What Does Space Sound Like?

By Trevor Cox | January 28, 2015 3:40 pm

earth from space

“Space, the final frontier,” announces James T. Kirk at the start of the first Star Trek episode. As the spaceship Enterprise flies past the screen, the voice sounds as though it was recorded in a very reverberant cathedral. I know space is a big place, but where are the reflections meant to be coming from? And anyway, space is silent or, to quote the catchy tag line from the 1979 movie Alien, “in space, no one can hear you scream.”

For an astronaut unfortunate enough to be caught outside the spaceship without a space suit, screaming to occupy the moments before asphyxiation would be pointless, as there are no air molecules to carry the sound waves. But Hollywood does not let anything as trivial as physics get in the way of a compelling soundtrack. The latest Star Trek film showed the outside of the soaring Enterprise accompanied by lots of powerful engine noises; the photon torpedoes sounded pretty impressive as well.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts

The Bloodthirsty Truth of the Beautiful Orchid Mantis

By James Gilbert, University of Sussex | January 27, 2015 11:05 am

orchid mantis

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

In his 1879 account of wanderings in the Orient, the travel writer James Hingston describes how, in West Java, he was treated to a bizarre experience:

I am taken by my kind host around his garden, and shown, among other things, a flower, a red orchid, that catches and feeds upon live flies. It seized upon a butterfly while I was present, and enclosed it in its pretty but deadly leaves, as a spider would have enveloped it in network.

What Hingston had seen was not a carnivorous orchid, as he thought. But the reality is no less weird or fascinating. He had seen – and been fooled by – an orchid mantis, Hymenopus coronatus, not a plant but an insect.

We have known about orchid mantises for more than 100 years. Famous naturalists such as Alfred Russell Wallace have speculated about their extraordinary appearance. Eschewing the drab green or brown of most mantises, the orchid mantis is resplendent in white and pink. The upper parts of its legs are greatly flattened and are heart-shaped, looking uncannily like petals. On a leaf it would be highly conspicuous – but when sitting on a flower, it is extremely hard to see. In photos, the mantis appears in or next to a flower, challenging the reader to spot it.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: animals, evolution

Where Will We Live After Earth?

shutterstock_164724506

This article originally appeared on The Conversation.

Some climatologists argue it may be too late to reverse climate change, and it’s just a matter of time before the Earth becomes uninhabitable – if hundreds of years from now. The recent movie Interstellar raised the notion that we may one day have to escape a dying planet. As astrophysicists and avid science fiction fans, we naturally find the prospect of interstellar colonization intriguing and exciting. But is it practical, or even possible? Or is there a better solution?

Science fiction has painted a certain picture of space travel in popular culture. Drawing on stories of exploration from an age of tall ships, with a good helping of anachronisms and fantastical science, space exploration is often depicted in a romantic style: a crew of human travelers in high-tech ships wandering the galaxy, making discoveries and reporting back home. Perhaps they even find habitable words, some teeming with life (typically humans with different-colored skin), and they trade, colonize, conquer or are conquered. Pretty much, they do as humans have always done since the dawn of their time on Earth.

How closely do these ideas resemble what we may be able to achieve in the next few hundred years? The laws of physics and the principles of engineering will go a long way to helping us answer this question.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: space exploration

Ebola’s Possible Future as an Endemic Disease

By Kari Lydersen | January 19, 2015 11:36 am

Last fall as the Ebola epidemic continued unabated, experts started discussing something that had never before been bandied about: the idea of Ebola becoming endemic in parts of West Africa. Endemic diseases, like malaria and Lassa fever in that region of Africa, are constant presences. Instead of surfacing periodically, as it always has before now, Ebola in an endemic form would persist in the human population, at low levels of transmission, indefinitely.

The debate was stoked by a paper written by the World Health Organization (WHO) Ebola Response Team and published in October in the New England Journal of Medicine. The sentence that grabbed the world’s attention was saved till near the very end: “For the medium term, at least, we must therefore face the possibility that EVD [Ebola virus] will become endemic among the human population of West Africa, a prospect that has never previously been contemplated.”

What would it mean exactly for Ebola to become endemic, and how would it change things?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

Thorium Power Is the Safer Future of Nuclear Energy

By David Warmflash | January 16, 2015 10:57 am

nuclear plant

Nuclear power has long been a contentious topic. It generates huge amounts of electricity with zero carbon emissions, and thus is held up as a solution to global energy woes. But it also entails several risks, including weapons development, meltdown, and the hazards of disposing of its waste products.

But those risks and benefits all pertain to a very specific kind of nuclear energy: nuclear fission of uranium or plutonium isotopes. There’s another kind of nuclear energy that’s been waiting in the wings for decades – and it may just demand a recalibration of our thoughts on nuclear power.

Nuclear fission using thorium is easily within our reach, and, compared with conventional nuclear energy, the risks are considerably lower.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts

When Women Are Rare, Men Are Less Promiscuous

By Ryan Schacht and Monique Borgerhoff Mulder | January 14, 2015 12:21 pm

bar talkingThe Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Popular wisdom and established evolutionary science hold that the sexes seek fundamentally different relationships: men want short-term, no-strings-attached relationships whereas women value longer-term, loyal partnerships.

