It looks like we might all have our hands full of bacteria

Tuesday, 16 June, 2015

Photo by Tasha Sturm

I hope you’re not eating right now, but as we all know, there is more bacteria lurking on computer keyboards, and smartphones, than there is the average toilet seat. Delightful.

However, there appears to be a fair few microbes on the hand of a child who has been playing outside for an hour or two, as Tasha Sturm, Californian lab technician, discovered recently. This photo is the result of a handprint her eight year son made on a petri dish, after being left to incubate for a few days.

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Our viral history is contained in every drop of our blood

Friday, 12 June, 2015

I know that our immune system can sometimes mount a resistance to certain diseases we’ve had before, such as measles, but I didn’t realise that a record, as it were, of these disorders is stored in every drop of our blood.

Nor did I know that finding out what we have been afflicted with in the past, and may have forgotten about, is a relatively straightforward process.

You’ll probably remember the last time you had the flu, but what about that time you had measles – or was it chicken pox? Your blood knows: it keeps a record of every virus you’ve ever been infected with. A tiny drop of the stuff can now be tested to reveal a person’s viral history.

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From dinosaur to chicken, a rather fast evolution actually

Thursday, 11 June, 2015

Chickens descended from the Tyrannosaurus rex dinosaur, that we all know. But here’s the real mystery, how did something once so large, end up becoming so small? Paleontologists look to have discovered why:

For decades, paleontologists’ only fossil link between birds and dinosaurs was archaeopteryx, a hybrid creature with feathered wings but with the teeth and long bony tail of a dinosaur. These animals appeared to have acquired their birdlike features – feathers, wings and flight – in just 10 million years, a mere flash in evolutionary time. “Archaeopteryx seemed to emerge fully fledged with the characteristics of modern birds,” said Michael Benton, a paleontologist at the University of Bristol in England.

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But even the immortal will not live forever

Wednesday, 10 June, 2015

In twenty trillion years, give or take, once the final generation of stars, possibly red dwarfs, have expended the last of their energy, and shine no more, the universe will become a dark, freezing, entity. So will intelligent life, of some, maybe transhuman sort, continue to exist?

It could, but such beings would have to slow their thought processes right down, thinking requires energy after all, in a bid to conserve their finite resources.

As the universe continued to cool, our AI descendants would need to take action. Unlike Asimov, Dyson does not suggest a mechanism for reversing the growth of entropy. Rather, he imagines a gradual slowing down of thinking processes. Only necessary thoughts would transpire and these would happen at an increasingly snail-like pace. Between thoughts, the AI devices would hibernate to conserve vital, usable energy. By spacing out thoughts more and more, Dyson argues, intelligent existence could persist almost indefinitely, although the number of total thoughts would still be finite.

That’s good to know. In the meantime though, let’s turn our attention to other current, and more pressing, matters.

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Go left, a rule of thumb when it comes to queuing theory

Wednesday, 10 June, 2015

I didn’t know that there was a branch of mathematics dedicated to the study of queuing, but there you have it. And if you so desire, you can read a little more about what is sometimes referred to as queuing theory.

To cut to the chase though, if confronted with a number of longer lines, which might be the best one to queue in? It’s possible that it may be the one to the left of the others. Understand however that your mileage may vary:

When faced with two choices – a line to the left or a line to the right, some people believe that the left-hand route will be faster. That’s because approximately 90% of the population is right-handed, and so they tend to naturally head to the right. This may be an old wives’ tale, but if you’re at a theme park with long lines, heading left is worth a try.

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Who needs an algorithm to ride a bike? We do

Wednesday, 3 June, 2015

A bicycle that moves left when when you turn the handle bars to the right. That’s certainly not your usual, run-of-the-mill, pedal powered device. So how much difficulty might you have riding a bike that operates thus?

It looks like it might pose quite the challenge, given riding a conventional bicycle is far more demanding than we realise, in fact our brain is required to formulate an algorithm to deal with the task…

The algorithm associated with riding a bike in a person’s brain is extremely complicated. Downwards force on the pedal, leaning your whole body, pulling and pushing the handle-bar, gyroscopic procession in the wheels; every single force is a part of this algorithm. And if you change any one part, it affects the entire control system.

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A star called “Nasty”. Maybe “Weird” would be more suitable?

Tuesday, 2 June, 2015

A star, some three thousand light years from Earth, is puzzling astronomers, and not just because it is called “Nasty”…

A star that scientists have long referred to as “Nasty 1” is starting to live up to its weird nickname, scientists have said, after observations from the Hubble Space Telescope revealed that the massive, mysterious star is surrounded by a huge, pancake-shaped disk of gas.

The name “Nasty 1”, by the way, is based on the catalogue name of the star, NaSt1, not because it is necessarily vile or anything.

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There’s definitely something about doors that makes us forgetful

Monday, 1 June, 2015

Have you ever walked from one room to another, to do, or locate something, and forgotten what you wanted to do on arrival? I think it happens to a lot of us quite often. While you might blame a poor memory for the frustration, it could be that the doorway, yes the doorway, you moved through, played a part in your apparent forgetfulness:

So there’s the thing we know best: The common and annoying experience of arriving somewhere only to realize you’ve forgotten what you went there to do. We all know why such forgetting happens: we didn’t pay enough attention, or too much time passed, or it just wasn’t important enough. But a “completely different” idea comes from a team of researchers at the University of Notre Dame. The first part of their paper’s title sums it up: “Walking through doorways causes forgetting.”

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One day our cities may consist of skyscrapers made from wood

Monday, 1 June, 2015

Until relatively recently wooden buildings reached a maximum height of five stories, give or take. Now new technologies, and different ways to work with wood, could soon see far taller buildings being constructed with timber.

The idea of using timber for taller buildings is still in the early days of being accepted across the industry, even if many engineers quickly realised the potential offered by Murray Grove. The ten-story cross-laminated timber Forte Building in Melbourne appeared shortly afterwards, and then a 14-story apartment block in Bergen was completed only weeks ago. On a different scale entirely, and scheduled to complete in 2023, will be the 34-story block in Stockholm’s Västerbro district, which will push the boundaries of timber construction to new limits.

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I’ve been living happily these past eight months inside a black hole

Monday, 1 June, 2015

Black holes intrigue me because they are such a… gray area. On one hand, or from outside of their event horizon, they sound like violent, fearsome phenomena, that even light itself cannot escape from.

However, were you to somehow end up inside one, you could pretty much live normally for the rest of your life, provided you had a source of sustenance, and shelter.

When you reach the horizon, Anne sees you freeze, like someone has hit the pause button. You remain plastered there, motionless, stretched across the surface of the horizon as a growing heat begins to engulf you. According to Anne, you are slowly obliterated by the stretching of space, the stopping of time and the fires of Hawking radiation. Before you ever cross over into the black hole’s darkness, you’re reduced to ash. But before we plan your funeral, let’s forget about Anne and view this gruesome scene from your point of view. Now, something even stranger happens: nothing.

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