Science

On the move: supermassive black hole ejected from galactic core Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have spotted a supermassive black hole that has been propelled out of the centre of the galaxy where it formed. They reckon the huge object was created when two galaxies merged and was then ejected by gravitational waves. The discovery centres on galaxy 3C186, which lies about eight billion light-years from Earth and contains an extremely bright object that astronomers believe is a black hole weighing about one billion Suns. Most large galaxies, including our own Milky Way, contain such supermassive black holes at their cores, with these huge, bright objects being powered by radiation given off by matter as it accelerates into the black hole. What is unique about this black hole, however, is that it is not at the centre of the galaxy but rather about 35,000 light-years away – a distance equivalent to a third of …

Excerpted from The Body Builders: Inside the Science of the Engineered Human by Adam Piore. Copyright © 2017 Adam Piore. With permission of the publisher, HarperCollins. All rights reserved. It’s a frigid February afternoon, and I’m sitting in a hospital room in downtown Albany, New York, as a team of white-jacketed technicians bustle about the bed of a 40-year-old single mother from Schenectady, named Cathy. And they are getting ready to push the outer bounds of computer-aided “mind reading.” They are attempting to decode “imagined speech.” I have been led here by Gerwin Schalk, a gregarious, Austrian-born neuroscientist, who has promised to show me just how far he and other neurological codebreakers have travelled since that day decades ago when David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel made history by listening in—and decoding—the patterns of neurons firing in a cat’s visual cortex. Cathy is epileptic and plans to undergo brain surgery to try to remove the portion …

Pres. Donald Trump’s administration could be willfully blinding itself—and the nation—when it comes to the environment, according to many science policy experts startled by its new proposed budget for 2018. Released last week, the initial budget outline envisions dramatic cuts in funds for monitoring air and water quality, climate change and more. “It would cut off our eyes, ears and nose, with respect to what is going on in our surroundings,” says John Holdren, who served as former Pres. Barack Obama’s science adviser and is now a professor of environmental science and policy at Harvard University. Such a move is perhaps unsurprising for an administration known for its thorny relationship with scientific facts. But the consequences of weakening U.S. environmental monitoring abilities would be serious for everyone, says Brenda Ekwurzel, director of climate science for the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists’ Climate and Energy Program, echoing other policy experts. “So many people need our environmental …

The thick of it: directed flow occurs in thick channels, not thin Conventional fluids flow only in response to external forces, but scientists are increasingly interested in “active matter” that consumes energy and moves itself. Previously, this has been seen only on millimetre or centimetre scales, but now researchers in the US have observed tiny molecular motors moving around metre-long tubes. Flocks of birds, swarms of bees and other collective animal movements can be explained by cognitive decisions of the organisms involved. A bird, for example, sits in the wake of the bird in front to minimize drag. However, collective behaviour can also be found at the cellular and sub-cellular level. “Non-equilibrium behaviour is more general than what living or sentient creatures exhibit,” explains Seth Fraden of Brandeis University in Massachusetts. The mechanisms through which this kind of self-organization occurs are not well understood. To gain more insight, Fraden, together with colleagues at Brandeis and …

Head spin: does the brain behave like a spin glass? Spin-glass-like states that occur in models of neural networks can provide important insights into states of low and high brain activity that have been observed in mammals. That is the claim of a team of theoretical biophysicists in Spain who are the first to show that disordered states in neurological networks could have a functional role in living brains. In familiar magnetic materials such as ferromagnets, the interaction between individual spin magnetic moments causes all of the spins to point in the same direction of magnetization. In spin-glass states, the interaction between spins does not allow individual spins to point in the same direction as their neighbours. This leads to “frustration”, whereby no direction of magnetization exists and the spins point in random directions. Brains are not magnetic systems and their working cells – neurons – do not resemble magnetic moments, but mathematically they behave …

A debate has raged for decades over whether male fertility is declining, according to some analyses of studies from recent decades. It’s an alarming possibility, and likely one reason at-home semen analysis is a growing field of research and product development. The latest study of a new at-home test kit, published today in Science Translational Medicine, found that even untrained users were able to measure sperm count and concentration as well as motility (the percentage of actively moving sperm), detecting abnormal semen with 97 percent accuracy compared with traditional lab testing. Developed by researchers at Harvard Medical School, the system uses a smartphone app with a 3-D–printed optical attachment to record a video of sperm cells in a sample. Software algorithms then analyze the video to count the sperm and assess their movement. The user simply slides the brick-shaped magnifying optical attachment onto the back of a smartphone, then loads a semen sample into a …

The brain contains a built-in GPS that relies on memories of past navigation experiences to simulate future ones. But how does it represent new environments in order to determine how to navigate them successfully? And what happens in the brain when we enter a new space, or use satellite navigation (SatNav) technology to help us find our way around? Research published Tuesday in Nature Communications reveals two distinct brain regions that cooperate to simulate the topology of one’s environment and plan future paths through it when one is actively navigating. In addition, the research suggests both regions become inactive when people follow SatNav instructions instead of using their spatial memories. In a previous study researchers at University College London took participants on a guided tour through the streets of London’s Soho district and then used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan their brains as they watched 10 different simulations of navigating those streets. Some …

Symmetry is easily recognizable in art, architecture, even anatomy. But the concept of symmetry in physics is hard to wrap one’s head around. Yet it is here that symmetry has played one of its most important roles, unlocking the secrets of the forces in nature and of the fundamental particles that inhabit our universe. “The biggest conceptual change over the last 100 years in the way physicists think about the world is symmetry,” says theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University. Mathematical symmetry, which Krauss describes as a kind of rule book of nature, has guided scientists to discover the quarks that make up the protons and neutrons in atoms, the gluons that bind them, and eventually the current crowning achievement of particle physics: the Higgs boson that explains how particles get their mass. It has allowed researchers to unify some of the forces in nature—for instance uniting electricity and magnetism into electromagnetism and …

For nearly 40 years scientists have observed their self-imposed ban on doing research on human embryos in the lab beyond the first two weeks after fertilization. Their initial reasoning was somewhat arbitrary: 14 days is when a band of cells known as a primitive streak, which will ultimately give rise to adult tissues, forms in an embryo. It is also roughly the last time a human embryo can divide and create more than one person, and a few days before the nervous system begins to develop. But the so-called 14-day rule has held up all this time partly because scientists could not get an embryo to grow that long outside its mother’s body. Researchers in the U.K. and U.S. recently succeeded for the first time in growing embryos in the lab for nearly two weeks before terminating them, showing that the so-called 14-day rule is no longer a scientific limitation—although it remains a cultural one. …

In a twist: artist’s impression of plasmons with orbital angular momentum Plasmons in 10 different angular-momentum states have been created and characterized by physicists in Israel and Germany. Created by firing laser pulses at a specially designed gold surface, movies of the plasmons in motion were made with an electron microscope. The researchers believe their work could lead to the development of tiny devices that encode information in the angular momentum of the plasmons. Plasmons, which are collective oscillations of electrons in metals that behave like quantum-mechanical particles, can be created by firing light at a metal target. They behave much like the photons that created them but have much shorter wavelengths and so could be used to create tiny “plasmonic” circuits that can process optical signals while taking up much less space than conventional optics. Capacity boost The new work builds on physicists’ ability to create beams of “twisted” light that carry orbital angular …

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