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Tue, 28 Mar 2017
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The Sun has been blank for two weeks straight

A blank look to the sun on Monday, March 20, and it has now been blank for two weeks straight;
Over the weekend, we reviewed the state of the solar data for March 2017. Now, there's a two week straight lack of sunspots, the longest stretch since 2010.


The sun is currently blank with no visible sunspots and this is the 14th straight day with a blank look which is the longest such stretch since April 2010 according to spaceweather.com. Historically weak solar cycle 24 continues to transition away from its solar maximum phase and towards the next solar minimum.

In April 2010 - the last time there was a two week stretch with no visible sunspots - the sun was emerging from the last solar minimum which was historically long and deep. There have already been 26 spotless days in 2017 (34% of the entire year) and this follows 32 spotless days last year which occurred primarily during the latter part of the year. The blank look to the sun will increase in frequency over the next couple of years leading up to the next solar minimum - probably to be reached in late 2019 or 2020.

By one measure, the current solar cycle is the third weakest since record keeping began in 1755 and it continues a weakening trend since solar cycle 21 peaked in 1980. One of the impacts of low solar activity is the increase of cosmic rays that can penetrate into the Earth's upper atmosphere and this has some important consequences.


Researchers study rodent songs they can't hear

Mice and rats produce ultrasonic signals to attract mates.


In 1877, Joseph Sidebotham, a Manchester cotton baron fascinated by natural history, published an informal correspondence in Nature describing how a mouse had serenaded him from the top of a woodpile. In the letter, Sidebotham notes that his son suggested that perhaps all mice can sing, but at frequencies that the human ear cannot hear, and that the audible mouse vocalist was an oddity (what today we would call a mutant).

Sidebotham dismissed his son's idea, but it turned out to be right: mice do sing. In addition to the audible squeaks for which they are known, the rodents produce more-elaborate vocalizations reminiscent of birdsong, but at a frequency far beyond the limits of human hearing. In 2005, Timothy Holy, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St. Louis, and colleagues defined these ultrasonic vocalizations as songs using measures similar to those that researchers employ to distinguish songs from isolated calls in birds (PLOS Biol, 3:e386). "It was really when I wrote an algorithm that allowed me to shift the pitch of these calls that the analogy to bird songs became apparent," Holy says. He described the mouse high-frequency vocalizations as "distinct syllable types uttered in sequences, and some sort of temporal patterning," just like bird songs. Building on Holy's work, neurobiologist Erich Jarvis and colleagues found that male mice sing complex ultrasonic songs to attract mates. (See "Singing in the Brain.")


Monkey business forces a rethink on human evolution

© Jeffrey Phillips
When did a human-like mind first emerge, setting its owner on a path distinct to that of other apes?

We paleoanthropologists have long looked to tool use as the marker - particularly the appearance of a cutting tool known as a flake.

It now seems we were wrong.

Recent research published in Nature by a team led by Tomos Proffitt at the University of Oxford shows that capuchin monkeys regularly produce sharp-edged flakes indistinguishable from those made by early hominins.

Could these South American simians be taking the same first steps that eventually delivered the spanner, wheel and smartphone? As it turns out, no. The flakes are produced by accident when the monkeys smash rocks together. Nonetheless, the capuchins have thrown a spanner in the works for archaeologists.

Since the flakes they make are not tools at all, we can no longer assume the flakes found in the archaeological record are tools either.

We know that monkeys can make tools of other kinds, of course. Ever since British primatologist Jane Goodall's pioneering work in the 1960s, we have known our chimpanzee cousins use tools to shell nuts and to fish for termites.

Nor is tool use confined to primates. Other mammals, birds, snails, octopuses and even insects all turn out to be tool wielders. In fact, back in the 19th century an American husband and wife team, Elizabeth and George Peckham, first documented tool use outside human beings. They observed wasps hammering dirt with pebbles to build their burrows.


