Neil Degrasse Tyson: Science is in Our DNA.


What’s the Big Idea?

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson believes in the power of science — so much so that he gets hate mail for it. From children. As director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, Tyson made the controversial decision to remove references to Pluto as the ninth planet in the museum’s exhibits. To the chagrin of fifth graders everywhere, My Very Excellent Mother would no longer be Serving Up Nine Pizzas. “When you conduct science, it is the natural world that is the ultimate decider in what is true and what is not,” he says.

Which is exactly the reason science has had such a profound influence on history. Universities may describe music, literature, and painting as “the humanities,” but no activity is more fundamentally human than science, says Tyson. “We explore our environment more than we are compelled to utter poetry when we’re toddlers.”

What’s the Significance?

His big idea? Every child is born a scientist. As soon as we learn to walk, we begin asking questions, turning over rocks, plucking the petals off of flowers. The drive to curiosity is in our DNA. It’s curiosity that first compels us to explore the world around us, and it’s the joy of discovery that sustains that desire. Finally, the need to understand our discoveries leads us to experiment and analysis.

Colorfuldna

Even the distinction between art and science is practically illusory, says Tyson. “The only difference is that when you do science you can’t make up anything and assert that it’s true. If you’re writing a novel you can pretty much make up what you want as long as people will buy it literally and figuratively, buy the storyline, buy the book with that storyline, fine.”

As a result, in many cultures the arts have an individualistic bent, celebrating the singular vision of a masterful auteur. No one but Van Gogh was ever going to paint Sunflowers in just that way. Who but Joyce could have written the passionate, personal, and semi-autobiographical Ulysses?

Science, on the other hand, is an anonymous enterprise — a collective cultivation of our innate and global humanity. “If I discover a scientific idea, surely someone else would have discovered the same idea had I not done so,” explains Tyson. “That’s what we do as human beings, and we do that more thoroughly and better than any other species on earth that we have yet encountered.”

There’s a reason math is known as the universal language, binary code is comprised of numerals, and the first robots were designed to look and act like people. Science and technology are forms of expression which help us pursue truth. And fortunately, we’re beginning to be sophisticated enough to move past our fears about what we might create. “This notion that a robot might turn on us… that’s not the robots we’re creating. Sky Net coming online and achieving consciousness? Okay, keep doing the movies,” says Tyson. “I already have access to information — it’s on my smart phone a few fingertips away — from all gathered knowledge of the human species on earth.  It’s called the Internet.  I’m already there.”

How can technology enhance, rather than take away from our humanity? Big Think has posed this question in an online Expo called Humanizing Technology, which seeks to identify the technologies that do the best job of fulfilling our core human needs.

Plants talk to each other using an internet of fungus


Hidden under your feet is an information superhighway that allows plants to communicate and help each other out. It’s made of fungi

The roots of shoots can form a hidden network (credit: Mycatkins CC by 2.0)

It’s an information superhighway that speeds up interactions between a large, diverse population of individuals. It allows individuals who may be widely separated to communicate and help each other out. But it also allows them to commit new forms of crime.

No, we’re not talking about the internet, we’re talking about fungi. While mushrooms might be the most familiar part of a fungus, most of their bodies are made up of a mass of thin threads, known as a mycelium. We now know that these threads act as a kind of underground internet, linking the roots of different plants. That tree in your garden is probably hooked up to a bush several metres away, thanks to mycelia.

The more we learn about these underground networks, the more our ideas about plants have to change. They aren’t just sitting there quietly growing. By linking to the fungal network they can help out their neighbours by sharing nutrients and information – or sabotage unwelcome plants by spreading toxic chemicals through the network. This “wood wide web”, it turns out, even has its own version of cybercrime.

Around 90% of land plants are in mutually-beneficial relationships with fungi. The 19th-century German biologist Albert Bernard Frank coined the word “mycorrhiza” to describe these partnerships, in which the fungus colonises the roots of the plant.

Fungi have been called ‘Earth’s natural internet’

In mycorrhizal associations, plants provide fungi with food in the form of carbohydrates. In exchange, the fungi help the plants suck up water, and provide nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, via their mycelia. Since the 1960s, it has been clear that mycorrhizae help individual plants to grow.

Fungal networks also boost their host plants’ immune systems. That’s because, when a fungus colonises the roots of a plant, it triggers the production of defense-related chemicals. These make later immune system responses quicker and more efficient, a phenomenon called “priming”. Simply plugging in to mycelial networks makes plants more resistant to disease.

