Science

This week the U.S. State Department publicly accused Syria’s government of killing prison inmates and systematically destroying their bodies. Citing newly declassified photographs, Washington alleges that Syrian forces built a crematorium on prison grounds—just 45 minutes from the capital, Damascus—to eliminate evidence of their human rights abuses. Acting assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Stuart Jones told reporters on Monday that satellite photos and other evidence suggest that, in recent years, a building was modified at Syria’s Saydnaya military prison complex to dispose of bodies. The photographic evidence purportedly shows modifications to the building and snowmelt on its roof—when all other nearby buildings were snow-covered—underscoring its alleged purpose. “At this point, we are talking about this evidence and bringing it forward to the international community, which we hope will put pressure on the regime to change its behavior,” Jones told reporters. To discuss how satellite photos can be verified and used to help …

Rapid eye movement: new device can track saccades A new and faster way of tracking eye movements has been unveiled by researchers in Belgium and the Netherlands. Rather than using high-resolution digital cameras embedded in screens or glasses, the low-cost technology instead detects changes in electric field next to the eye. The team says that it could be used to create eye-tracking systems that are much faster and much cheaper than existing devices. Tracking the motion of a person’s eyes as they look around has a wide range of applications from medical testing to computer gaming. While conventional systems can locate a person’s gaze, they are not fast enough to track the high-speed motion of the eyes. In particular, it is very hard to follow the eye jumping rapidly from one position to another involuntarily when a scene or object is scanned – what’s known as “saccades”. One solution is to use faster and higher …

Simulated symphony: Dan Tamayo A system of seven rocky exoplanets – recently found to be orbiting the same star – avoid colliding with each because their orbits are highly synchronized, according to computer simulations done by astrophysicists in Canada. The TRAPPIST-1 system, which astronomers announced in February that they had discovered, is the largest known system of Earth-like exoplanets. Three of the planets appear to be in the habitable zone of the star, which means that they could harbour liquid water and possibly even life. Since its discovery, however, astronomers have puzzled over how TRAPPIST-1 remains stable. “If you simulate the system, the planets start crashing into one another in less than a million years,” says Dan Tamayo, who works at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Planetary Science. One possibility is that astronomers have been incredibly lucky to see the system before it falls apart – but Tamayo was convinced that there must be …

Hospitals and medical devices in the U.S. are extremely vulnerable to the type of massive cyber attack that tore through more than 150 countries Friday, and some health care providers here may have already been—or soon will be—hit, cybersecurity analysts warn. The attack relied on a type of malicious software called ransomware, which keeps users from accessing their computer systems until they pay a ransom. The pernicious new strain, aptly named WannaCry, froze or slowed business and health care computer systems around the world, including several within the U.K.’s National Health Service. The malware exploits a vulnerability in the Windows operating system that many system administrators have not yet patched—including at many U.S. hospitals, experts warn. Moreover, WannaCry does not distinguish between a computer, smartphone or medical device. And, unlike the case with many other cyber attacks, a user need not click a link to unknowingly install it; if a health care system is connected …

For all of the buzz over the past couple of years about how chatbots are revolutionizing the way mobile devices deliver information, enable online purchases and deliver customer service, these artificially intelligent apps still aren’t much for conversation. That’s because the ability to achieve natural dialogue between person and machine—one that involves more than simple commands and canned responses—is still very much a work in progress. Facebook hopes to change that, however, by creating a shared platform to train machine speech systems. Chatbots—automated computer programs used, for example, for customer service or as personal assistants on smartphones—use dialogue that’s mostly pre-scripted, says Yann LeCun, director of Facebook’s AI Research (FAIR) team. “If you go [off] script they don’t perform very well.” Other types of chatbots are entertaining but not very useful for any particular purpose, he adds, citing the Tay AI that Microsoft introduced last year via Twitter and quickly took offline after it “learned” …

