sciencehabit writes: It’s often said that the heavens run like clockwork. Astronomers can easily predict eclipses, and they can foretell to a fraction of a second when the moon passes in front of a distant star. They can also rewind the clock, and find out when and where these events happened in the past. But a new historical survey of hundreds of eclipses, some dating back to the 8th century B.C.E., finds that they aren’t as predictable as scientists thought. That’s because Earth’s spin is slowing down slightly. Not only that, the study also identifies short-term hiccups in the spin rate that have been missed by cruder models.
sciencehabit writes: Raw blueberries, bursting with vitamins and antioxidants, can also harbor the gut-ravaging human norovirus—a leading cause of foodborne illness from fresh produce. Now, scientists think they have found a way to sterilize blueberries without damaging the delicate fruit’s taste or texture: bathing them in purple plumes of plasma—a gas of ions made from just air and electricity. Plasma has an advantage over other sterilizing technologies like ultraviolet radiation, because the ionized gas can reach every nook in which norovirus might hide on the surface of the berries.
sciencehabit writes: Just lifting off the surface of Earth and landing on another planet is bad enough. But how intense are the dangers of actually traveling in space? Science Magazine ticks off the top 5 dangers of space travel, from shrinking spines to mutiny to space fungus.
sciencehabit writes: There’s an abundant new swath of cosmic real estate that life could call home – and the views would be spectacular. Floating out by themselves in the Milky Way galaxy are perhaps a billion cold brown dwarfs, objects many times as massive as Jupiter but not big enough to ignite as a star. According to a new study, layers of their upper atmospheres sit at temperatures and pressures resembling those on Earth, and could host microbes that surf on thermal updrafts.
The idea expands the concept of a habitable zone to include a vast population of worlds that had previously gone unconsidered. “You don’t necessarily need to have a terrestrial planet with a surface,” says Jack Yates, a planetary scientist at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, who led the study.
sciencehabit writes: Building a quantum computer has gone from a far-off dream of a few university scientists to an immediate goal for some of the world’s biggest companies. Tech giants Intel, Microsoft, IBM, and Google are all plowing tens of millions of dollars into quantum computing, which aims to harness quantum mechanics to vastly accelerate computation. Yet the contenders are betting on different technological horses: No one yet knows what type of quantum logic bit, or qubit, will power a practical quantum computer. Google, often considered the field’s leader, has signaled its choice: tiny, superconducting circuits. Its group has built a nine-qubit machine and hopes to scale up to 49 within a year—an important threshold. At about 50 qubits, many say a quantum computer could achieve “quantum supremacy” and do something beyond the ken of a classical computer, such as simulating molecular structures in chemistry and materials science, or solving problems in cryptography. Small startup company ionQ, a decided underdog, is sticking with its preferred technology: trapped ions.
sciencehabit writes: A simple observation of an extremely dim star may point to, literally, the biggest manifestation of weird quantum phenomena yet. Light from a lonely neutron star 400 light-years away is polarized, just like light reflecting off a pond, a team of astronomers reports. This suggests that, as predicted, the neutron star's ultraintense magnetic field is distorting empty space through a quantum mechanical effect involving ghostly “virtual” particles lurking in the vacuum—the sort of thing usually seen only on the atomic scale.
sciencehabit writes: “Painful, bizarre, and wasteful experiments.” Buying dogs “just to cut them apart and kill them.” These statements might sound like the rhetoric used by extreme animal rights groups, but they come from White Coat Waste—a new, unlikely coalition of fiscal conservatives and liberal activists that aims to end federal funding for research involving dogs and other animals by targeting people’s pocketbooks in addition to their heartstrings. Last week, the group made its first foray into the political arena, holding a briefing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., for reporters and congressional staff. Speakers called on policymakers to launch an audit of the agencies that fund animal research, and depicted animal studies as another example of big government spending run amok.
