Jan 29, 2011

Scopes Weeps: Evolution Still Struggling in Public Schools

Despite 80 years of court battles ousting creationism from public classrooms, most public high school biology teachers are not strong advocates for evolution.

While vocal advocates of intelligent design and similar non-scientific alternatives to evolution are a minority, more than half the teachers in a nationwide poll avoided taking a strong stance for evolution.

Such teachers “may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists,” wrote Penn State political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, the poll’s architects, in a Jan. 28 Science paper.

Berkman and Plutzer, the authors of Evolution, Creationism and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms, examined data from the National Survey of High School Biology Teachers, a representative sample of 926 biology teachers from across the country. They estimate that only 28 percent of those teachers consistently and “unabashedly” introduce evidence that evolution has happened, and build lesson plans with evolution as a unifying theme linking different topics in biology.

At the opposite extreme, 13 percent of teachers explicitly endorse creationism or intelligent design, and spend at least on hour of class time presenting it in a positive light. An additional 5 percent reported that they support creationism in passing or when answering students’ questions.

The remaining fraction of teachers, who Berkman and Plutzer dub the “cautious 60 percent,” avoids choosing sides. Often these teachers have not taken courses in evolutionary biology and lack confidence in their ability to answer questions from skeptical or hostile students and parents.

There are three popular strategies for evading controversy in the biology classroom, Berkman and Plutzer say. Some teachers focus on evolution at the molecular level, ignoring the idea that whole species of animals can evolve.

Some hide behind rigid state science tests, telling students “it does not matter if they actually ‘believe’ in evolution, so long as they know it for the test,” Berkman and Plutzer wrote.

Others present both sides and let students decide for themselves. This strategy respects high schoolers’ critical reasoning skills, but undervalues the scientific method.

“These teachers fail to explain the nature of scientific inquiry, undermine the authority of established experts, and legitimize creationist arguments, even if unintentionally,” Berkman and Plutzer wrote.

The researchers offer one major solution: Focus on teacher training. Teachers who have had a course in evolution are statistically far more likely to advocate for evolution in their classrooms. Making such a course mandatory for all incoming teachers could make those teachers more likely to accept and teach evolution.

Read more at Wired

In the Blink of Bird’s Eye, a Model for Quantum Navigation

European robins may maintain quantum entanglement in their eyes a full 20 microseconds longer than the best laboratory systems, say physicists investigating how birds may use quantum effects to “see” Earth’s magnetic field.

Quantum entanglement is a state where electrons are spatially separated, but able to affect one another. It’s been proposed that birds’ eyes contain entanglement-based compasses.

Conclusive proof doesn’t yet exist, but multiple lines of evidence suggest it. Findings like this one underscore just how sophisticated those compasses may be.

“How can a living system have evolved to protect a quantum state as well — no, better — than we can do in the lab with these exotic molecules?” asked quantum physicist Simon Benjamin of Oxford University and the National University of Singapore, a co-author of the new study. “That really is an amazing thing.”

Many animals — including not only birds, but some mammals, fish, reptiles, even crustaceans and insects — navigate by sensing the direction of Earth’s magnetic field. Physicist Klaus Schulten of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign proposed in the late 1970s that bird navigation relied on some geomagnetically sensitive, as-yet-unknown biochemical reaction taking place in their eyes.

Research since then has revealed the existence of special optical cells containing a protein called cryptochrome. When a photon enters the eye, it hits cryptochrome, giving a boost of energy to electrons that exist in a state of quantum entanglement.

One of the electrons migrates a few nanometers away, where it feels a slightly different magnetic field than its partner. Depending on how the magnetic field alters the electron’s spin, different chemical reactions are produced. In theory, the products of many such reactions across a bird’s eye could create a picture of Earth’s magnetic field as a varying pattern of light and dark.

However, these quantum states are notoriously fragile. Even in laboratory systems, atoms are cooled to near–absolute-zero temperatures to maintain entanglement for more than a few thousandths of a second. Biological systems would seem too warm and too wet to hold quantum states for long, yet that’s exactly what they appear to do.

Researchers led by University of California, Irvine physicist Thorsten Ritz (.pdf) showed in 2004 that, although robins had no trouble pointing their beaks toward Africa under the influence of Earth’s magnetic field alone, adding a second, shifting field destroyed their inner compasses. That second field was so weak — less than one-third of 1 percent of Earth’s field — that it could only have influenced a quantum-sensitive system.

