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Space

Methane-Based Life Possible On Titan 27

Posted by Soulskill
from the it's-life-jim-but-not-as-we-know dept.
Randym writes: With the simultaneous announcement of a possible nitrogen-based, cell-like structure allowing life outside the "liquid water zone" (but within a methane atmosphere) announced by researchers at Cornell (academic paper) and the mystery of fluctuating methane levels on Mars raising the possibility of methane-respiring life, there now exists the possibility of a whole new branch of the tree of life that does not rely on either carbon or oxygen for respiration. We may find evidence of such life here on Earth down in the mantle where "traditional" life cannot survive, but where bacteria has evolved to live off hydrocarbons like methane and benzene.
Science

Is That Dress White and Gold Or Blue and Black? 205

Posted by timothy
from the enoy-your-lovely-ochre-sky dept.
HughPickens.com writes Color scientists already have a word for it: Dressgate. Now the Washington Post reports that a puzzling thing happened on Thursday night consuming millions — perhaps tens of millions — across the planet and trending on Twitter ahead of even Jihadi John's identification. The problem was this: Roughly three-fourths of people swore that this dress was white and gold, according to BuzzFeed polling but everyone else said it's dress was blue. Others said the dress could actually change colors. So what's going on? According to the NYT our eyes are able to assign fixed colors to objects under widely different lighting conditions. This ability is called color constancy. But the photograph doesn't give many clues about the ambient light in the room. Is the background bright and the dress in shadow? Or is the whole room bright and all the colors are washed out? If you think the dress is in shadow, your brain may remove the blue cast and perceive the dress as being white and gold. If you think the dress is being washed out by bright light, your brain may perceive the dress as a darker blue and black.

According to Beau Lotto, the brain is doing something remarkable and that's why people are so fascinated by this dress. "It's entertaining two realities that are mutually exclusive. It's seeing one reality, but knowing there's another reality. So you're becoming an observer of yourself. You're having tremendous insight into what it is to be human. And that's the basis of imagination." As usual xkcd has the final word.
It would make the comments more informatively scannable if you include your perceived color pair in the title of any comments below.
Earth

We Stopped At Two Nuclear Bombs; We Can Stop At Two Degrees. 172

Posted by timothy
from the ok-but-where-to-buy-the-best-grazing-land dept.
Lasrick writes Dawn Stover writes in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that climate change is irreversible but not unstoppable. She describes the changes that are happening already and also those likely to happen, and compares what is coming to the climate of the Pliocene: 'Even if countries reduce emissions enough to keep temperatures from rising much above the internationally agreed-upon "danger" threshold of 2 degrees Celsius (which seems increasingly unlikely), we can still look forward to conditions similar to those of the mid-Pliocene epoch of 3 million years ago. At that time, the continents were in much the same positions that they are today, carbon dioxide levels ranged between 350 and 400 ppm, the global average temperature was 2 to 3 degrees Celsius higher than it is today (but up to 20 degrees higher than today at the northernmost latitudes), the global sea level was about 25 meters higher, and most of today's North American forests were grasslands and savanna.' Stover agrees with two scientists published in Nature Geoscience that 'Future warming is therefore driven by socio-economic inertia," and points the way toward changing a Pliocene future.
Mars

Adjusting To a Martian Day More Difficult Than Expected 128

Posted by Soulskill
from the not-as-bad-as-adjusting-to-a-neptunian-day dept.
schwit1 writes: Research and actual experience have found that adjusting to the slightly longer Martian day is not as easy as you would think. "If you're on Mars, or at least work by a Mars clock, you have to figure out how to put up with the exhausting challenge of those extra 40 minutes. To be exact, the Martian day is 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35 seconds long, a length of day that doesn't coincide with the human body's natural rhythms. Scientists, Mars rover drivers, and everyone else in the space community call the Martian day a "sol" to differentiate it from an Earth day. While it doesn't seem like a big difference, that extra time adds up pretty quickly. It's like heading west by two time zones every three days. Call it 'rocket lag.'"
Medicine

Banned Weight-loss Drug Could Combat Liver Disease, Diabetes 75

Posted by Soulskill
from the things-that-were-good-but-then-bad-but-then-good dept.
sciencehabit writes: A drug the U.S. government once branded "extremely dangerous and not fit for human consumption" deserves a second chance, a study of rats suggests. Researchers report (abstract) that a slow-release version of the compound reverses diabetes and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), an untreatable condition that can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Medicine

