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Science | The Guardian



Latest Science news, comment and analysis from the Guardian, the world's leading liberal voice



Published: Mon, 23 Jan 2017 21:34:02 GMT2017-01-23T21:34:02Z

Copyright: Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. 2017
 



Organisms created with synthetic DNA pave way for entirely new life forms

Mon, 23 Jan 2017 20:00:26 GMT2017-01-23T20:00:26Z

E coli microbes have been modified to carry an expanded genetic code which researchers say will ultimately allow them to be programmed

From the moment life gained a foothold on Earth its story has been written in a DNA code of four letters. With G, T, C and A - the molecules that pair up in the DNA helix - the lines between humans and all life on Earth are spelled out.

Now, the first living organisms to thrive with an expanded genetic code have been made by researchers in work that paves the way for the creation and exploitation of entirely new life forms.

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What is the real cancer risk from eating roast potatoes or toast?

Mon, 23 Jan 2017 12:31:11 GMT2017-01-23T12:31:11Z

The Food Standards Agency has warned that overcooked starchy foods can contain acrylamide, a chemical liked to cancer. But should you be worried?

The Food Standards Agency has warned that eating overcooked potatoes or burnt toast could increase the risk of cancer. They are urging people to reduce their intake of overcooked foods through a public health campaign, dubbed “Go for Gold” – essentially advising people to turn off the heat once your toast, potatoes or other starchy foods are lightly browned.

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Date of ancient volcanic eruption finally pinpointed using fossilised tree rings

Mon, 23 Jan 2017 15:47:59 GMT2017-01-23T15:47:59Z

The Changbaishan eruption, one of the most violent of the last two millennnia, has been dated to within three months of the winter of 946 AD

The fossilised remains of a tree killed more than 1,000 years ago when a volcano blew a four-kilometre-wide hole in the landscape, on the border between China and North Korea, have helped an international team of scientists date one of the most violent eruptions of the last two millennnia to within three months of the winter of 946 AD.

The date matches a vivid description in a chronicle from a temple in Japan, far from any of that country’s active volcanoes, and 1,000 kilometres from the Changbaishan volcano. The monks recorded “white ash falling like snow” on 3 November 946AD. Another ancient record from 470km away, close enough to be within the sound of the eruption, said that in that year “the sky rumbled and cried out,” and recorded that there was an amnesty – presumably because it was taken as a dire omen – which led to prisoners being freed.

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Science falling victim to 'crisis of narcissism'

Fri, 20 Jan 2017 11:13:53 GMT2017-01-20T11:13:53Z

Cut-throat atmosphere in world-class labs and conferences closer to House of Cards than Big Bang Theory, says Swiss academic

It is the enduring scientist stereotype: socially awkward, unkempt appearance, and more concerned with cracking the laws of nature than anything as trivial as social status.

The reality could not be more different, according to an academic who says science is falling victim to a crisis of narcissism.

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Archaeologists discover man whose tongue was replaced by a stone

Mon, 23 Jan 2017 15:40:54 GMT2017-01-23T15:40:54Z

Roman British skeleton found buried face down in Northamptonshire has tongue mutilation seemingly unique for the period

A gruesome and seemingly unique mutilation has emerged from a Roman Britain burial site in Northamptonshire – the skeleton of a man whose tongue had apparently been amputated and replaced with a flat stone wedged into his mouth.

The man had been interred face down, perhaps amid fears that his corpse would rise to threaten people once again, archaeologists believe.

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A neuroscientist explains: how music affects the brain - podcast

Sun, 22 Jan 2017 06:00:22 GMT2017-01-22T06:00:22Z

In the first episode of this new podcast, Dr Daniel Glaser asks what effect does music have on our brains? And how can it be harnessed for therapy?

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In the first episode of this new podcast, Observer Magazine columnist and neuroscientist Dr Daniel Glaser delves into the world of music, memory, and musical therapy. Helping him explore the neuroscience, Daniel meets old friend and collaborator Professor Lauren Stewart, a psychologist from Goldsmith’s University, and co-director of the Centre for Music in the Brain at Aarhus University, Denmark.

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In search of the stroke detector

Sun, 22 Jan 2017 08:30:01 GMT2017-01-22T08:30:01Z

Up to 50% of stroke diagnoses are inaccurate. What if a small biosensor could do the job precisely? Robert McCrum, who survived a ‘brain attack’ 22 years ago, traces one team’s long journey to a breakthrough

Stroke, or “brain attack”, is the third biggest killer in the western world, after cancer and heart failure. The life-changing effects associated with this simple, Anglo-Saxon word are readily explained: a stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is disrupted by a blood vessel either bursting or blocking, so that the part of the brain supplied by this blood vessel dies.

The brain is a much more complex organ than the heart. While strokes are a common feature of everyday life, precisely how and why they occur is far from straightforward.

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Clitbait: 10 things you didn't know about the clitoris

Sun, 22 Jan 2017 20:39:01 GMT2017-01-22T20:39:01Z

The Glitoris is not only Amanda Palmer’s No 1 artwork in the fight against fascism, it’s also an educational tool, says Australian artist Alli Sebastian Wolf

On Saturday night, Alli Sebastian Wolf delivered a sex-ed lesson in one of the world’s most famous performance venues. The Australian artist was pulled on to the stage of the Sydney Opera House’s Concert Hall at the request of the musician Amanda Palmer, who had seen Wolf’s recent piece “Glitoris” online.

