April 25th & 26th
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Abstract Submission Deadline: January 19th
What does it mean that digital technologies are increasingly a part of...
Scientists at the University of Darmstadt in Germany have stopped light for one minute. For one whole minute, light, which is usually the fastest thing in the known universe and travels at 300 million meters per second, was stopped dead still inside a crystal. This effectively creates light memory, where the image being carried by the light is stored in crystals. Beyond being utterly cool, this breakthrough could lead to the creation of long-range quantum networks — and perhaps, tantalizingly, this research might also give us some clues on accelerating light beyond the universal speed limit.
Frozen light is the key to interstellar travel?
Carl Zimmer reported recently on some interesting genetic research on dogs that tells us a great deal about their divergence from wolves, but also reflects back on the social mind of people.
Carl Zimmer, From Fearsome Predator to Man’s Best Friend
As they [Ya-Ping Zhang and others] reported on Tuesday [14 May 2013] in the journal Nature Communications, they found that the split started 32,000 years ago. Those early dogs would have encountered small bands of hunter-gatherers. People didn’t settle in villages to farm in East Asia until about 10,000 years ago.
After dogs split from wolves, their genes began to evolve in a new direction. Dr. Zhang and his colleagues were able to identify some of these evolving genes. A number of them, it turned out, are active in dog brains. (Dr. Zhang and some of his colleagues published some of these results last week in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.)
Some of the genes that evolved early in dog evolution are involved in smell or hearing. Others are active in a region called the prefrontal cortex, where mammals make decisions about how to behave. Some genes are involved in growing connections between neurons. One gene, called SLC6A4, transports a neurotransmitter called serotonin into neurons.
The results offer some tantalizing hints about how wolves first turned doglike. “The conventional view is that the hunter-gatherers go out and get a puppy,” said Chung-I Wu of the University of Chicago, an author of the Nature Communications study. If humans actually did breed early dogs this way, then dogs would have descended from a very small population.
That’s not what Dr. Wu and his colleagues have found, though. Instead, it appears that a large population of wolves started lingering around humans — perhaps scavenging the carcasses that hunters left behind.
In this situation, aggressive wolves would have fared badly, because humans would kill them off. Mellower wolves, by contrast, would thrive. If this notion turns out to be true, it means that we didn’t domesticate wolves — they domesticated themselves. SLC6A4 may have played a crucial part in this change, because serotonin influences aggression.
To test these ideas, Dr. Zhang and his colleagues are gathering DNA from more dogs and wolves. They also hope to collaborate with cognitive scientists to see how variants of genes like SLC6A4 affect the behavior of dogs today. Their results may also help explain human evolution, because Dr. Zhang and his colleagues found that some of the same genes that evolved in dog brains, such as SLC6A4, also experienced natural selection in human brains.
“Humans have had to tame themselves,” said Adam Boyko of Cornell University, one of Dr. Zhang’s collaborators on the Molecular Biology and Evolution study. “The process is probably similar to dogs — you have to tolerate the presence of others.”
Turns out that the Clan of the Cave Bear theory is wrong. We didn’t nab a mating pair of wolves and domesticate them. Instead, lots of dogs — large packs — hung around with hunter gathers, who gradually culled the more aggressive members of the packs, leaving those that were more docile and pretty soon, those that fared best were those more willing to cooperate with humans. After a short time, the proto-dogs are learning to behave, and perhaps being rewarded by squirts of serotonin in the brain when interacting with humans. This chemical leads to binding and trust when present in human brains.
The second part of the story also comes from Zimmer. Following the release of Ya-Ping Zhang’s paper, other researcher noticed that some of the genes being tracked in the study are related to serotonin production, but also on the list is MET, which is linked to cancers, but that’s not all.
Carl Zimmer, Another Link Between Dog Brains And Our Brains
One of the six cancer genes is called MET. “However,” Levitt wrote to me, “in 2006, my laboratory published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science on a mutation in the MET gene that increases risk for autism.” (Here’s the paper.) In fact, a variant of the MET gene is now recognized as one of the strongest genetic risks for autism.