Surgeon: First Human Head Transplant May Be Just Two Years Away 204

Posted by samzenpus
from the brand-new-chassis dept.
HughPickens.com (3830033) writes "Michelle Star writes at C/net that Surgeon Sergio Canavero, director of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Italy, believes he has developed a technique to remove the head from a non-functioning body and transplant it onto the healthy body. According to Canavero's paper published in Surgical Neurology International, first, both the transplant head and the donor body need to be cooled in order to slow cell death. Then, the neck of both would be cut and the major blood vessels linked with tubes. Finally, the spinal cords would be severed, with as clean a cut as possible. Joining the spinal cords, with the tightly packed nerves inside, is key. The plan involves flushing the area with polyethylene glycol, followed by several hours of injections of the same, a chemical that encourages the fat in cell membranes to mesh. The blood vessels, muscles and skin would then be sutured and the patient would be induced into a coma for several weeks to keep them from moving around; meanwhile, electrodes would stimulate the spine with electricity in an attempt to strengthen the new nerve connections.

Head transplants has been tried before. In 1970, Robert White led a team at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, US, that tried to transplant the head of one monkey on to the body of another. The surgeons stopped short of a full spinal cord transfer, so the monkey could not move its body. Despite Canavero's enthusiasm, many surgeons and neuroscientists believe massive technical hurdles push full body transplants into the distant future. The starkest problem is that no one knows how to reconnect spinal nerves and make them work again. "This is such an overwhelming project, the possibility of it happening is very unlikely," says Harry Goldsmith."
Biotech

Xeroxed Gene May Have Paved the Way For Large Human Brain 91

Posted by samzenpus
from the look-at-the-big-brain-on-test-subject-35 dept.
sciencehabit writes Last week, researchers expanded the size of the mouse brain by giving rodents a piece of human DNA. Now another team has topped that feat, pinpointing a human gene that not only grows the mouse brain but also gives it the distinctive folds found in primate brains. The work suggests that scientists are finally beginning to unravel some of the evolutionary steps that boosted the cognitive powers of our species. "This study represents a major milestone in our understanding of the developmental emergence of human uniqueness," says Victor Borrell Franco, a neurobiologist at the Institute of Neurosciences in Alicante, Spain, who was not involved with the work.
Space

12-Billion-Solar-Mass Black Hole Discovered 135

Posted by Soulskill
from the go-big-or-go-home dept.
sciencehabit writes: A team of astronomers has discovered what is, in galactic terms, a monstrous baby: a gigantic black hole of 12 billion solar masses in a barely newborn galaxy, just 875 million years after the big bang. It's roughly 3000 times the size of our Milky Way's central black hole. To have grown to such a size in so short a time, it must have been munching matter at close to the maximum physically possible rate for most of its existence. Its large size and rate of consumption also makes it the brightest object in that distant era, and astronomers can use its bright light to study the composition of the early universe: how much of the original hydrogen and helium from the big bang had been forged into heavier elements in the furnaces of stars.
AI

The Believers: Behind the Rise of Neural Nets 45

Posted by samzenpus
from the back-in-the-day dept.
An anonymous reader writes Deep learning is dominating the news these days, but it's quite possible the field could have died if not for a mysterious call that Geoff Hinton, now at Google, got one night in the 1980s: "You don't know me, but I know you," the mystery man said. "I work for the System Development Corporation. We want to fund long-range speculative research. We're particularly interested in research that either won't work or, if it does work, won't work for a long time. And I've been reading some of your papers." The Chronicle of Higher Ed has a readable profile of the minds behind neural nets, from Rosenblatt to Hassabis, told primarily through Hinton's career.
Education

Argonne National Laboratory Shuts Down Online Ask a Scientist Program 103

Posted by samzenpus
from the ask-someone-else dept.
itamblyn writes In a surprising decision, Argonne National Laboratory has decided to pull the plug on its long-standing NEWTON Ask A Scientist Program. NEWTON is (soon to be was) an on online repository of science questions submitted by school children from around the world. A volunteer group of scientists contributed grade-level appropriate answers to these questions. For the past 25 years, a wide range of topics ranging have been covered, including the classic "why is the sky blue" to "is there way to break down the components of plastics completely into their original form". Over the years, over 20,000 questions have been answered. According to ANL, the website will be shut down permanently on 1 March. There is no plan to make the content available in an alternate form or to hand over stewardship to another organization. When contacted about transferring the repository to another institution or moving to a donation model, the response from ANL was simply: "Thank you again for all your support for Newton. Unfortunately, moving Newton to another organization is not a possibility at this time. Thank you again for your energy and support."
NASA

