Month: July, 2017

New Study Shows That Fish Can Recognize Human Faces

gold fish

Think your pet fish knows it’s you? It’s quite possible he does.

Most of us can tell one face from the next. The capacity is built into our brains; primates can do this, we know our dogs can do it, and research has shown that birds can as well.

But fish?

According to a new study from researchers at the University of Oxford and the University of Queensland, for the first time a species of tropical fish has been shown to be able to tell the difference between human faces.




The team proved that archerfish (Toxotes chatareus) were able to learn and recognize faces with a surprising level of accuracy, a feat that depends on sophisticated visual recognition capabilities.

And not only that, but they could distinguish one face from 44 new ones – that’s better than many of us could do! Lead author Dr. Cait Newport, Marie Curie Research Fellow in the Department of Zoology at Oxford University, says:

“Being able to distinguish between a large number of human faces is a surprisingly difficult task, mainly due to the fact that all human faces share the same basic features.”

“All faces have two eyes above a nose and mouth, therefore to tell people apart we must be able to identify subtle differences in their features. If you consider the similarities in appearance between some family members, this task can be very difficult indeed.”

fish

“It has been hypothesized that this task is so difficult that it can only be accomplished by primates, which have a large and complex brain. The fact that the human brain has a specialized region used for recognizing human faces suggests that there may be something special about faces themselves.”

“To test this idea, we wanted to determine if another animal with a smaller and simpler brain, and with no evolutionary need to recognize human faces, was still able to do so.”

Also remarkable is the level of training the fish were able to achieve. The archerfish employed in their research is a species of tropical fish that spits a jet of water in the air to knock insects out of branches for food.

fish

The fish were given two images of faces set above the tanks, and were trained to select one of them by squirting it with their jets. That alone is pretty cool.

The fish were then given an array of new faces and were able to correctly aim their water jet at the face they had learned. They were able to do this among 44 new faces; and they were able to do this even when the head shapes were made the same and the color was removed from the photos.

fish

Newport says, “Fish have a simpler brain than humans and entirely lack the section of the brain that humans use for recognizing faces. Despite this, many fish demonstrate impressive visual behaviors and therefore make the perfect subjects to test whether simple brains can complete complicated tasks.”

So maybe we consider their brains to be simple, but for an animal unlikely to have evolved the ability to distinguish between human faces to be able to learn this, they’ve definitely got something going on in there.

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An Indian Space Agency Has Successfully Launched 104 Nano Satellites Into Orbit

ISRO launch

India’s space agency has announced the successful launch of a record-breaking 104 nano satellites into orbit, all onboard a single rocket.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) said the milestone launch, from the Sriharikota space centre in the country’s south, overtook the 2014 Russian record of 37 satellites in a single launch.

On board was a 714kg satellite for earth observation and more than 100 smaller satellites weighing less than 10kg each.



Three were Indian-owned, 96 were from US companies, and the rest belonged to companies based in Israel, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates.

Most were owned by Planet Labs Inc, a US-based Earth-imaging company. The feat did not require vastly new technology, but rather reflects the shrinking size and weight of modern satellites.

After reaching a height of about 505km, the satellites will separate from the launch vehicle at different times, angles and velocities to avoid collisions.

India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, hailed the launch on Twitter as an “exceptional achievement”.

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The chair of the space agency, Kiran Kumar, said his team had not set out to break records. “We are just trying to maximise our capability with each launch and trying to utilise that launch for the ability it has got, and get the maximum in return,” he said.

The launch helps to cement India’s place as a serious player in the burgeoning private space market, expected to significantly grow as the demand for telecommunications services increases.

In September 2014 the country became just the fourth after the US, the former Soviet Union and the European Space Agency to successfully guide a spacecraft into orbit around Mars.

isro4

 

The Mars mission cost India’s famously thrifty space agency about $73m, nearly a 10th the cost of a Nasa probe sent to orbit the planet the previous year.

The low price tag led Modi to quip that India had sent a satellite into space for less than Americans had spent making the movie Gravity.

