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Sun, 21 Jul 2019
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Science & Technology


Resurgence of wildlife at Chernobyl disaster site a boost for Intelligent Design

Chernobyl reactor No. 4
© Carl Montgomery
Chernobyl reactor No. 4
To evolutionists, radiation is like manna from heaven. It feeds the engine of Darwinian evolution — random mutation — providing variations that evolution's Tinkerer, natural selection, can use to build new watches blindfolded. Well, the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 gave evolutionary biologists an unexpected natural lab to test their view, and this experiment has been going on for two years longer than Richard Lenski's Long-Term Evolution Experiment with E. coli.

The recent HBO miniseries Chernobyl brought back memories of the event that seems synonymous with "disaster." Experts had predicted a high death toll on all life as a result of the radiation bath. People were quickly evacuated from a 3500-km area, and the cities closest to the nuclear plant quickly became ghost towns (see the video "Postcards from Pripyat"). A 30-km Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ) was enforced. To everyone's surprise, though, life in the CEZ is thriving 33 years later. Therein is a story worth investigating: which view of biology scored, Darwin or intelligent design?

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A crisis of bad data analysis and replication in scientific studies

video gamer
© Alexander Andrews
In 2014, a study published in JAMA Pediatrics linked playing aggressive video games to real-life aggression in a large sample of Singaporean youth. The study attracted considerable news media attention. For instance, a sympathetic article in Time magazine breathlessly reported its findings and suggested that brain imaging research found aggressive games change kids' brains. But was the evidence from the Singapore study reliable?

In recent years, concerns about the Singapore dataset have grown. UK scholars Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein recently wrote that the way the dataset had been used by the primary authors was problematic. The analyses from the same dataset kept changing across published articles in suspicious ways. These shifting analyses can be a red flag for the data massaging that may produce statistically significant outcomes and hide outcomes that didn't work out. Such practices may be unintentional or unconscious (scholars are only human after all). But they do suggest that the results could do with further scrutiny.

When the dataset became available to my colleague John Wang and me, we re-analyzed the data using more rigorous methods. We publicly pre-registered our analyses, which meant we couldn't subsequently alter them to fit our hypotheses. Our results were strikingly different from the 2014 paper: in fact, there was no evidence in the dataset that aggressive game play was related to later aggression at all. So, what happened? How did a dataset come to show links that don't exist between aggressive video games and youth aggression?

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115 million year old lily found in Brazil is world's oldest, has fossilised flower and intact cells


The world's oldest preserved lily which dates back to around 115 million years ago has been unearthed from a stone quarry in Brazil
The world's oldest preserved lily has been unearthed from a stone quarry in Brazil and dates back to around 115 million years ago.

The fossil is exceptionally well-preserved — and includes the plant's roots, a flower and even individual cells.

It is thought to have originally have grown along the banks of a freshwater lake in what is today the city of Crato in northeastern Brazil.

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New protein powder created from air, water, and bacteria could feed millions

New Type of Food
© Solar Foods
If a post-scarcity society is ever realized, it will likely not involve the redistribution of wealth and a populace of leisured gluttons feasting on filet mignon and songbirds drowned in armagnac. As the global population increases amidst a background of climate change and the effects it has on agriculture and clean water, the types of food that we consume will change according to scarcity and availability. Fortunately, humans are relatively adaptable - both from a social and evolutionary perspective - when it comes to their diets, as evidenced by the sudden popularity of non-meat "meats" like the Impossible Burger.

The problem with plant-based foods, however, is that they require fertile earth, land space, and water: three resources put at risk by ever-growing populations, their waste output, and changing climate patterns. Moreover, 60% of our plant-based foods come from just three sources: rice, maize (corn), and wheat, all of which have huge agricultural demands.

Fortunately, Solar Foods, a Finnish food start-up company, has developed a novel solution to this problem: Solein, a protein powder made using renewable electricity, carbon dioxide, and water laced with special bacteria. According to the company, Solein looks and tastes just like wheat flour and is composed of 50% protein, 5-10% fat, and 20-25% carbohydrates.


Alternative theory of gravity makes a nearly testable prediction

Galaxy Cluster
© IllustrisTNG
Galaxy clusters generated by the Universe simulator IllustrisTNG.
From our current perspective, the Universe seems to be dominated by two things we find frustratingly difficult to understand. One of these is dark matter, which describes the fact that everything from galaxies on up behaves as if it has more mass than we can detect. While that has spawned extensive searches for particles that could account for the visual discrepancy, it has also triggered the development of alternative theories of gravity, ones that can replace relativity while accounting for the discrepancies in apparent mass.

So far, these proposals have fallen well short of replacing general relativity. And they say nothing about the other big mystery, dark energy, which appears to be accelerating the expansion of the Universe. Instead, researchers have developed an entirely separate class of theories that could modify gravity in a way that eliminates the need for dark energy. Now, researchers have run simulations of galaxy and star formation using this alternative version of physics, and they found we might be on the cusp of testing some of them.


