Tuesday, July 07, 2020

science news 7.7.2020

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.



astrobiology

Study: Dying stars breathe life into Earth
As dying stars take their final few breaths of life, they gently sprinkle their ashes into the cosmos through the magnificent planetary nebulae. These ashes, spread via stellar winds, are enriched with many different chemical elements, including carbon. Findings from a study published today in Nature Astronomy show that the final breaths of these dying stars, called white dwarfs, shed light on carbon's origin in the Milky Way.


earth

First direct evidence of ocean mixing across the gulf stream


evolution

A tiny ancient relative of dinosaurs and pterosaurs discovered
I'd just call it a tinysaur.



Illustration of Kongonaphon kely, a newly described reptile near the ancestry of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, in what would have been its natural environment in the Triassic (~237 million years ago).
Credit: Alex Boersma


ecology

Desert algae shed light on desiccation tolerance in green plants

Colony-level genetics predict gentle behavior in Puerto Rican honey bees


light and life

New study resolves mystery surrounding unique light-harvesting structures in algae
specifically: a supercomplex consisting of PSI with specific FCPs (PSI-FCPI) from a marine centric diatom Chaetoceros gracilis.
The paper is on open access

To quench or not to quench: Understanding the role of a cyanobacterial photosystem protein


biomedical

Common hypertension medications may reduce colorectal cancer risk
People who take angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors (ACE-i) or angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs) for conditions such as high blood pressure were less likely to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer after having a normal colonoscopy. This is the first study to show potential benefits on colorectal cancer development from these commonly prescribed hypertension medications, based on a study of more than 185,000 patients.


dystopian futures

New research reveals privacy risks of home security cameras

Researchers foresee linguistic issues during space travel
This is about subsequent interstellar travel groups shifting their languages in transit such that at the destination they won't understand each other. I don't think this is ever going to be a real problem - we'll have a babelfish (universal translation technology) long before we are able to travel to other stars.

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From the news media:

The Guardian also has the story of the tinysaur

Monday, July 06, 2020

covid communications

Covid-19 challenges the whole world in multiple ways, but possibly the most important crunch points are at the science communication / policy interface, because this is where failures lead to bad decisions, and bad decisions cost lives. Many thousands of lives.

I'm trying not to be parochial, ie not to give the UK perspective undue preference when writing about global issues, but in this case the UK happened to be one of the most outstanding examples, namely on how not to do communications in a public health crisis. So I'm afraid there is quite a lot about the UK's bungled Covid-19 response and science/policy/communications muddle in my feature, but other countries are also mentioned sometimes. And positive examples of good communications also get a shoutout.

As all the content of Cell Press journals relating to Covid-19, this is appearing on open access, but I have also been sent a magic link. So if open access doesn't work for you or stops working within the first seven weeks, try that.


Communicating science in a crisis



Current Biology Volume 30, Issue 13, 06 July 2020, Pages R737-R739

Free access to full text and PDF download
(Should be open due to Covid-19 publication policy, but if this changes, it will become open access again one year after publication)

Magic link for free access

(first seven weeks only)




When to wear face protection has been one of the many issues on which conflicting and changeable information has been given to the general public. (Photo: Engin_Akyurt/Pixabay.)

Saturday, July 04, 2020

the music instinct

some thoughts on

The music instinct: how music works and why we can’t do without it
Philip Ball
Bodley Head 2010 / Vintage Paperback 2011


To me the most important message from Ball’s book is the realisation just what an incredibly complex process it is to listen to music and to recognise it as something that you connect with, as opposed to a collection of random sounds. As 96 % of the general population (all who don’t have a physiological impairment stopping them) have this amazing ability, the assumption that only a minority can learn to make music, though widely held in Western society, is completely untenable, as Ball notes in his preface. Most of us have the music instinct, and many of those who have it don’t really use it to make music, claiming as an excuse that they aren’t musical or even tone-deaf (as some 17% claimed in a survey cited – the real number is 4%) . Even though they happily sing along with the radio.

For more details of how our music instinct works and just how amazing it is that even young children with no music education can build expectations of what might come next (expectations being a very important part of why we enjoy music), there are 400 more pages with comprehensive details from neuroscience through to ethnomusicology. Those who make music and wonder how it works should read it. I should have read it earlier. For those who don’t make music or deal with it much, the details and examples may be a bit much, I imagine. Maybe they should, after the preface, go away and start making some noise, and come back to the book later? Just an idea.

