Jun 4, 2011

Heaviest elements yet join periodic table

Elements 114 and 116 have been officially added to the periodic table, becoming its heaviest members yet. They both exist for less than a second before decaying into lighter atoms, but they bring researchers a step closer to making even heavier elements that are predicted to be stable for decades or longer, forming a fabled "island of stability" in the periodic table.

Evidence for the two elements has been mounting for years. They were finally given official status as new elements on Wednesday, after a three-year review by the Joint Working Party on Discovery of Elements, a committee of scientists from the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) and the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP).

Several teams have claimed to have produced element 114, starting in 1999. But the committee decided that a series of experiments reported by a collaboration of two teams in 2004 and 2006 provided the first convincing evidence. The same series of experiments is credited with producing evidence of element 116.
Slammed together

One of the collaborating groups was led by Yuri Oganessian at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR) in Dubna, Russia, and the other by Ken Moody at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

The researchers forged the new heavy elements by slamming together the nuclei of lighter atoms at an accelerator at JINR. They made element 116 by bombarding targets made of the radioactive element curium, which has 96 protons in its nucleus, with calcium nuclei, which have 20 protons.

Nuclei of element 116 lasted only a few milliseconds before spitting out an alpha particle made of two protons and two neutrons and thereby decaying into nuclei of element 114. The team also made element 114 directly by firing calcium nuclei at plutonium targets, which have 94 protons in their nuclei.
Gone too soon

Element-114 nuclei decayed after about half a second into copernicium, which contains 112 protons, and is itself a very recent addition to the periodic table, having officially joined only in 2009. It was the pattern of time intervals between these decays, along with the energy of the alpha particles produced, that clinched the case for the elements' creation.

So what are elements 114 and 116 like? Unfortunately, their properties are still murky because the quantities produced were too small and existed too fleetingly for scientists to measure their chemical behaviour, such as what other elements they tend to react with.

"The lifetimes of these things have to be reasonably long so you can study the chemistry – meaning, pushing a minute," says Paul Karol of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, who chaired the committee that approved the new elements.

Read more at New Scientist

Rare Midnight Solar Eclipse Caught in Arctic

Fortunate northerners saw a rare eclipse of the midnight sun on June 1.

During the Arctic summer, the sun dips low on the horizon but never sets. That means a solar eclipse is theoretically possible at any time. But this week’s eclipse was the first visible from Scandinavia since 2000, and the deepest since 1985. The next one won’t be for another 73 years.

“This was a rare event even up here,” said astrophotographer Bernt Olsen, who shot the photo above from his home in Tromsø, Norway. “I was lucky to get these shots.”

The event was almost rained out in Tromsø, with heavy clouds and rain arriving as the eclipse began, Olsen said. “But when the maximum occurred at 23:30, the sun again broke though the skies and started shining, but now partly hidden behind the moon.”

Read more at Wired Science

Bank regrets attempted home repossession of couple with no mortgage

The Bank of America filed foreclosure papers on the home of a couple, who didn’t owe a dime on their home. They paid cash and never even had a mortgage. Not good enough for the bank, the case went to court and the bank lost.

A Collier County Judge agreed and after the hearing, Bank of America was ordered, by the court to pay the legal fees of the homeowners’, Maurenn Nyergers and her husband.

The Judge said the bank wrongfully tried to foreclose on the Nyergers’ house. After more than 5 months of the judge’s ruling, the bank still hadn’t paid the legal fees, and the homeowner’s attorney did exactly what the bank tried to do to the homeowners. He seized the bank’s assets.

Full story at Digtriad

Jun 3, 2011

Cryptic Mutations Could Be Evolution’s Hidden Fuel

The transformation of raw genetic material on a laboratory bench has provided a rare empirical demonstration of processes that may be universally crucial to evolution, but are only beginning to be understood.

The processes, called cryptic variation and preadaptation, involve mutations that don’t affect an organism when they first occur, and are initially exempt from pressures of natural selection. As they gather, however, at some later date, they could combine to form the basis for complex, unpredictable new traits.

In the new study, the ability of evolving, chemical-crunching molecules called ribozymes to adapt in new environments proved directly related to earlier accumulations of cryptic mutations. The details are esoteric, but their implications involve the very essence of adaptation and evolution.

“It’s one of the more modern topics in evolutionary theory,” said mathematical biologist Joshua Plotkin of the University of Pennsylvania, author of a commentary on the experiment, which was described June 2 in Nature. “The idea has been around for a while, but direct evidence hasn’t been found until recently.”

