Terrence Sejnowski, Professor and Laboratory Head of the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory (credit: Salk Institute for Biological Studies) In a study
In a study published July 28 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Salk Institute for Biological Sciences researchers have found that brain cells called astrocytes — not neurons — can control the brain’s gamma waves.
They also found that astrocytes — a type of glial cell traditionally thought to provide more of a support role in the brain — and the gamma oscillations they help shape are critical for some forms of memory, such as object recognition.
(When you’re expecting something or when something captures your interest, unique high-frequency electrical rhythms called gamma waves sweep through your brain. Gamma waves have been associated with higher-level brain function, and disturbances in the patterns have been tied to schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, autism, epilepsy and other disorders.)
Evidence linking gamma waves with attention and memory, influenced by astrocytes
“This is what could be called a smoking gun,” says co-author Terrence Sejnowski, head of the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. “There are hundreds of papers linking gamma oscillations with attention and memory, but they are all correlational. This is the first time we have been able to do a causal experiment, where we selectively block gamma oscillations and show that it has a highly specific impact on how the brain interacts with the world.”
A collaboration among the labs of Salk professors Sejnowski, Inder Verma, and Stephen Heinemann found that activity in the form of calcium signaling in astrocytes immediately preceded gamma oscillations in the brains of mice. This suggested that astrocytes, which use many of the same chemical signals as neurons, could be influencing these oscillations.
Relief agencies go back to the future with $100,000 vehicles designed to carry vaccines and stretchers in conflict zones
Flying cars are being targeted at humanitarian organisations for use in a variety of missions, from delivering vaccines to transporting medics and patients.
Pégase, a flying car made by the French company Vaylon, is expected to be on the market next year, while a US-designed vehicle, the Maverick, is already on sale – both at about $100,000 (£60,000).
The cars are lightweight vehicles with a propeller at the back and an extendable parachute, rather than wings, which allow them to take off.
"The vehicle is a breakthrough technology," said Vaylon's co-founder, Jérémy Foiche, who is aiming for three main uses for the car: military, humanitarian and leisure. "We are interested in working with the humanitarian sector to determine exactly how it could be used in the field," he added.
Both cars can carry two people and an additional load of about 300kg, with a flying range of almost 200km on a single tank of fuel. They can fly up to 3-5km high and need less than 100m to take off and land.
Dr Ellen Stofan says that missions to the red planet are a priority of the US space agency – and that the best way to search for extraterrestrial life is by setting up a permanent presence. Interview by Nicola Davis
Is Nasa looking for intelligent life?
Nasa, right now, is really taking a step-wise approach: let's look at our own solar system and the most likely places where we might find life. That's why we are so focused on Mars, because we know Mars had liquid water on the surface and we think that is essential to life. What we expect to find, certainly in our own solar system, are probably simple single or multiple-cell forms of life. To get to intelligent life takes stability of conditions over huge long periods of time. [We're] not sure that condition exists anywhere else in our solar system. But certainly when we go out and look for habitable planets around other stars it's something that we can start thinking about.
The Kepler mission has found planets orbiting stars other than our sun. What is the impact?
It's turned around our understanding of how our own solar system formed, because when you only have one solar system to study you make assumptions that are based on that information. [When] you have many solar systems to study, many planets to study, it is really making us rewrite textbooks. We're launching the James Webb space telescope in 2018 that is going to study the atmospheres of those planets around other stars.
Some might argue that it's a luxury to be spending money investigating other planets instead of solving Earth's problems …
I always like to say just think you were a doctor with only one patient. You might understand how that person gets sick, how they get better, but you understand nothing about the progression of disease or how humans in general get ill. Now take an Earth scientist: you only have one planet to study. Our studies of other planets are really what we call comparative planetology. Think of the other planets as being simpler versions of the Earth where you've tweaked the physical conditions, maybe the composition, the density of the atmosphere. It allows us to rip apart the physics of some of these problems and give us a better comparison.
A range of new interactive technologies by Local Projects that will let visitors engage with the National Design Museum in a totally novel way.
