A Brilliant Life: Stephen Hawking Defied All Odds

By Martin Rees, University of Cambridge | March 14, 2018 9:22 am

(Credit: Lwp Kommunikáció/Flickr, CC BY-SA)

Soon after I enrolled as a graduate student at Cambridge University in 1964, I encountered a fellow student, two years ahead of me in his studies, who was unsteady on his feet and spoke with great difficulty. This was Stephen Hawking. He had recently been diagnosed with a degenerative disease, and it was thought that he might not survive long enough even to finish his PhD. But he lived to the age of 76, passing away on March 14, 2018.

It really was astonishing. Astronomers are used to large numbers. But few numbers could be as large as the odds I’d have given against witnessing this lifetime of achievement back then. Even mere survival would have been a medical marvel, but of course he didn’t just survive. He became one of the most famous scientists in the world – acclaimed as a world-leading researcher in mathematical physics, for his best-selling books and for his astonishing triumph over adversity. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts

NASA’s Next Stop: A Space Station Orbiting The Moon

By Korey Haynes | March 13, 2018 3:15 pm

An artist’s concept of a future orbital moon station. (Credit: Boeing)

The International Space Station is entering its twilight years. As such, NASA is making plans for the space station of the future — one that would orbit the moon.

This new lunar outpost will be smaller and more remote than the ISS — orbing beyond Earth’s protective magnetic field. And the station’s goal would be to serve as a transit hub for deep space missions and exploration past low-Earth orbit, while continuing all the science that can be done in zero gravity. It would also be within easy reach of the lunar surface. Read More

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

Daylight Saving Time Has a Dark Side

By David Wagner, University of Oregon | March 9, 2018 3:26 pm

A New York engineer is wheeled away in December 2013, after a train he was driving crashed. Lack of sleep could have been a factor. (Credit: AP Photo/Robert Stolarik)

A train hurtled around a corner at 82 mph, eventually coming off the rails and killing four passengers.

Decades earlier, faulty decision-making resulted in the deaths of the seven-person crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger.

Years before these events, a stuck valve regulating the supply of coolant to a nuclear reactor nearly resulted in the meltdown of a nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. In each of these cases, poor or inadequate sleep was one of the factors that contributed to the failure. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

Beneath an Outhouse, a 19th Century Brothel’s Secrets Are Revealed

By Anna Goldfield | March 7, 2018 3:48 pm

Life in an 19th century Boston brothel. (Credit: Boston University/YouTube)

For Jade Luiz, a graduate student in archaeology at Boston University, historical archaeology is all about detective work. Through piecing together historical documents and archaeological finds from the outdoor toilet, or privy, of a former brothel near Boston’s North End, she’s been reconstructing the lives of women who participated in sex work in the mid-1800s.

Louisa Cowen, for example, who in 1856 took over as the madam of 27–29 Endicott Street—the brothel behind which stood the privy—typically presented herself as a respectable widow, according to historical mentions of the brothel and census records. Given her status, she likely wore black clothing and adorned herself in somber black jewelry. Her tombstone names her as the wife of Henry Cowen, a Boston house painter who predeceased her. Whether or not the two had been officially married remains unknown. What Luiz does know is that Louisa Cowen became very successful. Read More

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

Coffee: A Most Enigmatic, Ubiquitous Beverage

By Erica Tennenhouse | March 7, 2018 1:03 pm

a cup of coffee

Legend has it that coffee was discovered by a goat herder around 850 AD in what is now Ethiopia. It soon spread around the globe and is currently consumed by billions of people every day. But as the drink gained in popularity, it also gained a bad rap. From claims that coffee led to illegal sex in the 1500s, or that it caused impotence in the 1600s, to the more recent belief that it stunted your growth, history has not been kind to coffee.

In recent years, rumors have been replaced by scores of scientific studies. But reading through the research can be dizzying, as you’ll often come across a conclusion that directly opposes another you just read. In fact, it’s unlikely that any single study would yield enough evidence to convince us about the health effects of coffee one way or another. So some scientists instead focus on compiling these disparate findings into mega-studies called meta-analyses. Eventually, the meta-analyses became so numerous that scientists started aggregating those into what are known as umbrella reviews to see if they could glean any general wisdom about coffee’s effects. Read More

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

Fever of the Rat

By Claire Panosian Dunavan, UCLA School of Medicine | February 28, 2018 2:07 pm

Beware, the biting rat. (Credit: Shutterstock)

Back in the 1980s, S.O.S. calls after midnight were common in the field of infectious disease. And as soon as my pager started to trill, I turned on my bedside lamp and dialed—often within thirty seconds. One night, I connected to an intern I’ll call Paddy. The background din quickly spelled “E.R.”