The experiment was led by evolutionary biologists Eric Hayden and Andreas Wagner of Switzerland’s University of Zurich, who use ribozymes — molecules made from RNA, a single-stranded form of genetic material – to study evolutionary principles in the simplest possible way.

The principles of cryptic variation and preadaptation were first proposed in the mid-20th century and conceptually refined in the mid-1970s. They were logical answers to the question of how complex traits, seemingly far too complex to be explained by one or a few mutations, could arise.

But even as such leading thinkers as Stephen Jay Gould embraced the concept, it proved difficult to study in detail. The tools didn’t exist to interpret genetic data with the necessary rigor. The concept itself was also difficult to grasp, injecting long periods of accumulation, purposeless mutations into an evolutionary narrative supposedly driven by constant selection.

In recent years, however, with the advent of better tools and a growing appreciation for evolution’s sheer complexity, researchers’ attention has turned again to cryptic variation and preadaptation. Computer models and scattered observations in bacteria and yeast hinted at their importance. But definitive proof, combining exhaustive genetic observation with real-world evolution, was elusive.

“Cryptic variation addresses questions of innovation,” said Hayden. “How do new things come about in biology? There’s been a long history of this concept, but no concrete experimental demonstration.”
In the new study, Hayden and Wagner evolved ribozymes in test tubes of chemicals, then moved them to a new chemical substrate, a shift analogous to requiring animals to suddenly subsist on a new food source.

The ribozymes that flourished were those that had accumulated specific sets of cryptic mutations in their former environment. Those variations, seemingly irrelevant before, became the basis of newly useful adapation. The researchers were able to measure every change in detail.

“It is a groundbreaking proof of principle,” said University of Arizona evolutionary biologist Joanna Masel, who wasn’t involved in the study. “This study is a clear demonstration that cryptic genetic variation can make evolution more effective.”

According to Plotkin, cryptic variation and preadaptation may be crucial to the evolution of drug resistance and immune system evasion in pathogens. Rather than looking for straightforward mutations, researchers could search for combinations, perhaps developing an “advance warning system” to flag seemingly innocuous changes.

Another application could be in genetic engineering. Whereas virus and bacteria designers tend to “accept any mutations that get them closer to their intended outcome,” said Plotkin, “it might be important to take lateral steps as well as uphill steps.”

Read more at Wired Science

Time-Lapse Video Catches Milky Way Season in Swing

Plains Milky Way from Randy Halverson on Vimeo.

Far from starscape-dulling city lights, farmer and photographer Randy Halverson spent three weeks creating a new video of the spinning night sky.

Shot from his central South Dakota farm, the video (above) features the Milky Way, which appears to our eyes as a fuzzy band but is actually an an edge-on view of dust lit by billions of stars. Summer is the prime season for North Americans to catch the Milky Way.

“Now is the first good time of the year to go out and see it, and maybe the best,” said Halverson. “There’s not as many mosquitoes, it isn’t too muggy and the rattlesnakes aren’t around. Those can be trouble.”

Battling strong winds and clouds, Halverson used a robotic camera rig to snap hundreds of still photos in about 20 three- to four-hour shoots. Back at his computer, he stitched together images from the best shoots. Each second of the video spans about 14 minutes of actual time.

Read more at Wired

Roman Ship Carried Live Fish Tank

The ancient Romans might have traded live fish across the Mediterranean Sea by endowing their ships with an ingenious hydraulic system, a new investigation into a second century A.D. wreck suggests.

Consisting of a pumping system designed to suck the sea water into a fish tank, the apparatus has been reconstructed by a team of Italian researchers who analyzed a unique feature of the wreck: a lead pipe inserted in the hull near the keel.

Recovered in pieces from the Adriatic sea in 1999, the ship was carrying a cargo of processed fish when it sank six miles off the coast of Grado in northeastern Italy.

The small trade vessel, which was 55 feet long and 19 feet wide, was packed with some 600 vases called amphoras.They were filled with sardines, salted mackerel, and garum, a fish sauce much loved by the Romans.

Now the archaeologists suspect that some 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of live fish, placed in a tank on the deck in the aft area, might have also been carried by the ship during its sailing life.

"The apparatus shows how a simple small cargo vessel could have been turned into one able to carry live fish. This potentiality, if confirmed by future studies, shows that trading live fish was actually possible in the Roman world," Carlo Beltrame, a marine archaeologist at the Ca' Foscari University of Venice in Italy, told Discovery News.

