Nov 6, 2010

The Fascinating Story of the Twins Who Share Brains, Thoughts, and Senses

“This is one of the most surprising and awesome tales ever told in the history of medicine. These twins are Tatiana and Krista Hogan. Their brains and sensory systems are networked together, but they have separate personalities. Their story defies belief.

So much, in fact, that Tatiana and Krista Hogan shouldn’t be alive at all. Their chances of surviving the pregnancy, birth and first months of life were almost zero. Surprisingly, they turned four on October 25, and they are still healthy and happy, as you can see in the photo above.

They play Nintendo Wii games against each other, they fight for toys and they share food and physiological functions. But they also share their senses. For example, one can pick an object out of her field of view, while the twin looks at the object.

Most importantly, however, they can share each other thoughts, like their grandmother—Louise McKay—describes:

“They share thoughts, too. Nobody will be saying anything, and Tati will just pipe up and say, ‘Stop that!’ And she’ll smack her sister.”

Scientists are nothing short of absolutely amazed. Here you have two kids, completely different from each other, with their own distinct personality, but with connected brains and sensory systems. Dr. Douglas Cochrane—neurosurgeon at Vancouver’s Children’s Hospital—has tested their networking abilities:

“Their brains are recording signals from the other twin’s visual field. One might be seeing what the other one is seeing.”"

Read more at Gizmodo

Nov 5, 2010

World's Oldest Ax Discovered

Archaeologists revealed they have found a piece of a stone ax dated as 35,500 years old on sacred Aboriginal land in Australia, the oldest object of its type ever found.

The shard of stone, found in Australia's lush and remote far northern reaches in May, has marks that prove it comes from a ground-edge stone ax, Monash University's Bruno David said on Friday.

"We could see with the angled light that the rock itself has all these marks on it from people having rubbed it in order to create the ground-edge ax," he told the ABC.

"The person who was using the ax was grinding it against a sandstone surface in order to make it a smoother surface."

David said the previous oldest ground-edge axes were 20,000 to 30,000 years old, and the conventional belief was that the tool first emerged in Europe when populations grew and forests flourished at the end of the last Ice Age.

"What we've got in Australia, however, is evidence of ground-edge axes going back 35,000 years ago," he said.

"What this all means is that we know that the conventional story that comes from Europe does not explain the origin of axes globally. So we've got to think of it in a very different way."

David said the discovery is evidence that Aboriginal Jawoyn people from Arnhem Land could have been the first to grind axes to sharpen their edges.

"It means that you're creating a tool that is far more efficient than what you had before, and that you also have to create a tool not just through a simple series of actions of hitting against it," he said.

The piece of stone was found in a remote patch of the Northern Territory amid traditional Aboriginal rock art paintings believed to date back thousands of years.

Read more at Discovery News

High Society – exhibition of drug taking throughout the ages

But this was no illegal workshop hidden away from society – it was the opium factory of the East India Company, a British trading firm sanctioned by the government.
At its height in the 19th century, the company, based in India, was illegally selling upwards of 1,400 tons of opium a year to the Chinese population.

The money from its sale helped balance the books for Britain's own addiction – to tea shipped in return from China.

Pictures of the factories in Patna, north east India, along with an original eight inch opium ball – the unit in which it was sold – are part of an exhibition called High Society that looks into the nature of mind altering substances throughout the world and history.

It aims to look at the role of drugs from 16th century tobacco to twentieth century MDMA (ecstasy).

"The role of drugs in our culture is very confusing and very contested and I think it is interesting to consider drug taking around the world and in other periods," said Mike Jay, a historian who is curating the exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London.

"Britain's role in the opium trade highlights this very nicely. We got addicted to tea and it was terrible for the British exchequer which was haemorrhaging silver to China to pay for it.

"They needed a way of offset that and selling opium back to the Chinese was their way of doing it. It is incredibly dubious in today's terms but at the time opium was not illegal in Britain although it was in China.
"Then in the early 20th century the trade became central to the American war on drugs."