Levitt and his colleagues have continued to study the gene to understand how it plays a role in autism. My fellow Phenomena blogger Virginia Hughes wrote last year about how Levitt and his colleagues discovered that it shapes the wiring connections between neurons. Not just any neurons, however. It’s most active in circuits in the brain that are involved in social and emotional behavior.
“I don’t believe it is a coincidence that both the serotonin transporter and MET are on the list,” says Levitt.
It’s not exceptional for a gene to be active in different parts of the body and to have different functions. Natural selection can spread a gene because one of those functions boosts survival and offspring, while the other function gets carried along for the ride. So scientists who want to know why MET evolved in both us and dogs will need to figure out how its protein changed in each species, and how that change affected its different incarnations. It’s conceivable that MET evolved as a defense against early cancers in both humans and dogs. It’s also conceivable that its transformation was crucial for the emergence of sociable people and dogs alike.
So, then, we have found that the same genes are linked to the foundation of human and canine sociability, although human sociability evolved earlier. But, perhaps there is a tantalizing glimpse of the evolution of how the social mind evolved in people, based on looking at what apparently happened with dogs. One group — nearly modern human hunter-gatherers — was decidedly social, and encounters a relatively non-social species — wolves — who began to wander with them, eating their leavings. The interaction leads to the wolves becoming dogs, because the humans kill the meanest canines, and exert an evolutionary pressure that selects for human-style sociality.
Imagine two hundred thousand years earlier, when one small band of early humans shared a collection of gene mutations, leading to enhanced sociality, like MET, SLC6A4, and others. (Note that this also led to a higher incidence of autism and cancer, as side effects.) Imagine that other, less social hominins might have trailed those early humans around, and the social humans might have exerted the same evolutionary pressures that we later directed on canines. We may have domesticated ourselves into being human, into being social. And maybe we aren’t finished yet.
Stanford researchers — Professor Shanhui Fan and graduate students Aaswath Raman and Eden Rephaeli — have developed a material suitable to be used as paneling on houses and buildings that reflects light so efficiently, it could passively replace air conditioning, as well as radiating heat in a way that will escape the Earth’s atmosphere.
The trick, from an engineering standpoint, is twofold. First, the reflector has to reflect as much of the sunlight as possible. Poor reflectors absorb too much sunlight, heating up in the process and defeating the goal of cooling.
The second challenge is that the structure must efficiently radiate heat (from a building, for example) back into space. Thus, the structure must emit thermal radiation very efficiently within a specific wavelength range in which the atmosphere is nearly transparent. Outside this range, the thermal radiation interacts with Earth’s atmosphere. Most people are familiar with this phenomenon. It’s better known as the greenhouse effect – the cause of global climate change.
The new structure accomplishes both goals. It is an effective broadband mirror for solar light – it reflects most of the sunlight. It also emits thermal radiation very efficiently within the crucial wavelength range needed to escape Earth’s atmosphere.
Radiative cooling at nighttime has been studied extensively as a mitigation strategy for climate change, yet peak demand for cooling occurs in the daytime.
The Stanford team has succeeded where others have come up short by turning to nanostructured photonic materials. These materials can be engineered to enhance or suppress light reflection in certain wavelengths.
The new device is capable of achieving a net cooling power in excess of 100 watts per square meter. By comparison, today’s standard 10-percent-efficient solar panels generate about the same amount of power. That means Fan’s radiative cooling panels could theoretically be substituted on rooftops where existing solar panels feed electricity to air conditioning systems needed to cool the building.
To put it a different way, a typical one-story, single-family house with just 10 percent of its roof covered by radiative cooling panels could offset 35 percent its entire air conditioning needs during the hottest hours of the summer.
Radiative cooling has another profound advantage over other cooling equipment, such as air conditioners. It is a passive technology. It requires no energy. It has no moving parts. It is easy to maintain. You put it on the roof or the sides of buildings and it starts working immediately.
This is an enormous breakthrough if it can be manufactured cost effectively.
A study in the journal Biological Psychiatry shows that mind-reading can be improved with a dose of oxytocin—a brain chemical often called the ‘love hormone’ because of its role in trust, friendship and bonding.
