Climate Change and Hurricane Katrina: What Have We Learned?

By Kerry Emanuel, MIT | August 24, 2015 2:44 pm

Hurricane_Katrina_GOES_August_29

Three weeks and three days before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans 10 years ago, a paper of mine appeared in the scientific journal Nature showing that North Atlantic hurricane power was strongly correlated with the temperature of the tropical Atlantic during hurricane season, and that both had been increasing rapidly over the previous 30 years or so. It attributed these increases to a combination of natural climate oscillations and to global warming.

Had Katrina not occurred, this paper and another by an independent team would merely have contributed to the slowly accumulating literature on the relationship between climate and hurricanes.

Instead, the two papers inspired a media firestorm, polarizing popular opinion and, to some extent, scientists themselves, on whether global warming was in some way responsible for Katrina. While the firestorm was mostly destructive, benefiting only the media, it had a silver lining in inspiring a much more concerted effort by atmospheric and climate scientists to understand how hurricanes influence and are influenced by climate.

We have learned much in the intervening years.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts

What’s the Color of Your Favorite Song?

By Stephen Palmer and Karen B. Schloss | August 21, 2015 3:05 pm

piano keys

Imagine yourself as a graphic designer for New Age musician Enya, tasked with creating her next album cover. Which two or three colors from the grid below do you think would “go best” with her music?

Would they be the same ones you’d pick for an album cover or music video for the heavy metal band Metallica? Probably not.

color gridFor years, my collaborators and I have been studying music-to-color associations. From our results, it’s clear that emotion plays a crucial role in how we interpret and respond to any number of external stimuli, including colors and songs.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: emotions, senses

The Progress and Pitfalls of Medical Marijuana

By Katharine Quarmby | August 18, 2015 12:37 pm

medical marijuana

“Cannabis is like a medicine cabinet,” says Roger Pertwee, who was instrumental in some of the early cannabis trials for multiple sclerosis. “It has a lot of compounds in it that are novel and unique to cannabis. We have discovered 104 so far, but there are others. There are many potential uses that we have to investigate.”

Pertwee is Professor of Neuropharmacology at the University of Aberdeen and also GW’s Director of Pharmacology (some of his research at the university is funded by the company). His work, alongside that of other researchers including Raphael Mechoulam and Vincenzo Di Marzo, is instrumental in our understanding of the endocannabinoid system, a network of lipids and receptors involved in a wide array of bodily processes, including appetite, memory, pain and mood.

We have two types of cannabinoid receptor: CB1, which is mostly found in the brain and spinal cord, and CB2, which is found mainly on cells in the immune system. These receptors are activated by cannabinoids made by the body (endocannabinoids) as well as synthetic cannabinoids and those present in plants.

Where should medical research focus its efforts exploring medical cannabis? Many prominent researchers, including Pertwee, believe that the individual components of cannabis are more effective than using the whole plant. Focusing on components would also obviate the need for a patient to smoke.

Areas of interest to researchers across the world include the possible therapeutic use of THC (the main psychoactive component of cannabis), CBD and other cannabinoids to treat autoimmune diseases, diabetes, cancer, inflammation, seizures and even psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

Yes, Other Animals Do Have Sex For Fun

By Jamie Lawson, Durham University | August 3, 2015 1:38 pm

dogs mating

There’s an idea circulating that humans are the only animal to experience sexual pleasure; that we approach sex in a way that is distinct from others. As with many questions about sex, this exposes some interesting facts about the way we discuss the subject.

On one level, the question of whether humans and nonhumans experience sex in the same way is fairly simply dismissed: how would we know? We cannot know how a nonhuman experiences anything – they can’t be asked. Sex as an experiential phenomenon for nonhumans is, quite simply, inaccessible. Science is obliged to propose questions that are answerable, and “how does a leopard slug experience sex?” is, at time of writing, about as unanswerable as they get.

Having said that, we can make educated guesses about whether sex is pleasurable for other species. Sex would be a very strange thing to seek if it didn’t bring some form of pleasure. It increases risk of disease, it wastes energy, it can seriously increase the likelihood of something bigger coming along and eating you (seriously, check out leopard-slug reproduction, below).

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: sex & reproduction

Can You Teach Creativity to a Computer?

By Ahmed Elgammal, Rutgers University | July 30, 2015 2:25 pm

computer paint

From Picasso’s “The Young Ladies of Avignon” to Munch’s “The Scream,” what was it about some paintings that arrested people’s attention upon viewing them, that cemented them in the canon of art history as iconic works?

In many cases, it’s because the artist incorporated a technique, form or style that had never been used before. They exhibited a creative and innovative flair that would go on to be mimicked by artists for years to come.

Throughout human history, experts have often highlighted these artistic innovations, using them to judge a painting’s relative worth. But can a painting’s level of creativity be quantified by Artificial Intelligence (AI)?

At Rutgers’ Art and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, my colleagues and I proposed a novel algorithm that assessed the creativity of any given painting, while taking into account the painting’s context within the scope of art history.

In the end, we found that, when introduced with a large collection of works, the algorithm can successfully highlight paintings that art historians consider masterpieces of the medium.

The results show that humans are no longer the only judges of creativity. Computers can perform the same task – and may even be more objective.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts

What Is the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Actually Looking For?

Four antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). Credit: ESO

Four antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). Credit: ESO

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) last week got a $100 million dollar shot in the arm from the wealthy, Russian Silicon Valley entrepreneur Yuri Milner.