But that’s not all. We now know that mycorrhizae also connect plants that may be widely separated. Fungus expert Paul Stamets called them “Earth’s natural internet” in a 2008 TED talk. He first had the idea in the 1970s when he was studying fungi using an electron microscope. Stamets noticed similarities between mycelia and ARPANET, the US Department of Defense’s early version of the internet.

Film fans might be reminded of James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster Avatar. On the forest moon where the movie takes place, all the organisms are connected. They can communicate and collectively manage resources, thanks to “some kind of electrochemical communication between the roots of trees“. Back in the real world, it seems there is some truth to this.

 It has taken decades to piece together what the fungal internet can do. Back in 1997, Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver found one of the first pieces of evidence. She showed that Douglas fir and paper birch trees can transfer carbon between them via mycelia. Others have since shown that plants can exchange nitrogen and phosphorus as well, by the same route.

These plants are not really individuals

Simard now believes large trees help out small, younger ones using the fungal internet. Without this help, she thinks many seedlings wouldn’t survive. In the 1997 study, seedlings in the shade – which are likely to be short of food – got more carbon from donor trees.

“These plants are not really individuals in the sense that Darwin thought they were individuals competing for survival of the fittest,” says Simard in the 2011 documentary Do Trees Communicate? “In fact they are interacting with each other, trying to help each other survive.”

However, it is controversial how useful these nutrient transfers really are. “We certainly know it happens, but what is less clear is the extent to which it happens,” says Lynne Boddy of Cardiff University in the UK.

 While that argument rages on, other researchers have found evidence that plants can go one better, and communicate through the mycelia. In 2010, Ren Sen Zeng of South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou found that when plants are attached by harmful fungi, they release chemical signals into the mycelia that warn their neighbours.

Tomato plants can ‘eavesdrop’ on defense responses

Zeng’s team grew pairs of tomato plants in pots. Some of the plants were allowed to form mycorrhizae.

Once the fungal networks had formed, the leaves of one plant in each pair were sprayed withAlternaria solani, a fungus that causes early blight disease. Air-tight plastic bags were used to prevent any above-ground chemical signalling between the plants.

After 65 hours, Zeng tried to infect the second plant in each pair. He found they were much less likely to get blight, and had significantly lower levels of damage when they did, if they had mycelia.

We suggest that tomato plants can ‘eavesdrop’ on defense responses and increase their disease resistance against potential pathogen,” Zeng and his colleagues wrote. So not only do the mycorrhizae allow plants to share food, they help them defend themselves.

 It’s not just tomatoes that do this. In 2013 David Johnson of the University of Aberdeen and his colleagues showed thatbroad beans also use fungal networks to pick up on impending threats – in this case, hungry aphids.

Johnson found that broad bean seedlings that were not themselves under attack by aphids, but were connected to those that were via fungal mycelia, activated their anti-aphid chemical defenses. Those without mycelia did not.

“Some form of signalling was going on between these plants about herbivory by aphids, and those signals were being transported through mycorrhizal mycelial networks,” says Johnson.

 But just like the human internet, the fungal internet has a dark side. Our internet undermines privacy and facilitates serious crime – and frequently, allows computer viruses to spread. In the same way, plants’ fungal connections mean they are never truly alone, and that malevolent neighbours can harm them.

For one thing, some plants steal from each other using the internet. There are plants that don’t have chlorophyll, so unlike most plants they cannot produce their own energy through photosynthesis. Some of these plants, such as the phantom orchid, get the carbon they need from nearby trees, via the mycelia of fungi that both are connected to.

Other orchids only steal when it suits them. These “mixotrophs” can carry out photosynthesis, but they also “steal” carbon from other plants using the fungal network that links them.

That might not sound too bad. However, plant cybercrime can be much more sinister than a bit of petty theft.

 Plants have to compete with their neighbours for resources like water and light. As part of that battle, some release chemicals that harm their rivals.

This “allelopathy” is quite common in trees, including acacias, sugarberries, American sycamores and several species of Eucalyptus. They release substances that either reduce the chances of other plants becoming established nearby, or reduce the spread of microbes around their roots.

Sceptical scientists doubt that allelopathy helps these unfriendly plants much. Surely, they say, the harmful chemicals would be absorbed by soil, or broken down by microbes, before they could travel far.