“I can’t think of any right-wing groups that have taken on animal research before,” says Tom Holder, the director of Speaking of Research, an international organization that supports the use of animals in scientific labs. “It’s a new way to crowbar off policymakers who might not otherwise support” efforts to end the use of animals in research.
sciencehabit writes: We've all been there: You're waiting for your Uber or Lyft driver to pick you up. You've got just enough time to make your meeting. But then the ride gets canceled and now you're definitely going to be late. Did you just get turned down by a driver that is searching for better fares? The results of a massive study of taxi drivers in Beijing support that suspicion: Avoiding certain passengers based on their destination is profitable. As companies like Uber and Lyft become the de facto public transportation system in many places, this profit-motivated bias will leave some people stranded on the curb.
sciencehabit writes: Earlier this week, four U.S. states voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana, whereas four states made it legal as just a medicine. But as national tolerance grows for the drug, a new study suggests the marijuana in circulation bears little resemblance to what the government requires federally funded academics to use, a handful of special strains approved by the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse. The finding calls into the question the validity of dozens of studies based on the government-grown marijuana.
sciencehabit writes: A computer program has parsed the content of 2.5 million neuroscience articles, mapped all of the citations between them, and calculated a score of each author's influence on the rest to determine the most influential brain scientists of the modern era. The program, called Semantic Scholar, is an online tool built at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Seattle, Washington. It hopes to expand to all of the biomedical literature next year, over 20 million papers. The program sees much more than the typical academic search engine, says the project leader. "We are using machine learning, natural language processing, and [machine] vision to begin to delve into the semantics."
sciencehabit writes: For the ticklish among us, just the approach of wiggling fingers is enough to elicit squeals, if not screams. And it turns out we’re not the only ones. Now, a study in rats pinpoints the “tickle center” of the mammalian brain, showing for the first time that stimulating neurons in that region can elicit a paroxysm of ultrasonic squeaks, the rat version of human laughter. (Video too)
sciencehabit writes: In an effort to reduce the environmental impact of making and shipping reams of paper, researchers have developed a rewritable paperlike surface that can be printed and erased 40 times without a loss in resolution. The flexible membrane is made of tungsten oxide—used in “smart windows” that modulate the amount of sunlight and heat passing through—and a water-soluble polymer. The surface is “printed” by selectively exposing it to ultraviolet (UV) light, which causes the colorless tungsten oxide to turn blue. An immediate application, the scientists suggest, is to incorporate these membranes into fabric to create the ultimate in customizable clothing: a new logo or advertisement every time you go out.
sciencehabit writes: Since at least the 1960s, the shrinkage of the ice cap over the Arctic Ocean has advanced in lockstep with the amount of greenhouse gases humans have sent into the atmosphere, according to a study published this week in Science. Every additional metric ton of carbon dioxide (CO2) puffed into the atmosphere appears to cost the Arctic another 3 square meters of summer sea ice—a simple and direct observational link that has been sitting under scientists’ noses. If current emission trends hold, the study suggests the Arctic will be ice free by 2045—far sooner than some climate models predict. The study suggests that those models are underestimating how warm the Arctic has already become and how fast that melting will proceed. And it gives the public and policymakers a concrete illustration of the consequences of burning fossil fuels. For instance, a U.S. family of four would claim nearly 200 square meters of sea ice, based on U.S. emissions in 2013. Over 3 decades, that family would be responsible for destroying more than an American football field’s worth of ice.
sciencehabit writes: Imagine spending your whole life seeing the world in black and white, and then seeing a vase of roses in full color for the first time. That’s kind of what it was like for the scientists who have taken the first multicolor images of cells using an electron microscope. Electron microscopes can magnify an object up to 10 million times, allowing researchers to peer into the inner workings of, say, a cell or a fly’s eye, but until now they’ve only been able to see in black and white. The new advance—15 years in the making—uses three different kinds of rare earth metals called lanthanides (think top row of that extra block below the periodic table) layered one-by-one over cells on a microscope slide. The microscope detects when each metal loses electrons and records each unique loss as an artificial color.
sciencehabit writes: Last night, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, defeating the Cleveland Indians in the series’ seventh game and securing their first championship of Major League Baseball since 1908. The Cubs’ streak of 107 seasons without a championship was unparalleled in the four major North American sports: baseball, American football, basketball, and ice hockey. But as sports leagues continue to expand, the probability that some team or another team will suffer an equally long championship drought is growing right along with them. With 30 teams in the league, the probability that some team or another will fail to win the championship for 107 seasons in a row is a whopping 79.7%. In fact, the Cleveland Indians have a decent chance of matching the Cubs’ feat. Cleveland hasn’t won in the 68 seasons since 1948. Assuming all teams have equal chances of winning, then the probability that the Indians will continue to not win for another 39 years is 26.7%.