Read more at The Telegraph

10 Commonly Believed Myths about the Human Body

“We have learned much about our bodies through old wives’ tales handed down from our moms and grandmothers and even in school, but not all of it is correct. Here we look at 10 misconceptions that might surprise you.

10. Sleepwalkers should never be woken
Sleepwalkers are often confused and/or disoriented when awakened but this is far better than the danger of injuries that are common from tripping over things, walking into dangerous areas and more. Thus, wake them gently and help them get back to bed.

9. You will catch a cold if you go out in wet, freezing weather
There is no evidence to support this misconception at all. Viruses are more common in the low humidity time of winter and of course, people are gathered indoors more, so they spread easily but the only thing that going out in the cold does is perhaps lower your resistance to an infection you already have, starting some temporary sneezing and coughing.

8. Fingernails and hair continue to grow after death
Neither continue to to grow. What does happen is that the cuticles and skin shrink after death, making it appear as if the nails and hair were lengthening.”

Read the rest at Environmental Graffiti

Nov 4, 2010

Novel Material Gives Nod to 'Invisibility Cloak'

Physicists in Scotland said on Thursday they had devised a flexible material that manipulates light, marking a small step towards "invisibility" clothing beloved of science fiction writers and Harry Potter.

The work is in the domain of metamaterials, or compounds with a surface that interacts with light thanks to a tiny, nano-level structure.

As a result, light flows around the object -- rather like water that bends around a rock in a stream -- as opposed to being absorbed by it.

Metamaterials are still in the prototype stage and enact their apparent shielding effect in specific wavelengths, or colors, of the light spectrum.

They have traditionally been made from rigid substances, not flexible materials, and this is a limiter on their potential use.

The research team, led by Andrea di Falco of the University of St. Andrews, made the novel material using an elaborate technique based on a commercially available polymer and a silicon support.

The invention, dubbed Metaflex, interacts with light at wavelengths of around 620 nanometers, according to the research, published in Britain's New Journal of Physics.

Visible light, for humans, has wavelengths ranging from 400 nanometers, where the perceived colors are violet and purple, to 700 nanometers, which is deep red.

Read more at Discovery News

New Super Close-Up Images From Comet Flyby

Five brand new close-ups of comet 103P/Hartley 2 arrived at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab amid cheers and applause at 8:02 Pacific time this morning.

The Deep Impact probe (now on a mission called EPOXI) passed by comet Hartley 2 at 7:01 a.m. PDT, the fifth time in history that a spacecraft has been close enough to photograph the heart of a comet. The probe flew through the comet’s diffuse corona at about 27,500 miles per hour and came within 435 miles of its icy, dirty core.

Observations leading up to the flyby showed that Hartley 2 is small but active. It’s only about 1.36 miles across, a shrimp compared to other comets that have been visited by spacecraft. But it spews several times more gas and dust than other comets. In this image from the moment of closest approach, the comet looks like a bowling pin or a peanut, with at least two jets streaming off toward the sun.

“It’s hyperactive, small and feisty,” said Don Yeomans, a senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.

Deep Impact locked its instruments and began taking pictures of the comet 18 hours before nearest approach, when it was 496,000 miles away. By the time of closest approach, it was snapping photos once every four seconds.

But astronomers had to wait almost an hour after closest approach to get the good shots. The close-ups were stored on the spacecraft because Deep Impact couldn’t point its antenna toward Earth and its cameras toward the comet at the same time.

Hartley 2’s jets of material act as little rocket thrusters, making the comet’s orbit hard to pin down.

Read more at Wired

Scientists Discover New Way to Fight Common Cold Virus

“Cambridge, United Kingdom (AHN) – A research team led by Dr. Leo James from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, have discovered that antibodies can battle viruses that cause the common cold, vomiting and gastroenteritis, by entering cells that house them.

Previously, it was believed that antibodies could only attack viruses outside cells or by blocking their entry into cells.

