(Inside Science) — In 2012, particle physicists detected the long-sought-after Higgs boson for the first time. This particle was the last missing puzzle piece of what physicists call the Standard Model — the most thoroughly tested set of physical laws that govern our universe. The Higgs discovery was made possible by a giant machine in Europe, known as the Large Hadron Collider that uses a 27-kilometer ring of superconducting magnets to accelerate and then smash particles together at near the speed of light.
But the Standard Model is not the be-all and end-all of physics. It falls short in providing explanations for mysteries such as the existence of dark matter or dark energy, or why gravity is so different from other fundamental forces.
Like the unchartered territories that medieval mapmakers filled with fantastic beasts, the frontiers of physics have been filled with a wealth of hypotheses for what may lurk in the darkness. And in science, the only way to confirm or disprove these hypotheses is to gather more data — data from better telescopes and microscopes and, perhaps, a brand-new, even bigger supercollider.
In 2012, the Institute of High Energy Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences announced a plan to build the next great supercollider. The planned Circular Electron Positron Collider will be 100 kilometers around, almost four times larger than the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC. Then in 2013, the LHC’s operator, known as CERN, also announced their plan for a new collider, named simply the Future Circular Collider.
However, the price of exploring the unknown often doesn’t come cheap. With at least a 10-figure price tag, scientists and engineers are debating whether the endeavor will be worth the investment.Read More
Anticipating food shortages in coming decades, some companies are touting insects as tomorrow’s protein source. Entrepreneurs are jumping on board and chips made of crickets are hitting grocery shelves. But scientists advise caution, saying more research is needed on the environmental impact of rearing insects at an industrial scale.
As sustainability experts assess whether insects should be the food of the future, anthropologists are trying to answer the same question about the past: Were insects a part of our ancestors’ diet?Read More
A brief bout of insomnia can be maddening. You know what it feels like. We all do. Lying awake chasing feverish thoughts from our minds while the slow tick of passing minutes compounds sleep-stealing anxiety.
For most of us, these episodes are a brief interruption to our sleep schedules. Others experience more persistent insomnia, but at a level that’s often manageable. But for a very rare group of people with a frightening disease called fatal familial insomnia (FFI), the sleep loss can be deadly.
Medical reports of the disease first surfaced in the 1980s, after an Italian man named Silvano presented himself to neurologists with a dire prediction: He was going to die soon, and he knew how it would happen.
It was no hyperbole — Silvano’s two sisters had recently died from a strange disease that robbed them of their ability to sleep. He had just experienced the same symptoms that kicked off his siblings’ spirals into fatal insomnia.
The hallmark of FFI is contained in the name. What starts as difficulty sleeping gradually progresses to a complete inability to fall asleep. Sleeping medications don’t seem to help much — even with a pharmaceutical push, the brain cannot cross the threshold into sleep.
Silvano’s pronouncement turned out to be true; he was soon dead. As writer D.T. Max chronicles in his book The Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery, subsequent studies of Silvano and his family members revealed crucial similarities to a seemingly unrelated disorder: Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.
CJD is characterized by memory problems, personality changes and involuntary movements, among other things, and it is eventually fatal. The disease shows up later in life, typically in a person’s 50s or later. It’s caused by a quirk of biology known as a prion, a misfolded protein, and that’s what eventually tipped Silvano’s doctors off to the nature of his family’s curse.
Prions occur when a normal protein in our bodies gets folded into an unintended shape. All proteins get folded in our bodies, in complex, origami-like ways that we still don’t fully understand. The folds are crucial to a protein’s ability to function normally inside our cells, but a misfolded protein can be deadly. This is because prions can cause the proteins around them to become misfolded as well, spreading destruction in a wave of misshapen molecules. In this way, a prion can infect a person’s body like a virus, despite having no DNA, no life, to speak of.
