologies - including drones.

The technology company Nvidia foresees "drones that don't just fly by remote control, but navigate their way through a forest for search and rescue" as just one example of the "new wave" of smart devices their latest innovation will make possible.

Nvidia's Jetson TX1 module system will process software built to act like a human brain, observing, identifying and making sense of environments or networks of information. With 1 teraflop of power, it measures up to the world's fastest supercomputer from 15 years ago, and is nearly three times faster and more comprehensive than similar units used in the Google Nexus 9 tablet or some Chromebooks.

"The ability for computers to learn, the ability for computers to write software itself and do seemingly amazing things, artificially intelligent things, is revolutionizing web services," Jen-Hsun Huang, cofounder and chief executive of Nvidia, said during a press event on Wednesday.


Sleepwalkers might not feel pain, at least until they wake up

© Сергей Хакимуллин/Thinkstock,with additional illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker.
By day, sleepwalkers may suffer chronic pain, but by night they can jump through windows without feeling a thing

For sleepwalkers, nighttime can be dangerous. Whether walking for miles in socks or crashing through a glass window, people have reported waking up with all manner of injuries after sleepwalking. Though it seems odd that these painful feats don't wake their unsuspecting performer, a new study found that some sleepwalkers feel no pain during sleep.

A group of researchers from Hospital Gui-de-Chauliac in Montpellier, France surveyed 100 patients who reported sleepwalking at least once in the previous year. 80 percent of people who injured themselves while sleepwalking said they didn't feel any pain until after they woke up, Beth Mole reports for Ars Technica.

Even worse, people who sleepwalk may not only be impervious to pain if they get injured while sleeping, but they may also be more susceptible to things like chronic pain and migraines while awake, according to the study recently published in the journal Sleep


2 + 2 = 4

Intellectual disabilities share disease mechanisms, study suggests

© Alexandr Mitiuc/Fotolia
Brain disorders that cause intellectual disabilities and autism spectrum disorders may share common defects despite having different genetic causes, a study has found.

A study of two models of intellectual disability in mice has found that they share similar disease mechanisms.


Why do some dogs tilt their heads when we talk to them?

Surprisingly, a dogs muzzle may be blocking his view of some of our faces

I have fond memories of my Beagle, Darby, coming into the kitchen when I was preparing dinner. I would casually chat with him, and when I would turn to him to say something he would cock his head to the side in a most endearing manner. Many people report that when they are speaking to their dog their pet often tilts its head to the side, and some have asked me about why that happens.

Unfortunately, up to now, there is not been much research on this issue, although there has been some speculation. Some people have suggested that dogs tilt their heads to the side when we speak to them so that one ear can hear more clearly what we are saying. Others have suggested that it is a social signal—perhaps the dog recognizes that we respond to that particular posture in a positive way (because it is so cute) and therefore the dog adopts this position because they are more likely to get smiles and rewards when they do.


Astronomers eager to get a whiff of newfound Venus-like planet

© Dana Berry
In this artist's conception GJ 1132b, a rocky exoplanet very similar to Earth in size and mass, circles a red dwarf star. GJ 1132b is relatively cool, about 450 degrees F, and could potentially host an atmosphere. At a distance of only 39 light-years, it will be a prime target for additional study with Hubble and future observatories like the Giant Magellan Telescope.
The collection of rocky planets orbiting distant stars has just grown by one, and the latest discovery is the most intriguing one to date. The newfound world, although hot as an oven, is cool enough to potentially host an atmosphere. If it does, it's close enough (only 39 light-years away) that we could study that atmosphere in detail with the Hubble Space Telescope and future observatories like the Giant Magellan Telescope.

"Our ultimate goal is to find a twin Earth, but along the way we've found a twin Venus," says astronomer David Charbonneau of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). "We suspect it will have a Venus-like atmosphere too, and if it does we can't wait to get a whiff."

