Conspiracy theories are something of a plague for scientists: no matter how much research is done on some topics, a vocal minority will insist that the facts just aren’t true.
So it’s gone for vaccines, climate change and 9/11, and so it will go on, in all likelihood. In some cases, it may be best to simply ignore the conspiracy agitators, but, as a 2010 article in EMBO Reports points out, some of the biggest scandals start out looking very much like outlandish conspiracy theories—the Watergate scandal in the 1970s, for example.
Perhaps the best attitude toward conspiracies is to follow the advice popularized by Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Read More
Black holes aren’t perfectly black.
For the first time, using a model of a black hole that traps sound instead of light, scientists have seen spontaneous evidence of what comes out of them.
These particles are so few and faint that it’s not feasible to observe them for an astrophysical black hole, so Jeff Steinhauer at Technion–Israel Institute of Technology made a tabletop version of a black hole that sucks in sound instead of light. Read More
For many people the finest Perseid meteor shower in 20 years was obscured by clouds — curse you atmosphere!
But for the lucky crew aboard the International Space Station, viewing conditions are always perfect — they just look down instead of up. Given this excellent view, it was a no-brainer for scientists to set up a super-sensitive, high-definition camera in the station’s Window Observational Research Facility to record meteors as they zip through Earth’s atmosphere. Read More
Acoustic levitation conjures images of Star Trek-style tractor beams and ultrasonic hover boards, but in reality floating objects on a cushion of sound occurs on far smaller scales. That’s in part due to one challenge: objects typically won’t float if they’re larger than the sound wave used to lift them.
Marco Andrade and Julio Adamowski at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, along with Anne Bernassau at Heriot-Watt University in the United Kingdom, proved it’s possible to surmount this limitation. In an experiment that looks cooler than it sounds, they levitated a polystyrene sphere that was 3.6 times larger than the 14-millimeter ultrasonic wave used to lift it. Read More
Microsoft added the “Start” button to Windows in 1995, which was the same year scientists discovered the first exoplanet orbiting a star like ours – technically, astronomers found several terrestrial planets orbiting a pulsar in 1992.
But in 20 years, give or take, we’ve grown spoiled by the abundance of exoplanets in the universe. Kepler, the planet-hunter, has confirmed over 2,200 of them. Today, it’s safe to assume nearly every star has its companions.
The ante for hyping a new exoplanet discovery is a little higher these days, but if rumors are true, this one makes the grade: astrophysicists from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) plan to announce they’ve spotted an Earth-like exoplanet orbiting the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, in its habitable zone. This, according to an anonymous source quoted in a report that appeared Friday in Der Spiegel.
“The still nameless planet is believed to be Earth-like and orbits at a distance to Proxima Centauri that could allow it to have liquid water on its surface—an important requirement for the emergence of life,” the source said.
And, for what it’s worth:
— Asteroid Initiatives (@AsteroidEnergy) August 13, 2016
At just over 4 light-years from Earth, Proxima Centauri is our sun’s nearest neighbor, and it’s part of a triple-star system that includes the better known Alpha Centauri. The star’s proximity has made it an obvious target for many past exoplanet searches. All of them have come up short, which makes the most recent rumors all the more remarkable.
If the early reports ring true, scientists will announce this Earth-like planet near the end of August. Discover has reached out to an ESO spokesperson for comment.
Although media reports say the rumored planet orbits in a region that’s potentially favorable for life, these smaller stars are less stable, and Proxima Centauri is known to have violent flares at times. Its occasional tantrums have made astronomers skeptical of finding life around red dwarf stars in the past.
However, skepticism has softened some in recent years, and SETI recently launched a major initiative to search for life around 20,000 red dwarfs, as these stars are the most common in the Milky Way galaxy.
Still, Proxima Centauri is only “close” on a cosmic scale. It would still take humans far too long to reach the planet with current technologies. Flying laser-sailing nanocraft to the yet-to-be-confirmed planet might be our next best bet, and that’s a pretty solid “plan b”.
Discover associate editor Eric Betz contributed to this report.
In 1949 psychologist Donald Hebb built a theory for how neurons in the brain behave during the learning process — basically, neurons that fire together wire together.
Hebbs theorized that stimulating a group of neurons together causes these cells to then stick together and form a group — a neuronal ensemble. Repeatedly activating the ensemble, he believed, strengthened the connections between them, allowing them to all fire more efficiently. Today, Hebbian theory underlies biological explanations for learning, memory formation and brain plasticity. Read More
It’s hard to imagine now, but hellish Venus may once have had balmy temperatures and shallow seas. Even with Venus’ much slower rotation rate, it may have even looked a whole lot like Earth.
Of course, that’s gone now. In a paper published in Geophysical Research Letters, researchers were able to make the Venus of old come alive by using climate modelling software to reconstruct the Venus of the past. Instead of a world surrounded by a thick, toxic fog that inhibits the planet with scorching temperatures, the model found a world surrounded by seas with a temperate climate. Read More
Never ask a female her age — unless, of course, she’s a 16-foot-long Greenland shark and it’s for science.
The shark species was shown to have remarkable longevity, living up to 400 years and reaching sexual maturity around 150 years, according to a paper published Thursday in Science. The researchers estimated the ages of 28 female Greenland sharks by radiocarbon dating proteins in their eye lenses and relying on the bomb pulse — a spike in radioactivity released globally by nuclear weapons in the 1950s and 60s. Read More
A new study identifies the perpetrator of one of the most famous scientific hoaxes of all time.
The hoax involved the purported discovery of the long sought-after missing link between apes and humans in a gravel pit near Piltdown, England. Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist hungry for fame, claimed to have found fragments of a skull that was part human and part primate. The find neatly filled a hole in the theory of human evolution—a little too neatly.
The skull featured human and primate parts because that’s exactly what it was, an amalgamation of two medieval human skulls and the jawbone of an orangutan. Now, we know who to blame for one of science’s most infamous lies. Read More
Titan is a strange, strange world — a frigid moon of Saturn larger than Mercury where water is frozen rock solid and lakes of liquid methane permeate the surface. But now there’s a new weird fold in the story of Titan: it’s got canyons flooded with more liquid hydrocarbons.
The find, announced today by NASA and published in the Geophysical Research Letters journal, details “channels” of hydrocarbons — in other words, streams of methane and other organic compounds that flow like water at low temperatures. While the canyon features were known to NASA previously, radar evidence now reveals that the features are liquid and not solid ices. Read More