Read more at Wired

Humans Left Trees 4.2 Million Years Ago

Early human ancestors stopped swinging in trees and started walking on the ground sometime between 4.2 and 3.5 million years ago, according to a new study.

This key moment, when our ancestors became anatomically and behaviorally less ape-like, coincides with increased cooling, more defined seasonality, and a grassland growth spurt. All transformed former forest habitats into more varied ones, forcing our very early relatives to change their ways.

"With the trees being farther apart, it became energetically advantageous for hominids to cross the gaps bipedally," said Gabriele Macho, lead author of the study that was published in the latest issue of Folia Primatologica..

Macho, a paleoanthropologist at the Catalan Institute of Paleontology in Barcelona, and his colleagues made the determinations after analyzing wrist bones from two early hominid relatives: Australopithecus anamensis and Australopithecus afarensis (also known as the "Lucy" fossil). The former species is 600,000 years older than the latter and is believed to be its ancestor.

The researchers performed high-resolution CT scans of the central wrist bones, called capitates, of a modern orangutan, gorilla, chimpanzee and person to see how these bones differ between arboreal animals and more terrestrial ones.

They found that full-time tree swingers and dwellers load more force on the little finger side of their hands while terrestrial individuals load the thumb side more.

"Try it out yourself," Macho said. "Hold on to a pole or tree with a medium-sized diameter and observe where on the hand and wrist the greatest pressure is. You'll feel that the thumb side doesn't assume a great role."

The scientists observed that the Australopithecus anamensis wrist bones exhibited pressure loads associated with modern arboreal animals. The analyzed Australopithecus afarensis bones conversely showed stress loads comparable to those of more terrestrial species, including modern humans.

The researchers concluded that the important shift in early hominid lifestyle happened around the time when A. afarensis first emerged.

It's likely that Australopithecus anamensis walked on the ground at times too, but Macho points out that "form follows function."

Other evidence from the early human fossil record supports that major changes took place at about 4.2 million years ago.

Macho explained, "We know from cranio-dental remains that they also broadened their dietary niches and were no longer soft fruit eaters, as the last common ancestor is assumed to have been."

Carol Ward, a professor of integrative biology at the University of Missouri, thinks the new study is "important and highlights the need for more careful and detailed analysis of the functional anatomy of A. anamensis."

Read more at Discovery News

Jan 28, 2011

Bogus “dowsing rod bomb detector” still being sold from the UK

Jim McCormick is the man behind the ADE-651. He’s appeared on TV claiming his device will detect anything from elephants to drugs to TNT with his magical dousing rods. On inspection the devices contain no actual working parts. But this didn’t stop the devices raking in an incredible $85 Million.

The device sold all over the world is very prominent at checkpoints in Baghdad. Thousands of the “detectors” were bought for an astonishing $40,000 each from Jim McCormick’s Somerset company ATSC.

Many experts were quick to denounce these devices stating that they are not just completely bogus but the practice of selling them is completely immoral.

James Randi came forward and asked ATSC to take part in his JREF Million Dollar challenge. When he refused Randi notified the authorities and Jim McCormick was arrested on fraud charges. (See video from jan 2010 above).

However in a recent investigation has shown that these devices are still being sold around the world for extortionate amounts. The government’s Department of Trade and Industry, which has since been superseded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, helped two of the manufacturers sell their products in Mexico and the Philippines.

Just three months after the ban on sales to Iraq and Afghanistan, a product called the HEDD1, consisting of a radio aerial on a handle made in Bulgaria, was displayed at a security exhibition at Olympia in London.

The company selling the devices, Unival, claimed that while all the other products which looked like it were a “massive scam”, theirs was different.

The HEDD1 was marketed by a retired British Army colonel, John Wyatt, who told prospective buyers that it had “proved extremely successful in several foreign countries”, including in “double blind” tests.

In reality the maker of HEDD1, Yuri Markov, had been charged in the United States in 2008 for fraudulently claiming that the previous version of his so-called bomb detector could detect explosives.

The US Navy had subjected it to a double-blind test and found it “does not work”.

More information on this at BBC

To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test

“Taking a test is not just a passive mechanism for assessing how much people know, according to new research. It actually helps people learn, and it works better than a number of other studying techniques.

The research, published online Thursday in the journal Science, found that students who read a passage, then took a test asking them to recall what they had read, retained about 50 percent more of the information a week later than students who used two other methods.

