Our Hidden Neanderthal DNA May Increase Risk of Allergies, Depression ( 42

sciencehabit writes: Depressed? Your inner Neanderthal may be to blame. Modern humans met and mated with these archaic people in Europe or Asia about 50,000 years ago, and researchers have long suspected that genes picked up in these trysts might be shaping health and well-being today. Now, a study in the current issue of Science details their impact. It uses a powerful new method for scanning the electronic health records of 28,000 Americans to show that some Neanderthal gene variants today can raise the risk of depression, skin lesions, blood clots, and other disorders.

Drivers Need To Forget Their GPS 272 writes: Greg Milner writes in the NYT that an American tourist in Iceland directed the GPS unit in his rental car to guide him from Keflavik International Airport to a hotel in nearby Reykjavik, and ended up 250 icy miles away in Siglufjordur, a fishing village on the outskirts of the Arctic Circle. Mr. Santillan apparently explained that he was very tired after his flight and had "put his faith in the GPS." In another incident, a woman in Belgium asked GPS to take her to a destination less than two hours away and two days later, she turned up in Croatia. Finally disastrous incidents involving drivers following disused roads and disappearing into remote areas of Death Valley in California have became so common that park rangers gave them a name: "death by GPS." "If we're being honest, it's not that hard to imagine doing something similar ourselves" says Milner. "Most of us use GPS as a crutch while driving through unfamiliar terrain, tuning out and letting that soothing voice do the dirty work of navigating."

Could society's embrace of GPS be eroding our cognitive maps? Julia Frankenstein, a psychologist at the University of Freiburg's Center for Cognitive Science, says the danger of GPS is that "we are not forced to remember or process the information — as it is permanently 'at hand,' we need not think or decide for ourselves." "Next time you're in a new place, forget the GPS device. Study a map to get your bearings, then try to focus on your memory of it to find your way around. City maps do not tell you each step, but they provide a wealth of abstract survey knowledge. Fill in these memories with your own navigational experience, and give your brain the chance to live up to its abilities."

Interviews: Ask Author and Programmer Andy Nicholls About R 68

Andy Nicholls has been an R programmer and consultant for Mango Solutions since 2011 (where he currently manages the R consultancy team), after a long stint as a statistician in the pharmaceutical industry. He has a serious background in mathematics, too, with a Masters in math and another in Statistics with Applications in Medicine. Andy has taught more than 50 on-site R training courses and has been involved in the development of more than 30 R packages; he's also a regular contributor to events at LondonR, the largest R user group in the UK. But since not everyone can get to London for a user group meeting, you can get some of the insights he's gained as an R expert in Sams Teach Yourself R In 24 Hours (available in print or at Safari), of which he is the lead author. Today, though, you can ask Andy about the much-lauded statistics-oriented free software (GPL) language directly -- Why to use it, how to get started, how to get things done, and where those intriguing release names come from. (The about page is helpful, too.) As usual, please ask as many questions as you'd like, but one question at a time, please.
United States

New Air Force Satellites Launched To Improve GPS ( 55

AmiMoJo writes: This morning, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) successfully launched a Boeing-built satellite into orbit as part of the U.S. Air Force's Global Positioning System (GPS). This $131 million satellite was the final addition to the Air Force's most recent 12-satellite GPS series, known as the Block IIF satellites. The GPS Block IIF satellites were launched to improve the accuracy of GPS. Before the Block IIF series, the accuracy of GPS could be off by 1 meter. With the new Block IIF satellites in place that error is down to 42 centimeters.

Why Sarcasm Is Such a Problem In Artificial Intelligence ( 94

An anonymous reader writes: A new paper from researchers in India and Australia, "Automatic Sarcasm Detection: A Survey," highlights one of the strangest and ironically most humorous facets of the problems in machine learning and humour. The paper outlines ten years of research efforts from groups interested in detecting sarcasm in online sources. It details the ways that academia has approached the sarcasm problem, including flagging authors and ring-fencing sarcastic data. However, the report concludes that the solution to the problem is not necessarily one of pattern recognition [PDF], but rather a more sophisticated matrix that has some ability to understand context.

