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AI trained to spot heart disease risks using retina scan

Sat, 02/24/2018 - 11:00

The yellow spots in this image are sites of retinal degeneration. (credit: NIH)

The idea behind using a neural network for image recognition is that you don't have to tell it what to look for in an image. You don't even need to care about what it looks for. With enough training, the neural network should be able to pick out details that allow it to make accurate identifications.

For things like figuring out whether there's a cat in an image, neural networks don't provide much, if any, advantages over the actual neurons in our visual system. But where they can potentially shine are cases where we don't know what to look for. There are cases where images may provide subtle information that a human doesn't understand how to read, but a neural network could pick up on with the appropriate training.

Now, researchers have done just that, getting a deep-learning algorithm to identify risks of heart disease using an image of a patient's retina.

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Science after hours: Barney’s aquatic traits and how pregnant women stay upright

Sat, 02/24/2018 - 07:45

Nathan Mattise

AUSTIN, Texas—The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Conference is an inherently serious event, filled with cutting-edge research from some of the world’s brightest scientific minds. But after hours, like any good conference, people in attendance can loosen their figurative ties... and have a good chuckle considering whether cats are liquids or solids.

That kind of Saturday-night-ready research is the trademark of the Annals of Improbable Research, the journal and organization behind the yearly First Annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. That event has long been an Ars favorite as it honors research "that makes you laugh, then think" about topics like why dog fleas jump better than cat ones and why humans stink at carrying coffee. And at the latest AAAS conference in Texas earlier this month, the Improbable Research team brought together both visiting and Texas-local Ig recipients to elaborate on their award-winning research.

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A battle between the sexes in a single gene

Fri, 02/23/2018 - 16:00

Enlarge / This female fruit fly wants Apollo out of her ovaries. (credit: Katja Schulz)

Evolution is great at driving changes when a species has specific needs. But what happens when different members of the same species need different things?

If those different groups are just different populations, that's a recipe for a split into two new species. But in many cases, the issue comes about because males and females have different needs. That makes speciation a lousy solution (unless you can get rid of the males). What you end up with is a battle between the sexes that plays out in their genes, as changes that are good for females are balanced against the harm they do to males and vice versa. Now, researchers have identified one of these cases in fruit flies, and they figured out how the battle was resolved so that everyone mostly wins.

The Greek gods of fruit flies

In this case, the site of the battle is a small chunk of the genome that contains two genes: Apollo and Artemis. The genes aren't just close to each other—they're closely related as well. Approximately 200,000 years ago, a single ancestral gene was duplicated to produce these two. Closely related species of Drosophila only have a single copy of this gene.

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There’s something strange going on amid the satellite Internet rush

Fri, 02/23/2018 - 12:11

Enlarge / A happy Greg Wyler after a launch in 2013. (credit: JODY AMIET/AFP/Getty Images)

As Thursday's SpaceX launch of two test satellites vividly demonstrated, several companies are moving ahead with ambitious plans to design, build, and fly hardware capable of delivering broadband Internet from space. However, as intense as the battle for broadband may be in orbit, the fight is also heating up on the ground. In particular, there is a controversy quietly simmering at the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC.

In a somewhat bizarre situation, the founder and chairman of one company seeking to deliver broadband services, OneWeb, has founded a second company to compete with himself. In response, other companies proposing satellite constellations have objected, which has added considerable spice to an already heated battle for valuable spectrum.

Greg Wyler

The person at the center of the controversy is Greg Wyler, a colorful American entrepreneur who is among the most well-known people in the satellite Internet industry. More than 15 years ago, his company, Terracom, sought to bring the Internet to Rwanda through a contract to run fiber optic cables across the country. A few years later, after Terracom's targets to connect schools to the Internet were not met and amid questions about the company's business practices, Rwanda fined Terracom, and Wyler was out as its leader.

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Low-carb vs low-fat? Both led to ~12lb loss after a year, regardless of genes

Fri, 02/23/2018 - 07:48

(credit: Allan Foster / Flickr)

In a 609-person, year-long study, dieters lost an average of about 12 pounds—regardless of whether they were trying to stick to a low-fat or a low-carb diet and regardless of whether they carried genetic variations linked to success on one of those diets.

