Science(y)

Tardigrade Update: A New Type of Tardigrade Revealed!

At Astonishing Legends, we love waterbears, also known as tardigrades. Seriously! You can read another AL blog post that goes over them here. Naturally, we like to stay abreast with all tardigrade updates and there was a particularly notable one at the end of February 2018. A new type of tardigrade has been discovered!

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Scientists recently discovered an entirely new species of tardigrades living amongst the moss on the surface of a Japanese parking lot. How did these creatures hiding in plain sight go undiscovered for so long? Well...why would you look for a tardigrade in a parking lot?

Luckily, a bioscientist named Kzuharu Arakawa, moved into an apartment complex that used this parking lot. Curiosity likely got the best of this bioscientist and one day he decided to take a sample of moss from the building’s parking lot for analysis.

Furthermore, and even luckier, Arakawa actually studies the molecular biology of tardigrades! Arkaware told LiveScience, "Most of [the] tardigrade species were described from mosses and lichens—thus any cushion of moss seems to be interesting for people working on tardigrades," Arakawa told LiveScience in an email. But, he said, "it was quite surprising to find a new species around my apartment!”

This newfound tardigrade has been named ‘Macrobiotus shonaicus” and is the 168th species that has been discovered in Japan. There are roughly 1,200 species of tardigrades overall.

Arakawa notes that he rounteily samples moss he finds around town, but simply got lucky with the discovery in his parking lot. Another special thing, he noted, was that the tardigrades he discovered were not only able to survive in a laboratory environment, but they could also reproduce in them which is rare.

The eggs of  this tardigrade (Macrobiotus shonaicus) are also of note. Its eggs “have a solid surface and flexible filaments protruding outwards, similar to those of two other recently described species, M. paulinae from Africa and M. polypiformis from South America.” Furthermore, Scientific American reports that these eggs are studded with “miniscule, chalice-shaped protrusions, each of which is topped with a ring of delicate, noodle-like filaments. ” It is guessed that these filaments may aid in the egg attaching to the surface where its laid.

Another strange thing about its reproduction, “M. shonaicus has two sexes, where other tardigrades that are culturable in labs have been mostly parthenogenetic (females reproduce by themselves without male population)."

We can’t wait to see what we learn next about these fascinating creatures!

 

Image: A new species of tardigrade, Macrobiotus shonaicus, has been discovered in Japan. Image: D. Stec et al., 2018

Ravens Are Evolving

Ravens have been harbingers of doom, witches’ familiars, and dastardly throughout folkloric history.  And, like ravens themselves, their evolutionary path has been anything but cut and dry.

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Speciation is fairly commonplace and well known theory in evolution. Speciation is when one species diverges into two. Creatures produced through speciation are common and well known in our daily life - finches, croatian lizards, and squirrels that live in the rims of the Grand Canyon are all examples. A new species is not able to reproduce with members of the original population.

But, ravens are changing that. Scientists have recently discovered that distinctly separate lineages of ravens, which have evolved separately for about 1-2 million years, now appear to be consolidating. In other words, it appears as if raven’s are involved in speciation reversal.

The study that discovered this utilized DNA samples from ravens over a period of about 20 years. The evidence they present shows that common ravens on the western coast of North America have split into 3 genetically distinct groups. However, two of these lineages “appear to be in the process of melding back into one, scientists report Thursday in the journal Nature Communications.”

According to National Geographic,  “two lineages—or groups that were on their way to becoming separate species—become one. Scientists call this “reticulate evolution,” says Kearns, and it’s been seen in only a handful of other species, including finches and two kinds of fish.” These species, specifically, are the Holartic and California lineages.

The study involved a genetic analysis of 400 birds spanning the geographical range of he two two populations. It now appears that the two populations have combined to create a hybrid of two original linages. According to the Guardian, “the pure California type no longer exists)”

Despite these revelations the birds seem to exhibit the same behavior, they sound the same, and do no seem to continue interbreeding with the other two groups, despite the possibility since their geographical ranges overlap.

Scientists are currently investigating what prompted the merger between the two populations. Overall, this finding reveals just how complicated biology really is...as it seems to suggest that we might need to rethink some things we thought were set in stone.

This is an image of "A Northwestern Crow at Stanley Park, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada." It is liscensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. It was taken by Snowmanradio


 

The Most Common Paranormal Beliefs in the United States

A study by Chapman University, published earlier this year (October 2017) explores, via survey, American Fears. Specifically, they also dug into the paranormal beliefs in America. The study itself was taken by 1,207 random Americans across the United States about their fears.

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The results were:

  • 55% - Ancient advanced civilization, such as Atlantis, once existed 
  • 52% - Places can be haunted by spirits
  • 35% - Aliens have visited Earth in our ancient past
  • 25% - Some people can move objects with their minds
  • 19% - Fortune tellers and psychics can foresee the future
  • 16% - Bigfoot is a real creature

These stats can also be seen in lovely graphic form by hitting the first "Link" button above! Additionally, it should be mentioned that these results were gathered from those percent reporting "agree or strongly agree".

I was surprised about two things:

1. That haunting/ghosts weren't #1

and

2. Bigfoot was so low

First, I was shocked that ancient advanced civilization rose above ghosts/hauntings. Part of me wonders if it is in the advent of TV shows like ancient aliens and other docs of a similar tone. Or, perhaps in a more optimistic vein, it is because of new scientific findings. But, if you would have asked me, I would have said ghosts/hauntings would have been #1.