Can't resist @amandapalmer pic.twitter.com/pmItUSbF6N

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The Guardian view on education: it’s not all in the genes

Fri, 20 Jan 2017 18:53:37 GMT2017-01-20T18:53:37Z

Our educational attainment and when we have children is determined a little by chromosomes but much more by social and environmental conditions

Human intelligence quite obviously has some genetic component. Genes do constrain our fate, as does luck, even if development matters more. The way that our capacities develop is profoundly influenced by the environment and by the social situation in which a child grows up. Genetic influence is not genetic determinism and the interplay between genes and development is enormously complicated. A study based on the population of Iceland at first sight makes claims to show that some genes for intelligence are being pushed out of the population. On closer inspection it shows just how tangled these questions are. Researchers have identified a large number of gene variants – the evolutionary mutations associated with traits – which, taken together, correlate with educational attainment (with the caveat that some variants might simply improve self-control and foresight). The work shows these same variants are also associated with having fewer children.

Since evolution can be defined as a change in how common these variants are found in populations over time, this looks superficially as if we are evolving to be less clever. Nature however is swamped by nurture: environmental pressures are working much more strongly in the other direction. There is in IQ testing a phenomenon called the Flynn effect, in which successive generations in every population tested have shown significantly higher IQ scores than their parents. In Iceland, the Flynn effect raises IQ points by about 10 points every generation, while the genetic process identified by the latest research is 30 times as weak. If we extrapolate the Flynn effect backwards in time, so that IQ diminishes in the past at the same rate as it has been increasing in our time, it appears that the Victorians would have trouble reading and writing while Elizabethans would scarcely have been able to produce articulate speech. So much for Shakespeare. On the other hand, the genetic curve, traced back the same way, would suggest that the Elizabethans were all towering geniuses among whom Shakespeare would have been completely unremarkable. Clearly we are not measuring fixed and long-term versions of intelligence in either case.

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Sea levels could rise by six to nine metres over time, new study warns

Thu, 19 Jan 2017 19:00:10 GMT2017-01-19T19:00:10Z

Evidence that continental ice sheets are sensitive to slight increases in ocean temperature suggests ocean levels will continue to rise for centuries

Sea surface temperatures today are strikingly similar to those during the last interglacial period, when sea levels were six to nine metres above their present height, according to research.

The findings provide compelling evidence that Greenland and Antarctica’s continental ice sheets are highly sensitive to slight increases in ocean temperatures, and raise the prospect of sea levels continuing to rise for many centuries.

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MRI twice as likely as biopsy to spot prostate cancer, research shows

Thu, 19 Jan 2017 23:30:15 GMT2017-01-19T23:30:15Z

Finding could bring about change of practice in NHS with ‘potential to save many lives’, says charity

Every man with suspected prostate cancer should have an MRI scan, which is twice as likely to identify the presence of dangerous tumours as the invasive biopsy used currently, say doctors.

A major trial, which could influence a change of practice in the NHS, will amount to “the biggest leap forward in prostate cancer diagnosis in decades, with the potential to save many lives”, Prostate Cancer UK said.

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Over half of world's wild primate species face extinction, report reveals

Wed, 18 Jan 2017 19:00:15 GMT2017-01-18T19:00:15Z

Researchers warn of approaching ‘major extinction event’ if action is not taken to protect around 300 species, including gorillas, chimps, lemurs and lorises

More than half of the world’s apes, monkeys, lemurs and lorises are now threatened with extinction as agriculture and industrial activities destroy forest habitats and the animals’ populations are hit by hunting and trade.

In the most bleak assessment of primates to date, conservationists found that 60% of the wild species are on course to die out, with three quarters already in steady decline. The report casts doubt on the future of about 300 primate species, including gorillas, chimps, gibbons, marmosets, tarsiers, lemurs and lorises.

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Communicating climate change: a psychoanalysis – Science Weekly podcast

Thu, 19 Jan 2017 07:30:30 GMT2017-01-19T07:30:30Z

What is the psychology behind climate change denial? Can it be overcome? And what communication tips can scientists take from political campaigns?

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Tomorrow, Donald J Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States of America. He’s arguably the least-qualified candidate ever to take office, and uncertainty surrounding the next four years in global politics is at an all-time high, with immigration, healthcare, international relations, and climate change all in the spotlight. But what lies behind his – and many others’ - denial of anthropogenic climate change? And how can insight into human psychology help tailor more effective messages of persuasion?

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Lab notes: from fairy circles to Venusian waves – an otherworldly week in science

Fri, 20 Jan 2017 13:12:51 GMT2017-01-20T13:12:51Z

Eclectic - it’s a pleasing word, and for this week’s science, the only word that seems to fit. Climate science has been a major part of this week’s coverage, given that climate change deniers are poised to enter the White House. And since there’s now compelling evidence that Greenland and Antarctica’s continental ice sheets are highly sensitive to slight increases in ocean temperatures, (which raises the prospect of sea levels continuing to rise dramatically for many centuries) it’s really something we need to engage with urgently. But if rising sea levels seem too distant a threat, it’s worth considering the sombre news that in the most bleak assessment of primates to date, conservationists found that 60% of wild species are on course to die out, with three quarters already in steady decline. The report casts doubt on the future of hundreds of primate species, including gorillas, chimps, gibbons, marmosets, tarsiers, lemurs and lorises. As Celine Dion would definitely say if she were here: baby, this is serious. If you won’t listen to scientists, listen to Celine (but just that bit, then get on with some primate conservation).