Once antibodies enter cells they quickly trigger a response, led by a protein called TRIM21 that pulls the virus into a disposal system used by the cell to get rid of unwanted material. Release of the TRIM21 protein is so quick that the virus is not given a chance to harm the cell.

It was also found that increasing the amount of TRIM21 protein in cells makes this process even more effective, suggesting new ways of making better antiviral drugs.

The research team however, stressed that it would take years of work and testing to find new therapies, and that their discovery would not work on all viruses.”

Read more at Gantdaily

Anger Makes People Want Things More

“Anger is an interesting emotion for psychologists. On the one hand, it’s negative, but then it also has some of the features of positive emotions. For a new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, researchers find that associating an object with anger actually makes people want the object—a kind of motivation that’s normally associated with positive emotions.

People usually think of anger as a negative emotion. You’re not supposed to get angry. But anger also has some positive features. For example, it activates an area on the left side of the brain that is associated with many positive emotions. And, like positive emotions, it can motivate people to go after something. “People are motivated to do something or obtain a certain object in the world because it’s rewarding for them. Usually this means that the object is positive and makes you happy,” says Henk Aarts of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, first author of the new study. He and his colleagues wanted to examine whether this also applies to the link between anger as a negative emotion and the desire to get your hands on something.

For the study, each participant watched a computer screen while images of common objects, like a mug or a pen, appeared on the screen. What they didn’t realize was that immediately before each object appeared, the screen flashed either a neutral face, an angry face, or a fearful face. This subliminal image tied an emotion to each object. At the end of the experiment, the participants were asked how much they wanted each object. In a second version of the experiment, they had the person squeeze a handgrip to get the desired object—those who squeezed harder were more likely to win it. ”

Read more at Psychological Science

Nov 3, 2010

Woman gains gurning title

Anne Woods, who has been crowned winner of the Egremont Crab Fair, in Cumbria, 27 times, had previously failed to get a mention in the famous book.
This was despite male champion Tommy Mattinson being named in the annual for triumphing just 11 times.

But after Mrs Woods' latest success in September she will now join the ranks of other high achievers – as the woman able to pull the ugliest face in the world.

Gurning involves contorting the facial features into ugly positions while draped in a horse collar and it is thought that the competition at Egremont dates back to the middle ages.

Mrs Woods said: "It feels absolutely wonderful to have been accepted. But this is not before time รข€“ I've won the competition 27 times now.

"I am considering retiring, but I know what I'm like. Come next year's competition I'll be itching to get on stage again.

"Whatever happens, I doubt my record will be broken."

Anne started gurning when she was 30 after her brothers entered her into the competition without her permission.

She won and 33 years later Anne is still pulling her famous face.

But there was drama at this year's event when Anne collapsed and was rushed to hospital after leaving the stage.

Her daughter Brenda said: "I think this year gave her a bit of a shock, but she's known for gurning and that's what she'll do. "It's a big part of her life."

Read more at The Telegraph

Boa Constrictor Mom Gives 'Virgin Birth'

A boa constrictor mother has given "virgin birth" to 22 female offspring, all of which have no father and are half-clones of their mother, according to new research.

The discovery adds boa constrictors to the list of animals that can give fatherless birth. The list so far includes other snakes, at least three species of sharks, the Komodo dragon and some other monitor lizards, certain termites, and more.

Researchers now even think some dinosaurs may have given virgin birth, since this phenomenon has now been reported in all lineages of jawed vertebrates, except mammals, and in a number of invertebrate species.

"Only with the development and application of molecular tools have we truly begun to understand how common this form of reproduction may be," lead author Warren Booth told Discovery News.

Booth, a research associate at North Carolina State University's Department of Entomology, and his team first suspected something was up when the mother boa constrictor gave birth, twice, to a total of 22 caramel-colored females. The males housed with the female did not carry the gene for this recessive color trait.