Secondly, Bigfoot being so low - behind telekinesis AND fortune tellers - surprised me. Bigfoot, in my findings, has some of the most fervent and dedicated fans. Heck - it has multiple TV shows and docs, not to mention the Patterson-Gimlin film.

But, those aren't the only stats we get! In fact, they examined how many paranormal beliefs a person held. Surprisingly, only a fourth of Americans do not hold any of the seven beliefs mentioned above...meaning three fourths of Americans DO believe in at least one paranormal phenomena.

  • 25% - No paranormal beliefs
  • 20.8% - 1 paranormal belief
  • 13.8% - 2 paranormal beliefs
  • 12.3% - 3 paranormal beliefs
  • 9.6% - 4 paranormal beliefs
  • 8.4% - 5 paranormal beliefs
  • 4.7% - 6 paranormal beliefs
  • 5% - All 7 paranormal beliefs 

One thing I find interesting about this study is that despite debunking efforts, people still seem to "believe" or, at the very least, want to believe in the paranormal. Although the numbers above look a bit scant because they are split 8 ways, 53.8% of the population surveyed has 2 or more paranormal beliefs. Which, to me, is a knock-your-socks-off stat. In other words, that's a hell of a whole lot of people who don't just believe in a singular thing but that there could potentially be a variety of paranormal entities and occurrences in our world.

What did you find surprising about this survey?

 

The above image is not related to this story and is by _TCPhotography_. It is liscensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0). 

UVA is Taking on Parapsychological Research

The paranormal is something that thousands, if not millions, of people hear about on a regular basis. From ghost stories to folklore, from cryptids to UFOs...it seems that countless of hours have been dedicated to creating TV shows, radio programs, movies, think tanks, and more that revolve around trying to get a deeper understanding of the paranormal. The University of Virginia is taking that a step further. How? Well, through their Division of Perceptual Studies (DOPS), founded in 1967.

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DOPS was founded by Dr. Ian Stevenson. Dr. Stevenson, appropriately born on Halloween in 1907, studied medicine at St. Andrews University in Scotland from 1937 to 1939, but due to WWII graduated from McGill University and an M.D. following his undergraduate studies. He practiced medicine throughout the 1940s and early 50s. In 1951 he began studying psychoanalysis and took up teaching at UVA in the late 50s, where he developed his work on reincarnation. 

Then, he decided to create what was originally known as the Division of Personality Studies. The goal of this division was “the scientific empirical investigation of phenomena that suggest that currently accepted scientific assumptions and theories about the nature of mind or consciousness, and its relation to matter, may be incomplete.”

From their website their mission is clear: "Simply put, our goal is to expand the current paradigm, because we believe that recognition of consciousness as something greater than a physically produced phenomenon is both more optimistic and more accurate than the prevailing materialist worldview."

Today, DOPS investigates, as scientifically as possible, a large array of phenomena. According to the Atlantic, these include: ESP, poltergeists, near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, “claimed memories of past lives.”

Dr. Jim Tucker is one of the scientists currently at work at DOPS. He remarks, “The main effort is to document as carefully as possible what the child says and determine how well that matches with a deceased person,” he told me. “And in the strongest cases, those similarities can be quite compelling.”

Although, the actual work that DOPS does on a daily basis resembles many other scientific, academic research groups. For example, they input all the findings and patient profiles into an electronic database. Once inputted, analysts can pick out the patterns that might just explain why some individuals are susceptible to, lets say, possessing memories from past lives (which is a major aspect of DOPS, since reincarnation was one of Dr. Stevenson's passions).

Through processing, analyzing, and understanding the paranormal through a scientific lens, DOPS hopes that the study of the paranormal will become more accepted by the mainstream media, thus allowing them to take on new challenges and studies.

If you're interested, you can even read work that DOPS has published multiple books (which you can find here), or you can dig a little deeper into their research here
 

The above image is unrelated to the story and is by CCAC North Library, liscensed via Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

 

Why Do We Find Dolls Creepy?

Dolls, which are usually innocuous can sometimes take on an additional creepy-factor. The fear of dolls it isn't that unheard of. In fact, there is even a name for the fear of dolls: pediophobia. Although, you don't have to have pediophobia to be uneasy around dolls sometimes. 

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There isn't a definitive reason for why we find dolls creepy. However, there are some interesting theories. For example, dolls can inhabit Uncanny Valley territory. Although dolls have been played with for thousands of years the theory of the Uncanny Valley wasn't brought up until the 1970s.  Japanese roboticist, Masahiro Mori, brought up that as robots began to looks more like humans, people would find them more acceptable and appealing...but only to a point. If they were close to a human...but not quite "human" people develop a sense of "unease and discomfort." It is this particular "distinctive dip in the relationship between human-likeness and emotional response that is called the uncanny valley."

So, what does this have to do with dolls? Well, they look human even though we know they are NOT human. The human brain is designed to read faces in order to gauge important information, like emotions and potential threats. So, when we see a face that looks human and isn't, we aren't able to read it and it rattles our instincts. 

But, dolls weren't always creepy. It is only as we entered the 20th century that they became more and more human and lifelike. So, maybe that is why we find them unsettling now.

