Blog Biology 08 September 2014
If you have to stay in hospital, make it for as short a time as possible.

Each day in the hospital raises your risk of multidrug-resistant infection, according to research released today.

Researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina analysed historical data from 949 documented cases of Gram-negative infection at their academic medical centre.

That showed that in the first few days of hospitalisation your chance of of a multidrug-resistant infection about 20% which rises until four or five days, then jumps dramatically, peaking at over 35% at 10 days.

After that there is an additional 1% risk each day you are in hospital.

Our findings emphasize one of the risks of being in the hospital, acquiring a multidrug-resistant infection," says John Bosso, an author of the paper. "At the very least, this observation argues against both unnecessary hospitalisation and unnecessarily long hospitalisation."

Blog Climate 08 September 2014
Citizen science is important for documenting the patterns and consequences of climate change on birds.

Citizen scientists are responsible for the data used in up to 77 per cent of studies in the field of birds and climate change, a study at Cornell University has found.
Our paper is a chance to say thank you to the many people who are citizen scientists,” said the study's lead author Caren Cooper, a research associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “These people are part of the process of creating new knowledge—and whether it’s counting birds or butterflies, gazelles or galaxies, they should know that their observations really make a difference in professional science.

Birds make excellent subjects for citizen-science projects as the helpful amateurs can make observations around the globe, often long periods.

Cooper's study showed that between 24% and 77% of the papers in the field drew primarily on volunteer data. Citizen science proved especially important for documenting the patterns and consequences of climate change, such as population declines and changes in migration timing.

The field is ideal for citizen scientists thanks to popularity of bird-watching.

Some well-known North American projects are the Christmas Bird Count, eBird, and the Great Backyard Bird Count, as well as activities such as bird-banding stations and breeding bird atlases.

Blog Technology 05 September 2014

If you saw the recent story about “telepathic” communication in your daily newspaper you might have been confused. We were.

As far as you can figure it from the AFP report used by a number of papers, the story starts in India with a person wearing an EEG and thinking “hola” or “ciao”. The EEG evidently picks this up and translates the message into binary code. The code is emailed to France where it is fed into a machine that, sitting on the receiver’s head, delivers electronic pulses to make them see flashes of light.

The story gets a bit fuzzy here, because although these folk see the flashes, they “do not hear or see the words themselves.” But apparently this constitutes communication.
Inspection of the source paper, published on PLOS ONE, at least makes the experiment intelligible, though possibly somewhat less impressive than what you might have been thinking.

In fact, someone translates the word to be transmitted into binary code to start with, so the sender probably has no idea what message they’re sending. Rather, they watch a monitor that shows a bar shifting between the top and bottom of the screen. When it’s at the top they think about moving their hands, and when it’s at the bottom they think about moving their feet. That’s what the EEG picks up – hand thoughts become 1s and foot thoughts, 0s.

Then the string of 0s and 1s is emailed to France. They could have sent it to the next room, but, well, why not France?

There, in a part that the AFP got right, the 0s and 1s are automatically converted to a sequence of electronically induced flashes, or non-flashes, which the receivers experience from an apparatus mounted on their heads. So they get a run of “flash, flash, no flash, flash …” which I guess they call out and someone jots down with a paper and pencil.

Then you have to know if a flash is a 1 or a 0 (it’s a 1) and you’ve got the code. And then you have to decode that from the binary (why not Morse? it would have given it all a pleasing...

Blog Biology 05 September 2014

Last week Cosmos editor-in-chief Elizabeth Finkel spoke at the Crawford fund’s annual conference on international agriculture. Finkel returns to a theme she has often addressed in the past – the war on modern agriculture. Her position is, as always, unambiguous:

And that is that the attack on modern agriculture does not at all serve the public or the planet or farmers. Though the various opponents fly the kites of sustainability, protecting the environment, and helping poor farmers, their stance seems to put them at odds with those causes.

You can access a copy of her speech on the Crawford Fund website here (PDF).

Cosmos published a special edition on the Food Wars to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution that helped countries such as India and Mexico avoid decades of misery and famine. But recent events suggest much of the developed world is turning against a belief in scientific methods of agriculture, such as the call by some environmentalists to abolish the post of Europe's Chief Scientific Officer.

Blog Palaeontology 04 September 2014
Kenneth Lacovara with the 10-metre tail of Dreadnoughtus schrani, stretching along the length of the wall and around the corner in his lab.

Scientists have discovered a new supermassive dinosaur species, Dreadnoughtus schrani, that is probably the largest land animal ever to have lived.

The specimen the Drexel University team found was 26 metres long and would have weighed nearly 60 tonnes – and that was just a youngster.

"Dreadnoughtus schrani was astoundingly huge," said Kenneth Lacovara, an associate professor in Drexel's College of Arts and Sciences, who discovered the fossil skeleton in southern Patagonia in Argentina.

"It weighed as much as a dozen African elephants or more than seven T. rex. Shockingly, skeletal evidence shows that when this 65-ton specimen died, it was not yet full grown. It is by far the best example we have of any of the most giant creatures to ever walk the planet."

