Month: January, 2018

Why Sugar Makes Us Sleepy

Consider the orexin system. Secreted by a small cluster of neurons in the hypothalamus, orexin is a neuropeptide that regulates an astonishing array of mental properties, from sleepiness to hunger.

People with chronically low levels of orexin suffer from narcolepsy and obesity; many also have cataplexy, which occurs when the experience of strong emotions triggers a sudden weakening of skeletal muscles.

Studies have shown that injecting mice with orexin increases metabolism, largely because it makes the animals more active.

The reverse is also true: low levels of orexin make people feel rundown and tired. This helps explain the mechanics of sleep deprivation, as keeping monkeys awake for extended periods all but silences their orexin cells.

In many respects, orexin acts like an internal gas pedal, as even slight twitches in the system can dramatically shift levels of activity.

The reason the orexin system is so important is that it links the needs of the body to the desires of the mind.

Several studies have demonstrated that the intake of sugar can decrease the activity of orexin cells, which is probably why we want to nap after a carb heavy lunch.

This phenomenon also begins to explain the downward spiral of obesity triggered by our warped modern diet.

Because we eat lots of refined sugars, washing down Twinkies with cans of Coke, we continually reduce levels of orexin in the brain, which then reduces levels of physical activity.

In other words, we get fat and sleepy simultaneously. However, not every food has such perverse consequences.

It’s long been recognized that meals high in protein are both more filling and less exhausting, which is why we’re always being told to snack on almonds and follow the Zone Diet, with its balance of carbs, protein and fat.

Although the biological mechanism behind this dietary wisdom has always been unclear, that’s beginning to change – we finally understand why consuming protein can be an effective weight loss tool.

The answer returns us to orexin.

According to a new paper in Neuron led by scientists at the University of Cambridge, consuming foods high in protein can increase the activity of orexin neurons.

This, in turn, leads to increased wakefullness and bodily activity, helping us burn off the calories we just consumed.

Furthermore, eating protein in conjunction with glucose – adding almonds to Frosted Flakes, in other words – can inhibit the inhibitory effects of sugar on orexin. The sweetness no longer makes us tired.

The researchers demonstrated this effect in a number of ways. They began in situ, showing that clumps of orexin cells in a petri dish got excited when immersed in a solution of amino acids.

Then, they moved on to in vivo experiments, studying the impact of an egg white slurry of live animals.

This protein meal not only increased orexin activity in the brain, but also led to a dramatic surge in locomotor activity, as the animals began scurrying around their cage. The effect persisted for several hours.

These experiments also document, at a biochemical level, why the modern American diet is such a catastrophic mess.

The typical supermarket is filled with processed foods where the only relevant “nutrient” is some form of sweetener.

While such snacks are unfailingly cheap and tasty, they also lead to sudden spikes in blood sugar and a reduction in orexin activity.

We eat them for the energy boost, but the empty calories in these foods make us tired and sad instead.

And so we keep on swilling glucose, searching for a pick-me-up in all the wrong places.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

When You Lose Weight, Where Does It Actually Go?

Get this — when you lose weight, it literally vanishes into thin air. For real.

When we talk about weight loss, we generally talk about “burning” fat. That’s not incorrect. But many folks – including plenty of doctors – will mistakenly tell you that this fat is mostly lost as heat as the result of this “burning.”

But as you so rightly point out, the law of conservation of mass says that the physical stuff that makes up fat has to go somewhere. And no, it doesn’t all go down the toilet.

In fact, most of it is exhaled as carbon dioxide.

When you lose weight it’s essentially like you’re eating your own fat,” Louis Aronne, director of the Comprehensive Weight Control Center at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, told The Washington Post.

Your body needs a certain amount of energy to function, and it gets that energy from food. When you consume more energy than you expend, it gets stored in fat cells as triglycerides which are made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.

When you consume less energy than you expend, your body taps into that stored fat.

Those triglycerides go into your bloodstream and break up into smaller chunks of fatty acid, Aronne explained, which tissues throughout your body can use as fuel.

To fuel body operations, those fatty acids get broken down yet again into smaller chemical components. The breaking of those chemical bonds produces energy, and then your body is left with a bit of water and a whole lot of CO2.

In a study in the 2014 Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal – an issue known for scientifically sound but cheeky studies – researchers came up with a calculation to estimate the precise input and output of this process.

