Category: News Posts

People Smell Great! Human Sniffers Sensitive as Dogs’

As you read this, take a whiff. What smells do you detect? How do these smells affect how you feel?

It’s rare that people consciously take in the smells around them, but a new review argues that the human sense of smell is more powerful than it’s usually given credit for, and that it plays a bigger role in human health and behavior than many medical experts realize.

The fact is the sense of smell is just as good in humans as in other mammals, like rodents and dogs,” John McGann, a neuroscientist at Rutgers University-New Brunswick in New Jersey and the author of the new review, said in a statement.




People often think of dogs and rats as the superior sniffers in the animal kingdom, but humans also have an extremely keen sense of smell, McGann argued in the review, which was published last year, May 11 in the journal Science.

In fact, humans can discriminate among 1 trillion different odors, McGann wrote, far more than a commonly cited claim that people can detect only about 10,000 different smells. [10 Things That Make Humans Special]

By overlooking humans’ keen smelling abilities, medicine may be missing a key component of human health, McGann said. S

mell influences human behavior, from stirring up memories to attracting sexual partners to influencing mood to shaping taste, he said.

It’s no coincidence that the French word for smell, “sentir,” also means to feel; emotion and smell are often intricately linked.

It’s true that humans have relatively smaller olfactory organs and fewer odor-detecting genes compared with other animals. However, the power of the human brain more than makes up for this.

When a person smells something, odor molecules bind to receptors in the nose.

These receptors send information about the molecules to the human olfactory bulb in the brain, which then sends signals to other areas of the brain to help identify scents.

This is different from the way smell works in dogs, McGann said. Dogs have a “pump” in their noses that’s designed to take in chemicals in liquid form for identification, he said.

Because the smelling mechanisms are so different, it’s hard to compare humans to dogs, McGann said.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

A New Study Suggests That As A Star Begins To Die And Slowly Expands Outward, It Would Temporarily Light Up As It Eats The Worlds It Hosts

600 light years away, in the constellation of Auriga, there is a star in some ways similar to our Sun. It’s a shade hotter (by about 800° C), more massive, and older.

Oddly, it appears to be laced with heavy elements: more oxygen, aluminum, and so on, than might be expected. A puzzle.

Then, last year, it was discovered that this star had a planet orbiting it. A project called WASP – Wide Area Search for Planets, a UK telescope system that searches for exoplanets — noticed that the star underwent periodic dips in its light.

This indicates that a planet circles the star, and when the planet gets between the star and us, it blocks a tiny fraction of the starlight.




The planet is a weirdo, for many reasons… but it won’t be weird for too much longer. That’s because the star is eating it.

OK, first, the planet. Called WASP 12b, it was instantly pegged as an oddball. The orbit is only 1.1 days long! Compare that to our own 365 day orbit, or even Mercury’s 88 days to circle the Sun.

This incredibly short orbital period means this planet is practically touching the surface of its star as it sweeps around at over 220 km/sec!

That also means it must be very hot; models indicate that the temperature at its cloud tops would be in excess of 2200°C.

Not only that, but other numbers were odd, too. WASP 12b was found to be a bit more massive and bigger than Jupiter; about 1.8 times its size and 1.4 times its mass.

That’s too big! Models indicate that planets this massive have a funny state of matter in them; they are so compressible that if you add mass, the planet doesn’t really get bigger, it just gets denser.

In other words, you could double Jupiter’s mass and its size wouldn’t increase appreciably, but since the mass goes up, so would its density.

But WASP 12b isn’t like that. In fact, it has a lower density than Jupiter, and is a lot bigger! Something must be going on… and when you see a lot of weird things all sitting in one place, it makes sense to assume they’re connected.

In this case it’s true: that planet is freaking hot, and that’s at the heart of this mess. Heating a planet that much would not exactly be conducive to its well-being.

When you heat a gas it expands, which would explain WASP 12b’s big size. It’s puffy! But being all bloated that close to a star turns out to be bad for your health.

Astronomers used Hubble to observe the planet in the ultraviolet and found clear signs of all sorts of heavy elements, including sodium, tin, aluminum, magnesium, and manganese, as well as, weirdly, ytterbium*.

Moreover, they could tell from the data that these elements existed in a cloud surrounding the planet, like an extended atmosphere going outward for hundreds of thousands of kilometers.

