Month: July 2018

Genetic Engineering to Clash With Evolution

Genetic Engineering to Clash With Evolution

In a crowded auditorium at New York’s Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in August, Philipp Messer, a population geneticist at Cornell University, took the stage to discuss a powerful and controversial new application for genetic engineering: gene drives. Gene drives can force a trait through a population, defying the usual rules of inheritance. A specific trait ordinarily has a 50-50 chance of being passed along to the next generation. A gene drive could push that rate to nearly 100 percent. The genetic dominance would then continue in all future generations. You want all the fruit flies in your lab to have light eyes? Engineer a drive for eye color, and soon enough, the fruit flies’ offspring will have light eyes, as will their offspring, and so on for all future generations. Gene drives may work in any species that reproduces sexually, and they have the potential to revolutionize disease control, agriculture, conservation and more. Scientists might be able to stop mosquitoes from spreading malaria, for example, or eradicate an invasive species. The technology represents the first …

Finding links between the Standard Model of particle physics and the octonions

Finding links between the Standard Model of particle physics and the octonions

In 2014, a graduate student at the University of Waterloo, Canada, named Cohl Furey rented a car and drove six hours south to Pennsylvania State University, eager to talk to a physics professor there named Murat Günaydin. Furey had figured out how to build on a finding of Günaydin’s from 40 years earlier — a largely forgotten result that supported a powerful suspicion about fundamental physics and its relationship to pure math. The suspicion, harbored by many physicists and mathematicians over the decades but rarely actively pursued, is that the peculiar panoply of forces and particles that comprise reality spring logically from the properties of eight-dimensional numbers called “octonions.” As numbers go, the familiar real numbers — those found on the number line, like 1, π and -83.777 — just get things started. Real numbers can be paired up in a particular way to form “complex numbers,” first studied in 16th-century Italy, that behave like coordinates on a 2-D plane. Adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing is like translating and rotating positions around the plane. Complex …

Discovering gravitational waves from neutron stars

Discovering gravitational waves from neutron stars

Rumours have been swirling for weeks that scientists have detected gravitational waves – tiny ripples in space and time – from a source other than colliding black holes. Now we can finally confirm that we’ve observed such waves produced by the violent collision of two massive, ultra-dense stars more than 100m light years from the Earth. The discovery was made on August 17 by the global network of advanced gravitational-wave interferometers – comprising the twin LIGO detectors in the US and their European cousin, Virgo, in Italy. It is hugely important, not least because it helps solve some big mysteries in astrophysics – including the cause of bright flashes of light known as “gamma ray bursts” and perhaps even the origins of heavy elements such as gold. As a member of the LIGO scientific collaboration, I was immediately in raptures as soon as I saw the initial data. And the period that followed was definitely the most intense and sleep deprived, but also incredibly exciting, two months of my career. The announcement comes just weeks after three scientists were awarded the Nobel …

Time to look closer to home

Time to look closer to home

Immigration is at the heart of the Brexit debate. It’s a large reason why economic arguments have failed to sway voters. Despite warnings of the high economic costs of leaving the EU (warnings supported by a majority of economists), immigration has continued to have a powerful influence – and is perhaps the major reason why the opinion polls have become so close in recent weeks. The immigration debate is quite polarised. On one side, the Remain campaign either ducks the issue or focuses on the benefits that immigration brings to the economy as a whole. On the other side, the Leave camp focuses on its costs and plays into fears (often in a cruel and cynical way) that migrants are putting pressure on public services that are already at breaking point. At least among Labour supporters intending to vote leave, immigration also appears to be a key issue. The need for a more even-handed assessment of the costs and benefits of immigration is sorely needed. While immigration brings undoubted benefits, it also places pressures on particular communities. It also feeds a sense of …

Trying to understand perception by understanding neurons

Trying to understand perception by understanding neurons

When he talks about where his fields of neuroscience and neuropsychology have taken a wrong turn, David Poeppel of New York University doesn’t mince words. “There’s an orgy of data but very little understanding,” he said to a packed room at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in February. He decried the “epistemological sterility” of experiments that do piecework measurements of the brain’s wiring in the laboratory but are divorced from any guiding theories about behaviors and psychological phenomena in the natural world. It’s delusional, he said, to think that simply adding up those pieces will eventually yield a meaningful picture of complex thought. He pointed to the example of Caenorhabditis elegans, the roundworm that is one of the most studied lab animals. “Here’s an organism that we literally know inside out,” he said, because science has worked out every one of its 302 neurons, all of their connections and the worm’s full genome. “But we have no satisfying model for the behavior of C. elegans,” he said. “We’re missing something.” …