The explanation generally comes down to biological differences between men and women. Because women invest more in reproduction than men do – think pregnancy, morning sickness and stretchmarks – being picky becomes important because choosing poorly can be costly, even devastating. However, for men, reproduction may only entail a brief sexual liaison and a bit of sperm – there are potentially no long-term costs. This calculus has been built into our psychology, many argue.

Think about it more carefully, though. Where do all the women sleeping with these guys come from? Shouldn’t it be difficult for men to find so many willing partners? As theorist Hanna Kokko noted, it takes two to tango.

If we go by the numbers, in a group with an equal number of both sexes, it is impossible, on average, for men to have more partners than women. So why do we expect male psychology to be so hellbent on one-night stands? And why, clearly in opposition to this notion, are many men often so devotedly paternal?

Here’s where an established body of literature in sociology and demography – called mating market theory (MMT) – can help out. According to MMT, relationship preferences are expected to follow not simply from these fixed biological propensities, but also to be heavily influenced by partner availability.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: sex & reproduction

The “Pillars of Creation” Have Been, Are Being, and Will Be Destroyed

By Sarah Scoles | January 6, 2015 12:00 pm

pillars of creation

The “Pillars of Creation,” a photograph of part of the Eagle Nebula, is one of the most iconic images ever taken by the Hubble telescope. Yesterday, astronomers released a bigger, better, sharper version of the pillars, taken almost two decades after the first.

But an ironic twist – and what we didn’t know twenty years ago – is that the Pillars might have been long ago torn apart by a distant explosion. The photos we snap of them today are high-tech and modern but their subject is clouded by thousands of light-years of remove. Like the post-mortem photography of the Victorian era, the resulting images are lifelike, and beautiful, and sad.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: stars

Why Most Calorie Counts Are Wrong

granola calories

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Food labels seem to provide all the information a thoughtful consumer needs, so counting calories should be simple. But things get tricky because food labels tell only half the story.

A calorie is a measure of usable energy. Food labels say how many calories a food contains. But what they don’t say is that how many calories you actually get out of your food depends on how highly processed it is.

Processed Food Makes You Fatter

Food-processing includes cooking, blending and mashing, or using refined instead of unrefined flour. It can be done by the food industry before you buy, or in your home when you prepare a meal. Its effects can be big. If you eat your food raw, you will tend to lose weight. If you eat the same food cooked, you will tend to gain weight. Same calories, different outcome.

For our ancestors, it could have meant the difference between life and death. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, when early humans learned to cook they were able to access more energy in whatever they ate. The extra energy allowed them to develop big brains, have babies faster and travel more efficiently. Without cooking, we would not be human.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: nutrition

Animals Hack Nature’s Medicine Cabinet – We Should Too

By Yao-Hua Law | December 22, 2014 10:48 am

pigs pills

When we fall ill we visit a clinic or a pharmacy. Our ancestors, however, didn’t have that luxury. Instead, early humans likely observed and learned from sick animals that healed themselves by eating certain plants. Yet, only in the past two decades have biologists and chemists begun to recognize that animals do self-medicate – select and use substances specifically to cure themselves of parasites and ailments.

Early accounts of animal self-medication came in the late 1980s from Michael Huffman, a primatologist at Kyoto University. His decades-long research on chimpanzees, which revealed that they use plant compounds to rid themselves of parasites, helped established self-medication as a fundamental animal behavior.

“Any animal species alive today is alive in part because of its ability to adapt and to fight off diseases,” Huffman says. Self-medication does not require high intelligence, but was simply the reaction of animals to remove an ailing symptom that evolved into strategies to expel parasites. “Self-medication is a very basic behavior that’s important to the survival of so many species,” he says.

And animal self-medication points to a treasure larger than mere fascination. By following the animals’ lead, we tap into a medicine vault furnished by millions of years of natural selection. The world’s best bio-prospectors – the animals themselves – may very well show us new pharmaceuticals to improve the health of our livestock and ourselves.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

Drugmakers Rush to Test New Ebola Vaccines

By Kari Lydersen | December 17, 2014 1:43 pm

While developing drugs to cure Ebola is crucial to end the current epidemic, a vaccine that prevents the infection altogether is the end-game for viral outbreaks – a way to protect healthcare workers on the front lines and to prevent future outbreaks.

It typically takes 10 or 20 years to develop and test a vaccine and get it to market. But in Ebola’s case, this time frame has been compressed into a matter of months, bringing pharmaceutical companies, scientists and regulators into uncharted territory, striving for a vaccine to curb the still-escalating epidemic without compromising safety.

“Never before has there been a push to develop a vaccine for an emerging public health threat in this short a time frame,” said Dr. Mark Feinberg, vice president and chief public health and science officer of the drug company Merck’s vaccine division.

Dr. Ripley Ballou, head of Ebola vaccine research for GlaxoSmithKline, concurs. “I’ve been doing this kind of work for 30 years, and this is the first time I’ve encountered anything with the compressed timeline and sense of urgency,” he said.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
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