Fatal familial insomnia is caused by a prion version of the PrP protein — a protein found throughout our bodies, though its functions aren’t well understood. The disease most often arises due to two genetic mutations to the PRNP gene, though cases of FFI can occur in those without the mutations as well. Though the disease’s mechanisms are still little-understood, it seems that prions build up in a region of the brain called the thalamus, which helps regulate our sleep-wake cycle, among other things.
FFI usually begins with mild insomnia, mild dementia and muscle spasms. Sufferers may also notice themselves sweating profusely, and their pupils may shrink to pinpricks. As the disease progresses, the afflicted lose all ability to sleep and may experience rapid weight loss. They begin to live in a trance-like state, seemingly caught between sleep and waking, though it offers no respite. Dementia and panic attacks steadily worsen, and the patient eventually slips away. The average survival time is 18 months.
There is no known cure for FFI, and few palliative treatments exist.
While some researchers are forging ahead in a search for a cure, at the moment, the little hope that exists for those diagnosed with the disease comes from a man known only in the medical literature as “DH.”
The subject was 52 years old when he contracted FFI, which had already killed his father and three other family members. A naturopath with a doctorate and an evidently fierce will to live, he set out on a voyage of self-preservation. DH at first downed an impressive daily regimen of vitamins, including niacin, antioxidants, brewer’s yeast, tryptophan and melatonin, a cocktail that reportedly allowed him to sleep five or six hours most nights.
But after five months, the vitamins stopped working their magic, and he moved to more potent solutions. He tried ketamine, nitrous oxide, choloroform and combinations of various prescription sleep medications. They worked, but not for long. He then turned to stimulants, aiming to improve the quality of his waking hours. Taken several times a day, the drugs left him feeling refreshed, and even allowed him to sleep for several hours as they wore off, he reported. Later experiments with a sensory-deprivation chamber also appeared to allow him to sleep briefly.
But, by this time, more than a year into his diagnosis, DH’s body was beginning to wear down, likely a consequence of his disease and his pharmaceutical attempts to thwart it. Though he continued to struggle on, touring the country in a motor home driven during bouts of stimulant-induced clarity and writing a book, he eventually succumbed to cardiac arrest 26 months after contracting FFI.
It’s not entirely clear what eventually kills those with FFI. While it’s likely that insomnia plays a large role in the disease’s effects, the prions that accumulate in the brain also lead to other symptoms: sweating, dementia, rapid weight loss and more. It might be that the disease itself is otherwise fatal and the lack of sleep simply hastens its progress.
Attempts to find a cure have so far been unsuccessful, as with all prion diseases. Immunotherapy, in which the body’s immune system is tuned to attack a particular target, may be an option, though tests are ongoing.
Another potential method comes from a pair of researchers with a unique motivation. Sonia Vallabh lost her mother to FFI — subsequent genetic testing revealed she too carried the mutations. Though she hasn’t yet begun to show symptoms, it’s likely she will someday.
So Vallabh gave up her career as a lawyer and, with her husband, Eric Minikel, went back to school. Today, they jointly run a lab at MIT’s and Harvard’s Broad Institute. They are pursuing research into a type of molecule known as an ASO that can prevent RNA molecules — which help translate DNA into proteins — from working, according to Wired. Targeting an ASO to the specific gene that causes FFI might prevent any prions from being created. Following successful experiments in mice, they are now hoping to begin human trials.
Though the path for any new treatment is long and fraught with difficulty, their approach could one day offer a means of protecting against prions. Vallabh and many like her whose fate hangs on the folds of a protein might finally have a fighting chance.
In 1992, astronomers discovered the first exoplanet, or planet outside our solar system. But it didn’t come in any form they’d really anticipated.
Neutron stars are the second densest type of object in the universe outside black holes. They form when a giant star dies and explodes outward as a result of the collapse of its core. Put simply, the star becomes too massive to go on and expels all its energy into the surrounding space. The core is a sort of ground zero of this detonation. When that core collapses, depending on the size of the star, it becomes either a neutron star or a black hole.
