Thursday, July 31, 2014

Dinosaurs 'shrank' to become birds

Huge meat-eating, land-living dinosaurs evolved into birds by constantly shrinking for over 50 million years, scientists have revealed.

Theropods shrunk 12 times from 163kg (25st 9lb) to 0.8kg (1.8lb), before becoming modern birds.

The researchers found theropods were the only dinosaurs to get continuously smaller.

Their skeletons also changed four times faster than other dinosaurs, helping them to survive.

Results from the study are reported in the journal Science.

Previous work has shown that theropod dinosaurs, the dinosaur group which included Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor and gave rise to modern birds, must have decreased in size at some point in their evolution into small, agile flyers.

But size changes frequently occurred in dinosaur evolution, so the research team members, led by Mike Lee, from the University of Adelaide, Australia, wanted to find out if the dramatic size reduction associated with the origin of birds was unique.

They also wanted to measure the rate of evolution in dinosaurs using a large data set.

The authors used sophisticated analytical tools - developed by molecular biologists trying to understand virus evolution - to study more than 1,500 dinosaur body traits coded from 120 well-documented species of theropod and early birds.

From this analysis they produced a detailed family tree mapping out the transformation of theropods to their bird descendants.

It traces evolving adaptations and changing body size over time and across dinosaur branches.

They found that the dinosaur group directly related to birds shrank rapidly from about 200 million years ago.

It showed a decrease in body mass of 162.2kg (25st 7lb) from the largest average body size to Archaeopteryx, the earliest known bird.

These bird ancestors also evolved new adaptations, including feathers, wishbones and wings, four times faster than other dinosaurs.

The researchers concluded that the evolution of the branch of dinosaurs leading to birds was more innovative than other dinosaur lineages.

The authors say this sustained shrinking and accelerated evolution of smaller and smaller body size allowed the ancestors of birds to develop traits which helped them to cope much better than their less evolved dinosaur relatives.

'Birds evolved through a unique phase of sustained miniaturisation in dinosaurs,' Mr Lee said.

'Being smaller and lighter in the land of giants, with rapidly evolving anatomical adaptations, provided these bird ancestors with new ecological opportunities, such as the ability to climb trees, glide and fly.

'Ultimately, this evolutionary flexibility helped birds survive the deadly meteorite impact which killed off all their dinosaurian cousins.'

'No overnight transformation'

The researchers believe that miniaturisation and the development of bird-like traits had a joint influence on the evolution of the dinosaurs into today's birds.

Professor Michael Benton, from the University of Bristol's school of earth sciences, said: 'This study means we can't see the origin of birds as a sudden or dramatic event, with a dinosaur becoming a powered flyer overnight.

'The functions of each special feature of birds changed over time - feathers first for insulation, and later co-opted for flight; early reductions in body size perhaps for other reasons, and later they were small enough for powered flight; improvements in sense of sight and enlargement of brain - even a small improvement in these is advantageous.

'So perhaps it's a long-term trend associated with deputation to a new set of habitats, in the trees, to avoid predation, and to exploit new food resources.'

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Goalkeepers' penalty 'flaw' revealed

Goalkeepers facing penalty shoot-outs make a predictable error that could influence the outcome say researchers.

Psychologists studied videos from World Cups and European Championships between 1976 and 2012.

They found that after three kicks in the same direction, keepers were more likely to dive the opposite way on the next shot.

Luckily for them, penalty takers have so far failed to exploit this predictable pattern.

Four knockout games in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil were decided by penalties - a record shared with Italy in 1990 and Germany in 2006.

Gambling with the game

If kickers were to identify non-random patterns in the goalkeeper's behaviour, they could really win the match quite easily without even a perfect kick'

Goalkeepers were the heroes with the likes of Brazil's Julio Cesar and Tim Krul from the Netherlands making game winning saves at crucial moments.

While scientists have sought to define the perfect penalty in the past, this new study from researchers at University College London (UCL), tries to statistically evaluate goalkeeping patterns in shoot-outs.

They conclude that the keepers in these situations often fall prey to what's termed the 'gambler's fallacy'.

The fallacy can be seen in the flipping of a coin. If there's a run of 'heads', many people mistakenly believe there is then an increased chance that the next one will be 'tails'.

The reality is that there is a fifty-fifty chance on every toss, regardless of the length of the sequence.

In their analysis the researchers found that almost every action, such as the sides of the goal that the kickers aimed for, and the way the goalkeepers dived, were random events.

Crucially the researchers found that the goalkeeper's decisions were predictable after three kicks had gone in the same direction.

'After three, it starts to be more significant than chance,' said lead author Erman Misirlisoy, from UCL.

'Around 69% of dives are in the opposite direction to the last ball, and 31% in the same direction as last after three consecutive balls in the same direction.'

A good example of this was in the England Portugal Euro Championship quarter final in 2004. The game went to penalties, and the first three Portuguese players all aimed at the left of the goal.

On the fourth penalty, the English keeper, David James, went to the right. The next Portuguese player stayed left again and scored. Portugal won the shootout 6-5.

'If kickers were to identify non-random patterns in the goalkeeper's behaviour, they could really win the match quite easily without even a perfect kick. They would just have to kick the opposite way,' said Erman Misirlisoy.

If players were to take a group decision to all kick the same way, the fourth penalty in the shoot-out should offer them their best chance of scoring.

However, the problem for penalty takers is that the expectation from the crowd and their team mates is that they will score.

This weight may explain why they don't work together or communicate well as a group.

'Kickers are under enormous pressure, focussed on the moment of their own kick. Each individual kicker may not pay enough attention to the sequence of preceding kicks to predict what the goalkeeper will do next,' said co-author Prof Patrick Haggard.

If goalkeepers want to improve their odds of saving shots they must resist the gambler's fallacy. Their best bet would be to have planned a sequence of dives and to stick with it.

'The best point for the keeper is to become more random,' said Erman Misirlisoy.

'There is nothing from him to exploit and he is only going to open himself up to being exploited if he does produce a pattern.'

The one area of the goal that the psychologists didn't examine is the centre.

'In our analysis we decided to leave out the middle as it is so rare. It's less than 10% of cases, and goalkeepers remain in the middle only 2.5% of the time, so kickers could possibly exploit this by kicking down the middle more often.'

The study has been published in the journal, Current Biology.

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.

Minister wants UK animal tests ban

The minister in charge of regulating animal experiments in the UK has said he wants to see an end to all testing.

Lib Dem MP Norman Baker - a longstanding anti-vivisection campaigner - said a ban on animal testing 'would not happen tomorrow'.

But he claimed the government was moving in the right direction.

The coalition is committed to reducing the number of live animal experiments - but animal rights campaigners say they have broken that promise.

Mr Baker, who as crime prevention minister at the Home Office has responsibility for regulating the use of animals in science, said he was trying to persuade the industry to accept the economic case for ending tests.

'I am firmly of the belief it is not simply a moral issue but that we as a nation can get a strategic advantage from this - something that will be good for the economy,' Mr Baker told BBC News.

'I have been encouraging the industry to come up with alternatives to animal testing.'

'Privacy clause'

The scientific community says research on live animals is vital to understanding disease and has resulted in new vaccines and also treatments for cancer, Parkinson's disease, asthma and HIV - but opponents say it is cruel and pointless, as alternative research methods are available.

Mr Baker has also promised legislation before the next election to increase transparency - potentially giving the public the chance to obtain details about what happens to animals in laboratories.

At the moment, the Home Office blocks requests for data on research contracts and the justification for using live animals as the issue is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

Researchers are protected by a 'privacy clause' in Section 24 of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986.

Mr Baker has carried out a review of the Section 24 following a high profile campaign by the British Union of Anti-Vivisectionists and celebrities including Joanna Lumley and Eddie Izzard.

In a statement, Mr Baker said: 'The coalition government is committed to enhancing openness and transparency about the use of animals in scientific research to improve public understanding of this work. It is also a personal priority of mine.

'The consultation on Section 24 of the Animals in Science Act has now concluded and we are currently analysing responses in preparation for pursuing potential legislative change.'

The number of experiments on animals in the UK increased by 52% between 1995 and 2013, according to official statistics.

Latest figure show show 4.12 million procedures were carried out with animals in 2013, a rise of 0.3% on the previous year.

'Suffer and die'

There was a 6% increase in breeding genetically modified animals and a 5% decrease in other procedures.

Mice, fish and rats were the most commonly used species in 2013, with 3.08 million procedures carried out on them.

There was an increase in testing of guinea pigs (+13,602); sheep (+2,919); rabbits (+1,233); pigs (+350); gerbils (+279); monkeys (+216) and reptiles (+183).