But maybe plants can get around this problem, by harnessing underground fungal networks that cover greater distances. In 2011, chemical ecologist Kathryn Morris and her colleagues set out to test this theory.

 Morris, formerly Barto, grew golden marigolds in containers with mycorrhizal fungi. The pots contained cylinders surrounded by a mesh, with holes small enough to keep roots out but large enough to let in mycelia. Half of these cylinders were turned regularly to stop fungal networks growing in them.

The team tested the soil in the cylinders for two compounds made by the marigolds, which can slow the growth of other plants and kill nematode worms. In the cylinders where the fungi were allowed to grow, levels of the two compounds were 179% and 278% higher than in cylinders without fungi. That suggests the mycelia really did transport the toxins.

The team then grew lettuce seedlings in the soil from both sets of containers. After 25 days, those grown in the more toxin-rich soil weighed 40% less than those in soil isolated from the mycelia. “These experiments show the fungal networks can transport these chemicals in high enough concentrations to affect plant growth,” says Morris, who is now based at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio.

In response, some have argued that the chemicals might not work as well outside the lab. So Michaela Achatz of the Berlin Free University in Germany and her colleagues looked for a similar effect in the wild.

 One of the best-studied examples of allelopathy is the American black walnut tree. It inhibits the growth of many plants, including staples like potatoes and cucumbers, by releasing a chemical called jugalone from its leaves and roots.

Achatz and her team placed pots around walnut trees, some of which fungal networks could penetrate. Those pots contained almost four times more jugalone than pots that were rotated to keep out fungal connections. The roots of tomato seedlings planted in the jugalone-rich soil weighed on average 36% less.

Some especially crafty plants might even alter the make-up of nearby fungal communities. Studies have shown that spotted knapweed, slender wild oat and soft brome can all change the fungal make-up of soils. According to Morris, this might allow them to better target rival species with toxic chemicals, by favouring the growth of fungi to which they can both connect.

Animals might also exploit the fungal internet. Some plants produce compounds to attract friendly bacteria and fungi to their roots, but these signals can be picked up by insects and worms looking for tasty roots to eat. In 2012, Morris suggested that the movement of these signalling chemicals through fungal mycelia may inadvertently advertise the plants presence to these animals. However, she says this has not been demonstrated in an experiment.

 As a result of this growing body of evidence, many biologists have started using the term “wood wide web” to describe the communications services that fungi provide to plants and other organisms.

“These fungal networks make communication between plants, including those of different species, faster, and more effective,” says Morris. “We don’t think about it because we can usually only see what is above ground. But most of the plants you can see are connected below ground, not directly through their roots but via their mycelial connections.”

The fungal internet exemplifies one of the great lessons of ecology: seemingly separate organisms are often connected, and may depend on each other. “Ecologists have known for some time that organisms are more interconnected and interdependent,” says Boddy. The wood wide web seems to be a crucial part of how these connections form.

How eating green chillies helps you live longer


How many of us eat fresh green chillies with our meals like our parents and their parents did? The answer to this question can determine how long you’ll actually live. Yes!

A spanking new study just out (on August 4) has reported a finding that our forefathers somehow already knew and practised. Researchers from Harvard Medical School in Boston, after studying close to about half a million adults in a long-term study in China have found that people who eat spicy food live longer than those who don’t. “Eating spicy food just once or twice a week reduces risk of death by ten per cent and eating more (three-seven days a week) by 14 per cent when compared to people who eat spicy food less than once a week,” they write. They also found a lower risk of death as a result of diseases like cancer, ischemic heart disease and respiratory diseases in spice-eaters.

Also please note that “fresh” chili (as compared to dried chili pepper, chili sauce, chili oil or other spices) has a stronger protective effect against death from these diseases. There’s more! Apparently data also suggests that women who eat spicy foods more often are 45 per cent less likely to die of infections compared to women who eat them less than once a week (no such finding for men though). So maybe keeping a stack of these pesky, hot green chillies handy is all you need to help sail through myriad monsoon infections safely. And maybe that’s why our ancestors ate these green fiery peppers every single day even though they burn the tongue, make our eyes water and literally make us sweat.

Wait, there are more benefits!

It is primarily capsaicin, the compound that gives the mouth-watering punch to chillies, at work. It helps lower inflammation, which is usually responsible for most disorders including cancer. One tip: The spicier the pepper is, the more capsaicin it contains.