Some neutron stars are called pulsars, for the regular “pulses” they give off in radio frequencies. Think of many of them like a drummer — fast regular beats. Some pulsars, called millisecond pulsars, “drum” so fast that it would put Napalm Death’s drummer Danny Herrera to shame.
Those pulses are so regular that if they don’t come at the right interval, astronomers know something is off.
A breakthrough in 1992 provided rock-solid evidence of planets. Astronomers Aleksander Wolszczan and Dale Frail tuned into the pulsar PSR B1257+12, 2300 light-years away. It should have pulsed every 0.006219 seconds, but every now and then, its pulses were a little off. Yet those off-beats came at regular intervals as well. After intensive study, Wolszczan and Frail came up with an explanation for why that was: it had two planets around it. One was three and the other four times the mass of Earth, and they rotated around every 67 and 98 days, rounded up.Read More
For many wannabe astronauts, the idea of venturing into the great unknown would be a dream come true. But over the past 50 years, there’s been a slew of spaceflight-related tragedies that are more akin to an astronaut’s worst nightmare.
In the last half-century, about 30 astronauts and cosmonauts have died while training for or attempting dangerous space missions. But the vast majority of these deaths occurred either on the ground or in Earth’s atmosphere — below the accepted boundary of space called the Kármán line, which begins at an altitude of about 62 miles (100 kilometers).
However, of the roughly 550 people who have so far ventured into space, only three have actually died there.Read More
Can we vibrate ourselves healthy? That’s the premise behind a form of therapy called whole body vibration, or WBV. Proponents argue that subjecting our bones and muscles to rapid vibrations makes them stronger — much the same way exercise does.
The idea is simple: Standing on a vibrating plate forces our muscles to do work. This low-grade stress ultimately leads to strength gains and weight loss. Some studies have even gone further, claiming WBV can reduce blood pressure or combat diabetes. If so, it could be an easy path to better health. But, despite years of research and hundreds of studies, the true benefits of WBV are still unclear.
You can buy a vibration plate on Amazon for less than $100. The idea is that you stand on the machine (bonus points if it’s during a workout), allowing the vibrations to add extra strain to your muscles. A number of studies have subjected people to this simple setup, examining whether the shaking has measurable effects on our bodies.
One study found that women who did leg exercises on a vibrating platform for 12 weeks could jump higher compared to a control group. The results were only slightly better than for a group that performed a normal exercise routine for the same amount of time, though. Another study saw an increase in vertical jump height after researchers had participants simply stand on a vibrating plate several times a week for eight months.
It could be that WBV is simply forcing our muscles to compensate for extra stress, making them work harder and get stronger. But some scientists have proposed that the vibrations, when administered at the correct frequency, are actually reaching into the control systems of our muscles, forcing them to activate.
The theory rests on the idea that the vibrations are tugging at muscle spindles, receptors in our muscles that respond to stretching forces. When the spindles are stretched by the vibrations, they can tell a muscle to contract. The vibrations might be causing our muscle spindles to fire many times a second, causing minute muscle contractions that add up to an extra workout.
Indeed, some studies have found that people’s muscles get fatigued after being vibrated, and their oxygen uptake increases. It could be a sign that WBV is causing our muscles to work harder.
But other studies have come to less inspiring conclusions. A 2004 study concluded that, while doing light exercises on a WBV platform did make people stronger, the gains were about comparable to just working out regularly. Another research group looked at people standing, but not working out, on a vibrating plate for 11 weeks and found no effects on knee strength.
And even in studies that have found positive effects from whole body vibration, the increases in muscle strength are small, and most likely to be seen in people who don’t train regularly. A fitness panacea, or “one small trick” for a beach body, this is not.
Then again, the research hasn’t noted any downsides to whole body vibration, either — unless you’re pregnant; if so, you should abstain. If you feel like your workout needs a little tremor, go right ahead.
Even if you don’t want to shake up your exercise regimen, whole body vibration could offer important benefits to people unable to perform normal workouts. This includes the elderly and infirm, and people with muscle and nerve diseases. One study of 40 people with cerebral palsy found that the participants could both walk and stand up better after 20 weeks of WBV.
