TagMad Science

The Search for Extraterrestrial Life Forms That Eat Stars

Maddie Stone reports for Vice Motherboard:

Dr. Clement Vidal, who’s a researcher at the Free University of Brussels, along with Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology Stephen Dick, futurist John Smart, and nanotech entrepreneur Robert Freitas are soliciting scientific proposals to seek out star-eating life. Vidal, who coined the term starivore in a paper he wrote in 2013, is the first to admit how bizarre it sounds. Yet he insists that some of the most profound scientific discoveries have come about by examining natural processes through a radically different lens.

“Newton did not discover new gravitational bodies: He took a different perspective on a phenomena and discovered new things exist,” Vidal told me. “It might well be that extraterrestrial intelligence is already somewhere in our data. Re-interpreting certain star systems as macroscopic living things is one example.”

Full Story: The Search for Starivores, Intelligent Life that Could Eat the Sun

Report: Solar Power Will Soon be as Cheap or Cheaper Than Conventional Electricity

Bloomberg on a Deutsche Bank report on solar energy prices:

Even if the tax credit drops to 10 percent, solar will soon reach price parity with conventional electricity in well over half the nation: 36 states. Gone are the days when solar panels were an exotic plaything of Earth-loving rich people. Solar is becoming mainstream, and prices will continue to drop as the technology improves and financing becomes more affordable, according to the report.

Full Story: Bloomberg: While You Were Getting Worked Up Over Oil Prices, This Just Happened to Solar

Given the current grid’s struggles to keep up with demand, this can’t happen soon enough.

Gut–brain link could shed light on mental health

Nature reports:

Companies selling ‘probiotic’ foods have long claimed that cultivating the right gut bacteria can benefit mental well-being, but neuroscientists have generally been sceptical. Now there is hard evidence linking conditions such as autism and depression to the gut’s microbial residents, known as the microbiome. And neuroscientists are taking notice — not just of the clinical implications but also of what the link could mean for experimental design. […]

The evidence that probiotics affect human behaviour “is minimal to say the least”, Mazmanian acknowledges. Still, he says, a growing number of researchers are starting to look at some mental illnesses through a microbial lens.

Full Story: Nature: Gut–brain link grabs neuroscientists

Previously:

Networks, Bacteria, and the Illusion of Control

Can Bacteria Make You Smarter?

Humans Are Really Just Biomechanical Suit-Cities For Bacteria

Electric shock study suggests we’d rather hurt ourselves than others

How about some positive news before the long weekend? Science magazine reports:

If you had the choice between hurting yourself or someone else in exchange for money, how altruistic do you think you’d be? In one infamous experiment, people were quite willing to deliver painful shocks to anonymous victims when asked by a scientist. But a new study that forced people into the dilemma of choosing between pain and profit finds that participants cared more about other people’s well-being than their own. It is hailed as the first hard evidence of altruism for the young field of behavioral economics.

Full Story: Science: Electric shock study suggests we’d rather hurt ourselves than others

Neurosexism: Brains, Gender and Tech

Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett, authors of The New Soft War on Women, once again debunk the idea that there are important neurological differences between men and women:

Baron-Cohen based his ideas on a study done in his laboratory of day-old infants, male and female. He claimed that boy babies looked at mobiles longer, while girl babies looked at faces longer. Based on this study, Parents magazine informed its readers, “Girls prefer dolls [to blocks and toys] because girls pay more attention to people while boys are more enthralled with mechanical objects.”

But Baron-Cohen’s study had major problems. It was an “outlier” study. No one else has replicated these findings, including Baron-Cohen himself. It is so flawed as to be almost meaningless.

Full Story: Re/code: Neurosexism: Brains, Gender and Tech

Should we engineer animals to be smart like humans?

Mojo Jojo meditating

Science fiction writer Tim Maughan reports on the real science of making animals smarter:

In 2011, a research team led by Sam Deadwyler of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, used five rhesus monkeys to study the factors that lead people with diseases like Alzheimer’s to lose control of their thought processes. The researchers trained the monkeys in an intelligence task that involved learning and identifying images and symbols. They were then given doses of cocaine in order to dull their intelligence and made to repeat the test, with predictably less impressive results.