Lacovara and his colleagues unearthed the fossil in four field seasons from 2005 to 2009.

The dinosaur belongs to a group of large plant eaters known as titanosaurs. Until now very little has been known about the larger members of the family, as one of the team, Carnegie Museum of Natural History's Matthew Lamanna, explains:

Titanosaurs are a remarkable group of dinosaurs, with species ranging from the weight of a cow to the weight of a sperm whale or more. But the biggest titanosaurs have remained a mystery, because, in almost all cases, their fossils are very incomplete.

Lacovara explains how he came up with the name for the new dinosaur:

With a body the size of a house, the weight of a herd of elephants, and a weaponized tail, Dreadnoughtus would have feared nothing. That evokes to me a class of turn-of-the-last century battleships called the dreadnoughts, which were huge, thickly clad and virtually impervious.

He and his team published a detailed description of their discovery in Scientific Reports.

Blog Space 04 September 2014


Astronomers have drawn a detailed map of our immediate cosmic neighbourhood – an immense supercluster of galaxies containing the Milky Way.

They have named it "Laniakea," meaning "immense heaven" in Hawaiian.

University of Hawaii at Manoa astronomer R. Brent Tully led the international team which explains its work in Nature this month.

Galaxies are not distributed randomly throughout the universe but in groups that contain dozens of galaxies, and in massive clusters containing hundreds of galaxies, all interconnected in a web of filaments in which galaxies are strung like pearls.

Where these filaments intersect, the astronomers say, we find huge structures, called "superclusters". These structures are interconnected, but they have poorly defined boundaries.

A galaxy lying between two of these structures will be caught in a gravitational tug-of-war in which the balance of the gravitational forces from the surrounding large-scale structures determines the galaxy's motion.

By mapping the velocities of galaxies throughout our local universe, the team was able to define the region of space where each supercluster dominates.

The Milky Way lies on the outskirts of the Laniakea Supercluster, which is 500 million light-years in diameter and contains the mass of 10^17 Suns in 100,000 galaxies.

There is a video giving a feel for the structure of our home supercluster and of galaxies and how they move in the nearby universe here.

Two views of the Laniakea Supercluster. The outer surface shows the...

Blog Mathematics 03 September 2014

Rachel Metz at MIT Technology Review has a story about a "dating site" where algorithms can go to find their perfect soulmate in the business community.

Algorithmia puts together businesses with piles of data that are looking for researchers with algorithms that can help them make sense of it. Co-founder Diego Oppenheimer explains how it works:

The aim is to make better use of the many algorithms that are developed in academia but then languish after being published in research papers.

Oppenheimer and cofounder Kenny Daniel, a former graduate student at USC who studied artificial intelligence, began working on the site full time late last year and this month raised $2.4 million in seed funding.

Oppenheimer tells Metz that some of the algorithms currently available could be used for machine learning, extracting meaning from text, and planning routes within things like maps and video games. So far businesses have found algorithms to do jobs such as extracting data from receipts so they can be automatically categorised.

Blog Biology 02 September 2014
The latest study in the diet wars suggests we should eat fewer carbohydrates.

In the apparently never-ending debate over what are the healthiest foods to eat, a major new study declares that people who eat more fat – even saturated fats – are at less cardiovascular risk than people with a diet high in carbohydrates.

The report published in the Annals of Internal Medicine followed a group of 148 obese men and women between the ages of 22 and 75. They were assigned either a diet that limited fat or carbs but not total calories.

After a year of this, those on the low-carb diet had lost about 4kg more on average than those in the low-fat group, without changing their exercise regime. What's more, the people on the low-fat lost more lean muscle than body fat.

"This study shows if you are overweight and have cardiovascular disease risk factors and haven't had success on other diets, certainly a low-carbohydrate diet is worth a try," says the report's lead author, Dr. Lydia Bazzano of Tulane University in New Orleans.

But the report has its critics.

Dr. David Jenkins, the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto, told Reuters that the people in the study appeared to improve their overall diets. Those on the low-carb diet ate foods with healthier fats, such as nuts and beans, more fibre and cut down processed food.

Blog Biology 02 September 2014
A Rohingya boy suffering from malaria in Sittwe, Arakan state, Burma. More than 500,000 people, mostly children, die from the disease every year.

New malaria drugs that stop the parasite in its tracks may be on the way thanks to a breakthrough by Australian scientists.

The researchers in Melbourne blocked the export of important proteins in red blood cells, essential for the malaria parasite to survive. The parasite modifies red blood cells to attract more nutrients for it own growth and then sticks to the walls of blood vessels, effectively hiding itself from the immune system.

The research by groups from from the Burnet Institute, Deakin University and Monash University was published in Nature.

Burnet Institute Director and CEO, and co-author of the paper, Professor Brendan Crabb said the world is desperate for new treatment avenues as there is just one drug, artemisinin, left to treat the disease.

This is a major advance in the quest for new malaria drugs. If we can discover a drug that blocks the protein complex that comprises this gateway, you can effectively block the functioning of several hundred proteins.

Malaria is one of the most devastating diseases in the world with more than 200 million new cases every year. More than half a million people, mainly children, die from the disease every year.