But there was a fall in experiments on birds (-13,259); amphibians (-3,338); cattle (-1,167); goats (-969) and hamsters (-354).

British Union for the Abolition of Vivisecton chief executive Michelle Thew said: 'We continue to be disappointed that the government has failed to deliver on its 2010 pledge to reduce animal experiments and to end the use of animals to test household products.

'Millions of animals continue to suffer and die in our laboratories.

'The UK should be leading the way in reducing animal testing, yet we remain one of the world's largest users of animals in experiments and the numbers continue to rise.

'We have, however, been encouraged by recent statements from Home Office Minister, Norman Baker, that increased transparency regarding animal experiments will be dealt with within this Parliament.'

Broken robots 'learn to keep going'

Engineers have taken a step towards having machines that can operate when damaged by developing a robot that can teach itself to walk, even with a broken leg.

Using 'intelligent trial and error', their six-legged robot learned how to walk again in less than 2 minutes.

'This new technique will enable more robust, effective, autonomous robots,' the engineers behind the robot said.

They said the aim was to mimic the behaviour of injured animals.

The trial-and-error methodology could have ramifications for robots used in the workplace and for military purposes. A robot that can keep attacking - no matter how damaged - brings to mind the relentless android from the Terminator films.

According to one expert, adaptive robotics is the cutting edge of the field. Most robots currently sit in factories and perform very specific functions. Scientists want to get robots to understand new and changing situations.

'Start Quote

There are lots of applications beyond the military... such as robots on the Moon and Mars'

End Quote Dr Fumiya Iida University of Cambridge

'The real challenge we are pursuing in robotics is robots that can adapt to uncertain and unstructured environments,' Dr Fumiya Iida, of the Machine Intelligence Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, told the BBC.

The scientists - Antoine Cully and and Jean-Baptiste Mouret of the Sorbonne in Paris and Jeff Clune of the University of Wyoming - published a research paper on their robot on Arxiv, a platform to release early versions of academic research that is overseen by Cornell University's library.

Locomotion 'a challenge'

'When animals lose a limb, they learn to hobble remarkably quickly,' Arxiv said in a blog post on the research. 'And yet when robots damage a leg, they become completely incapacitated.'

The scientists' robot has solved this by trying to mimic animals - by discovering which leg is broken and then then using trial and error to figure out the best way to continue walking.

'Locomotion is a major challenge,' Dr Iida said. 'It's an issue of energy efficiency. Robots are unusually very inefficient compared to animals.'

Other companies are also trying to mimic animals, such as Boston Dynamics, which is now owned by Google. It makes a variety of robots, including the internet sensation Big Dog, which can attain locomotion on a variety of different and difficult terrains.

Big Dog was funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) and Boston Dynamics contracts for the US military - which is an area where the trial-and-error algorithms could be applied, especially to machines injured in warfare.

But Dr Iida said that military use was only one aspect of better adaptive robots.

'There are lots of applications beyond the military,' he said. 'You can think of robots in extreme environments, so not only in warfare, but in space such as robots on the Moon and Mars, and in nuclear power plants. Think of Fukushima, for example, where humans can't go.'

While these engineers are focused on self-learning robots, others are developing robots and materials that can 'heal themselves' when they are damaged.

BAE Systems said recently that in the future, it could build drones that contained a lightweight fluid that would allow jets to heal themselves from damage sustained in flight, as well as on-board 3D printers that can make new parts, while a new plastic that can fix itself has been developed by engineers at the University of Illinois.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Broody octopus keeps four-year vigil

For four years and five months, she clung to the rock and guarded her eggs.

In a feat that surely made good use of all eight arms, an octopus revealed a new secret of deep sea life when ecologists observed her record-breaking behaviour from a robotic submarine.

This doubles the longest brooding time ever seen in the animal kingdom, giving embryos time to develop in the cold.

The discovery, published in the journal PLOS One, was made in a canyon 1.4km beneath the Pacific, off California.

Dr Bruce Robison led the research at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). He told BBC News his team had stumbled upon the plucky mother in the days before she settled down and glued her eggs to the rock face.

She was heading, slowly, for a known brooding site.

By looking at characteristic scars in one of her eight armpits, the team identified the same octopus on the next dive, one month later.

Cheer squad

'The first time that we dropped back down... and realised that she had gone up and laid a clutch of eggs, it was very exciting,' Dr Robison said. 'We knew that we had the beginning.'

'No-one had ever had the good fortune to come upon the beginning of a brooding period.'

That was May 2007 - Tony Blair was still in office and the world had only seen two Shrek movies.

For the next four and a half years, the team paid the devoted cephalopod 18 more visits, thanks to multimillion-dollar remote diving vehicles equipped with cameras, robotic arms, and laser lights to make physical measurements.

'Each time we went down it was more of a surprise,' Dr Robison said, 'because we found her there again and again and again, past the point that anybody expected she'd persist.

'It got to be like a sports team we were rooting for. We wanted her to survive and to succeed.'

Octopus and eggs were all still firmly in place in September 2011. By October, the same month that David Cameron urged his government to support same sex marriage and the first Puss in Boots spin-off landed, she had disappeared.

Empty egg cases littered the scene of her encampment.

Four-year fast?

The octopus probably died shortly after completing her vigil, according to Dr Robison. The brooding period typically takes up the final quarter of a female octopus's life.

'She has only one job once those eggs are deposited,' he said.

He added she quite possibly ate nothing for the whole 53 months.

'Everything we know suggests she probably didn't eat,' Dr Robison said. Most octopuses do not feed while brooding, he explained, and in countless dives his team had 'never seen a clutch of eggs untended'.

The only time the cameras saw this particular devoted mother pay any attention to the crabs or shrimps that strayed nearby - normally a square meal for an octopus - was when she batted them away from her 150 precious eggs.

Even when the team used one of the submarine's appendages to offer her a snack, they were resolutely ignored.

Kerry Perkins, an aquarist at the Sea Life aquarium in Brighton, said a four-year fast was a possibility, but noted that the octopus may have got nutrients from unlaid eggs or very occasional, unobserved titbits.

'They're exceptionally good mothers,' she said. 'It is very, very cold water and they're not moving much, so their metabolic rate would be pretty low - but still, you'd think in four and a half years you'd probably have to have a snack at some point.'

Eclipsed shrimp

Ms Perkins said she was 'quite amazed' by the findings, which contribute to our still very rudimentary understanding of these deep-sea dwellers.

'They're still very much the aliens of the sea.'

Dr Robison believes the icy temperature at these depths - about 3C - is what governs the extraordinary brooding routine.

'The low temperature slows everything down,' he said. A low metabolism allows the mother to survive on little or no food, while she protects the eggs and flushes water over them, keeping their oxygen supply up as they gradually develop.

The previous record for the longest known brooding time was 20 months, and belonged to a giant red shrimp.

Mystery of lemon-shaped Moon solved

Scientists have worked out the reasons for the distorted shape of our Moon.

A US team calculated the effect on the shape of the early Moon of tidal and rotational forces.

They say its own spin and the tidal tug of the Earth created a 'lemon-shaped' satellite.

Lead researcher Ian Garrick-Bethell, from the University of California Santa Cruz, said this shape-shifting occurred when the Moon was mostly liquid beneath a thin outer crust of rock.

'For the Earth and Mars and other bodies, we know that the dominant shape of the planet is due to its spin,' he said.

'If you take a water balloon and start spinning it, it will bulge out at the equator, and on the Earth, we have something very similar to that.'

This effect, however, does not explain how 'surprisingly distorted' our Moon is.

'It's spinning really slowly, and it's really far from the Earth, so it's not like tides today could be causing that.'

Prof Garrick-Bethell's new explanation is that four billion years ago - when the Moon formed from the debris thrown out by a huge impact between early Earth and a so-called planetoid - was much closer to the Earth. This meant tides were stronger.

'The Moon was [also] spinning much faster,' he told BBC News.

'So there's a variety of interesting things that could happen, at that time when the Moon was really hot, that could change its shape.'

Heating and stretching

When the Moon first formed, it was liquid rock. As it cooled, the outer crust solidified and floated on this viscous ocean.

The gravitational tug of the Earth raised tides on the Moon that started to 'flex and pull on that thin crust', said Prof Garrick-Bethell.

He and his colleagues were inspired in this idea by an earlier study of one of Jupiter's moon's Europa.

Europa has an ice crust floating on a liquid ocean of water.

In a 2013 study, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin calculated how tidal heating - caused by Jupiter's tug on that warmer liquid water - was distributed in Europa's icy shell.

Prof Garrick-Bethell's team realised that a similar effect could have occurred in the liquid rock ocean on the early Moon.

They also solved the mathematical problems caused by large craters and basins on the Moon's surface that formed after the crust solidified.

