The Darker Side of the ‘Love Hormone’

By S Craig Roberts, University of Stirling | May 21, 2015 9:40 am

love hormone

A decade ago, a revolutionary paper showed that a hormone called oxytocin can actually make us trust other people. This spawned a flurry of research that revealed oxytocin’s potential to boost social interactions. Now a new study has shown that the hormone is actually very similar to alcohol, a well-known social lubricant. However, just like alcohol, it has a dark side.

In the first study, published in 2005, volunteers were asked to invest money in an anonymous trustee whose honesty could not be guaranteed. People who received a dose of oxytocin chose to invest more than those given a placebo – they were more trusting. Subsequent experiments have shown that oxytocin also leads people to become more empathetic, generous and cooperative. They become better at reading social nuances and facial expressions, believe others to be more approachable and become less fearful and anxious in social situations.

Not only this, it seems that oxytocin may help to promote fidelity. Evidence for this comes most clearly in two intensively studied and closely related rodent species. One, the prairie vole, is monogamous; mated couples form close pair bonds and share nest-building and parental duties. In the other, the meadow vole, males leave the female with the babies and will try to mate again.

The two species vary in their sensitivity to oxytocin. However, experiments that increase the effective sensitivity to oxytocin by increasing hormone dosage or blocking receptors in the brain can actually change pair-bonding behavior, making it easier for female prairie voles to choose a partner and turning previously promiscuous meadow vole males into monogamous, caring dads.

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

This Robotic Octopus Arm Could Someday Be Your Surgeon

By Kaspar Althoefer, King's College London | May 19, 2015 12:05 pm

octopus
The unparalleled motion and manipulation abilities of soft-bodied animals such as the octopus have intrigued biologists for many years. How can an animal that has no bones transform its tentacles from a soft state to a one stiff enough to catch and even kill prey?

A group of scientists and engineers has attempted to answer this question in order to replicate the abilities of an octopus tentacle in a robotic surgical tool. Last week, members of this EU-funded project known as STIFF-FLOP (STIFFness controllable Flexible and Learnable manipulator for surgical OPerations) unveiled the group’s latest efforts.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts

Why Astronomers Will Hate the Internet of Things

By Sarah Scoles | May 12, 2015 3:11 pm
Radio telescopes at the Very Large Array, the National Radio Observatory in New Mexico (Credit: Manamana/Shutterstock)

Radio telescopes at the Very Large Array, the National Radio Observatory in New Mexico (Credit: Manamana/Shutterstock)

A minor fracas between astronomers and robo-lawnmowers has been making headlines, which sounds painfully futuristic. At issue, whether the maker of Roomba can let its autonomous mower operate on restricted radio frequencies that telescopes use to observe the cosmos.

And the whole thing is futuristic in another, more subtle way, as well. Robot lawnmowers are just one of the many coming gadgets that will be incorporated into the Internet of Things, a wireless network in which even our everyday appliances will participate. And it’s that future that has astronomers on edge.

A Web of Nouns

The trouble began because iRobot doesn’t want its customers to have to do any physical labor — not cutting the grass and definitely not digging the trenches for the underground wires that most autonomous lawn mowers use to sense the edge of their domain. iRobot applied to the FCC to be allowed to use wireless broadcasters instead, at radio frequencies between 6240 and 6740 MHz. Problematically, though, space-based methanol also broadcasts radio waves at those frequencies. Methanol traces star formation and tells us about the evolution of our galaxy, which (taken to its extreme) tells us how we got here. To protect that band, the FCC says “all practicable steps shall be taken to protect the radio astronomy service from harmful interference.” And within that band, it prohibits “fixed outdoor infrastructure.” The National Radio Astronomy Observatory says iRobot’s guiding beacons violate that prohibition and insist the mower-bot stay 55 miles away from its telescopes. iRobot says nuh-uh, “there is little risk of interference,” and 12 miles is sufficient.

