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Science | The Guardian



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



Published: Mon, 20 Nov 2017 17:24:41 GMT2017-11-20T17:24:41Z

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



Nasa map of Earth's seasons over 20 years highlights climate change

Sat, 18 Nov 2017 03:12:44 GMT2017-11-18T03:12:44Z

The visualization shows spring coming earlier and the Arctic ice caps receding over time

Nasa has captured 20 years of changing seasons in a striking new global map of planet Earth​.

The data visualization, released this week, shows Earth’s fluctuations as seen from space.

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Blue Planet II: what have we learned so far?

Mon, 20 Nov 2017 15:50:45 GMT2017-11-20T15:50:45Z

The documentary’s marvels are not just new to television – many are new to science as well. From hyper-intelligent fish to the origin of life itself, we round up the series’s biggest discoveries

It is testament to the number of spectacles packed into Blue Planet II that the strategic change of gender a giant wrasse is – scientifically speaking, at least – one of the least remarkable. Changing gender, or sequential hermaphroditism, is a fact of life for more than 400 species of fish, and has already been widely studied.

But many of the programme’s marvels are new not just to television but to science itself. Some have only been published within the past half-decade; others existed only anecdotally until now. Here we track some of the most astonishing findings of the series so far – to be updated after each new episode.

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Upsurge in big earthquakes predicted for 2018 as Earth rotation slows

Sat, 18 Nov 2017 22:00:43 GMT2017-11-18T22:00:43Z

Scientists say number of severe quakes is likely to rise strongly next year because of a periodic slowing of the Earth’s rotation

Scientists have warned there could be a big increase in numbers of devastating earthquakes around the world next year. They believe variations in the speed of Earth’s rotation could trigger intense seismic activity, particularly in heavily populated tropical regions.

Although such fluctuations in rotation are small – changing the length of the day by a millisecond – they could still be implicated in the release of vast amounts of underground energy, it is argued.

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Owning a dog cuts risk of heart attacks and other fatal diseases, study shows

Fri, 17 Nov 2017 10:20:35 GMT2017-11-17T10:20:35Z

Health benefits of a pet dog are greatest for those who live alone, lowering the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by 36%, say scientists

Never mind the chewed slippers, the hair on the sofa, and the inexplicable barking at 3am. Having a dog in the home substantially reduces the risk of heart attacks and other fatal conditions, a major study has shown.

Researchers found that dog ownership had a dramatic effect on people who live alone, cutting the risk of death from cardiovascular disease by 36%. In households with more people under the same roof, dogs had less of a positive impact, but still lowered deaths from heart disease by 15%, the work reveals.

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Joseph Banks: botanical work on Cook's voyage finally makes it to print

Mon, 20 Nov 2017 17:00:35 GMT2017-11-20T17:00:35Z

Life-size prints of hundreds of plant specimens collected by the British naturalist come together in Florilegium

The publishing deadline was missed by more than 200 years, but finally the work of one of the great men of the Enlightenment has been printed and distributed, sharing with the world the detailed botanical work of Joseph Banks on his journey aboard James Cook’s Endeavour.

Cook’s mission when he left England in 1768 was ostensibly to chart the transit of Venus – a measurement that would allow the estimation of the distance from the Earth to the sun, which would aid navigation. However, Cook had been instructed to attempt the “discovery of the southern continent so often mentioned”.

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Can brain training reduce dementia risk? Despite new research, the jury is still out

Thu, 16 Nov 2017 17:42:40 GMT2017-11-16T17:42:40Z

There are good reasons to be cautious about a new study claiming computer-based training can reduce the risk of dementia. But what does work?

More than 30 million people worldwide live with Alzheimer’s disease, and while researchers are pushing hard to find a cure, their efforts so far have met with failure. With no effective treatment on the horizon, prevention has become the only game in town. But what can be done to reduce the risk of dementia, now the leading cause of death in England and Wales?

In research published on Thursday, US scientists claim that a form of computer-based brain training can reduce the risk of dementia by 29%. The training was designed to speed up people’s visual information processing, for example by having them spot a car on a screen, and a truck on the periphery of their vision, at the same time. Those who are claimed to have benefited trained for an hour, twice a week, for five weeks, and some went on to have booster sessions at the end of the first and third years. To see if the training made any difference, the participants sat tests up to 10 years later.