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$460m pledged for vaccine initiative aimed at preventing global epidemics

Wed, 18 Jan 2017 22:00:19 GMT2017-01-18T22:00:19Z

Lassa, Mers and Nipah will be first diseases targeted by programme announced at Davos by coalition of governments, philanthropists and business

A coalition of governments, philanthropists and business is pledging to put money and effort into making vaccines to stop the spread of diseases that could threaten mankind – and to prevent another outbreak as devastating as the Ebola epidemic.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Norwegian, Japanese and German governments, the Wellcome Trust and the Gates Foundation announced they were putting in $460 million – half of what is needed for the first five years of the initiative. Three diseases will initially be targeted: Lassa, Mers and Nipah. All three are caused by viruses that have come from animals to infect humans and could trigger dangerous global epidemics.

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How statistics lost their power – and why we should fear what comes next | William Davies

Thu, 19 Jan 2017 06:00:29 GMT2017-01-19T06:00:29Z

The ability of statistics to accurately represent the world is declining. In its wake, a new age of big data controlled by private companies is taking over – and putting democracy in peril

In theory, statistics should help settle arguments. They ought to provide stable reference points that everyone – no matter what their politics – can agree on. Yet in recent years, divergent levels of trust in statistics has become one of the key schisms that have opened up in western liberal democracies. Shortly before the November presidential election, a study in the US discovered that 68% of Trump supporters distrusted the economic data published by the federal government. In the UK, a research project by Cambridge University and YouGov looking at conspiracy theories discovered that 55% of the population believes that the government “is hiding the truth about the number of immigrants living here”.

Rather than diffusing controversy and polarisation, it seems as if statistics are actually stoking them. Antipathy to statistics has become one of the hallmarks of the populist right, with statisticians and economists chief among the various “experts” that were ostensibly rejected by voters in 2016. Not only are statistics viewed by many as untrustworthy, there appears to be something almost insulting or arrogant about them. Reducing social and economic issues to numerical aggregates and averages seems to violate some people’s sense of political decency.

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How can you measure false beliefs? With two dolls and the Sally Anne test ...

Mon, 23 Jan 2017 18:11:28 GMT2017-01-23T18:11:28Z

We may be entering the ‘alternative facts’ era – but psychologists have been studying how we develop an understanding of false beliefs for decades

For decades, developmental psychologists have been fascinated with the question of how children develop theory of mind – in other words, how we come to understand that other people can have different types of thoughts, beliefs and knowledge to ourselves. A key milestone in this journey involves developing a notion of false belief; sometimes, the things that people believe about the world are very different from the reality of the situation, and this will have important consequences for how people act. But how do you measure something so seemingly esoteric?

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'Alternative facts' are now threatening our roast potatoes. Enough! | Dean Burnett

Mon, 23 Jan 2017 13:22:31 GMT2017-01-23T13:22:31Z

‘Science’ appears to say a lot of things. But in this post-truth ‘alternative facts’ world, constantly implying that all of science agrees can only be harmful

Today, British watchdogs have warned people that roast potatoes can cause cancer. The rationale seems to be that roast/burnt foods contain acrylamide, which is believed to be a carcinogen. Makes sense. But the actual science hasn’t found any link between typical levels of acrylamide in the diet and cancer. And it’s not for want of looking.

Related: What is the real cancer risk from eating roast potatoes or toast?

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Take nobody's word for it – evidence and authority in a world of propaganda

Sun, 22 Jan 2017 13:14:08 GMT2017-01-22T13:14:08Z

‘Nullius in verba’ is a fine ideal, but science is a little bit more complicated than that, as is the world in general

‘Nullius in verba’ – roughly, ‘Take nobody’s word for it’ – is the motto of one of the world’s oldest scientific societies, the Royal Society. It neatly expresses the ideal that the credibility of information derives from evidence, observational or experimental, and not from the innate authority of the source. An important principle, for a Society with a royal patron, in a country which was still in the process evolving away from absolute monarchy.

Despite instances of fraud, undue influence and genuine mistakes, good science still accumulates knowledge this way. Scientists can be just as venal, egotistical or biased as anyone else, and can argue indefinitely about the interpretation of data. (I have experienced this personally.) But arguments about the data themselves are finite. The experiment or observation can be checked and repeated, if there is the will. This usually settles matters.

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Tesla crash report blames human error - this is a missed opportunity

Sat, 21 Jan 2017 11:10:49 GMT2017-01-21T11:10:49Z

In blaming human error for a self-driving car crash, US regulators have missed an opportunity to learn from such incidents

The Tesla Model S is an extraordinary machine. As part of my research into the regulation of self-driving cars, I’ve had the privilege of driving one. Or more accurately, I’ve had the privilege of being driven by one. On a Colorado highway in July, with some trepidation, I flicked the lever to engage Autopilot mode. I told the representative from Tesla that I was worried about handing over control, taking my feet off the pedals and my hands off the wheel. She reassured me that I would quickly get used to it.