One of those methods — repeatedly studying the material — is familiar to legions of students who cram before exams. The other — having students draw detailed diagrams documenting what they are learning — is prized by many teachers because it forces students to make connections among facts.

These other methods not only are popular, the researchers reported; they also seem to give students the illusion that they know material better than they do.

In the experiments, the students were asked to predict how much they would remember a week after using one of the methods to learn the material. Those who took the test after reading the passage predicted they would remember less than the other students predicted — but the results were just the opposite.

“I think that learning is all about retrieving, all about reconstructing our knowledge,” said the lead author, Jeffrey Karpicke, an assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University. “I think that we’re tapping into something fundamental about how the mind works when we talk about retrieval.””

Read more at NY Times

EXCLUSIVE DOCUMENTS: Woman Blames P Diddy For World Trade Center Collapse -- Demands $100 Billion Loss Of Income

Hip Hop mogul P Diddy has been blamed for many crazy things over the years -- but a new court filing takes it to a whole new level!

In a filing obtained exclusively by RadarOnline.com, Valerie Joyce Wilson Turks is seeking a restraining order against the star, real name Sean Combs, accusing him of a whole plethora of wrong doings.

EXCLUSIVE DOCUMENTS: Valerie Joyce Wilson Turks Applies For A Restraining Order Against P Diddy

According to Turks, the 41-year-old, along with his ex-girlfriend Kim Porter and LAPD brutality victim Rodney King, is responsible for the collapse of the World Trade Center amongst other outrageous alleged atrocities.

In the disturbing court documents, Turks claims that she dated Diddy, and that the two have a son together, Cornelius Wilson, 23 years old.

She alleges that she has been subjected to abuse from 2001 – 2010 and that: "[Diddy] went through Kim Porter and Rodney King and knocked down the WTC and then they all came and knocked my children down. Set me up to be on disability and disabled my baby. he put my baby in a wheelchair."

Valerie then goes on to say in her statement that is riddled with spelling and punctuation errors: "He date raped me 24 years ago and knocked me down him and Kim Porter and Wallace Wright, then Sean Combs and Kim and Wallace Wright came back 18 years later and raped and sexually abused my children and knocked my children down and crushed me and my children daily.

Read more at RadarOnline

Jan 27, 2011

Great Pyramid May Hold Two Hidden Chambers

A French architect campaigning for a new exploration of the 4,500-year-old Great Pyramid of Giza said on Thursday that the edifice may contain two chambers housing funereal furniture.

Jean-Pierre Houdin -- who was rebuffed three years ago by Egypt in his appeal for a probe into how the Pyramid was built -- said 3-D simulation and data from a U.S. egyptologist, Bob Brier, pointed to two secret chambers in the heart of the structure.

The rooms would have housed furniture for use in the afterlife by the pharaoh Khufu, also known as Cheops in Greek, he told a press conference.

"I am convinced there are antechambers in this pyramid. What I want is to find them," he said.

In March 2007, Houdin advanced the theory that the Great Pyramid had been built inside-out using an internal spiral ramp, as opposed to an external ramp as had long been suggested.

He proposed mounting a joint expedition of Egyptian antiquities experts and French engineers, using infrared, radar and other non-invasive methods to check out the hypothesis.

The idea was nixed by Egypt's antiquities department. A Canadian team from Laval University in Quebec will seek permission this year to carry out thermal imaging from outside the Pyramid to explore the theory, Houdin said.

Houdin said a pointer to the antechambers came from the existence of such rooms in the pyramid of Snefru, Khufu's father. It was possible a similar design was retained for the Great Pyramid.

Read more at Discovery News

Ancestors Left Africa Earlier Than Thought

An ancient toolkit unearthed in the United Arab Emirates suggests modern humans may have left Africa over 100,000 years ago, much earlier than typically thought, researchers said Thursday.

The findings by a team of British and German archeologists have sparked debate among scientists over whether they provide sufficient evidence that homo sapiens could have traveled directly from Africa to Arabia.

The stone tools found in the archaeological site at Jebel Faya include basic hand axes, blades and scrapers, indicating that the user likely had a primitive level of skill, said the study published in the journal Science.

That would "imply that technological innovation was not necessary for early humans to migrate onto the Arabian Peninsula," it said.