These have previously caused problems for past attempts to interpret its shape. They're essentially chunks of 'missing Moon' that make it difficult to map its co-ordinates and work out how its original spherical shape would have been rearranged.

'We did a lot of work to estimate the uncertainties in the analysis that result from those gaps [in the data],' Prof Garrick-Bethell said.

The result, the researchers claim, is the best explanation yet of the Moon's odd shape.

Tablet screens to correct sight loss

Engineers have developed a prototype tablet display that compensates for an individuals' vision problems.

The system uses software to alter the light from each individual pixel on the screen, based on the person's glasses prescription.

The researchers also added a thin plastic pin hole filter to enhance the sharpness of the image.

The team say the technology could help millions who need corrective lenses to use their digital devices.

Around one person in three in the UK suffers from short-sightedness or myopia. In the US, around 40% while in Asia it is more than half the population.

'Start Quote

Instead of relying on optics to correct your vision, we use computation'

End Quote Fu-Chung Huang, University of California

In recent years there have been a number of projects that have attempted to use computing screens to correct vision problems.

The authors of this latest study say their prototype offers 'significantly higher contrast and resolution compared to previous solutions'.

Follow the light

The team from the University of California, Berkeley, working with colleagues at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), developed an algorithm that adjusts the intensity of each direction of light that emanates from a single pixel in an image, based on the user's specific visual impairment.

Their prototype used an iPod, with a printed pinhole mask attached to the screen. To check the images, the researchers used a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera which was set up to simulate a person who was farsighted.

The altered images from the iPod appeared sharp and clear to the camera, showing that the prototype was effective in correcting this sight issue.

'The significance of this project is that, instead of relying on optics to correct your vision, we use computation,' said lead author Fu-Chung Huang. 'This is a very different class of correction, and it is non-intrusive.'

The research team believe that their idea, when refined further, could be of benefit to people who suffer from more difficult-to-treat vision issues.

'We now live in a world where displays are ubiquitous, and being able to interact with displays is taken for granted,' said Prof Brian Barsky, from UC Berkeley, the project leader.

'People with higher order aberrations often have irregularities in the shape of the cornea, and this irregular shape makes it very difficult to have a contact lens that will fit.

'In some cases, this can be a barrier to holding certain jobs because many workers need to look at a screen as part of their work. This research could transform their lives.'

Battery question

It should be stressed that while the research is at a very early stage, the engineers behind it the approach believe it has great potential, in the field of visual correction and beyond.

They envisage displays that users with different visual problems can view at the same time and see a sharp image.

'In the long run we believe that flexible display architectures will allow for multiple different modes, such as glass free 3D image display, vision corrected 2D image display and combinations of vision corrected and 3D image displays,' the authors write.

No consideration has been given, at this stage, to the impact such a system might have on the battery life of digital devices. This could also be an important factor going forward.

The research will be presented at an international conference on computer graphics called SIGGRAPH, in Vancouver in August.

Birds beat machines in hover test

When it comes to flight, nature just has the edge on engineers.

This is according to a study comparing hummingbirds with one of the world's most advanced micro-helicopters.

Researchers found that - in terms of the power they require to lift their weight - the best hummingbird was over 20% more efficient than the helicopter.

The 'average Joe' hummingbird, however, was on par with the helicopter, showing 'how far flight engineering has come'.

The findings are published in the Royal Society journal Interface.

Lead researcher Prof David Lentink, from Stanford University in California, explained that the flight performance of a hummingbird - the only bird capable of sustained hovering - was extremely difficult to measure.

'Imagine a 4g bird,' he said. 'The forces they generate are tiny.

Flapping and flying

As birds and insects move through the air, their wings are held at a slight angle, which deflects the air downward.

This deflection means the air flows faster over the wing than underneath, causing air pressure to build up beneath the wings, while the pressure above the wings is reduced. It is this difference in pressure that produces lift.

Flapping creates an additional forward and upward force known as thrust, which counteracts the insect's weight and the 'drag' of air resistance.

The downstroke or the flap is also called the 'power stroke', as it provides the majority of the thrust. During this, the wing is angled downwards even more steeply.

You can imagine this stroke as a very brief downward dive through the air - it momentarily uses the creature's own weight in order to move forwards. But because the wings continue to generate lift, the creature remains airborne.

In each upstroke, the wing is slightly folded inwards to reduce resistance.

'As a result the drag of a hummingbird wing has never been measured accurately.'

Drag is the force opposing the upward force of lift that birds' wings generate by flapping.

Prof Lentink and his team wanted to understand if feathered hummingbird wings were more efficient - using less power to overcome drag - than the engineered blades of a helicopter of a similarly tiny scale.

He and his colleagues compared the birds' performance to an advanced micro-drone called the Black Hornet - a 16g helicopter used for surveillance by British troops in Afghanistan.

To make the laboratory measurements, they used wings from hummingbird specimens kept in museums.

By putting these detached wings into an apparatus called a wing spinner, the team was able to measure exactly how much flapping power was required to lift the bird's weight.

Prof Lentink's colleagues at the University of British Columbia in Canada also made recordings of wild hummingbirds in flight, to measure the exact movement of their wings - which beat up to 80 times per second.

'By combining the wings' motion with the drag [that we measured in the lab], we were able to calculate the aerodynamic power hummingbird muscles need to provide to sustain hover,' explained Prof Lentink.

One species - the Anna's hummingbird - was champion hoverer, performing much more efficiently than the helicopter.

But on average, the birds hovering performance was 'on par with the helicopter'.

'This shows that if we design the wings well, we can build drones that hover as efficiently, if not more efficiently, as hummingbirds,' said Prof Lentink.

'Clearly we are not even close to hummingbirds in many other design metrics, such as wind gust tolerance, visual flight control through clutter, to name a few.

'But if we focus on aerodynamic efficiency, we are closer than we perhaps ever imagined possible.'

Dr Mirko Kovac from the aerial robotics lab at Imperial College London said the study was a great example of research at the interface of biology and engineering.

'Studying hummingbird wing shapes can not only give insights into the biomechanics of animals,' he told BBC News, 'but the gained insights can also be used to build the next generation of flying micro robots.'

Astronomers weigh up Milky Way

The Milky Way is lighter than astronomers previously thought, researchers have concluded.

A team of scientists led by the University of Edinburgh found it has about half the mass of a neighbouring galaxy, known as Andromeda.

Their estimates come from working out the mass of invisible matter found in the outer regions of both galaxies.

They concluded that dark matter accounted for Andromeda's extra weight.

Dark matter is a little-understood invisible substance which makes up most of the outer regions of galaxies.

The researchers have estimated that Andromeda contains twice as much dark matter as the Milky Way, causing it to be twice as heavy.

The Milky Way and Andromeda have similar structures and are the two largest in a region of galaxies which astronomers call the Local Group.

The researchers say their work should help them learn more about how the outer regions of galaxies are structured.

According to the research group, previous studies were only able to measure the mass enclosed within both galaxies' inner regions.

Dr Jorge Penarrubia, of the University of Edinburgh's School of Physics and Astronomy, who led the study, said: 'We always suspected that Andromeda is more massive than the Milky Way, but weighting both galaxies simultaneously proved to be extremely challenging.

'Our study combined recent measurements of the relative motion between our galaxy and Andromeda with the largest catalogue of nearby galaxies ever compiled to make this possible.'

The study, published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, was carried out in collaboration with the University of British Colombia, Carnegie Mellon University and NRC Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics.

The work was supported by the UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

'Quantum Cheshire Cat' observed

Scientists have for the first time separated a particle from one of its physical properties - creating a 'quantum Cheshire Cat'.

The phenomenon is named after the curious feline in Alice in Wonderland, who vanishes leaving only its grin.

Researchers took a beam of neutrons and separated them from their magnetic moment, like passengers and their baggage at airport security.

They describe their feat in Nature Communications.

The same separation trick could in principle be performed with any property of any quantum object, say researchers from Vienna University of Technology.

'Start Quote

Well! I've often seen a cat without a grin, but a grin without a cat! It's the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!'

End Quote Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Their technique could have a useful application in metrology - helping to filter out disturbances during high-precision measurements of quantum systems.

Schrodinger's paradox

In Lewis Carroll's classic children's story, the Cheshire Cat gradually disappears, leaving only its mischievous grin.

This prompts Alice to exclaim: 'Well! I've often seen a cat without a grin, but a grin without a cat! It's the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!'

The idea of a 'quantum Cheshire Cat' was first proposed in 2010 by Dr Jeff Tollaksen from Chapman University, a co-author on this latest paper.

In the world familiar to us, an object and its properties are always bound together. A rotating ball, for instance, cannot become separated from its spin.