Letting Visitors Remake the Archives
The museum still is finalizing details, but either way what follows will be a free-flowing, open-ended experience: with their pen, visitors can download all their selected items into a screen, and begin designing. They could, for example, decorate a room, or modify a classic piece of furniture. Local Projects founder Jake Barton also created an algorithm for drawing on the screens. Draw any shape, and the computer will retrieve similar items from the collection. For instance: If you draw a classic vase shape, you’ll suddenly have a register of all the Cooper Hewitt’s vases at your fingertips.
As experiments in relocating particles advance, will we be able to say, "Beam me up, Scotty" one day soon?
Lately it seems like the research world has launched into a full-throttle game of “what superpower would you choose?” For those who desire invisibility, engineers are developing exotic materials that can bend an object’s light completely out of view. For would-be telepaths, neurobiologists are working on ways to read one person’s brain wave patterns and transmit them into another person’s head.
My personal favorite, though, is perhaps the most outrageous fantasy power of all: teleportation, the ability to arrive without traveling. Imagine being able to dematerialize from your living room and show up the next moment in Venice or the Amazon rainforest or the rings of Saturn (wearing an appropriate space suit, of course). The idea is so seductive that it has been a mainstay of science fiction since the early days of Star Trek and Doctor Who, but it also seems an affront to common sense.
In a petri dish in the bowels of Harvard Medical School scientists have tweaked three genes from the cells of an Asian elephant that help control the production of hemoglobin, the protein in blood that carries oxygen. Their goal is to make these genes more like those of an animal that last walked the planet thousands of years ago: the woolly mammoth.
"Asian elephants are closer to mammoths than either is to African elephants, yet quite different in appearance and temperature range," notes Harvard geneticist and technology developer George Church. "We are not trying to make an exact copy of a mammoth, but rather a cold-resistant elephant."
But what if the new—and fast advancing—techniques of genome editing allowed scientists to engineer not only cold-resistance traits but also other characteristics of the woolly mammoth into its living Asiatic relatives? Scientists have found mammoth cells preserved in permafrost. If they were to recover cells with intact DNA, they could theoretically “edit” an Asian elephant’s genome to match the woolly mammoth’s. A single cell contains the complete genetic instruction set for its species, and by replicating that via editing a new individual can, theoretically, be created. But would such a hybrid—scion of an Asian elephant mother and genetic tinkerers—count as a true woolly mammoth?
In other words, is de-extinction a real possibility?
Titled Archaeology, Anthropology and Interstellar Communication and edited by SETI Director of Interstellar Message Composition Douglas Vakoch, the document draws on "issues at the core of contemporary archaeology and anthropology" to prepare us "for contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, should that day ever come."Addressing a field that has been dominated by astronomers, physicists, engineers, and computer scientists, the contributors to this collection raise questions that may have been overlooked by physical scientists about the ease of establishing meaningful communication with an extraterrestrial intelligence. These scholars are grappling with some of the enormous challenges that will face humanity if an information-rich signal emanating from another world is detected. Among the book's 16 chapters: Speaking for Earth: Projecting Cultural Values Across Deep Space and Time; Learning To Read:Interstellar Message Decipherment from Archaeological and Anthropological Perspectives; and Mirrors of Our Assumptions: Lessons from an Arthritic Neanderthal. Sounds look good afternoon reading to us. Download the PDF here. For EPUB and MOBI formats, click here.
In the daily hubbub of current “crises” facing humanity, we forget about the many generations we hope are yet to come. Not those who will live 200 years from now, but 1,000 or 10,000 years from now. I use the word “hope” because we face risks, called existential risks, that threaten to wipe out humanity. These risks are not just for big disasters, but for the disasters that could end history.
Not everyone has ignored the long future though. Mystics like Nostradamus have regularly tried to calculate the end of the world. HG Wells tried to develop a science of forecasting and famously depicted the far future of humanity in his book The Time Machine. Other writers built other long-term futures to warn, amuse or speculate. But had these pioneers or futurologists not thought about humanity’s future, it would not have changed the outcome. There wasn’t much that human beings in their place could have done to save us from an existential crisis or even cause one.
We are in a more privileged position today. Human activity has been steadily shaping the future of our planet. And even though we are far from controlling natural disasters, we are developing technologies that may help mitigate, or at least, deal with them.
