Science

Retrograde Trojan: Jupiter shares an orbit with Bee-Zed A possible refugee from the Oort Cloud that is revolving backwards around the Sun is reshaping our understanding of orbital dynamics by sharing an orbit with the giant planet Jupiter. The object, known as 2015 BZ509 or “Bee-Zed” for short, was first spotted by the Pan-STARRS survey and followed up by a team lead by Paul Wiegert of the University of Western Ontario in Canada using the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona. If we were to look down at the solar system from above the Sun’s north pole, we would see the vast majority of objects including all the planets orbiting in a counterclockwise fashion. Bee-Zed bucks this trend: it orbits clockwise in retrograde fashion. Although rare, retrograde orbits per se are not mysterious. What really makes Bee-Zed stand out is that it also shares Jupiter’s orbit, in a 1:–1 resonance (the minus sign indicating retrograde motion). …

During yoga pranayama exercises people practice controlling the breath, or prana, to induce a state of calm and focus. Paying attention to breathing and slowing down respiration is a core component of many mindfulness practices. Research suggests the practice has multiple benefits—it induces an overall sense of well-being while reducing anxiety and improved sleep. But what exactly is going on in the brain during meditation? Imaging studies of humans have shown brain regions involved in mind-wandering, attention and emotion are involved in various stages of mindfulness practice. A new mouse study, published Thursday in Science, shows that neurons in the brain stem may also mediate the link between breathing and inducing a state of meditative calm. Pacing Breaths The basis for the new study dates back to 1991, when a group of neuroscientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, (U.C.L.A.) discovered the pre-Bötzinger complex, an area containing neurons that fired rhythmically in time with …

Watch enough science fiction movies and you’ll probably come to the conclusion that humans are living on borrowed time. Whether it’s HAL 9000’s murderous meltdown in 2001: A Space Odyssey or Skynet’s sadistic self-preservation tactics in the Terminator franchise, artificial intelligence usually comes off as a well-intentioned attempt to serve humanity that—through some overlooked technical flaw—ends up trying to extinguish it. The latest dystopian prophecy arrives Friday with the release of Ghost in the Shell, one of a few major releases this year to feature AI prominently in its plot. The film—based on the 1995 anime movie and Kodansha Comics manga series of the same name—tells the story of a special ops human–cyborg hybrid known as the Major (Scarlett Johansson). She leads an elite crime-fighting task force whose main mission is to protect a company that makes AI robots. Ghost depicts a technologically advanced society in which a person’s brain—including the Major’s—is susceptible to hacking, …

THE WOODLANDS, Texas—Should the U.S. send humans back to the moon in a 21st-century reboot of the cold war–era Apollo program…or should the nation go full-throttle and for the gusto, sending crews to all the way to Mars, where none have gone before? U.S. scientists and policy makers have grappled ad nauseam with America’s next great otherworldly destination for decades, without making much meaningful progress. Now that it is approaching a half-century since an American—or anyone at all, for that matter—last left low Earth orbit, the debate seems lost in space. Soon that shall change, many advocates of human spaceflight believe, through a hybrid of new initiatives by Pres. Donald Trump’s administration as well as commercial efforts led by private industry. The Trump White House’s vision for U.S. astronauts remains at present a foggy TBD, but there are plans afoot to relaunch a National Space Council. Helmed by Vice Pres. Mike Pence, the council would …

Metallic phase: a conducting indium wire Wires just three atoms wide that change from being insulators to electrical conductors – and then back again – when struck by a laser pulse have been created by researchers in Germany. The team has shown that the phase transitions can occur as fast as quantum mechanics allows, something that was not previously thought possible. The technique could prove useful in the study of a wide range of systems including how proteins rearrange themselves. Phase transitions are ubiquitous in all forms of matter. If energy is added to or removed from a system, the most stable state may change: ice melts to liquid water when heated, for example. Subtler phase transitions can also occur within one state: solid iron can exist in several different crystal structures, for example. The speed at which such phase transitions can occur normally depends on how fast energy can enter the crystal lattice, stimulating …