The lackluster finding, published by Stanford researchers this week in JAMA, knocks back hopes that we’re at the point of harnessing genetic information to tighten our waistlines. Previous studies had whetted dieter’s appetites for the idea, picking out specific blips in metabolic genes that appeared to help explain why some people easily shed poundage on a given diet, while others struggled. Biotech companies have even begun serving up DNA tests that claim to help hungry dieters pair their menus with their biological blueprints.

But according to the new study, that order isn’t up yet.

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Demolition workers uncover 8,000-year-old ritual skulls in Sweden

Thu, 02/22/2018 - 16:50


In east-central Sweden, workers demolishing a railway that crossed the Motala Ström River discovered something bizarre. For roughly 7,500 years, a shallow, swampy lake in the area had hidden a pile of stones that contained the skeletal remains of at least 10 people and weapons made of stone and antler. They also found the bones of bears, deer, boar, and a badger. Two of the human skulls were mounted on pointed stakes.

Thousands of years ago, this semi-submerged burial ground must have been an imposing sight for the small settlements located nearby. A pile of rocks rose above the water, covered in weapons, wooden structures, and the grisly remains of fearsome animals—as well as the skulls of some carefully chosen people. Now dubbed “Kanaljorden,” the archaeological site has finally begun to yield some secrets about the people who created it. In a recent article for Antiquity, Stockholm University archaeologist Sara Gummesson and her colleagues explain what the evidence reveals about how this ritual site was used.

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Neanderthals were artists and thought symbolically, new studies argue

Thu, 02/22/2018 - 15:41

Enlarge / Can you spot the three hand stencils? (credit: J. Zilhão)

Hominins have lived in Western Spain’s Maltravieso Cave off and on for the last 180,000 years. At some point in those long millennia of habitation, some of them left behind hand stencils, dots and triangles, and animal figures painted in red on the stone walls, often deep in the dark recesses of the cave. The art they left behind offers some of the clearest evidence for a key moment in human evolution: the development of the ability to use symbols, like stick-figure animals on a cave wall or spoken language.

Maltravieso, like La Pasiega in Northern Spain and Ardales Cave in the south, is a living cave, where water still flows, depositing carbonate minerals and shaping new rock formations. In these caves, flowstones and rock curtains have been slowly growing over ancient rock art. By dating those carbonate deposits, scientists can figure out a minimum age for the art without having to take samples from the pigment itself.

Now, two new studies have dated cave art and decorated shell jewelry from sites in Spain to at least 20,000 years before the first Homo sapiens arrived in Europe. That date offers the first clear evidence of Neanderthal art, which means our extinct relatives were also capable of symbolic thought. It’s a surprising discovery, says study coauthor Alistair Pike of the University of Southampton—but not all that surprising.

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Crush the right rock and spread it on farms to help soil and the climate

Thu, 02/22/2018 - 14:47

Enlarge / Instead of adding crushed limestone to soil, we could opt for basalt. (credit: Mark Robinson)

The best response to a leaking pipe is to stop the leak. But even if you haven’t quite got the leak solved, a mop can keep the pool of water on your floor from spilling into the next room.

That’s kind of the situation we’re in with our emissions of greenhouse gases. The only real solution is to stop emitting them, but anything that removes existing CO2 from the atmosphere could help lower the peak warming we experience. Some techniques to do that sound like pipe dreams when you consider scaling them up, but others can plausibly make at least modest contributions.

A new paper from a group of authors led by David Beerling of the University of Sheffield argues the case that something that sounds a little wild—spreading crushed basalt over the world’s croplands—could actually be pretty practical.

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Amateur astronomer tries out new camera, catches supernova at its start

Thu, 02/22/2018 - 13:57

Enlarge / The dot in the lower-right foreground is the supernova, from an image taken by an amateur astronomer. (credit: Víctor Buso and Gastón Folatelli)

Back in 2016, an astronomy enthusiast named Víctor Buso decided it was a good night to test a new camera on his telescope. The test went well enough that hardware in space was redirected to image what he spotted, and Buso now has his name on a paper in Nature.

Lots of amateurs, like Buso, have spotted supernovae. That typically leads to a search of image archives to determine when the last time a specific location was imaged when the supernova wasn't present—this is often years earlier. Buso didn't have to search, because his first batch of images contained no sign of the supernova. Then 45 minutes later, it was there, and the supernova continued to brighten as he captured more pictures. Buso had essentially captured the moment when the explosion of a supernova burst out of the surface of a star, and the analysis of the follow-on observations was published on Wednesday.