Capsaicin helps keep cholesterol numbers tamed and oxidative stress in check too; both are big cardiac disease risk factors.

It also keeps the number of gut bacteria positive (boost the good ones) and I have written about the health benefits of a good gut earlier too.

And believe it or not, spicy food may help you burn more calories too by pumping up your metabolic rate and thus help keep the weight in check. Some studies also show that spicy food in general delivers more satiety and reduces cravings for fatty, salty and sweet foods. That’s a tip for sure!

Plus you get vitamins A, C, E and K too, which boost our immune system and strengthen the heart muscles. Vitamin A is great for our eyes too; my grandma is never tired of repeating: eat the chillies to get sparkling eyes, and that’s apparently true. Also as the concentration of vitamin C in green chili goes down with time and with exposure to heat, light and air, ideally always eat fresh and store them in a cool, dark place.

Spicy foods also boost production of feel-good hormones such as serotonin and may help ease depression and stress. Yes, that is why they give such a kick.

No harm done!

There are many I know who avoid chillies because they have bought into the long-standing myth that spicy food exacerbates ulcers and other stomach ailments. Ain’t true! Hot chilies actually decrease the output of gastric acid, so unless you already have a standing stomach issue, they won’t mess up your stomach lining at all. In fact, they actually help protect the stomach lining if eaten in moderation. But of course if you have a chronic digestive disorder like irritable bowel syndrome or heartburn then they are best avoided.

Finally, I believe (and I may sound a little old-fashioned here) that green chillies are a fabulous and super easy way to make our meal more exciting and full of flavour. Just a couple with every meal will do the trick. Not fond of them at all? Then take your pick from jalapeño, tabasco, and dry red chili peppers (I use them in every tadka) or even chili flavoured oil. But If you are not used to them, then it makes sense to begin eating small amounts first and then build thereafter, because you might need to build tolerance to this age-stretching natural aid.

Scientists Use Hard Sugar To Create Dissolvable Mold For Delicate Research


A SWEET SOLUTION TO HELP UNDERSTAND HOW CELLS REPAIR AND CHANGE

Scientists at the University of Michigan were experimenting with delicate silicone to better understand tissue scarring, but they had a problem: The molds in which the silicone needed to sit in were too hard and kept damaging the silicone. But they found a sweet solution: molds made of sugar that kept the silicone intact and could dissolve away after use, according to a recently published a paper in the journal Lab On A Chip.

In order to better understand how tissue scarring occurs on the cellular level, the researchers were testing cells inside of super-soft silicone that was less than a millimeter wide. To see how scarring might affect the individual cells, they squeezed the silicone with the cells inside to see how the hurt cells reacted and bounced back.
“We’re trying to measure the forces and movement of just a few cells,” says Shuichi Takayama, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan, in a video from a university press release. “We could not get nice structures using conventional methods. We could mold the material but when we tried to remove the silicone from the mold, the structure would tear and rip and not hold its shape.”
What the researchers needed, he continues, was a mold that didn’t have to be peeled away from the silicone. Luckily enough, Takayama had an unlikely burst of inspiration when he tried to make cotton candy at home. He let sugar harden in a pan, and when he peeled it off, he found that the sugar retained the pan’s shape.
That ability worked perfectly for their molds. To test out their idea, the researchers poured a hot mixture of sugar and corn syrup into the shape they wanted and let it harden and cool. Next, they put the silicone medium in the sugary mold, baked the two for six hours so that the silicone sets, and then simply dissolved the mold away in a bath of warm water. The result was the silicone medium in exactly the shape they needed, ready for experimentation and chemically unaffected by the sugar.
These gummy treats are 10-100 times stiffer than the silicone medium.
The researchers hope to use these silicone models to understand how scarring happens both outside the body, as a result of trauma, and inside the body, which can result from conditions cancer or autoimmune diseases like fibrosis, as Smithsonian notes. Even after the body has healed, scarring can hamper organ’s function.
But this method has applications beyond the scope of the current research. By integrating soft materials more seamlessly into tiny devices and circuits, scientists may be better able to understand the tiniest developments of certain kinds of cells—for example, how cancer spreads or how stem cells differentiate into all types of cells in the body.

A man has contracted cancer from a tapeworm for the first time ever.