This explains the peculiar high abundance of heavy metals in the star I mentioned at the beginning of this post; they come from the planet! But not for long.

Given the mass of the planet and the density of the stream, it looks like it has roughly ten million years left. At that point, supper’s over: there won’t be anything left for the star to eat.

In reality it’s hard to say exactly what will happen; there may be a rocky/metal core to the planet that will survive. But even that is so close to the star that it will be a molten blob of goo.

The way orbits work, the way the dance of gravity plays out over time, the planet itself may actually be drawn inexorably closer to its star. Remember, too, the star is old, and will soon start to expand into a red giant.

So the planet is falling and the star is rising; eventually the two will meet and the planet will meet a fiery death.

All in all, it sucks to be WASP 12b.

But it’s cool to be an astronomer!

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Scientists Study Winter Storms Involving Thundersnow To Pinpoint Where Heavy Snowfalls May Occur

It’s been more than 30 years—during the Blizzard of 1978 to be exact—since Neil Stuart saw “thundersnow,” a weather phenomenon featuring the unusual combination of thunder, lightning and snow.

The National Weather Service (NWS) meteorologist was 10 years old, living near Boston. The storm—which he says “is famous in meteorological circles” and influenced his career path—dumped 27 inches of snow on the ground over two days.

The heaviest snow, however, came during a six-hour thundersnow storm that delivered one foot of snow over a six hour period.

Seeing thundersnow come down is “like watching a time-lapse movie of the snow building up, because it falls so quickly,” Stuart says.




 

Thunder and lightning during a snowstorm is different from a run-of-the-mill snowstorm; it is extremely rare—fewer than 1 percent of observed snowstorms unleash thundersnow, according to a 1971 NSW study.

But recorded observations of the phenomenon date back to 250 B.C., say ancient Chinese records translated in 1980 by atmospheric scientist Pao-Kuan Wang, now of the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Today, researchers are interested in thundersnow for its predictive value.

According to Patrick Market, an associate professor of atmospheric science at the University of Missouri, a 30-year study of snowfall found that when lightning is observed during a snowstorm, there is an 86 percent chance that at least 15 centimeters of snow will fall within 113 kilometers of the flash.

Researchers are trying to determine the combo of atmospheric conditions required to create thundersnow to help them better predict heavy snowfall.

Which they define as at least 20 centimeters falling at a rate of 7.5 to 10 centimeters per hour—and issue warnings about hazardous weather before it hits, giving people time to prepare, take cover and get off the road.

By the time the lightning flashes during a thundersnow-storm, it is often already too late to prepare local residents for the whiteout on the way.

If we’re talking about the observation of thundersnow,” Market says, “the predictive value is on the order of minutes to hours.

In the U.S. thundersnow is most likely to form in mountainous regions like the Rockies as well as in the vicinity of comparatively warm and large bodies of water such as the Great Lakes.

Snow requires a cold environment, adequate moisture to form clouds, and rising air; thundersnow makes an appearance when a fourth ingredient is added: thermal instability, which is created by the addition of relatively warm air.

Market last month joined a team of storm-chasing University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign researchers using various radars to examine what takes place inside storm clouds to cause snowfall.

The team is surveying atmospheric conditions in several locations in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.

A field mill, a device that measures electric fields near the ground, will be used to determine whether there is an accumulation of charged ice particles in the clouds above.

The team next year plans to fly into snowstorms in NWS planes and drop parcels containing thermometers, barometers and other devices that, like weather balloons, will measure temperature on their way down.

If the team encounters thundersnow during its study, it may be able to confirm the conditions needed to produce it, making such icy tempests easier to forecast.

With some lead time, [be it] hours or even a day or two,” Stuart says, “we can see a big storm and predict which areas will see extreme snowfall.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

Incredible Dashcam Footage Shows Giant Fireball Hurtling Towards Ground In Michigan Before Sparking 2.0 Magnitude Earthquake

The impressive dash-cam footage, recorded from a vehicle traveling on a motorway near the US city Detroit, shows a dazzlingly bright object hurtling towards the ground.

Other clips posted on social media also show the meteorite lighting up the night sky. Terrified onlookers posted dramatic footage and images of the cosmic event online.