My curiosity was at least partly morbid. In May, a Tesla Model S was implicated in the world’s first fatal self-driving car crash. Joshua Brown was behind the wheel, but he was not in control of his car. As far as we know, neither he nor his car’s sensors detected a truck that had driven across his path. The car did not brake. It drove at 74mph under the truck’s trailer, crushing the car’s roof before leaving the road and hitting a post, killing its driver.

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Palaeontologists solve an ancient tentacled mystery | Susannah Lydon

Wed, 18 Jan 2017 12:15:30 GMT2017-01-18T12:15:30Z

Exceptionally preserved fossils have enabled researchers to place a tricky group of extinct marine animals on the tree of life

There are some fossils it’s difficult to get enthusiastic about. Don’t get me wrong: as someone whose PhD focussed on the fossil equivalent of tea-leaves, my threshold for getting excited is a lot lower than most people. But when you’re studying undergraduate palaeontology there’s an awful lot of extinct shelly things you must learn about. Contrary to the popular conception of what palaeontologists study (dinosaurs!), marine invertebrates with mineralised hard parts are the mainstay of working with fossils.

There are some familiar groups that, although they are extinct, we do know a fair bit about. Trilobites and ammonites fall into this category: we have a good sense of their evolution and diversity through time, and have inferred a fair bit about their biology. There are other groups that are less well understood. We’ve got lots of shells, but we don’t know what the soft bits of the animal looked like, and we don’t know where they fit on the tree of life. In short, they are a bit of an embarrassment. Luckily, there are palaeontologists who rise to the challenge.

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The voice of science must be loud and clear in Brexit negotiations

Tue, 17 Jan 2017 08:18:03 GMT2017-01-17T08:18:03Z

As Theresa May prepares to announce a ‘clean Brexit’, researchers must provide government, parliament and the country with a clear picture of the risks facing negotiators

Thanks in no small part to its close links to our neighbours in the EU and a longstanding reputation as a welcoming destination overseas scientists, Britain has consolidated its position as one of the most productive centres for research in the world – a necessary foundation on which to build a thriving knowledge economy.

But “Brexit means Brexit”, which means that those links and that reputation are now under threat.

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What lies beneath: discovering surprising jewels in the North Sea

Tue, 17 Jan 2017 08:00:33 GMT2017-01-17T08:00:33Z

Not far from the mouth of the river Tyne, fabulously-coloured nudibranchs and corals can be spotted amongst rusting sunken ships

As I finned alongside the bulky remnants of the ship’s boilers - three massive blocks of northern iron – the light had almost gone. The gently rusting masses were riddled with fire-tubes, each seemingly host to a wary crab. In some, the red eyes of a velvet swimming crab (Necora puber) reflected my light; in others edible crabs (Cancer pagurus) retreated from my gaze. Small prawns and a few well-camouflaged fish moved to avoid me, drab browns revealed as reds and oranges under my torch light. And there, on a piece of deck plate, covered by a bright red encrusting sponge, was one of the jewel-like animals I’d set out to capture on film.

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Did you solve it? The whisky puzzle that could have you on the rocks

Mon, 16 Jan 2017 17:00:29 GMT2017-01-16T17:00:29Z

The answer to today’s snifter

Earlier today I set you the following puzzle:

A full whisky bottle has a height of 27cm and a diameter of 7cm, and contains 750 cubic centimetres of whisky. It has a dome-like indentation at the bottom like many bottles do.

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Depressing day: an ode to Blue Monday | Dean Burnett

Mon, 16 Jan 2017 08:16:33 GMT2017-01-16T08:16:33Z

Despite multiple attempts to debunk it, Blue Monday still hasn’t gone away. So, what the hell, here’s a song about it instead. Maybe that’ll work.

A song about Blue Monday, to the tune of New Order’s Blue Monday. Because you can never have enough Blue Monday. Apparently.

Dear Blue Monday… [Clears throat]

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Can you solve it? The whisky puzzle that will have you on the rocks

Mon, 16 Jan 2017 07:30:17 GMT2017-01-16T07:30:17Z

A peaty poser for a dry January! The solution is now live: did you solve it, or will you be trying to drown your sorrows?

Hello guzzlers.

If you are now abstaining from alcohol, as many end-of-year over-indulgers do, today’s puzzle is for you. Here’s a full whisky bottle. It has a height of 27cm and a diameter of 7cm, and contains 750 cubic centimetres of whisky. It has a dome-like indentation at the bottom like many bottles have.

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Ottoman tombstone among ancient treasures recovered by Europol

Mon, 23 Jan 2017 18:35:43 GMT2017-01-23T18:35:43Z

Collaboration between police from 18 countries leads to recovery of 3,561 stolen ancient artefacts and 75 arrests

Police from 18 countries have recovered more than 3,500 stolen works of art and ancient artefacts of “great cultural importance” in an operation last year, according to the European police agency.

The haul included a marble Ottoman tombstone, a post-Byzantine icon depicting Saint George and hundreds of coins, Europol said.

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Kristen Stewart co-authors research paper on 'pioneering' film technique

Fri, 20 Jan 2017 14:37:18 GMT2017-01-20T14:37:18Z

Twilight star among three authors of paper explaining how ‘neural style transfer’ method was put to use in her directorial debut, the 17-minute short Come Swim

Twilight and Personal Shopper Kristen Stewart has co-authored a research paper on “neural style transfer”, an arcane technique that uses artificial intelligence to reconfigure an image in the style of another.