The team also examined climate and sea-level records for the region dating back 130,000 years and found that low sea levels meant the Bab al-Mandab strait that separates the Horn of Africa from the Arabian Peninsula would have been narrower and easier to cross.

Unlike the harsh desert conditions of today, the land would have been wetter and filled with more vegetation, lakes and rivers, making a journey by foot more feasible for early humans.

Using a technique called luminescence dating to determine the age of the toolkit, scientists believe it is between 100,000 and 125,000 years old, according to lead author Simon Armitage from Royal Holloway college, University of London.

Most other evidence has suggested modern humans left Africa around 60,000 years ago and made the trek along the Mediterranean Sea or the Arabian Coast, but some finds in recent years have suggested otherwise.

The journal Science noted that some early homo sapien skulls and tools have also been found in Israel and scientists have been able to estimate their age at 100,000 to 130,000 years old.

"At Jebel Faya, the ages reveal a fascinating picture in which modern humans migrated out of Africa much earlier than previously thought, helped by global fluctuations in sea-level and climate change in the Arabian Peninsula," said Armitage.

The site, located about an hour's drive from the city of Sharjah, is marked by a rock shelter at the edge of a mountain.

Previous artifacts uncovered in the area have been dated to the Iron, Bronze, and Neolithic periods as well as the Middle Paleolithic era, some 300,000 to 30,000 years ago.

But not all experts are convinced that the toolkit is what the authors believe it is.

"I'm totally unpersuaded," said archaeologist Paul Mellars of the University of Cambridge.

"There's not a scrap of evidence here that these were made by modern humans, nor that they came from Africa," he said. "Everything hinges on whether that material is explicitly African and I don't see that."

Study co-author Anthony Marks of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, said the tools were not the kind used by Neanderthals, who were not believed to have been in Arabia at the time.

"That makes the African origin likely by process of elimination," he said.

Read more at Discovery News

Holographic Princess Leia Nears Reality

The Force is strong with holographic scientists these days. Researchers from MIT unveiled the fastest 3-D holographic video to date at a conference in San Francisco January 23, filming a graduate student dressed as Princess Leia and projecting her as a postcard-sized hologram in real time.

The holographic device plays a 3-inch projection at 15 frames per second, just shy of movie refresh rates of 24 to 30 frames per second, the MIT researchers demonstrated at the Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers’ conference on practical holography.

The red hologram is jerkier and has much lower resolution than the one in Star Wars that sparked the public fascination with 3-D holograms in the 1970s. In fact, it kind of looks like a red blob on a staticky TV. But it’s 30 times faster than a telepresence device created in 2010 by University of Arizona researchers (SN Online: 12/4/10).

“I think it’s an important milestone because they were able to get to 15 frames per second, which is almost real time,” says physicist Nasser Peyghambarian, who led the Arizona research. “The quality is not as high, but hopefully it will get better in the future.”

The key to speed was computational power. The MIT team used a Kinect camera from an Xbox 360 gaming console to capture light from a moving object. Then they relayed the data over the Internet to a PC with three graphics processing units, or GPUs, tiny processors found in computers, cell phones, and video games that render video quickly. The processors compute how light waves interfere with each other to form patterns of light and dark fringes. Light bouncing off these fringe patterns reconstructs the original image. The MIT team used a display to illuminate the computer-generated fringes and create a hologram.

“The students were able to figure out how to generate holograms by using what GPU chips are good at,” says Michael Bove, an MIT engineer who led the research. “And they get faster every year. There’s room for a lot more understanding of how to compute holograms on them.”

MIT’s holograms are fast, says Peyghambarian, but they have to trade quality for speed.

Bove’s device uses one camera that estimates the depth of the object it is filming. The disadvantage of one camera, which is more consumer-friendly, is that you can’t see behind objects, says Bove. Also, even though graphics cards can compute high-resolution holograms, the effective display size is limited by a chip in the physical display to 150 millimeters by 75 millimeters, which Bove says is the biggest challenge to creating better holograms.

The Arizona device had a very different setup: Researchers grabbed video from 16 cameras angled around the object, so that one could walk around a holographic person and see not just the front side, but side profiles and back views. The team used an old-fashioned method that hologram artists have employed for decades, employing two lasers to create fringe patterns. Their key insight was engineering a special type of plastic that erases and rewrites quickly. The Arizona hologram is already high-definition and the size of a 17-inch TV, but speeding it up will require switching to a new laser system, says Peyghambarian.

