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Wed, 24 May 2017
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How learning to read changes your brain

Right now, you are reading these words without much thought or conscious effort. In lightning-fast bursts, your eyes are darting from left to right across your screen, somehow making meaning from what would otherwise be a series of black squiggles.

Reading for you is not just easy - it's automatic. Looking at a word and not reading it is almost impossible, because the cogs of written language processing are set in motion as soon as skilled readers see print.

And yet, as tempting as it is to think of reading as hard-wired into us, don't be fooled. Learning to read is not easy. It's not even natural.

The first examples of written language date back to about 5,000 years ago, which is a small fraction of the 60,000 years or more that humans have spent using spoken language.

This means our species hasn't had enough time to evolve brain networks that predispose us to learn literacy. It is only through years of practice and instruction that we have forged those connections for ourselves.

Comment: What happens to your brain while reading?


Nebula

Stephen Hawking among 33 scientists on offensive against critics of popular universe origin inflation theory

© NASA
Thirty-three of the world's most respected scientists, including renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, have signed an open letter responding to a controversial article that branded popular views on the origins of the universe unscientific.

The letter was published in response to an article in the February issue of the magazine Scientific American, in which three physicists criticized the popular inflation theory.

The idea is that the universe started expanding exponentially after the Big Bang, with quantum fluctuations translating into stars and galaxies. First proposed in the 1980s, it is now taught as standard in most schools and universities, and is being explored through several related competing models.

Chalkboard

Ransomware virus infests 75,000 computers across 99 countries

© intel.malwaretech.com
A ransomware virus is spreading aggressively around the globe, with over 75,000 computers in 99 countries having been targeted, according to the latest data. The virus infects computer files and then demands bitcoins to unblock them.

An increase in activity of the malware was noticed starting from 8am CET (07:00 GMT) Friday, security software company Avast reported, adding that it "quickly escalated into a massive spreading." In a matter of hours, over 75,000 attacks have been detected worldwide, the company said.

Dozens of countries around the globe have been affected, with the number of victims still growing, according to the Russian multinational cybersecurity and anti-virus provider, the Kaspersky Lab.

The ransomware, known as WanaCrypt0r 2.0, or WannaCry, is believed to have infected National Health Service (NHS) hospitals in the UK and Spain's biggest national telecommunications firm, Telefonica.

Comment: Also read: Hackers use NSA tools in world cyber attack affecting over 50,000 computers


Microscope 2

Leading hospital 'superbugs' date back 450 million years ago, well before the age of dinosaurs

© Mark Witton
Early life as it is believed to have looked 335 million years ago, well before the age of the dinosaurs. Ancestors of hospital pathogens are now believed to have lived in the guts of these ancient land animals
Leading hospital "superbugs," known as the enterococci, arose from an ancestor that dates back 450 million years—about the time when animals were first crawling onto land (and well before the age of dinosaurs), according to a new study led by researchers from Massachusetts Eye and Ear, the Harvard-wide Program on Antibiotic Resistance and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Published online today in Cell, the study authors shed light on the evolutionary history of these pathogens, which evolved nearly indestructible properties and have become leading causes of modern antibiotic-resistant infections in hospitals.

Antibiotic resistance is now a leading public health concern worldwide. Some microbes, often referred to as "superbugs," are resistant to virtually all antibiotics. This is of special concern in hospitals, where about 5 percent of hospitalized patients will fight infections that arise during their stay. As researchers around the world are urgently seeking solutions for this problem, insight into the origin and evolution of antibiotic resistance will help inform their search.

"By analyzing the genomes and behaviors of today's enterococci, we were able to rewind the clock back to their earliest existence and piece together a picture of how these organisms were shaped into what they are today" said co-corresponding author Ashlee M. Earl, Ph.D., group leader for the Bacterial Genomics Group at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. "Understanding how the environment in which microbes live leads to new properties could help us to predict how microbes will adapt to the use of antibiotics, antimicrobial hand soaps, disinfectants and other products intended to control their spread."

Cloud Precipitation

NASA analysis of Tropical Cyclone Donna's extreme rainfall

© NASA/JAXA, Hal Pierce
This map of rainfall shows the estimated total rainfall generated by Tropical Cyclone Donna from May 2 through early May 10, 2017. Extreme rainfall accumulation estimates (purple) were greater than 624mm (24.6 inches). These extreme values were located along Donna's path through the northern islands of Vanuatu.
Tropical Cyclone Donna was one of the most powerful out-of-season tropical cyclones ever recorded in the southern hemisphere and generated extreme amounts of rainfall along its path. NASA analyzed and mapped rainfall totals generated by the storm.

On May 10, 2017 rapidly dissipating tropical Cyclone Donna moved to the southeast of New Caledonia in the South Pacific. Up until that time, Donna spread heavy rainfall along its path from northern Vanuatu through the Loyalty Islands east of New Caledonia. Over 250 millimeters (~10 inches) of rainfall was reported in the islands of northern Vanuatu as Donna was moving through on May 5, 2017.

At NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, a rainfall analysis was constructed using data from NASA's Integrated Multi-satellitE Retrievals for GPM (IMERG). GPM is the Global Precipitation Measurement satellite, which is co-managed by NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

That data collected from the GPM core satellite in near-real time were utilized in IMERG's rainfall accumulation estimates for tropical cyclone Donna. The analysis covers tropical cyclone Donna for the period from May 2 through early May 10, 2017.