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Our bodies Are Made Of Remnants Of Stars And Massive Explosions In The Galaxies

galaxy

It seems natural to assume that the matter from which the Milky Way is made was formed within the galaxy itself, but a series of new supercomputer simulations suggests that up to half of this material could actually be derived from any number of other distant galaxies.

This phenomenon, described in a paper by group of astrophysicists from Northwestern University in the US who refer to it as “intergalactic transfer”, is expected to open up a new line of research into the scientific understanding of galaxy formation.




Led by Daniel Anglés-Alcázar, the astrophysicists reached this intriguing conclusion by implementing sophisticated numerical simulations which produced realistic 3D models of galaxies and followed their formation from shortly after the Big Bang to the present day.

The researchers then employed state-of-the-art algorithms to mine this sea of data for information related to the matter acquisition patterns of galaxies.

Through their analysis of the simulated flows of matter, Anglés-Alcázar and his colleagues found that supernova explosions eject large amounts of gas from galaxies, which causes atoms to be conveyed from one system to the next via galactic winds.

galaxy

In addition, the researchers note that this flow of material tends to move from smaller systems to larger ones and can contribute to up to 50 percent of the matter in some galaxies.

Anglés-Alcázar and his colleagues use this evidence, which is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, to suggest that the origin of matter in our own galaxy including the matter that makes up the Sun, the Earth, and even the people who live on it may be far less local than traditionally believed.

galaxy

“It is likely that much of the Milky Way’s matter was in other galaxies before it was kicked out by a powerful wind, traveled across intergalactic space and eventually found its new home in the Milky Way,” Anglés-Alcázar says.

The team of astrophysicists now hopes to test the predictions made by their simulations using real-world evidence collected by the Hubble Space Telescope and other ground-based observatories.

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Investigating The 580-Million-Year-Old Fossil With CT Scan

ediacaran

The Ediacaran biota (flourished 579-541 Mya) forms an important and unresolved episode in the history of life. These organisms arose soon after the end of the major glaciations of the Cryogenian, and persisted until the beginning of the Cambrian.

They are thought to include some of the earliest animals. Understanding the nature and lifestyle of the Ediacaran organisms is therefore important in tracing the potentially long fuse of the Cambrian explosion.

Yet they remain puzzling. This project will use micro-CT to investigate two particularly contentious structures found in rocks of this age, and assess how they fit into the larger picture of the origin of multicellular animals in this age.

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New Zealand Has It’s Own Black Swan

black swan

New Zealand native black swans were hunted to extinction by Polynesians and almost all the black swans living here are recent arrivals from Australia, new research shows.

These ancient native black swans probably arrived from Australia between 1 million to 2m years ago and evolved to be heavier and taller than their Australian cousins.




Given another million years, they might have become flightless, said University of Otago palaeogenetics laboratory director Nic Rawlence, who led the research.

But Polynesians arrived about 1280 and the native black swan was hunted to extinction by about 1450, he said. Moa and about a third of other native species also died out in this megafaunal hunting period”.

By the time Europeans arrived in the late 1700s, there were no black swans established in Aotearoa, although there was good evidence they were arriving here from Australia, but not breeding for long.

black swan

In the 1860s, black swans were introduced from Victoria and it was thought that they were the same birds as found in the New Zealand fossil and archaeological record. There are now about 50,000 black swans here.

Rawlence and colleagues used DNA and skeletal analyses to show the birds were distinctly different.

The New Zealand birds had longer legs, smaller wings and weighed up to 10 kilograms, compared to about 6kg for the Australian birds. They could still fly, but spent more time on the ground than modern birds.

black swan

He said the living black swans were thin and lean like football players, while the ancient native swans were beefier and robust like rugby players.

The extinct New Zealand species was dubbed “pouwa” by Rawlence and colleagues after a Moriori legend about a black bird that lived in the Chatham Islands. Its bones were found in sand dunes there.

black swan

The research raised questions about what it meant to be “native”. Rawlence wonders whether the Australian black swan was a pest or something to be protected.

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The Great Recycling Conspiracy

recycling

As the importance of recycling becomes more apparent, questions about it linger. Is it worth the effort? How does it work? Is recycling waste just going into a landfill in China?