Written with Bhautik J Joshi, a research engineer at Adobe, and producer David Shapiro, Stewart’s paper is related to work done on her short film directing debut Come Swim, which received its world premiere at the Sundance film festival on Thursday. Called Bringing Impressionism to Life with Neural Style Transfer in Come Swim, the paper was submitted on Wednesday on Cornell University library’s open-access arXiv.org website, an online repository for scientific research papers.

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Isis destroys tetrapylon monument in Palmyra

Fri, 20 Jan 2017 13:28:31 GMT2017-01-20T13:28:31Z

Syrian antiquities chief says militants have demolished structure and part of Roman theatre after seizing city for second time

Islamic State militants have destroyed a tetrapylon and part of a Roman theatre in the ancient city of Palmyra in the group’s latest attack on Syria’s heritage.

Related: How the ancient city of Palmyra looked before the fighting – in pictures

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Male or female? Genderless Nipples account challenges Instagram's sexist standards

Thu, 19 Jan 2017 02:02:54 GMT2017-01-19T02:02:54Z

Instagram bans female nipples, but closeup images make it difficult – if not impossible – to tell whether they are male or female

An Instagram account depicting nipples in extreme closeup aims to topple sexist double standards in censorship on social media.

Genderless Nipples shares closeup images of nipples taken at such proximity, it is difficult – if not impossible – to tell whether they are male or female. After just 70 posts in six weeks, the account has close to 50,000 followers on Instagram.

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The secret of Namibia's 'fairy circles' may be explained at last

Wed, 18 Jan 2017 18:07:29 GMT2017-01-18T18:07:29Z

Using computer models, ecologists think they have finally hit upon the reason for the strange polka dot patches scattered across the Namib desert

The marks on the ground in the Namib desert resemble a vast sheet of polka dots, or to the less romantic observer, perhaps a bad case of chickenpox.

In local myths, the bare, red circles fringed with grass are footprints of the gods, or patches of land once poisoned by the breath of a subterranean dragon. But even among scientists, who strive for more convincing theories, the curious, repetitive patterns have proved hard to explain.

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Moon Express raises $20m for 2017 voyage to the moon

Tue, 17 Jan 2017 21:59:17 GMT2017-01-17T21:59:17Z

  • Robot spacecraft planned to land on moon’s surface this year
  • Company will become first private enterprise to travel beyond Earth’s orbit

A US company has secured funding to become the first private entity to travel to the moon, with a planned 2017 voyage that will be an international milestone in space exploration.

Moon Express, a Florida-based firm, said it had raised $20m in financing, which will allow it to send a robotic spacecraft to the moon’s surface later this year.

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Hundreds of coffins to be restored in Egyptian conservation project

Tue, 17 Jan 2017 17:24:11 GMT2017-01-17T17:24:11Z

More than 600 wooden coffins at Egyptian Museum in Cairo to be documented and restored by team of conservators

Egypt will restore hundreds of coffins dating back thousands of years to the time of the pharaohs as part of an American-Egyptian project to preserve and document one of the world’s oldest civilisations, a director of the project said.

The conservation effort, funded by a US grant, will restore more than 600 wooden coffins that date to various eras of ancient Egypt and which are currently stored at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

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Listen with your eyes: one in five of us may 'hear' flashes of light

Tue, 17 Jan 2017 17:13:49 GMT2017-01-17T17:13:49Z

A surprising number of people experience a form of sensory cross wiring in which light flashes and visual movements are ‘heard’, research finds

One in five people is affected by a synaesthesia-like phenomenon in which visual movements or flashes of light are “heard” as faint sounds, according to scientists.

The findings suggest that far more people than initially thought experience some form of sensory cross-wiring – which could explain the appeal of flashing musical baby toys and strobed lighting at raves.

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Trump warming to reality of climate change, says senior Chinese official

Tue, 17 Jan 2017 02:58:12 GMT2017-01-17T02:58:12Z

Beijing’s chief climate negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, talks down fears that joint leadership shown by China and the US will be reversed under new president

China’s chief climate negotiator has attempted to calm fears that Donald Trump’s arrival in the White House will spell disaster for the fight against climate change.

Trump, who has dismissed climate change as “bullshit” and a Chinese hoax, will become the first climate sceptic to occupy the highest office in the US when he is sworn in on Friday.

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Eugene Cernan, last man to walk on moon, dies aged 82

Mon, 16 Jan 2017 22:24:30 GMT2017-01-16T22:24:30Z

Former astronaut was final person to leave footprints on lunar surface as commander of Apollo 17 in 1972

The last man to walk on the moon, Eugene Cernan, has died at the age of 82. The American travelled into space three times, and became the 11th person to walk on the moon and the last to leave his footprints on its surface as commander of Apollo 17, the final manned lunar landing.

His death was confirmed by Nasa in a statement on Twitter that read: “We are saddened by the loss of retired Nasa astronaut Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon.”

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Natural selection making 'education genes' rarer, says Icelandic study

Mon, 16 Jan 2017 20:00:18 GMT2017-01-16T20:00:18Z

Researchers say that while the effect corresponds to a small drop in IQ per decade, over centuries the impact could be profound

Tempting as it may be, it would be wrong to claim that with each generation humans are becoming more stupid. As scientists are often so keen to point out, it is a bit more complicated than that.