They found that to burn a pound of fat, a human needs to inhale about three pounds of oxygen, kickstarting metabolic processes that produce just under three pounds of carbon dioxide and about a pound of water.

That water can exit the body in plenty of ways – poop, pee, sweat, saliva and any number of bodily fluids – but your lungs handle the brunt of the weight loss.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

Scientists Develop ‘Speed Breeding’ To Feed Rising Population

Scientists are engaged in a race against time to breed staple crops that can both survive climate change and yield bigger harvests. Their aim is to feed a growing population in a warming world.

The method used for centuries of growing one crop a year in variable weather conditions and then selecting the seeds from the best plants is no longer viable in fast-changing climatic conditions.

Scientists are concerned that for some years there have been few improvements in yields of grain.

A new system called speed breeding, designed to grow six crops a year, has been developed in glasshouses to accelerate the process.

Using LED lighting to aid photosynthesis, intensive regimes allow the plants to grow for 22 hours a day.

This new form of lighting is a lot cheaper and also more efficient than using the old sodium vapor lamps that produced too much heat and not enough light.

Among the crops that can now be grown up to six generations a year are wheat, barley, peas and chickpeas. Canola, a form of rapeseed, can achieve four cycles.

Using this technology, scientists can study the way plants deal with diseases, and their shape and structure and flowering time, and the growing cycle can be repeated every eight weeks.

It is hoped the technique will yield new varieties of crops that can be grown on a commercial scale within 10 years.

If this could be achieved, it would increase productivity in the same way as the green revolution of the 1960s, when new crop varieties, modern farm practices, and use of fertilizers saved millions of people from starvation.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

Sneaky Emperor Penguins Know The Importance Of Snacks When It’s Cold Out

The 2005 documentary March of the Penguins taught many of us that male emperor penguins endure a grueling four-month fast while they incubate their eggs.

Many of us — included this reporter — were enchanted and inspired by the devotion and selflessness these penguin fathers displayed as they carefully balanced a single egg on each pair of feet while circulating in a massive cluster to share the warmth.

For those of you who don’t know, Emperor penguins in Antarctica migrate as far as 60 miles to their breeding grounds from the sea to mate and lay their eggs.

Males care for the eggs while the females travel back to the sea to feed. During this time, scientists have long thought the males went about 115 days without food, an epic feat of self-denial.

Well, prepare to be a little disenchanted. We know penguins might cheat on their mates, like humans, but it turns out they might also cheat on their winter diet, like humans.

In a paper published Tuesday in the Journal of Experimental Biology, researchers describe how they observed emperor penguins swimming in the dark during the period when they’d normally be expected to be fasting.

In other words, they probably only fast for about half as long as previously suspected.

Gerald L. Kooyman, and Robert P. van Dam of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, along with Luis A. Hückstädt of the University of California, Santa Cruz, set out to the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica during the winter of 1998.

They spent May 28 and 29 at the Cape Washington emperor penguin colony, one of the biggest emperor colonies in the world.

This location is a little different from other emperor colonies, in that the penguins’ breeding ground is only about four kilometers (2.5 miles) from the sea.

Nobody had ever taken a ship to that location in winter, but the researchers successfully reached the edge of the ice. Here’s what they saw after disembarking:

As we trekked the ∼4 km in the moonless dark to the colony, we noted many fresh tracks leading to and from the colony, and saw two groups of 6 and 30 birds returning from the polynya, an area of open water surrounded by sea ice.

Also, from the ship, one of the party observed a group of 30 emperor penguins swim by. Later, members of the team returning from the sea ice to the ship saw about 45 birds pass close to the ship in the water.

About 30 penguins were seen negotiating the rafted ice near the ice edge. On close approach to the ship five more were seen.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

The Rise of Cryptocurrency Ponzi Schemes

Last month, the technology developer Gnosis sold $12.5 million worth of “GNO,” its in-house digital currency, in 12 minutes.

The April 24 sale, intended to fund development of an advanced prediction market, got admiring coverage from Forbes and The Wall Street Journal.

On the same day, in an exurb of Mumbai, a company called OneCoin was in the midst of a sales pitch for its own digital currency when financial enforcement officers raided the meeting, jailing 18 OneCoin representatives and ultimately seizing more than $2 million in investor funds.