But quantum theory predicts that a particle (such as a photon or neutron) can become physically separated from one of its properties - such as its polarisation or its magnetic moment (the strength of its coupling to an external magnetic field).

'We find the cat in one place, and its grin in another,' as the researchers once put it.

The feline analogy is a nod to Schrodinger's Cat - the infamous thought experiment in which a cat in a box is both alive and dead simultaneously - illustrating a quantum phenomenon known as superposition.

To prove that the Cheshire Cat is not just a cute theory, the researchers used an experimental set-up known as an interferometer, at the Institute Laue-Langevin (ILL) in Grenoble, France.

A neutron beam was passed through a silicon crystal, sending it down two different paths - like passengers and their luggage at airport security.

By applying filters and a technique known as 'post-selection', they were able to detect the physical separation of the neutrons from their magnetic moment - as measured by the direction of their spin.

'The system behaves as if the neutrons go through one beam path, while their magnetic moment travels along the other,' the researchers reported.

Glimpsing this Cheshire Cat requires what quantum physicists call 'weak measurement,' whereby you interact with a system so gently that you avoid collapsing it from a quantum state to a classical one.

Their delicate apparatus could have useful applications in high-precision metrology, the researchers say.

'For example, one could imagine a situation in which the magnetic moment of a particle overshadows another of the particle's properties which one wants to measure very precisely.

'The Cheshire Cat effect might lead to a technology which allows one to separate the unwanted magnetic moment to a region where it causes no disturbance to the high-precision measurement of the other property.'

MPs bicker over climate report

MPs have endorsed the findings of a UN climate panel that says humans are the dominant cause of global warming.

Members of the Energy and Climate Change Committee said there was 'no reason to doubt the credibility of the science' of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

But two MPs, known for their sceptical views, voted against this conclusion.

They said the committee report was more like cheer leading than objective analysis.

The IPCC issued its latest assessment of the causes, impacts and solutions to climate science, in three parts, starting in September last year.

No reason for doubt

The panel's key conclusion was that the scientists were 95% certain that humans were the 'dominant cause' of warming since the 1950s.

But the IPCC has faced criticism about its relevance and methods after a number of small errors were highlighted in its 2007 report.

'Start Quote

What is starkly clear from the evidence we heard however is that there is no reason to doubt the credibility of the science'

End Quote Tim Yeo MP Chair, Energy and Climate Change Committee

The cross-party commons body heard from a range of experts and concluded that the panel had tightened its processes and the recent report was the most exhaustive and heavily scrutinised to date.

The panel was sound, the MPs held, and so were its conclusions.

'What is starkly clear from the evidence we heard however is that there is no reason to doubt the credibility of the science or the integrity of the scientists involved,' said Tim Yeo, MP chair of Energy and Climate Change Committee.

'Policymakers in the UK and around the world must now act on the IPCC's warning and work to agree a binding global climate deal in 2015 to ensure temperature rises do not exceed a point that could dangerously destabilise the climate.'

Scientists involved with the IPCC were delighted with the endorsement.

'I welcome the publication of this report which confirms unambiguously the robustness of the IPCC process and the science of climate change,' said Prof Rowan Sutton from the University of Reading, and a lead author on Working Group 1.

'The atmosphere and oceans are getting warmer; Arctic ice is melting and sea levels are rising. CO2 levels are at their highest for almost a million years, and it's clear that man is to blame for these record levels.'

Uncertainties ignored

But two members of the committee, Peter Lilley and Graham Stringer, disagreed with the other nine.

They accused their fellow MPs of not holding the IPCC critically to account.

'As scientists by training, we do not dispute the science of the greenhouse effect - nor did any of our witnesses,' they said in a statement.

'However, there remain great uncertainties about how much warming a given increase in greenhouse gases will cause, how much damage any temperature increase will cause and the best balance between adaptation to versus prevention of global warming.'

The two MPs say that the underlying technical report of the IPCC acknowledges many uncertainties, but these have been omitted from the critical Summary for Policymakers, presented to politicians.

Among a number of issues they highlight the so-called 'pause' in global warming since 1997.

'About one third of all the CO2 omitted by mankind since the industrial revolution has been put into the atmosphere since 1997; yet there has been no statistically significant increase in the mean global temperature since then.

'By definition, a period with record emissions but no warming cannot provide evidence that emissions are the dominant cause of warming!'

The Energy and Climate Change Committee, in their report, took a different view. They said that periods of hiatus are consistent with earlier assessments and forced climate change takes place against a background of natural variability.

'The current period of hiatus does not undermine the core conclusions of the WGI (working group 1) contribution to the fifth assessment report when put in the context of the overall, long-term global energy budget.

'Despite the hiatus, the first decade of the 2000s was the warmest in the instrumental record and overall warming is expected to continue in the coming decades.'

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Eggshells may act like 'sunblock'

The eggshells of wild birds may act like 'sunblock', scientists have said.

A range of UK birds' eggs showed adaptations in pigment concentration and thickness to allow the right amount of sun to reach the embryos inside.

Researchers examined 75 species' eggs kept in a museum collection.

'Embryos do need UV exposure to develop - too little and they don't develop enough... too much and it causes damage,' said team member Dr Steven Portugal from the University of London.

'Birds whose nests are exposed to the sun and birds which have long incubation periods too, have more pigment and allow less light to go through the shell to avoid UV damage to embryos,' he explained.

The study, published online in the journal Functional Ecology, suggests thickness and pigment in eggshells change depending on the nest environment.

Wild birds' eggshell colours can be white, blue and spotted. The blue colour found in many eggs is caused by a pigment called biliverdin, while dark spots are produced by a darker pigment, protoporphyrin.

The findings may shed new light on the colour variations found in wild birds' eggs.

'Within the UK you can have species like stone curlews, oystercatchers, Arctic skuas and nightjars that nest out in the open on the ground, essentially exposed to the element, including the sun and damaging UV,' Dr Portugal told BBC Nature.

These species' eggs contain extra pigment which, according to the new research, helps control the amount of light entering through the shell and reaching the embryo.

Other eggs belonged to species that nest in holes, burrows and cavities, such as hoopoes, little owls and green woodpeckers.

The 'immaculate' white shells prevalent in these nests allow 'greater light transmission through the shell to assist embryonic development under low-light exposure,' said Dr Portugal.

The study also showed that birds with longer incubation periods had thicker shells with more pigment, to protect against harmful UV rays.

To examine how different eggshells control the amount of light allowed to shine through, Dr Portugal and an international team of researchers looked at eggs kept in the Natural History Museum in Tring, Hertfordshire.

Using a spectrophotometer, they shone a light through eggshells that had been cut in half and measured their 'resistance'.

'One hundred percent light transmission means nothing in the way at all,' explained Dr Portugal. 'Fifty percent would mean half the light is blocked by the shell.'

The team also extracted and examined the pigment present in each shell and measured their thickness.

Previous studies have shown an array of adaptations among birds' eggs. These include many eggs displaying dark spots (or maculation) for camouflage, and pigment which can fight infection to protect embryos.

Dr Portugal added: 'Eggshells are complex structures and far more sophisticated than many people would realise of appreciate.'

Join BBC Nature on Facebook and Twitter @BBCNature.

'Brain hub predicts negative events'

Scientists say a part of the brain, smaller than a pea, triggers the instinctive feeling that something bad is about to happen.

Writing in the journal PNAS, they suggest the habenula plays a key role in how humans predict, learn from and respond to nasty experiences.

And they question whether hyperactivity in this area is responsible for the pessimism seen in depression.

They are now investigating whether the structure is involved in the condition.

'Start Quote

'Everything that moves needs a system like this - to tell us not to stroke the tiger or go down a dark alley'

End Quote Dr Jonathan Rosier University College London

Money or shock

Animal studies have shown that the habenula fires up when subjects expect or experience adverse events, But in humans this tiny structure (less than 3mm in diameter) has proved difficult to see on scans.

Inventing a technique to pinpoint the area, scientists at University College London put 23 people though MRI scanners to monitor their brain activity.

Participants were shown a range of abstract pictures. A few seconds later, the images were linked to either punishment (painful electric shocks), reward (money) or neutral responses.

For some images, a punishment or reward followed each time but for others this varied - leaving people uncertain whether they were going to feel pain or not.

And when people saw pictures associated with shocks the habenula lit up.

And the more certain they were a picture was going to result in a punishment, the stronger and faster the activity in this area.

Scientists suggests the habenula is involved in helping people learn when it is best to stay away from something and may also signal just how bad a nasty event is likely to be.

Depressive symptoms

Dr Jonathan Roiser, a lead author on the paper from University College London, told the BBC:

'Everything that moves needs a system like this - to tell us not to stroke the tiger or go down a dark alley.

