Honeybees know a lot about nothing

Humans aren’t the only species that can ponder abstract mathematical concepts like nonexistence. In addition to some other animals, honeybees understand that the number zero is less than 1, according to a new study. Dolphins, African gray parrots and nonhuman primates also understand the idea of “zero,” but researchers were surprised to find that honeybees also comprehend this concept, considering the insects’ tiny brains, according to a statement from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. Honeybees have fewer than 1 million neurons, compared with the 86 billion neurons in humans — and yet, they grasp a concept that humans, by some measures, don’t start to understand before preschool, according to NPR. The researchers set up two cards, each of which had a set of symbols on them, like triangles or circles. Then, they trained a group of the bees to fly to the card with the lower number of symbols. (The bees quickly learned what the humans wanted them to do to get their delicious, sugary rewards). The trained bees were then shown a card that was empty versus one that had symbols on it. Without any prior training, the bees flew more often to the empty card — thereby demonstrating that they understood that “zero” was a number less than the others, according to the study, which was published Thursday (June 7) in the journal Science. Although they flew more often to an empty card than to one that had one symbol on it, it became easier for them to differentiate when the symbols’ card increased in number. For example, they more often flew to the zero when the other card had four symbols than when it had one, according to NPR. Perhaps these findings will shed light on the brain mechanism behind what allows us to understand the concept of “nothing,” Adrian Dyer, a researcher at RMIT University and senior author of the study, said in the RMIT statement. This understanding, in turn, could help in the development of artificial intelligence that also understands this concept. “If bees can perceive zero with a brain of less than a million neurons, it suggests there are simple, efficient ways to teach AI new tricks,” Dyer said in the statement.

Fascinating!!    🙂

Days on Earth Are Getting Longer, Thanks to the Moon

Days on Earth are getting longer as the moon slowly moves farther away from us, new research shows. The moon is about 4.5 billion years old and resides some 239,000 miles (385,000 kilometers) away from Earth, on average. However, due to tidal forces between our planet and the moon, the natural satellite slowly spirals away from Earth at a rate of about 1.5 inches (3.82 centimeters) per year, causing our planet to rotate more slowly around its axis. Using a new statistical method called astrochronology, astronomers peered into Earth’s deep geologic past and reconstructed the planet’s history. This work revealed that, just 1.4 billion years ago, the moon was significantly closer to Earth, which made the planet spin faster. As a result, a day on Earth lasted just over 18 hours back then, according to a statement from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “As the moon moves away, the Earth is like a spinning figure skater who slows down as they stretch their arms out,” study co-author Stephen Meyers, a professor of geoscience at UW-Madison, said in the statement. “One of our ambitions was to use astrochronology to tell time in the most distant past, to develop very ancient geological time scales. We want to be able to study rocks that are billions of years old in a way that is comparable to how we study modern geologic processes.” Astrochronology combines astronomical theory with geological observation, allowing researchers to reconstruct the history of the solar system and better understand ancient climate change as captured in the rock record, according to the statement. The moon and other bodies in the solar system largely influence Earth’s rotation, creating orbital variations called Milankovitch cycles. These variations ultimately determine where sunlight is distributed on Earth, based on the planet’s rotation and tilt. Earth’s climate rhythms are captured in the rock record, going back hundreds of millions of years. However, regarding our planet’s ancient past, which spans billions of years, this geological record is fairly limited, researchers said in the statement. This can lead to some uncertainty and confusion. For example, the current rate at which the moon is moving away from Earth suggests that “beyond about 1.5 billion years ago, the moon would have been close enough that its gravitational interactions with the Earth would have ripped the moon apart,” Meyers said. Using their new statistical method, the researchers were able to compensate for the uncertainty across time. This approach was tested on two stratigraphic rock layers: The 1.4-billion-year-old Xiamaling Formation from northern China and a 55-million-year-old record from Walvis Ridge, in the southern Atlantic Ocean. Examining the geologic record captured in the rock layers and integrating the measure of uncertainty revealed changes in Earth’s rotation, orbit and distance from the moon throughout history, as well as how the length of day on Earth has steadily increased. “The geologic record is an astronomical observatory for the early solar system,” Meyers said in the statement. “We are looking at its pulsing rhythm, preserved in the rock and the history of life.” The new study was published Monday (June 4) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Fascinating!!  🙂