Multiple national authorities have now described OneCoin, which pitched itself as the next Bitcoin, as a Ponzi scheme; by the time of the Mumbai bust, it had already moved at least $350 million in allegedly scammed funds through a payment processor in Germany.

These two projects—one trumpeted as an innovative success, the other targeted as a criminal conspiracy—claimed to be doing essentially the same thing.

In the last two months alone, more than two dozen companies building on the “blockchain” technology pioneered by Bitcoin have launched what are known as Initial Coin Offerings to raise operating capital.

The hype around blockchain technology is turning ICOs into the next digital gold rush: According to the research firm Smith and Crown, ICOs raised $27.6 million in the first two weeks of May alone.

Unlike IPOs, however, ICOs are catnip for scammers. They are not formally regulated by any financial authority, and exist in an ecosystem with few checks and balances.

OneCoin loudly trumpeted its use of blockchain technology, but holes in that claim were visible long before international law enforcement took notice.

Whereas Gnosis had experienced engineers, endorsements from known experts, and an operational version of their software, OneCoin was led and promoted by known fraudsters waving fake credentials.

According to a respected blockchain engineer who was offered a position as OneCoin’s Chief Technology Officer, OneCoin’s “blockchain” consisted of little more than a glorified Excel spreadsheet and a fugazi portal that displayed demonstrably fake transactions.

And yet, OneCoin attracted hundreds of millions of dollars more than Gnosis.

The company seems to have targeted a global category of aspirational investors who noticed the breathless coverage and booming valuations of cryptocurrencies and blockchain companies, but weren’t savvy enough to understand the difference between the real thing and a sham.

Left unchecked, this growing crypto-mania could be hugely destructive to one of the most promising technologies of the 21st century.

This danger exists in large part because grasping even the basics of blockchain technology remains daunting for non-specialists.

In a nutshell, blockchains link together a global swarm of servers that hosts thousands of copies of the system’s transaction records.

Server operators constantly monitor one another’s records, meaning that to steal money or otherwise alter the ledger, a hacker would have to compromise many machines across a vast network in one fell swoop.

Even as the global banking system faces relentless cyber-attacks, the more than $30 billion in value on Bitcoin’s blockchain has proven essentially immune to hacking.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

How To Teach Your Kids To Use Social Media Responsibly

While parents understand that they need to play an active role in keeping their child safe online, most feel ill-prepared and unsure that they are parenting properly around social media.

As rule of thumb, it’s best to start when your kids are young — basically as soon as they start playing around with your computer and/or phone.

As with other complicated subjects, like (gulp) sex, the topic of using social media responsibly should be an ongoing conversation as you ride alongside them on their digital journey.

Be a role model

Your child’s relationship with social media will be shaped by how they see you interacting with your devices.

The amount of time you’re spending on your phone, whether it’s scrolling through Facebook, snapping pics, posting Instagram updates, and texting is teaching your child what digital engagement looks like.

Are you over-consuming? Distracted? Being mentally and/or emotionally affected by what you see or do online?

Show your child how a responsible adult manages their time and uses self-discipline with your online engagement.

Understand privacy

Privacy is one of the most difficult concepts for children to grasp. Explain that privacy is not just a setting choice of either “friend” or “public.”

It’s also about leaving digital bread crumbs on porn sites, giving your email address to get free Wi-Fi, having your GPS locator on, and much more.

We are not always sure what will happen with our digital footprint and so it’s best to have parents be in charge of giving permission for behaviors that give any information to a third party.

Trust no one on the other end of the phone and computer

It’s no surprise to hear that peer relationships rule the lives of our children, but what may be new information for parents is that one way youth show proof of their friendship is by agreeing to trust one another.

For example, a boyfriend asks their girlfriend to send a picture of her breasts and says, “You can trust me.  I will delete it right away,” or one may ask, “What’s your password? Trust me, I won’t tell anyone.”

These forms of showing trust end can badly. Relationships end and revenge photos circulate, or accounts get hacked.

Explain to your kids that you can be close friends without breaking the family rules.

Let them know it’s OK for them to say, “I can’t — my parents check all this stuff and I don’t want them to take away my phone privileges.

Jokes can come at a cost

“I was just joking” or “I didn’t mean anything by it” are common childhood phrases, but on social media, when everything you say is amplified and/or can go viral, jokes and humor need to be used judiciously.

Unless we explain explicitly to our children and teens how comments and jokes can be hurtful, they may get into trouble unwittingly.