Since 1960 the amount of municipal waste being collected in America has nearly tripled, reaching 245m tonnes in 2005. According to European Union statistics, the amount of municipal waste produced in western Europe increased by 23% between 1995 and 2003, to reach 577kg per person.

As the volume of waste has increased, so have recycling efforts. In 1980 America recycled only 9.6% of its municipal rubbish; today the rate stands at 32%.




A similar trend can be seen in Europe, where some countries, such as Austria and the Netherlands, now recycle 60% or more of their municipal waste. Britain’s recycling rate, at 27%, is low, but it is improving fast, having nearly doubled in the past three years.

Studies that look at the entire life cycle of a particular material can shed light on this question in a particular case, but WRAP decided to take a broader look.

It asked the Technical University of Denmark and the Danish Topic Centre on Waste to conduct a review of 55 life-cycle analyses, all of which were selected because of their rigorous methodology.

recycle

The researchers then looked at more than 200 scenarios, comparing the impact of recycling with that of burying or burning particular types of waste material. They found that in 83% of all scenarios that included recycling, it was indeed better for the environment.

Recycling has many other benefits, too. It conserves natural resources. It also reduces the amount of waste that is buried or burnt, hardly ideal ways to get rid of the stuff.

But perhaps the most valuable benefit of recycling is the saving in energy and the reduction in greenhouse gases and pollution that result when scrap materials are substituted for virgin feedstock.

“If you can use recycled materials, you don’t have to mine ores, cut trees and drill for oil as much,” says Jeffrey Morris of Sound Resource Management, a consulting firm based in Olympia, Washington.

recycling

Extracting metals from ore, in particular, is extremely energy-intensive. Recycling aluminium, for example, can reduce energy consumption by as much as 95%.

Savings for other materials are lower but still substantial: about 70% for plastics, 60% for steel, 40% for paper and 30% for glass. Recycling also reduces emissions of pollutants that can cause smog, acid rain and the contamination of waterways.

Originally kerbside programmes asked people to put paper, glass and cans into separate bins. But now the trend is toward co-mingled or “single stream” collection.

About 700 of America’s 10,000 kerbside programmes now use this approach, says Kate Krebs, executive director of America’s National Recycling Coalition.

recycling

But the switch can make people suspicious: if there is no longer any need to separate different materials, people may conclude that the waste is simply being buried or burned.

In fact, the switch towards single-stream collection is being driven by new technologies that can identify and sort the various materials with little or no human intervention. Single-stream collection makes it more convenient for householders to recycle, and means that more materials are diverted from the waste stream.

San Francisco, which changed from multi to single-stream collection a few years ago, now boasts a recycling rate of 69%—one of the highest in America. With the exception of garden and food waste, all the city’s kerbside recyclables are sorted in a 200,000-square-foot facility that combines machines with the manpower of 155 employees.

recycling

The process begins when a truck arrives and dumps its load of recyclables at one end of the building. The materials are then piled on to large conveyer belts that transport them to a manual sorting station.

There, workers sift through everything, taking out plastic bags, large pieces of cardboard and other items that could damage or obstruct the sorting machines.

Plastic bags are especially troublesome as they tend to get caught in the spinning-disk screens that send weightier materials, such as bottles and cans, down in one direction and the paper up in another.

Next, a magnet pulls out any ferrous metals, typically tin-plated or steel cans, while the non-ferrous metals, mostly aluminium cans, are ejected by eddy current.

recycling

As the aluminium cans are carried over this drum by a conveyer belt, the magnetic field from the rotor induces circulating electric currents, called eddy currents, within them.

This creates a secondary magnetic field around the cans that is repelled by the magnetic field of the rotor, literally ejecting the aluminium cans from the other waste materials.

Finally, the glass is separated by hand into clear, brown, amber and green glass. For each load, the entire sorting process from start to finish takes about an hour, says Bob Besso, Norcal’s recycling-programme manager for San Francisco.