'It is likely the habenula is a key neural hub allowing us to anticipate such events.'

This area of the brain has been seen to be overactive in animal experiments on depression.

And in one human case-study, providing deep brain stimulation (electrical current) to this area helped reduce depressive symptoms.

Prof Catherine Harmer, at the University of Oxford, who was not involved in the research, said: 'This is an important piece of work and has the potential to have great significance in depression.

'If this area is involved in this illness, it may help explain why people suffering from major depression show an over-sensitivity to punishments and are less likely to respond to rewards.'

Scientists are now working with people with depression to investigate any differences in brain activity in this area.

How faces drive first impressions

Whether it's a curled lip or a keen cheekbone, we all make quick social judgements based on strangers' faces.

Now scientists have modelled the specific physical attributes that underpin our first impressions.

Small changes in the dimensions of a face can make it appear more trustworthy, dominant or attractive.

The results, published in the journal PNAS, could help film animators or anyone looking to create an instant impression on a social network.

Dr Tom Hartley, a neuroscientist at the University of York and the study's senior author, said the work added mathematical detail to a well-known phenomenon.

'If people are forming these first impressions, just based on looking at somebody's face, what is it about the image of the face that's giving that impression - can we measure it exactly?'

Three key dimensions of a first impression

  • Approachability: how likely is this person to help (or hinder) me?

  • Dominance: how capable is this person of carrying out those intentions?

  • Attractiveness: is this person young and good looking - a potential romantic partner?

Positive first impressions are especially important in a world dominated by social media, from LinkedIn to Tinder.

Dr Hartley sees the commercial potential in applying his numerical model to the photos people use to present themselves online. 'It's obviously potentially very useful,' he told the BBC.

To make the calculations, each of 1,000 face photos from the internet was shown to at least six different people, who gave it a score for 16 different social traits, like trustworthiness or intelligence.

Overall, these scores boil down to three main characteristics: whether a face is (a) approachable, (b) dominant, and (c) attractive.

By measuring the physical attributes of all 1,000 faces and putting them together with those scores, Dr Hartley and his team built a mathematical model of how the dimensions of a face produce those three impressions.

The next step was to get the computer to extrapolate. Using their new model, the team produced cartoon versions of the most (and least) approachable, dominant and attractive faces - as well as all the possibilities in between.

Finally, and most importantly, these cartoon results could be tested. When the researchers quizzed more participants about their impressions of the artificial, cartoon faces, the ratings matched. People said that the computer's cartoon prediction of an approachable face was, indeed, approachable - and so on.

'Start Quote

You could use these kind of numbers to decide when is a good time to take a photograph, or to choose the photograph that's really optimal in putting forward the best possible impression'

End Quote Dr Tom Hartley University of York

So has all this work revealed humanity's ultimate trustworthy jawline, or the most assertive shape for eyebrows? Dr Hartley is cautious.

'Lots of the features of the face tend to vary together,' he explained. 'So it's very difficult for us to pin down with certainty that a given feature of the face is contributing to a certain social impression.'

There are some obvious trends however - including the tendency for masculine faces to be perceived as dominant, or for a broadly smiling face to seem more approachable and trustworthy.

This points to a potentially worrying implication: brief facial expressions can make a big difference to how we are received by strangers.

'It might be problematic if we're forming these kind of judgements based on these rather fleeting impressions,' Dr Hartley said, 'particularly in today's world where we only might see one picture of a face, on social media, and have to form our impression based on that.'

On the other hand, the findings could help people put their best face forward.

'It might be very useful for organisations who are interested in people's faces,' said Dr Hartley.

'Start Quote

[Being] approachable is tied to smiling expressions and unapproachable to frowning or angry expressions, while dominance is tied to masculine features'

End Quote Dr Anthony Little University of Stirling

That might include interests as diverse as photographers, Facebook and Pixar.

'You would be able to use these kind of numbers to decide when is a good time to take a photograph, or maybe to choose the photograph that's really optimal in putting forward the best possible impression - and you might want to put forward different kinds of social impressions in different situations.'

Animators, on the other hand, 'have to give life, and give some social meaning, to the faces of their characters just by changing small things,' Dr Hartley said.

'What we're doing is trying to put that on a scientific footing. It's been fascinating to find out more about it.'

Dr Anthony Little, a reader in psychology at the University of Stirling, said the findings point to something 'simple and important' about the way physical attributes guide our social responses.

'The results highlight that the way we see other people may be in relatively simple terms, as approachable/unapproachable and dominant/submissive,' said Dr Little, whose own research on faces and psychology includes using a website to crowd-source ratings.

'Each of these two factors looks to be tied to specific face features. So, approachable is tied to smiling expressions and unapproachable to frowning or angry expressions, while dominance is tied to masculine features.

'The third factor, youthful-attractiveness, appears less distinct.'

This is because of interplay between attractiveness and the other two factors, Dr Little explained.

Bidding starts for fracking licences

The bidding process for UK licences to explore for shale gas will begin later, the government has announced.

Applications are expected for areas that have yet to be explored.

Companies that are then granted a licence to begin test drilling will still need to gain planning permission and environmental permits.

The coalition sees shale gas - which is extracted by the process fracking - as an important potential energy source for the UK.

In announcing the so-called 14th onshore licensing round, Business and Energy Minister Matthew Hancock said: 'Unlocking shale gas in Britain has the potential to provide us with greater energy security, jobs and growth.

'We must act carefully, minimising risks, to explore how much of our large resource can be recovered to give the UK a new home-grown source of energy.'

He added that shale gas was a 'key part' of the the government's plans to tackle climate change and 'bridge to a much greener future'.


The licences are likely to prove controversial, as there is a great deal of public opposition to fracking, which involves blasting water, chemicals and sand at high pressure into shale rock formations to release the gas held inside.

Angry demonstrations took place in the West Sussex town of Balcombe last summer as more than 1,000 people protested at a test site operated by energy company Cuadrilla.

Test drilling has also taken place in Lancashire.

Critics of fracking argue that it can lead to earth tremors, water contamination and disruption to rural communities. There are also concerns about methane leakage and diverting resources away from renewable energy.

The industry itself rejects these criticisms, arguing that, if regulated properly, fracking is a safe way to unlock huge resources of gas, which is a cleaner source of energy than coal.

The British Geological Survey estimates there may be 1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas in the north of England, of which perhaps 10% is recoverable, experts say.

Access rights

The government is keen to promote fracking in the UK, and has already announced a number of incentives to help kick-start the industry, including tax breaks, payments of £100,000 per site plus a 1% share of revenue to local communities.

It has also proposed new rules regarding rights to access land to speed up drilling.

The government argues that shale gas could be an important bridge to help secure energy supplies until renewable energy capacity is increased.

Others argue that while it may be cleaner than coal, it is still a hydrocarbon that emits CO2 linked to global warming.

A number of test sites will be needed to determine how much shale gas is commercially recoverable.

In the US, shale gas has seen energy costs tumble, but questions remain about whether the American shale revolution can be replicated in the UK and elsewhere.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Dinosaurs' extinction 'bad luck'

Dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid impact when they were at their most vulnerable, according to a new study.

Dr Steve Brusatte, of Edinburgh University, said sea level rises and volcanic activity had made many species more susceptible to extinction.

They might have survived if the asteroid had hit the Earth a few million years later or earlier, he said, calling it 'colossal bad luck'.

The assessment has been published in the journal, Biological Reviews.

'It was a perfect storm of events that occurred when dinosaurs were at their most vulnerable,' Dr Brusatte told BBC News.

'Start Quote

With evolution never say never. It is certainly possible that dinosaurs could have evolved intelligence'

End Quote Dr Steve Brusatte Edinburgh University

The study brought together 11 leading dinosaur experts from the UK, US and Canada to assess the latest research on the extinction of dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

There is evidence that some species of dinosaur were dying off shortly before an asteroid hit the Earth.

One of the key questions was whether this gradual decline would have led to the extinction of these animals even if the asteroid had not hit.

The experts concluded that although some species of plant eaters in North America were dying out in the period leading up to the asteroid impact there was no evidence of a long-term decline.

However, the experts believe that rises in sea level and increased volcanic activity made many species more susceptible to extinction just at the point that the asteroid struck.

Dr Brusatte believes that had the asteroid hit the Earth a few million years earlier before the environmental pressures became worse or a few million years later, when the dinosaurs might have recovered, they would be roaming the Earth to this day.

'Five million years earlier dinosaur ecosystems were much stronger, they were more diverse, the base of the food chain was more robust and it was harder to knock out a lot of species,' he said.

'If they had a few million years more to recover their diversity they would have had a better chance of surviving the asteroid impact. Dinosaurs had been around for 16 million years, they had plenty of dips and troughs in their diversity but they always recovered.'

