Category: News


Using a few perforated sheets of plastic and extensive computation, Duke University engineers have demonstrated the world’s first three-dimensional acoustic cloak.

The new device reroutes sound waves to create the impression that both the cloak and anything beneath it are not there.

The acoustic cloaking device works in three dimensions, no matter which direction the sound is coming from or where the observer is located, and holds potential for future applications such as sonar avoidance and architectural acoustics.

“The particular trick we’re performing is hiding an object from sound waves,” said “By placing this cloak around an object, the sound waves behave like there is nothing more than a flat surface in their path.”

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Hardcore trip enthusiasts have been using psilocybin mushrooms for years in an attempt to gain access to the Technicolor trapdoor into the unknown. Of course, there are also those who just want to watch their friends’ faces melt off and listen for subliminal messages on all their favorite records.

The scientific community, however, says there is more to the “magic mushroom” than just an emotional glimpse inside the looking glass of the universe, but similar to our friend marijuana, it also has medicinal properties that could one day be used to cure a myriad of mental afflictions.

Researchers from the University of Florida recently published a study in the journal Experimental Brain Research that suggests specific components of psilocybin mushrooms have the ability to create new brain cells. The discovery can be used to develop ground breaking new treatments for severe mental conditions…even improve learning.

In fact, researchers suggest that when given to mice, psilocybin mushrooms proved successful in restoring crippled brain cells as well as easing the symptoms of conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression — sometimes even working as a cure.

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In some parts of Ethiopia, finding potable water is a six-hour journey. People in the region spend 40 billion hours a year trying to find and collect water, says a group called the Water Project. And even when they find it, the water is often not safe, collected from ponds or lakes teeming with infectious bacteria, contaminated with animal waste or other harmful substances.

The water scarcity issue—which affects nearly 1 billion people in Africa alone—has drawn the attention of big-name philanthropists like actor and Water.org co-founder Matt Damon and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who, through their respective nonprofits, have poured millions of dollars into research and solutions, coming up with things like a system that converts toilet water to drinking water and a “Re-invent the Toilet Challenge,” among others. Critics, however, have their doubts about integrating such complex technologies in remote villages that don’t even have access to a local repairman. Costs and maintenance could render many of these ideas impractical.

“If the many failed development projects of the past 60 years have taught us anything,” wrote one critic, Toilets for People founder Jason Kasshe, in a New York Times editorial, “it’s that complicated, imported solutions do not work.” Other low-tech inventions, like this life straw, aren’t as complicated, but still rely on users to find a water source.

It was this dilemma—supplying drinking water in a way that’s both practical and convenient—that served as the impetus for a new product called Warka Water, an inexpensive, easily-assembled structure that extracts gallons of fresh water from the air.

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Portrait of Robert Grosseteste <i>(Image: The British Library/Rex)</i>

Like the cosmos littered with stars, the dark ages were sprinkled with beacons of scientific light.

When physicists translated a 13th-century Latin text into modern equations, they discovered that the English theologian who wrote it had unwittingly predicted the idea of the multiverse in 1225. While the work probably won’t advance current models, it does show that some of the philosophical conundrums posed by cosmology are surprisingly pervasive.

Tom McLeish, a physicist at Durham University, UK, and his colleagues applied modern mathematics to a 1225 treatise on light, De luce, written by medieval philosopher Robert Grosseteste.

“We tried to write down in maths what he’s said in Latin words,” says McLeish. “Then you have a set of equations, which you can then go about putting it in the computer and solving. We’re mathematically exploring a new type of universe, which is what string theorists do all the time. We’re just medieval string theorists.”

Grosseteste had been studying the recently rediscovered works of Aristotle, which explained the motion of the stars by embedding Earth in a series of nine concentric celestial spheres. In De luce, Grosseteste proposed that the concentric universe began with a flash of light, which pushed everything outwards from a tiny point into a big sphere.

