Blog Society 26 August 2014
A Yezidi child in a refugee camp near the Iraqi-Turkish border. Yezidis were forced to flee their homes after attacks by Islamic State militants.
Ensar Ozdemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Neuroscientist Ian Robertson has made an attempt to explain the science behind the savagery of Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

He says that while many in the West see the brutality and fanaticism as unique to Islamic fundamentalism, the right cocktail of factors can make anyone an extremist. He sees five that could be at play with IS, the first simply that savagery begets savagery.

Callousness, aggression and lack of empathy are common responses by people who have been harshly treated themselves.

Robertson, Professor of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin and the founding director of Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, believes that a group mentality also comes into play.

When the State breaks down, and with it law and order and civic society, there is only one recourse for survival – the group. Whether defined by religion, racial, political, tribal or clan – or for that matter by the brute dominance of a gang-leader – survival depends on the mutual security offered by the group.

And that can lead to seeing any other group as a dehumanised enemy.

In-group tribalism is strengthened – and loathing for the out-group correspondingly increased – where religion defines the groups. Even when aggression against the other group is self-destructive.

He believes that a culture of revenge can play a part, as can a blind faith in a leader.

The trouble is, as we have seen, when leaders choose to encourage savagery, not quell it, there is nothing hard-wired into human beings to stand up against it.

All that's well and good, I suppose, and some of Robertson's suggested motivations might make sense in the case of an Iraqi Sunni who has been victimised by members of the Shi'ite majority, and clings to a new group for survival in a lawless state as he seeks revenge for his woes.

But there doesn't seem to be much here to explain how a would-be British rap star ends up the prime suspect for cutting off another man's head, or why...

Blog Palaeontology 26 August 2014
A catastrophic asteroid strike was the main reason for dinosaur extinction, but had biodiversity not already declined they may have survived.

Dinosaurs may have just been unlucky that the catastrophic asteroid collision that is thought to have wiped them out arrived when it did. If it had hit the Earth earlier or later they might have survived, some scientists now think.

Steve Brusatte, a palaeontologist at Edinburgh University, says in a report in Biological Reviews that when the impact happened 66 million years ago the Earth had already suffered a dramatic loss of biodiversity and many of the big plant-eating dinosaurs, including the horned triceratops and duck-billed dinosaurs, had already disappeared.

And that meant there were fewer animals for the big meat-eating dinosaurs to prey on.

That made them just that bit less resilient when the asteroid hit what is now Mexico, setting off a disastrous chain of events including tsunamis and earthquakes, and forcing blankets of material into the atmosphere that blocked out the Sun and cooled the Earth by up to 10 degrees.

With ecosystems already weakened the dinosaurs didn't stand a chance, as Brusatte says:

The asteroid almost certainly did it but it just so happened to hit at a bad time when dinosaur ecosystems had been weakened by a loss of diversity. If the asteroid had hit a few million years earlier, or a few million years later, then dinosaurs probably wouldn't have gone extinct.

Blog Space 26 August 2014

Neptune as seen on the fly-past by Voyager 2 25 years ago.

NASA has marked the 25th anniversary of Voyager 2's fly-past of Neptune in 1989 as the space agency prepares to get up close and personal with Pluto.

This picture of Neptune, above, was taken on 20 August 1989, at a range of 4.4 million miles from the planet. Voyager 2's closest approach to Neptune came four days later on 25 August.

The picture shows the Great Dark Spot and its companion bright smudge; on the west limb the fast moving bright feature called "Scooter" and the little dark spot are visible. North of these, there is a bright cloud band similar to the south polar streak.

NASA is also using the anniversary to set the scene for the climax another mission to the outermost edges of the Solar System in a little under a year when the New Horizons space craft does a similar fly-by of Pluto.

By coincidence, New Horizons passes the orbit of Neptune, its last orbit crossing before beginning its historic exploration of Pluto on the exact 25th anniversary of the Voyager 2 spacecraft’s encounter with the planet.

New Horizons will begin its Pluto exploration in January but the best pictures will come a little later when the spacecraft is at its closest.

New Horizons' Pluto encounter on July 14, 2015, will not be a replay of Voyager but more of a sequel and a reboot, with a new and more technologically advanced spacecraft and, more importantly, a new cast of characters. Those characters are Pluto and its family of five known moons, all of which will be seen up close for the first time next summer.

The illustrations below are from NASA's New Horizon's website, where you can track progress of the spacecraft.


Charts of the current position of New Horizon are updated constantly on the mission's website.
Blog Technology 25 August 2014

Schwarze Pumpe power station in Spremberg, Germany, is the site of a pilot project in carbon capture and storage constructed by Swedish power company Vatenfall. [Image: Vatenfall][/caption]

Beth Mole at Science News has a good feature on Carbon Capture and Storage, or CCS, the technology that promises to take carbon pollution out of circulation for good. There have been some successful trials and pilot projects but, thanks to lack of funding and political opposition, it is still not being used in mainstream power production. But as Mole writes:

This year, the story of CCS could change. In North America, two commercial-scale power plants are on the cusp of firing up CCS technology for the first time. Both are entering the final stages of construction. The projects, one in Mississippi and the other in Canada, already have made it further than any other carbon capture demonstration project to date. If the two projects come online, they could clear a path for other CCS-equipped plants around the world, lower emissions and help to combat climate change.

But we've been here before, as Mole points out. Jänschwalde, an ageing power plant in Germany, was to become a showcase for the technology but was abandoned. Now the future of the technology may rest with the success or otherwise of the Mississippi and Canadian projects.

Blog Society 25 August 2014
A screen grab from, a new crowdfunding platform for researchers.