It sparked a 2.0 magnitude earthquake near Detroit eastern Michigan, and a powerful explosion that shook homes.




The National Weather Service said: “After reviewing several observational data sets, we can confirm the flash and boom was NOT thunder or lightning, but instead a likely meteor.

The United States Geological Survey late confirmed a meteorite had been seen and heard in the area.

Meteors, also known as shooting stars, are created when little chunks of rock and debris in space fall through a planet’s atmosphere.

They leave a bright trail as they are heated by the friction of the atmosphere. If they hit the ground, they become a meteorite.

On Twitter, people reacted with shock at the phenomenon. “Did Michigan just get hit with a meteor? A bomb? A UFO?” one person said.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

Why Is Power Consumption For Gadgets Dropping At Home?

A new report from the Consumer Electronics Association and Fraunhofer USA asserts that the power consumed by home electronics declined from 12% between 2013 and 2010 in the U.S.

It’s a positive result, especially when you add in that the number of devices climbed from 2.9 billion to 3.8 billion over that same period.

But what’s really interesting about the report is why power consumption is declining.




In a word, it’s tablets. The number of plugged in TVs has declined from 353 million in 2010 to 301 in 2013, a 14% drop.

The number of plugged-in desktops has dropped from 101 million to 88 million while the number of active laptops has declined from 132 million to 93 million.

Tablets, meanwhile, have gone from being a relative asterisk to being present in 100 million households.

While part of the decline in consumed by TVs can be attributed to new accounting methods and the final disposal of those remaining CRT tubes, the bigger impact seems to be coming from the shift to smaller screens.

The active power consumption of a 34-inch TV is 90 watts: a TV this size will consume 166 kilowatt hours a year under normal use scenarios. Desktops will consume 186 kilowatt hours.

Notebook power draw can range from 6 to 36 watts and account for 53 kilowatt hours of power consumption. A tablet might use 6.1 kilowatt hours a year in regular use.

In short, power consumption is dropping at home, but more importantly we are seeing a tectonic shift in what we use.

Tablet sales might be below some analyst’s expectations, but they are having an impact on the categories around them.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

Home-Made Drones Bombed A Russian Airbase, According To The Defense Ministry

The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed on January 8 that a swarm of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, have attacked their airbase in Syria on the night of January 5th.

The drone strike is the latest of a recent flurry of mysterious attacks against Russian forces in Syria, and military officials are still clueless as to who’s behind them.

The Defense Ministry said that 13 small drones, what they described as a “massive application of unmanned aerial vehicles,” targeted two separate locations.




Seven of these were neutralized by Russian anti-aircraft defenses, while the rest caused no significant damage after exploding upon touching the ground.

Examining the captured UAVs, the Russian military discovered that they were crudely assembled. They carried locally made bombs fitted in small plastic fins under their wings.

It was the first time when terrorists applied a massed drone aircraft attack launched at a range of more than 50 km using modern GPS guidance system,” the Russian Defense Ministry’s official post said.

It’s hard not to think of that futuristic slaughterbots in that viral video, except that those were autonomous and the drones that attacked the Russians were most likely remotely controlled.

The use of drones for warfare isn’t something new, they have been used in various forms since the 19th century.

But swarms of small drones like the ones seen in Syria have only recently been employed in modern defense programs.

Defense contractor Duke Robotics has one such program in the works, with an ordinary-looking multi-rotor drone called the TIKAD — except it really isn’t your regular hobbyist drone. The TIKAD is armed with a high-powered rifle.

Advocates of drone warfare see it as the future of military operations, and one where the lives of human soldiers need not be put in harm’s way.

Deploying smaller drones could also end up becoming cheaper than using regular UAVs like the Predator.

So, as crude and rudimentary as those drones that bombed Russian forces were, the mysterious attackers are definitely up to something.

The incident was, indeed, the first time a swarm of drones had been weaponized for a military strike — but it most definitely won’t be the last.

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DNA Of Man Who Died In 1827 Recreated Without His Remains

Recreating a deceased person or animal’s DNA has required that DNA be extracted from the remains of the individual, but a new study has shown that may not be the only way.

