Archive for August, 2008

The Human Brain Picks up Subliminal Signals

By Eliza Strickland | August 27, 2008 4:05 pm

poker tableIt’s a demonstration of unconscious brain power: A new neuroscience study shows that people can make decisions based on input that is invisible to the conscious mind. Researchers say the findings aren’t evidence of the efficacy of subliminal messages, which have mostly been discredited. But there has been a more subtle phenomenon, billed as the foundation of intuition, where seasoned poker players may play more successfully because they can pick up subtle signals in the body language of their opponents – without consciously realising it – to work out if they are bluffing [Telegraph].

In the study, published in the journal Neuron [subscription required], test subjects were repeatedly shown brief abstract animations before being asked whether they wanted to take a gamble, which could either earn or lose them a small amount of money. The animations had hidden symbols that indicated whether the subject would win or lose on the subsequent bet; over time, test subjects got better at predicting whether they would win or not.

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MORE ABOUT: decisions, learning

Computer Virus Travels Into Orbit, Lands on the Space Station

By Eliza Strickland | August 27, 2008 12:42 pm

astronaut and laptopA pesky computer virus that has popped up on computers around the world has now made the leap into space. NASA announced yesterday that several laptops on board the International Space Station were infected with the virus in July, and also admitted that such infections have happened before.

“This is not the first time we have had a worm or a virus,” NASA spokesman Kelly Humphries said. “It’s not a frequent occurrence, but this isn’t the first time.” … NASA downplayed the news, calling the virus mainly a “nuisance” that was on non-critical space station laptops used for things like e-mail and nutritional experiments [Wired News].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology

Robotic Exoskeleton Allows a Paralyzed Man to Walk

By Eliza Strickland | August 27, 2008 9:24 am

robotic exoskeletonA man who was paralyzed below the waist 20 years ago is walking again, thanks to a robotic “exoskeleton” that moves his legs and can even navigate up and down hills. The inventors of the device, dubbed the ReWalk, say the experimental technology can give paraplegics a psychological boost through renewed mobility, and can also help people avoid medical problems caused by long-term wheelchair use.

One of the first paraplegics to test out the device is Radi Kaiof, a former Israeli paratrooper who has been paralysed for the last 20 years following an injury during his service in the Israeli military. He says the device has changed his life. “I never dreamed I would walk again. After I was wounded, I forgot what it’s like. Only when standing up can I feel how tall I really am and speak to people eye to eye, not from below” [BBC News].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Technology
MORE ABOUT: paralysis, robots

First Map of the "Gamma Ray Universe" Produced

By Eliza Strickland | August 27, 2008 8:34 am

gamma ray universe mapYesterday, NASA released the first set of images from its newest space telescope, the Gamma-Ray Large Area Space Telescope, which has now been renamed Fermi in honor of the particle physicist Enrico Fermi. After less than three months of collecting data, the Fermi telescope produced a map of the sky showing the sources of powerful gamma rays as bright spots of light.

“I like to call it our extreme machine,” said Jon Morse, the director of astrophysics for NASA. “It will help us crack the mysteries of these enormously powerful emissions.” Gamma rays are powerful light rays invisible to the naked eye [Washington Post]. As the Earth’s atmosphere absorbs gamma rays, they can only be studied from an orbiting telescope.

The $700 million telescope will observe gamma rays emitted by black holes, neutron stars, and other cosmic eccentrics, and will also scan the skies for the mysterious gamma ray bursts that are of special interest to astronomers because they are among the brightest events ever observed. The intense flashes of gamma rays can release within seconds the same amount of energy that the sun will put out over its entire ten-billion-year lifetime—but no one is sure what causes them. The going theory is that the bursts are tied to the explosive deaths of massive stars, but exactly what types of stars and how the explosions are triggered remains a mystery [National Geographic News]. Already, the Fermi telescope has detected gamma ray bursts at a rate of about one a day.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Space

Neanderthal Tools Were a Match for Early Homo Sapiens'

By Eliza Strickland | August 26, 2008 5:22 pm

Neanderthal tool flake bladeArchaeologists have recreated the stone tools made by Neanderthals, and found them to be as useful and efficient as those made by the earliest Homo sapiens, who survived while the Neanderthal line died off. The new research is one of many recent studies claiming that Neanderthals weren’t just dumb brutes that were out-competed by early humans. Says lead researcher Metin Eren: “When we think of Neanderthals we need to stop thinking in terms of ‘stupid’ or ‘less advanced’ and more in terms of ‘different'” [Guardian].

Other recent studies have argued that Neanderthals hunted and communicated as well as the early Homo sapiens who arrived in Europe, where the Neanderthals already lived, about 45,000 years ago. But some archaeologists still believed that Homo sapiens had a technological advantage, because they used long stone tools called blades, as opposed to the Neanderthals’ disk-shaped flakes. In the new study, Eren’s team spent spent three years recreating blades and flakes, then measured their cutting power, durability and the amount of effort needed to produce them [Wired News]. In the end, Eren determined that the Neanderthals’ tools may have even had a slight edge over Homo sapiens tools.