If you've got a great science experiment you want to perform but can't access the regular funding channels, there's a new crowdfunding platform that might just be the answer., which has just moved out of its beta phase, was set up by Cindy Wu, who, as an undergraduate student at the University of Washington found she couldn't get funding for a research idea through any of the usual channels. As Wu tells Forbes magazine.

'Cindy, the system doesn’t fund people like you,' my professor said. 'It only funds tenured professors.'

Even while in beta Experiment funded more than 80 projects in diverse topics ranging from cancer research to marine biology, to the tune of $600,000 from over 5,000 individuals. Experiment takes a 5% fee on fully-funded projects.

And Wu is not short of ambition

It is difficult to think that will be bring in more money than the $30bn National Institute of Health IH budget. My response is just watch us.

Blog Mathematics 22 August 2014

Typical. You wait ages for a prize-winning woman mathematician to come along and then two arrive at almost the same time.

Hot on the heels of Stanford's Maryam Mirzakhani becoming the first woman to win the Fields Medal, Professor Kate Smith-Miles, a mathematician at Monash University in Melbourne has won the 2014 Georgina Sweet Award, under the Australian Research Council's Australian Laureate Fellowships scheme.

Professor Smith-Miles's project through the fellowship aims to develop a new paradigm in algorithm testing, which she says is urgently needed to support good research practice in academia, and to avoid disasters when deploying algorithms in practice.

Her work in the past has tackled problems ranging from identity fraud detection to face recognition, stem cell modelling, and improved manufacturing design.

Professor Smith-Miles won the Australian Mathematical Society’s Medal in 2010 for her international reputation as an applied mathematician with a focus on interdisciplinary applications of mathematics.

"Maths is everywhere," she says. "And a mathematician can see the beauty in that, but also the potential."

There's a list of the other laureates here.

Georgina Sweet in 1925

Georgina Sweet, for whom the award is named, is worth a mention, too. She was an impressive pioneering woman scientist – a zoologist – and academic in the early part of the 20th century in Australia – not the most welcoming environment, I think we can safely assume.

She worked hard to have women admitted to the University of Melbourne senate and to establish the University Women's College which she served for many years until her death in 1946.

Blog Biology 22 August 2014
Spiderman won't be retiring to the country anytime soon if he knows what is good for him
Columbia Pictures/Marvel

Since 2008, according to UN figures, more people live in cities than the country. And despite the romanticism of a rural life, humans thrive in them – they live longer, healthier lives (at least in developed countries).

Some argue that cities actually reduce human stress on the environment.

Spiders seem to share this view. New research shows that at least some of them grow larger and carry more eggs when they live in more urbanised areas.

The scientists from University of Sydney studied orb-weaving spiders in sites of varying degrees of urbanisation around in Sydney and investigated changes in the their body size, fat reserves, and ovary weight.

Spiders were smaller in areas with more vegetation and larger in more developed areas.

The paper, published in PLOS ONE, suggested a few possible reasons for this. Hard surfaces such s roads and concrete walls retain more heat, so the spiders spend less energy keeping warm, helping them grow.

The city-slicker spiders might also have more to eat as they congregate around light posts that attract a smorgasbord of beetles, flies and moths.

Blog Biology 22 August 2014
Neurons from an autistic (left) and control (right) brain. The spines on the neurons indicate the location of synapses.

Children and adolescents with autism have too many synapses in their brains and if we can find a safe drug to reduce them it might be possible to reverse the condition, a team of Columbia University neuroscientists has found.

During normal brain development there is a burst of formation of synapses in infancy but these are later "pruned", halving the number by late adolescence. In children with autism this doesn't happen and so they are left with a surplus.

While there is a drug, rapamycin, that restores normal pruning – and, the researchers found, improved autistic-like behaviour in mice – it has side effects that mean it cannot be used in people with autism.

But that gives hope that a treatment might be found.

"The fact that we can see changes in behaviour suggests that autism may still be treatable after a child is diagnosed, if we can find a better drug," the study's senior investigator, David Sulzer, professor of neurobiology in the Departments of Psychiatry, Neurology, and Pharmacology at Columbia University Medical Center said.

The report's co-author Guomei Tang, assistant professor of neurology at CUMC, examined brains from children with autism who had died from other causes – 13 brains came from children ages two to nine, and 13 from children ages 13 to 20. Tang examined 22 brains from children for comparison.

By late childhood synapse density had dropped by about half in the control brains, but by only 16% in the brains from autism patients.

The study is published in the journal Neuron.

Blog Society 21 August 2014

Decades after ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons were banned, NASA scientists have found one of the compounds is still leaking into the atmosphere from an unknown source.

"We are not supposed to be seeing this at all," said Qing Liang, an atmospheric scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and lead author of a study into the problem. "It is now apparent there are either unidentified industrial leakages, large emissions from contaminated sites, or unknown carbon tetrachloride sources."

Carbon tetrachloride, or CCl4, was once used as a dry cleaning fluid and fire extinguisher, but was banned in 1987 under the Montreal Protocol when it was found it and other chlorofluorocarbons were contributing to the ozone hole over Antarctica.

There were no new CCl4 emissions were reported between 2007-2012, but the new research shows that now an average 39 kilotons is leaking into the atmosphere a year – 30% of peak emissions prior to the ban.

Scientists have been puzzled why CCl4 levels in the atmosphere have declined so slowly.

"People believe the emissions of ozone-depleting substances have stopped because of the Montreal Protocol," said Paul Newman, chief scientist for atmospheres at NASA's Goddard centre, and a co-author of the study. "Unfortunately, there is still a major source of CCl4 out in the world."

NASA has an ozone watch website here.