Thursday, January 28, 2016

Shifting Colors Of An Octopus May Hint At A Rich, Nasty Social Life

Some octopuses intimidate their neighbors by turning black, standing tall and looming over them threateningly, like an eight-armed Dracula.

That's according to a study published Thursday that helps show that octopuses aren't loners, contrary to what scientists long thought; some of the invertebrates have an exciting social life.
The study, in the journal Current Biology, focuses on one species, known asOctopus tetricus — the gloomy octopus — which gathers to munch on tasty scallops in the shallows of Jervis Bay, Australia.

"There can be over a dozen octopuses or more at this site," says David Scheelof Alaska Pacific University. "Generally, during the Australian summer there are more and we see a lot of activity then."
A local diver, Matthew Lawrence, first noticed there was a lot of octopus interaction going on there. His observations piqued the interest of Scheel, who is a marine biologist, and Peter Godfrey-Smith, a philosopher who had been thinking about octopus consciousness.
The research team eventually recorded 52 hours of underwater video, showing 186 octopus interactions.
"I took a look fairly early on at one sequence in which one octopus approaches another in a fairly menacing way," recalls Scheel. "He gets all dark, stands up very tall, and the other octopus crouches down and turns very pale. And then, when the approaching octopus persists, the other one flees. And this is immediately followed by the first octopus approaching a third octopus that's nearby. And the third octopus turns dark and doesn't crouch down. He just stays where he is, holds his ground."
It looked like they were signaling to each other, says Scheel. That was surprising, because the changing color patterns on an octopus's body are generally just associated with camouflage from predators. As the researchers watched more video, they became convinced.
"The dark color and some of the behaviors that go with it are associated with aggression, or at least approach," Scheel says. "The paler colors signify that the octopus is not going to stand its ground — that it's going to retreat or withdraw."
An aggressive octopus would stretch out the web of its tentacles very wide, to look as big as possible. "And, of course, it's got these scalloped edges between each arm," says Scheel, adding that the octopus would also stand very tall and turn black.
"It looked to me, for all the world, like Dracula approaching his prey," he says. "In my early notes I was calling this the Nosferatu display."
Sometimes an octopus will even do this while standing on the highest available ground, he adds — a piece of junk that's sticking up out of the seafloor.
Until about 15 years ago, scientists believed that octopuses were pretty much asocial.
"When they interacted, they either mated or ate each other," says Crissy Huffard, a senior research technician at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. "That was the overriding idea."
But Huffard has done research on another octopus species that shows males display a black-and-white striped pattern when they're in the presence of another individual. "And that tends to send the signal, 'I'm male,' " she says. If the other octopus displays a similar body pattern, the male will be aggressive and fight. If not, then he'll try to mate.
She was interested in the threatening body posture that researchers observed in Australia.
"That's very cool to see," she says. "Octopuses are probably not as completely asocial as originally assumed. Their communication system reflects the fact that they're interacting on a fairly regular basis." npr

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Neil DeGrasse Tyson Gets Into A Rap Battle With B.o.B Over Flat Earth Theory

So, a Twitter spat between astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and rapper B.o.B over the flat Earth theory has turned into a full-blown rap battle (and it's way better than Drake vs. Meek Mill).
B.o.B, whom you might know from his hits "Airplanes," "Nothin' On You" and "Strange Clouds," kicked things off Monday when he started tweeting about how he believes the Earth is flat. He also tweeted about why he believes NASA is hiding the truth about the edge of the world. And he shared several meaningless diagrams about the planet including one about flight routes.
The rapper fired off more than 50 tweets, saying things like "I'm going up against the greatest liars in history ... you've been tremendously deceived," before Tyson took to Twitter to respond.
In a short series of tweets, Tyson explained why the Earth was round. He tweeted:
"Earth's curve indeed blocks 150 (not 170) ft of Manhattan. But most buildings in midtown are waaay taller than that."
"Polaris is gone by 1.5 deg S. Latitude. You've never been south of Earth's Equator, or if so, you've never looked up."
"Flat Earth is a problem only when people in charge think that way. No law stops you from regressively basking in it."
Tyson's last tweet to B.o.B was, "Duude — to be clear: Being five centuries regressed in your reasoning doesn't mean we all can't still like your music."
So, naturally, B.o.B whipped up a song about the why the Earth is flat, called "Flatline," that expanded on the theory, called out Tyson by name and also name-dropped David Irving, a renowned Holocaust denier.
Here's one line: "Aye, Neil Tyson need to loosen up his vest / They'll probably write that man one hell of a check."
Here's another: "I see only good things on the horizon / That's probably why the horizon is always rising / Indoctrinated in a cult called science / And graduated to a club full of liars." You can read the full lyrics on Gawker.
That was Monday night.
Tuesday afternoon, Tyson dropped his own dis track, called "Flat To Fact,"written and rapped by his nephew, Stephen Tyson. He tweeted: "As an astrophysicist I don't rap, but I know people who do. This one has my back." Here's a sample:
"Very important that I clear this up / You say that Neil's vest is what he needs to loosen up? / The ignorance you're spinning helps to keep people enslaved, I mean mentally."
And Tyson's rap didn't pull any punches:
"All those strange clouds must be messing with your brain."
"I think it's very clear that Bobby didn't read enough / And he's believing all this conspiracy theory stuff." npr
You have to hear it to believe it. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Hey! Let's Vote On Your Best Suggestions On What To Name 'Planet Nine'