Challenges of keeping the masses moving

Cities worldwide face the problems and possibilities of “volume”: the stacking and moving of people and things within booming central business districts. We see this especially around mass public transport hubs. As cities grow, they also become more vertical. They are expanding underground through rail corridors and above ground into the tall buildings that shape city skylines. Cities are deep as well as wide. The urban geographer Stephen Graham describes cities as both “vertically stacked” and “vertically sprawled”, laced together by vertical and horizontal transport systems. People flow in large cities is not only about how people move horizontally on rail and road networks into and out of city centres. It also includes vertical transport systems. These are the elevators, escalators and moving sidewalks that commuters use every day to get from the underground to the surface street level. Major transport hubs are where many vertical and horizontal transport systems converge. It’s here that people flows are most dense. But many large cities face the twin challenges of ageing infrastructure and increased volumes of people flowing through transport …

Emerging Markets Under Pressure

Emerging markets have come under a bit of pressure recently, with the combination of the dollar’s rise and higher U.S. ten year rates serving as the trigger. The Governor of the Reserve Bank of India has—rather remarkably—even called on the U.S. Federal Reserve to slow the pace of its quantitative tightening to give emerging economies a bit of a break. (He could have equally called on the Administration to change its fiscal policy so as to reduce issuance, but the Fed is presumably a softer target.) Yet the pressure on emerging economies hasn’t been uniform (the exchange rate moves in the chart are through Wednesday, June 13th; they don’t reflect Thursday’s selloff). That really shouldn’t be a surprise. Emerging economies are more different than they are the same. With the help of Benjamin Della Rocca, a research analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, I split emerging economies into three main groupings: Oil importing economies with current account deficits Oil importing economies with significant current account surpluses (a group consisting of emerging Asian economies) And …

Why believe the “ten-percent myth” Human Brain usage?

Why believe the “ten-percent myth” Human Brain usage?

You may have heard that humans only use ten percent of their brain, and that if you could unlock the rest of your brainpower, you could do so much more. You could become a super genius, or acquire psychic powers like mind reading and telekinesis. This “ten-percent myth” has inspired many references in the cultural imagination. In the 2014 movie Lucy, for example, a woman develops godlike powers thanks to drugs that unleash the previously inaccessible 90 percent of her brain. Many people believe the myth, too: about 65 percent of Americans, according to a 2013 survey conducted by the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. In another study that asked students what percentage of the brain people used, about one third of the psychology majors answered “10 percent.” Contrary to the ten-percent myth, however, scientists have shown that humans use their entire brain throughout each day. There are several threads of evidence debunking the ten-percent myth. Neuropsychology Neuropsychology studies how the anatomy of the brain affects someone’s behavior, emotion, and cognition. Over the years, brain …

Peru ends conversation of ‘roadless wilderness’ in its Amazon rainforests

Biodiversity reaches its zenith in south-east Peru. This vast wilderness of 2m square km of rainforests and savannahs is formed of the headwaters of three major river basins, the Juruá, Purús, and Madeira. Nowhere on Earth can you find more species of animals and plants than in this corner of the Amazon that rubs up against the feet of the towering Andean mountains. These forests are also home to a culturally diverse human population, many of whom still live in voluntary isolation from the rest of humanity. In 2012 I spent a hectic few days in the exhausting Madre de Dios region, literally Spanish for “Mother of God”. I was there at the invitation of the Peruvian tourist board, which wanted to raise awareness of the region’s potential. In the lush lowland rainforests our team of ornithologists recorded more than 240 bird species in a few hours. These included the Rufous-fronted Antthrush, a near-mythical sighting among birders and one of a number of vertebrate species discovered by scientists there in the second half of the …

When Milky Way Collided With a Dwarf Galaxy

When Milky Way Collided With a Dwarf Galaxy

As the Milky Way was growing, taking shape, and minding its own business around 10 billion years ago, it suffered a massive head-on collision with another, smaller galaxy. That cosmic cataclysm changed the Milky Way’s structure forever, shaping the thick spirals that spin out from the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s core. Two new studies — one published earlier this month, another still under peer review — describe the evidence for this previously unnoticed event. “This is a big step forward,” said Elena D’Onghia, an astrophysicist at the University of Wisconsin who is unaffiliated with the new research. “It’s interesting because we can finally see what the history of the Milky Way is.” To uncover evidence of the collision so many eons later, astronomers have to work like galactic archaeologists, sifting through myriad sources of surviving information to piece together a story consistent with the available evidence. Both research teams relied on data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia space telescope, which has spent years gathering exceptionally rich biographies of millions of stars — …