But as a warning, anybody who tells me they’re not musical will have this book thrown at them forcefully.



This paperback cover is more colourful than but otherwise using the same design as the hardback which I picked up from an Oxfam shop some time last year.

Friday, July 03, 2020

science news 3.7.2020

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.



astrobiology

Unprecedented ground-based discovery of two strongly interacting exoplanets


evolution

The secret double life of histone H3 as a copper reductase enzyme
In a study that takes another look at histones' origins, researchers report these proteins, known for DNA-packing, may have evolutionary roots in early life in helping to maintain the use of metals like copper - fundamental for biological processes, but which became toxic to eukaryotes as they adapted to global oxygenation.


ecology

Twenty-year study tracks a sparrow song that went "viral" across Canada
PR includes video with the very lovely sparrow song, both old and new version.



This image shows a white-throated sparrow.
Credit: Scott M. Ramsay

Climate change threat to tropical plants
Half of the world's tropical plant species may struggle to germinate by 2070 because of global warming, a new UNSW study predicts.



Covid-19

Newer variant of COVID-19-causing virus dominates global infections

Study supports link between COVID-19 and "COVID Toes"

Evolution of loss of smell or taste in COVID-19
This survey-based study examines the clinical course of the loss of sense of smell and taste in a case series of mildly symptomatic patients with SARS-CoV-2 infection.


sustainability

Global threats: How lessons from COVID-19 can prevent environmental meltdown
COVID-19, climate emergencies, and mass extinction all share striking similarities, especially with regard to their 'lagged impacts.' In each, early intervention can prevent further damage.


humans

Fans love musicians' personalities as much as their music
I guess we all knew that anyway ...

(US) States with highest income inequality experienced a larger number of COVID-19 deaths


dystopian futures

Science fiction becomes fact -- Teleportation helps to create live musical performance


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From the news media:

An interesting long read from William Davies on how WhatsApp is breeding conspiracy theories and extremism.

Monday, June 29, 2020

stop the killing

Open Archive Day


We are already causing a mass extinction by taking up more space than any other species, but some peopl aren't content with that and feel the primeval urge to go out and kill some animals to speed the extinctiona along. I have had a couple of features on how humans are messing up biodiversity by killing the wrong kinds of animals (eg top predators like sharks and tunas) and how the industrialisation of the oceans is threatening the megafauna that survives there.

Last year's hunting feature was mainly an appeal to stop the killing, and to that purpose I rounded up examples of species threatened by hunting on land, in water and in the air. The feature is now in the open archives:

Hunting wildlife to extinction



Hunting of large animals continues to diminish the natural biodiversity with knock-on effects going far beyond the species targeted. (Photo: Save-Elephants/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).)

Saturday, June 27, 2020

according to Bach

In the fourth month of the Plague Year Bach Project I managed to memorise the Sarabande from the first suite. At 16 bars total length, this movement is reasonably gentle on the poor old brain cells, but I had to get my head around the chords, which are plentiful and essential. Turns out they are all fairly normal, inoffensive chords, such as G major, C major, A minor, D major. Nothing I can't handle. I'm not entirely sure I understand the concept of a sarabande though - to me it feels like a glacier sliding down a mountain slope, so I don't quite feel the beat or imagine people dancing to it.

So onwards to the Courante (1.3), which has a scary number of notes at a scary speed, but also a bit more of a catchy tune. Wish me luck.

Resources for this movement:

A slow version from Cellopedia is a helpful starting point as the fingerings are clearly visible at all times. And he plays at a speed that even I can manage (at the end of July, once I've learned the notes).

For a more engaging performance at the proper speed, try this recording from Denise Djokic.

And then consider the helpful hints from Inbal Segev. She's done a short tutorial (or two in some cases) for every single movement.

I'm also adding these videos to my youtube playlist "cello repertoire".



Loving the quarantine coiffure - picture taken in June.

Revision list (newest addition first)

1.4 Sarabande
1.6 Gigue
1.5 Minuet I&II
3.5 Bourree I&II

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

science news 23.6.2020

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.



astrobiology

Life in the galaxy: maybe this is as good as it gets?
Researchers have found that rocky exoplanets which formed early in the life of the galaxy seem to have had a greater chance of developing a magnetic field and plate tectonics than planets which formed later. As both these conditions are considered favourable to the development of life, this means that if life exists in the Galaxy, it may have developed earlier than later, and that planets formed more recently may have less chance of developing life.