The DNA of a man who died nearly 200 years ago has been recreated from his living descendants rather than his physical remains — something that has never been done before.

deCODE Genetics, a biopharmaceutical company in Iceland, achieved this feat by taking DNA samples from 182 Icelandic descendants of Hans Jonatan, a man who is quite an icon in Iceland, most well known for having freed himself from slavery in a heroic series of seemingly impossible events.




It was the unique circumstances of Hans Jonatan’s life that made it possible for his DNA to be recreated after his death. For one, Jonatan was the first Icelandic inhabitant with African heritage.

Iceland also boasts an extensive and highly detailed collection of genealogical records.

The combination of Jonatan’s unique heritage and the country’s record-keeping for inhabitants’ family trees made this remarkable recreation possible.

deCODE used DNA screened from 182 relatives, first reconstructing 38 percent of Jonatan’s mother Emilia’s DNA (which accounted for 19 percent of Jonatan’s).

Published in Nature Genetics, this elaborate study began with a whopping 788 of Jonatan’s known descendants, but was able to be narrowed down to 182 through DNA screening against known markers.

While this is truly an amazing feat, according to Robin Allaby of the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom,  it “seems to be the sort of analysis you could only do under particular circumstances when an immigrant genome is of a very rare type.

Despite these limitations, deCODE believes the technique could have extensive applications.

Kári Stefánsson of deCODE said that “It’s all a question of the amount of data you have. In principle, it could be done anywhere with any ancestors, but what made it easy in Iceland was that there were no other Africans.”

Allaby does believe the results of this study could give us additional avenues to explore the DNA of those who have long since passed.

“It’s the sort of study that could, for instance, be used to recover genomes of explorers who had interbred with isolated native communities.”

Theoretically, a technique like this could help researchers create “virtual ancient DNA,” which would allow scientists to recreate the DNA of historical figures.

Agnar Helgason of deCODE stated that “Any historic figure born after 1500 who has known descendants could be reconstructed.”

While it’s exciting, there are still major hurdles to overcome in terms of the potential future applications.

The quantity, scale, and detail of the DNA from living ancestors required to recreate a person’s DNA make it impractical for use within most families.

Additionally, with each new generation identifiable DNA fragments get smaller and more difficult to work with.

To that end, more immediate applications might involve repairing and filling in spaces within family trees.

But if it’s honed, it could become a valuable historical tool, giving us an in-depth look at what life was like for historical figures like Jonatan.

Scientists could genetically resurrect anyone, providing us with a more thorough understanding of our species both from our own personal familial perspectives and through the more macrocosmic lens of human history.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Ancient Teeth Reveal How Nearly All Of Mexico Was Once Wiped Out By One Of The Most Devastating Food Poisoning Epidemics In Human History

It has been described as one of the most devastating epidemics in human history – and now scientists have discovered what caused it.

An outbreak of a mystery disease in 1576, and second wave in 1576, killed around seven million to 17 million people and helped destroy the mighty Aztec Empire.

Known to the locals as cocoliztli, the symptoms of the disease were horrific; they included red spots on the skin, bleeding from various orifices and vomiting.




A new study of ancient teeth has helped reveal that Aztec’s collapse may have been due to the food poisoning bug salmonella, to which the locals had no resistance.

The study claims this is the first evidence of the bacteria ever found in the South Americas.

When forces led by Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés arrived in Mexico in 1519, the native population was estimated at about 25 million.

A century later, after a Spanish victory and a series of epidemics, numbers had plunged to around 1 million.

The outbreak impacted large parts of Mexico and Guatemala, including the town of Teposcolula-Yucundaa, located in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Here, archaeological digs unearthed an almost untouched cemetery. Scientists took samples of pulp from inside of the teeth found in skeleton.

They found ten of the skeletons whose burials dated after the conquest tested positive for salmonella. By contrast none of the five skeletons whose burials predated the Spanish conquest tested positive for the disease.

The researchers say the findings make salmonella ‘a strong candidate’ for helping to wipe out the Aztecs and other peoples including the Mixtecs.

The authors said it was conceivable that the disease was brought by European ‘carriers’ who travelled across the Atlantic without suffering the effects.

The type of salmonella led to a condition called enteric fever, which still kills millions around the world today. It is spread by poor sanitation.

It causes high fevers, dehydration, gastrointestinal complications and in serious cases when left untreated, death.