It is not just the Uncanny Valley at work, here. In fact, popular culture definitely plays a part. Movies like Chucky (and the series it spawned) and Annabelle work to reinforce dolls' creepiness. In fact, the director of Annabelle commented on his use of a doll in the movie. John Leonetti said, "If you think about them, most dolls are emulating a human figure. But they’re missing one big thing, which is emotion. So they’re shells. It’s a natural psychological and justifiable vehicle for demons to take it over. If you look at a doll in its eyes, it just stares. That’s creepy. They’re hollow inside. That space needs to be filled.”

By culture capitalizing on the empty-vessel aspect of dolls and making them the antagonist in horror movies, society's slight fear of dolls is justified and increased.

In Freud's essay "The Uncanny" , which is also a reading of "Der Sandmann" by E.T.A Hoffman, he discusses the doll-like automaton. Freud makes the interesting argument that the anxiety and fear caused may be due to the questioning of "whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or, conversely, whether a lifeless object might be in fact animate." He also describes the feeling of the "uncanny" as strangely familiar. "Strangely familiar" seems to wholly describe dolls - they look like us...but not. They are lifeless but not dead and can make "eye contact", despite not having real eyes.

What do you think? Do you have another theory as to why we fear dolls?

 

The above image is by Tiffany Terry and is liscensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0). 

Have YOU Dreamed Lately?

Think about it for a second: when was the last time you dreamed? I mean, really dreamed. Can you remember? Okay, good. When was the last time you dreamed for consecutive nights in a row? Do you think you're dream deprived? The New York Academy of Sciences recently published an article entitled Dreamless: the silent epidemic of REM sleep loss, and they think we might be "at least as dream deprived as we are sleep deprived." 

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Let's start off with something easy before we dig into the dream stuff. Any typical sleep follows a "a cyclical pattern of non-REM and REM sleep: At the beginning of the night, deeper non-REM sleep is prioritized; only later in the night and into the morning does REM sleep increase in duration." During these deep REM sleep spikes are when people have the most dynamic and visceral dreams...the ones you remember. 

Do you have sleep cycles down? Good! Now...let's move onto dreams.

Technically, we aren't entirely sure what dreams are. According to Penelope A. Lewis, the author of the Secret World of Sleep, a dream is "something you are aware of at some level. It may be fragmentary, disconnected, and illogical, but if you aren’t aware of it during sleep then it isn’t a dream." She goes on to clarify that not remembering a dream upon waking doesn't mean you weren't aware of it at the time it was occurring...just that it wasn't really cemented into your memory. She also runs through a brief list of theories of what dreams might be (but, again, we don't really know). For example, Sigmund Freud suggested that dreams express our forbidden desires. Or, even that dreams are a kind of virtual reality simulation in which we are able to rehearse threatening, scary, or nerve-wracking situations. This is based in the fact that a large percentage of dreams have to do with a threatening situation. 

So, we don't really know what dreams are...but they seem important in some way or another. 

The author of the article, Rubin Naiman, argues that not only is a deep REM sleep important, but so are the dreams that go along with it. In fact, they are potentially vital to our health. Naiman argues we need to "assess the role of dreaming itself" as a health consequence of poor sleep. 

But, is the loss of dreams a potential public health crisis? 

Maybe.

REM sleep loss is associated with increased risks of all sorts, like obesity, memory problems, and inflammatory responses. People with sleep apnea and have a complete loss of REM sleep are at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and depression. In fact, as The Science of Us article points out, "When researchers ran experiments depriving subjects of only REM sleep, they found that most of the negative side effects mirrored those of total sleep deprivation." Since dreams usually go hand-in-hand with deep REM sleep, could preserving our dream-states improve our health?

Luckily, Naiman isn't all doom and gloom. In fact, he offers several strategies for improving the Dream/REM cycle.

1) Try to avoid substance use (like alcohol and drugs) in the hour or two before you go to bed.

2) Decrease exposure to nighttime light (cell, computer, TV)

3) Reduce your reliance on your alarm clock! I know it sounds difficult, but Naiman says “Imagine being abruptly ushered out of a movie theater whenever a film was nearing its conclusion.” Instead of naturally finishing out your sleep cycle, you wake up to a shrill noise. Now, clearly we all have places to be...but I'd be interested in what Naiman thinks about a light-based alarm clock or a "slow" alarm clock that wakes you up in a soothing manner and more slowly than a typical alarm clock.

4) Do your best to get those required 7-9 hours a night.

5) Remember that sleep AND dreams enrich our waking life as much as going for a walk or enjoying an amazing salad can. 

6) Get in tune with your dreams - pay attention them, share them with a friend, and be more aware of them. Creating a positive attitudes towards our "dreaming selves" can help create a better atmosphere in which to dream. 

 

 

The above image is from Flickr User Michael Carian and is liscensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

New Discovery: The Largest Sea Dragon!

Will the sea ever stop surprsing us? I hope not. In the last week of August 2017, the largest sea dragon to date was discovered. Except, it was already in a museum.

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Sven Sachs was visiting a museum to study an ancient sea reptile when one of the museum's display fossils caught his eye.

The specimen that caught his eye was hardly new. In fact, it was unearthed in the 1990s around Somerset, England. Unfortunately, it wasn't of much interest and remained unstudied. Sachs believed it was an Ichthyosaurs. Ichthyosaurses were large marine reptiles. They evolved from a group of unknown land reptiles that returned to the sea. These creatures fossils were often mistakenly believed to be dinosaur, however it was believed to be more like a sea dragon. Basically, they swam like eels, had long bodies, and were BIG.