The practice of shipping recyclables to China is controversial. Especially in Britain, politicians have voiced the concern that some of those exports may end up in landfills.

recycling

Many experts disagree. According to Pieter van Beukering, an economist who has studied the trade of waste paper to India and waste plastics to China: “as soon as somebody is paying for the material, you bet it will be recycled.”

In fact, Dr van Beukering argues that by importing waste materials, recycling firms in developing countries are able to build larger factories and achieve economies of scale, recycling materials more efficiently and at lower environmental cost.

He has witnessed as much in India, he says, where dozens of inefficient, polluting paper mills near Mumbai were transformed into a smaller number of far more productive and environmentally friendly factories within a few years.

The Chinese government has banned such practices, but migrant workers have spawned a mobile cottage industry that is difficult to wipe out, says Aya Yoshida, a researcher at Japan’s National Institute for Environmental Studies who has studied Chinese waste imports and recycling practices.

recycling

Because this type of industry operates largely under the radar, it is difficult to assess its overall impact. But it is clear that processing plastic and electronic waste in a crude manner releases toxic chemicals, harming people and the environment—the opposite of what recycling is supposed to achieve.

Far less controversial is the recycling of glass—except, that is, in places where there is no market for it. Britain, for example, is struggling with a mountain of green glass.

It is the largest importer of wine in the world, bringing in more than 1 billion litres every year, much of it in green glass bottles. But with only a tiny wine industry of its own, there is little demand for the resulting glass.

Instead what is needed is clear glass, which is turned into bottles for spirits, and often exported to other countries. As a result, says Andy Dawe, WRAP‘s glass-technology manager, Britain is in the “peculiar situation” of having more green glass than it has production capacity for.

recycling

Britain’s bottle-makers already use as much recycled green glass as they can in their furnaces to produce new bottles. So some of the surplus glass is down-cycled into construction aggregates or sand for filtration systems. But WRAP‘s own analysis reveals that the energy savings for both appear to be “marginal or even disadvantageous”.

Working with industry, WRAP has started a new programme called GlassRite Wine, in an effort to right the imbalance. Instead of being bottled at source, some wine is now imported in 24,000-litre containers and then bottled in Britain.

This may dismay some wine connoisseurs, but it solves two problems, says Mr Dawe: it reduces the amount of green glass that is imported and puts what is imported to good use. It can also cut shipping costs by up to 40%.

If done right, there is no doubt that recycling saves energy and raw materials, and reduces pollution. But as well as trying to recycle more, it is also important to try to recycle better. As technologies and materials evolve, there is room for improvement and cause for optimism. In the end, says Ms Krebs, “waste is really a design flaw.”

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A New Study Shows That The Moon’s Interior Could Contain Water

moon

The moon might be flowing with much more water than we thought, thanks to ancient volcanic deposits, a new study shows.

Using satellite data, scientists from Brown University studied layers of rock on the moon that likely formed from large volcanic eruptions, called lunar pyroclastic deposits.




The magma created by these eruptions has been carried to the moon’s surface from very deep within its interior, the study showed. But water on the moon isn’t new – in fact, it’s had a pretty bonkers past.

For a long time, scientists thought that the moon was dry, because of how it was formed. According to the “giant impact” theory, the moon was born 4.5 billion years ago when an object rammed into the Earth.

The new moon was an ocean of magma, and researchers thought there was no way a moon that hot could have retained water.

moon

Then the Apollo astronauts brought back samples from the moon, including little glass beads. They did contain trace amounts of water, but for a while it was assumed to be water from Earth that had gotten mixed in by accident.

So scientists got more specimens, and studied them closely. Fast-forward a few decades, and we know there’s a bit of water on the moon.

Previous studies have shown that there are some traces of ice in shadowed regions at the moon’s poles, which may have been the result of hydrogen that comes from solar wind.

moon

What’s interesting about this new study, though, is that it shows the water is far more than just ice hiding in shadowy areas of the moon. In fact, there are likely pools of water in the moon’s mantle, as well.

And it gets weirder. If there’s water in the moon’s mantle, that suggests that the water was delivered to the moon very early in its formation, before it fully solidified, the study’s lead author, Ralph Milliken.