The "Internet of Things" may save us time and energy, but it's a headache fro astronomers. (Credit: Chesky/Shutterstock)

The Internet of Things  may save us time and energy, but it’s a headache fro astronomers. (Credit: Chesky/Shutterstock)

If one brand’s wireless landscape-eater can cause such a stir, just imagine what could happen when our world is full of self-adjusting, internet-connected devices all communicating wirelessly with each other and with the Web. They will all need to use the radio “spectrum,” but how they’ll split it up — and share it with astronomers, other industries, and the government — when more devices need a slice of the pie remains to be seen.

Smart thermostats can already make your house the temperature you want while monitoring the outdoor weather. Bluetooth beacons help you find your keys. Sensors monitor inventory and alert vending machine owners that Fruitopia is sold out. This is the Internet of Things, and it’s coming. “There are no spectrum bottlenecks for dedicated Internet of Things systems yet,” Kevin Ashton, co-founder and former executive director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Auto-ID Center, told Bloomberg BNA, “but we are seeing Wi-Fi services get maxed out, as there are only so many channels you can cram into the available spectrum.”

Splitting up the Spectrum

The Internet of Things requires wireless devices. A Nest would look stupid with an Ethernet cable snaking out of its circumference. If your wearable glucose monitor had to be plugged into a router to work, you’d never get far from home. Each device operates at a specific radio frequency. In the US, the FCC controls who gets to use which frequencies. In some bands, anyone can transmit radio waves, as long as they stay below a certain power (most Internet of Things things operate here). Other bands require a license, which the government sells to organizations at (surely riveting) auctions. And, finally, some bands are reserved for radio astronomy. Check out this graphic to see how it’s parceled out:

(Credit: U.S. Department of Commerce)

(Credit: U.S. Department of Commerce)

The radio astronomy bands, however, only cover a tiny portion of the spectrum, while radio astronomers are interested in almost all of it. So while the Internet of Things may color within the lines of its own little boxes (which seems dubious if iRobot is a harbinger), objects in space have no such compunctions. They will continue to send out radio waves that have the same frequency as your video-chat dog-treat dispenser. And the signal from your dog’s sockeye-salmon biscuit video could completely swamp a signal that’s been traveling valiantly across space for billions of years. But as the spectrum gets more crowded, we’re more likely to see changes and challenges to its allocation — just like with iRobot — that bleed toward protected bands.

Radio Waves … from Space

Astronomers use radio telescopes like those in Green Bank, WV; Socorro, NM; Jodrell Bank, England; Arecibo, Puerto Rico; and Parkes, Australia to detect the radio waves coming from space. Although cosmic radio waves come from powerful sources like black holes, pulsars, and natural lasers, they have traveled a long way before hitting earthly antennas. Radio waves, like visible light, appear dimmer the farther you are from the source. If you are 1 light-year from a pulsar, and then you step back to 2 light-years, the radio waves will become four times dimmer. Step back 4 light-years, and the waves are 16 times dimmer. By the time radio waves get here, they’re way less than shadows of their former selves. A single cell phone placed on the Moon, for instance, would show up more powerfully in radio waves than almost anything else in the sky.

So when you put a cell phone right next to a telescope, or even miles away, it easily drowns out the pipsqueaks coming from space. Imagine trying to see a flashlight that someone was holding in front of the Sun (hint: rhetorical).

Quiet Zones

To protect their ability to do radio astronomy without the intrusion of your smartphone, astronomers put their telescopes in remote locations, preferably valleys surrounded by mountains that absorb radio waves trying to trespass from outside. But in a world full of radio-emitting devices, being away from population centers isn’t good enough. Any population is a problem — and not just because of the obvious suspects, like cell phones. Nearly any electronic device emits radio waves (proof? Turn on a portable radio, tune to an empty AM station, and hold it up to your refrigerator/fluorescent light/digital camera/oscillating fan).