It went boom

The odd thing about many supernova (specifically those in the category called type II) is that they're not explosions in the sense of the ones we experience on Earth. In a supernova, the core of the star collapses suddenly, triggering the explosion. But it happens so quickly that the outer layers of the star barely budge. The first overt sign of what's going on comes when the debris of the explosion reaches the surface of the star, a process called the breakout. This causes the star to suddenly brighten, a process that continues through some ups and downs for days afterward.

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Watch live: SpaceX aims to launch a satellite and catch a payload fairing

Thu, 02/22/2018 - 08:31

Enlarge / SpaceX has a sooty booster on the pad in California, ready for a launch. (credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX had to scrub the Wednesday launch attempt of its Falcon 9 rocket due to upper-level winds, but will try again Thursday morning. The instantaneous launch window opens (and closes) again at 9:17am ET. This launch will occur from at Vandenberg Air Force Base, in Southern California.

There is heightened interest in this launch because, for the first time, SpaceX will attempt to "catch" one of the two payload fairings that enclose the satellite at the top of the rocket. The value of these fairings is about $6 million, and recovering and reusing them would both save SpaceX money and remove another roadblock on their production line for Falcon 9 rockets.

These fairings will separate from the rocket at about three minutes after launch and are "steerable" in the sense that SpaceX hopes to guide them back to a target location the ocean. The company has been mum about how it plans to slow the fairings and collect them as they fall to Earth. However, as part of that recovery effort, SpaceX will dispatch a boat named "Mr. Steven" into the Pacific Ocean. Photos of the boat, which has a large net above it, have popped up on social media in recent weeks. Presumably the company will share more information if the recovery is a success.

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Prehistoric Europe much like a game of Civilization, according to ancient DNA

Wed, 02/21/2018 - 13:43

Enlarge / Reconstruction of a Bell Beaker burial (National Archaeological Museum of Spain). (credit: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta via Wikimedia Commons)

We can understand the prehistoric past only by interpreting the things people left behind. Finds don't come with words to explain how an object arrived at a site or why people decorated a pot a certain way. So there’s a lot of detail about prehistoric people’s lives, cultures, and interactions that these objects can only hint at. In recent years, however, the DNA of ancient people has added depth and detail to the information gleaned from artifacts. Genomic studies, it turns out, can tell us who the people using those artifacts were and where they came from.

Most of the genomic work so far has been relatively small-scale due to the massive effort involved in sampling and processing ancient DNA, but two new studies add several hundred prehistoric genomes to the existing data.

“The two studies published this week approximately double the size of the entire ancient DNA literature and are similar in their sample sizes to population genetic studies of people living today,” Harvard Medical School geneticist David Reich, who coordinated the studies, told Ars. “We can pick out subtleties in ancient demographic process that were more difficult to appreciate using the small sample size studies available before.”

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SpaceX has an intriguing launch on Wednesday morning

Tue, 02/20/2018 - 19:00

Enlarge / SpaceX has a sooty booster on the pad in California, ready for a launch Wednesday morning. (credit: SpaceX)

After the launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket two weeks ago, going back to launching a single core of a Falcon 9 rocket may seem like something of a letdown. But the next SpaceX launch, presently scheduled for early Wednesday morning, is worth tuning into. The instantaneous launch window opens (and closes) at 9:17am ET Wednesday, and weather conditions forecast for the launchpad at Vandenberg Air Force Base, in California, are 90-percent favorable.

The primary mission on Wednesday is the launch of the PAZ satellite to low Earth orbit. This is a synthetic aperture radar satellite that can generate high-resolution images of the Earth's surface, regardless of whether there are clouds covering the ground. The customer is Hisdesat, a Spain-based commercial satellite company.

The Falcon 9 rocket will also carry a second payload of note: two experimental non-geostationary orbit satellites, Microsat-2a and -2b. Those are two satellites that SpaceX has previously said would be used in its first phase of broadband testing as part of an ambitious plan to eventually deliver global satellite Internet. Further satellites will be launched in phases, with SpaceX intending to reach full capacity with more than 4,000 satellites in 2024.