"This planet is going to be a favorite target of astronomers for years to come," adds lead author Zachory Berta-Thompson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

GJ 1132b, as the planet is known, orbits a red dwarf star only one-fifth the size of our Sun. The star is also cooler and much fainter than the Sun, emitting just 1/200th as much light. GJ 1132b circles its star every 1.6 days at a distance of 1.4 million miles (much closer than the 36-million-mile orbit of Mercury in our solar system).


It's music to my eyes

© Bruno Gingras
Manuela Marin sitting in front of the eye tracker, with an image of her right pupil displayed on the screen.
When people are listening to music, their emotional reactions to the music are reflected in changes in their pupil size.

Researchers from the University of Vienna and the University of Innsbruck, Austria, are the first to show that both the emotional content of the music and the listeners' personal involvement with music influence pupil dilation. This study, published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, demonstrates that pupil size measurement can be effectively used to probe listeners' reactions to music.

The pupil size reflexively adjusts to the amount of ambient light, contracting in bright daylight and dilating at night. However, pupil size is also modulated by thoughts, emotions, or mental effort. For instance, the pupil dilates in response to sexually explicit images, or when trying to solve a difficult mental computation.

Sounds may also evoke pupil dilations, depending on their emotional content. Highly arousing sounds, such as the voices of a couple quarreling, lead to larger pupil dilations than neutral sounds such as background office noise. However, although music also often induces strong emotions in listeners, pupil dilation in response to music has until recently not been investigated systematically.


Our increasing reliance on robots may further the robotization of humanity

"Deliverology" Children in the next generation.
On Friday November 6, Toyota announced that it's investing $1 billion in the Toyota Research Institute, a new company dedicated to R&D in artificial intelligence and robotics. Based in Silicon Valley, the Institute will be headed by noted roboticist Gill Pratt, who has been tasked by the Japanese automotive giant with developing the next generation of autonomous cars. Starting in January 2016, he and his colleagues will also be dedicated toward the goal of applying, "Toyota technology used for outdoor mobility to indoor environments, particularly for the support of seniors."

Even if it's still too early to predict the fruits of this new enterprise, the investment of a billion dollars is considerable testimony to Toyota's belief that coming decades will increasingly feature robots as a part of our daily experience. Neither is it the only major corporation staking its future in artificial intelligence; Apple, Google, Facebook, Intel, Yahoo, LinkedIn and Twitter all contributed to the $2 billion invested in AI in 2014.

Many of these companies have fairly prosaic, industry-focused aims for their robot activities, with Google acquiring AI-startup Deepmind in Jan 2014 as part of its ongoing quest to enhance its search engine, and with Intel purchasing Saffron AI last month in a bid to enable its chips to perform "cognitive computing." Yet many of these companies harbor more grandiose, utopian ambitions when it comes to their forays into the brave new world of robots and artificial intelligence.

Comment: And this robotization of humanity is likely by design - what better way can the PTB further their agenda of controlling every thought, word, and deed of the masses?


Copper surfaces can rapidly destroy respiratory viruses

© University of Southampton
This is human coronavirus 229E being inactivated on copper.
New research from the University of Southampton has found that copper can effectively help to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses, which are linked to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

Animal coronaviruses that 'host jump' to humans, such as SARS and MERS, result in severe infections with high mortality. The Southampton researchers found that a closely-related human coronavirus -- 229E -- can remain infectious on common surface materials for several days, but is rapidly destroyed on copper.

A newly-published paper in mBio -- a journal of the American Society for Microbiology -- reports that human coronavirus 229E, which produces a range of respiratory symptoms from the common cold to more lethal outcomes such as pneumonia, can survive on surface materials including ceramic tiles, glass, rubber and stainless steel for at least five days. While human-to-human transmission is important, infections can be contracted by touching surfaces contaminated by respiratory droplets from infected individuals, or hand touching, leading to a wider and more rapid spread

On copper, and a range of copper alloys -- collectively termed 'antimicrobial copper' -- the coronavirus was rapidly inactivated (within a few minutes, for simulated fingertip contamination). Exposure to copper destroyed the virus completely and irreversibly, leading the researchers to conclude that antimicrobial copper surfaces could be employed in communal areas and at any mass gatherings to help reduce the spread of respiratory viruses and protect public health.