The scientists next extracted and analyzed DNA from skins shed by the mother, the males and the caramel-colored offspring. This DNA fingerprinting, functioning like a paternity test, determined that the offspring exhibited a sex chromosomal arrangement of WW, "something never before naturally observed," Booth said.
He explained that male snakes have the sex chromosomal arrangement ZZ, while females are ZW. Numerous prior studies concluded that the WW pairing was not viable.

"Our work essentially upends decades of scientific theory on reptile reproduction," said Booth.

He and his colleagues believe the births happened as a result of what's known as automatic parthenogenesis.
"Basically, like sexual reproduction, the offspring here received one set of the mother's chromosomes when they split during the egg production process," he explained. "However, instead of combining with a sperm that would contain the complementary second set of chromosomes from the father, the egg fuses with a copy of itself, stimulating embryonic development."

The findings are published in the latest Royal Society Biology Letters.

Read more at Discovery News

New Hologram Tech Sets 3D in Motion

A palm-sized Princess Leia pleading for help is no longer the stuff of science fiction.

Arizona researchers have created the first 3-D hologram movie that plays almost in real time, they report in the Nov. 4 Nature. It's the fastest known demonstration of telepresence, where a 3-D hologram depicts a scene from another location.

The key to the invention is a new type of plastic that can refresh the hologram once every two seconds. While that's too slow to watch the World Series in 3-D, the researchers estimated holographic TV could be coming in seven to 10 years.

"It is very very close to reality," says physicist Nasser Peyghambarian of the University of Arizona in Tucson. "Something that was science fiction is something we can do today."

Holograms are created when light bounces off a sheet of material with grooves in just the right places to project an image away from the surface, like on some credit cards. The image is even crisper when the illuminating light waves march in step, as they do in a laser.

Holographic video is already possible, albeit painfully slow -- the U.S. military records enemy territory in 3-D, but refreshing each frame of the video can take an entire day. The Arizona team created a quicker way to play holographic video in 2008, but with that method each frame still took four minutes to generate. Now, after two years of optimizing the plastic, they've cut the time to just two seconds.

Sixteen cameras snap pictures of an object that are piped into a desktop PC, which processes the data. Then the computer shoots the holographic pixels, or "hogels," electronically to another location. There, the hogels are transformed into an optical signal and transmitted by a laser onto a plastic screen, much like a projector shines light onto a white screen to play a movie.

When this light hits, the plastic screen undergoes chemical reactions that temporarily record the most recent set of images in the data stream.

A particular color of light illuminates the plastic and -- voila! Light scatters in just the right way to recreate the original image. Then, the new plastic can be erased, creating a clean slate for the next image.

Read more at Discovery News

Nov 2, 2010

Harry Potter blamed for India's disappearing owls

Mr Ramesh said the craze for Harry Potter in India had led to an increase in people buying owls from illegal bird traders.
"Following Harry Potter, there seems to be a strange fascination even among the urban middle classes for presenting their children with owls," Mr Ramesh told the BBC.

A report by conservation group Traffic suggested tough measures should be put in place to protect owls from an upcoming Hindu festival – Diwali - because thousands of owls are sacrificed on Hindu "auspicious occasions".

The author of the report, Abrar Ahmed, decided to investigate the owl trade after being asked to get a white owl for a boy's Harry Potter-themed 10th birthday.

"This was probably one of the strangest demands made to me as an ornithologist," he wrote.

Mr Ahmed found that endangered owls are being caught, traded or sacrificed in black magic rituals, while others are killed for medicine.

"The sacrifice of owls on auspicious occasions appears to be a regular practice and [there could be] a possible increase in trade and sacrifices around Diwali," the Imperilled Custodians of the Night report says.

Read more at The Telegraph

Great Sphinx's Walls Rise Again

Large sections of mudbrick walls have emerged from the sands of the Giza plateau on which the Sphinx and the three great pyramids stand, Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities announced on Tuesday.

Discovered by a team of Egyptian archaeologists during routine excavation work near the valley temple of the Fourth Dynasty King Khafre, the structures are part of a wall that once protected the Sphinx from the desert winds.