Another study found that whole body vibration fatigued elderly people’s muscles more than it did younger people’s, an indication that it might offer greater benefits to seniors. One group has also found some indications that WBV could help with cardiovascular health, and others have shown it could help fight osteoporosis.
After more than two decades of study, much research today in WBV focuses on clinical applications aimed at people who might have difficulty exercising. The results are encouraging, says Silmara Gusso, a senior lecturer in the department of exercise sciences at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. However, she cautions that more research is needed to fully understand the benefits of WBV and who it will help the most.
And, Gusso says, not every kind of vibration is helpful to our bodies. WBV seems to stimulate muscles only when delivered at certain frequencies. Some studies have indicated the best results come from vibrations that match the resonant frequencies of our muscles and tendons.
For this reason, the commercially available vibration plates may not work as advertised, she says.
“There are different types of plates with different vibration stimuli which will produce different muscle outcomes,” she says. “Therefore, we cannot imply that the results obtained with certain equipment can be transferred to others. Some types of vibration might even cause harm.”
So, the news here is mixed. As with most fitness fads, WBV isn’t going to hack your workout. But for those who actually need an alternative to exercise, vibrations might offer a path to better health.
The main solution to climate change is well known – stop burning fossil fuels. How to do this is more complicated, but as a scholar who does energy modeling, I and others see the outlines of a post-fossil-fuel future: We make electricity with renewable sources and electrify almost everything.
That means running vehicles and trains on electricity, heating buildings with electric heat pumps, electrifying industrial applications such as steel production and using renewable electricity to make hydrogen (similar to natural gas) for other requirements. So the focus is on powering the electric grid with renewable sources.Read More
Here’s an option for men struggling to find female partners: Hire a professional wing woman for a night on the town. A beautiful, charismatic companion will help ease you into conversations with prospective dates. At least, that’s the claim companies touting the service make.
But there may be another hidden advantage to your female companion, one rooted deep in our minds. Women seeking romantic partners seem to prefer men already chosen by another lady. It’s a notion ingrained in pop psychology, but actually based on the scientific hypothesis that heterosexual women practice “mate choice copying.” That is, females save time and energy finding a worthy mate by selecting one previously picked by others.Read More
If happiness were a picture, there’s a pretty good chance it would be a dog with its head sticking out of a car window.
It seems few pups can resist a breeze running through their fur and their ears flapping in the wind as their owner cruises into the sunset. And based on those wind-whipped grins, dogs seem to wholeheartedly enjoy this simple pleasure.
But you have to admit, seeing a dog zoom by while catching the breeze is a pretty odd spectacle. Most of us have probably wondered why dogs stick their heads out of car windows. Is it the fresh air, or is there something more to it?Read More
In the final moments before a total solar eclipse, the temperature drops, birds and insects sing, and the ambient light becomes otherworldly. Daytime morphs into a 360-degree dusk, and where the sun once hung a black hole punches through the sky, wreathed by a white ethereal glow.
That glow is the solar corona, the sun’s tenuous upper atmosphere of ionized gas. Composed mostly of electrons and the bare nuclei of hydrogen and helium atoms, it is the launchpad for the solar wind — the stream of charged particles that escape the corona and wash over the planets, eventually petering out at the threshold to interstellar space. Events in the corona affect all of the sun’s worlds, including Earth and the technological society that humans have built upon it.
And yet, despite roughly 80 years of study, much about the corona remains a mystery. The solar wind doesn’t slow down as it leaves the sun — it speeds up. Some particles shoot out of the corona with so much energy that they approach the speed of light. And perhaps most baffling of all, the corona is hundreds of times hotter than the sun’s surface.
Figuring out how this excess energy gets into the corona isn’t just an academic exercise. That energy often affects Earth, with occasionally disastrous results. The largest flares from the corona can wreak havoc with power grids, wireless communication and satellites.Read More