A study from Iceland is the latest to raise the prospect of a downwards spiral into imbecility. The research from deCODE, a genetics firm in Reykjavik, finds that groups of genes that predispose people to spend more years in education became a little rarer in the country from 1910 to 1975.

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Images of giant wave on Venus captured by Japanese probe

Mon, 16 Jan 2017 16:00:28 GMT2017-01-16T16:00:28Z

Pressure wave in planet’s atmosphere was one of the largest ever seen in the solar system, stretching over 10,000 kilometres

A Japanese spacecraft that is circling Venus has beamed home pictures of one of the largest waves ever seen in the solar system.

The Akatsuki probe captured images of the giant wave in the Venusian cloud tops where it became one of the most prominent features in the planet’s atmosphere for four days in December 2015.

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Brian Neville obituary

Sun, 22 Jan 2017 17:44:58 GMT2017-01-22T17:44:58Z

Brian Neville, who has died aged 77, was a key figure in the development of paediatric neurology and neurodisability in Britiain. He was the first UK professor of paediatric neurology, appointed in 1989 at the Institute of Child Health, University College London, and Great Ormond Street hospital.

Brian was born in Bexleyheath, south-east London, to Louie and George Neville. Brian and his mother moved out of London during the second world war, and his early years were spent in the idyllic setting of Brough, Cumbria. He later spoke fondly of the local women who taught him about farming life.

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Totes annoying: words that should be banned

Fri, 20 Jan 2017 13:00:06 GMT2017-01-20T13:00:06Z

The internet is the source of many crimes against language – and these are among the worst offenders

We all have a watershed word – the word that tells us it’s all over, that the internet has won, and our youth is gone for ever. For me, it was Yolo, or You Only Live Once. It was born, I used it, and rooms fell eerily silent as soon as it left my mouth. Yolo belonged to the others, the younger people; it carbon-dated me and I was envious.

You might call it snobbery but, for me, every delicious new bit of slang reminds me I’m being left behind, along with VHS cassettes, legwarmers and Lady Gaga. Susie Dent, Countdown’s resident lexicographer, tells me I should lighten up. “Slang has always moved this way,” she says. “From Cockney rhyming slang to codes swapped among highwaymen, they’re tribal badges of identity, bonding mechanisms designed to distinguish the initiated, and to keep strangers out.” The linguist and author David Crystal agrees: “Remember the old maxim – the chief use of slang is to show you’re one of the gang.”

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Gene Cernan obituary

Tue, 17 Jan 2017 17:47:09 GMT2017-01-17T17:47:09Z

American astronaut who was the last human being to walk on the moon

At 1.54pm on 11 December 1972, Gene Cernan piloted Challenger, Apollo 17’s lunar module, into the Taurus-Littrow valley, near the Sea of Serenity, on the surface of the moon. In later years Cernan, who has died aged 82, would describe the valley where he had landed accompanied by the geologist Jack Schmitt as “our own private little Camelot”.

Three days later, having travelled to such locations as the Sculptured Hills, and the Van Serg and Sherlock craters, the astronauts prepared to leave. Cernan marked out his daughter Teresa’s initials in the dust, where they remain. Before climbing back into the lunar module, he paused and spoke to Mission Control back in Houston: “As we leave the moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came, and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”

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Starwatch: Orion at his evening best

Sun, 15 Jan 2017 21:30:05 GMT2017-01-15T21:30:05Z

A detailed look at the Hunter who rules the sky for the next few weeks, plus a brief look at the planetary year ahead and August’s solar eclipse

Orion is now in prime position in everyone’s evening sky. Lying across the celestial equator, with his main stars slotting neatly between 10° N and 10° S of the celestial equator, the Hunter’s figure is visible from all parts of the Earth bar the central regions of the Arctic and Antarctic. I accept, of course, that most of the latter currently enjoys 24-hour daylight and is hardly the place to go for visual star-watching in January.

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Killer whales explain the mystery of the menopause

Sun, 15 Jan 2017 07:00:09 GMT2017-01-15T07:00:09Z

A study of the whales, one of only three species whose older females stop reproducing, claims competition between offspring may be the cause

Killer whales and humans would seem to have little in common. We inhabit very different ecosystems, after all. Yet the two species share one unexpected biological attribute. Females of Orcinus orca and Homo sapiens both go through the menopause.

It an extraordinary aspect of our development. In contrast to the vast majority of animals on our planet, women and female killer whales stop reproducing halfway through their lives. Only one other species – the short-finned pilot whale (Globicephala macrorhynchus) – behaves this way.

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SpaceX to attempt first launch since Falcon 9 explosion

Thu, 12 Jan 2017 21:30:07 GMT2017-01-12T21:30:07Z

Launch will be the crucial test of whether engineers have understood the cause of the blast enough to correct it

Space insiders will be watching events in California carefully on Saturday. If all goes well, SpaceX will attempt its first launch since the explosion of 1 September 2016, which grounded its rocket fleet.

The accident destroyed not only the Falcon 9 rocket but also its payload, the Amos 6 communications satellite. It inflicted considerable damage on one of Cape Canaveral’s launch pads too.