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Chilean and French scientists have discovered a network of underground caves on a remote island in Patagonia that could provide valuable clues as to how continents were formed. The group found the system of around 20 limestone caves this week during a research trip to Diego de Almagro island off the far southwest coast of Chile.

Scientists had to abseil and scubadive to get into the caves, some of which are around 50 meters deep (165 feet). They found wall paintings and bone fragments left by the indigenous Kawesqar people that could help date the caves.

“You can make models of areas where the continents broke off and this could be one of those spots,” said speleologist Natalia Morata. The expedition is the latest in a series by the French Centre Terre association, who have found types of rock in the caves normally found in more temperate zones. That could give clues as to how the continents split apart. Scientists believe continents move due to plate tectonics, and that the map of the Earth would have looked very different millions of years ago.

Page 68r of the Voynich manuscript, with the seven stars of the �Pleiades� and the proposed word for Taurus

AN award-winning professor from the University has followed in the footsteps of Indiana Jones by cracking the code of a 600 year old manuscript, deemed as ‘the most mysterious’ document in the world. Stephen Bax, Professor of Applied Linguistics, has just become the first professional linguist to crack the code of the Voynich manuscript using an analytical approach. The world-renowned manuscript is full of illustrations of exotic plants, stars, and mysterious human figures, as well as many pages written in an unknown text.

Up until now the 15th century cryptic work has baffled scholars, cryptographers and codebreakers who have failed to read a single letter of the script or any word of the text. Over time it has attained an infamous reputation, even featuring in the latest hit computer game Assassin’s Creed, as well as in the Indiana Jones novels, when Indiana decoded the Voynich and used it to find the ‘Philosopher’s Stone’. However in reality no one has come close to revealing the Voynich’s true messages.

Many grand theories have been proposed. Some suggest it was the work of Leonardo da Vinci as a boy, or secret Cathars, or the lost tribe of Israel, or most recently Aztecs … some have even proclaimed it was done by aliens! Professor Bax however has begun to unlock the mystery meanings of the Voynich manuscript using his wide knowledge of mediaeval manuscripts and his familiarity with Semitic languages such as Arabic. Using careful linguistic analysis he is working on the script letter by letter.

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Why does the brain remember dreams?

Some people recall a dream every morning, whereas others rarely recall one. A team led by Perrine Ruby, an Inserm Research Fellow at the Lyon Neuroscience Research Center, has studied the brain activity of these two types of dreamers in order to understand the differences between them. In a study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, the researchers show that the temporo-parietal junction, an information-processing hub in the brain, is more active in high dream recallers. Increased activity in this brain region might facilitate attention orienting toward external stimuli and promote intrasleep wakefulness, thereby facilitating the encoding of dreams in memory.

Jonction-temporo-parietal

The reason for dreaming is still a mystery for the researchers who study the difference between “high dream recallers,” who recall dreams regularly, and “low dream recallers,” who recall dreams rarely. In January 2013, the team led by Perrine Ruby, Inserm researcher at the Lyon Neuroscience Research Center, made the following two observations: “high dream recallers” have twice as many time of wakefulness during sleep as “low dream recallers” and their brains are more reactive to auditory stimuli during sleep and wakefulness. This increased brain reactivity may promote awakenings during the night, and may thus facilitate memorisation of dreams during brief periods of wakefulness.

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Archaeologists working near the ancient settlement of Edfu, in southern Egypt, have uncovered a step pyramid that dates back about 4,600 years, predating the Great Pyramid of Giza by at least a few decades.

The step pyramid, which once stood as high as 43 feet (13 meters), is one of seven so-called “provincial” pyramids built by either the pharaoh Huni (reign ca. 2635-2610 B.C.) or Snefru (reign ca. 2610-2590 B.C.). Over time, the step pyramid’s stone blocks were pillaged, and the monument was exposed to weathering, so today, it’s only about 16 feet (5 m) tall.

