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Thu, 25 May 2017
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Attention

Sound advice: Human noise pervasive even in US protected areas, threatens endangered species

© US National Park Service
An acoustic recording station at Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, Golden Gate National Park, California.
Protected areas in the United States, representing 14 percent of the land mass, provide places for respite, recreation, and natural resource conservation. However, noise pollution poses novel threats to these protected areas, according to a first-of-its-kind study from scientists at Colorado State University and the U.S. National Park Service.

Researchers found that noise pollution was twice as high as background sound levels in a majority of U.S. protected areas, and caused a ten-fold or greater increase in noise pollution in 21 percent of protected areas.

Comment: "Although plants can't hear..." Plants do respond to vibration, which is the main component of sound. One might be able to make a case that noise directly, rather than indirectly, affects plants.
...plants can discern the sound of predators through tiny vibrations of their leaves — and beef up their defenses in response. ... When pure tones are played, some experiments have seen changes in plant growth, germination or gene expression. For instance, one recent study showed that young roots of corn will grow toward an auditory source playing continuous tones and even responded better to certain frequencies. ... Although it has not been proved, the suspicion is that plants can perceive sound through proteins that respond to pressure found within their cell membranes. Sound waves cause their leaves to vibrate ever so slightly, causing the plant to respond accordingly.



Life Preserver

Icelandic babies who can stand at four months make science headlines

© Iceland Monitor/ Eva Björk Ægisdóttir
A baby at a swimming class in Iceland. This class is at Ungbarnasund Erlu in Reykjavik.
Results of research conducted by Icelandic professor of neuropsychology, Hermundur Sigmundsson, have been published in a respected science magazine called Frontiers of Psychology and have gained much attention. This was reported by today's Morgunblaðið.

According to his research, children as young as four months old can stand by themselves, if they receive the right stimulation and exercise.

Robot

Terminator robots - The military is using human brain waves to teach robots how to shoot

© NASA
A 2009 photo from the he Human Engineering Methods (HEM) Research Lab.
Modern sensors can see farther than humans. Electronic circuits can shoot faster than nerves and muscles can pull a trigger. Humans still outperform armed robots in knowing what to shoot at — but new research funded in part by the Army may soon narrow that gap.

Researchers from DCS Corp and the Army Research Lab fed datasets of human brain waves into a neural network — a type of artificial intelligence — which learned to recognize when a human is making a targeting decision. They presented their paper on it at the annual Intelligent User Interface conference in Cyprus in March.

Why is this a big deal? Machine learning relies on highly structured data, numbers in rows that software can read. But identifying a target in the chaotic real world is incredibly difficult for computers. The human brain does it easily, structuring data in the form of memories, but not in a language machines can understand. It's a problem that the military has been grappling with for years.

"We often talk about deep learning. The challenge there for the military is that that involves huge datasets and a well-defined problem," Thomas Russell, the chief scientist for the Army, said at a recent National Defense Industrial Association event. "Like Google just solved the Go game problem."

Top Secret

Newest secret US spacecraft returns to Earth after over 700 days in orbit

© AP Photo/ US Air Force
After over 2 years in space, advanced US re-entry X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle spacecraft successfully landed at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

This was the fourth flight of this vehicle. Boeing started the secret X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle project under NASA's aegis in 1999. Originally, the reusable X-37 was intended to repair satellites in orbit. However, in 2004 the program was classified and handed over to the US Air Force.

According to the US Air Force, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is "the newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft."

Attention

Study: Alarming decrease in oceans' dissolved oxygen level

© Georgia Tech
Global map of the linear trend of dissolved oxygen at the depth of 100 meters.
A new analysis of decades of data on oceans across the globe has revealed that the amount of dissolved oxygen contained in the water - an important measure of ocean health - has been declining for more than 20 years.

Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology looked at a historic dataset of ocean information stretching back more than 50 years and searched for long term trends and patterns. They found that oxygen levels started dropping in the 1980s as ocean temperatures began to climb.

"The oxygen in oceans has dynamic properties, and its concentration can change with natural climate variability," said Taka Ito, an associate professor in Georgia Tech's School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences who led the research. "The important aspect of our result is that the rate of global oxygen loss appears to be exceeding the level of nature's random variability."

The study, which was published April in Geophysical Research Letters, was sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The team included researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the University of Washington-Seattle, and Hokkaido University in Japan.

Falling oxygen levels in water have the potential to impact the habitat of marine organisms worldwide and in recent years led to more frequent "hypoxic events" that killed or displaced populations of fish, crabs and many other organisms.