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Kenneth Carpenter obituary

Thu, 12 Jan 2017 18:20:45 GMT2017-01-12T18:20:45Z

My father, Kenneth Carpenter, who has died aged 93, was an eminent nutritional scientist.

Born in London, Kenneth was the son of James, managing director of a chain of hardware shops, and Dorothy (nee George), a teacher. As a boy he horrified his parents by wasting his pocket money – as they saw it – on collecting antiques; he had a particular passion for English Delftware, of which he later presented some specimens to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

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NHS pathology labs are ripe for privatisation and cuts

Mon, 23 Jan 2017 07:45:20 GMT2017-01-23T07:45:20Z

Our teams are involved with 70% of all NHS diagnoses but too few people understand what we do. I fear for the future

“Every sample is a patient ... Every sample is a patient ...”

I repeat it like a mantra, so that amid the relentless workload we don’t lose sight of who we work for. We say it as we navigate crumbling floors – in one of our labs, a hole in the lino flooring has been patched up with heavy-duty gaffer tape.

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Australia’s conservative government fiddles on climate policy while the country burns | Lenore Taylor

Fri, 20 Jan 2017 05:09:03 GMT2017-01-20T05:09:03Z

When Malcolm Turnbull deposed Tony Abbott as prime minister, serious action on global warming was hoped for – but almost nothing has changed

Australia’s January news has been full of official reports of record-breaking extreme weather devastating our ecosystems on land and in the sea and government ministers suggesting we build new coal-fired power stations, provide billion-dollar subsidised loans to rail lines for new coal mega-mines, increase coal exports to reduce temperature rises and reduce our ambitions for renewable power.

The disconnect is glaring but perhaps dimmed in the eyes of some readers because Australian politicians have been dissembling on climate change for decades, pretending it will be possible to do what we must without any impact on our position as the world’s largest coal exporter or our domestic reliance on brown coal-fired power, or without incurring any costs.

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Climate change will affect all of us. So why the lack of urgency? | Polly Toynbee

Thu, 19 Jan 2017 13:17:11 GMT2017-01-19T13:17:11Z

From Trump to Brexit, we are all fixated on more immediate news stories. We need to look at the bigger picture

Tomorrow the world shudders as Donald Trump becomes US president. Hopes that wise advisers would mitigate the erratic, half-crazed stream of contradictions pouring from his lips have been dashed as he picks fake news purveyors and climate change-deniers for his close consiglieri.

Related: Global warning: the saviour tech that can help turn the tide on climate change

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As Thatcher understood, true Tories cannot be climate change deniers | John Gummer

Thu, 19 Jan 2017 12:04:33 GMT2017-01-19T12:04:33Z

With climate sceptics moving to the White House, it’s crucial the US right recognises free markets are uncomfortable for incumbents but essential

Conservatives cannot properly be climate deniers. At the heart of their political stance is a desire to hand on something better to the future than they have received from the past. Now that climate science is so clear, a recognition of the duty to act to protect the next generation follows naturally. Of course, Conservatives have been somewhat cautious. Constitutionally, they don’t chase after novelty and it’s in their character to question fashionable theories.

So we shouldn’t be surprised at the genesis of Margaret Thatcher’s commitment to fighting climate change. As a Conservative she wasn’t a pushover, but as a scientist, she rigorously tested the science and was convinced. Once convinced she saw the imperative to act, and that made her the first leader of a major economy to commit to the Rio Earth Summit. In turn, it was her influence that brought George Bush to the table.

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The Guardian view on Trump and global warming: the right fight | Editorial

Wed, 18 Jan 2017 20:10:27 GMT2017-01-18T20:10:27Z

The president-elect should understand that America needs to shoulder global responsibilities, and that in doing so America will benefit by owning the technologies of the future

On climate change, like so many other things, the world is going one way and Donald Trump is going the other. On Twitter the president-elect has claimed manmade global warming was a hoax invented by China to increase its trade surplus with the US. However, for most Americans, like most other people on the globe, daily life is increasingly impacted by extreme weather. In 2016, for the third year running, the world exceeded the previous record temperature. A remarkable 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have been this century, which scientists attribute to human activities.

President Obama did much to roll back the pre-enlightenment approach to climate science that had polluted political discourse in America – giving global warming top billing during his second term, and even calling it an immediate threat to national security. His parting shot was to send $500m to prop up the Paris international accord to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Mr Trump vowed to renege on the Paris agreement and said he would cancel further payments.

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SpaceX successfully launches and lands first rocket since explosion – video

Sun, 15 Jan 2017 02:19:28 GMT2017-01-15T02:19:28Z

SpaceX lands its first rocket since a previous attempt in September 2016 exploded before takeoff. The Falcon 9 rocket took approximately nine minutes to return to earth after launch, landing on a barge in the Pacific south of Vandenberg, California to the obvious delight of SpaceX employees

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What is thundersnow? – video explainer

Thu, 12 Jan 2017 15:50:34 GMT2017-01-12T15:50:34Z

Thundersnow is a rare weather phenomenon which looks set to make an appearance in the UK over the next couple of days. It occurs when the air closest to the ground is warm enough to rise and form a thunderstorm, but still cool enough that it’s able to freeze into snow. The results are brighter, but quieter, than we’ve come to expect from our usual doses of thunder and lightning