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This Canadian city is plagued by an obnoxious humming—and it’s getting worse

Tue, 02/20/2018 - 15:59

Zug Island, from across the Detroit River. (credit: Gary Elrod)

Years before diplomats in Cuba were assailed by grating noises and left with baffling brain injuries, the residents of a Canadian city began hearing maddening hums and rumbles. The deep noises mysteriously wash in and out of their neighborhoods and homes, hitting the ears of some but not all residents. And according to recent local news coverage, the eerie disturbances are now getting bad again.

Since 2011, some residents of Windsor, Ontario—directly across the border/river from Detroit, Michigan—reported intermittent bursts of noise established as the “Windsor Hum.” It’s described as a low-frequency throbbing sound, like a fleet of idling diesel engines, a distant rumble of thunder, or a roaring furnace. Some “hummers” report feeling vibrations, too, and having items in their homes rattle. They’ve linked the hum to depression, nausea, sleep problems, heart palpitations, ear aches, headaches—not to mention widespread annoyance.

Windsor residents are not imagining it; there is a real hum. A months-long investigation by National Resources Canada in the summer of 2011 identified a prominent, air-borne frequency of approximately 35Hz. There have been plenty of recordings and reports since then. And its existence was confirmed in a 2014 investigation carried out by the University of Western Ontario (UWO) and the University of Windsor, which was supported by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT).

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Inching closer to a DNA-based file system

Tue, 02/20/2018 - 15:42

Enlarge (credit: Wyss Institute, Harvard)

When it comes to data storage, efforts to get faster access grab most of the attention. But long-term archiving of data is equally important, and it generally requires a completely different set of properties. To get a sense of why getting this right is important, just take the recently revived NASA satellite as an example—extracting anything from the satellite's data will rely on the fact that a separate NASA mission had an antiquated tape drive that could read the satellite's communication software.

One of the more unexpected technologies to receive some attention as an archival storage medium is DNA. While it is incredibly slow to store and retrieve data from DNA, we know that information can be pulled out of DNA that's tens of thousands of years old. And there have been some impressive demonstrations of the approach, like an operating system being stored in DNA at a density of 215 Petabytes a gram.

But that method treated DNA as a glob of unorganized bits—you had to sequence all of it in order to get at any of the data. Now, a team of researchers has figured out how to add something like a filesystem to DNA storage, allowing random access to specific data within a large collection of DNA. While doing this, the team also tested a recently developed method for sequencing DNA that can be done using a compact USB device.

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Supplements are a $30 billion racket—here’s what experts actually recommend

Tue, 02/20/2018 - 10:50

Enlarge / Choose wisely. (credit: Getty | Mario Tama)

There are more than 90,000 vitamin and dietary supplement products sold in the US. They come in pills, powders, drinks, and bars. And they all anticipate some better versions of ourselves—selves with sturdier bones, slimmer waist lines, heftier muscles, happier intestines, better sex lives, and more potent noggins. They foretell of diseases dodged and aging outrun.

On the whole, we believe them. Supplements are a $30 billion industry in the US. Recent surveys suggest that 52 percent of Americans take at least one supplement—and 10 percent take four or more. But should we? Are we healthier, smarter, stronger, or in any way better off because of these daily doses?

The answer is likely no. Most supplements have little to no data to suggest that they’re effective, let alone safe. They’re often backed by tenuous studies in rodents and petri dishes or tiny batches of people. And the industry is rife with hype and wishful thinking—even the evidence for multivitamins isn’t solid. There are also outright deadly scams. What’s more, the industry operates with virtually no oversight.

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NASA spends $1 billion for a launch tower that leans, may only be used once

Tue, 02/20/2018 - 09:20

Enlarge / The space agency's mobile launch tower is leaning slightly to the north. (credit: NASA)

On Tuesday and Wednesday Vice President Mike Pence will travel to Kennedy Space Center in Florida to tour facilities there and participate in the second meeting of the National Space Council. It is not clear how much of the launch facilities he will see during his visit to Florida, where NASA is spending billions of dollars to build ground systems for the launch of the Space Launch System rocket.

There is one component of the revamped facilities that NASA may be reluctant to show Pence, who in effect oversees all national spaceflight activities as the head of the space council. This is the "mobile launcher" structure, which supports the testing and servicing of the massive SLS rocket, as well moving it to the launch pad and providing a platform from which it will launch.