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All Systems Go for World's Largest Particle Smasher

By Eliza Strickland | August 26, 2008 2:30 pm

Large Hadron Collider trackAfter 15 years of construction, the world’s largest particle accelerator is warmed up, fully tested, and ready to rumble. The Large Hadron Collider will go into operation on September 10th, and researchers are celebrating every step towards that momentous day. Last weekend, physicists popped champagne to toast the results of a test in which beams of protons were sent barreling into a massive block of concrete, causing the protons to fragment into smaller particles. Researchers have also successfully sent test batches of protons part-way around the collider’s 17-mile circular track.

The Large Hadron Collider represents the science world’s latest, greatest attempt to smash its way into the mysteries of the universe: Beams of protons will eventually collide with the energy of two bullet trains – spawning sprays of subatomic debris that are certain to lead to new discoveries…. One experiment at the LHC, known as ALICE, seeks to re-create the conditions that existed just an instant after the big bang that gave rise to the universe as we know it. [The collider’s] researchers want to understand why matter won out over antimatter after the creation of the cosmos [MSNBC].

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Martian Gullies Were Formed by Liquid Water

By Eliza Strickland | August 26, 2008 1:39 pm

Martian gulliesThe deep furrows carved in the sides of Martian craters were most likely formed by snowmelt in the planet’s recent geological past, according to a new study. The findings indicate that seasonal flows of liquid water may have streamed down the craters’ flanks when Mars was a wetter planet, as recently as a few hundred thousand years ago. Today, the Red Planet is a colder and drier place; although the Mars Phoenix Lander found water ice buried under the dirt near the north pole, no liquid water currently exists on the planet, and any ice exposed to air quickly turns into vapor due to the low atmospheric pressure.

The gullies were first sighted several years ago, but researchers couldn’t immediately determine what had caused them. [S]ome scientists proposed that the features were formed either by dry avalanches or by groundwater pushing up from below the surface and running down the sides of craters []. But in a new study of crater images taken by the Mars orbiters, researchers found evidence that ice and melting snow were the culprits.

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Cows Can Feel the Pull of Magnetic North

By Eliza Strickland | August 26, 2008 1:15 pm

cows grazingCattle and deer grazing in fields tend to align themselves with the Earth’s magnetic field, suggesting that the animals may have a built-in magnetic compass. A new study shows that animals in these herds tend to face towards either magnetic north or south, which has come as a surprise even to those who spend their days with bovines. Asked whether he had ever observed such behavior in cows, dairy farmer Rob Fletcher of Tulare, Calif., said, “Absolutely not.” But, he added, “I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about stuff like that” [Los Angeles Times].

Researchers used satellite imagery from Google Earth to look for patterns in more than 300 cow-filled pastures from every continent except Antarctica, and in more than 250 herds of deer in the Czech Republic. While every individual animal didn’t face the same direction, the herds, on average, pointed towards either magnetic north or south. That orientation didn’t consistently line up with any aspect of the terrain on which they were grazing, the direction from which the wind was blowing or the direction from which the sun was shining, [co-author Hynek] Burda says. In fact, many of these field observations were made at night, he notes [Science News].

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Bacteria Go on Suicide Missions to Help Their Peers

By Eliza Strickland | August 25, 2008 9:00 pm

salmonella bacteriaA new study has shown that salmonella bacteria use a surprising tactic when they attack a mammal’s intestinal system. A small percentage of the bacteria mount a kamikaze mission from which they’ll never return, but which helps allows the rest of the salmonella bacteria to thrive, spreading the infection and ultimately benefiting the species.

Researchers found that in the early stage of an infection, about 15 percent of the salmonella go on a suicide mission, invading the intestinal walls. There, the immune system handily wipes them out. But that also sets off a wider immune response that, while attacking the salmonella within the gut, also wipes out many other micro-organisms. “This inflammation removes many of the competitors, so the second group which waited outside can proliferate,” said [lead researcher] Martin Ackerman [The New York Times].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Living World

Bats' Lungs Burst When They Fly Close to Wind Turbines

By Eliza Strickland | August 25, 2008 5:24 pm

batWind turbines may be killing bats without touching them: A new study suggests that the localized drop in air pressure caused by the whirling blades is causing the delicate lungs of bats to burst. While environmentalists previously worried about birds getting slashed by the turbines’ blades, researchers realized a year ago that bats are more at risk from the the turbines. In May 2007, the US National Research Council published the results of a survey of US wind farms showing that two bat species accounted for 60% of winged animals killed [New Scientist]. But until now, the bats’ mode of death was unknown.

Because bats navigate using a sophisticated echolocation system, researchers thought it was unlikely that the bats were getting caught in the turbines. Says lead researcher Erin Baerwald: “When people were first starting to talk about the issue, it was ‘bats running into the turbine blades.’ We always said, ‘No, bats don’t run into things.’ Bat’s can detect and avoid all kinds of structures.” In fact, they are even better at detecting moving objects, Baerwald said. “This kind of answers that mystery,” she added. “It was something nobody could have predicted” [Discovery News].

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