It was the demise of the dinosaurs that enabled mammals including our own species to diversify and evolve.

Dr Brusatte said that if it were it not for an asteroid hitting the Earth exactly when it did we would be living in a dinosaur dominated world.

'Except that we would not be here because mammals would not have had the opportunity to blossom and we would not be having this conversation!' he quipped.

This intriguing idea raises the question as to how dinosaurs might have evolved.

Could they have developed in the same way as mammals, becoming an advanced species similar to modern humans?

I asked Dr Brusatte: 'Could dinosaur you and dinosaur me be having this conversation, instead?'

'Start Quote

We can't re-run the tape of life and see whether an impact at a different time would have led to total extinction - but it did come at a particularly bad time'

End Quote Dr Richard Butler Birmingham University

'It's possible!' he said. 'With evolution never say never. It is certainly possible that dinosaurs could have evolved intelligence.'

Professor Simon Conway-Morris from the University of Cambridge agrees, but does not go quite as far as Dr Brusatte.

'As far as dinosaurs becoming intelligent is concerned the experiment has been done and we call them crows,' he told BBC News.

Advanced intelligence

He adds that if there was no mass extinction then he believes that the dinosaurs would not have carried on to the present day.

He says that other groups of animals were more likely to have developed advanced intelligence and the ability to make tools.

'From that moment the dinosaurs would have been toast,' he said.

Others involved in the study are less bullish than Dr Brusatte. They say that while his arguments are plausible they believe that it is impossible to say whether dinosaurs would have survived had the asteroid hit the Earth at a slightly different time.

'We can't re-run the tape of life and see whether an impact at a different time would have led to total extinction,' says Dr Richard Butler from Birmingham University.

'But it did come at a particularly bad time.'

Dr Paul Barrett of the Natural History Museum says that the new study shows that types of dinosaurs were already declining in numbers before the asteroid impact.

'This new work provides the best evidence for sudden dinosaur extinction and for tying this event to the asteroid impact rather than other possible causes such as the longer-term effects of the extensive volcanic activity that occurred at the end of the Cretaceous.'

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California hit by raging wildfires

Two fast-moving wildfires in California are threatening homes and could result in the evacuation of hundreds of people, US officials say.

In the Sacramento region, a fire has spread to cover an area of about 4,000 acres, while another blaze threatens homes around Yosemite National Park.

The Sacramento fire is only 20% contained, officials told local media.

Months of drought have caused more fires in California this year - some 1,400, twice the usual number.

Homes evacuated

The Sacramento fire in the north of the state has doubled in size since it broke out on Friday afternoon, the Los Angeles Times reported officials as saying.

About 515 homes were evacuated as the blaze tore its way through drought-hit grassland.

'The fire's moving in and around homes in the area,' California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokeswoman Lynn Tolmachoff told the AP news agency.

'The leading edge is bumping up against residences as we speak.'

Nearly 1,500 fire fighters and aircraft that included a DC-10 air tanker are battling the blaze, which has sent up huge plumes of smoke and reduced air quality in the Sacramento area.

Officials at dusk on Saturday said that cooler weather and less wind had brought some respite.

Meanwhile a 500-acre fire that started on Saturday afternoon is threatening homes in Yosemite.

Evacuations are reported to have been ordered in Foresta, a community of about 45 homes inside the national park where many employees of the park live.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Gecko sex satellite 'not responding'

A Russian satellite containing geckos, fruit flies and mushrooms could plummet to earth if control is not regained, according to reports.

The engine of the Foton-M4 satellite, with several experiments on board, has stopped responding to ground control.

All other systems are intact, the Progress space centre stated, including 'one-way' transmission of information.

The five geckos are in space for a study of the effect of weightlessness on their sex lives and development.

The Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos, said the six tonne satellite could continue to operate on its own 'for a long time'.

A space expert cited by Interfax said it could stay in space for as long as four months.

The satellite was launched on July 19 but yesterday failed to respond to a command to lift into a higher orbit.

Russian news agency ITAR-TASS reported that 'specialists are restoring stable connection with Foton and are providing for fulfilment of [the] planned orbital mission program'.

'The equipment which is working in automatic mode, and in particular the experiment with the geckos is working according to the programme,' Oleg Voloshin from Russia's Institute of Medico-Biological Problems (IMBP) told AFP.

The two-month experiment involving the geckos included video-cameras and was a 'study of the effect of microgravity on sexual behaviour, the body of adult animals and embryonic development' according to the IMBP website.

The lizard sex investigation was among several planned experiments, including other biological studies of plant seeds and Drosophila fruit flies.

There was also special vacuum furnace designed to examine the melting and solidification of metal alloys in low-gravity conditions.

Mobile test illuminates risk taking

New research shows that risky behaviour and impulsiveness can be reliably tested with specially designed mobile phone games.

Scientists found that four puzzles in The Great Brain Experiment app can reliably measure several different aspects of cognitive function.

Other games test our visual perception and our ability to remember things.

Scientists hope that results from thousands of participants will help them address population differences.

The research has been published in the journal Plos One.

By playing games participants can compare themselves to the other players while sending data back to the scientists.

'Each of these games is a serious scientific experiment,' said Dr Peter Zeidman, a neuroscientist from University College London who was involved with the research.

'By playing the games people can not only have some fun but can contribute to the latest research in psychology and neuroscience,' he added.

The 'Am I Impulsive?' game, for example, asks participants to smash fruit that is falling from a tree using their fingers, but to refrain from smashing it when it is rotting, indicated by the fruit turning brown.

Harnessing big data

'That ability to hold yourself back from an action - trying to not do something - is a really important human ability and something we want to understand better.

'People with certain psychiatric illnesses or neurological problems have an impaired ability to inhibit their actions, for example ADHD or schizophrenia... If we can better understand just in the healthy population how people inhibit their actions then we'll learn a lot more,' Dr Zeidman told the BBC's Science in Action Programme.

The team from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging questioned whether results from the games could be reliably included as part of scientific experiments and found that they were as good as lab experiments, with the added benefit of a huge sample size.

They compared the scores of 16,000 participants with similar experiments in a lab setting and they found that all four games gave statistically robust results. This was despite many of the distractions people may face while playing games on their mobile phones.

The scientists hope to answer questions about how memory, impulsivity or risk taking change over time, and they can also look at how these relate to each other.

Crucially, the way the app has been designed allows scientists to contact participants with unusually good scores.

Though the app is completely anonymous, it can send a message to a phone asking if a participant would like to come in for a brain scan.

Results from one of the games have already been used in research looking at working memory - when information is held for only a very short time, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

In this work lead author Fiona McNab from Birmingham University found that the brain deals with distraction in different ways.

'Understanding distraction in this way can resolve previous inconsistencies and lead to new discoveries, such as in schizophrenia and healthy ageing where working memory is impaired,' said Dr McNab.

Predicting the future

While the initial analyses were based on four games, there are now four new ones available. 'Can I predict the future?' is one of these and focuses on how people learn about how much reward is available in the environment and whether it might change over time.

So far 93,000 people have installed the app since it was launched and of those, 65,000 people's data is now being analysed.

The researchers said that over time, data from the games could be combined with medical, genetic or lifestyle information and could be used to learn more about how wellbeing relates to a persons' psychological characteristics.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Wildlife loss link to child slavery

New research suggests the global decline in wildlife is connected to an increase in human trafficking and child slavery.

Ecologists say the shortage of wild animals means that in many countries more labour is now needed to find food.

Children are often used to fill this need for cheap workers, especially in the fishing industry.

The decline in species is also helping the proliferation of terrorism and the destabilisation of regions.

According to a study in the journal, Science, the harvesting of wild animals from the sea and the land is worth $400bn annually and supports the livelihoods of 15% of the world's population.

'Start Quote

There's a direct link between the scarcity of wildlife, the labour demands of harvests and this dramatic increase in child slavery'

End Quote Prof Justin Brashares University of California, Berkeley

But the authors argue that the rapid depletion of species has increased the need for slave labour. Declining fisheries around the world mean boats often have to travel further in harsher conditions to find their catch.

In Asia, men from Burma, Cambodia and Thailand are increasingly sold to fishing boats where they remain at sea for many years, without pay and forced to work 18-20 hour days.

'There's a direct link between the scarcity of wildlife, the labour demands of harvests and this dramatic increase in child slavery,' said Prof Justin Brashares from the University of California, Berkeley, who led the study.

'Many communities that rely on these wildlife resources don't have the economic capacity to hire more labourers, so instead they look for cheap labour, and in many areas this has lead to the outright purchasing of children as slaves.'

This exploitation also happens in Africa, where people who once found their food in the neighbouring forests now travel for days to find prey.