The Green Bank telescope rests in a valley of the Allegheny mountains to shield the observations from radio interference. ( NRAO/AUI)

The Green Bank telescope rests in a valley of the Allegheny mountains to shield the observations from radio interference. ( NRAO/AUI)

Some observatories politely ask people to turn off their cell phones, as if this were the beginning of a movie and not the fate of our understanding of the universe. But others, like Green Bank, have established “radio-quiet zones,” where lots of normal things are against the law. For 13,000 square miles around the observatory — a region that includes parts of Virginia and Maryland as well as West Virginia — broadcasters have to fill out special paperwork to make sure the telescope can’t “see” their transmitters. If it can? Permit denied. So for an hour or so radius around Green Bank, you can’t get cell phone service, no matter how high you hold your iPhone in the air. “Keeping cell service out of the immediate vicinity hinders the utility of lots of gadgets which would potentially transmit on multiple bands, not just their link to the cellular service,” says Green Bank’s Carla Beaudet, the observatory’s radio-frequency interference engineer. “The National Radio Quiet Zone offers protection to Green Bank both directly and indirectly.”

In a smaller, 10-mile radius around the observatory, the rules are stricter: no Wi-Fi, no microwaves, no cordless phones, no wireless game controllers, no Bluetooth transfers. It’s an enforceable law, and NRAO has a truck that can track down rogue radio waves. Employees have knocked on doors to find shorted electric blankets, malfunctioning electric fences, contraband Wi-Fi routers, and once (at least according to legend) was plagued by the radio tracking collars on fast-moving squirrels.

Green Bank has the most well-known and oldest quiet zone, which was established in 1958 (not in small part because the government’s communications station Sugar Grove is just down the valley). But Australia, South Africa, and Chile — home to the next generation of radio telescopes — have or soon will have their own versions. “Geospatial exclusion areas like the National Radio Quiet Zone can go a long distance (pun intended) towards protecting specific radio astronomy facilities,” says Beaudet, “particularly if there is additional protection from terrain obstacles” (such as mountains).

Deafening Devices

But many telescopes — such as Arecibo — have only terrain obstacles, and no official protection. Soon, they may only be sensitive enough within the officially protected radio astronomy bands — and that’s only if corporations play by existing rules. “The extent to which the Internet of Things will be a threat to radio astronomy will depend upon whether the regulatory standards can be upheld in the face of the massive onslaught of lawyers funded by the private sector,” says Beaudet. “If the regulatory standards are upheld rather than modified every time somebody needs more spectrum, there will still be small windows of spectrum in which astronomers can observe.”

In the future, telescopes outside quiet zones may detect so much blah-blah-blah from our devices that they won’t catch the whispered conversation from space. But the people who live in those quiet zones won’t be able to fully inhabit the modern world. Their dogs will have to eat treats all alone. Their home heating systems will be woefully inefficient. They’ll never buy an app. (Note: Some want it that way and move to places like Green Bank because it’s electromagnetically old-school. )

If we live in a hyperconnected wireless world, which we already do, we learn less about the universe than we would if radio telescopes were the only technology in operation (at least until we can build a radio telescope on the Moon). But we’re not going to stop making smart devices and linking them together, nor should we. We will have to find a way to manage and balance those interests. Not every iRobot will get what it wants. Not every pulsar will be discovered. Conversations like the one between the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and iRobot are just beginning. Go get yourself some popcorn. You won’t believe what happens next.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Technology, Top Posts

Science and Religion Clash Over Telescope Construction on Sacred Summit

By Shannon Hall | May 9, 2015 2:44 pm
The existing telescopes on Mauna Kea. Image by flyingsinger via Flickr

The existing telescopes on Mauna Kea. Image by flyingsinger via Flickr

When Paul Coleman summits Mauna Kea, the dormant volcano in Hawai’i that rises 13,796 feet above the Pacific, he is struck by two things. First there are the colossal observatories, whose domes gleam in the sunlight by day and glimpse the farthest reaches of the universe by night. Second, there is the red dusted mountain itself, which in his religion is the home of the gods.

