All posts filed under: Science

Science

Universe Got Its Bounce Back

Universe Got Its Bounce Back

Humans have always entertained two basic theories about the origin of the universe. “In one of them, the universe emerges in a single instant of creation (as in the Jewish-Christian and the Brazilian Carajás cosmogonies),” the cosmologists Mario Novello and Santiago Perez-Bergliaffa noted in 2008. In the other, “the universe is eternal, consisting of an infinite series of cycles (as in the cosmogonies of the Babylonians and Egyptians).” The division in modern cosmology “somehow parallels that of the cosmogonic myths,” Novello and Perez-Bergliaffa wrote. In recent decades, it hasn’t seemed like much of a contest. The Big Bang theory, standard stuff of textbooks and television shows, enjoys strong support among today’s cosmologists. The rival eternal-universe picture had the edge a century ago, but it lost ground as astronomers observed that the cosmos is expanding and that it was small and simple about 14 billion years ago. In the most popular modern version of the theory, the Big Bang began with an episode called “cosmic inflation” — a burst of exponential expansion during which an infinitesimal …

A Short Guide to Hard Problems

How fundamentally difficult is a problem? That’s the basic task of computer scientists who hope to sort problems into what are called complexity classes. These are groups that contain all the computational problems that require less than some fixed amount of a computational resource — something like time or memory. Take a toy example featuring a large number such as 123,456,789,001. One might ask: Is this number prime, divisible only by 1 and itself? Computer scientists can solve this using fast algorithms — algorithms that don’t bog down as the number gets arbitrarily large. In our case, 123,456,789,001 is not a prime number. Then we might ask: What are its prime factors? Here no such fast algorithm exists — not unless you use a quantum computer. Therefore computer scientists believe that the two problems are in different complexity classes. Many different complexity classes exist, though in most cases researchers haven’t been able to prove one class is categorically distinct from the others. Proving those types of categorical distinctions is among the hardest and most important …

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 …

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 …

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 — …

It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty?

It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty?

In the early days of independent India, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said, “It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty … of a rich country inhabited by starving people.” Would any head of state today voice this view? A 2013 poll recorded that only 36% of Americans had “a lot” of trust that the information they get from scientists is accurate and reliable. High-profile leaders, especially on the political right, have increasingly chosen to undermine conclusions of scientific consensus. The flash-points tend to be the “troubled technologies” – those that seem to threaten our delicate relationship with nature – climate change, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), genetic therapy and geo-engineering. The polarisation in these public debates constitutes an implicit threat to the quality of decisions that we must make if we are to ensure the future well-being of our planet and our species. When political colour trumps evidence-based science, we are in trouble. Could it be that this increasingly dangerous ambivalence towards science in politics is related to our continued misgivings over its cultural …

Disadvantaged family living in the United Kingdom

Disadvantaged family living in the United Kingdom

The UK has one of the widest attainment gaps in education within the developed world. This effectively means that if you are born in the UK to a family living in disadvantaged circumstances, you are much less likely to achieve your potential than your peers. And research shows it may take another 50 years to close this gap. Many young people who grow up in an area that is considered a “cold spot” of social mobility – like many of the UK’s seaside towns and former coal mining communities – are caught up in cycles of deprivation. This affects their aspirations, academic self-confidence and adult life choices. My recently published research looks at the realities of what it’s like to grow up in one of these areas. I spoke to 89 schoolgirls living in a former mining community – designated by the government to be within the UK’s worst 10% in terms of deprivation. In the community I looked at in my study, most men work locally, while women marry local men young, have children …

Your body, when stressed

Your body, when stressed

Stress is great. It makes us faster, stronger, more agile and our brains have better recall and flexibility. That’s why people are willing to put themselves in stressful work situations or engage in extreme sports. The problem is that uncontrolled, stress can leave us frozen to the spot and unable to think – something all too familiar for people having to speak in public or students sitting in the exam hall. Stress developed because it gives an evolutionary advantage. For early man, and with predators everywhere, food could be scarce and diseases prevalent. By understanding what is happening inside our bodies and why, we can learn to control stress and use it our advantage. Your body, when stressed When you’re feeling stressed, it’s a sign that your body is going into emergency mode. The turbo button is pressed, the engine of your body has roared into overdrive and you become superhuman. This means becoming ultra vigilant, able to react quickly and increase memory recall, and to remember every aspect of what you are seeing, hearing …

Antidepressants Cause Weight Gain?

Antidepressant medications can be hugely helpful—even life-saving—for those who suffer from certain types of mood disorders. But they can also sometimes cause people to gain a significant amount of weight. Not so helpful. Studies indicate that about 25% of the people who take antidepressant medications report significant weight gain. This is seen more commonly in those who take these drugs for six months or more, but it’s not uncommon for people to report gaining 8-10 pounds within just a few weeks of starting drug therapy. Either way, it’s a bummer. You can easily imagine that frustration and negative feelings about weight gain could cancel out whatever mood elevating benefits the drugs are delivering! Are Antidepressants Worth it? There’s also some controversy over how much these drugs are really helping the millions of people who are taking them. My friend Dr. Ellen Hendricksen of the Savvy Psychologist podcast reviewed some of the research on this in a recent episode of the Savvy Psychologist. According to Ellen, studies suggest that a lot of people get little to …