Scattered throughout central and southern Egypt, the provincial pyramids are located near major settlements, have no internal chambers and were not intended for burial. Six of the seven pyramids have almost identical dimensions, including the newly uncovered one at Edfu, which is about 60 x 61 feet (18.4 x 18.6 m).

The purpose of these seven pyramids is a mystery. They may have been used as symbolic monuments dedicated to the royal cult that affirmed the power of the king in the southern provinces.

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BYU engineer Dah-Jye Lee has created an algorithm that can accurately identify objects in images or video sequences — without human calibration.

“In most cases, people are in charge of deciding what features to focus on and they then write the algorithm based off that,” said Lee, a professor of electrical and computer engineering. “With our algorithm, we give it a set of images and let the computer decide which features are important.”

Not only is Lee’s genetic algorithm able to set its own parameters, but it also doesn’t need to be reset each time a new object is to be recognized —  it learns them on its own.

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Maybe you’re meandering, alone and lost, through an abandoned castle surrounded by a crocodile-filled moat. Suddenly, a flame-breathing dragon hurls towards you, snarling and gnashing its teeth, coming in for the kill. Do you wake up from this bizarro nightmare, covered in sweat and close to tears? Or do you stay in the dream, grab your imaginary sword, and walk boldly into battle?

If your answer is the latter, then Jayne Gackenbach would suspect you’re also a hardcore gamer.

Gackenbach is a psychologist at Canada’s Grant MacEwan University and arguably the world’s preeminent expert on how video games can impact dreaming. In the early 1990’s, her son Teace (with whom Gackenback later co-authored a book on gaming) started playing Nintendo, and Gackenbach found herself fascinated with the potential impacts of her son’s new hobby. Namely, the various ways in which hardcore gameplay — characterized in part by regular playing sessions of more than 2 hours, several times a week, since before the third grade — seem to transform the nighttime imaginings of study participants who fit that profile. Those transformations, Gackenbach says, also offer insights into how video gaming might shape an individual’s experiences in the waking world.

“The major parallel between gaming and dreaming is that, in both instances, you’re in an alternate reality, whether a biological construct or a technological one,” she says. “It’s interesting to think about how these alternate realities translate to waking consciousness, when you are actually reacting to inputs from the real world.”

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Big picture. A new model of the Amazon predicts that terra preta is more likely to be found along rivers in the eastern part of the rainforest. The letters indicate known archaeological sites.

Look around the Amazon rainforest today and it’s hard to imagine it filled with people. But in recent decades, archaeologists have started to find evidence that before Columbus’s arrival, the region was dotted with towns and perhaps even cities. The extent of human settlement in the Amazon remains hotly debated, partly because huge swaths of the 6-million-square-kilometer rainforest remain unstudied by archaeologists. Now, researchers have built a model predicting where signs of pre-Columbian agriculture are most likely to be found, a tool they hope will help guide future archaeological work in the region.

In many ways, archaeology in the Amazon is still in its infancy. Not only is it difficult to mount large-scale excavations in the middle of a tropical rainforest, but until recently, archaeologists assumed there wasn’t much to find. Amazonian soil is notoriously poor quality—all the nutrients are immediately sucked up by the rainforest’s astounding biodiversity—so for many years, scientists believed that the kind of large-scale farming needed to support cities was impossible in the region. Discoveries of gigantic earthworks and ancient roads, however, hint that densely populated and long-lasting population hubs once existed in the Amazon. Their agricultural secret? Pre-Columbian Amazonians enriched the soil themselves, creating what archaeologists call terra preta.

Terra preta—literally “black earth”—is soil that humans have enriched to have two to three times the nutrient content of the surrounding, poor-quality soil, explains Crystal McMichael, a paleoecologist at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne. Although there is no standard definition for terra preta, it tends to be darker than other Amazonian soils and to have charcoal and pre-Columbian pottery shards mixed in. Most of it was created 2500 to 500 years ago. Like the earthworks, terra preta is considered a sign that a particular area was occupied by humans in the pre-Columbian past.