Fishers to pirates

Children are often used by hunters to extract wildlife from areas that would be too costly to harvest.

The researchers contrast the outcomes of the collapse of fisheries of the north east coast of the US and in the waters off Somalia.

While in the US the decline was cushioned by federal subsidies to retrain fishermen, in Somalia the increased competition for fish stocks lead to the rise of piracy.

'That's how the whole Somali conflict started,' said Prof Brashares.

'Fishermen started going out with guns, trying to fine boats that were fishing illegally in their waters.

'Unfortunately some segment of that community said we can do much better by ransoming these boats that we can do by fishing.'

The rise in value of items like tiger parts and elephant ivory have lead to an explosion of trafficking, by powerful groups to further their aims.

The authors point to the Janjaweed, the Lord's Resistance Army, Al-Shabab and Boko Haram, which they say have all been involved in poaching ivory and rhino horn to fund terrorist attacks.

The western response to these events has been to declare a 'war on poachers', but the researchers believe that this is misguided, and is missing the bigger picture.

'We can continue to try and cover it up with little bits of enforcement,' said Prof Brashares.

'But until we start to address the bigger issue which is poor governance and the global free for all, we are not going to address the tide of conflict.'

The study says there are some approaches that can work. They argue that when local governments give fishers and hunters exclusive rights to harvest some areas, social tensions can be reduced.

They point to Fiji's fishery structured around territorial use rights and in Namibia pro-active policies have helped to reduce poaching.

'The most important bit from this article, I think, is that we need to better understand the factors that underlie fish and wildlife declines from a local perspective, and that interdisciplinary approaches are likely the best option for facilitating this understanding,' said Dr Meredith Gore, from Michigan State University who wasn't part of the study.

The research has been published in the journal, Science.

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.

'Fluffy' dinosaurs were widespread

All dinosaurs were covered with feathers or had the potential to grow feathers, a study suggests.

The discovery of 150-million-year-old fossils in Siberia indicates that feathers were much more widespread among dinosaurs than previously thought.

The find 'has completely changed our vision of dinosaurs', the lead researcher told BBC News.

The details have been published in the journal Science.

'Start Quote

It is a big discovery. It has completely changed our vision of dinosaurs'

End Quote Dr Pascal Godefroit Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences

The creature, called Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus, was about 1m long, with a short snout, long hind legs, short arms, and five strong fingers.

Its teeth show clear adaptations for chewing plants.

Until now, fossilised evidence of feathery dinosaurs has come from China and from a meat eating group called theropods.

The latest discovery, in Russia, is from a completely separate group of plant-eating dinosaurs called ornithischians - which account for half of all dinosaurs.

Fluffy covering

The find takes the origin of feathers millions of years further back in time than had previously been thought, said Dr Pascal Godefroit of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels, Belgium, who led the research.

'It was a big surprise,' he said.

'Start Quote

Instead of thinking of dinosaurs as dry, scary scaly creatures a lot of them actually had a fluffy, downy covering like feathers on a chick'

End Quote Dr Maria McNamara Cork University

'The fact that feathers have now been discovered in two distinct groups, theropods in China and ornithischians in Russia means that the common ancestor of these species which might have existed 220 million years ago also probably had feathers.'

The discovery has 'completely changed our vision of dinosaurs', he added.

'Instead of thinking of dinosaurs as dry, scary scaly creatures a lot of them actually had a fluffy, downy covering like feathers on a chick,' said co-researcher Dr Maria McNamara of Cork University in Ireland.

Alternative view

So do all the pictures of dinosaurs in children's books need to be redrawn to make creatures like Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Tyrannosaurus rex and the vicious Velociraptor, fluffier and cuter?

Perhaps a little bit, according to Professor Mike Benton, of Bristol University, who was also involved in the work.

'Our research doesn't mean that all dinosaurs had feathers, especially as adults,' he told BBC News.

'Some will have had feathers as young animals and kept them throughout their lives. Others may have lost feathers as they grew up, and became large enough not to need them, or replaced feathers with scales or relied on bony plates in the skin for protection.'

The key point is that dinosaurs were all initially feathered and warm blooded, confirmation of an idea that has prevailed for years, he said.

'Feathers were used first for insulation and signalling; they only later became adapted for flight.'

But Dr Paul Barrett of the Natural History Museum in London, has doubts.

'Most feathers have a branching structure,' he told BBC News.

'Instead these look like little streamers coming from a central plate. No bird has that structure in any part of its plumage and none of the developmental models that biologists use to understand the evolution of feathers includes a stage that has anything like that kind of anatomy.'

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Africa 'needs green revolution'

Sub-Saharan Africa's agricultural sector needs to harvest the fruits of biotechnology in order to establish sustainable development, says a report.

A key challenge is to attract funding for biotechnology projects on staple crops, such as cassava, it added.

These crops were often ignored by commercial funders because they had a limited market, the authors suggested.

Africa missed out on the previous green revolution that boosted food output in many Asian and Latin American nations.

The report, On Trial: GM Crops in Africa, published by think tank Chatham House, said: 'Increasing agricultural productivity and adapting farming to climate change are central to Africa's development prospects.'

It added that there were opportunities to boost yields and increase resilience by improving existing crop varieties, and that 'in some cases, biotechnology, and in particular genetic modification (GM), offers advantages over conventional plant-breeding approaches', such as drought, pest and disease resistance.

However, the continent was in danger of missing out on capitalising on innovations offered by the 21st Century green revolution, just as it had done in the previous century.

'If you look at what happened in Latin America and Asia in the second half of the 20th Century with the Green Revolution, there was a range of technologies, new high-yielding hybrid varieties of wheat, rice and maize, new irrigation platforms, etc,' explained co-author Rob Bailey, research director for energy, environment and resources at Chatham House.

'Growth spurt'

He added that this acted as a 'growth spurt for development' because it delivered a big increase in yields and agricultural productivity allowing food prices to fall, increased food security and a diversification in economic activity in other sectors.

'Now, we are in a situation where Africa needs this growth spark in its agricultural sector, because it is primarily where most of the poorest people are, and it makes up a significant share of African GDP,' Mr Bailey said.

'But they are also in a race against time because climate change is gathering pace because the forecasts suggests that this is going to have a very profound impact on farm productivity.'

He explained that the need to increase resilience to forecasts of a changing climate was likely to increase the importance and need for innovation and R&D offered by biotechnology projects.

'The key challenge that African agriculture faces is that a lot of food security and livelihoods are dependent on these so-called orphan crops, such as cassava and sorghum, which do not have large commercial markets in the way that maize or wheat do. Therefore they are not attractive to large private sector researchers,' he told BBC News.

'So the first thing that Africa has to do is attract and mobilise public sector money to fund research into these sorts of technologies.'

Mr Bailey explained that biotechnology offered a range of advantages over traditional breeding methods: 'A lot of the staple crops that are grown in Africa have quite narrow gene pools. There are not huge seed banks, with lots of different varieties of cassava or sorghum, that can be tapped into. It is not like maize or wheat.

'Biotechnology can be useful there because it provides plant-breeders with the opportunity to introduce genes or traits from outside of the species' genomes.

'If you can identify a trait for pest resistance in another species and cannot find a trait like that within the cassava genome, then a conventional plant breeder is a bit [stuck].

'If you are using transgenics then you have the opportunity to bring that trait in from another species.'

Growing support

But he added that this was easier said than done because many sub-Saharan governments had limited resources and scientific capacity, and there was a danger of simply adopting models developed for Western food crops.

Mr Bailey said: 'The problem with these sorts of models is that they do not properly engage the farmers.

'They have to be careful to make sure they are working with farmers from the outset so then they can understand what are the farmers' needs, how they can be addressed and included in the technological process so they are more likely to use and adopt it when it is ready.

'A key message from the report is that you need to start with the farmers, understand their context and their market environments. This is the platform you use to judge whether or not you can develop a technology-based solution.

'If you come in and try to parachute something in from elsewhere because it has worked in Europe or North America then the risk of that technology failing or not being used are much higher.'

Call for end to 'throwaway society'

MPs have called for a ban on food waste going in to landfill.

The report by the Environmental Audit Committee also called for lower VAT on recycled products and longer warranty periods on consumer goods.

It concluded that a 'circular economy' approach is needed to save resources as the world's population rises.

In England, 8.5 million tonnes of local authority-collected waste goes to landfill, according to Government figures.

If Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are included, the amount of waste in the UK being buried is in the region of 11 million tonnes.

'Start Quote

Stronger signals are needed to encourage businesses to take action on ending the throwaway society'

End Quote Aleyn Smith-Gillespie The Carbon Trust

The report called for a move away from 'the throwaway society', said the chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Joan Walley.