Back to Dr. Sachs who said about "rediscovering" the fossil,  "I found it very extraordinary," said Sachs. "[It was] way bigger than any specimen I had examined." After consultation and examination, it was determined that the specimen was of the species Ichthyosaurus somersetensis, the largest of its kind estimating it to be about 10 feet long. In addition to its impressive size, this particular specimen also was carrying a small, seven-centimeter embryo when it died.

One of the reasons it's impressiveness wasn't acknowledged until decades later is because the museum had mistakenly given it the tail of a different Ichthyosaurus species to make it look more complete. 

According to National Geographic, "Sachs believes other unexplored museum collections have the potential to reveal undiscovered species." It is amazing that this new "terrain" of paletology has been opened. Who knows what could be lurking in the dozens upon dozens of unexplored collections that could be hiding secret gems like this one! 

The above image is NOT of the specific Ichthyosaurus, but from a visitor to the Natural History Museum in London. Liscensed by CC BY-SA 3.0.  "Fossil of Ichthyosaurus, an extinct reptile-- Took the photo at Natural History Museum, London" taken by Ghedoghedo.

Are You Being Watched?

The Science of Us recently did a great article on the Psychology of Being watched that caught my eye. I'm not sure if it's because I live alone in a big city (even though I have friends in and on the same floor of my apartment building) but..I often get that creeping feeing. The hair on the back of my neck stands up, my voice gets caught in my throat, and I am unable to breathe. But, then it is all over. I am un-paralyzed, look around, and feel self-assured that I'm all alone or that no, no one in the metro car was staring at me or following me home as I walked. But why do I so physically and mentally react to the idea of being watched at seemingly random times?

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 Well, first of all - it's because people often wrongly assumed we're being looked at. As unselfish as we may be in our actions, we are all at the center of our universe. We can't help it. When someone's eyes are covered, like by sunglasses or the brim of hat, it is easy to assume that we are the targets. Or, someone staring off into space in our direction...well, that definitely means s/he is up to something. As the article says, "The feeling of being watched may become a self-fulfilling prophecy: When you think someone is staring at you from behind, you might turn around suddenly to face them, causing that person look in your direction." Thus, confirming our own belief that yes, we were being watched...sort of.

However, it isn't just that we're self-centered that we think we're being watched all the time. In fact, sometimes we feel that way because our eyes pick up more than we know. In fact, our brains work overtime compared to what we are consciously gazing at. So, if you're in your house and you think you're being watched, or you're walking down the street, or you're picking up coffee and get that tingly feeling? Well, there's a chance you visually picked up on other cues that are outside of your direct field of vision that you don't as consciously notice.

Don't believe me? Well, luckily science can back me up! In both the "The Science of Us" and "Science Alert" articles, several studies are mentioned discussing what our eyes can pick up that we don't consciously realize.  In fact, research has shown that the our eyes take in, analyze, and react to information "beyond what's processed by our visual cortex - that part of the brain responsible for conscious vision and mapping out our view of the world."

For example, there was a study published in 2013 which looked at a male individual, referred to as "TN". TN was cortically blind. What's this mean? Well, his eyes were in technical working order, but his visual cortex had been damaged, so it can't provide 'sight', at least not in the traditional sense. Although someone who has this condition cannot see what's around them, their brain is still receiving information from their eyes - so, even though he can't see like someone who has fully intact eyes, his brain can still act on information received from his brain.

The study itself tested TN's ability to perceive the world. So, he was shown pictures and his brain activity was recorded. These scientists noticed that there was increased activity in his amygdala "when people in the pictures were looking directly at him."

See, I don't know about you but for some reason...that gives me the heebie jeebies.

According to ScienceAlert, "The amygdala is the part of the brain that prompts our sense of fear and other emotions, and handles facial recognition." And, the article aptly questions "Could it be that our brains are trained to subconsciously recognize someone staring at us, even if it's only in our peripheral vision?"

So, maybe sometimes it is our feeling that we believe we're being watched because, well, humans are self-centric...but could it also be because our eyes are alerting us that there is more than meets our conscious eye? 

What do you think about this feeling? Have you ever felt like this? 

 

The above image is from Flickr user Axel Naud and is liscensed under creative commons.

Biology vs. Physics

Now, I'm usually not one to pit the sciences against each other...but something new has recently come to light. Many of us have believed that it was a fluke of biology that life came into existence, but biophysicist Jeremy England, and those who have studied his work, argue that another branch of science might just be responsible: physics. 

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Boiled down as succinctly as possible. Dr. England posits that the inevitable outcome of thermodynamics was the creation of life.

Diving in a bit deeper, this can be understood if we take everything back to the atom. Groups of atoms will naturally restructure themselves in order to burn more and more energy. This burn facilitates the "incessant dispersal of energy and rise of entropy or disorder in the universe." According to Dr. England, this constant and growing restructuring effect will eventually foster the growth of more and more complex structures, including life.

Dr. England has been working on proving and further detailing this theory since 2013. Earlier this summer, he had two very important publications in "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" and "Physical Review Letters". These publications bring to light some of the most persuasive evidence for his theory that has existed to date.

However, these findings do not yet solidify Dr. England's story, in fact this theory is quite controversial within the scholarly landscape. 