Indeed, a number of historical accounts have suggested that the Romans might have transported live fish by sea. For example, the scientist and historian Pliny the Elder (23 – 79 A.D.), wrote that live parrotfish were shipped from the Black Sea to the Neapolitan coast in order to introduce the species into the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Measuring 51 inches in length and featuring a diameter of at least 2.7 inches, the unique lead pipe was located in a sort of "small bilge-well" and would have been connected to a hand operated piston pump (which had not been found within the wreck).

Ending with a hole right in the hull, the pipe intrigued the researchers.

"No seaman would have drilled a hole in the keel, creating a potential way for water to enter the hull, unless there was a very powerful reason to do so," Beltrame and colleagues reported in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology.

According to the researchers, the reason wasn't the need for removing bilge water from the bottom of the boat through the pipe.

Indeed, bucket chain pumps were able to discharge bilge water from the side in a much safer way, possibly recovering between 110 and 225 liters (30 to 60 gallons) of water per minute.

"It seems unlikely that sailors aboard the small Grado ship abandoned the usual chain-pumping apparatus in favor of the more complex bilge pump," Beltrame said.

Rather than serving a bilge pump to send water out of the ship, the pipe could have supported a sucking pump to bring water onto the vessel, the researchers argued.

But what could have been the purpose of such an unusual hydraulic system?

According to Beltrame and colleagues, the ship was too small to justify the presence of the pump to wash the decks or extinguish fires (similar piston-driven suction systems were employed on warships such as Horatio Nelson's HMS Victory).

"Given the ship's involvement in the fish trade, the most logical hypothesis is that the piston pump worked to supply a fish tank with oxygenated water," said Beltrame.

The researchers calculated that the small trade vessel could have carried a tank containing around 4 cubic meters (141 cubic feet) of water.

This water mass would have created no problems for stability while housing some 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of live fish, such as sea bass or sea bream.

Connected to the lead pipe, the hand operated piston pump would have easily allowed the necessary exchange of the water mass.

According to the researchers, the water would have needed to be replaced once every half an hour in order to provide a constant oxygen supply.

"With a flow of 252 liters (66 gallons) per minute, the piston pump would have filled the tank in 16 minutes," Beltrame said.

According to Rita Auriemma, a marine archaeologist at the University of Salento, it is plausible that the hydraulic system in Grado ship served for live fish trade.

"The context in which the ship operated makes this the most logical explanation," Auriemma told Discovery News.

Read more at Discovery News

Jun 2, 2011

Sony faces long term hacking campaign from LulzSec

CNet: A group that made headlines for hacking the PBS Web site earlier this week is apparently turning its attention to Sony.

The group known as LulzSec has been promising Sony attacks since this past weekend when it posted to its Twitter account that it is engaged in an operation it calls “Sownage,” shorthand for Sony Ownage. The group stated at the time that it was working on hatching a plan that would be the “beginning of the end” for Sony. It has yet to reveal what it has planned. But yesterday the group said that the attack was already under way, seemingly without Sony’s knowledge.

“Hey @Sony, you know we’re making off with a bunch of your internal stuff right now and you haven’t even noticed?” LulzSec tweeted. “Slow and steady, guys.”

Sony has been in the crosshairs of hackers for quite some time now. In April, the company’s PlayStation Network and Qriocity services were breached by hackers, forcing the company to take them offline. Sony Online Entertainment was also attacked and subsequently taken down. Following the breach, Sony announced that the personal information of over 100 million of its users was stolen. However, the company said credit card information was encrypted and, so far, no identity theft has been reported.

LulzSec has stopped short of revealing its plans for Sony. But even today, it continues to promise big things for operation Sownage.

“Keep on crying, Sony fanboys,” the group tweeted today. “Your tears create the sea and your whining creates the wind that we so gracefully use to traverse onward.”

Petri Dish Brain Has 'Short-Term Memory'

This psychedelic donut may look like a blacklight poster on the wall of that dude who was really into Pink Floyd freshman year, but it's actually more mind-blowing than any poster glowing on the wall of a dorm room. In a way, it's  "A Saucerful of Secrets," but in reality it's the creation of a few scientists attempting to grow an active brain in a petri dish.

The artificial microbrain consists of about 40 to 60 rat neurons and is capable of sustaining 12 neuronal seconds of network activity.