“Sorry to disturb you, Dr. P, but a woman woke with a rat on her face. Then the rat bit her lip.”

First, I expelled a disgusted “yecchh,” then I asked a question. “Was she drunk and passed out when it happened?” I asked, trying to picture the scene. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

Computers Learn to Imagine the Future

By Garrett Kenyon | February 28, 2018 12:37 pm

Predicting the future position of objects comes natural for humans, but it is quite difficult for a computer. (Credit: Shutterstock)

In many ways, the human brain is still the best computer around. For one, it’s highly efficient. Our largest supercomputers require millions of watts, enough to power a small town, but the human brain uses approximately the same energy as a 20-watt bulb. While teenagers may seem to take forever to learn what their parents regard as basic life skills, humans and other animals are also capable of learning very quickly. Most of all, the brain is truly great at sorting through torrents of data to find the relevant information to act on.

At an early age, humans can reliably perform feats such as distinguishing an ostrich from a school bus, for instance – an achievement that seems simple, but illustrates the kind a task that even our most powerful computer vision systems can get wrong. We can also tell a moving car from the static background and predict where the car will be in the next half-second. Challenges like these, and far more complex ones, expose the limitations in our ability to make computers think like people do. But recent research at Los Alamos National Laboratory is changing all that. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts

Let’s End the Debate About Video Games and Violence

By Christopher J. Ferguson, Stetson University | February 19, 2018 11:03 am

Young gamers give new titles a spin during a past SXSW gaming conference in Austin, Texas. (Credit: Shutterstock)

In the wake of the Valentine’s Day shooting at a Broward County, Florida high school, a familiar trope has reemerged: Often, when a young man is the shooter, people try to blame the tragedy on violent video games and other forms of media. Florida lawmaker Jared Moskowitz made the connection the day after the shooting, saying the gunman “was prepared to pick off students like it’s a video game.”

In January, after two students were killed and many others wounded by a 15-year-old shooter in Benton, Kentucky, the state’s governor criticized popular culture, telling reporters, “We can’t celebrate death in video games, celebrate death in TV shows, celebrate death in movies, celebrate death in musical lyrics and remove any sense of morality and sense of higher authority and then expect that things like this are not going to happen.” Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: psychology

What a Fossil Revolution Reveals About the History of ‘Big Data’

By David Sepkoski | February 16, 2018 8:57 am


In 1981, when I was nine years old, my father took me to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. Although I had to squint my eyes during some of the scary scenes, I loved it – in particular because I was fairly sure that Harrison Ford’s character was based on my dad. My father was a paleontologist at the University of Chicago, and I’d gone on several field trips with him to the Rocky Mountains, where he seemed to transform into a rock-hammer-wielding superhero.

That illusion was shattered some years later when I figured out what he actually did: far from spending his time climbing dangerous cliffs and digging up dinosaurs, Jack Sepkoski spent most of his career in front of a computer, building what would become the first comprehensive database on the fossil record of life. The analysis that he and his colleagues performed revealed new understandings of phenomena such as diversification and extinction, and changed the way that paleontologists work. But he was about as different from Indiana Jones as you can get. The intertwining tales of my father and his discipline contain lessons for the current era of algorithmic analysis and artificial intelligence (AI), and points to the value-laden way in which we ‘see’ data. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

Space Wars Will Look Nothing Like Star Wars

By Nathaniel Scharping | February 15, 2018 12:22 pm
(Credit: Adam Hartman/U.S. Navy)

(Credit: Adam Hartman/U.S. Navy)

Darting spaceships. Dazzling lasers. Fiery explosions. All of these are things that a war in space would almost certainly not involve.

Ever since Star Wars, the public has been fascinated by the visuals of space conflict — it’s futuristic, thrilling, and cosmic battles are bereft of the gore that so often accompanies terrestrial conflict. And ever since Sputnik, humans have been putting things into space, pieces of technology that are now vital cogs in the machinery of society. We rely on satellites for everything from credit card transactions to mapping apps. The military needs satellites for communication, as well as for the imaging that lets them keep an eye on friend and foe alike.

Therefore, forget about the Death Star, this amalgamation of blinking hardware floating in Earth’s orbit would be target numero uno. But would it be wise to pull the trigger? Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Technology

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