Dr. Eugene Shakhnovich, a former professor of Dr. England's acknowledges England's intellect and capability in the field, but disagrees. Dr. Shakhnovich goes as far as saying that Dr. England's linkages to his work in the lab and the theory of life are “pure and shameless speculations.” He, instead, says that Dr. England's work shows us something concrete...but not necessarily how life evolved. "What Jeremy is showing is that as long as you can harvest energy from your environment, order will spontaneously arise and self-tune.” But, perhaps this order was a necessary step to the creation of life. 

Dr. Sara Walker, a theoretical physicst who is also an "origins of life" specialist further poked at Dr. England's theory saying, that life is more distinguished and “requires some explicit notion of information that takes it beyond the non-equilibrium dissipative structures-type process.” For example, Dr. Walker says that the ability to respond to information is an integral part of life: “We need chemical reaction networks that can get up and walk away from the environment where they originated.”

In light of this criticism, according to Wired.com, it appears that Dr. England is wary of conclusions being jumped to. Dr. England says in regards to his recent findings that “In the short term, I’m not saying this tells me a lot about what’s going in a biological system, nor even claiming that this is necessarily telling us where life as we know it came from.”

But notice that he says "in the short term", which seems to suggest with further research he might just be able to prove his theory after-all.

 

The above image is liscensed under creative commons 2.0 and comes from Flickr user Feline DaCat.

300,000 Year-Old Homo Sapien fossils Discovered

In early June paleoanthropologists (yes - an even cooler title than plain old paleontologist!) re-dated and realized some of the oldest Homo sapien fossils ever found had been discovered in the 1960s in Jebel Irhoud.

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The fossils, as well as some artifacts, have been dated to around 300,000 years old and were discovered in Morocco. Why is this important? Well it could push the inception of our species back an extra 100,000 years earlier than originally thought. According to leading experts and discoveries made in the field, modern humans as we know them evolved around 200,000 years ago. But the new fossils shift that window in back to 300,000 years.

Let's go back to that cool word I mentioned in the first sentence...paleoanthropologists. What is a paleoanthropologist? And how are they different from a paleontologist? Well paleoanthropology is the study of the formation and the development of the specific characteristics of humans. It dates back to the 18th century, but has begun playing a more and more major role in our understanding of us in recent years, especially with the advent of more effective technology and dating techniques. 

Let's talk about where these beings were found. They were found in Jebel Irhoud. Jebel Irhoud was not a novel place to find remains, in fact some bodies were originally discovered by miners in the 1960s, but were (as we know now) incorrectly identified as 40,000 year-old Neanderthals.

But...Jean-Jacques Hublin, of the Max Planck Institute, wasn't quite satisfied with this conclusion. In fact, he believed the skull shapes were all wrong for Neanderthals and actually more closely resembled early humans from abut 150,000 years ago. 

This was the beginning of a long road for Hublin though. At the time conventional wisdom in the field held that early humans evolved in East Africa. With that fact understood, it would make no sense that an even earlier human could be found in North Africa.

This started in the 1980s...and he didn't let go of it for decades. Finally, in 2004, he was able to find 5 different Homo sapiens were found: 3 adults, 1 adolescent, and 1 child, preserved in clay. He got lucky again because the remains were burned. Now, you might think damaged remains would be a bad thing, right? Well, not when it comes to dating. The burn allowed for thermoluminescence dating. Long story short, this technique is able to test to see how much  radiation an object has absorbed since it was last heated, thus providing a strong baseline for dating.

The ability to use thermoluminescence dating, which were backed up further by electron spin resonance dating (from the remaining teeth enamel) confirmed Hublin's original theory: the specimens were early humans dating back to 300,000 years ago. 

Hublin and his team began calling these remains  "early Homo sapiens." In an e-mail to Ars Technia, Hublin clarified that they aren't modern humans, but instead "representative of populations directly ancestral to us."

According to Richard Potts, who directs the Smithsonian Institution’s Human Origins Program, in an email to the Washington Post he described the new findings to have “small faces shaped distinctively like modern humans, although the brain pans fall outside the range of humans alive today." But, he added, this isn't a big deal “so do several other clearly fossil Homo sapiens from Africa and Europe,” he said.  Comparing these with facial position on known human skulls from Ethiopia, Potts said, “I think we have a good instance of early Homo sapiens from Irhoud.” Additionally, a similar jaw and "modern chin" that all modern humans share are found in this. They also found proof of use of tools and other artifacts. 

The above image is of Jean-Jacques Hublin at Jebel Irhoud and is liscensed under creative commons and wikimedia commons. The image was taken by Shannon McPherron, MPI EVA Leipzig.

Why Do Some People Get Attacked By Mosquitos More Than Others?

Living in D.C. means I'm highly subject to mosquitos because of the warm and humid climate. After living in a sometimes swamp-esque place, I've noticed some of my friends get bit more frequently than others. Even if we're in the same place, a few of us always come out with more bites than others. Why is that?

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Lab studies show that roughly 20% of people are yummier than others, at least for mosquitos. In particular, those with higher metabolic rates produce more carbon dioxide, and carbon dioxide is what attracts mosquitos in the first place. Not to mention, Lactic acid (which is produced when you exercise), acetone (a chemical released in via breath), and estradiol (product of estrogen). People who produce a lot of these, for example pregnant women, are more likely to get bitten.