NASA Curiosity rover unearths building blocks in 3-billion-year-old organic matter on Mars

The “building blocks” for life have been discovered in 3-billion-year-old organic matter on Mars, NASA scientists announced Thursday. Researchers cannot yet say whether their discovery stems from life or a more mundane geological process. However, “we’re in a really good position to move forward looking for signs of life,” said Jennifer Eigenbrode, a NASA biogeochemist and lead author of a study published Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Science. The findings were also remarkable in that they showed that organic material can be preserved for billions of years on the harsh Martian surface. The material was discovered by the Mars Curiosity rover, which has been collecting data on the Red Planet since August 2012. The organic molecules were found in Gale Crater — believed to once contain a shallow lake the size of Florida’s Lake Okeechobee. For the past six years, “the Curiosity has sifted samples of soil and ground-up rock for signs of organic molecules — the complex carbon chains that on Earth form the building blocks of life,” according to Science. “Past detections have been so faint that they could be just contamination,” the journal said. Now, samples taken from two different drill sites on an ancient lake bed have yielded complex organic molecules that look strikingly similar to the goopy fossilized building blocks of oil and gas on Earth. The rover also discovered traces of methane in the Martian atmosphere, which was reported in a second paper in Science. This is significant because most methane on Earth, for instance, comes from biological sources. “The detection of organic molecules and methane on Mars has far-ranging implications in light of potential past life on Mars,” said Inge Loes ten Kate, a Utrecht University scientist in an accompanying article in Science. “Curiosity has shown that Gale Crater was habitable around 3.5 billion years ago, with conditions comparable to those on the early Earth, where life evolved around that time. “The question of whether life might have originated or existed on Mars is a lot more opportune now that we know that organic molecules were present on its surface at that time,” Kate said. NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen said that “with these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life. I’m confident that our ongoing and planned missions will unlock even more breathtaking discoveries on the Red Planet.” The nuclear-battery-powered Curiosity rover, a $2.5 billion mobile chemistry lab, launched in 2011. NASA calls Curiosity the “largest and most capable” rover ever to make contact with Mars. It’s about the size of a car, has a 7-foot-long arm and carries 10 science instruments, 17 cameras and a laser to “vaporize” rocks.