According to a new report in, the expensive tower is "leaning" and "bending." For now, NASA says, the lean is not sufficient enough to require corrective action, but it is developing contingency plans in case the lean angle becomes steeper.

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Ancient DNA sheds light on what happened to the Taino, the native Caribbeans

Mon, 02/19/2018 - 15:55

Enlarge / Reconstruction of a Taino village in Cuba. (credit: Michal Zalewski)

The Caribbean was one of the last parts of the Americas to be settled by humans, although scientists don’t agree on when the first settlers arrived or where they came from. Some argue that people probably arrived from the Amazon Basin, where today’s Arawakan languages developed, while others suggest that the first people to settle the islands came from even farther west, in the Colombian Andes.

“The differences in opinion illustrate the difficulty of tracing population movements based on a patchy archaeological record,” wrote archaeologist Hannes Schroeder of the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and his colleagues. Schroeder’s research team has a new study on the genetics of the long-lost Taino people, which gives some clear indications of their origin and where they went after European colonization.

Complex social networks linked the islands

The Bahamas weren’t settled until 1,500 years ago. The people who settled there are known as the Lucayan Taino, and they and the other Taino communities of the Caribbean were the natives who met the first Spanish colonists in 1492. At the time, the Taino were thriving; Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas estimated that about 600,000 people each lived on Jamaica and Puerto Rico, with as many as a million on Hispaniola. That didn’t last long; by the mid-16th century, smallpox and slavery had driven the Taino to the brink of extinction.

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Woman billed $17,850 for dodgy pee test. Alarmed experts say she’s not alone

Mon, 02/19/2018 - 15:33

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Frank Bienewald )

In 2015, a college student in Texas named Elizabeth Moreno had back surgery to correct a painful spinal abnormality. The procedure was a success, and her surgeon followed it with just a short-term prescription for the opioid pain-killer hydrocodone to ease a speedy recovery. Then came a “routine” urine drug test, ostensibly to ensure she didn’t abuse the powerful drug.

A year later, she got the bill for that test. It was $17,850.

She understandably didn’t see it coming, according to report on her case in Kaiser Health News. The surgery was covered by her insurance and she had weaned herself off the painkiller with no problems. When the surgeon’s office asked for the urine test in mid-January 2016: “I didn’t think anything of it,” Moreno told KHN. “I said fine, whatever.”

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Judge finds written attack on climate scientist too ludicrous to be libel

Mon, 02/19/2018 - 14:28

Enlarge / Justice. (credit: Brian Turner / Flickr)

A few climate scientists have found themselves in court in recent years. Generally, they've been the targets of suits, often by political groups filing Freedom of Information Act requests to fish through their emails. But in a couple of cases, fed-up scientists have taken their most vitriolic detractors to court for defamation and libel.

Well-known Penn State researcher Michael Mann, for example, sued columnist and radio host Mark Steyn and two others for articles repeatedly accusing him of academic fraud (and making an analogy to child molestation).

Canadian climate scientist Andrew Weaver is in a slightly different position, as he decided to run for office several years ago and is now the leader of the Green Party in British Columbia. In 2015, he won a case against the National Post for an article accusing him of scientific misconduct, though that decision was overturned by an appeals court last year.

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Aerojet says government asking it to invest too much in its own engine

Mon, 02/19/2018 - 11:07

Enlarge / An artist's conception of the AR1 engine. (credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne)

The propulsion company Aerojet Rocketdyne, formed in 2013 by two of America's most storied rocket engine manufacturers, has been working a new engine, known as the AR1, since 2014. Almost from its outset, however, the AR1 has faced two primary questions: who would pay for its development, and who would use the new engine.

In recent years, Aerojet has sought funding from the US Air Force to design and build the AR1, which has approximately 20 percent more thrust than a space shuttle main engine. The Air Force, in turn, has pledged as much as $536 million in development costs provided that Aerojet puts its own skin in the game—about one-third of research and development expenses.

According to a new report in Space News, Aerojet is now saying that even this modest investment is too much, and the company is seeking to reduce its share of the development costs from one-third to one-sixth. “As we look to the next phase of this contract, we are working with the Air Force on a smart and equitable cost-share,” Aerojet spokesman Steve Warren told the publication. “We are committed to delivering an engine in 2019.”

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