Pacific Hyperloop wants to take you from Seattle to Portland in 15 minutes

© Hyperloop One Illustration
An artist’s concept shows a Hyperloop pod parked at a transit station.
A fledgling venture called Pacific Hyperloop is kicking off its effort to win support for a high-speed transit link between Seattle and Portland, using the Hyperloop system envisioned by SpaceX billionaire Elon Musk.

The plan calls for creating a network of tubes capable of zipping passengers from the Jet City to the Rose City in 15 minutes, thanks to pods that travel at the near-supersonic speed of 760 mph.

Pacific Hyperloop is among 35 semifinalists in the Hyperloop One Global Challenge, a contest set up by California-based Hyperloop One for proposals to set up transit networks in various regions of the world.

The semifinalists include 10 other teams from the United States, plus international groups proposing high-speed links in locales ranging from Vancouver, B.C., to China and India.

"We will be giving our finalist presentation on April 5th and 6th in Washington, D.C., in front of Hyperloop One and government officials," Richard Kim, Pacific Hyperloop's director of marketing and public relations, said in an email to Geekwire, "If/when we become a finalist, Seattle and Portland will be the starting grounds for Hyperloop's innovation and prominence."

2 + 2 = 4

The scientific evidence for microaggressions is weak and we should drop the term, argues review author

Items filed as microassaults – supposedly one form of microaggression – include racial slurs and swastika graffiti.
Racism and prejudice are sometimes blatant, but often manifest in subtle ways. The current emblem of these subtle slights is the "microaggression", a concept that has generated a large programme of research and launched itself into the popular consciousness - prompting last month's decision by Merriam-Webster to add it to their dictionary. However, a new review in Perspectives on Psychological Science by Scott Lilienfeld of Emory University argues that core empirical and conceptual questions about microaggressions remain unaddressed, meaning the struggle against them takes place on a confusing battlefield, one where it's hard to tell between friend and foe.

So what exactly is a microaggression? First coined in the 1970s but rejuvenated in 2007 in a paper in the American Psychologist by Derald Wing Sue and colleagues, it originally referred only to racism but has expanded to a range of commonplace slights or hostility towards an oppressed group. The definition includes microinvalidations, such as being told that a negative interaction couldn't have been due to racist motives, and microinsults, such as a teacher avoiding calling on you in class due to your gender, as well as a third class of microassaults. The prototypical microaggression hides the offence within apparently innocent words or actions, which places those on the receiving end into a catch-22: swallow the indignity, or respond and risk being accused of overreaction?

Questioning the consensus: Maybe we can't really measure "implicit bias"

Blue Planet

Researchers have found 4.2bn-year-old remnants of Earth's original crust in Canada

© Rick Carlson, DTM.
The ancient crust found along the eastern shores of the Hudson Bay.
A team of US and Canadian researchers has found traces of Earth's original crust dating back at least 4.2 billion years which could help explain a huge gap in our planet's geological evolution.

The Earth's crust is a 10-40km (6-25 miles) deep solid layer which sits on top of the viscous mantle and molten core. The current crust - on which all of our cities, countries, continents and oceans rest - isn't the planet's first.

Billions of years ago, when Earth was in its infancy, a more ancient crust covered the planet. That crust melted back into the planet's interior long ago due to plate tectonics, or was transformed into new rocks.

The oldest portions of the current crust have been dated as 2.7 billion years old. Given that scientists believe the Earth is more than 4.5 billion years old, this leaves a huge gap between the birth of the planet and the formation of its cover.


Understanding the connection between synesthesia and absolute pitch

Researchers investigate the unusual association of musical sounds with tastes or colors through the lens of another perceptual quirk.

© Andrzej Krauze
A few years ago, UK composer and technology reporter LJ Rich participated in a music technology competition as part of a project with the BBC. The 24-hour event brought together various musicians, and entailed staying awake into the wee hours trying to solve technical problems related to music. Late into the night, during a break from work, Rich thought of a way to keep people's spirits up.