It’s been a good month for miracles. And by miracles I mean our oldest miracle, that first miracle, the creation of life itself.
During these first weeks in May, two separate teams working at two separate institutions announced that when it comes to creating life from scratch, well, there are a couple of new gods in town.
Of course, if we’re talking about creating life from scratch, we most first mention the old gods, which is to say, this is when biologist Craig Venter comes into the discussion.
A few decades back, while he was working to read the human genome (i.e. the Human Genome Project), Venter also began wondering what it would take to write one. He wanted to know, “what does the minimal genome required for life look like?”
Back then, DNA synthesis technology was too crude and expensive to consider writing a minimum genome for life, but exponential advances in biotechnology obliterated these problems. Consider “synthetic biology,” which moves the work from the molecular to the digital. In syn-bio, genetic code is manipulated using the equivalent of a word processor. With the press of a button, DNA can be cut and pasted, effortlessly imported from one species into another. Single letters can be swapped in and out with precision. And once the code looks right? Just hit send. A dozen different DNA print shops can now turn these bits into biology.
What do you think poses the greatest threat to humanity?
Sandberg: Natural risks are far smaller than human-caused risks. The typical mammalian species lasts for a few million years, which means that extinction risk is on the order of one in a million per year. Just looking at nuclear war, where we have had at least one close call in 69 years (the Cuban Missile Crisis) gives a risk of many times higher. Of course, nuclear war might not be 100% extinction causing, but even if we agree it has just 10% or 1% chance, it is still way above the natural extinction rate.
Nuclear war is still the biggest direct threat, but I expect biotechnology-related threats to increase in the near future (cheap DNA synthesis, big databases of pathogens, at least some crazies and misanthropes). Further along the line nanotechnology (not grey goo, but “smart poisons” and superfast arms races) and artificial intelligence might be really risky.
The core problem is a lot of overconfidence. When people are overconfident they make more stupid decisions, ignore countervailing evidence and set up policies that increase risk. So in a sense the greatest threat is human stupidity.
An artificial leaf converts water and light to oxygen, and that's good news for road-tripping to places beyond Earth.
One of the persistent challenges of manned space exploration is that pesky lack of oxygen throughout much of the universe. Here on Earth, trees and other plant life do us a real solid by taking in our bad breath and changing it back to clean, sweet O2.
So what if we could take those biological oxygen factories into space with us, but without all the land, sun, water, soil, and gravity that forests tend to require? This is the point where NASA and Elon Musk should probably start paying attention.
Royal College of Art graduate Julian Melchiorri has created the first man-made, biologically functional leaf that takes in carbon dioxide, water, and light and releases oxygen. The leaf consists of chloroplasts -- the part of a plant cell where photosynthesis happens -- suspended in body made of silk protein.
"This material has an amazing property of stabilizing (the chloroplast) organelles," Melchiorri says in the video below. "As an outcome I have the first photosynthetic material that is living and breathing as a leaf does."
In addition to its potential value to space travel, Melchiorri also imagines the technology literally providing a breath of fresh air to indoor and outdoor spaces here on Earth. The facades of buildings and lampshades could be made to exhale fresh air with just a thin coating of the leaf material.
But perhaps best of all, a man-made breathing leaf could be the key to not just space travel but space colonization. No need to figure out how to till that dry, red Martian dirt to get some nice leafy trees to grow; we could just slap them on the inside of the colony's dome and puff away.
Researchers at Aalborg University, MIT and Caltech have developed a new mathematically-based technique that can boost internet data speeds by up to 10 times, by making the nodes of a network much smarter and more adaptable. The advance also vastly improves the security of data transmissions, and could find its way into 5G mobile networks, satellite communications and the Internet of Things.
Instead of using pure mathematics to prevent things like the same person spending the same money twice, Document Coin will rely on personal reputation to keep all transactions in order.
Bitcoin turned money into something completely virtual. Using a worldwide network of machines and the power of pure mathematics, it put currency in the hands of computer programmers, free from the rules and regulations of big government and big banks. But J. Chris Anderson wants to do something even more radical.
