Blog Biology 30 July 2014
National Cancer Institute

Five portions of fruit and vegetables may help you live longer, but it seems that more than that doesn't make any difference.

A team of researchers in China and the US, trying to get to the bottom of conflicting reports on the health benefits of eating more fruit and vegetables, analysed the results of 16 studies involving a total of 833,234 participants and 56,423 deaths.

They showed that eating more fruit and vegetables was significantly associated with a lower risk of death from all causes, particularly from cardiovascular diseases. In fact the average risk of death from all causes was reduced by 5% for each additional daily serving of fruit and vegetables, and risk of cardiovascular death was reduced by 4% for each additional daily serving of fruit and vegetables. But only up to five servings. After that the risk of death did not reduce further.

The research is published in the BMJ.

Blog Technology 30 July 2014
Do these guys know what you are thinking?

Brain scans could be used to predict election results, the success of a new Hollywood blockbuster or even to test the waters when governments plan new laws after US scientists were able to predict the popularity of a TV show – in this case The Walking Dead – in a large group from the responses of just 16 people.

An online service which collects Twitter traffic information was employed to obtain a comprehensive listing of time-stamped, stimulus-relevant tweets, which originated during the airing of the episode. Meanwhile, 16 study participants representative of the series’ target demographic were recruited to view the episode while having their neural activity recorded with high-density EEG.

The small group reacted the same way to the same scenes as the response to the show on social media.

One may conclude from the results that stimuli which evoke highly reliable neural responses among a small sample also do so in a larger audience.

Scientists have known for some time that they could predict the future behaviour of an individual using brain imaging, but this experiment by Stanford's Jacek Dmochowski and colleagues reported in Nature Communications has huge implications for how education, marketing and media could be targeted towards specific audiences.

Blog Space 29 July 2014

Well not in space exactly, but in low gravity. Science Alert tells us

Snakes appear to lose their sense of "self" when in microgravity, and can resort to attacking themselves or curling up and giving themselves a hug.

It's been a tough week for reptiles being harassed by scientists, what with the existential angst of these snakes and Russia's "space sex geckos" that were lost but now are found.

Blog Physics 29 July 2014

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) has come up with a second edition of its International Energy Efficiency Scorecard (PDF), analysing the world’s 16 largest economies to see which use the least energy to achieve the same or better results.

Germany came out on top with a score of 65 out of 100, also winning in the industry category, followed by Italy on 64 points, which topped efficiency in transportation.

The ACEEE praised China, which was ranked fourth, for the rapid improvement in its energy efficiency, in contrast to the United States, ranked 13th, and Australia, 10th. The organisation highlighted the economic burden the poor performance creates.

The United States, long considered an innovative and competitive world leader, has progressed slowly and has made limited progress since the last International Scorecard in 2012.
In contrast,countries including Germany, Japan, and China are surging ahead. Countries that use energy more efficiently use fewer resources to achieve the same goals, thus reducing costs, preserving valuable natural resources, and gaining a competitive edge over other countries. In the United States, a great deal of resources are wasted, and costs have been allowed to remain unnecessarily high.

Australia, which abolished its carbon tax, was in the bottom of the pack with 56 points. While it did well in terms of energy efficiency in the construction and manufacturing sectors, it performed worst of all the countries in terms of efficiency in transportation.

Blog Space 29 July 2014

Hawaii's 30-metre telescope will be able to view forming galaxies at the very edge of the observable Universe, near the beginning of time. [Image: 30-metre telescope][/caption]

The 30-metre telescope planned for Hawaii is three times the size of today's most powerful, but it is just one of five massive new instruments on the way.

The European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) is even bigger at 39 metres in diameter, letting in more light than any other telescope on Earth. It will focus on exoplanets and the search for dark energy.

Sarah Zhang over at Gizmodo has a good rundown of all the projects which she describes as "the biggest building boom in the history of astronomy".

Blog Physics 23 July 2014
Michio Kaku has turned his hand from physics to philosophy.

Rapid advances in neuroscience have allowed us to look with ever-greater sophistication into the workings of the brain. This has inevitably led to an increasing focus on the mind. The more we understand how the brain works, we reason, the closer we should come to understanding what makes us conscious, sentient beings.

It is an approach that has led many scientists to move into an area traditionally occupied by the philosophers. The latest to join the discussion is physicist Michio Kaku, the co-founder of string theory, who we profile in the current issueof COSMOS.