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If you’ve entered a rapid-fire creativity contest that asks you to create a work of art in 48 hours, your first response might not be to ask a computer for help. But that’s exactly what Angelina, an algorithm created by British developer Mike Cook, is for. Most recently, the algorithm was put to the test in a rapid game development challenge called the Ludum Dare, which puts developers all over the world to the test of creating a game in that short period of time. The result, a game called “To That Sect,” takes on the Ludum Dare in surprising ways.

This year’s prompt was simply the word “One,” which, unlike those in the past, doesn’t specifically relate to any gameplay elements such as time limits or genres. This played to Angelina’s strengths, as the developers were able to use an already-formed template game design, in which the player must collect one type of object and avoid another, and instead allow Angelina to make aesthetic choices that reflect its theme, which was also algorithmically generated using a web app called Metaphor Magnet. This was truly where Angelina showed its strengths, as, with the help of the app, it was more flexible in its interpretations of the thematic word “One” than any human would be. It chose to integrate the term into the game’s verbally elucidated theme by associating it with the term “Founder” – related in that a founder is the first person to create or discover something, an originator. Angelina then re-entered this term into the database, where it came up with a decidedly creepy range of terms, such as “disgruntled child,” “tombs” and “charmed.” The game’s aesthetic choices, such as the textures, sounds and colors, are entirely Angelina’s work, and they do an impressive job of evoking a mood.

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When I first saw this,” says cell biologist Alejandro Sanchez Alvarado, “it was with total amazement.”

Planaria

This is a worm. It’s called a planarian. It’s about an inch long, and you’ll find it gliding along the bottoms of rivers and ponds all over the world. It’s very flat, like a moving bit of pasta — nothing special to look at, but it has a hidden talent that has made it famous. It can regrow its body parts better than almost any other animal on Earth. So if by some chance something bites its head off …

The planarian's head cut off.
 … or removes its tail, or zaps its head and its tail simultaneously …
The planarian's head and tail are cut off.

… the dangling middle piece will, within a couple of weeks, grow both its front and its back to full size. Meanwhile, the severed head, if left alone, will also generate a full-sized new worm. The lonesome tail will do that, too, so where you started with one worm, you’ll now have three. This worm likes to regenerate.

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The spy agency is reportedly in a race to build its own quantum computer to stay ahead of others seeking to own the mother of all decryption machines.

The National Security Agency has a vast toolkit for getting access any kind of electronics equipment, but it pales compared to a quantum computer, which could break the strongest encryption in much less time than conventional, transistor-based computers.

According to report in The Washington Post and based on NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the spy agency is in a race to build its own quantum computer to stay ahead of others seeking to build the mother of all decryption machines. This is similar to the Manhattan project, the race to build atomic bombs 75 years ago.

Research labs around the world, companies such as IBM and Google, and countries are working to harness quantum mechanics for drug discovery, predictive analysis, machine learning and complex optimization for areas such as finance and logistics.

The NSA has allocated nearly $80 million for quantum computer development, with most of the work taking place at the Laboratory for Physical Sciences at University of Maryland’s College Park campus. Conventional computers require binary data (ones and zeroes), whereas quantum computers uses qubits, which can represent one, zero, and any state in between. This allows quantum computers to operate much faster than a conventional computer.

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Dolphins are thought of as one of the most intelligent species in the animal kingdom – and experts believe they have put their ingenuity to use in the pursuit of getting “high”.

In extraordinary scenes filmed for a new documentary, young dolphins were seen carefully manipulating a certain kind of puffer fish which, if provoked, releases a nerve toxin.

Though large doses of the toxin can be deadly, in small amounts it is known to produce a narcotic effect, and the dolphins appeared to have worked out how to make the fish release just the right amount.