...here are the four of the best suggestions:
— Janus was suggested many times. Here's how TymmConner explained it: "As it is found at the end of the solar system, thus the beginning of the vast unknown cosmos, it should be named accordingly. The Roman Deity for endings and beginnings is Janus."
— CeloBillGoodwin explains: "Latin meaning conceal, heaven, keep secret, be silent, cover, hide, keep back, veil, hush"
— Proserpina. AndreaBlankiship writes: "The planet name definitely has to remain Roman. You can't break up a set. To that end I suggest Proserpina. She is in the underworld and not seen for great lengths of time, near Pluto, master of the underworld." And Dean Lovett adds: "She was abducted by Pluto (god of the underworld). Her mother's search for her are subject of Roman art and literature."
— Black Star. User33297 writes: "In honor of David Bowie."
And here is where you vote. We'll be in touch with the winner so we can send them some NPR swag:

Friday, January 15, 2016

Record-Busting Star Explosion Baffles Sky Watchers

A mind-boggling stellar explosion is baffling astronomers, who say this cosmic beast is so immensely powerful that no one's sure exactly what made it go boom.
The recently discovered inferno is about 200 times more powerful than a typical exploding star, or supernova, and 570 billion times brighter than our sun. It was first spotted in June by the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae, nicknamed the "Assassin" project, so it's called ASASSN-15lh.
Astronomers describe their finding in a study published Thursday in the journalScience. 
Even though it's the brightest supernova on record — if indeed it is a supernova — it can't be seen with the naked eye from Earth, since it is 3.8 billion light-years away.
Even telescopes don't help much. "It looks like a little smudge," says Subo Dong, an astronomer at the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Peking University. "This is because it's so far away. It doesn't look so spectacular."
And if you could get into a spaceship and fly closer, you wouldn't want to, says astronomer Ben Shappee, at the Carnegie Observatories. That's because this monster puts out a lot of ultraviolet radiation, so if you actually got close enough to get a good look, "you would be dead right away," he points out.
Initially, the scientists didn't realize just how bright this beast was.
"We knew it was probably a supernova, but we didn't know at that time how interesting or how important it is," Dong recalls.
But soon, more observations from a different telescope made him realize "it was the most luminous supernova yet discovered." Dong says he was so excited when he got the news by email one night at 2 a.m., he couldn't go back to sleep at all.
Supernovas have captured the imaginations of sky watchers since ancient times. The first one was observed nearly 2,000 years ago. What's more, you wouldn't be here without them, because almost everything in your life is made up of the remnants of these violent stellar deaths.
"If you look around here on Earth, anything that's not hydrogen or helium was actually made inside of a star," explains Shappee. "It actually has to go through a supernova explosion to be distributed across the galaxy."
This new one is more than twice as bright as the previous record holder. What's powering it?
"Honestly, the answer is, 'We don't know,' " says Dong.
Astronomers will continue to watch it in the coming months with all kinds of telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope. Shappee says he is not sad that this explosion has already peaked and will slowly fade.
"We get more and more information — you see basically deeper and deeper into the supernova the longer you observe it," he says. "How it changes with time can give us additional information."
Edo Berger, an astronomer at Harvard University, says this find is exciting because "it's often, I think, the most extreme events that teach us the most about the range of possibilities that the universe comes up with, especially when it comes to exploding objects."
Most supernovas are the result of some sort of exploding star, says Berger.Superluminous supernovas are at least 10 times brighter than more garden-variety ones, and they're rare. Scientists know only of about 30 of these more powerful explosions, and while they have theories about what drives them, ASASSN-15lh is so extreme that current models can't explain it.
"The event itself seems to be coming from the center of the galaxy," says Berger. "And so I think that raises the possibility that it could be related to the supermassive black hole that resides in the center of a galaxy like that. And perhaps it is due to a very different mechanism than the explosion of a star." Perhaps a star got too close to the black hole, which is now ripping it to shreds.
"It's a story that continues to evolve. It will be interesting to see where we are a year from now," says Berger. "We might have a completely different version or story of what we think this object is."
Still, while this explosion is awesome, Berger says it's not the biggest bang astronomers have seen. Gamma ray bursts, for example, are much more energetic and luminous.
"In the world of supernova explosions, if this is what this object really is, then it is currently the record holder," says Berger. "But relative to a gamma ray burst, in fact, this explosion is actually kind of puny." npr