Anderson is starting a new digital currency project tentatively dubbed Document Coin. It’s a bit of an odd duck, but it’s intriguing, and Anderson is worth listening to. He’s the co-founder and chief software architect of Couchbase, a kind of new-age database with some serious cred among Silicon Valley developers.
Instead of using pure mathematics to prevent things like the same person spending the same money twice, Document Coin will rely on personal reputation to keep all transactions in order. And each unit of currency created using Document Coin could have different values in different situations. If you use a coin in one place, it might be worth more then if you use it in another. The goal, Anderson says, is to get people to completely rethink the entire idea of money.
James Dyson: The biggest thing holding invention back is our impatience. With enough time and support, young engineers will develop the technology we need
The doom-mongers deem us past our creative peak, unable to invent like we used to. According to the US economist Robert Gordon, whose comments were reported in the Wall Street Journal last week, all the "important stuff" has been created; we have run out of the big, life-changing ideas needed to spur rapid economic growth and engineers are now just tweaking at the edges. Innovations such as mobile phones, Gordon says, have had less impact than, say the invention of indoor plumbing.
But this is a misunderstanding of how engineers work. There is no "Eureka!" moment. The steam engine, computer and aeroplane: none sprung up out of the blue. Instead, a gut feeling was followed by years of stubborn, hard graft, thousands of prototypes and dogged perseverance. Invention cannot be reduced to a single date on the calendar.
Developing new technology is incremental; little by little, you inch closer to the right answer. You build upon the work of those before you, thinking about what could be done better; what could be improved. It's an unending task. Michael Faraday invented the first electric motor. But Faraday's breakthrough followed William Sturgeon's invention of the electromagnet, and Alessandro Volta's invention of the battery before that. Faraday would have expected future engineers to pick up the baton later down the line.
The first of a new generation of genetically modified crops is poised to win government approval in the United States, igniting a controversy that may continue for years, and foreshadowing the future of genetically modified crops.
The agribusiness industry says the plants—soy and corn engineered to tolerate two herbicides, rather than one—are a safe, necessary tool to help farmers fight so-called superweeds. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Agriculture appear to agree.
However, many health and environmental groups say the crops represent yet another step on what they call a pesticide treadmill: an approach to farming that relies on ever-larger amounts of chemical use, threatening to create even more superweeds and flood America’s landscapes with potentially harmful compounds.
Public comments on the Environmental Protection Agency’s draft review of the crops will be accepted until June 30. As of now, both the EPA and USDA’s reviews favor approval. Their final decisions are expected later this summer.
“We’re at a crossroads here,” said Bill Freese, a science policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, an advocacy group. “With these, we’re dramatically increasing farmer dependence on herbicides.” In a letter to the USDA, the Center and 143 other public-interest and environmental groups warned of a “chemical arms race with weeds,” in which the new crops offer “at best temporary relief.”
The crops under consideration were engineered by Dow AgroSciences, a Dow Chemical Company subsidiary. They’re part of what Dow calls the Enlist Weed Control System: Enlist, a proprietary mixture of glyphosate and 2,4-D herbicides, and the plants onto which Enlist can be sprayed without causing them harm as it kills surrounding weeds.
Berlin thinks it is making religious history as Muslims, Jews and Christians join hands to build a place where they can all worship. The House of One, as it is being called, will be a synagogue, a church and a mosque under one roof.
An architecture competition has been held and the winner chosen. The striking design is for a brick building with a tall, square central tower. Off the courtyard below will be the houses of worship for the three faiths - the synagogue, the church and the mosque. It is to occupy a prominent site - Petriplatz - in the heart of Berlin.
The location is highly significant, according to one of the three religious leaders involved, Rabbi Tovia Ben Chorin. "From my Jewish point of view the city where Jewish suffering was planned is now the city where a centre is being built by the three monotheistic religions which shaped European culture," he told the BBC.
Can they get on? "We can. That there are people within each group who can't is our problem but you have to start somewhere and that's what we are doing."
The imam involved, Kadir Sanci, sees the House of One as "a sign, a signal to the world that the great majority of Muslims are peaceful and not violent". It's also, he says, a place where different cultures can learn from each other.