Fascinating!!  To see photos of Mars and more, click on the text above.     🙂

Aliens are real, but humans will probably kill them all, new paper says

If you’ve ever looked up into the unfathomable night sky and wondered, “Are we alone?” then you are not alone. About 70 years ago, physicist Enrico Fermi looked up into the sky and asked a similar question: “Where is everybody?” There are hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone, Fermi reckoned, and many of them are billions of years older than our sun. Even if a small fraction of these stars have planets around them that proved habitable for life (scientists now think as many as 60 billion exoplanets could fit the bill), that would leave billions of possible worlds where advanced civilizations could have already bloomed, grown and — eventually — begun exploring the stars. So, why haven’t Earthlings heard a peep from these worlds? Where iseverybody? Today, this question is better known as the Fermi paradox. Researchers have floated many possible answers over the years, ranging from “The aliens are all hiding underwater,” to “They all died,” to “Actually, weare the aliens, and we rode a comet to Earth a few billion years ago.” Now, Alexander Berezin, a theoretical physicist at the National Research University of Electronic Technology in Russia, has proposed a new answer to Fermi’s paradox — but he doesn’t think you’re going to like it. Because, if Berezin’s hypothesis is correct, it could mean a future for humanity that’s “even worse than extinction.” “What if,” Berezin wrote in a new paper posted March 27 to the preprint journal,”the first life that reaches interstellar travel capability necessarily eradicates all competition to fuel its own expansion?” In other words, could humanity’s quest to discover intelligent life be directly responsible for obliterating that life outright? What if we are, unwittingly, the universe’s bad guys? In the paper, Berezin called this answer to Fermi’s paradox the “first in, last out” solution. Understanding it requires narrowing down the parameters of what makes “intelligent life” in the first place, Berezin wrote. For starters, it doesn’t really matter what alien life looks like; it could be a biological organism like humans, a superintelligent AI or even some sort of planet-size hive mind, he said. But it does matter how this life behaves, Berezin wrote. To be considered relevant to Fermi’s paradox, the extraterrestrial life we seek has to be able to grow, reproduce and somehow be detectable by humans. That means our theoretical aliens have to be capable of interstellar travel, or at least of transmitting messages through interstellar space. (This is assuming humans don’t reach the alien planet first.) Here’s the catch: For a civilization to reach a point where it could effectively communicate across solar systems, it’d have to be on a path of unrestricted growth and expansion, Berezin wrote. And to walk this path, you’d have to step on a lot of lesser life-forms. “I am not suggesting that a highly developed civilization would consciously wipe out other lifeforms,” Berezin wrote. “Most likely, they simply won’t notice, the same way a construction crew demolishes an anthill to build real estate because they lack incentive to protect it.” For example, a rogue AI’s unrestricted drive for growth could lead it to populate the entire galaxy with clones of itself, “turning every solar system into a supercomputer,” Berezin said. Looking for a motive in the AI’s hostile takeover is useless, Berezin said — “all that matters is that it can [do it].” The bad news for humans isn’t that we might have to face off against a power-crazed race of intelligent beings. The bad news is, we might be that race. “We are the first to arrive at the [interstellar] stage,” Berezin speculated, “and, most likely, will be the last to leave.” Stopping humans from accidentally obliterating all rival life-forms would require a total culture shift spurred by “forces far stronger than the free will of individuals,” Berezin wrote. Given our species’ impressive talent for expansion, however, such forces could be hard to muster. Then again, this is all just a theory. The paper has yet to be peer-reviewed by fellow scientists, and even Berezin is rooting against his own conclusions. “I certainly hope I am wrong,” Berezin wrote. “The only way to find out is to continue exploring the universe and searching for alien life.”

And to continue investing in both civilian (i.e. NASA) and military (i.e. U.S. Air Force Space Command, and the U.S. Army’s Space & Missile Defense Command or SMDC), so that we are prepared  for the day, God forbid, one of these theories turns out to be right.  Just sayin..  Thanks to Brandon Specktor over at for that thought-provoking piece.  Things that make ya go, “hmmm”…      🙂

John Stossel: Junk science locks up innocent people

On TV crime shows like “CSI,” “NCIS” and “Law & Order,” science gets the bad guys. In real life, “science” often ensnares the innocent. Former NYPD Detective Harry Houck gets annoyed when TV shows make forensic science look infallible. “You watch a detective get down and look at a body (and say), ‘He’s been dead for three hours now… (H)e ate dinner four hours ago,'” scoffs Houck. “I can’t do that.” On TV, experts identify killers by their bite marks. In real life, experts claim they can do that. The TV show “Cold Case Files” covered the trial of Alfred Swinton. He was convicted of murder because a bite-mark expert said his teeth matched a bite on the victim. “A perfect match!” said Dr. Gus Karazulas, the “forensic odontologist” whose testimony clinched the conviction. Karazulas sounded impartial and objective. “A forensic scientist is not on the side of the prosecutor or defense,” he said on “Cold Case Files.” “We look at the evidence.” But Swinton was innocent. Lawyer Chris Fabricant helped get him released from jail by doing a DNA test, a much more reliable, less subjective form of science. Fabricant scoffs at bite-mark testimony: “The doctor was just wrong. It’s an unreliable technique.” The more room there is for an expert witness’s unique interpretation of the data, the more that can go wrong, says Fabricant. “Bite mark is similar to you and I looking at a cloud. I say to you, ‘John, doesn’t that cloud look like a rabbit?’ And you say, ‘Yeah, Chris, I think that does look like a rabbit.'” That kind of junk science puts innocent people in jail. I told Fabricant that I assumed most people in jail are guilty. Also, many people say crime is down because aggressive law enforcement has locked so many people up. “If you think that maybe even 1 percent of convicted defendants may be innocent,” replied Fabricant, “we have 2.6 million people in prison today, (so) we are talking about tens of thousands of (innocent) people!” Fabricant works with the Innocence Project, a group that works to get innocent people freed from prison. Through DNA evidence, the project’s lawyers have helped free 191 people. That confident bite-mark expert who got Swinton convicted now admits he was wrong. “Bite mark evidence is junk science,” he told us via email. He resigned from the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. But police still trust bite marks. “Let’s say one tooth is missing in the front” of a bite mark, explains Houck. “You’ve got to go, well, our suspect’s got one tooth missing in the front. That’s pretty good!” Houck says he’d demand other evidence. But not all cops do — especially when scientific “experts” say someone’s guilty. Bite marks are just one dubious method police and prosecutors use.