Additionally, it is important to note that mosquitos are surprisingly visual creatures. Mosquitos typically choose their victims based on sight first. If you're looking to escape the outdoors unscathed, try to avoid wearing dark colors like black, navy blue, red stand out. 

Blood type also plays a big part in what can attract mosquitos to you. Mosquitos do not eat blood for sustenance, but rather for a protein the females need to develop their eggs. In one study, mosquitoes landed on people with Type O blood nearly twice as often as those with Type A. 

Bacteria can also be tantalizing to certain mosquitos. Scientists have found that having large amounts of a few types of bacteria made skin more appealing to mosquitoes. This is why you so often get bites around your feet and ankles - they find your foot bacteria yummy.

I also have some bad news for those who like having a drink outside. Having a 12-ounce beer can make you more delectable. However, it's a bit of a mystery why it attracts mosquitos more , though. Researchers once thought it was because it raised body heat or made the body secrete ethanol. However, it was discovered that neither of these correlated.

Recent studies also seem to suggest that what compels mosquitos might not be as lucrative as finding out what repels them. For example, perhaps people who receive less bites produce chemicals on their skin that make them more repellant, or even cover up smells that mosquitoes might normally find attractive. Figuring out this could mean less bites for everyone.

The above image is from wikimedia commons and was created by 根川大橋 it is liscensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Google's AI Remains Undefeated

AlphaGo is a "narrow AI" developed by Google's DeepMind to specifically play the ancient game "Go." In October 2015 it made history for the first time by being the first and only computer program to beat a human at the game Go. Go is an "abstract strategy board game" with two players and is roughly 2,500 years old. Why pick Go? Well, despite its seemingly simple appearance it is more complicated than chess and has more possibilities than the total number of atoms in the universe. So, you can see why it is the perfect test for an AI. 

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Well, AlphaGo recently made history again! Just last week, May 2017, AlphaGo won its second game against a human - Ke Jie, a 19 year-old Chinese man. He lost a three game match with AlphaGo. According to the developers at DeepMind, who watched the match with great scrutiny, Ke Jie came the closest anybody has to beating AlphaGo. In fact, his first 50 or so moves were almost perfect!

Demis Hassabis went as far as tweeting "What an amazing and complex game! Ke Jie pushed AlphaGo right to the limit."

Ke narrowly lost the first match and was even a little shaken up about the loss. However, by the second game onlookers noticed he had loosened up a bit, although he still seemed wary of the machine which he described as "godlike" in its game playing abilities.

AlphaGo, with this victory, continues its legacy as the best Go player in the world. No one to challenge it, even the champions of the game, have been able to beat it. 

This isn't the end of testing AlphaGo, though. Later on it will be tested as part of a human team against two other Go players, having to work in tandem with its human teammate. This will be done in an effort to teach AlphaGo how to better work with humans, as well as understand their decision making in the realm of Go.

What does this mean for the future of AI? Clearly, all this time, money, and news coverage aren't just for technology that is better than humans at board games. It is important to note how powerful AlphaGo is. In fact many in the AI industry believed that a "Go program as powerful as AlphaGo was at least five years away." This shows us that AI technology is progressing at a faster rate than previously thought possible. The development, programming, and team behind AlphaGo show just how intensive and powerful the field of AI is.

It's also important to understand that while this is impressive, AlphaGo can only play Go and does not have general purpose intelligence. It doesn't have common sense or autonomy or, well, will. AlphaGo is completely under human control and has no capabilities of defecting to a different purpose. So, there is no need to be scared yet...just remember to stay informed.

 

The above image was taken by wikimedia user Donarreiskoffer and is liscensed Creative Commons 3.0

Have You Ever Had Wordnesia?

Have you ever written or typed a word, one you've typed a million times before, and suddenly been struck by how odd it is spelled or how weird it looks? Don't worry - that's totally normal. And, there's even a word for it: Wordnesia!

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The problem is directly tied to the issue that arises when you can't spell a simple word, or when very familiar words suddenly seem like flummoxing entities you can't just get quite right. There is a down side: we don't know why it happens. Typically, though, it doesn't seem to be a major side effect of anything alarming and is, more or less, common and fleeting. 

Matthew J.X Malady, who has been researching the glitch ever since he couldn't remember how to spell "project", interviewed Charles A Weaver III, a a psychology and neuroscience professor at Baylor University to try and get to the bottom of this strange phenomena. 

The first thing one should realize, according to Dr. Weaver, is that while we read we have a very practiced part of our brain that responds more or less automatically. This explains why, most of the time, we can still get through reading something that has spelling mistakes. 

But where does Dr. Weaver think this strange issue stems from? "My guess, in the phenomenon you’re talking about, is that, very briefly, the automatic parts hit a speed bump and go, ‘that can’t be right." Think of kind of like breathing or blinking. You do it constantly without thinking twice about it. But, the moment that you think about blinking or breathing, it suddenly becomes the focus of what you're doing and causes some disruptions in the automatic part.

Basically, "anytime that you engage conscious monitoring of those parts that ought to be automatic, you get a hiccup," says Dr. Weaver. So, when you brain hiccups while reading or writing, you suddenly forget how to write words you've written a million times without thinking.

I should also mention that, while writing this blog post, I have stopped multiple times and misspelled many common words including, but not limited to: misspelled, blinking, and automatically. Weird how that goes, huh?


The above image is from Flickr user popofatticus and is liscensed under creative commons 2.0. 