Because the magma originally comes from deep within the lunar interior, Milliken explains, “the deep interior of the moon must also contain water.”

moon

Evidence of lunar water could also make moon missions much more plausible. Water is heavy and expensive to transport from earth to space, so if there’s already water on the moon, it opens up a lot of possibilities for a longer-term human presence.

The scientists, plan to map the pyroclastic deposits in order to better understand how the water concentrations differ on the moon – and might even target those places for future explorations.

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Greenland Sharks Beginning To Shed Their Secrets On Longevity

shark

Greenland sharks, the longest living vertebrates on Earth, which can be found off the northern coast of Ireland, could hold the secret to long life, geneticists mapping their DNA have predicted.

The sharks, which live for up to 400 years, are believed to have unique genes that could help explain not only their remarkably long life span but also life expectancy in other vertebrates including humans.




Prof Kim Praebel of UiT, the Arctic University of Norway, described the sequencing of the DNA from Greenland sharks at a symposium of the University of Exeter this week.

Many living Greenland sharks are so old that they pre-date the industrial revolution and the introduction of intensive commercial fishing.

With collaborators, Prof Praebel is searching for unique genes which could hold the secret to the shark’s longevity.

They have obtained Greenland shark DNA from tiny clippings from the fin of sharks, which are caught on a line live, tagged and released.

shark

The team has sequenced the full mitochondrial genome (complete DNA information) of almost 100 Greenland sharks, which includes individuals born in the 1750s.

The genetic sequences have helped them understand whether the Greenland shark has evolved specific metabolic adaptations towards extreme longevity, he said.

Their research that suggested the sharks may be up to 400 years old was published in the leading journal Science last year. They are now attempting to find the genes that hold the secret to why the sharks live so long.

They believe the Greenland shark’s extreme life span makes it so unique that there is a case for giving it a special conservation status, he added.

shark

“This is the longest living vertebrate on the planet. Together with colleagues in Denmark, Greenland, USA, and China, we are currently sequencing its whole nuclear genome which will help us discover why the Greenland shark not only lives longer than other shark species but other vertebrates,” he said.

“The results will help us understand more about the biology of this elusive species.”

Its “long-life” genes could shed light on why all vertebrates have a limited life span, and what dictates the life expectancy of different species including humans, Prof Praebel told the Fisheries Society of the British Isles.

shark

Greenland sharks do not seem to succumb to diseases that kill related species much earlier.

Little is known about the biology and genetics of the Greenland shark which is found in deep waters in the Atlantic ocean from Canada to Norway including north of Ireland and Britain.

It is a member of the sleeper shark family that has existed for around 110 million years.

The oldest and largest Greenland shark at just over five meters analyzed by the scientists was estimated to be 392 years, plus or minus 120 years, ie at least 272-years- old.

shark

To determine when key indicator proteins were laid down, the scientists deployed radiocarbon dating – a method that relies on determining within a material the levels of a type of carbon, known as carbon-14, that undergoes radioactive decay over time.

The DNA study has shed new light on its behaviour, and how it is related to other members of its species living thousands of kilometres away, Prof Praebel added.

It is still not known where and how the Greenland shark reproduces, but it may prefer to mate in “deep hidden fjords of the Arctic”.

With adult female Greenland sharks known hit sexual maturity only once they reach more than four metres in length, the scientists found that females have to clock up an age of around 150 years before they can produce young.

shark

Equally, there are still far from understanding how and why this elusive species, which feeds on seals and fish, lives so much longer than other sharks and vertebrate species.

Other shark species living in the same regions as the Greenland shark live between 30 and 50 years.

Tissues, bones, and genetic data from the shark will also help measure the impact of climate change on the population, when and how contaminants and chemical pollution from industry began to affect the oceans, and the extent to which commercial fishing over hundreds of years has affected the shark population.

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How Artists Have Depicted Eclipses Across History

eclipse

A total solar eclipse is one of the most otherworldly experiences a person can have on Earth.

By an almost incredible coincidence, the the tiny, humdrum moon and the gigantic, raging sun are arranged in such a way so that the former can blot out the latter.