Ceres' Mystery Bright Dots May Have Volcanic Origin 28

Posted by samzenpus
from the stay-out-of-the-lava dept.
astroengine writes As NASA's Dawn mission slowly spirals in on its dwarf planet target, Ceres' alien landscape is becoming sharper by the day. And, at a distance of only 29,000 miles (46,000 kilometers), the robotic spacecraft has revealed multiple bright patches on the surface, but one of the brightest spots has revealed a dimmer bright patch right next door. "Ceres' bright spot can now be seen to have a companion of lesser brightness, but apparently in the same basin," said Chris Russell, of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and principal investigator for the Dawn mission. "This may be pointing to a volcano-like origin of the spots, but we will have to wait for better resolution before we can make such geologic interpretations."
Medicine

The Peculiar Economics of Developing New Antibiotics 243

Posted by samzenpus
from the killing-bugs dept.
HughPickens.com writes Every year at least two million people are infected with bacteria that can't be wiped out with antibiotics but the number of F.D.A.-approved antibiotics has decreased steadily in the past two decades. Now.Ezekiel J. Emanuel writes at the NYT that the problem with the development of new antibiotics is profitability. "There's no profit in it, and therefore the research has dried up, but meanwhile bacterial resistance has increased inexorably and there's still a lot of inappropriate use of antibiotics out there," says Ken Harvey. Unlike drugs for cholesterol or high blood pressure, or insulin for diabetes, which are taken every day for life, antibiotics tend to be given for a short time so profits have to be made on brief usage. "Even though antibiotics are lifesaving, they do not command a premium price in the marketplace," says Emanuel. "As a society we seem willing to pay $100,000 or more for cancer drugs that cure no one and at best add weeks or a few months to life. We are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for knee surgery that, at best, improves function but is not lifesaving. So why won't we pay $10,000 for a lifesaving antibiotic?"

Emanuel says that we need to use prize money as an incentive. "What if the United States government — maybe in cooperation with the European Union and Japan — offered a $2 billion prize to the first five companies or academic centers that develop and get regulatory approval for a new class of antibiotics?" Because it costs at least $1 billion to develop a new drug, the prize money could provide a 100 percent return — even before sales. "From the government perspective, such a prize would be highly efficient: no payment for research that fizzles. Researchers win only with an approved product. Even if they generated just one new antibiotic class per year, the $2-billion-per-year payment would be a reasonable investment for a problem that costs the health care system $20 billion per year." Unless payers and governments are willing to provide favorable pricing for such a drug, the big companies are going to focus their R&D investments in areas like cancer, depression, and heart disease where the return-on-investments are much higher.
Star Wars Prequels

Star Wars-Style "Bionic Hand' Fitted To First Patients 72

Posted by samzenpus
from the that's-quite-a-grip dept.
schwit1 writes "Three Austrians have replaced injured hands with bionic ones that they can control using nerves and muscles transplanted into their arms from their legs. The three men are the first to undergo what doctors refer to as "bionic reconstruction," which includes a voluntary amputation, the transplantation of nerves and muscles and learning to use faint signals from them to command the hand. Previously, people with bionic hands have primarily controlled them with manual settings."
The Almighty Buck

Inventors Revolutionize Beekeeping 128

Posted by samzenpus
from the straight-from-the-tap dept.
wombatmobile writes For more than 5,000 years, apiarists donned protective suits and lit bundles of grass to subdue swarms of angry bees while they robbed their hives of precious, golden honey. Now two Australian inventors have made harvesting honey as easy as turning a tap — literally. Cedar Anderson and his father Stuart have just been rewarded for a decades worth of inventing and refining with a $2 million overnight success on Indiegogo. Their Flow Hive coopts bees to produce honey in plastic cells that can be drained and restored by turning a handle, leaving the bees in situ and freeing apiarists from hours of smoke filled danger time every day.
Robotics