What happened in the next stage of the research was remarkable. The same monkeys were fitted with neural prosthetics – brain implants designed to monitor and correct the functions of the neurons disabled by the cocaine. These implants successfully restored normal brain function to the monkeys when they were drugged – but crucially, if they were activated before the monkeys had been drugged, they improved the primates’ performance beyond their original test results. The aim of the experiments was to see whether neural prosthetics could theoretically be used to restore decision-making in humans who have suffered trauma or diseases such as Alzheimer’s – but as far as these specific tests were concerned at least, the brain prosthetics appeared to make the monkeys smarter.

Full Story: BBC: Should we engineer animals to be smart like humans?

While the obvious answer to that question is “hell no,” Tim points out that the medical research research motivations may make smarter animals an inevitability. He dives deeper into the ethical questions in the article.

More by Tim:

#burgerpunk

Zero Hours

Ebola patients buying survivors’ blood from black market, WHO warns

It doesn’t get much more biopunk than this:

As hospitals in nations hardest hit by Ebola struggle to keep up, desperate patients are turning to the black market to buy blood from survivors of the virus, the World Health Organization warned. […]

Blood from survivors, referred to as convalescent serum, is said to have antibodies that can fight the deadly virus. Though the treatment is unproven, it has provided some promise for those fighting a disease that’s killing more than half of those it has infected.

Full Story: CNN: Ebola patients buying survivors’ blood from black market, WHO warns

The Next Stage for Google’s Quantum Computing Efforts

New from me at Wired:

Google launched its Quantum A.I. Lab last year to test a machine called the D-Wave Two, an intriguing but controversial system that its makers bill as a quantum computer, and it believes quantum computing could play a key role in so many of its future ambitions, from self-driving cars and other robots to better predictive analytics systems for products like Google Now to things we haven’t even dreamed up yet. Thanks to what’s called the superposition principle of quantum mechanics, it could process data for such projects at speeds that are exponentially faster than what you get from today’s machines.

But the scientific community has greeted the D-Wave machine with skepticism, questioning whether the machine is actually a quantum computer at all, and whether it can actually provide something you can’t get from conventional machines. In joining Google, Martinis lends new weight to the company’s quantum ambitions.

Full Story: Wired: The Man Who Will Build Google’s Elusive Quantum Computer

These tiny scorpions would like to perform an important inspection of your old book collection, please

Book scorpion

Scientific American reports on the horrifying ecosystem of old books:

Book scorpions are the best/worst thing to happen to books, because book scorpions! But also book scorpions…

Properly known as pseudoscorpions, these tiny, tiny creatures have a fondness for old books, because old books also happen to contain delicious booklice and dust mites. And they’re really not book scorpions… at all because they can’t hurt us, and they’ve basically been performing a free pest control service since humans started stacking excessive numbers of dusty, bound-together piles of paper along our walls and nightstands. This arrangement works because old book-makers used to bind books using a starch-based glue that booklice and dust mites love, so without a healthy population of book scorpions patrolling your collection, those gross parasites are probably having a horrible, silent field-day chewing them all apart.

Full Story: These tiny scorpions would like to perform an important inspection of your old book collection, please

(via Matt Staggs)

What exactly goes on in the brain of a writer?

The New York Times reports on fMRI studies on what exactly goes on in the brain while people write. The first version of the study was conducted with amateur writers. The second was conducted with experienced creative writers. The researchers found that there were differences between the brain regions used while brainstorming and actually writing, and between the amateurs and professionals. But not everyone is impressed with the research:

Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, was skeptical that the experiments could provide a clear picture of creativity. “It’s a messy comparison,” he said.

Dr. Pinker pointed out that the activity that Dr. Lotze saw during creative writing could be common to writing in general — or perhaps to any kind of thinking that requires more focus than copying. A better comparison would have been between writing a fictional story and writing an essay about some factual information.

Full Story: New York Times: This Is Your Brain on Writing

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