Brain implant bypassing optic nerve restores partial vision in some blind people

eye exam elderly person
© Peter Byrne/Press Association
Previous attempts to create a ‘bionic eye’ focused on implanting into the eye itself, rather than the brain.
Medical experts hail 'paradigm shift' of implant that transmits video images directly to the visual cortex, bypassing the eye and optic nerve

Partial sight has been restored to six blind people via an implant that transmits video images directly to the brain.

Some vision was made possible - with the participants' eyes bypassed - by a video camera attached to glasses which sent footage to electrodes implanted in the visual cortex of the brain.

University College London lecturer and Optegra Eye Hospital surgeon Alex Shortt said it was a significant development by specialists from Baylor Medical College in Texas and the University of California Los Angeles.



EU's GPS satellites down four days in mysterious outage, nearing 100 hours downtime

© istock
3D rendering of a satellite orbiting the earth with illuminated cities at night.
Galileo, the EU's global navigation satellite system, has been down for four days, since July 11, following a mysterious outage. All Galileo satellites are still non-operational, at the time of writing.

According to a service status page, 24 of the 26 Galileo satellites are listed as "not usable," while the other two are listing a status of "testing," which also means they're not ready for real-world usage.

The European GNSS Agency (GSA), the organization in charge of Galileo, has not published any information in regards to the root of the outage, which began four days ago, on Thursday, July 11.

On that day, the GSA published an advisory on its website alerting companies and government agencies employing the Galileo system that satellite signals have degraded and they "may not be available nor meet the minimum performance levels." The agency warned that the Galileo system "should be employed at users' own risk."

The GSA published a more dire warning on Saturday, July 13, when it said that Galileo was experiencing a full-service outage and that "signals are not to be used."

At the time of writing, the service is nearing 100 hours of downtime.

Comment: UPDATE 7/15/2019, 5:30am ET:
In a statement published after this article's publication, the GSA blamed the Galileo outage on "a technical incident related to its ground infrastructure." The agency said that the search and rescue (SAR) feature -- used for locating and helping people in distress situations for example at sea or mountains -- remained operational during the outage, which impacted only navigational and satellite-based timing services.


Cuba debuts modern Chinese train as rail overhaul begins

Cuba train
The first train using new equipment from China pulled out of Havana Saturday, hauling excited passengers on the start of a 915-kilometer (516-mile) journey to the eastern end of the island as the government tries to overhaul the country's aging and decrepit rail system.

The 14 gleaming Chinese cars and a locomotive departed the city's central train station and will wend their way through nine cities before ending in Guantanamo 15 hours later. It has four air-conditioned wagons and a rolling restaurant car. Previously the trip could take days because of equipment breakdowns and track erosion.

It marks a first step of an overhaul Cuba's communist government started early last year, repairing some 2,600 miles (4,200 kilometers) of aging tracks and dozens of tumble-down stations scattered around the island.

"It's a blessing from God because we had to take this trip and private cars are very expensive, but we got a very good low fare and we are proud to be taking this train," said 69-year-old passenger Virginia Pardo.


Alma Observatory may have caught a giant, faraway planet in the act of growing moons

A dusty shroud around a far-off planet may represent the humble beginnings of a brand-new moon.
ALMA image dust Star system PDS 70

ALMA image of the dust in star system PDS 70
In a possible first, a giant, faraway planet may have been caught in the act of growing moons.

Seen in an image from the ALMA Observatory in Chile, the young planet orbits a small star roughly 370 light-years away, and it appears to be swaddled in a dusty, gassy disk — the exact type of structure scientists think produced Jupiter's many moons billions of years ago.

"It's quite possible there might be planet-size moons in formation around it," study leader Andrea Isella of Rice University says in a statement.

"It's certainly plausible that giant planets could have giant moon-forming disks around them," says Stanford University's Bruce Macintosh of the observation, published this week in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. "It's an intriguing and quite possible result."


In Science We Trust

science lab
A modified excerpt from the book 'Climate - A New Story'

Except among the religious fringe, science is a primary locus of authority in our society: for at least a century to be "scientific" has been among the highest sources of legitimacy in business, government, medicine, and many other fields. Even those who consciously reject some of science's teachings aspire to it. As our culture sees science as its foremost means to discover truth, to reject what science says seems the epitome of irrationality, tantamount to a willful denial of truth itself. Science provides our culture's main map of reality.

To modern society, science is more than a system of knowledge production or a method of inquiry. So deeply embedded it is in our understanding of what is real and how the world works, that we might call it the religion of our civilization.

The reader might protest, "Science is not a religion. It is the opposite of a religion, because it doesn't ask us to take anything on faith. The Scientific Method provides a way to sift fact from falsehood, truth from superstition."

In fact, the Scientific Method, like most religious formulae for the attainment of truth, rests on a priori metaphysical assumptions that we must indeed accept on faith. First among them is objectivity, which assumes among other things that the formulation and testing of hypotheses don't alter the reality in which the experiments take place. This is a huge assumption that is by no means accepted as obvious by other systems of thought. Other metaphysical assumptions include:
  • That anything real can in principle be measured and quantified
  • That everything that happens does so because it is caused to happen (in the sense of Aristotelian efficient cause)
  • That the basic building blocks of matter are generic -- for instance, that any two electrons are identical
  • That nature can be described by invariant mathematical laws