Carefully chewing on the puffer and passing it between one another, the marine mammals then enter what seems to be a trance-like state.

The behaviour was captured on camera by the makers of Dolphins: Spy in the Pod, a series produced for BBC One by the award-winning wildlife documentary producer John Downer.

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A new study suggests the existence of a state of mind called dysanaesthesia, which is neither consciousness nor unconsciousness.

Man in a coma

With anesthetics properly given, very few patients wake up during surgery. However, new findings point to the possibility of a state of mind in which a patient is neither fully conscious nor unconscious, experts say.
This possible third state of consciousness, may be a state in which patients can respond to a command, but are not disturbed by pain or the surgery, according to Dr. Jaideep Pandit, anesthetist at St John’s College in England.
Pandit dubbed this state dysanaesthesia, and said the evidence that it exists comes partly from a recent study, in which 34 surgical patients were anesthetized, and had their whole body paralyzed except for their forearm, allowing them to move their fingers in response to commands or to signify if they are awake or in pain during surgery.

Laboratory mouse

Australian and US researchers have developed a compound which reverses muscle ageing in mice, saying it could be one of the keys to reversing ageing in humans. When used in trials, the compound gave mice more energy, toned their muscles, reduced inflammation, and led to big improvements in insulin resistance.

Scientists say it actually reversed the ageing process, not just slowing it down, and say that for humans the effect would be similar to a 60-year-old feeling like a 20-year-old. And they say human trials could start within the year.

“I’ve been studying ageing at the molecular level now for nearly 20 years and I didn’t think I’d see a day when ageing could be reversed. I thought we’d be lucky to slow it down a little bit,” University of New South Wales geneticist Professor David Sinclair said.

“The mice had more energy, their muscles were as though they’d be exercising and it was able to mimic the benefits of diet and exercise just within a week.”

Professor Sinclair led the study from his base at Harvard Medical School in the US.

“We think that should be able to keep people healthier for longer and keep them from getting diseases of ageing,” he said.

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Biomedicine researchers at Dresden’s Technical University succeeded in curing several HIV-infected mice with the new method which uses an enzyme to cut the virus from the DNA of infected cells.

“There are various methods and similar approaches, but removing the virus from infected cells is unique,” said Professor Joachim Hauber, head of the antiviral strategy section at partner research institute, Hamburg’s Heinrich Pette Institute.

He said this approach was the only one so far which could actually reverse an HIV infection, leaving the treated cells healthy.

Whether this would function with people could only be established in clinical trials, he said, for which the money is not yet available.

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Binary arithmetic, the basis of all virtually digital computation today, is usually said to have been invented at the start of the eighteenth century by the German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz. But a study now shows that a kind of binary system was already in use 300 years earlier among the people of the tiny Pacific island of Mangareva in French Polynesia.

The discovery, made by analysing historical records of the now almost wholly assimilated Mangarevan culture and language and reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that some of the advantages of the binary system adduced by Leibniz might create a cognitive motivation for this system to arise spontaneously, even in a society without advanced science and technology.

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Peridot

Scientists from the University of Lyon have discovered a new way to split hydrogen gas from water, using rocks. The method promises a new green energy source, providing copious hydrogen from a simple mixture of rock and water.

It speeds up a chemical reaction that takes geological timescales in nature. In the reaction, the mineral olivine strips one oxygen and hydrogen atom from an H2O molecule to form a mineral called serpentine, releasing the spare hydrogen atom. The results were discussed at this week’s meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, and have been published in the journal American Mineralogist.

The researchers heated olivine minerals in water to a couple of hundred degrees Celsius, and added a little bit of ruby (aluminium oxide) to the mix to provide a source of aluminium atoms. The whole mix was placed into a miniature pressure cooker, formed of two diamonds, that squeezed the mixture to 2,000 atmospheres pressure. The transparent diamonds allowed the scientists to watch the reaction take place.

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