A 41-year-old Colombian man was given cancerous tumours by a tapeworm living inside him, doctors have discovered – the first known report of someone becoming ill from cancer passed on by a parasite. Scientific American reports that the man eventually died from complications relating to HIV, and the weakening of his immune system caused by HIV was likely to be a factor in allowing the tapeworm cancer to spread.

At first, the tumours baffled local doctors: the growths exhibited some of the characteristics of cancer cells, but they were 10 times smaller than the cells you would expect to find in a human and packed very closely together. They turned to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for help and it was then that the link to a tapeworm was discovered.

“In the initial months, we wondered if this was a weird human cancer or some unusual, bizarre emerging protozoa-amoeba-like infection,” the CDC’s Atis Muehlenbachs told the Washington Post in an interview. “Discovering these cells had tapeworm DNA was a big surprise – a really big surprise… this is the first time we’ve seen parasite-derived cancer cells spreading within an individual. This is a very unusual, very unique illness.”

Here’s what researchers at the CDC think happened: the Colombian man initially ingested some microscopic tapeworm eggs, probably from food that had been contaminated by mouse droppings, insects or human faeces. Those eggs then multiplied rapidly in the gastrointestinal tract because the man’s immune system had already been compromised by the HIV infection – the cells then spread to other parts of the body.

What’s not clear is whether the cells were already cancerous or whether some kind of biological reaction caused them to develop into tumours. In fact, ‘cancer’ may not even be the correct word here, because this is so different from what we normally use the term for: Muehlenbachs says “an infection with parasite-derived cancer which causes a cancer-like illness” may be the more appropriate (though much more verbose) term.

“Can you say a worm has cancer? That’s a philosophical question how you define this,” he adds.

However scientists end up defining this newly discovered condition, it has some important things to teach us about cancerous cells: up until now, it wasn’t thought possible for parasites to develop cancer, let alone pass them on to humans. What’s more, cancer isn’t considered a transmissible disease, though a few such cases among dogs and Tasmanian Devils have previously been recorded.

The death of this Colombian man has put some of those theories into doubt, and scientists are now calling for more to be done to diagnose the disease and collect data about it in developing nations – if there are more cases like this, we should be able to understand how it is being caused.

Dark side of technology: Are we becoming dehumanised?


The man is looking tired and bored. The bus, in which he is travelling, like any other day, stops at Munirka Junction and his gaze falls on a buffalo. An advertisement then paints the “outside” as routine, quotidian, unexciting and monotonous. It then goes on to suggest that instead he should look “inside” his smartphone where life is colourful, exciting and adventurous with unending stimulation and sensory pleasure. This one is no ordinary advertisement (SHOPCLUES “Bhains ki Aaankh”), currently being run on various TV channels. Rather, it is a commentary on our life which is increasingly becoming “inward-looking” and machine-mediated.

This techno-addiction is lethal as it delinks human beings from their species character by uprooting them from their natural moorings. Humans as species then come across as perpetually in search and need of stimulation and amusement. Life then becomes an unending series of “events”; the lack of it is pathological, boring, unimaginative and meaningless. Imagination, creativity, artistic impulses, musical moments – all of these now entirely emanate and end with the virtual world. No wonder we hear more of remakes and remixes and hardly anything original, thereby heralding an era of imitation in the name of innovation.

The real, tangible world of emotions, empathy and touch is giving way to a soulless, dehumanised and disembodied world. The social world with flesh and blood, in which we live, is constantly being presented and reiterated as full of conceit, mistrust and entrapment. Human worlds are being discounted on the altar of the virtual world. Young men and women in the metro just do not have time to look around. Instead they play games, completely oblivious of that limping, emaciated woman, standing in front of them, holding on to her baby in one hand and a muddied polythene bag containing medical reports in another, in one of the metro coaches moving towards AIIMS. That these young people are not occupying “women only” seats is reassuring and tragic at the same time. Reassuring, for it shows they have been trained well to think and act in a legally correct manner in their schools and colleges but tragic as they seemed to have been completely left raw and unattended on the lessons of empathy and humanness.

German sociologist Georg Simmel (1858- 1918), in his seminal essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life”, talks of a particular blasé attitude of the city dwellers as a defence mechanism to adjust or protect themselves from overwhelming human interactions. As a result, there is constant reiteration and hype about the virtues of privacy and individuality. More urban you are, more private you tend to become. Interestingly, at many of its stations, Delhi Metro, in fact, makes public announcements and cautions the citizens to not interact with strangers. This is clearly intriguing and at the same time, very disturbing. Since a stranger has been conceptualised as someone essentially dangerous or minimally as someone with great nuisance value, what we do not realise is that this announcement actually carries a potential of killing a range of human possibilities – such as making a new friend, having an interesting conversation with fellow travellers, engaging with new and other experiences. What it essentially tells the citizens is to “mind the gap” between individual/self and the collective/other.