Although this sounds like a lost Syd Barrett song, the University of Pittsburgh researchers behind this project were able to keep a leash on their consciousness and create something far beyond a trippy song and dance.
invisible soldier

To cultivate their microbrain, Henry C. Zeringue and his colleagues took a silicon disk and stamped it with a layer of adhesive proteins. After the proteins had cultured and dried, brain (hippocampus) cells from embryonic rats were fused to the proteins and given time to grow and connect, forming a natural ring-shaped network capable of transmitting and receiving electrical signals.

By stimulating the neurons with an electrical pulse, the researchers found that the pulse could surge around the microbrain for 12 seconds, which was 11.75 seconds long than the team anticipated. This meant the neurons were storing and transmitting the signal in sequence, creating a sort of short-term memory.

"Persistent activity in the brain is involved in working memory and motor planning," states the study the team published in the journal Lab on a Chip. "The ability of the brain to hold information ‘online' long after an initiating stimulus is a hallmark of brain areas such as the prefrontal cortex."

Read more at Discovery News

Jun 1, 2011

Hybrid Mammoth DNA Found

Woolly and Columbian mammoths, two species of elephant that once lived in North America, may have interbred.

Mitochondrial DNA analysis of a Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) found in Utah suggests that its mitochondrial DNA was nearly identical to that of the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius).

"We think this individual may have been a woolly-Columbian hybrid," said Jacob Enk of the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre, the group that led the research, which was recently published in Genome Biology.

"Living African elephant species interbreed where their ranges adjoin, with males of the bigger species out-competing the smaller for mates," he explained in a press release. The mitochondrial genomes in the smaller females then show up in populations of the larger species. "Since woolly and Columbian ranges periodically overlapped in time and space, it's likely that they engaged in similar behaviour and left a similar genetic signal," Enk said.

Modern examples of this can be seen where two varieties of elephant in Africa encounter each other. The larger savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana africana) and the smaller forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis) are capable of interbreeding. Genetic evidence has fueled a debate that these two modern elephants are indeed separate species.

The hybridization of mammoths may explain other fossils that look like intermediates between the two species. These fossils were sometimes assigned to the species Mammathus jeffersonii, but further research may show them to be hybrids of the woolly and Columbian mammoths.

Read more at Discovery News

Early Human Dads Stayed at Home While Females Roamed

Males within two human ancestral species that existed roughly 2.7 to 1.7 million years ago were stay-at-home fellows, while females of these same species traveled, according to a new Nature paper.

The finding not only suggests that homebody males today may have a genetic predisposition for their lifestyle choice, but that certain female dispersal patterns among humans may mirror those of chimpanzees and bonobos. These two other primates also have stay-put males and traveling females.

"In any primate society, the females, the males, or some of both must eventually leave their birth community and join or form other communities," lead author Sandi Copeland, an adjunct professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, told Discovery News. "One important reason for this is to prevent inbreeding."

For the study, Copeland and her team analyzed 19 teeth from both Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus robustus individuals. These early human relatives lived at different time periods, but in two adjacent South African cave systems: Sterkfontein and Swartkans.

The researchers used a technique known as laser ablation, which zaps the teeth with lasers, measuring isotope ratios of the metallic element strontium. Unique strontium signals are tied to specific geological substrates, such as granite and sandstone, and therefore "strontium isotope ratios are a direct reflection of the foods these hominids ate, which in turn are a reflection of the local geology," Copeland explained.

The strontium "signatures" lock into the molars of humans probably when they are about 8 or 9 years old. The measurements revealed males tended to not stray far from home. The majority of the females, on the other hand, had moved from the place where they were born.

Copeland said, "It is possible that female hominins chose to leave their natal groups in order to mate with unrelated males, an indirect result of the males in their natal group choosing not to leave." But, she added, "We cannot exclude the possibility that female hominins did not move of their own free will, as abduction of females is known to occur in modern humans, rarely in chimpanzees, and often in Hamadryas baboons."

Chimpanzees have actually been observed taking females away from their home communities and attacking them if they resist leaving. Whether or not this occurred among the early human relatives remains unclear.

The findings, however, suggest that our ancestors did not live as gorillas do today, with males traveling and females staying put and living in harems. The fact that early human ancestral males did not travel, however, does not mean that they helped to raise children. Chimpanzees, which exhibit the same dispersal patterns, have males that stay at home but yet "don't participate in childcare," Copeland says.