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the resulting deaths of tens of thousands of Japanese citizens in the summer of 1945 did more than decisively end World War II. The U.S. strikes that brought nuclear destruction of those two cities also thrust the world onto a new trajectory—one that led to the terrifying development of the far more powerful hydrogen bomb and the ruinous arms races of the cold war it entailed. In retrospect, one might wonder how our modern world might look today if World War II’s nuclear conclusion had played out differently. A new work of historical fiction—The Berlin Project—is author and physicist Gregory Benford’s best attempt to explore that question. Benford makes the case for how a single fateful decision could have armed the U.S. with effective nuclear weapons a year ahead of schedule—early enough to deploy them on the western front in Europe, rather than only in the Pacific. …

Space on Earth: scientists mimic the radiation of space Space radiation has been reproduced in a lab on Earth. Scientists have used a laser-plasma accelerator to replicate the high-energy particle radiation that surrounds our planet. The research could help study the effects of space exploration on humans and lead to more resilient satellite and rocket equipment. The radiation in space is a major obstacle for our ambitions to explore the solar system. Highly energetic ionizing particles from the Sun and deep space are extremely dangerous for human health because they can pass right through the skin and deposit energy, irreversibly damaging cells and DNA. On top of that, the radiation can also wreak havoc on satellites and equipment. While the most obvious way to study these effects is to take experiments into space, this is very expensive and impractical. Yet doing the reverse – producing space-like radiation on Earth – is surprisingly difficult. Scientists have …

Each night before “Greg” goes to bed he brushes and flosses his teeth. Then he double-checks the instructions on the dark brown bottle his nurse gave him before he unscrews the cap and tips five drops of a light-amber, oily liquid onto a spoon. The brew, glistening from the light of the bathroom fixture, is tasteless and has no odor he can detect. But it’s chock-full of bacteria. He sloshes the substance around in his mouth and swallows. Greg hopes that while he sleeps the foreign microbes will wage war with other organisms in his gut, changing that environment to ultimately help him manage some of the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms that cloud his mind and riddle his days and nights with nightmares, flashbacks, thoughts of suicide and irrational responses to stressful events. The bacteria he is swallowing, his doctors tell him, “may help reduce symptoms of stress.” Each drop of Greg’s brew is …

After nightfall last November 16 a sleek and rare wild cat sauntered past a remote camera in the Dos Cabezas Mountains east of Tucson, Ariz. The animal triggered a motion sensor and a camera flash popped. Frozen in stride halfway through the frame was a jaguar, its pointy black ears splotched with yellow. Federal wildlife officials later scrutinized the image their camera caught, comparing the animal’s markings with jaguars spotted elsewhere in Arizona in recent years. No match—this was a new migrant. It was only the third known jaguar to wander into Arizona from Mexico since 2012, and perhaps the sixth since the big cats were extirpated from the U.S. in the 1960s. For conservationists, the prospect of a beautiful jungle cat recolonizing our southern deserts is pure romance. A jaguar that prowled the Santa Rita Mountains became something of a local folk hero. Known as El Jefe, last spring a mariachi band played at …

Every year since the contest began in 2014, hopeful early-career scientists at Stony Brook University line up to compete for the university’s Discovery Prize. This $200,000 award for high-risk, high-reward projects is not like a typical research grant, obtained only through mountains of exhaustively methodical paperwork and lengthy discussions between specialists. Instead the prize simply goes to whichever contestant can best pitch their research to a small panel of judges in a single, high-stakes 10-minute public presentation—a move meant to reinforce the value of public science communication and outreach. On April 14 four finalists faced off at Stony Brook in front of the judges for this year’s Discovery Prize, regaling the expert panel and a packed auditorium with rapid-fire speeches about breakthrough work on drug-resistant bacteria, the dynamics of subatomic particles, the origins of the universe and more. The winner, Stony Brook University assistant professor of chemistry Thomas Allison, took home the prize for his …

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