'It's really looking at a whole new way that we do business and how we live our lives, and really accepting that it makes sense from everyone's perspective to have a circular economy where we reuse and recycle and have virtually zero waste.'

Businesses told the inquiry that the recycling regime in England is confusing and makes it harder for companies to get hold of raw materials that could be reused.

Mike Barry of Marks and Spencer told the Committee, 'The number one thing that [the Government] can do to help us is to simplify the collection of waste in the consumer's home.'

Wales and Scotland have made improvements in standardising recycling collections.

In Wales, more than 90% of homes now have access to organic recycling facilities.

However, in England, only around a quarter of local councils provide a separate food waste collection.

Resource Management Minister Dan Rogerson said: the Government was fully committed to building a circular economy and wanted to see the UK leading the way in new waste and recycling markets.

'That is why we have invested £17million to encourage businesses to become more resource efficient,' he said.

'We will continue to work closely with local authorities, industry and the voluntary sector to consider how best to take these recommendations forward and will respond to the Committee in due course.'

According to a recent report by the think tank the Green Alliance, reusable products worth £1.7bn currently go to landfill.

'About two thirds of the plastic we capture ends up exported, and that's because we don't have the re-processors in the UK in order to reprocess them,' said head of resource stewardship, Dustin Benton.

'We have the technology, we have a couple of factories here in the UK, but they're fighting hard to capture the little bit of material that they can get hold of.'

Around a billion pounds' worth of electronic goods are put in landfill each year, but only around 2% are recycled.

Many products such as smartphones contain highly valuable precious metals.

'If we got that product back to someone who could repair it, about a quarter of products are readily repairable or reusable and that's a lot of value: we reckon at least £250 million per year,' said Mr Benton.

One company that would stand to benefit from the proposals is London-based company Envirowaste, which prepares thrown-away goods for reuse.

'People just ring us up and tell us to get rid of everything,' said James Rubin, who welcomed the report.

'We all get rid of waste, and it's a matter of we put it in to a bin and forget about it. People should be taking more responsibility.'

But Aleyn Smith-Gillespie of the Carbon Trust said, 'Stronger signals are needed to encourage businesses to take action on ending the throwaway society.

'Many companies do recognise the potential in a shift towards a more sustainable circular economy, but currently only a handful of pioneers are taking the important first steps.'

Government to end nuclear waste veto

The UK government wants to scrap the formal community veto which allows local politicians to block a future £12bn nuclear waste repository.

It follows the decision by Cumbria County Council to reject a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) last year.

The facility would hold enough radioactive waste to fill six Albert Halls.

This would expand to more than seven in the event of a new generation of new nuclear power stations.

The GDF is to be constructed in rocks deep below ground and will keep the deadly material away from all living things for hundreds of thousands of years.

The old policy required a strategic authority such as a county council as well as the local council to approve a project.

The new policy simply requires what officials called a positive 'test of community support' for the project to go ahead.

Paid to engage

The government has refused the calls from some critics of the scheme for the right to withdraw to be written into legislation.

Instead communities will be paid to engage. Councils joining the site investigation process will receive £1m per year for up to five years in compensation to explore the idea further, rising to £2.5m per year as the design and planning phase begins, then rising substantially when building starts.

In a statement, timed to the publication of a government White Paper, Ed Davey, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary said: 'Today we're setting out our plan to find a suitable site, based on a fundamental principle of listening to people.

'The local community which hosts a facility will benefit from jobs for hundreds of people over many decades,' he said.

They would also receive 'direct investment for the benefit of the community'.

But unveiling the long awaited proposal, Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) officials confirmed that they were ending the right of politicians to veto a nuclear waste dump in their area.

'All levels of local government will have to have a voice but we are keen that no one individual level will have an absolute veto,' a DECC spokesman said.

Officials stressed that the principle of 'voluntarism' was still intact and there would have to be a 'positive test of community support' before any repository could be built.

'We're only going to build a GDF if the community concerned is happy,' she said.

The construction of the GDF would guarantee 500 jobs for decades to come and around 1,000 jobs during the construction phase but it may not be ready until 2050 at the earliest.

DECC have announced they are to begin 'geological screening' of the country to find rocks that might hold nuclear waste safely for tens of thousands of years.

Bruce McKirdy MD of Radioactive Waste Management Ltd - the organisation tasked with delivering the repository - said it would be 'decades' before the first waste was placed in the facility.

'There is no rush to get this facility, the waste that exists can be stored safely in surface stores,' he said.

These stores, he said, had a design lifetime of 50-100 years.

'It's a long term project but one that we need to press on with because the problem won't go away, we need a permanent solution for hundreds of thousands of years and it will take decades to implement that solution.'

He said they were not 'kicking it down the road', they were taking it 'very seriously'.

Carbon concerns over wood burning

Taxpayers may have been subsidising power stations to burn wood in a way that creates more emissions than burning coal, a government report will reveal.

The subsidies are designed to help meet renewable energy targets as new trees soak up CO2 emitted by burned trees.

But the document admits the policy fails to calculate that it could take 100 years for the CO2 to be recaptured.

Campaigners have called for new rules, but the government declined to comment.

The document will be published on Thursday at the same time as a high-profile report on nuclear waste.

Revised rules

The key error in the government's previous calculations was a failure to acknowledge the amount of time it takes trees to reabsorb CO2.

When we first saw this research we didn't believe it'

End Quote Senior goverment source

A paper by a US academic showed that burning whole trees would produce more emissions than burning coal by the time transport emissions are taken into account.

'When we first saw this research we didn't believe it,' a senior government source told BBC News. 'But we did the calculations and found that we had been wrong.'

'We clearly need a new set of rules,' Kenneth Richter, from Friends of the Earth, told BBC News.

'This is really embarrassing for the government - they have finally admitted what we have been saying for a very long time.

'Under the current rules there is no way of government knowing whether wood is being burned in a way that is beneficial to the climate or not.'

The UK's biggest power station, Drax, is switching half of its boilers from coal to wood pellets in a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is said to believe there is enough spare wood in US forests to supply current UK demand sustainably.

Pellet plant

Drax insists that it is using offcuts of wood that would otherwise be waste. But the issue is complex and disputed.

The firm showed me their wood pellet operations in the US, which collect thinnings and offcuts from trees. This is wood that might otherwise be burned at the roadside.

But I saw another wood pellet plant sending biomass to the UK using whole trees from endangered swamp forests.

So the DECC calculator may help government and industry determine exactly what sort of biomass it is useful to burn, but the evidence for policy will be scattered between multiple producers thousands of miles away.

Other knock-on effects are hard to calculate across an entire industry.

What is the effect of taking out all the wood from a felled forest so few nutrients or biomass are left behind to condition the soil?

What if the price for burnable wood outstrips the price for wood pulp, and forces the US to import wood from elsewhere to make its paper products?

Temporary solution

I understand Energy Secretary Ed Davey believes biomass burning is a temporary solution to get the UK through its demanding 2020 carbon reduction targets.

Drax's business plan depends on the continued burning of biomass. A spokesman told BBC News that the government's calculations of the benefits of wood-burning were technically poor. He pointed to other reports showing the benefits of burning American wood to keep the lights on in Europe.

Dorothy Thompson, the firm's chief executive, said: 'Sustainability has always been absolutely central to our biomass strategy. The academic study by DECC confirms what Drax has always argued, that there is a right way to source biomass and a wrong way.

'We welcome that it confirms the fact that where biomass is sourced sustainably major carbon savings can be delivered.'

Rosetta's comet seen in close-up

Europe's Rosetta probe has acquired new images of the comet it is chasing through space.

Surface details of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko are becoming visible, as the craft nears its quarry.

The images confirm it may be not one but two objects joined together; a smaller 'head' connected to a larger 'body'.

Rosetta will arrive at the comet in August.

The latest images suggest the 'neck' of the comet is of particular interest to scientists.

'The only thing we know for sure at this point is that this neck region appears brighter compared to the head and the body of the nucleus,' said Dr Holger Sierks from the Max-Planck-Institute in Germany.

Members of the scientific imaging team say this could be due to a different surface composition or topography in this region.

The images were taken on July 20 when the probe was about 5,500km from the comet.

Historic touchdown

Rosetta is expected to move into orbit on 6 August.

By that stage, the European Space Agency probe should be no more than 70km from the surface of the 4.5km-wide ball of ice.

Once scientists understand better the gravitational field of 67P, the orbit will be lowered to about 30km.

Then mapping can begin to select a touchdown zone for Philae - the small landing robot on Rosetta - in November.

Rosetta will be the first space mission to rendezvous with a comet, follow it as it orbits the Sun, and attempt to send a lander to its surface.