It's Official: LIGO Scientists Make First-Ever Observation of Gravity Waves ( 293

A few days ago, we posted reports that a major finding -- the discovery of the long-predicted gravity waves -- was expected to be formally announced today, and reader universe520 is the first to note this coverage in the Economist : It is 1.3 billion years after two black holes merged and sent out gravitational waves. On Earth in September 2015, the faintest slice of those waves was caught. That slice, called GW150914 and announced to the world on February 11th, is the first gravitational wave to be detected directly by human scientists. It is a triumph that has been a century in the making, opening a new window onto the universe and giving researchers a means to peer at hitherto inaccessible happenings, perhaps as far back in time as the Big Bang. Reader DudeTheMath adds: NPR has a nice write-up of the newly-published results: "[R]esearchers say they have detected rumblings from that cataclysmic collision as ripples in the very fabric of space-time itself. The discovery comes a century after Albert Einstein first predicted such ripples should exist. ... The signal in the detector matches well with what's predicted by Einstein's original theory, according to [Saul] Teukolsky [of Cornell], who was briefed on the results." Update: 02/11 18:08 GMT by T : Worth reading: this letter, inspirational and informative, from MIT president L. Rafael Reif, about the discovery. (Hat tip to Brian Kulak.)

Why Winners Become Cheaters ( 155

JoeyRox writes: A new study from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem reveals a paradoxical aspect of human behavior — people who win in competitive situations are more likely to cheat in the future. In one experiment, 86 students were split up into pairs and competed in a game where cheating was impossible. The students were then rearranged into new pairs to play a second game where cheating was possible. The result? Students who won the first game were much more likely to cheat at the second game. Additional experiments indicated that cheating was also more likely if students simply recalled a memory of winning in the past. The experiments further demonstrated that subsequent cheating was more likely in situations where the outcome of previous competitions was determined by merit rather than luck.

Engineers Devise a Way To Harvest Wind Energy From Trees ( 73

derekmead writes: Harvesting electrical power from vibrations or other mechanical stress is pretty easy. Turns out all it really takes is a bit of crystal or ceramic material and a couple of wires and, there you go, piezoelectricity. As stress is applied to the material, charge accumulates, which can then be shuttled away to do useful work. The classic example is an electric lighter, in which a spring-loaded hammer smacks a crystal, producing a spark. Another example is described in a new paper in the Journal of Sound and Vibration, courtesy of engineers at Ohio State's Laboratory of Sound and Vibration Research. The basic idea behind the energy harvesting platform: exploit the natural internal resonances of trees within tiny artificial forests capable of generating enough voltage to power sensors and structural monitoring systems.

Study Finds You Can Grow Brain Cells Through Exercise 94

phantomfive writes: Researchers have discovered that aerobic exercise may increase neurogenesis. Based on the results, rats that were put on a treadmill grew more brain cells than rats that didn't. Resistance training seemed to have no effect. This is significant, because the neuron reserve of the hippocampus can be increased, thus preconditions for learning for humans could be improved simply through aerobic exercise.

The Sexual Misconduct Case That Has Rocked Anthropology ( 258

sciencehabit writes: An investigative report in Science describes allegations of sexual misconduct against noted paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond, as well as the field's response. The story highlights a major shift in how academic communities deal with sexual misconduct, going beyond delineating rules on paper to striving to change the culture of the field at the institutional level. This shift – "a long time coming," according to many researchers – was spurred in part by recent high-profile cases in astronomy and biology. Now, as Balter notes, "paleoanthropology is responding to its own complex case." The first public allegation against Richmond, the curator of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, inspired a cascade of other allegations about him. This in turn motivated several senior paleoanthropologists, including one of Richmond's key mentors, Bernard Wood, to explore the allegations with peers. "As I talked to more and more current and former students at [George Washington University]," Wood said, "I became more concerned and alarmed about what I heard." In light of their findings, Wood and others in the field of anthropology are now tackling sexual misconduct head-on. The article details additional institutional efforts to stop sexual misconduct in science while trying to balance the rights of victims and accused, and provides the latest update on investigations into Richmond.