Researchers at Rostock University, led by Gregor Domes, tested 30 males’ mind-reading ability—how well they could infer the mental state of another person—after either a dose of oxytocin or a placebo. Mind-reading was tested using the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, where subjects looked at 36 pictures of a person’s eyes and tried to guess what emotion the eyes reflected
Domes found that subjects correctly identified the mood conveyed in the eyes more often after taking a dose of oxytocin as compared with placebo, regardless of which they took first.
This study highlights how we can manipulate our mind-reading ability. Just by taking a hormone, we can suddenly become more adept at picking up signals from people around us that alert us to their state of mind. Imagine taking this to a poker table.
As Domes writes in the article, “the ability to infer the internal state of another person [and then] adapt one’s own behavior is a cornerstone of all human social interactions.” We all have some ability to understand our peers’ emotional states by observing their actions, expressions, and words, but a change in our hormone levels can alter that ability.
- Joshua Gowin
A great overview of how online, communitarian, open science sites are transforming the wold of science journals, and research.
Thomas Lin via NYTimes.com
The system is hidebound, expensive and elitist, they say. Peer review can take months, journal subscriptions can be prohibitively costly, and a handful of gatekeepers limit the flow of information. It is an ideal system for sharing knowledge, said the quantum physicist Michael Nielsen, only “if you’re stuck with 17th-century technology.”
Dr. Nielsen and other advocates for “open science” say science can accomplish much more, much faster, in an environment of friction-free collaboration over the Internet. And despite a host of obstacles, including the skepticism of many established scientists, their ideas are gaining traction.
Open-access archives and journals like arXiv and the Public Library of Science (PLoS) have sprung up in recent years. GalaxyZoo, a citizen-science site, has classified millions of objects in space, discovering characteristics that have led to a raft of scientific papers.
On the collaborative blog MathOverflow, mathematicians earn reputation points for contributing to solutions; in another math experiment dubbed the Polymath Project, mathematicians commenting on the Fields medalist Timothy Gower’s blog in 2009 found a new proof for a particularly complicated theorem in just six weeks.
And a social networking site called ResearchGate — where scientists can answer one another’s questions, share papers and find collaborators — is rapidly gaining popularity.
The web is subversive and corrosive to established power configurations, and now is the time for the scientific journal oligopoly to crash.
February 2012 will see the debut of Arc, a bold new digital publication from the makers of New Scientist.
Arc will explore the future through cutting-edge science fiction and forward-looking essays by some of the world’s most celebrated authors – backed up with columns by thinkers and practitioners from the worlds of books, design, gaming, film and more.
Arc 1.1 is edited by Simon Ings, author of acclaimed genre-spanning novels The Weight of Numbers and Dead Water. Simon, who made his name with a trio of ground-breaking cyberpunk novels, is a frequent commentator on science, science fiction and all points in between.
“Arc is an experiment in how we talk about the future,” Simon explains. “We wanted to get past sterile ‘visions’ and dream up futures that evoke textures and flavours and passions.” The response, he says, has been amazing. “I feel like the dog that caught the car,” he says. “The appetite to be part of this project has been huge. Writers have seized the opportunity to showcase their thoughts, their dreams, their anxieties and their opinions about our future.”
For New Scientist editor Sumit Paul-Choudhury, Arc is an opportunity to explore new territory. “We’ve known for many years that our readers are fascinated by the future and all the possibilities it raises. But as a magazine of science fact, we can’t indulge that fascination very often,” he explains. “Arc will explore the endless vistas opened up by today’s science and technology. While it’s a very different venture from New Scientist, it will share its unique combination of intelligence, wit and charm.”
John MacFarlane, Online Publisher of New Scientist, says “I am thrilled to be involved in the launch of this new title. The combination of superb content and an innovative digital publishing model make for a very exciting project and I am sure a broad range of readers will love Arc.”
Arc 1.1 will be available from mid-February 2012 on iPad, Kindle and as a limited print edition.
This sounds interesting. Although science fiction authors might not be the best sources for actually predicting the future, they certain can write about it well.