For more, click on the text above.

New report reveals even more freaky details about the UFO that shocked the US Navy

UFO sightings are a dime a dozen these days, and they have been for a while, but back in December the New York Times released the results of an investigation into the US military’s monitoring of UFO claims and came up with something totally wild. It was a video released by the Pentagon that shows US Navy pilots tracking the movements of a totally unexplainable aircraft. Now, a local news team from Las Vegas has obtained a military report that offers even more details on the sighting, and the story is somehow becoming even more bizarre than it already was. The report (PDF here) explains in great details how a US Navy aircraft carrier played a strange game of hide and seek with multiple Anomalous Aerial Vehicles (AAVs) that demonstrated flight characteristics that should be downright impossible to pull off. The sightings began on November 10, 2004, and lasted for several days. The objects would appear on the carrier’s radar systems for short periods, seeming to hover still, and then fly off at high speeds. Confused by exactly what was going on, the crew decided to investigate. When the object appeared again a few days later a pair of F/A-18Fs was directed to check out the strange signals. The result is the now famous video showing the “Tic-Tac” shaped UFO cruising along at incredibly high speeds and making rapid changes in altitude. In the new report, the object is described as “solid white, smooth, with no edges,” and being “uniformly colored with no nacelles, pylons, or wings.” The report says the object was estimated to be about 46 feet long. By comparison, the F/A-18 fighters that were trailing it measure around 56 feet in length, meaning that whatever it was that the Navy spotted could feasibly hold one or more human-sized individuals. The pilot said they never felt as though the object was a threat, but the report notes that the AAV seemed to react to the presence of the jets, “demonstrating an advanced acceleration, aerodynamic, and propulsion capability.” Throughout the several days of seeing the object come and go, the Navy says it may have demonstrated the ability to “cloak” and disappear to the human eye. Its rapid descent from 60,000 feet to just 50 feet before disappearing also made officials consider the possibility that it was capable of operating underwater, effortlessly moving from the air to the sea at will. It’s all pretty freaky.


Doomsday AI machines could lead to nuclear war, think tank paper warns

Could the future of artificial intelligence bring about a robot doomsday? In a scenario straight out of apocalyptic science fiction, a leading security think tank is warning that as soon as 2040, AI machines could encourage nations to take apocalyptic risks with their nuclear stashes. A paper commissioned by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit in Santa Monica, Calif., that offers research and analysis to the armed forces on global policy issues, says it’s conceivable that AI — as well as the proliferation of drones, satellites, and other sensors — could lead to nuclear war with overwhelmingly grave consequences for humanity. “Autonomous systems don’t need to kill people to undermine stability and make catastrophic war more likely,” said Edward Geist, an associate policy researcher at RAND, a specialist in nuclear security and co-author of the paper. “New AI capabilities might make people think they’re going to lose if they hesitate. That could give them itchier trigger fingers. At that point, AI will be making war more likely, even though the humans are still, quote-unquote, in control.” The study was based on data collected from experts in nuclear issues, government branches, AI research and policy, and national security. These experts are attempting to envision what the future of security looks like, molded by the effects of political, technological, social, and demographic trends. The report looked at scenarios from the best (the future of AI leads to increased security stability) to the worst (hackers as third-party actors). “Some experts fear that an increased reliance on artificial intelligence can lead to new types of catastrophic mistakes,” added Andrew Lohn, co-author of the paper and associate engineer at RAND. “There may be pressure to use AI before it is technologically mature, or it may be susceptible to adversarial subversion. Therefore, maintaining strategic stability in coming decades may prove extremely difficult, and all nuclear powers must participate in the cultivation of institutions to help limit nuclear risk.”