 

An Entire Town is the Subject of a HUGE Sleep Experiment

Bad Kissingen appears to be like any other small resort town in Barvaria. With a population of 20,000 it is sizable and almost impossible to imagine that all of its residents are the subject of tinkering chronobiologists. Chronobiologists study the cyclical phenomena in living organisms, and their adaptations to solar and lunar related rhythms. Although not necessarily focused on sleep alone, Chronobiologists also investigate other biological rhythms, development, reproduction, ecology, and evolution among others.

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Okay, so what does this have to do with Bad Kissingen? Well, Thomas Kantermann wrote a book called, "Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World" , which has some petty interesting ideas about sleep. A team of scientists and Kantermann are conducting a civic experiment with the goal of promoting optimal sleep. Kantermann has nicknamed the city "Chrono City". 

But, how can someone monitor, analyze, and improve an entire town's sleep? Well, residents of the town are first equipped with a wearable devices with a sophisticated app that tracks sleep in relation to a wide array of waking variables, from diet to social activities. According to the scientists the goal is to gather "significant insights into the interactions between chronobiology and the manifold structures of the society....[and then] to design innovative and directly applicable solutions" to sleep issues.

So we answered, what and how...but what about why? Well Kantermann and his team would then analyze the collected data to make important decisions based on our cyclical time - like when school starts or work ends. In fact, there have even been talks about rigging the town's light or handing out "intelligent alarm clocks" (whatever those are). 

Although this project is still underway, it is a massive undertaking that I believe will allow them to make interesting conclusions about how we structure our lives, especially when one considers we spend 1/3 of it asleep.

However, this strange experiment is not without its hurdles. Benjamin Reiss, a writer for Popular Science, doubts how useful these conclusions will be, and how effective the changes made because of them will be. He further explains that he thinks they are fixing a, for lack of a better metaphor, broken system with broken tools. The inclusion of alarm clocks, no matter how smart they may be, is one thing that broke the sleep cycle in he first place. Not to mention the use of all-seeing screens, mountains of data, and even apps concerned with productivity. 

Personally, when i first began reading about Kantermann and his ideas i found them enchanting. However, Reiss brings up important points - won't all this new data and tracking lead to stress and concern about how one's data is being produced....thus leading to negatively affected sleep schedules.

I still stick with what I said earlier in this post - hat I believe i will allow them to make interesting conclusions about how we structure our lives. I remain wary of how the data has the potential to be skewed due to added stress/general weirdness and what tools they would use to improve it. However, if everyone consents...why not find out more about sleep and cycle?

The above picture is from Flickr user Maria Morri and is liscensed under creative commons 2.0.

Giant Underground Crystals are Harboring a Secret

This is big news, despite the seemingly diminutive size of the findings. These small creatures, who feed on iron, sulfur and other chemicals, have been found trapped inside enormous crystals deep inside a cave in the Naica mine in the northern state of Chihuahua, Mexico. What’s even more astonishing? These microbial life-forms are thought to be new to science.

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Researchers who came across these organisms find that they have remained active, even though they have remained “slumbering” for thousands and thousands of years. If they are correct, it stands that life of this planet can withstand even more intense locations, time, and circumstances than scientists previously concluded.

Penelope Boston, the director of NASA Astrobiology Institute, said in a statement, “This has profound effects on how we try to understand the evolutionary history of microbial life on this planet.”

Why is NASA involved, you may ask. Well, a better understanding of our world can help us better understand other worlds. While drilling into our own world, and while exploring distant planets some day, we must be aware that microorganisms and microbial lifeforms are far more pervasive and tough. It is likely that this discovery could affect things in the short-term, as well as the long term. This may lead to increased sterilization of spacecraft, for example.

Boston puts this quote compellingly when she notes, “How do we ensure that life-detection missions are going to detect true Mars life or life from icy worlds rather than our life?”

Part of what makes this finding so special is that no one knows, at least for sure, how long life of any kind can survive when dormant. Even sleeping or dormant organisms need food eventually, or else their cells will start to degrade.

However, there is a theory that it is possible that the organisms from within the crystals are eking out a meager living using the limited energy sources in the fluids in which they were found, such as by eating dead microbes.

As for next steps? Boston says, diplomatically, “Since I have stepped into a NASA management role now, my time for science is quite limited,” Boston says. The microbes her team collected, she adds, are “a precious resource, and we want to make it available to other folks. There’s still a lot of work to do to infer anything about their history and movement and genetic relations.”

The above image is from Flickr user StoreBukkeBruse and is not a picture of the mines or of the specific crystals found in the mine.

Have We [Almost] Invented an Invisibility Cloak?

The idea of invisibility invades almost every facet of our culture. From depictions of super heroes with the power of invisibility to turn-of-phrases like "to be a fly on the wall..." , there is something intoxicating about the idea of being unseen. But, is science ready to make this fantasy a reality? Link

Researchers at Queen Mary University of London claim they are getting closer to creating an actual material that can objects appear invisible. Rather than actually making something invisible, though, it is more of a "cloaking" device. It uses a nanocomposite medium to make raised objects appear flat. It utilizes seven distinct layers with electric properties and, through this, hide an object that would have caused surface waves to be scattered.

The results were published in Scientific Reports on June 17th in a piece called "Surface Wave Cloak from Graded Refractive Index Nanocomposites" which you can check out here.