According to ancient Egyptian texts, the wall was built following a dream which King Thuthmose IV (1400-1390 B.C.) had after a long hunting trip in Wadi El-Ghezlan (Deer Valley), an area next to the Sphinx.

In the dream, the mythical beast with the head of a man and the body of a lion complained that it was being choked by the desert sand. As a result, the king removed the sand that had partially buried the great limestone figure and built an enclosure wall to preserve it.

Stretching for 132 meters (433 feet) in total, the wall is part of a larger structure previously found to the north of the Sphinx.

It consists of two sections. The first part, which is 75 centimeters (29.52 inches) tall and 86 meters (282.2 feet) long, runs from North to South along the eastern side of Khafre’s valley temple and the Sphinx. The second part, which is 90 centimeters (35.4 inches) tall and 46 meters (150.9 feet) long, stretches from East to West along the perimeter of the valley temple area.

Read more at Discovery News

Nov 1, 2010

Earliest Predator Wasn't So Fierce

The great, car-sized predatory "shrimp" that was master of Earth's seas a half billion years ago may have been unable to eat anything harder than baby food.

Several lines of evidence along with a new 3-D model of the way the mouth parts of Anomalocaris worked show that the infamous carnivore could not crack the hard shells of trilobites and other protected critters of the Cambrian seas.

"The mouth parts appear soft and bendable in (fossil) specimens," said paleontologist James "Whitey" Hagadorn of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. "That struck me as kind of funny."

Soft mouth parts don't jive with the now standard interpretation of Anomalocaris being a predator that wolfed down trilobites and anything else it could catch. That got Hagadorn wondering: "Is it possible that Anomalocaris didn't eat trilobites?" he asked.

To find out, Hagadorn started looking at all the available fossilized feces from the Cambrian time when Anomalocaris lived. None containing mangled bits of the hard, indigestible exoskeletons of trilobites could be found that could be traced to Anomalocaris.

What's more, there is no evidence of trilobite parts in the gullets of any known Anomalocaris fossil.
For that matter, no gut contents have ever been found for any of the dozen or so known species of Anomalocaris, he said. That's especially strange considering that hundreds of other fossil animals found nearby have guts filled with all sorts of interesting stuff.

To get a better idea just what Anomalocaris might be capable of eating, Hagadorn and his colleagues devised a 3-D, finite element analysis model of the Anomalocaris's whorl of mouth parts. The model let them virtually operate the mouth to see what it could do and how much force it could generate.

The answer is that Anomalocaris couldn't close its mouth and could not create forces strong enough to break a modern lobster or shrimp shell -- the analogues they used for trilobite shells.

Read more at Discovery News

Hotspot for Life Found on Ancient Mars Volcano

If life ever existed on Mars, then newly discovered mineral deposits on the flanks of a long-dead volcano would be a good place to dig for its remains.

Spotted by a high-powered orbital imager, they’re not the first deposits found on Mars of silica, a mineral used by some simple forms of life, including single-celled algae that evolved early in Earth’s volcanic past.

But the new deposits are the first from a locale with a definite volcanic pedigree, formerly rich in heat and water as well as minerals — a locale formerly suited, by any Earthly definition, for life.

Stand on the slopes of Nili Patera 3.7 billion years ago, and “you would see steam rising up out of the volcano. In the spots we see the deposits, that’s where the highest concentration of steam would be,” said geoscientist Jack Mustard of Brown University. “It’d be like standing on Hawaii, looking across a volcano, seeing the fumaroles where vapors are given off, or standing in Iceland where the hills are steaming.”

Mustard’s findings, co-authored with fellow Brown geoscientist J.R. Skok, were published October 31 in Nature Geoscience. His laboratory is among those that in recent years has processed an extraordinary flow of Red Planet data, returned by Mars-orbiting spacecraft and surface-exploring robots.