In other words, it trains the citizens to a new code of conduct which, in effect, has no place for “others”. Life is just about “me and my world”. Gradually behaviours, such as trying to initiate a conversation with a distinctly disinterested co-traveller in a long train journey, for instance, becomes part of a charter of civic impoliteness. To experience this, one has to endure the intertwined smugness and perfume of affluence that hang in the air of Delhi-Chandigarh/Kalka Shatabdi chair cars. This less than four-hours-long journey of the Kalka Shatabdi exposes you to a bizarre numbness and that cruel sense of being utterly singular, once you are through with The Tribune and the routine “chai paani”. The rest of the journey is about dead silence constantly interrupted only by the sound of the tapping of laptop keyboards. Is it not strange that two people are sitting together in adjacent seats, separated by the mere arm of a chair, in a roughly four-hour-long journey and yet not even exchanging glances, let alone pleasantries?

In the Hrishikesh Mukherjee-directed and Rajesh Khanna starrer filmAnand (1971), the main character, Anand, is going to die of cancer in a few months’ time and he is aware of it. In this film there is a particular moment where Anand wants to meet and hug everyone, even strangers, before the curtain falls as he says, “Babu moshai, ham sabhi rangmanch ki kathputliyan hain“. In one scene, he says he wants to meet everybody because everyone is unique and each interaction enriches life and he would like to have as many such experiences as possible before the end comes. Hindi cinema then perhaps was still not called Bollywood and even the mainstream commercial films used to carry these moments, immersed deep in the philosophy of life. From then to now, things have clearly changed. There is acute pervasiveness of atomisation of our social life. The painful part is this is being accepted as a norm and encouraged through all means, both official and otherwise. What makes the scenario really worrisome is the role of communication technology such as mobile phones in facilitating such individuation.

The Delhi Metro was, as always, packed to its capacity as I was returning home from my university one evening. Standing in a corner, I was privileged to watch the beautiful setting sun as the metro passed by Netaji Subhash Place, the splendour of its colour on the blue, clean sky was simply breathtaking. That melodious song of Mukesh from Anand, “Kahi door jab din dhal jaaye sham ki dulhan…“, echoed in my ears. In Delhi, such occasions are rare. Sadly, the young lot around me in the coach sat like “ducks” working on their cellphones. Soon the sun eclipsed and darkness enveloped the outside. A rare moment of visual spectacle was lost which, I am afraid, could never ever be retrieved; for the sun set at 5.45pm on November 2, 2015 and that moment can never be downloaded, howsoever one may try. Nature’s marvels are to be observed, felt and soaked in; they can never be experienced on our cellphones. Explore and engage with the outside world – good, bad, pleasant, dull, bovine – as they nourish our inside world. Technologies have a specific purpose – use them, don’t get used by them.

What have we learned from the discovery of liquid water on Mars?


What Have We Learned from the Discovery of Liquid Water on Mars?
These dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks called recurring slope lineae flowing downhill on Mars are inferred to have been formed by contemporary flowing water.
One of the biggest and most important findings made by NASA recently was the confirmation that liquid water currently flows on Mars. Scientists suspected this a long time ago, but really strong evidence was needed to confirm this hypothesis. Now, with the discovery of hydrated minerals on downhill flows, which are known as recurring slope lineae (RSL), we know that liquid water not only existed in the past on Mars, but also flows there in present day. But how does this breakthrough finding reflect our current knowledge about present-day Mars, and how could it change our understanding of the history of our reddish neighbor?

Scott Murchie of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) is one of the co-authors of a paper published on Sept. 28 in the Nature Geoscience, which detailed the findings regarding liquid water on Mars. He stresses the importance of this discovery when it comes to our understanding of the history of the Red Planet.

“It’s a small but very important modification to how we understand the history of Mars. From Viking, Mars Global Surveyor, and Mars Express images, we knew that billions of years ago, Mars had flowing water,” Murchie told Phys.org.