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Press paws: point-of-view camera reveals polar bears in action – video

Tue, 10 Jan 2017 16:26:44 GMT2017-01-10T16:26:44Z

Scientists from the US Geological Survey (USGS) attached a camera to a female polar’s neck to study behaviour, hunting and feeding rates. The camera was intended to capture polar bears’ daily activities and help researchers better understand how they respond to declining levels in sea ice. The footage was uploaded to the USGS Facebook page on Monday but was filmed in April 2016

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History fan finds medieval settlement after spending his life savings on Welsh field – video

Tue, 03 Jan 2017 18:15:06 GMT2017-01-03T18:15:06Z

Stuart Wilson, 37, describes the discovery of what could be the lost city of Trellech after spending his life savings of £32,000 on buying a field in South Wales. Although he has a degree in archaeology Wilson had been working in a toll booth before taking the gamble on the plot of land, which he was convinced marked the site of an ancient settlement

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The Earth in 2016, as seen from space – in pictures

Thu, 29 Dec 2016 17:17:24 GMT2016-12-29T17:17:24Z

Throughout 2016, astronauts aboard the International Space Station recorded the ever-changing face of the Earth and its environment. Here are a selection of their best photographs

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John Glenn, former astronaut and US senator – video obituary

Thu, 08 Dec 2016 22:23:22 GMT2016-12-08T22:23:22Z

Former astronaut and US senator John Glenn has died aged 95 in Ohio on Thursday. Glenn was the third US astronaut in space and the first of them to get into orbit. He then spent 24 years as a Democratic senator from Ohio and briefly made a run for president in 1984

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Meteor brightens night sky in Siberia – video

Tue, 06 Dec 2016 21:00:39 GMT2016-12-06T21:00:39Z

Videos shared by Russians on social media show a meteor turning dark night into day in parts of Siberia on Tuesday. The large fireball was seen across several areas of Khakassia in the south of the country. Local authorities say no damage was caused

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Monkey business: taxidermy of endangered primates – in pictures

Fri, 02 Dec 2016 08:00:10 GMT2016-12-02T08:00:10Z

More than 60 spectacular specimens of monkeys, apes, lemurs, lorises and bushbabies will go on show at the National Museum of Scotland from 9 December. The taxidermy was specially commissioned for the exhibition and is the first to show primates behaving as if they were in the wild

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Did you solve it? Attack the (sliding) block!

Mon, 06 Jun 2016 16:00:04 GMT2016-06-06T16:00:04Z

In which everything slides into place.

Earlier today I set you the following sliding-block puzzle: Can you get T to the bottom right-hand corner in five moves. A move takes any single piece to another position by sliding it between the others.

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How to solve the maths puzzle for Vietnamese eight-year-olds that stumped parents and teachers

Thu, 21 May 2015 11:30:07 GMT2015-05-21T11:30:07Z

I set this maths puzzle yesterday. Now for the solution. It wasn’t pretty, folks, but we got there in the end

The challenge was to fill in the above snake with the digits 1 to 9, using each digit only once. The colon “:” means divide, and you must follow the standard order of operations, meaning that multiplication/division comes before addition/subtraction.

Related: Can you do the maths puzzle for Vietnamese eight-year-olds that has stumped parents and teachers?

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‘Poor little snowflake’ – the defining insult of 2016

Mon, 28 Nov 2016 15:02:20 GMT2016-11-28T15:02:20Z

The term ‘snowflake’ has been thrown around with abandon in the wake of Brexit and the US election, usually to express generic disdain for young people. How can we neutralise its power – and is it a bad metaphor anyway?

Between the immediate aftermath of Brexit and the US presidential election, one insult began to seem inescapable, mostly lobbed from the right to the left: “snowflake.” Independent MEP Janice Atkinson, who was expelled from Ukip over allegations of expenses fraud, wrote a piece for the Huffington Post decrying the “wet, teary and quite frankly ludicrous outpouring of grief emails” she had received post-referendum as “snowflake nonsense”. The far-right news site Breitbart, whose executive chairman Stephen Bannon is now Donald Trump’s chief strategist, threw it around with abandon, using it as a scattershot insult against journalists, celebrities and millennials who objected to Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric; its UK site used it last week to criticise a proposed “class liberation officer” at an Oxford college who would provide more support for working-class students.

On an episode of his long-running podcast in August, Bret Easton Ellis discussed the criticism of a lascivious LA Weekly story about the pop star Sky Ferreira with a furious riposte to what he calls “little snowflake justice warriors”: “Oh, little snowflakes, when did you all become grandmothers and society matrons, clutching your pearls in horror at someone who has an opinion about something, a way of expressing themselves that’s not the mirror image of yours, you snivelling little weak-ass narcissists?”

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Cask from the past: archaeologists discover 5,000-year-old beer recipe

Mon, 23 May 2016 19:00:22 GMT2016-05-23T19:00:22Z

Chinese find suggests barley was used for booze before being grown for food - and that beer could have played a role in the development of society

Chinese villagers could have been raising a pint 5,000 years ago, according to new research.

Archaeologists studying vessels unearthed in the Shaanxi province of China say they’ve uncovered beer-making equipment dating from between 3400 and 2900 BC - an era known as the late Yangshao period - and figured out the recipe to boot.

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