Each of the three areas in the House will be the same size, but of a different shape, architect Wilfried Kuehn points out.
We’re asking you to impact a billion people in ten years, Diamandis told them. That’s an enormous challenge. The world’s resources seem finite and its problems insurmountable—until they’re recombined and transformed by the imagination, determination, and vision of an Elon Musk or Steve Jobs.
“People who are literally able to make the impossible possible,” he added.
It's not too late to rebuild this thing for the people.
People tend to talk about the Internet the way they talk about democracy—optimistically, and in terms that describe how it ought to be rather than how it actually is.
This idealism is what buoys much of the network neutrality debate, and yet many of what are considered to be the core issues at stake—like payment for tiered access, for instance—have already been decided. For years, Internet advocates have been asking what regulatory measures might help save the open, innovation-friendly Internet.
But increasingly, another question comes up: What if there were a technical solution instead of a regulatory one? What if the core architecture of how people connect could make an end run on the centralization of services that has come to define the modern net?
It's a question that reflects some of the Internet's deepest cultural values, and the idea that this network—this place where you are right now—should distribute power to people. In the post-NSA, post-Internet-access-oligopoly world, more and more people are thinking this way, and many of them are actually doing something about it.
Among them, there is a technology that's become a kind of shorthand code for a whole set of beliefs about the future of the Internet: "mesh networking." These words have become a way to say that you believe in a different, freer Internet.
Molly Crockett: The complexities of ethics and the brain make it difficult for scientists to develop a pill to enhance human morals.
Could we create a "morality pill"? Once the stuff of science fiction, recent studies in neuroscience have shown that brain chemicals can subtly influence some aspects of moral judgments and decisions. However, science is very far from creating pills that can turn sinners into saints, as I have argued many times before. So imagine my surprise when I came across the headline, “‘Morality Pills’ Close to Reality, Claims Scientist”– referring to a lecture I gave recently in London. (I asked the newspaper where the reporter got his misinformation, but received no response to my query.)
Sensationalist reports like this are not only inaccurate, but also neglect the rich complexities of the brain that make neuroscience so fascinating. It is these same complexities that will make it very difficult for scientists to develop a morality pill.
First, let’s consider the evidence that drugs can influence morals. Laboratory studies typically compare the effects of a placebo pill with those of a drug treatment that alters the function of a specific brain chemical. After taking either the drug or placebo, healthy volunteers make a series of moral decisions or judgments. For example, they may consider whether to donate to charity, or cooperate with others, or judge whether it is permissible to harm one person in order to save many others. The key question is whether the drug alters people’s decisions and judgments, relative to placebo.
“Constructor theory” unites in one framework how information is processed in the classical and quantum realms.
“Once you have eliminated the impossible,” the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes famously opined, “whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” That adage forms the foundational principle of “constructor theory”—a candidate “theory of everything” first sketched out by David Deutsch, a quantum physicist at the University of Oxford, in 2012. His aim was to find a framework that could encompass all physical theories by determining a set of overarching “meta-laws” that describe what can happen in the universe and what is forbidden. In a May 23 paper posted to the physics preprint server, arXiv, constructor theory claims its first success toward that goal by unifying the two separate theories that are currently used to describe information processing in macroscopic, classical systems as well as in subatomic, quantum objects.
An overpopulated planet is not necessarily doomed. What matters most is how those billions of people choose to live.
A few years ago, I attended a dinner party where a friend of the host launched into an exhaustive diatribe about the problem with “breeders.” In his view, couples with children are selfish, narcissistic, and irresponsible, contributing to overpopulation. What he didn’t know at the time was that I was expecting.
I’ve heard this opinion many times before. Several friends and academic colleagues vocally opt not to have kids in order to “save the planet.” To them, population numbers are a simple input and output equation in which more people create more problems. Thankfully, it takes more than math to understand the mechanisms that shift the balance of life on Earth.
Here’s the part that’s not up for debate: Some of the greatest challenges we face globally stem from our current predicament. Too many people are squandering ever more limited resources including food, water, energy, and more. Climate change exacerbates these problems.