Read more at Discovery News

Solar Lamps Empower the Poor

Evans Wadongo is not yet 25, but has already changed the lives of tens of thousands of his fellow Kenyans living in poor rural communities by supplying them with solar lamps.

As a child growing up in west Kenya, Wadongo struggled to do his homework by kerosene lamp. He was caned at school if his family ran out of fuel for the lamp, and he permanently damaged his eyesight by sitting over the smoky fumes when they did have kerosene.

But his father, whom he describes as a teacher who was "very strict" and "my greatest inspiration," saw that he completed his studies and made it into university.

Once there, Wadongo started wondering how to improve conditions for children in communities similar to his home village -- and there are many. Though Kenya is one of the richest countries in east Africa, more than half the population lives on less than a dollar a day.

The young man had always wanted to help people but did not have the stomach to go into medicine, so he opted for engineering. He was only 19 when he invented his first solar lamp after using part of his student loan to buy what he needed.

"Then, I never thought it would take off on this scale. I just wanted to take one to my grandma," he recalled.

Some 15,000 lamps have been turned out since production started in 2004, and Wadongo says his goal is to hit 100,000 by 2015.

"I started in the village where I grew up and I saw kids going from primary into high school," he told AFP.

He has no time for Kenya's political class, accusing them of "wanting people to remain poor so that they can stay in power."

For Wadongo, the lamps are not an end in themselves, but rather "a way to lift people out of poverty."

He and his team from the "Use Solar, Save Lives" project start by identifying impoverished communities that rely for lighting on kerosene lamps -- when they can afford the fuel. They hand out 30 lamps to a community association, often a women's group, and encourage the locality to pool the money each family has saved by no longer buying kerosene.

When the fund accumulates the group can use it for a project, such as fish farming or rabbit breeding.

Nomadic communities get a special model of lamp for easier transport.

Typical is Chumbi village, some 31 miles outside Nairobi where Wadongo gets an enthusiastic welcome.

"They all want lamps," smiles Agnes Muthengi, a representative from a local association, the Kalima Kathei Women's Fellowship, who accompanied him to the village.

Jennifer David, 47, lives in a mud-brick house flanked by outbuildings made largely from scrap metal.

Next door, a field of maize wilts for lack of water. David's husband is a casual day laborer and work is hard to come by. Her only other source of income is a fledgling rabbit breeding business. But with one rabbit only fetching the equivalent of one euro ($1.3) locally and one of the five children sick and in a home, life is a struggle.

Read more at Discovery News

Jan 26, 2011

Oldest Galaxy Uncloaked by Hubble

Astronomers have penetrated another layer into the past, fishing out a galaxy believed to be formed just 500 million years after the birth of the universe.

"We're really pushing the envelope, so how prevalent these are there's a fair degree of uncertainty," astronomer Rychard Bouwens, with the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Leiden University, The Netherlands, told Discovery News.

If confirmed, the discovery would push back the appearance of galaxies about 100 million years closer to the Big Bang explosion, traceable from microwave background radiation, which occurred about 13.7 billion years ago.

"It's plausible," astronomer Naveen Reddy, with the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, Ariz., told Discovery News. "I wouldn't bet my house on it, but I may bet my lunch."

The galaxy, known as UDFj-39546284, was found in near-infrared images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009 and 2010.

Light from the galaxy produces a distinctive pattern as it passes through gases lying between it and the telescope, which orbits around Earth to avoid interference from our atmosphere.  Variations in the chemical fingerprints can be used to calculate distance, much like the way the sound of train whistle changes in measurable degrees as shifts toward or away from us.

The celestial yardstick is called "redshift," since light stretches to longer wavelengths, toward the color red on the electromagnetic spectrum, as it travels over greater distances. The newly discovered galaxy has a redshift of about 10.3, which means its light has traveled about 13.2 billion years to reach us. Light travels at a constant speed of 186,000 miles per second.

"Looking for objects at redshift 10 is extremely painstaking process," Bouwens said. "Essentially what we're looking at here is the tip of the iceberg."

The detection of even one galaxy at this distance tells scientists that there wasn't as much star formation going on in the oldest galaxies as there was in galaxies appearing just 100 million years later, though the object could be a fluke.

Read more at Discovery News

Jan 25, 2011

Meteor and asteroid impacts: doom-laden myths dispelled

Among the marvellous stories that decorate Incoming!, an excellent newly published history of meteorites, is one that describes the rapid rise and fall of Elagabalus, an eccentric teenage Roman emperor.