Although the moon is about 400 times smaller, it covers the sun’s disc because it’s about 400 times closer to the Earth.




A small group of dedicated travelers follow eclipses around the world, chasing the spectacle of the blackened sun’s corona and the umbra, the conical shadow the moon casts over Earth. The community is tightly knit, bonded over the life-altering experience of losing the sun.

Many “umbraphiles” are self-described eclipse addicts, having witnessed a dozen or more eclipses.

Several gathered this week in equatorial Africa for an annular eclipse, and are already planning their itineraries for what they’ve dubbed the Great American Eclipse of 2017.

eclipse

Next August will be the first time the path of a solar eclipse will cross the nation since the year of its founding.

For thousands of years, people in cultures around the world have depicted eclipses in art, imbuing them with fear and dread and a heavy dose of the supernatural.

A Chinese myth held that eclipses happened when a sky dragon dined on our star. In the Americas, the Inca had a similar tale, only the hungry beast was a jaguar.

In Western Europe during the Middle Ages, eclipses took on a dual meaning, and became a means for expressing varieties of both religious and scientific experience.

eclipse

“In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, astronomy and solar eclipses were a huge craze. Virtually anyone who considered himself an educated person then took an interest in art and science, in a way that doesn’t really happen anymore,” says Ian Blatchford, director of the Science Museum in London.

The popularization of telescopes and printing presses brought astronomical knowledge into middle class homes, he says. It was also a time of discovery, with new planets like Uranus and Neptune brought into the celestial fold, as well as new moons around distant worlds.

By the time of the Enlightenment, eclipse artwork played a surprisingly important role in science, he says: “There are intriguing occasions when the artistic eye has been of real utility to the scientific process.”

eclipse

In early Christian art, eclipses appeared in scenes of the crucifixion to signify the anger of God and to represent the collective grief of the universe, Blatchford says.

The Gospels tell of a darkened sky at the time of Christ’s death, which some scholars have interpreted as an eclipse. From Luke 23: 44-45: “It was now about the sixth hour and darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour, because the sun was obscured and the veil of the temple was torn in two.”

By the Italian Renaissance, paintings still held religious meaning, but their depictions of the sky and stars were drawn from early modern astronomy, Blatchford says.

Of all Blatchford’s finds, my favorite is a 1735 painting by German painter Cosmas Damian Asam. It depicts St. Benedict, who is said to have experienced a vision of the whole world “gathered together under a sunbeam.”

Jay Pasachoff, an astronomer at Williams College, has written that this painting may be the first accurate depiction of a total solar eclipse.

He thinks Asam himself might have witnessed at least one, or maybe each, of the total solar eclipses that took place in 1706, 1724 and 1733. “In one picture, you’ve got a lot of religion and a lot of science,” says Blatchford.

Even after the advent of photography, artists played a role in capturing eclipses, he says. He points to this lithograph of a total eclipse in Wyoming in 1878, produced by a French artist named Etienne Trouvelot. It is less detailed than modern photographs, but arguably more beautiful.

eclipse

In 1918, the US Naval Observatory invited the American portrait painter Howard Russell Butler to paint a solar eclipse. His work depicted the corona, the glowing, wispy ring visible beyond the dark circle of the moon.

The painting’s perspective work supported the hypothesis that the corona was the sun’s atmosphere, and not the moon’s.

In the latter half of the 20th century, artists’ depictions of eclipses were less important to scientific discovery and more important as a means of interpretation.

For a cosmic event of such rarity and strangeness, an artist’s eye seems like a useful tool indeed. Though eclipses are well-understood physical phenomena, they are still imbued with mystery, and that’s something an artist can capture better than any camera.

eclipse

“Even though rationally we understand an eclipse, I would say most people still find it, in a way, a sign of some kind of providence. They still can’t quite believe it’s happening,” says Blatchford .

“Even if you know what is happening, why it’s happening is a different question, isn’t it? I think some of my colleagues get annoyed when I make that distinction.”

“But I think most of our fellow human beings do make a distinction between understanding a technical explanation and wanting to look at even deeper explanations behind it.”

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