Teaching them to stop, pause, and imagine how they would feel if they were the brunt of the joke helps teach the important characteristics of empathy and compassion.

If the conversation is getting upsetting and emotional, switch to talking IRL to avoid misunderstandings. Don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t say to someone’s face.

Finally, as with all parenting, be consistent and follow through with consequences if rules are broken.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Seagulls Eat Garbage In Landfills And Then Poop Pollution Into Our Waters

What goes around comes around. Scientists say chemicals from trash in our landfills are making their way into our waters via the seagulls’ gastrointestinal tracts.

A report on this delightful state of affairs was published in the journal Water Research.

We generally stop thinking about our trash the moment the garbage truck comes to collect it. But it doesn’t just disappear.

No, our coffee filters and corn-chip bags head to the landfill, where they sit and sit and sit … unless they get eaten first.

Then their nutrients, their nitrogen and phosphorus, disappear into an animal’s gullet and reappear on the other side, sometimes a few days later, sometimes miles away—and sometimes in our lakes, rivers, and streams.

Researchers wondered how much of an impact these trash-picking critters could have.

They were especially interested in seagulls, whose poop has previously been shown to carry traces of toxic chemicals from our plastic-filled seas.

The first step was to figure out just how many landfill-mooching seagulls we have.

Authors Scott Winton and Mark River of the Duke University Wetland Center used documented seagull sightings in the eBird citizen science database to estimate the number of landfill-living gulls across the entire United States.

Their calculations came up with about 1.4 million birds.

The scientists then used that 1.4-million figure to calculate the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus the birds might collectively be dumping.

That phosphorus changes the water’s chemical composition and could lead to more algae blooms, which can kill off other organisms in the lake’s ecosystem.

Winton and River suggest that rather than clean our waters after they’re polluted, a better approach might be to stop the problem at the source: our trash.

They recommend limiting landfill size and covering existing garbage heaps to keep the seagulls from ever finding it.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

How Do Fireflies Glow? Mystery Solved After 60 Years

Think of the firefly abdomen like a black box of bioluminescence.

For around 60 years, scientists have known what basic ingredients go into the box—things like oxygen, calcium, magnesium, and a naturally occurring chemical called luciferin.

And they’ve known what comes out of the box—photons, or light, in the form of the yellow, green, orange, and even blue flickers you see dancing across your backyard on summer nights.

But until recently, the actual chemical reactions that produce the firefly’s light have been shrouded in mystery.

And scientists like Bruce Branchini at Connecticut College love a good mystery.

The way enzymes and proteins can convert chemical energy into light is a very basic phenomenon,” he says, “and we wanted to know how that biochemical process worked.”

In new research, Branchini and his colleagues did just that: They found an extra oxygen electron that’s responsible for the beetles’ summertime glow.

The discovery, published recently in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, provides the most detailed picture yet of the chemistry involved in firefly bioluminescence.

The conventional explanation of how a firefly turns its backside into a bioluminescent beacon has always troubled Branchini and other chemists. For starters, it shouldn’t work.

Specifically, two of the ingredients mentioned above—oxygen and luciferin—aren’t likely to react to each other in the way they would need to in order to produce light.

Understanding why this is gets complicated fast, but a simple explanation is that apples tend to only create chemical reactions with apples, while oranges tend to only create chemical reactions with oranges.

In other words, oxygen and luciferin are like apples and oranges.

Branchini’s experiments showed the oxygen involved in the firefly’s glow comes in a special form called a superoxide anion.

This extra electron gives the oxygen properties of both a metaphorical apple and a metaphorical orange.

This means that the molecule would, in fact, be able to cause a chemical reaction with the luciferin like scientists have suspected.

He adds that these superoxide anions could be the way bioluminescence works across nature, from plankton to deep-sea fish.

To me, chemically, this is the only way it makes sense,” says Stephen Miller, a chemical biologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School who also studies luciferin and its potential uses for human health.

Miller, who was unaffiliated with the study, says it’s important to keep studying luciferin and bioluminescence because of their potential applications for medicine.

For instance, earlier this year, Miller was part of a team that used luciferin to detect specific enzymes in the brains of living rats, which could someday offer doctors another window into the human brain.

Firefly luciferin is already proving to be a useful tool in imaging human tumors and developing cancer-fighting drugs, says lead author Branchini.