Bullseye

Billionaires say they'll end disease - evolution says otherwise

© Jeff Chiu/AP/REX
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
In late 2016, Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan pledged to invest at least $3 billion to 'cure, manage and prevent all disease' through the creation of a Biohub, a fount of non-profit innovation that would retain the exclusive right to commercialise its inventions. Around the same time, Microsoft said it had plans to 'solve' cancer by 2026 and Facebook's co-founder Sean Parker promised $250 million (through his tax-exempt non-profit organisation, or 501c3) to fight cancer while retaining the right to patents. The philanthropists Eli Broad and Ted Stanley have contributed $1.4 billion in private wealth to fund the Broad Institute research centre (another 501c3, involved in a high-stakes patent battle) and its associated Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research, to open 'schizophrenia's black box' and hack the genetics of psychiatry. Much like Andrew Carnegie and John D Rockefeller of yesteryear, who donated their wealth to build public libraries and establish foundations, today's Silicon Valley billionaires seek a legacy, this time in the realm of health and disease.

But there is a disconnect. Comparing the body to a machine, complete with bugs to be fixed by means of gene modification tools such as Crispr-Cas9, conflicts with Charles Darwin's theory of evolution: machines and computers do not evolve, but organisms do. Evolution matters here because bits of code that compromise one function often enhance a second function, or can be repurposed for a new function when the environment shifts. In evolution, everything is grasping for its purpose. Parts that break down can become the next best thing.

Fireball

Huge impact crater discovered near the Falklands Islands

© NASA/Don Davis
Artist impression of an asteroid impacting Earth.
Scientists have discovered what they believe is one of the biggest impact craters in the world near the Falklands Islands. They say the crater appears to date to between 270 and 250 million years ago, which, if confirmed, would link it to the world's biggest mass extinction event, where 96 percent of life on Earth was wiped out.

The presence of a massive crater in the Falklands was first proposed by Michael Rampino, a professor in New York University, in 1992 after he noticed similarities with the Chicxulub crater in Mexico—the asteroid that created this crater is thought to have played a major role in the extinction of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

But after a brief report at the Falklands site, very little research was carried out. Now, a team of scientists—including Rampino—have returned to the area to perform an "exhaustive search for additional new geophysical information" that would indicate the presence of an impact crater.

Their findings, published in the journal Terra Nova, suggest the huge circular depression just northwest of the islands is indeed the result of the massive impact of an asteroid or meteorite. The basin, which is now buried under sediments, measures over 150 miles in diameter.

Gear

Alarming ethical conundrum: Do we need an international body to regulate genetic engineering?

Imagine a scenario, perhaps a few years from now, in which Canada decides to release thousands of mosquitoes genetically modified to fight the spread of a devastating mosquito-borne illness. While Canada has deemed these lab-made mosquitoes ethical, legal and safe for both humans and the environment, the US has not. Months later, by accident and circumstance, the engineered skeeters show up across the border. The laws of one land, suddenly, have become the rule of another.

If modern science can can defy the boundaries of borders, who exactly should be charged with deciding what science to unleash upon the world?

A version of this hypothetical scenario is already unfolding in the UK. Last year, the British government gave scientists the green light to genetically engineer human embryos. But in the US and most other nations, this possibility is still both illegal and morally fraught. Opponents to the practice argue that it risks opening up a Pandora's Box of designer babies and genetically engineered super-humans. Even many more neutral voices argue that the technology demands further scrutiny.

And yet, the UK, at the vanguard of genetic engineering human beings, has already opened that box. In 2015, the British government approved the use of a controversial gene-editing technology to stop devastating mitochondrial diseases from being passed on from mothers to their future children. And last February, the UK granted the first license in the world to edit healthy human embryos for research. Recently, a Newsweek headline asked whether the scientists of this small island nation are in fact deciding the fate of all of humanity. It is a pretty good question.

Microscope 1

How flu viruses hijack human cells

© CDC
Electron microscopy of influenza virus.
Much is known about flu viruses, but little is understood about how they reproduce inside human host cells, spreading infection. Now, a research team headed by investigators from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai is the first to identify a mechanism by which influenza A, a family of pathogens that includes the most deadly strains of flu worldwide, hijacks cellular machinery to replicate.

The study findings, published online today in Cell, also identifies a link between congenital defects in that machinery—the RNA exosome—and the neurodegeneration that results in people who have that rare mutation.

It was by studying the cells of patients with an RNA exosome mutation, which were contributed by six collaborating medical centers, that the investigators were able to understand how influenza A hijacks the RNA exosome inside a cell's nucleus for its own purposes.

"This study shows how we can discover genes linked to disease—in this case, neurodegeneration—by looking at the natural symbiosis between a host and a pathogen," says the study's senior investigator, Ivan Marazzi, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

R2-D2

Emotional chatting machine: Human-robot interactions take step forward with chatbot


The chatbot signals the approach of an era of sophisticated human-robot interactions - although perhaps not quite as sophisticated (or sinister) as that seen in Ex Machina
An "emotional chatting machine" has been developed by scientists, signalling the approach of an era in which human-robot interactions are seamless and go beyond the purely functional.

The chatbot, developed by a Chinese team, is seen as a significant step towards the goal of developing emotionally sophisticated robots.

The ECM, as it is known for short, was able to produce factually coherent answers whilst also imbuing its conversation with emotions such as happiness, sadness or disgust.