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

presidents that follow up on their state of the union address


The data reveal a few important, if obvious things: One is that a friendly Congress helps. Lyndon Johnson, for example, had a high success rate, managing to pass landmark policies like Medicare. He also had a Democratic Congress to work with throughout his presidency.
Not only that, but Congress was less polarized back then. As congressional Republicans and Democrats have moved further and further apart ideologically, that may have helped bring down more recent presidents' totals.
There are a couple of revealing details buried in Obama's data, however. One is that for Obama, success last year often amounted to Congress not taking action. In last year's speech, Obama had "full success" on eight measures, according to Hoffman and Howard's data, but five of those eight consisted of things he asked Congress not to do: repeal Dodd-Frank, repeal the Affordable Care Act, impose new sanctions on Iran or shut down the government.
He's not unique in this — Bill Clinton also famously in 1996 asked Congress to "never, ever" shut down the government again. But it's just one sign of how the speech's tone can shift during a time of divided government.
Of course, there's a lot the data can't show, like the magnitude of what presidents have asked for. (Clinton asking Congress not to shut down again might be considered a smaller request than when he asked for health care reform, for example.)
Moreover, the data don't show what the president accomplished without Congress. While Obama has, over the years, asked for (and not received) action on a higher federal minimum wage, paid leave and stronger gun control, he has, in turn, made his own (less-sweeping) executive actions in those areas.
Not only that, but State of the Union addresses are, of course, much more than to-do lists for Congress.
"Any State of the Union has multiple audiences," said Mary Kate Cary, who worked as a speechwriter under George H.W. Bush (though she herself did not write any of his addresses). For example, she said, "There was an Obama State of the Union where the larger audience he was talking to, he was encouraging them to sign up for Obamacare. And then, there was a smaller audience where he wanted the 535 members of Congress not to vote for sanctions against Iran."
Elsewhere, the speeches subtly set up longer-term fights that will play out well after a president leaves office.
"They send a shot across the bow in a battle that may not be won for a couple of years," said Jeff Shesol, a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. "In the case of [this year's] speech, an election-year speech, the president will certainly be looking in some way to clarify the differences between the two parties," albeit without being overtly partisan about it, he added.
There's no great way to measure the "success" of one of these speeches, Shesol says. However, there's one way in which few of these addresses succeed, says Cary: memorability.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

4 New Elements Are Added To the Periodic Table

For now, they're known by working names, like ununseptium and ununtrium – two of the four new chemical elements whose discovery has been officially verified. The elements with atomic numbers 113, 115, 117 and 118 will get permanent names soon, according to the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry.
With the discoveries now confirmed, "The 7th period of the periodic table of elements is complete," according to the IUPAC. The additions come nearly five years after elements 114 and 116 were added to the table.
The elements were discovered in recent years by researchers in Japan, Russia, and the United States. Element 113 was discovered by a group at the Riken Institute, which calls it "the first element on the periodic table found in Asia."
Three other elements were discovered by a collaborative effort among the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
The new elements' existence was then confirmed by further experiments that reproduced them – however briefly. Element 113, for instance, exists for less than a thousandth of a second.
"A particular difficulty in establishing these new elements is that they decay into hitherto unknown isotopes of slightly lighter elements that also need to be unequivocally identified," said Paul Karol, chair of the IUPAC's Joint Working Party, announcing the new elements. His group also includes members of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics.
The elements' temporary names stem from their spot on the periodic table – for instance, ununseptium has 117 protons. Each of the discovering teams have now been asked to submit names for the new elements.
International guidelines for choosing a name say new elements "can be named after a mythological concept, a mineral, a place or country, a property or a scientist," according to the IUPAC.
In 2013, Swedish scientists confirmed the existence of the Russian-discovered ununpentium (atomic number 117). As the Two-Way described it, the element was produced by "shooting a beam of calcium, which has 20 protons, into a thin film of americium, which has 95 protons. For less than a second, the new element had 115 protons."
While you're not likely to run into the new elements anytime soon, they're not the only ones with have short existences. Take, for instance, francium (atomic number 87) and astatine (atomic number 85).
As Sam Kean, author of a book about the periodic table called The Disappearing Spoon, wrote of those elements:
"If you had a million atoms of the longest-lived type of astatine, half of them would disintegrate in 400 minutes. A similar sample of francium would hang on for 20 minutes. Francium is so fragile, it's basically useless."
As for why scientists keep pursuing new and heavier elements, the answer, at least in part, is that they're hoping to eventually find an element – or a series of elements – that are both stable and useful in practical applications. And in the meantime, they can learn more about how atoms are held together. npr