Another possible implication is that two-legged walking emerged in humans for reasons other than improved locomotion.

"If one interprets our results as indicating that male australopiths rarely moved long distances, then one is left to wonder if the need for energetic efficiency was sufficient to drive the origins of bipedalism," co-author Matt Sponheimer explained.

Margaret Schoeninger, a University of California at San Diego anthropologist, authored a commentary in Nature about the new findings.

Schoeninger echoed Copeland's reasoning for why females dispersed, saying "it eliminates the potential genetic problems that can appear due to inbreeding." Based on the new research, and prior determinations, she told Discovery News that we now know the australopithecines lived within small ranges, were relatively stationary (with perhaps even the traveling females not moving very far away) and that they "lived in areas with lots of large predators."

Read more at Discovery News

May 31, 2011

Genes and DNA: meet the first man to read the book of life

At 3am, on Saturday May 27, 1961, J Heinrich Matthaei began one of the most important experiments in the history of science. Its 50th anniversary, last Friday, passed almost unnoticed – because Matthaei is one of those unlucky people who played a decisive part in shaping our history, only to be almost entirely written out of it.

The young German researcher’s accomplishment that night, in Marshall Nirenberg’s laboratory at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, was to crack the genetic code, and open the road to the marvels of modern genetics. Scientists had known for a decade that our genes were made of DNA – deoxyribonucleic acid – and that this DNA produced proteins. But they remained perplexed as to how the system actually worked. DNA was a boring molecule, composed of only four components, or “bases” – adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine, normally abbreviated to A, T, C and G. No one could understand how such a simple structure could produce the complex proteins that make up life.

That enigma was resolved in 1953, in two scientific articles by James Watson and Francis Crick of the University of Cambridge. First, they suggested that the DNA molecule was composed of two parallel spirals that were mirror images of each other, with the sequence of bases on one spiral being matched by the sequence on the other – the double helix. Then, five weeks later, they boldly stated that “the precise sequence of the bases is the code which carries the genetical information”. They argued that the DNA molecule contained a code that told the cell what protein to make.

Immediately, the physicist George Gamow suggested that the code must use sequences of three “letters” or bases. Given that there were 20 amino acids, a two-base code would not work (there are only 16 possible two-letter combinations of the four bases). A three-base code would produce 64 possible combinations – easily enough to encode the 20 amino acids.

But this was still just a theory – and obtaining proof turned out to be remarkably difficult. For a start, scientists began to suspect that another molecule, RNA, was involved in producing proteins. RNA was just like DNA, except that it was only a single helix and the T was replaced by a U, uracil.

Crick, along with most scientists, thought that the best way of cracking the code would be to mutate viruses and then swap the mutated bits around until the relationship between DNA, RNA and proteins eventually became clear. Marshall Nirenberg, however, had a very different approach. Although he had an MSc in the biology of caddis flies, he had turned his attention to biochemistry and in 1959, aged 32, had decided to study how DNA encodes proteins.

This was a bold move: some of the world’s top scientists had been hammering away at the problem without getting very far, despite massive funding. Nirenberg was not a molecular biologist, had no publishing record in the field, and worked in a backwater laboratory.

Whatever the New Yorker lacked in resources, however, he made up in ingenuity. If he could get protein synthesis to occur in a test tube, he reasoned, he could find out how it worked. This proved exceptionally tricky, but in August 1960, Nirenberg recruited Matthaei to his laboratory. Over the next nine months, the German’s meticulous technical skills helped get the system going.

How did it work? First, the two men took the bits of a cell that were involved in protein synthesis and energy production, and then added various enzymes and trace elements at just the right concentrations. Into this delicate mix they poured RNA and radioactive amino acids, so they could detect the protein that was synthesised as a result.

Nirenberg had some artificial RNA that was composed of just one base – uracil – repeated over and over. The “code” on this molecule therefore read “UUUUUUUU” (or “poly-U”). By putting this into the test tube and seeing what protein came out, Nirenberg and Matthaei would be able to read the first word in the genetic code. The advantage of this approach was that it did not matter whether the individual “words” in the code – the instructions to produce a particular protein – used sets of two, three, four or more bases. Since the poly-U RNA molecule was very long, the system would be able to make sense of the message it contained.