In a temple on the Palatine Hill, Elagabalus installed a heavenly object of veneration.The thunderstone, which had fallen into the Syrian Desert, was believed to be the embodiment of the god El-Gabal. Each summer solstice, a chariot carried the meteorite around, with Elagabalus walking backwards before it.

But meteorites were often associated with doom – and that turned out to be the case for Elagabalus, whose worship of the rock became yet another reason for him to be deposed, along with his marrying a succession of women, including a Vestal Virgin, his transsexuality, and his relationship with a blond chariot driver. In the end, Elagabalus was beheaded and his remains tossed in the Tiber, after the soldiers of the Praetorian Guard lost patience with the way that, as Edward Gibbon put it, the emperor had "abandoned himself to the grossest pleasures and ungoverned fury".

His demise paved the way for Alexander Severus, a safer pair of hands. And that is the message of Ted Nield's book: that meteorites are not all bad news, since these destructive leftovers of the birth of the solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago can make way for new blood.

The best known example is the impact in present-day Mexico, 65 million years ago, of a rock six miles wide, which shrouded the planet in darkness and triggered a global winter. Colossal eruptions of volcanoes created the Deccan traps in India, generating some of the longest lava flows ever seen, along with thousands of billions of tons of noxious gases. Species that couldn't adapt to this hell promptly became extinct.

But as Nield points out, while the asteroid spelt disaster for the dinosaurs, it was good news for mammals. As a recent study by Jessica Theodor and colleagues at the University of Calgary showed, with less competition for vegetation, mammals could evolve and get about a thousand times bigger.

And this is not the only example of how meteorites can create opportunities for life. There was also the Great Ordovician Biodiversity Event, around 470 million years ago. The likeliest cause of this surge in the numbers of species can be found in space: a widespread bombardment of the Earth as a large asteroid broke up to unleash a swarm of smaller rocks that battered the Earth for millions of years.

Fossil meteorites in mid-Ordovician rocks suggests that the rate of impacts was around 100 times what it is today. This would have caused sufficient mayhem – local extinction events – to free up space for new species to flourish. The seas, where the majority of life resided, were overrun by newfangled life forms. First came massive algal blooms. These nourished filter-feeders, kick-starting an evolutionary bonanza of sponges and corals, along with reefs that were hot spots of biodiversity. There was a rise in brachiopods – shelled creatures that look something like clams – as well as bushy bryozoans and flowery crinoids, or sea lilies. Wander along the shoreline and the chances are that many of the creatures you come across, including sea urchins and star fish, emerged in this era.

And, strangely enough, a similar effect paved the way for the success of gene transplants to treat disease. In the Nineties, there was much excitement about the potential of "gene therapy", but it took another decade to make it work.

Read more at The Telegraph

British woman 'cured' of deep depression by pioneering surgery

Sheila Cook, 62, suffered for more than a decade with debilitating depression which left her suicidal and often unable to feed or clothe herself.

She was forced to retire from her job and her husband, a physics researcher, had to give up work to become her full time carer.

But now the grandmother is beginning to enjoy life again after pioneering treatment was offered to her in Bristol.

The treatment accurately targets brain networks involved in depression.

Mrs Cook – whose illness had stopped responding to conventional treatments such as antidepressants – was offered deep brain stimulation (DBS) in the first trial in the world that stimulates two different parts of the brain.

Although DBS provided some temporary response, she relapsed and went on to be the first to have further advanced neurosurgery called an "Anterior Cingulotomy", which was carried out in early 2010.

Since having the treatments Mrs Cook says her life has changed and she feels happy for the first time in 10 years.

She now feels a connection to her grandchildren for the first time since they were born.

Mrs Cook said: "The effects were remarkable. Within a few weeks my life changed.

"I read books, did the housework, went for walks and, perhaps most importantly, got to know my family again."

DBS consists of inserting thin wires in the brain that are connected to a matchbox sized "pacemaker" inserted under the skin that provides constant electric stimulation.

The effects are to inhibit and stimulate brain circuits that are either too active or underactive.

These brain circuits are known to be involved with the regulation and control of emotion.

Dr Andrea Malizia, at Bristol University, led the study along with Mr Nikunj Patel, a neurosurgeon at North Bristol NHS Trust.

Dr Malizia said: "Our patients and their families suffer enormously and it is often thought that nothing else can be done.