"At about four in the morning, I remember playing different tastes to people on a piano in the room we were working in," she says. For instance, "to great amusement, during breakfast I played people the taste of eggs."

Comment: Tasty letters? Sensory connections spill over in synesthesia


Mini-nukes, insect-bot weapons and the future of warfare

© Morsa Images | Getty Images
Several countries are developing nanoweapons that could unleash attacks using mini-nuclear bombs and insect-like lethal robots.

While it may be the stuff of science fiction today, the advancement of nanotechnology in the coming years will make it a bigger threat to humanity than conventional nuclear weapons, according to an expert. The U.S., Russia and China are believed to be investing billions on nanoweapons research.

"Nanobots are the real concern about wiping out humanity because they can be weapons of mass destruction," said Louis Del Monte, a Minnesota-based physicist and futurist. He's the author of a just released book entitled "Nanoweapons: A Growing Threat To Humanity."

One unsettling prediction Del Monte's made is that terrorists could get their hands on nanoweapons as early as the late 2020s through black market sources.

Monkey Wrench

Rewriting life: New techniques being used to produce our food or shape the environment raise serious regulatory questions

© Nature.com
Lab-made meat. Hornless cattle. Designer bacteria. Dozens of futuristic-sounding products are being developed using new tools like CRISPR and synthetic biology. As companies seek to commercialize more of these products, one big question lingers: Who will regulate them?

A new report issued by the National Academy of Sciences says U.S. regulatory agencies need to prepare for new plants, animals, and microbes that will be hitting the market in the next five to 10 years. The new products, the report says, could overwhelm regulatory agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration.

"All of these products have the potential to be beneficial, but the question to me is, how do they compare to the alternative?" says Jennifer Kuzma, co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University and a member of the National Academy of Sciences committee that prepared the report.

Comment: God's red pencil? CRISPR and the myths of precise genome editing
Why is this discussion of precision important? Because for the last seventy years all chemical and biological technologies, from genetic engineering to pesticides, have been built on a myth of precision and specificity. They have all been adopted under the pretense that they would function without side effects or unexpected complications. Yet the extraordinary disasters and repercussions of DDT, leaded paint, agent orange, atrazine, C8, asbestos, chlordane, PCBs, and so on, when all is said and done, have been stories of the steady unraveling of a founding myth of precision and specificity.

Nevertheless, with the help of industry propagandists, their friends in the media, even the United Nations, we are once again being preached the gospel of precision. But no matter how you look at it, precision is a fable and should be treated as such.

The issues of CRISPR and other related new "genome editing" biotechnologies are the subject of intense activity behind the scenes. The US Department of Agriculture has just explained that it will not be regulating organisms whose genomes have been edited since it doesn't consider them to be GMOs at all. The EU was about to call them GMOs but the US has caused them to blink, meanwhile the US is in the process of revisiting its GMO regulatory environment entirely. Will future safety regulations of GMOs be based on a schoolboy version of genetics and an interpretation of genome editing crafted in a corporate public relations department? If history is any guide it will.


Battle lasers! US, Russia, and China develop brighter beams for blasting enemies

© REUTERS/ John Williams/U.S. Navy
2017 has already seen a spate of bold statements by Russia and US officials about the development and testing of laser weapons in their countries; earlier this week, the US announced that it is preparing to test a new high-powered laser weapon which can be mounted on army trucks.2017 has already seen a spate of bold statements by Russia and US officials about the development and testing of laser weapons in their countries; earlier this week, the US announced that it is preparing to test a new high-powered laser weapon which can be mounted on army trucks.

On March 16, Lockheed Martin said that its new solid-state fiber laser can slice through targets with a record-breaking 58 kilowatts of direct power, and that in a matter of months it will deliver its High Energy Laser Mobile Test Truck (HELMTT) to the US Army for testing.