This data has moved researchers beyond looking for signs of water — the latest of which was reported just last week, by both the Spirit and Phoenix rovers — to evaluating potentially once-habitable environments in precise detail.

“It’s the most definitive hydrothermal system we’ve found on Mars. You can see the source of the heat, the driving of the fluids that left the deposits,” said Mustard. “In this deposit, you have the culprit right before you. In other deposits, they’re either sedimentary, or in the center of an impact crater. You have no idea how they happened.”

Red more at Wired

Fingers detect typos even when conscious brain doesn’t

“Expert typists are able to zoom across the keyboard without ever thinking about which fingers are pressing the keys. New research from Vanderbilt University reveals that this skill is managed by an autopilot, one that is able to catch errors that can fool our conscious brain.

The research was published in the Oct. 29 issue of Science.

“We all know we do some things on autopilot, from walking to doing familiar tasks like making coffee and, in this study, typing. What we don’t know as scientists is how people are able to control their autopilots,” Gordon Logan, Centennial Professor of Psychology and lead author of the new research, said. “The remarkable thing we found is that these processes are disassociated. The hands know when the hands make an error, even when the mind does not.”

To determine the relationship between the autopilot and the conscious brain, or pilot, and the role of each in detecting errors, Logan and co-author Matthew Crump designed a series of experiments to break the normal connection between what we see on the screen and what our fingers feel as they type.

In the first experiment, Logan and Crump had skilled typists type in words that appeared on the screen and then report whether or not they had made any errors. Using a computer program they created, the researchers either randomly inserted errors that the user had not made or corrected errors the user had made. They also timed the typists’ typing speed, looking for the slowdown that is known to occur when one hits the wrong key. They then asked the typists to evaluate their overall performance.

The researchers found the typists generally took the blame for the errors the program had inserted and took the credit for mistakes the computer had corrected. They were fooled by the program. However, their fingers, as managed by the autopilot, were not – the typists slowed down when they actually made an error, as expected, and did not slow down when a false error appeared on the screen.”

Read more at Lab Spaces

Oct 31, 2010

Christopher Hitchens vs. Tariq Ramadan: Is Islam a Religion of Peace?

Christopher Hitchens and Tariq Ramadan Debate: Is Islam a Religion of Peace? Moderated by Laurie Goodstein.

Via Atheist Media

Moving illusions: Impossible objects made real

“The artist M. C. Escher was renowned for creating drawings of imaginary spaces that could not exist in three dimensions. Or could they?

Kokichi Sugihara at Meiji University in Kawasaki, Japan, has been using computer software to bring impossible drawings to life. The video above shows some of the objects he has made moving in ways that appear to defy geometry.

When the models are turned around, however, the trick is revealed: the objects are not what they seem. That’s because we constantly make assumptions about perspective and depth in order to move about in a 3D world, and these models take advantage of those assumptions.

Sugihara used computer software to analyse seemingly impossible drawings and come up with solid shapes that might look like the drawing from one perspective, but not from others.

It’s not the first time Sugihara has tricked New Scientist readers with his illusions. Earlier this year, the engineer won first prize in the 2010 Illusion of the Year contest in Naples, Florida.”

Read more at New Scientist

Charlie Chaplin time traveller spotted in old film

While watching the DVD extras for The Circus, an Irish filmmaker has spotted a woman who appears to be using a mobile phone, fifty years before their invention.
George Clarke, who is based in Belfast, uploaded the clip to YouTube where it has since received more than 1.5 million views.

The footage shows the exterior the cinema that is premiering The Circus; a woman walks past holding her left hand to the side of her face while moving her lips.

The original clip lasts a matter of seconds but has been looped and slowed down to such an extent that the online version lasts for several minutes.

Watch the clip here.

Clarke claims the footage has not been tampered with in any way and seems convinced this is evidence of time travel.

Others are not so sure and explanations range from the woman holding a block of ice to take away the pain of a dental appointment, to the clip itself being a fake – detractors point out that fade transitions had not been developed in the 1920s.

Read more at The Telegraph