Evidence supports 'hot start' scenario and early ocean formation on Pluto


evolution

Undergraduate student discovers 18 new species of aquatic beetle in South America


conservation

Helping to protect the most illegally trafficked mammals in the world
i.e. pangolins:



This is a pangolin.
Credit: Tim Wacher, ZSL


food and drink

Not so robust: robusta coffee more sensitive to warming than previously thought


environment

Study: Planting new forests is part of but not the whole solution to climate change

When planting trees threatens the forest

New study reveals use of antibiotics on crops is more widespread than previously thought

Human-derived mercury shown to pollute the world's deepest ocean trenches

Research in land plants shows nanoplastics accumulating in tissues


humans

Climate change and the rise of the Roman Empire and the fall of the Ptolemies
The assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March in 44 B.C.E. triggered a 17-year power struggle that ultimately ended the Roman Republic leading to the rise of the Roman Empire. To the south, Egypt, which Cleopatra was attempting to restore as a major power in the Eastern Mediterranean, was shook by Nile flood failures, famine, and disease. A new study reveals the role climate change played in these ancient events.


A man who can't see numbers provides new insight into awareness




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From the news media:


Smelly durian fruit forces evacuation of Bavarian post office, reports the Guardian


Monday, June 22, 2020

forests feel the heat

Around the world, people are planting trees and fighting to stop deforestation in the hope that the carbon capturing magic of forests might save us from the worst of the climate disaster we're causing. But what if the forests themselves can't stand the heat? In my latest forest-y feature I looked at a new paper that found some resilience but also a new tipping point for tropical forests, and also at forests that are already dying from causes related to climate change, eg in Germany.

The feature is out now:

Forests in a warming world


Current Biology Volume 30, Issue 12, 22 June 2020, Pages R677-R679

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access one year after publication)

Magic link for free access

(first seven weeks only)



Dying forests in the Harz mountains, Germany, in 2019. (Photo: Hugh Llewelyn/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).)

Friday, June 19, 2020

science news 19.6.2020

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.



astrobiology

Are planets with oceans common in the galaxy? It's likely, NASA scientists find


evolution

New Argentine fossils uncover history of celebrated conifer group
Newly unearthed, surprisingly well-preserved conifer fossils from Patagonia, Argentina, show that an endangered and celebrated group of tropical West Pacific trees has roots in the ancient supercontinent that once comprised Australia, Antarctica and South America, according to an international team of researchers.


conservation

African lion counts miss the mark, but new method shows promise
The current technique used for counting lion populations for research and conservation efforts doesn't add up, according to a University of Queensland researcher. But UQ PhD candidate Mr Alexander Braczkowski has been investigating new methods of photographing and data analytics to count lions that could be more widely used. "African lions receive immense publicity and conservation attention," Mr Braczkowski said."Yet their populations are thought to have experienced a 50 per cent decline since 1994 - coincidentally the same year Disney's The Lion King was released."



A young male lion rests in the branches of a large euphorbia tree. These trees are cactus-like but contain a poisonous milky latex. It does not seem to bother the lions.
Credit: Alex Braczkowski


nanoworld

New research shows tiny, decoy 'sponges' attract coronavirus away from lung cells


biomedical

The origins of measles: Virus diverged from cattle-infecting relative earlier than thought in history
The measles virus diverged from a closely related cattle-infecting virus in approximately the sixth century BCE - around 1,400 years earlier than current estimates - according to a new study of dozens of measles genomes.
Ooops. I always thought it was older than that, from early agriculture.


food and drink

Uncovering the genetic basis of hermaphroditism in grapes, the trait that allowed domestication
Plant experts at UC Davis have defined the genetic basis of sex determination in grapevines, one of the oldest and most valuable crops worldwide. In new research Dario Cantu and Mélanie Massonnet propose a novel model of sex evolution before and during grapevine domestication nearly 8,000 years ago. Their work could have broad application in breeding grapes and other plant species.


humans

Neandertal genes in the petri dish
Protocols that allow the transformation of human induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) lines into organoids have changed the way scientists can study developmental processes and enable them to decipher the interplay between genes and tissue formation, particularly for organs where primary tissue is not available. Now, investigators are taking this technology and applying it to study the developmental effects of Neandertal DNA.

Scientists decode how the brain senses smell



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From the news media:

Thursday, June 18, 2020

science news 18.6.2020

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.



evolution

First egg from Antarctica is big and might belong to an extinct sea lizard
An analysis led by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin has found that a mysterious fossil discovered in 2011 is a giant, soft-shell egg from about 66 million years ago. Measuring in at more than 11 by 7 inches, the egg is the largest soft-shell egg ever discovered and the second-largest egg of any known animal.