Should a Service Robot Bring an Alcoholic a Drink? 162

Posted by Soulskill
from the skynet-will-feed-you-booze-until-you-pass-out dept.
An anonymous reader writes: We've come to a point where care robots are being used to assist people with illnesses and mobility problems. They can bring medicine, a glass of water, food, and other items that a person may have trouble getting to on their own. But what limits should we set on these robots? Should they be able to deliver alcoholic beverages? If so, should they refuse to serve them to certain people, like children or alcoholics? The issue is complicated further because these robots may have been purchased by the patient, by the doctor or hospital (which sent it home with the patient to monitor their health), or by a concerned family member who wants to monitor their relative. The latest poll research by the Open Roboethics Initiative looked at people's attitudes about whether a care robot should prioritize its owner's wishes over those of the patient.
United Kingdom

Use Astrology To Save Britain's Health System, Says MP 318

Posted by Soulskill
from the gullible-like-a-capricorn dept.
An anonymous reader writes: An MP from the governing Conservative Party has said that using astrology could radically improve the performance of Britain's National Health Service and that its opponents are "racially prejudiced" and driven by "superstition, ignorance and prejudice." David Treddinick even claims he has "helped" fellow legislators through astrology.
Space

What Happens When Betelgeuse Explodes? 201

Posted by Soulskill
from the anticipating-giant-space-booms dept.
StartsWithABang writes: One of the great, catastrophic truths of the Universe is that everything has an expiration date. And this includes every single point of light in the entire sky. The most massive stars will die in a spectacular supernova explosion when their final stage of core fuel runs out. At only an estimated 600 light years distant, Betelgeuse is one (along with Antares) of the closest red supergiants to us, and it's estimated to have only perhaps 100,000 years until it reaches the end of its life. Here's the story on what we can expect to see (and feel) on Earth when Betelgeuse explodes.
Medicine

Giant Asian Gerbils May Have Caused the Black Death 65

Posted by Soulskill
from the adorable-ways-to-die dept.
Dave Knott writes: Rats, long believed to be the scourge that brought the Black Death to 14th-century Europe, may not be the disease-bearing scoundrels we thought they were. Scientists have shifted blame for the medieval pandemic responsible for millions of deaths to a new furry menace: giant gerbils from Asia. University of Oslo researchers, working with Swiss government scientists, say a "pulse" of bubonic plague strains arrived sporadically from Asia. They posit the Yersinia pestis bacterium was likely carried over the Silk Road via fleas on the giant gerbils during intermittent warm spells. The fleas could have then transmitted the disease to humans. The Black Death is believed to have killed up to 200 million people in Europe. Though very rare today, cases of the plague still arise in Africa, Asia, the Americas and parts of the former Soviet Union, with the World Health Organization reporting 783 cases worldwide in 2013, including 126 deaths.
Medicine

Study: Peanut Consumption In Infancy Helps Prevent Peanut Allergy 238

Posted by Soulskill
from the reasons-to-force-feed-your-child-peanuts dept.
Mr D from 63 writes: According to a report from the Associated Press, "For years, parents of babies who seem likely to develop a peanut allergy have gone to extremes to keep them away from peanut-based foods. Now a major study suggests that is exactly the wrong thing to do. Here's the published paper in the New England Journal of Medicine. It's interesting how this peanut allergy fear is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The situation involves a complete misconception of risk by many parents, and probably it doesn't stop at peanuts. Is there a bigger underlying problem here?
Biotech

Police Use DNA To Generate a Suspect's Face 100

Posted by Soulskill
from the it's-the-generic-looking-ones-you've-gotta-watch dept.
An anonymous reader writes: The NY Times has a pair of articles about a technology now being used in police investigations: computer generation of a suspect's face from only their DNA. Law enforcement in South Carolina had no pictures or descriptions of a man who murdered a mother and her daughter, but they had some of his DNA. From this, a company named Parabon NanoLabs used a technique called DNA phenotyping to create a rough portrait of the suspect's facial features, which the police then shared with the public.

The accuracy of these portraits is still an area of hot debate — most of them look rather generic. The NY Times staff tested it with a couple of their employees, circulating the DNA-inspired portraits and seeing if people could guess who it was supposed to be. None of the ~50 employees were able to identify reporter John Markoff, and only about 10 were able to identify video journalist Catherine Spangler. But even though the accuracy for a person's entire face is low, techniques for specific attributes, like eye color, have improved greatly. Of course, the whole situation raises a slew of civil liberties questions: "What traits are off limits? Should the authorities be able to test whether a suspect has a medical condition or is prone to violence should such testing be possible?"