But Coleman, an astronomer at the University of Hawai’i and a native Hawaiian, may be one of the few people on Mauna Kea who can fully appreciate this dichotomy. Today, the sacred mountain has become a battleground between astronomers, Hawaiians and environmentalists. The issue is that astronomers have placed 13 telescopes at its summit and now wish to build one more: The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), which will be the largest and most powerful yet.

The telescope’s opponents argue that not only is the volcano sacred ground, it’s environmentally fragile land and also ceded land, meaning that it should be used for the benefit of native people. While the operators of the new telescope have held many conversations with Native Hawaiians, conducted a thorough environmental impact statement and proposed paying $1 million yearly for the land plus another $2 million yearly to support local education programs, the protestors say it’s not enough.

“Mauna Kea is our temple,” said Kealoha Pisciotta, one of a half-dozen plaintiffs suing to stop the project. “It’s not a question that we’re against astronomy. We’re just for Mauna Kea.”

But for astronomers like Coleman, the colossal telescope is also a temple. With a mirror nearly three times larger than any other on Earth, it will see deeper into the universe than any other ground-based telescope. And built with phenomenal optics in such a pristine location, it will produce sharper pictures than even the Hubble Space Telescope.

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

How Nature Can Preserve a Brain for Hundreds of Years

By Moheb Costandi | May 7, 2015 4:08 pm

brain in jar

Brain tissue is very soft and full of water, and through autolysis it usually begins to decompose rapidly after death. Nevertheless, it can sometimes be preserved.

In 1998, archaeologists excavated the fossilized remains of an 18-month-old infant from a burial site near Quimper in France. The child had died about 700 years previously, and its body was found wrapped in leather and placed in a wooden coffin with a pillow under its head. The skull had a large fracture, suggesting a brain hemorrhage as the probable cause of death – and still contained the shriveled remnants of the left-brain hemisphere.

The brain tissue had lost about 80 percent of its original volume but was otherwise extremely well preserved. The frontal, temporal and parietal lobes retained their original shape, and other brain structures, such as the characteristic grooves and ridges of the cerebral cortex, were visible to the naked eye. Furthermore, the researchers could easily distinguish between grey and white matter in CT and MRI brain scans. Microscopic examination of the tissue revealed that it even contained intact cells.

Last year, a team of Russian researchers reported another remarkable find – the partial carcass of a 39,000-year-old woolly mammoth, excavated from permafrost in the Sakha Republic, Russia, complete with a well-preserved brain.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

Arsenic in Food Could Threaten Our Health – But It’s Not Being Regulated

rice on plate

Researchers have known for some time that the food and drink we all consume contains arsenic.

Should we be concerned? Aren’t we protected by federal regulations? Actually, no – we are not. In the US, as in many countries, the government regulates the concentration of arsenic in drinking water, but does not regulate the concentration of arsenic in any other drink or food. We have a mercury-in-food regulation; why don’t we have an arsenic-in-food regulation?

One important difference is that all of the compounds of mercury we find in food are equally toxic. This is not the case for arsenic. Although we normally think of arsenic compounds as potentially harmful, most of the arsenic we eat is harmless. Seafood, which contains by far the highest concentrations of arsenic, delivers it as arsenobetaine, an organic chemical containing arsenic that is innocuous to us humans.

How then should arsenic in food be regulated? To do that well, we need to develop better ways to determine the amounts of arsenic and other chemicals in our foods.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: nutrition

These Hidden Volcanoes Erupt With the Force of Nuclear Weapons

By Robin George Andrews | May 6, 2015 1:45 pm
The 1977 eruption of maar volcano Ukinrek in Alaska. Image by Juergen Kienle

The 1977 eruption of maar volcano Ukinrek in Alaska. Image by Juergen Kienle

Volcanic eruptions produce some stunning scenes, the eruption of the Calbuco volcano in Chile being one recent example. Calbuco fits the stereotypical image of a volcano: a large, angry mountain rising up into the sky, the same kind of volcano as Mount St. Helens or Mount Fuji. But some of the world’s most powerful volcanoes – and the second most common – are hidden from sight and can unexpectedly detonate with the force of a nuclear bomb.