Fish evolution in action: Land fish forced to adapt after leap out of water
See also my feature from January on the evolutionary switches of locomotion mechanism including transition of fish to land:


ecology

A changing mating signal may initiate speciation in populations of Drosophila mojavensis
When choosing a mate, females of different subspecies of Drosophila mojavensis recognize the right mating partners either mainly by their song or by their smell. New species apparently evolve when the chemical mating signal is altered and when, in turn, the signal is reinterpreted by the opposite sex in the context of other signals, such as the courtship song.

Red squirrels making comeback in Ireland as return of pine marten spells bad news for invasive grey squirrel



The number of red squirrels is on the increase in Ireland thanks to the return of the pine marten, a native carnivore, a new survey led by NUI Galway has found.
Credit: Poshey Aherne


conservation

Arctic Ocean acidification worse than previously expected


food and drink

Latest findings on bitter substances in coffee


humans

A Neandertal from Chagyrskaya Cave
the 3rd high-quality Neanderthal genome


Envy divides society
Can class differences come about endogenously, i.e. independent of birth and education? Professor Claudius Gros from the Institute for Theoretical Physics at Goethe University pursued this issue in a game theoretical study. He was able to show that the basic human need to compare oneself with others may be the root cause of the formation of social classes.




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From the news media:

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

science news 17.6.2020

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.



astrobiology

As many as six billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy, according to new estimates


evolution

Australian fossil reveals new plant species
Fresh examination of an Australian fossil -- believed to be among the earliest plants on Earth -- has revealed evidence of a new plant species that existed in Australia more than 359 Million years ago.

ecology

Overlooked: The role of bacterial viruses in plant health
not quite overlooked, see my phages feature from 2011, featuring work of Britt Koskella and others.

Wildfires cause bird songs to change

Cattle vs. hippopotamus: Dung in rivers of the Savannah
In many regions of the world, populations of large mammalian herbivores have been displaced by cattle breeding, for example in Kenya the hippos by large herds of cattle. This can change aquatic ecosystems due to significant differences in the amount and type of dung input. Researchers from the University of Eldoret in Kenya, the University of Innsbruck and the Leibniz-IGB have therefore taken a closer look at the dung of hippopotamus and cattle.



Hippos in the Mara River in Kenya.
Credit: Gabriel Singer


conservation

Mangroves at risk of collapse if emissions not reduced by 2050, international scientists predict


nanoworld

Support drives fate of protected gold nanoclusters as catalysts

Scientists discover a long-sought-after nitrogen allotrope in black phosphorus structure

The smallest motor in the world
A research team from Empa and EPFL has developed a molecular motor which consists of only 16 atoms and rotates reliably in one direction. It could allow energy harvesting at the atomic level. The special feature of the motor is that it moves exactly at the boundary between classical motion and quantum tunneling -- and has revealed puzzling phenomena to researchers in the quantum realm.

A new family of nanocars ready for the next nano Grand Prix


biomedical

Flushing toilets create clouds of virus-containing particles
Solution: close the lid (problem: there may not be a lid)


humans

Seafood helped prehistoric people migrate out of Africa, study reveals

What do 'Bohemian Rhapsody,' 'Macbeth,' and a list of Facebook friends all have in common?
A new study shows how vastly complex communication networks can efficiently convey large amounts of information to the human brain. Researcher found that works of literature, musical pieces, and social networks have a similar underlying structure that allows them to share information rapidly and effectively.


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From the news media:

Monday, June 15, 2020

roots of religion

Open Archive Day

Last June's special issue of Current Biology was about cooperation and conflict - always a lot of that going on on this planet! - and my contribution was about the origins of religion, seeing that it has been the cause of both cooperation and conflict. Although right now, with so many other things to worry about, we hardly remember religious conflicts.

Anyways, my feature, along with the rest of this very interesting special issue is now in the open archives, which means free access for everybody, forever. Enjoy!

Uncovering the roots of religion



The Pancaraksa (five protections) is a Buddhist text written in Sanskrit. This copy in Ranjana script dates from 1653 CE. (Image: Wellcome Collection (CC BY 4.0).)


PS I was hoping to highlight a feature relevant to the recent historic events surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, but both features that spring to mind have already had their spotlight in this series:


Why do people riot
? (2011)

Can we change our biased minds? (2017)

Will write a new one as soon as I can think of a new angle ...
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