"This lady responded temporarily to two of the complex treatments that we initiated in Bristol, but in the end remission has only been achieved by persisting and moving on to the next advanced treatment.

"We are very grateful to our patients and their relatives who, in spite of depression destroying their lives, bravely carry on fighting the illness year after year."

Mrs Cook has two grandchildren, but when the first was born at the height of her depression she said she initially took no interest.

The second was born seven months ago, after treatment and when she was feeling better.

She said: "I'm now rediscovering my family and my wonderful grandchildren so much so that we are now planning to move to be nearer to them.

"I cannot thank the clinicians and researchers who worked with me enough – they have given me my life back."

Read more at The Telegraph

Jan 24, 2011

Swiss recognise 'alternative' medicine – for now

The government of Switzerland has bowed to popular pressure and decreed that state-backed health insurance must pay for five types of "complementary medicine" between now and 2017, pending an independent investigation of whether or not they work. Supporters of evidence-based medicine fear the process will confer credibility on dubious treatments.

Switzerland has 17,200 registered complementary practitioners, the most per head of population in the world. In 2009, 67 per cent of the electorate voted, under the country's system of deciding issues by referendum, for five such therapies to be covered by health insurance. They are homeopathy, herbal and traditional Chinese treatments, anthroposophic medicine – which among other techniques uses mistletoe to treat cancer – and neural therapy, which is based on injecting local anaesthetics near nerve centres.

In December, however, the government's scientific panel advised that this would be illegal, as the law requires insurance to pay only for treatments that meet objective measures of efficacy, and these techniques do not. Yet the government cannot ignore the referendum.

"The only legal solution was to pay for the five methods temporarily, but linked to an evidence-based evaluation," says Ignazio Cassis, a member of the Swiss federal parliament and vice-chair of the Swiss Medical Association. "This isn't science, it's Swiss politics."

From effect to benefit

The evaluation will be based on a report on existing studies of the techniques. This will be prepared by Swiss complementary practitioners and then reviewed by an independent institution, possibly the UK's National Institute of Clinical Excellence. Hansueli Albonico, head of the Swiss practitioners' union, says 2000 studies have been done.

But they may not be the rigorously controlled trials normally required for medicines. Albonico told journalists that "we need a shift away from methods used for testing effectiveness, such as are appropriate for drugs, to studies that show the overall benefit".

Read more at New Scientist

Himalayan Glaciers Shrinking, With Some Exceptions

An important portion of the Himalaya’s glacier cover is currently stable and, thanks to an insulating layer of debris, may be even growing, a new study finds. The study’s conclusion contradicts a portion of the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that had to be retracted last year because it could not be substantiated.

sciencenewsThough the IPCC report stated that the risk of the region’s glaciers “disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high,” the new study finds that ice cover is stable in the Karakoram mountains, a northern range that holds about half of the Himalaya’s store of frozen water.

That’s not to imply that water reservoirs on what’s often called the roof of the world aren’t under stress. Throughout most Himalayan ranges, roughly 65 percent of the studied glaciers were shrinking, Dirk Scherler of the University of Potsdam, Germany, and his colleagues report in the January 23 Nature Geoscience. But in Karakoram, 58 percent of studied glaciers were stable or slowly expanding up to 12 meters per year.

Scherler’s team pored over satellite images of 286 glaciers throughout the Himalayas. Collected between 2000 and 2008, they showed a consistent trend everywhere except the Karakoram: a reduction in the area of glacial cover. Many glaciers in those regions also were stagnant — not flowing — which, Scherler says, is an indicator of poor health.

The new findings are consistent with what Kenneth Hewitt of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, has observed, and point to the fact “that the picture of climate change effects in high Asia is much more complicated than most people realize.”

Indeed, for much of the past century Karakoram’s glaciers were in retreat. A 2005 paper by Hewitt described a turnaround that commenced only in the late 1990s.

In the new study, Scherler’s team looked for factors that might affect the responsiveness of Himalayan glaciers to regional warming. A rocky blanket quickly emerged as a major one.

In general, the warmer the air above a glacier becomes the faster exposed ice will melt. A thin veneer of dust or grit will darken glaciers, increasing the amount of heat they absorb and exaggerating their warming, much as a dark roof becomes hotter in sunlight than a light gray one. But once the depth of any rock cover exceeds several centimeters, it will insulate ice from the sun’s warming rays. In some lower reaches of Himalayan glaciers, especially in the Karakoram, rock debris can include house-size boulders, Scherler observes.