Normally, identifying infectious diseases in skeletons is extremely difficult as they leave no trace.

The team used the Megan Alignment Tool (MALT) to identify DNA sequences from the teeth of individuals buried in a cocoliztili (‘pestilence’ in the indigenous Nahuatl language) cemetery.

This is the first time scientists have recovered molecular evidence of this bacterium using ancient material from the New World.

In the past, scientists usually targeted a particular pathogen or a small set of pathogens.

A key result of this study is that we were successful in recovering information about a microbial infection that was circulating in this population, and we did not need to specify a particular target in advance,” explains Alexander Herbig, also of the MPI-SHH and co-author of the study.

Previous candidates for the lethal disease have included smallpox, viral haemorrhagic fever and even bubonic plague.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

Fix for Intel’s Massive CPU Security Flaw Might Slow Down Your Computer

Intel is grappling with another major security flaw in its processors… and this time, the cost of fixing it may be very steep.

Researchers have discovered a design vulnerability in Intel CPUs over the past decade that covers the ability of ordinary programs to determine the content or layout of protected kernel memory.

While the details appear to be under embargo for now, the fix is to completely separate the kernel memory from those ordinary processes.




That could carry a significant speed hit, since it requires switching between two memory address spaces every time there’s a system call or a hardware interrupt request.

How much of a slowdown you see depends on the processor and the task in question. The biggest blows are expected to come to virtualization systems like Amazon’s EC2 or Google Compute Engine.

The Register claims the performance hits could range from 5 percent to 30 percent, but there’s evidence to suggest steeper hits might be possible.

Whether or not this affects everyday tasks like gaming or web browsing is another matter, though — there has yet to be comprehensive testing.

As it’s a chip-level flaw, the bug affects virtually every operating system, including Linux, macOS and Windows.

Software fixes are known to be in the works for at least Linux and Windows, but a true solution that maintains performance will require changes at the CPU level.

Notably, though, AMD reports that its processors aren’t affected due to key differences in memory handling.

Intel has so far declined to comment. However, to call this ill-timed would be an understatement. After years of maintaining a fairly secure performance lead, it’s facing stiff competition from AMD’s Ryzen and Epyc processors.

The last thing it needs is a security hole that not only requires design tweaks, but could slow down virtually all the chips it sells once patches are in place.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

This Artificial Intelligence Eavesdrops On Emergency Calls To Warn Of Possible Cardiac Arrests

When you phone 911, you’re patched through to a trained human who is able to properly triage your phone call.

Soon, you could also find yourself being listened to by a robot, however, who is tuning in to very different verbal information from the human emergency dispatcher.

Developed by Danish startup Corti, this emergency call-listening artificial intelligence is designed to listen to the caller for signs that they may be about to go into cardiac arrest.

When it makes such a diagnosis, it then alerts the human dispatcher so that they can take the proper steps.




Corti is meant to be a digital co-pilot for medical personnel,” Andreas Cleve, CEO of Corti, said.

Like a human doctor, Corti analyzes everything a patient says and shares in real time — from journal data, symptom descriptions, voice data, acoustic data, language data, their dialect, questions, and even their breathing patterns.

“Corti then outputs diagnostic advice to the medical personnel, to help them diagnose patients faster. This can be especially powerful in an emergency use case where mistakes can be fatal.”

As the company’s Chief Technology Officer Lars Maaloe told us, the technology framework uses deep learning neural networks trained on years of historical emergency calls.

While it hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed, the team is currently working on this. A paper describing the work is likely to published later in 2018.

Today the technology is being used in Copenhagen EMS, who have spearheaded the application of machine learning in the prehospital space worldwide,” Cleve said.

At Copenhagen EMS, our technology is able to give emergency call takers diagnostic advice in natural language, and it’s integrated directly into the software they are already using.

“Our goal is to make it easier for medical personnel to do their jobs, not complicate it further with fancier technology.

“We are extremely skeptical of the idea of rushing to replace trained medical personnel with A.I., since from both ethical and professional perspective we prefer human contact when it comes to our health.

“Personally, I simply can’t see myself preferring a bot over a medically trained human agent. But the setup where humans are amplified by A.I.? That to us is a far more powerful scenario in healthcare.”

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Pass it on: New Scientist