Though eavesdropping might be an added, fun benefit, the research is aimed to have a more practical application in the fields of enigneering, optics, and acoustics, or, really, anything relating to electromagnetic surface waves.

The best news? The manufacturing process is, allegedly, "inexpensive and highly reproducible"...though this process/material hasn't been revealed to us, yet.

The above picture is from Flickr User Jon Gosier and is licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

The Permafrost is Melting...and Life Forms are Waking Up

Sound like an episode of the X-Files? It might as well be. After several millennia dozens of ancient viruses, bacteria, plants, and yes, even animals are being 'woken up' after being (naturally) cryogenically frozen. link

For a quick refresher, what the heck is cryofreezing any way? Well, it's a little more than what science fiction makes it out to be. It is a real, natural processes that has unbelievable preservative powers. And the results are stunning. Scientists have had success in the last few years, even bringing and budding flowers that were cryogenically frozen.

Cryogenically frozen organic material acts like an interesting window into the world of the past. But, unlike a window, they're not just for looking out of. Through analyzing these ancient remnants, scientists may be able to learn about how species will cope with change in the future. Not to mention, the melting of the permafrost has helped created a new field of  science: resurrection ecology.

It may even give the ability to recreate evolution and evolutionary processes in years or months instead of thousands of years and millennia. Being able to compare current structures to their permafrost cousins could allow for this to happen.

Not to mention, through this, we may be able to help endangered or near-endangered species gain a genetic upper-hand through the study of evolutionary processes.

This photo comes from Flickr user Gabriel Caparó and is licensed under creative commons.

Why Sentient Machines Might be Disappointing

Despite countless movies, books, and even scientific studies...digital computers may forever be incapable of supporting human-like consciousness. link

It is well known that public expressions of the concern over the possible apocalyptic scenarios prompted by sentient machines are nothing new. But those worry-warts may not have anything to worry about. Consciousness is believed by many to be a biological phenomenon. Though, like a computer, neurons communicate with one another in a binary fashion by exchanging electrical signs but, unlike a computer, brains contain a host of analogue cellular, molecular, biochemical, and electrostatic processes, forces, and reactions.

However, there are still those who disagree with the idea of further pursuing sentient A.I. The big guns who are afraid aren't anyone to laugh at, either. The ranks include Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and even Bill Gates who believe that further research will yield self-aware A.Is all too eager to kill us.

Intentional behavior from A.I will, undoubtedly, require a mind. Intentionality stems from authentic beliefs, desires, motivations, and experience. A.I that includes these features are often known as 'Strong Artificial Intelligence' - an A.I that includes a full range of human cognitive abilities. On the other side of the spectrum, there is 'Weak Artificial Intelligence' which contains 'non-sentient' A.I. which run on digital computer programs and have no mind, subjective awareness, or even agency. Weak A.I. may seems to experience the world as we do, and they may even display intelligent behavior...but it is limited due to a lack of a mind and, thus, consciousness.

All current A.I. are Weak A.I.

The question is...can that change?

This picture is from Flickr User Dick Thomas Johnson and is licensed under Creative Commons.

Human-Animal Hybrids are Growing Organ Transplants

Currently, there are over 120,000 Americans alone who are on the list to get an organ transplant. To meet this high demand for organs such as liver and hearts, scientists have begun experimenting growing these organs inside animals via the addition of human stem cells. Mainly, the research has focused on pig and sheep embryos. Link

It is not leap of logic to guess that this research is extremely controversial. Not only that, but we don't know much about the effects of human organs grown in animals.

But the bigger worry is the instability of human stem cells. Human stem cells have the tendency to specialize and multiply and risk giving the animal human characteristics which could range from physical features...to intelligence.

However, many research labs are moving forward with this research. New technologies are making it possible to genetically engineer pigs and sheep so that they can't develop certain tissue and organs. So what? Well that's how scientists would inject human stem cells into the embryos of such animals and allow the stem cells to grow into the missing human organ, which would then be harvested.

This picture is from the Flickr Account University of Liverpool Faculty of Health & Life Sciences and is licensed under Creative Commons.

 

 

Can We Regenerate the Brains of the Dead (and NOT have a zombie apocalypse)?

All you doomsday preppers might want to speed up production on your underground bunkers because there is a new trial to see if it is possible to regenerate the brains of the dead. Jokes aside, this important trial has finally won approval from healthcare watch dog groups and is on its way. Dr. Himanshu Bansal, in collaboration with Revita Life sciences and Bioquark Inc, has been granted permission to recruit 20 patients who have been declared clinically dead due to a traumatic brain injury. Link

It is called the ReAnima Project and recruitment has already begun. Scientists will use several therapies, like injecting the brain with stem cells, that have shown to bring patients out of comas. The trial participants, currently, are only alive via life support. Brain imaging equipment will monitor them for several months using brain imaging equipment to look for any sign of regeneration in the upper spinal cord, which controls independent breathing and heartbeat.

The team hypothesizes that the brain stem cells may be able to erase their damaged history and re-start life giving processes again. Dr. Ira Poastor, ceo OF Bioquark Inc.,has said "We hope to see resuls within the first two o three months."

Of course, there are skeptics. Among them is Dr. Dean Burnett, a neuroscientist from the University of Cardiff's Centre for Medical Education, has said: "Saving individual parts might be helpful but it's a long way from resurrecting a whole working brain, in a functional, undamaged state.”

This image is from Flickr User Neil Conway and is licensed under Creative Commons.