Murchie is also the principal investigator for the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) – an important instrument onboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). CRISM is a visible-infrared spectrometer tasked with finding traces of water, and it has achieved this goal perfectly by helping to detect signatures of on Martian slopes.

“Mineralogic measurements from the CRISM on the MRO showed that when that ancient water occurred, it was persistent. Previous to MRO, though, the most likely features to have been carved by recent water were so-called gullies, which are forming today. However, MRO’s measurements suggest that most, if not all, of the gullies form by ‘dry’ processes at low temperature, probably involving the sublimation of carbon dioxide ice, and not ,” Murchie noted.

Prior to the latest findings, RSL have been described as possibly related to liquid water. The hydrated salts would lower the freezing point of a liquid brine, just as salt on roads causes ice and snow to melt more quickly. CRISM was the instrument that enabled researchers to see RSL in detail and unveiled their secrets. Now we know that these dark features on the slopes are, indeed, liquid water.

“So prior to the discovery of RSL, it appeared that Mars’ ancient water had completely dried up. Now we know that at least a little bit of liquid water has persisted on the margins to the present day,” Murchie said.

This discovery now opens a window into other unsolved mysteries that are still baffling scientists, like the existence of microbial life on Mars. After the discovery of organic compounds on the Red Planet, the confirmed presence of liquid water is another piece of this scientific puzzle that could bring outstanding results if put together.

However, as Murchie remarked, it’s still too early to draw serious conclusions concerning the hypothetical existence of life on Mars.

“The organic compounds probably come from meteorites, and the water may be very salty, perhaps too salty for life. It’s very possible that there is water that life would find acceptable, but we just don’t understand what conditions would be good enough for life beyond Earth,” Murchie said.

He admits that in order to advance our knowledge regarding possible microbial activity on the Red Planet, a Mars sample-return mission is needed. The mission would bring back bits of Martian soil that could be precisely investigated here on Earth.

“Personally, I think that we will not know the answer until carefully selected samples of Mars soil are returned to Earth,” Murchie concluded.

You will never dream as vividly as you do on melatonin.


151104_DRIFT_Friendly-Melatonin

Falling asleep is hard work. After spending a day solving the complex puzzles of daily life, you are expected to lie down, turn off the lights, and quiet your whirring whirlwind of thoughts within a few minutes. In my early years, this process was fraught with frustration and despair: I would lie awake for hours, bored and desperate, staring at the ceiling, wondering why I couldn’t shut off my brain. I tried all the hippie methods—meditation, breathing exercises, even goddamn Sleepytime tea—but none of it eased me into slumber.

Then, around age 15, I discovered melatonin. I first spotted the drug on the shelf of a health food store—the kind that sells vegan dog food and horny goat weed. Melatonin struck me as marginally less scammy than most supplements, so I bought a bottle and took my first dose that night. Thirty minutes later, I was overcome with the drowsy feeling kids get after a day at the beach. Five minutes after that, I eased into sleep.

And that’s when the real fun began.

There is a fair amount of research documenting the effectiveness of melatonin supplements as a sleep aid. But there is relatively little research to explain why it gives you trippy, totally bonkers dreams. This phenomenon is well-documented on the Internet but largely ignored by scientists, presumably because crazy dreams are not (yet) therapeutically relevant. Still, almost everybody I know who takes melatonin confirmed what I discovered on that first night: You will never dream as vividly as you do on melatonin.

These dreams, I should note, are not just normal dreams kicked up a few notches in intensity. They are a different type of dream—more akin (I am told) to a lysergic hallucination than a typical oneiric vision. My melatonin dreams are bursts of energy and excitement: sometimes fast-paced and fragmented, sometimes lucid and evocative. I have woken up from a melatonin dream with a deeper understanding of a friend or family member, or a great insight into a persistent problem, or that relieved, glazed sensation of stepping off a roller coaster. I wake up feeling refreshed, with yesterday’s thoughts neatly compressed, sorted, and filed away.

Why does this happen? Nobody really knows. Melatonin’s basic mechanism is simple: The brain’s pineal gland naturally secretes melatonin, a hormone, when darkness falls—signaling to the body that it’s time to sleep. Melatonin supplements mimic this process, tricking the brain into thinking it’s bedtime. They also help regulate our circadian rhythm, the internal clock that tells us when to sleep and when to wake up.Switching time zones and consuming caffeine can seriously disrupt these rhythms, and some people are just cursed with a faulty body clock. Melatonin supplements keep circadian rhythms healthy and regular. Our natural supply of melatonin may alsodiminish as we age, a problem supplements can help reverse.