Ultimately, though, “we just want to know how nature works,” he says. “The applications may or may not follow.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

The SpaceX Falcon Heavy Is Ready To Launch (Ft. The Everyday Astronaut)

Elon Musk’s dream of landing on Mars is a little closer to reality as SpaceX prepares to launch its Falcon Heavy rocket this month, and it couldn’t be more exciting.



The Falcon Heavy was first announced in 2011 at a news conference in Washington DC, but the idea had been floating around since 2004. And the idea was pretty simple.

SpaceX had the Falcon 9 rocket, which at the time had done a couple of test runs into Low Earth Orbit so they were getting a feel for what it was capable of.

And what they saw was it was a great workhorse to take cargo to the ISS, and satellites to low Earth orbit and smaller payloads to geosynchronous orbit… but there were some payloads that needed more power.

So… Why not strap a few Falcon 9’s together? Boom. Done.

And that’s basically what the Falcon Heavy is, it’s three Falcon 9 cores connected together with a second stage and payload on the top of the middle core, giving it 27 engines total with 5 million pounds of thrust.

Falcon 9 rockets care called Falcon 9 because they have 9 Merlin engines on them.

Liftoff of this thing is going to be awesome. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a rocket this powerful take off but with SpaceX, the launch is just the precursor to watching them land.

So once it gets into space, the two side cores will disengage, turn around, and head back to the pad.

Then, we are going to watch two Falcon 9s land almost simultaneously. It’ll be like some kind of rocket version of synchronized diving.

The third, middle core will continue to push the dummy cargo into orbit before it disengages, turns and lands on a barge further out to sea.

So once all the first stage cores land, the fairing opens and reveals the dummy cargo, which in the case of this first test flight will be… you guessed it… Elon Musk’s personal original Tesla Roadster.

Never to be outdone in the PR department, Elon Musk announced in December that he was going to use this event to launch his personal Tesla Roadster into Mars orbit. Something he seemed to insinuate was just a joke, but… (show picture)

It’s not a joke. He’s actually launching a car into space.

Just to make it more fun, he says that the stereo on the car will be playing Space Oddity by David Bowie, though I don’t think you’d be able to hear it in the vacuum of space, but still.

And just to be clear, the car isn’t going to Mars, it’s going out to the distance of Mars, so it will circle the sun relatively along Mars’ orbit. For the next billion or so years, according to Elon.

Anyway, when the heavy goes into operation, it will be the most powerful rocket currently in use today, by a factor of 2.

And it will be 4th most powerful rocket of all time behind the Saturn V, the Space Shuttle, and the Soviet N-1, which had a tendency to explode. Every time. It never made it.

Because it had 30 engines. Mo engines mo problems.

This title will be taken back by NASA once the Space Launch System gets up and running, it’ll actually be more powerful than the Saturn V, but we’re still a year or so out on that.

The Heavy already has a couple of satellite launches scheduled, the Arabsat 6A communications satellite and Space Test Program 2 mission for the US Air Force…

There’s also a plan to carry a Dragon Crew spacecraft with two passengers on a circumlunar mission in late 2018. But that’s very speculative.

So they’re making a Big Falcon Rocket. The BFR.

The BFR combines all the power of the three Falcon cores in the Heavy with 31 next-generation Raptor engines, and a large second stage capable of hauling more cargo than the Saturn V and can land vertically, making it fully reusable.

The Raptor engines in the BFR use a liquid methane and liquid oxygen mix called Methalox as fuel because those are capable of being created on Mars, which is the ultimate destination of the BFR.

But the Raptors are also a huge step up from the Merlin engines because they work at extremely high pressure to burn more efficiently and provide more thrust.

The plan is to begin construction on the BFR sometime in 2018 and the first launch isn’t expected until 2022, but even Elon said that was optimistic.

So we may get a few good years out of the Falcon Heavy yet. But it all starts with the first test launch, which is what makes this so compelling.

All About The Falcon Heavy with Tim Dodd The Everyday Astronaut

I spoke with Tim Dodd, who runs the YouTube channel Everyday Astronaut, specifically about the Falcon Heavy for my video on that subject, but we got into all kinds of topics from spaceflight to what inspired us as kids, to the danger of trolls and flat-earthers and the importance of tapping into the wonder that science brings us.

I really enjoyed talking with him, if you haven’t checked out his channel, you can find it at