There is no doubt that Kaku is the possessor of a first-rate mind indeed, but he makes clear it is one of a physicist and not of a philosopher, even if “quantum mechanics is perhaps the most philosophical of all sciences”.

As Kaku says, we can thank physicists (along with engineers and neuroscientists) for the development of the new brain-probing tools. But he believes physics has more to bring to the question of mind than that. The mind is, to him, a physics problem from top to bottom with little room for philosophical speculation.

But the distinction between the two disciplines may not be as great as Kaku believes. For decades now philosophers have believed that the mysteries of the mind will eventually succumb to a completely scientistic approach. But many question whether physics has the conceptual resources to ever provide a full account of the mind.

The battleground now is over consciousness. While philosophers generally hold that the mind’s ability to have thoughts and desires about the world can be explained in terms of information processing within neural networks, no one, they say, has the least idea where even to start to make a link between the firing of neurons and the experience of having a mind. While Kaku dismisses the question, believing it will become as irrelevant as the conundrum “what is life?” that dominated biology for decades, we are not sure philosophers will...

While I was researching for a review of Standard Deviation, a book by Gary Smith which explains how statistics can be used - or misused - to support more or less any argument, I came across this website devoted to spurious correlations.

The website's author, Tyler Vigen, wrote a program to find correlations between completely unrelated sets of data. The resulting charts are hilarious. This one "correlating" the number of people who died tangled in their bedsheets with the per capita consumption of cheese.

Smith's book is a great primer if you don't want to be baffled by "science". I particularly like the quote from Nobel Prize winning economist Ronald Coase, who said: “If you torture data long enough, it will confess.”

Blog Society 23 July 2014
The memorial service for the victims of the Malaysian plane crash, during the Opening Session of AIDS 2014.
AIDS 2014

AIDS 2014, a global conference bringing together thousands of the world’s top AIDS researchers, community leaders, people living with HIV and policy-makers, is currently under way in Cosmos’ hometown of Melbourne.

Our reporters and writers are at the event, which we are covering in detail.

But the event is a time for sadness, too, after six HIV researchers and lobbyists were killed when travelling on Malaysian flight MH17, which was shot down over Ukraine.

Last night in Melbourne’s Federation Square, hundreds attended a candlelight vigil to remember those delegates, as well as the 35 million lives lost to HIV-AIDS-related illnesses.

Among the passengers of MH17 was a giant of the HIV research community, Dutchman Joep Lange. He was travelling with his partner, Jacqueline van Tongeren, who worked at the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development.

Lange was one of the pioneering Amsterdam researchers who helped us understand how HIV disrupted the human immune system and how we could turn that knowledge into effective treatment. Andrew Sullivan has a good post rounding up some of the tributes to Lange and his legacy here.

Blog Archaeology 04 February 2014

The largest of the 82 fragments from the Antikythera Mechanism, an ancient device that was used to calculate and predict astronomical events.
London Science Museum

A team of archeologists have returned to the remote Greek island of Antikythera where they have used the most sophisticated robot and submarine technology to search for one of the technological wonders of the ancient world.

The Antikythera shipwreck site was found by accident by sponge divers blown off course by a storm in 1900. Diver Elias Stadiatis told his shipmates he had seen corpses beneath the waves - the bodies were found to be a pile of bronze statues from an ancient shipwreck. The sponge divers became part of the world's first large scale underwater archeological expedition. They retrieved a remarkable haul, including a glass bowl and a 1.8 metre statue known as the Antikythera youth - one of the finest bronze figures from the ancient world.

But it took several decades before the most extraordinary find from the wreck was understood. Item 15087 was a lump of bronze about the size of a shoebox. It looked like a mechanical clock and was dubbed the Antikythera Mechanism. Originally believed to be from the first half of the first century BCE, a more recent view dates the mechanism at 205BCE.

In 1958, Yale physicist and historian Derek de Solla Price examined the mechanism for himself. He believed its 30 meshing bronze gears were used to calculate astronomical events, such as solar eclipses, or the next full moon, or the dates of the Olympic Games. In 1974, after an X-ray examination of the mechanism revealed missing gear teeth. Price wrote:

"Nothing like this instrument is preserved elsewhere. Nothing comparable to it is known from any scientific text or literary allusion. On the contrary, from all that we know of science and technology in the Hellenistic Age we should have felt that such a device could not exist.
"It must surely rank...