Maar volcanoes are strange: they are often invisible for much of their life, before suddenly appearing in enormous explosions. They give no warning of their impending destruction. When they do erupt in a cataclysm of fire and noise, they do not rise above the ground, but instead leave a hole similar to large meteorite impact craters.

The 1886 eruption of Rotomahana on the north island of New Zealand was one such eruption. With the only warning coming from a small, insignificant earthquake in the region beforehand, a maar volcano-forming eruption suddenly occurred overnight. The resulting heat blasts and descending hot ash and lava bombs killed at least 150 people.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: volcanoes

Animal Tracking Could Help Predict Earthquakes

prairie dogs

The recent earthquake in Nepal demonstrated yet again how difficult it is to reliably predict natural disasters. While we have a good knowledge of the various earthquakes zones on the planet, we have no way of knowing exactly when a big quake like the 7.8-magnitude event in Nepal will happen.

But we know that many animals seem able to sense the onset of such events. We could use powerful computers to monitor herds of animals and make use of their natural instincts to provide forewarning of natural disasters.

Immediately before an earthquake, herds of animals often start to behave strangely – for example suddenly leaving their homes to seek shelter. This could be because they detect small, fast-traveling waves or because they sense chemical changes in ground water from an impending earthquake.

Although there are possibilities here, we certainly need more studies – because it’s difficult to find statistically significant links between unusual animal behavior and impending disasters. This is because natural disasters occur relatively rarely and it’s hard to reliably interpret animal behavior after the fact. In fact, this uncertainty was quoted by the Chinese government after reports that zoo animals behaved strangely before the Wenchuan earthquake a few years ago.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts

‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ and the Risks of Artificial Intelligence

By E. Paul Zehr | May 1, 2015 11:26 am

ultron

Technology enhanced with artificial intelligence is all around us. You might have a robot vacuum cleaner ready to leap into action to clean up your kitchen floor. Maybe you asked Siri or Google—two apps using decent examples of artificial intelligence technology—for some help already today. The continual enhancement of AI and its increased presence in our world speak to achievements in science and engineering that have tremendous potential to improve our lives.

Or destroy us.

At least, that’s the central theme in the new Avengers: Age of Ultron movie with headliner Ultron serving as exemplar for AI gone bad. It’s a timely theme, given some high-profile AI concerns lately. But is it something we should be worried about?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts

Semen’s Chemical Cocktail Can Hijack a Mate’s Brain

By Menno Schilthuizen | April 28, 2015 9:00 am

flies mating

Let’s wallow in semen a little while longer, shall we? We have already seen that, even in humans, there is more to this substance than meets the eye. It contains proteins that, when mixed together, can forge a mating plug. It also contains sugars as sperm fuel, proteins that protect the sperm cells from the acidic vaginal environment, zinc that keeps the sperm’s DNA in good shape, and chemical compounds that prevent the sperm cells from becoming overenthusiastic prematurely.

But this list of ingredients is just the tip of the iceberg. Human ejaculates are home to hundreds of different proteins (which in certain women cause a kind of “sperm hay fever,” an allergic reaction to semen). And those are not trace amounts either; most of them occur in considerable concentrations, so they must be doing something important—we just don’t know what. Even in the ejaculate of the lowly banana fly Drosophila melanogaster, researchers have identified no fewer than 133 different kinds of proteins. One hundred and thirty-three! And this excludes the many proteins that are in the sperm cells themselves. These 133 are all produced by the banana fly version of the prostate, which releases them into the liquid portion of the semen.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
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