THE WOODLANDS, Texas—More than a decade after the International Astronomical Union (IAU) voted to officially reclassify Pluto as a “dwarf planet,” scientists and the public are still hotly debating the decision. Some staunch supporters of Pluto’s full-fledged planethood are renewing calls for the IAU to reverse Pluto’s demotion. Their opponents insist the decision should stand. Others—perhaps a silent majority—watch with ambivalence (if not outright distaste) as their more-passionate peers loudly and publicly squabble over nomenclature. All three camps could be found here last week at the 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC), one of the globe’s most prestigious gatherings of space scientists. Regardless of what one calls it, there is no question our first-ever close-up look at Pluto—via a flyby by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft in 2015—has rekindled the debate about the famous object’s standing in our solar system. With its five moons, icy mountain ranges, glacial seasons and cryogenic atmosphere, Pluto’s frigid beauty …

The world’s smallest arachnid, the Samoan moss spider, is at a third of a millimeter nearly invisible to the human eye. The largest spider in the world is the goliath birdeater tarantula, which weighs 5 ounces. and is about the size of a dinner plate. For reference, that is about the same difference in scale between that same tarantula and a bottlenose dolphin. And yet the bigger spider does not act in more complex ways than its tiny counterpart. “Insects and spiders and the like—in terms of absolute size—have among the tiniest brains we’ve come across,” says William Wcislo, a scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City. “But their behavior, as far as we can see, is as sophisticated as things that have relatively large brains. So then there’s the question: How do they do that?” No one would argue that a tarantula is as smart as a dolphin or having a …

In a spin: illustration of floating diamonds Physicists in France have levitated tiny diamonds and found that doing so has no effect on their spin properties. The researchers came to this conclusion after carrying out electron spin resonance (ESR) and fluorescence measurements on nitrogen vacancy (NV) centres, which occur whenever two neighbouring carbon atoms in diamond are replaced by a nitrogen atom and an empty lattice site. The technique could be used to create new optomechanical technologies such as extremely sensitive rotation sensors. The reason why physicists are interested in levitating tiny diamonds containing NV centres is that tiny movements of such objects in a magnetic field could be measured by detecting changes in how it absorbs and emits light. One type of NV, known as NV–, is particularly interesting for researchers making sensors and other devices because its spin state can be determined easily using light. Unfortunately, conventional levitation techniques that use laser light …

The feminine mystique is not just figurative—it also extends to women’s reproductive anatomy. For decades women were excluded from research studies, leading to a dearth of information about female physiology that is only just starting to be accrued. Some insights have come from research on tissue grown in standard petri dishes but these studies still cannot represent the intricacies of a woman’s menstrual cycle. Now in a bioengineering first, researchers have created a miniature laboratory model of the entire female reproductive tract, complete with hormone signaling. This 3-D “organ-on-a-chip” system may improve our understanding of the causes of recurrent miscarriage and fuel new research into birth control and other drug development. The work may also inch medicine toward a future when fertility experts could simply grow a sample of an individual woman’s cells, place them in this chip system and determine the best treatment. EVATAR is a 3-D model of the female reproductive tract, capable …

If you ever get a house, “eventually you get a mouse”—or so Ogden Nash once wrote. And science seems to be catching up with poetry. The standard thinking until now has been that the house mouse, Mus musculus, only began its intimate relationship with humans at the dawn of agriculture, roughly 11,500 years ago. In effect, you had to have a farm, not just a house, before mice moved in to raid the stored grain. It turns out, however, that the house alone—a hut even—was enough to do the trick, according to a new study published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. M. musculus began to hang around with humans, the study’s authors wrote, at least 15,000 years ago, during the so-called Natufian era in the Middle East, when late-stage hunter–gatherers were just beginning to adopt a more settled way of life. It was an on-again, off-again relationship at first, with both …

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