In this range, it seems, rocky rubble eroded from uphill peaks serves to decouple the effects of regional warming from glacial retreats. The new analysis found retreat rates varied in the Himalaya “from high for debris-free glaciers to zero for glaciers with debris cover greater than 20 percent.”

Read more at Wired

Jan 23, 2011

Ice age graveyard reveals its secrets

The fossilised remains, which were discovered in sediment at the bottom of a drained reservoir in the Rocky Mountains, Colorado, are thought to be one of the largest collection of animals from the last ice age to be found in one place and it is already providing scientists with new insights into the prehistoric environment.

Contractors preparing the ground for the construction of a new dam at the reservoir near Snowmass Village, which is part of the Aspen ski resort, uncovered the bones of a mammoth and now more than 600 bones have been recovered from beneath the lake bed before heavy snow halted the excavation.

Palaeontologists leading the dig found the remains of four Columbian mammoths; 10 American mastodons, a distant relation of the mammoth and elephant; four ice age bison, which were twice the size of modern bison; a species of ice age deer; and a Jefferson's ground sloth and a tiger salamander.

They expect to find more fossils when the return to the site when the snow melts in the spring.

Researchers, including experts at the Royal Holloway University of London, are now attempting to piece together how the animals came to be buried in one place and what the ice age landscape would have looked like at the time.

"It is an amazing site and is very unusual," said Dr Kirk Johnson, chief curator and vice president of research and collections at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science who led the excavation. "It is a true treasure trove of ice age fossils.

"Many of the fossils are pristine as they have been very well preserved. Some of the bones we recovered are still white while we are finding leaves that are still green and tree branches with the bark still on.

The first mammoth was discovered at the end of October when a bulldozer struck some of the ice age mammals' bones during work to expand the Ziegler Reservoir, which sits on a plateau at 8,870 feet in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.

Palaeontologists from Denver Museum of Nature and Science spent two weeks excavating a one acre wide area, unearthing more than 25 different animals from seven different species within a two-week period.

Among the most dramatic fossils to be found was the skull of an ice age bison, Bison latifrons, with three foot long horns. Weighing nearly 18 stone, the skull measures almost eight feet across from the tip of each horn when it was pieced together.

They also found more than 15 tusks including massive seven foot long mastodon tusks, bones of an as yet unknown species of ice age deer, the remains of a Jefferson's ground sloth, an extinct plant eater that grew to be the size of an ox.

They also discovered the remains of trees that bore teeth marks from an ice age beaver. Other bones bore teeth marks, suggesting some of the animals may have been killed by predators, although the palaeontologists have yet to find any remains of predators.

The animals are thought to have lived between 150,000 and 50,000 years ago when much of northern Europe and North America was covered in glaciers from the last ice age.

Read more at The Telegraph

Trust Your Gut—If You’re Aware of Your Heartbeat

“All the songs that tell people to listen to their hearts may be truer than crooners realize, a new study says. Test subjects who were more conscious of their heart rates were more likely to “trust their guts” when making decisions—and in some cases that intuition paid off.

University of Cambridge researcher Barnaby Dunn and colleagues had 28 subjects play a virtual card game in which they could win money by choosing cards from four supposedly random decks. The game involved guessing whether a chosen card would be the same color as an already upturned card. In actuality the decks were stacked, and it was only possible to win big by choosing from two of the four decks.

No matter what the participants guessed, they would be correct 60 percent of the time if they chose from deck A or B. They’d be right only 40 percent of the time if they chose from deck C or D. “In the card game, there were good choices to make and bad choices, and when they make bad choices, their body should give them an arousal signal,” such as an increased heart rate, Dunn said.

Previous work done by University of Iowa researchers had shown that subjects playing a similarly stacked card game began avoiding the “bad” decks long before they were aware of it, about the same time that their palms began to sweat. In the new experiment, the researchers first asked people to count their own heartbeats. “We don’t want them to feel their pulse [with their fingers], and we ask them to take their watches off” for the heartbeat-counting exercise, Dunn said.

“Most people say, I’ve got no idea [what my heart rate is], and yet despite that, quite a lot of people can do it.” Playing the card game then showed that people who counted their own heartbeats more accurately caught on to the stacked decks much quicker—even if they didn’t know it.”

Read more at National Geographic