IMERG showed that tropical cyclone Donna produced some extremely high rainfall totals. It indicated that the most extreme rainfall accumulation estimates were greater than 62.4 millimeters (24.6 inches). Those extreme values were located along Donna's path through the northern islands of Vanuatu.


Comment: Tropical Cyclone Donna becomes Category 5 storm, worst May storm on record in South Pacific


Cassiopaea

Proximity of supernovas may cause mass extinctions

© The University of Kansas
Lawrence — In 2016, researchers published "slam dunk" evidence, based on iron-60 isotopes in ancient seabed, that supernovae buffeted the Earth — one of them about 2.6 million years ago. University of Kansas researcher Adrian Melott, professor of physics and astronomy, supported those findings in Nature with an associated letter, titled "Supernovae in the neighborhood."

Melott has followed up since those findings with an examination of the effects of the supernovae on Earth's biology. In new research to appear in Astrophysical Journal, the KU researcher and colleagues argue the estimated distance of the supernova thought to have occurred roughly 2.6 million years ago should be cut in half.

"There's even more evidence of that supernova now," he said. "The timing estimates are still not exact, but the thing that changed to cause us to write this paper is the distance. We did this computation because other people did work that made a revised distance estimate, which cut the distance in half. But now, our distance estimate is more like 150 light years."

A supernova exploding at such a range probably wouldn't touch off mass extinctions on Earth, Melott said.

"People estimated the 'kill zone' for a supernova in a paper in 2003, and they came up with about 25 light years from Earth," he said. "Now we think maybe it's a bit greater than that. They left some effects out or didn't have good numbers, so now we think it may be a bit larger distance. We don't know precisely, and of course it wouldn't be a hard-cutoff distance. It would be a gradual change. But we think something more like 40 or 50 light years. So, an event at 150 light years should have some effects here but not set off a mass extinction."

In addition to its distance, interstellar conditions at the time of a supernova would influence its lethality to biology on Earth.

Rose

Human sense of smell is more acute than most people think


"We can detect and discriminate an extraordinary range of odors; we are more sensitive than rodents and dogs for some odors; we are capable of tracking odor trails; and our behavioral and affective states are influenced by our sense of smell"
When it comes to our sense of smell, we have been led to believe that animals win out over humans: No way can we compete with dogs and rodents, some of the best sniffers in the animal kingdom.

But guess what? It's a big myth. One that has survived for the last 150 years with no scientific proof, according to Rutgers University-New Brunswick neuroscientist John McGann, associate professor in the Department of Psychology, School of Arts and Sciences, in a paper published on May 12 in Science.

McGann, who has been studying the olfactory system, or sense of smell, for the past 14 years, spent part of the last year reviewing existing research, examining data and delving into the historical writings that helped create the long-held misconception that human sense of smell was inferior because of the size of the olfactory bulb.

"For so long people failed to stop and question this claim, even people who study the sense of smell for a living," says McGann, who studies how the brain understands sensory stimuli using information gleaned from prior experience.

"The fact is the sense of smell is just as good in humans as in other mammals, like rodents and dogs." Humans can discriminate maybe one trillion different odors, he says, which is far more, than the claim by "folk wisdom and poorly sourced introductory psychology textbooks," that insist humans could only detect about 10,000 different odors.

Ice Cube

Scientists discover massive landforms under Antarctic ice sheet

© Kondratuk Aleksei/Shutterstock.com
Scientists have discovered massive landforms lurking under Antarctica - some as tall as the Eiffel Tower - and they've been actively carving deep channels into the ice flow above.

These landforms, which are five times bigger than those left behind by former ice sheets in Scandinavia and North America, are now thought to be contributing to the thinning of the Antarctic ice shelves, and that could have big consequences for the region's stability.

Thanks to ancient ice sheets in the Northern Hemisphere that have long since retreated, scientists knew that landforms can grow for many metres below the surface.

Camcorder

Emotion reading: Technology that claims to spot criminals Before they act


NTechLabs has created emotion recognition software that could be added to CCTV cameras
Emotion reading technology could soon be used by police after a Russian firm created a tool that can identify people in a crowd and tell if they are angry, stressed or nervous.

The software, created by NTechLab, can monitor citizens for suspicious behaviour by tracking identity, age, gender and current emotional state. It could be used to pre-emptively stop criminals and potential terrorists.

"The recognition gives a new level of security in the street because in a couple of seconds you can identify terrorists or criminals or killers," said Alexander Kabakov, NTechLab chief executive.

Info

Chinese professor defends criminal facial-recognition study after Google scoffing

© Cornell University Library / arxiv.org
A Chinese professor's study on revealing criminals based on their facial features has been lambasted by Google researchers, who described it as "deeply problematic, both ethically and scientifically."

Shanghai Jiao Tong University computer science Professor Wu Xiaolin said that the Google scientists read something into the research that simply isn't there and started their "name-calling," the South China Morning Post reported.

"Their charge of scientific racism was groundless," Wu added, saying that his work was taken out of context and that he was just eager to share his findings with the public.