But what about those nutty dreams? At least one study has tentatively confirmed that melatonin increases “dream bizarreness”—especially in women, who mayremember their dreams better than men. Researchers speculate that melatonin contributes to the quality and quantity of REM sleep, when most dreams occur. Taking extra melatonin, then, could kick our REM cycle into hyperdrive, giving us longer, richer, more memorable dreams.

Before you rush off to melatonin dreamland, a few caveats: The supplement is extremely safe in the short term, but its long-term effects are basically unknown. The usual dose—1 to 3 mg—can be multiplied exponentially with no apparent side effects. (That dream bizarreness study gave participants a whopping 250 mg dose and reported no issues.) But no longitudinal study has yet confirmed that melatonin supplements are completely safe to take for years. The fear here is that melatonin supplements could somehow diminish our brain’s natural supply of the hormone, getting us hooked on the pills for sleep. There is also some very tentative researchshowing that the positive effects may peter off after a few months of use.

But that doesn’t square with my experience: The stuff still works gangbusters for me nine years into my experiment. And when I absentmindedly miss a dose, I don’t lie awake in restless agony: At most, my sleep is marginally less satisfying. If I ever do feel hooked on melatonin, I’ll probably feel compelled to quit. Until then—or until my wild dreams turn pedestrian—I’m happy to keep playing human guinea pig.

Women are either bisexual or gay but ‘never straight’


A study has found that most women who say they are straight are in fact aroused by videos of both naked men and naked women

'Lesbian bed death' is common according to some reports, where lesbian couples have less sex the longer they are together

Most women are either bisexual or gay, the study suggests .

Reality doesn’t exist until we measure it, quantum experiment confirms


Australian scientists have recreated a famous experiment and confirmed quantum physics’s bizarre predictions about the nature of reality, by proving that reality doesn’t actually exist until we measure it – at least, not on the very small scale.

That all sounds a little mind-meltingly complex, but the experiment poses a pretty simple question: if you have an object that can either act like a particle or a wave, at what point does that object ‘decide’?

Our general logic would assume that the object is either wave-like or particle-like by its very nature, and our measurements will have nothing to do with the answer. But quantum theory predicts that the result all depends on how the object is measured at the end of its journey. And that’s exactly what a team from the Australian National University has now found.

“It proves that measurement is everything. At the quantum level, reality does not exist if you are not looking at it,” lead researcher and physicist Andrew Truscott said in a press release.

Known as John Wheeler’s delayed-choice thought experiment, the experiment was first proposed back in 1978 using light beams bounced by mirrors, but back then, the technology needed was pretty much impossible. Now, almost 40 years later, the Australian team has managed to recreate the experiment using helium atoms scattered by laser light.

“Quantum physics predictions about interference seem odd enough when applied to light, which seems more like a wave, but to have done the experiment with atoms, which are complicated things that have mass and interact with electric fields and so on, adds to the weirdness,” said Roman Khakimov, a PhD student who worked on the experiment.

To successfully recreate the experiment, the team trapped a bunch of helium atoms in a suspended state known as a Bose-Einstein condensate, and then ejected them all until there was only a single atom left.

This chosen atom was then dropped through a pair of laser beams, which made a grating pattern that acted as a crossroads that would scatter the path of the atom, much like a solid grating would scatter light.

They then randomly added a second grating that recombined the paths, but only after the atom had already passed the first grating.

When this second grating was added, it led to constructive or destructive interference, which is what you’d expect if the atom had travelled both paths, like a wave would. But when the second grating was not added, no interference was observed, as if the atom chose only one path.

The fact that this second grating was only added after the atom passed through the first crossroads suggests that the atom hadn’t yet determined its nature before being measured a second time.

So if you believe that the atom did take a particular path or paths at the first crossroad, this means that a future measurement was affecting the atom’s path,explained Truscott. “The atoms did not travel from A to B. It was only when they were measured at the end of the journey that their wave-like or particle-like behaviour was brought into existence,” he said.

Although this all sounds incredibly weird, it’s actually just a validation for the quantum theory that already governs the world of the very small. Using this theory, we’ve managed to develop things like LEDs, lasers and computer chips, but up until now, it’s been hard to confirm that it actually works with a lovely, pure demonstration such as this one.