By May 20, Nirenberg and Matthaei had used this technique to produce a radioactive protein but, frustratingly, they could not be sure of which amino acids the protein was made. In other words, the code was still unbroken. With Nirenberg away in California, Matthaei carried out crucial experiments, eliminating the alternatives until it came down to one final experiment, in the early hours, that would settle the matter.

Read more at The Telegraph

Human brain has it’s own form of ‘bat sight’

The part of the brain used by people who can “see like a bat” has been identified by researchers in Canada. Some blind people have learned to echolocate by making clicking noises and listening to the returning echoes.

A study of two such people, published in PLoS ONE, showed a part of the brain usually associated with sight was activated when listening to echoes.

Action for Blind People said further research could improve the way the technique is taught. Bats and dolphins bounce sound waves off their surroundings and by listening to the echoes can “see” the world around them.

Some blind humans have also trained themselves to do this, allowing them to explore cities, cycle and play sports.

The study looked at only two people so cannot say for certain what happens in the brains of all people who learn the technique, but the study concludes: “EB and LB use echolocation in a way that seems uncannily similar to vision.”

Full article at BBC

China creates an “online army”

The Chinese government confirms it has established an online warfare team to beef up the defense capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), according to various reports Friday.

Geng Yansheng, spokesperson for China’s Defense Ministry, was quoted to say that the PLA set up the cyberwar unit, or “cyber blue team”, to support its military training and upgrade the army’s Internet security defense.

A report from China’s state-owned Xinhua News Agency noted that Geng’s comments came after the PLA Daily on May 17 revealed the existence of a cyber warfare unit. The media outlet, which covers news on the army, added that the blue team operates under the Guangzhou Military Region–one of seven across China–and had conducted a synchronized Internet exercise with different military units in late-April.

The Guangzhou cyberwar network reportedly employs over 30 Internet specialists.

Geng rebuffed suggestions that the cyber warfare unit was set up to be a “hacker” squad launching online attacks against other countries’ systems.

“Cyberattacks have become an international problem affecting both civilian and military areas,” he said in a report from Global Times. “China is relatively weak in cybersecurity and has often been targeted. This temporary program is aimed at improving our defenses against such attacks.”

Full article at ZDNet Asia

May 30, 2011

Al Capone gun could sell for £70k at auction

The Colt .38 was made in May 1929, just months after the gangster ordered the murder of seven of his rivals in the St Valentine's Day Massacre.

It is being sold by a private collector and comes with a letter signed by Capone's sister-in-law confirming its authenticity.

The New York-born mobster, who was known as Scarface, dominated the Chicago underworld during prohibition until his 1931 arrest for tax evasion. He died in 1947.

Also included in the June 22 sale is a gun belonging to American outlaw Thomas Coleman ''Cole'' Younger who was a member of the James gang with brothers Frank and Jesse James.

Read more at The Telegraph

May 29, 2011

Cross your arms to relieve pain

HURT your hand? You might find that crossing one arm over the other eases the pain.

Giandomenico Iannetti at University College London and colleagues gave 20 volunteers a series of painful "jabs" to the back of one of their hands using a laser, with each pulse lasting 8 to 12 seconds. In half of the experiments the group received the jabs while they laid their palms face down on a desk. In the other half they crossed their arms over one another on the desk. Volunteers rated the pain they felt on a scale from zero to 100.

Volunteers with crossed hands rated three increasing pain intensities as less painful compared with when they kept their hands uncrossed.

Iannetti suggests that placing your hands in unfamiliar spatial positions relative to the body muddles the brain and disrupts the processing of the pain message. "You get this mismatch between your body's frame of reference and your external space frame of reference," he says. Similar pain-relieving effects have been reported before using illusions involving mirrors and virtual limbs.

Read more at New Scientist

Elgar's unread message

The English composer Edward Elgar was a keen cryptographer. The melody of his Enigma Variations - for which the German enciphering machines were named - is supposedly complementary to the melody of a famous song by another composer. He didn't say which.

This melodic mystery is not the only surviving Elgar puzzler. In 1897, he wrote an 87-character code to his friend Dorabella Penny. Forty years later, she published the code in her memoirs but claimed never to have solved it.

In the intervening years, many would-be codebreakers have also drawn a blank. The script appears to contain 24 distinct squiggly symbols spread across three lines. Analysis of the code suggests the symbols could be a simple "substitution cipher", where each symbol is assigned to a letter. But this hasn't produced an answer, so perhaps it is a shorthand language shared only between Elgar and Penny.

Read more at New Scientist