fresh over salt water


Lack Of Deep Sleep May Set The Stage For Alzheimer's

There's growing evidence that a lack of sleep can leave the brain vulnerable to Alzheimer's disease.
"Changes in sleep habits may actually be setting the stage" for dementia, says Jeffrey Iliff, a brain scientist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.
The brain appears to clear out toxins linked to Alzheimer's during sleep, Iliff explains. And, at least among research animals that don't get enough solid shut-eye, those toxins can build up and damage the brain.
Iliff and other scientists at OHSU are about to launch a study of people that should clarify the link between sleep problems and Alzheimer's disease in humans.
It has been clear for decades that there is some sort of link. Sleep disorders are very common among people with Alzheimer's disease.
For a long time, researchers thought this was simply because the disease was "taking out the centers of the brain that are responsible for regulating sleep," Iliff says. But two recent discoveries have suggested the relationship may be more complicated.
The first finding emerged in 2009, when researchers at Washington University in St. Louis showed that the sticky amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer's develop more quickly in the brains of sleep-deprived mice.
Then, in 2013, Iliff was a member of a team that discovered how a lack of sleep could be speeding the development of those Alzheimer's plaques: A remarkable cleansing process takes place in the brain during deep sleep, at least in animals.
What happens, Iliff says, is "the fluid that's normally on the outside of the brain, cerebrospinal fluid — it's a clean, clear fluid — it actually begins to recirculate back into and through the brain along the outsides of blood vessels."
This process, via what's known as the glymphatic system, allows the brain to clear out toxins, including the toxins that form Alzheimer's plaques, Iliff says.
"That suggests at least one possible way that disruption in sleep may predispose toward Alzheimer's disease," he says.
To know for sure, though, researchers will have to study this cleansing process in people, which won't be easy.
Iliff studied the glymphatic system in living mice by looking through a window created in the skull. The system also involved a powerful laser and state-of-the-art microscope.
With people, "we have to find a way to see the same sort of function, but in a way that is going to be reasonably noninvasive and safe," he says.
The solution may involve one of the world's most powerful magnetic resonance imaging machines, which sits in a basement at OHSU. The MRI unit is so sensitive, it should be able to detect changes that indicate preciselywhen the glymphatic system gets switched on in a person's brain, says Bill Rooney, who directs the university's Advanced Imaging Research Center.
When humans enter deep sleep, and toxin removal begins, there should be a particular change in the signal coming from certain salt molecules. That would indicate that fluid has begun moving freely through the brain.
In young, healthy brains, the signal should be "robust," Rooney says, indicating that the toxin removal system is working well. In the brains of older people, and those who are likely to develop Alzheimer's, the signal should be weaker.
Rooney and Iliff have received funding from the Paul G. Allen Foundation to test their approach. They hope to begin scanning the brains of participants within a year.
One challenge, though, will be finding people able to fall asleep in the cramped and noisy tunnel of the magnetic resonance machine.
"It's a tricky thing because it's a small space," Rooney says. "But we'll make people as comfortable as possible, and we'll just follow them as they go through these natural stages of sleep."
If Rooney and Iliff are right, the experiment will greatly strengthen the argument that a lack of sleep can lead to Alzheimer's disease. It might also provide a way to identify people whose health is at risk because they aren't getting enough deep sleep, and it could pave the way to new treatments.
"It could be anything from having people exercise more regularly, or new drugs," Rooney says. "A lot of the sleep aids don't particularly focus on driving people to deep sleep stages." npr