LIGO Will Make Gravitational Waves Announcement on Thursday 120

StartsWithABang writes: When we look out into the Universe, we normally gain information about it by gathering light of various wavelengths. However, there are other possibilities for astronomy, including by looking for the neutrinos emitted by astrophysical sources - first detected in the supernova explosion of 1987 - and in the gravitational waves emitted by accelerating masses. These ripples in the fabric of space were theorized back in the early days of Einstein's General Relativity, and experiments to detect them have been ongoing since the 1960s. However, in September of 2015, Advanced LIGO came online, and it was the first gravitational wave observatory that was expected to detect a real gravitational wave signal. The press conference on Thursday is where the collaboration will make their official announcement, and in the meantime, here's an explainer of what gravitational waves are, what Advanced LIGO can teach us, and how.

Australia Cuts 110 Climate Scientist Jobs: "The Science is Settled." 551

An anonymous reader writes: With an ax rather than a scalpel, Australia's federal science agency last week chopped off its climate research arm in a decision that has stunned scientists and left employees dispirited. Why? Because the science is settled, there is no need for more basic research, the government says. No doubt many will experience a case of schadenfreude as they see those who have long claimed "the science is settled" face the inevitable and logical consequence of that stance.

An Advanced Math Education Revolution Is Underway In the U.S. ( 217

AthanasiusKircher writes: The Atlantic has an >extended article on the recent surge in advanced math education at the primary and secondary levels in the U.S., arguing that last year's victory for the U.S. in the Math Olympiad was not a random anomaly. Participation in math camps, after-school or weekend math "academies," and math competitions has surged in recent years, with many programs having long wait lists. Inessa Rifkin, co-founder of one of these math academies, argues that the problems with math education begin in the 2nd and 3rd grades: ""The youngest ones, very naturally, their minds see math differently.... It is common that they can ask simple questions and then, in the next minute, a very complicated one. But if the teacher doesn't know enough mathematics, she will answer the simple question and shut down the other, more difficult one." These alternative math programs put a greater focus on problem-solving: "Unlike most math classes, where teachers struggle to impart knowledge to students—who must passively absorb it and then regurgitate it on a test—problem-solving classes demand that the pupils execute the cognitive bench press: investigating, conjecturing, predicting, analyzing, and finally verifying their own mathematical strategy. The point is not to accurately execute algorithms, although there is, of course, a right answer... Truly thinking the problem through—creatively applying what you know about math and puzzling out possible solutions—is more important."

The article concludes by noting that programs like No Child Left Behind have focused on minimal standards, rather than enrichment activities for advanced students. The result is a disparity in economic backgrounds for students in pricey math activities; many middle-class Americans investigate summer camps or sports programs for younger kids, but they don't realize how important a math program could be for a curious child. As Daniel Zaharopol, founder of a related non-profit initiative, noted in his searches to recruit low-income students: "Actually doing math should bring them joy."


China Just Made a Major Breakthrough In Nuclear Fusion Research ( 331

New submitter TechnoidNash writes: China announced last week a major breakthrough in the realm of nuclear fusion research. The Chinese Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST), was able to heat hydrogen gas to a temperature of near 50 million degrees Celsius for an unprecedented 102 seconds. While this is nowhere near the hottest temperature that has ever been achieved in nuclear fusion research (that distinction belongs to the Large Hadron Collider which reached 4 trillion degrees Celsius), it is the longest amount of time one has been maintained.

Wolves Howl In Different 'Dialects,' Machine Learning Finds ( 50

derekmead writes: Differentiating wolf howls with human ears can prove tricky, so researchers have turned to computer algorithms to suss out if different wolf species howl differently. They think that understanding wolf howls could help improve wolf conservation and management programs. In a study published in the journal Behavioural Processes, a group of international researchers describe using machine learning for the first time to analyze 2,000 wolf howls gathered from both wild and domesticated wolves and their subspecies from around the world.

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