At the London launch of this new project, dubbed Breakthrough Listen, Stephen Hawking made some inspiring observations:

To understand the universe, you must know about atoms — about the forces that bind them, the contours of space and time, the birth and death of stars, the dance of galaxies, the secrets of black holes.

But that is not enough. These ideas cannot explain everything. They can explain the light of stars, but not the lights that shine from planet Earth. To understand these lights, you must know about life, about minds.

Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps, intelligent life may be watching these lights of ours, aware of what they mean. Or do our lights wander a lifeless cosmos – unseen beacons, announcing that here, on one rock, the universe discovered its existence.

Either way, there is no bigger question. It’s time to commit to finding the answer – to search for life beyond Earth. The Breakthrough initiatives are making that commitment. We are alive. We are intelligent. We must know.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts

Five of the Most Bizarre Fossil Discoveries of All Time

By Liam Herringshaw, University of Hull | July 27, 2015 3:54 pm

fossil dig

From trilobites to tyrannosaurs, most fossils are of creatures with hard shells or bones. These materials don’t easily biodegrade and sediment has time to build up around them and turn them into a record of the creature that is still with us millions of years after it has died. Soft-bodied organisms like worms, on the other hand, decay rapidly and their fossil record is decidedly patchy.

In exceptional circumstances, however, their remains are preserved and sometimes in the most unusual places. With the right detective skills, paleontologists can use such discoveries to open up whole new windows on the history of life on Earth. A recent discovery found in 50-million-year-old rocks from Antarctica has yielded a particularly incredible example: fossilized worm sperm.

It’s a great reminder that there are far stranger fossils out there than dinosaur bones. Here are some of the most bizarre specimens ever found.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: paleontology

Beyond Graphene, a Zoo of New 2-D Materials Are Being Created

By Andy Berger | July 17, 2015 10:00 am
Two alternately stacked layers of hexagonal boron nitride.

Two alternately stacked layers of hexagonal boron nitride.

Nine years ago, Joshua Robinson was approached by his then-advisor with news of a discovery that would end up transforming his career, and much of materials science. “I saw this crazy talk about 2-D graphite,” he recalls his adviser saying.

The adviser was referring of course to graphene, the first material to exist as truly two-dimensional: only a single atom thick. Back in 2006, the physics community was just beginning to wrap its mind around how a 2-D material could even exist.

Fast forward to 2015. The realization that materials can be thinned down to the absolute limit of a single atom is spreading, both throughout the world and across the periodic table. Researchers are learning that 2-D isn’t just for the carbon atoms of graphene. Different elemental combinations can lead to fascinating new science and applications.

Robinson is now associate director for Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Two-Dimensional and Layered Materials, a center with 20 faculty and over 50 students dedicated to uncovering the fundamental properties of this new zoo of 2-D materials. It is one of many such centers around the world. And as scientists continue to create new 2-D materials there’s a palpable frenzy to characterize their surprising electronic, optical, and mechanical properties.

The excitement stems from the fact that materials shaved down to only a few atoms act very differently from their so-called “bulk” or 3-D version. Quantum effects begin to take hold as the electrons in the material are squeezed into that impossibly thin layer.

And, being flexible, 2-D materials could bring those unique electrical properties to all sorts of new applications – from bendable touch screens to wearable sensors.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: materials science

Why the Data Deluge Leaves Us Struggling to Make Up Our Minds

By Rikke Duus and Mike Cooray | July 16, 2015 5:04 pm

data deluge

We make a huge number of decisions every day. When it comes to eating, for example, we make 200 more decisions than we’re consciously aware of every day. How is this possible? Because, as Daniel Kahneman has explained, while we’d like to think our decisions are rational, in fact many are driven by gut feel and intuition. The ability to reach a decision based on what we know and what we expect is an inherently human characteristic.

The problem we face now is that we have too many decisions to make every day, leading to decision fatigue – we find the act of making our own decisions exhausting. Even more so than simply deliberate different options or being told by others what to do.

Why not allow technology to ease the burden of decision-making? The latest smart technologies are designed to monitor and learn from our behavior, physical performance, work productivity levels and energy use. This is what has been called Era Three of Automation – when machine intelligence becomes faster and more reliable than humans at making decisions.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts

How Astronomers Will Find Earth 2.0

By Sarah Scoles | July 16, 2015 4:34 pm

earth sun

While self-aware humans have long wondered whether Earth is the only place like itself, we — and our technology — are finally advanced enough to answer that question. And with that power, astronomy’s quest du jour is to find habitable (and potentially inhabited) Earth-esque planets.

To discover biology from afar, scientists peer into planets’ atmospheres in search of evidence that something on their surfaces breathes and metabolizes. But planets are small (cosmically speaking) and far away, and their stars outshine them. Because of that latter problem, astrobiologists currently favor focusing on worlds orbiting small, dim red dwarf stars. Their meager light still nearly blinds us to their planets’ atmospheres, but visibility is better than it would be near a star like the sun.

But it’s not just the star that matters – it’s the other planets too. Astronomers have generally been looking for solar systems like ours, the only inhabited one we know of. That is to say, tidy solar systems where the planets have regular orbits in a flat disk.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: exoplanets
NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

The Crux

A collection of bright and big ideas about timely and important science from a community of experts.
ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »