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Submission + - Facebook study: Death can strengthen social networks for years after the event (

sciencehabit writes: The death of a friend or loved one brings people together in unexpected ways. But how long do those bonds last? A new study of thousands of friend networks on Facebook finds that even 2 years after someone dies, that person’s friends and acquaintances remain in tighter contact with each other than before. A greater understanding of how social networks recover after trauma could lend insight into how to strengthen them when they don’t.

Submission + - SPAM: Buried lasers will sense Earth's spin and quakes doing the twist

sciencehabit writes: Under the corn and wheat fields of Fürstenfeldbruck, a village 20 kilometers from Munich, Germany, is a buried inverted pyramid of concrete, steel pipes, and lasers, as deep as a three-story building. Last month, lasers began coursing around the edges of this structure, called Rotational Motions for Seismology (ROMY). By keeping the structure stable and measuring tiny changes in the lasers’ wavelengths, researchers can use ROMY to measure the twists and turns of Earth itself. And by sensing the weak rotations that accompany earthquakes, ROMY could pave the way for portable sensors that could herald a new field of rotational seismology.
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Submission + - Billion-dollar project would synthesize hundreds of thousands of molecules (

sciencehabit writes: Many people view chemistry as a mature field of research. But Martin Burke, a chemist at the University of Illinois in Champaign, believes chemistry is ready for a major new research initiative aimed at synthesizing the majority of natural products and their structural kin. This array of hundreds of thousands of small molecules made by microbes, plants, and animals impacts all aspects of modern life. Natural products and their chemical relatives represent more than half of all medicines, as well as dyes, diagnostic probes, perfumes, lotions, and so on. But isolating or synthesizing new natural products is slow, painstaking work. Two years ago Burke and his colleagues reported creating a machine capable of stitching together small building blocks to create a wide variety of natural products and related molecules. Now, a new analysis suggests that 75% of all natural product molecules could be synthesized by the machine if the community were to create just 1400 building blocks. Burke believes such an effort, including assembling building blocks into intermediate compounds and then folding them and tweaking them into their final structures, could cost $1 billion and take 20 years. But the payoff could be countless new medicines as well as a bevy of compounds for other uses.

Submission + - Physicists detect whiff of new particle at the Large Hadron Collider (

sciencehabit writes: For decades, particle physicists have yearned for physics beyond their tried-and-true standard model. Now, they are finding signs of something unexpected at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s biggest atom smasher at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland. The hints come not from the LHC’s two large detectors, which have yielded no new particles since they bagged the last missing piece of the standard model, the Higgs boson, in 2012, but from a smaller detector, called LHCb, that precisely measures the decays of familiar particles.

The latest signal involves deviations in the decays of particles called B mesons—weak evidence on its own. But together with other hints, it could point to new particles lying on the high-energy horizon. “This has never happened before, to observe a set of coherent deviations that could be explained in a very economical way with one single new physics contribution,” says Joaquim Matias, a theorist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona in Spain.

Submission + - Self-taught artificial intelligence beats doctors at predicting heart attacks (

sciencehabit writes: Doctors have lots of tools for predicting a patient’s health. But—as even they will tell you—they’re no match for the complexity of the human body. Heart attacks in particular are hard to anticipate. Now, scientists have shown that computers capable of teaching themselves can perform even better than standard medical guidelines, significantly increasing prediction rates. If implemented, the new method could save thousands or even millions of lives a year.

Submission + - With this new system, scientists never have to write a grant application again (

sciencehabit writes: Almost every scientist agrees: Applying for research funding is a drag. Writing a good proposal can take months, and the chances of getting funded are often slim. Funding agencies, meanwhile, spend more and more time and money reviewing growing stacks of applications.

That’s why two researchers are proposing a radically different system that would do away with applications and reviews; instead scientists would just give each other money. “Self-organized fund allocation” (SOFA), as it’s called, was developed by computer scientist Johan Bollen at Indiana University in Bloomington. When he first published about the idea in 2014, many people were skeptical. But interest appears to be growing, and thanks to the work of an enthusiastic advocate, ecologist Marten Scheffer of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, the Dutch parliament adopted a motion last year asking the country’s main funding agency, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO), to set up a SOFA pilot project.

Submission + - Does space heat up when you accelerate? Physicists to test controversial idea (

sciencehabit writes: More than 40 years ago, a leading relativity theorist made a surprising prediction. Whereas empty space should feel immeasurably cold to any observer gliding along at a constant speed, one who is accelerating, say because he's riding a rocket, would find empty space hot. This so-called Unruh effect seemed practically impossible to measure, but now four theorists claim they have devised a doable experiment that could confirm the underlying physics. Skeptics say it will do no such thing—but for contradictory reasons.

"The hope is that this will convince skeptics that the whole thing is coherent," says Stephen Fulling, a theoretical physicist and mathematician at Texas A&M University in College Station who was not involved in the work. But Vladimir Belinski, a theorist at International Network of Centers for Relativistic Astrophysics in Pescara, Italy, says, "The Unruh effect is nonsense, it's based on a mathematical mistake."

Submission + - New theory may explain the 'music of the meteors' (

sciencehabit writes: For centuries, some observers have claimed that shooting stars or meteors hiss as they arc through the night sky. And for just as long, skeptics have scoffed on the grounds that sound waves coming from meteors should arrive several minutes after the light waves, which travel nearly a million times faster. Now, scientists have proposed a theory to explain how our eyes and ears could perceive a meteor at nearly the same time. The hypothesis might also explain how auroras produce sound, a claim made by many indigenous peoples living at high latitudes

Submission + - Enceladus just became a top candidate for life elsewhere in Solar System (

sciencehabit writes: In 2005, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft spied jets of water ice and vapor erupting into space from fissures on Enceladus, evidence of a salty ocean beneath the saturnian moon’s placid icy surface. Now, it turns out that the jets contain hydrogen gas, a sign of ongoing reactions on the floor of that alien sea. Because such chemistry provides energy for microbial life on Earth, the discovery makes Enceladus the top candidate for hosting life elsewhere in the solar system—besting even Jupiter’s Europa, another icy moon with an ocean. “We didn’t see microbes,” says Hunter Waite, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, and the lead author of a study published this week in Science. “But we saw their food.”

Submission + - Even artificial intelligence can acquire biases against race and gender (

sciencehabit writes: One of the great promises of artificial intelligence (AI) is a world free of petty human biases. Hiring by algorithm would give men and women an equal chance at work, the thinking goes, and predicting criminal behavior with big data would sidestep racial prejudice in policing. But a new study shows that computers can be biased as well, especially when they learn from us. When algorithms glean the meaning of words by gobbling up lots of human-written text, they adopt stereotypes very similar to our own, including biases against women and minorities.

“Don’t think that AI is some fairy godmother,” says study co-author Joanna Bryson, a computer scientist at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom and Princeton University. “AI is just an extension of our existing culture.”

Submission + - New solar-powered device can pull water straight from the desert air (

sciencehabit writes: You can’t squeeze blood from a stone, but wringing water from the desert sky is now possible, thanks to a new spongelike device that uses sunlight to suck water vapor from air, even in low humidity. The device can produce nearly 3 liters of water per day, and researchers say future versions will be even better. That means homes in the driest parts of the world could soon have a solar-powered appliance capable of delivering all the water they need, offering relief to billions of people.

Submission + - Earthquake detectors can pick up helicopters, too (

sciencehabit writes: As their rotor blades spin, helicopters create a series of closely spaced pressure pulses that travel through the air to the ground below. These pulses appear merged as a single tremor, which can be picked up by seismometers up to 40 kilometers away, depending on topography and wind. Seismic tremors have already been recorded for other phenomena—including floods, mud flows, and icebergs—but this is the first time they have been detected for an aircraft. By measuring the changing frequency of the signals as the chopper passed each one, the researchers determined the approximate location, altitude, speed, and flight direction of the craft. With enough information on different helicopter specs, it might be possible to determine the model of chopper, the researchers say. And though the study looked only at helicopters, in principle the new approach could also track any rotor- or propeller-based craft, including drones.

Submission + - For the first time, scientists have untangled why shoelace knots fail (

sciencehabit writes: It’s the bane of tennis shoe wearers everywhere: No matter how tightly you tie your laces, they seem to come undone, often at the most inopportune time. Now, for the first time, scientists have untangled why shoelace knots fail, thanks to slow-motion video and a mechanical pendulum. The work also reveals the best knots to tie and could have implications for everything from surgery to new cancer drugs.

Submission + - Glowing bacteria detect buried landmines (

sciencehabit writes: More than 100 million landmines lay hidden in the ground around the world, but glowing bacteria may help us find them, according to a new study. The approach relies on small quantities of vapor released from the common explosive TNT. Previously, researchers engineered E. coli to glow green upon detection of DNT, a byproduct of TNT. In a study published in Nature Biotechnology today, the same team reports on a small field test with mines buried in sand and soil, whose triggering mechanisms were removed. The scientists loaded about 100,000 DNT-detecting bacterial cells into a single bead made of polymers derived from seaweed and sprinkled these beads over the landmine site at night. Twenty-four hours later, they used a laser to remotely detect and quantify fluorescing bacteria from 20 meters away, mapping the location of the landmines.

Submission + - New software can track many individuals in a crowd (

sciencehabit writes: In 2015, more than 2000 people died in a stampede during the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. In 2013, two terrorists deposited backpacks carrying bombs at the Boston Marathon and slipped away, leaving three spectators to die. If technology could in real-time track and analyze the movement of individuals in dense crowds, we might better predict dangerous pileups or spot suspicious behavior, saving many lives a year. A pair of researchers has just taken a large step in that direction, writing software that for the first time can track hundreds of people in a crowd simultaneously.

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