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'Robots are not taking over,' says head of UN body on autonomous weapons

Fri, 17 Nov 2017 17:03:10 GMT2017-11-17T17:03:10Z

  • Campaigners warn that a ‘killer robots’ arms race is already under way
  • Amandeep Gill warns against ‘emotionalising or dramatising this issue’

“Robots are not taking over the world,” the diplomat leading the first official talks on autonomous weapons assured on Friday, seeking to head off criticism over slow progress towards restricting the use of so-called “killer robots”.

The United Nations was wrapping up an initial five days of discussions on weapons systems that can identify and destroy targets without human control, which experts say will soon be battle ready.

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Lab notes: Bottoms up! Cheers to a vintage week in science

Fri, 17 Nov 2017 13:10:56 GMT2017-11-17T13:10:56Z

Shetland: famous for its irascible ponies, snuggly jumpers and now, perhaps, space exploration. UK Space Agency research has identified Unst, the Shetland Islands’ most northern isle as the best site in UK for spaceport to launch satellites into orbit. Which, teamed with the news that a potentially habitable world, Ross 128b, has been found just 11 light years away means exciting times could well be ahead. In the here and now, however, scientists have made their first ever attempt at gene editing inside the body. It’s a somewhat nerve-wracking experiment: Brian Madeux, who has Hunter syndrome, has been intravenously given copies of a corrective gene and a genetic tool to cut his DNA in a precise spot. It will permanently alter his DNA, with no way to alter any mistakes editing may cause. Also raising hopes for new treatments, this time of age-related disorders, is the discovery that some members of a small Amish community in Indiana, US, carry a rare genetic mutation which appears to protect against biological ageing. So new treatments plus dog ownership (which cuts your risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, apparently) could make us healthier than ever. Great, because in my fave news of the week, it seems we’ve been making and drinking wine for much longer than anyone thought, which probably needs balancing out.

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Scientists make first ever attempt at gene editing inside the body

Wed, 15 Nov 2017 12:33:41 GMT2017-11-15T12:33:41Z

New therapy will permanently alter DNA, with no way to alter mistakes editing may cause – but offers chance to tackle currently incurable metabolic diseases

Scientists have tried editing a gene inside the body for the first time, in a bold attempt to tackle an incurable a disease by permanently changing a patient’s DNA.

On Monday in California, 44-year-old Brian Madeux intravenously received billions of copies of a corrective gene and a genetic tool to cut his DNA in a precise spot.

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Thousands to benefit as 'breakthrough' breast cancer drugs approved for NHS use

Thu, 16 Nov 2017 06:01:20 GMT2017-11-16T06:01:20Z

Annually, 8,000 women in England with previously untreatable advanced breast cancer will have access to drugs shown to slow disease’s progression

Thousands of women with previously untreatable breast cancer will have access to two “breakthrough” drugs that have been approved for NHS use.

The drugs, called palbociclib and ribociclib, have been shown to slow the progression of advanced cancer by at least 10 months and can delay the need for chemotherapy, giving women the chance to live a normal life for longer. In new draft guidance, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) has approved the drugs for widespread use in the health service in England for the first time.

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Rare genetic mutation found in Amish community could combat ageing

Wed, 15 Nov 2017 19:00:07 GMT2017-11-15T19:00:07Z

Discovery of mutation which appears to protect against biological ageing raises hopes for new treatments to prevent age-related disorders

The discovery of a rare genetic mutation that prolongs human life has raised hopes for new treatments to combat ageing and prevent age-related disorders from heart disease to dementia.

Researchers spotted the mutation in an Amish population in Indiana where carriers were found to have better metabolic health, far less diabetes, and tended to live a decade longer than others in the community.

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Tomorrow's technology: from asteroid mining to programmable matter – Science Weekly podcast

Wed, 15 Nov 2017 12:52:42 GMT2017-11-15T12:52:42Z

Ian Sample looks to the future and asks what might the technologies of tomorrow look like? And how might they change our world?

Subscribe & Review on Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, Audioboom, Mixcloud & Acast, and join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter

In 1974, science fiction writer and futurist Arthur C Clarke went on Australian television and was asked to predict the future. He came up with something eerily similar to what we today call the internet. As far as futurists’ predictions go, it was a rare success. Forty years later are we any better at crystal ball-gazing? What emerging technologies might change the world as we know it today? And what clues are scientists giving us in the here and now?

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Satellites could be launched from Shetland Islands' most northern isle

Tue, 14 Nov 2017 19:36:02 GMT2017-11-14T19:36:02Z

Unst, which has a population of only 600, is identified in UK Space Agency research as best site in UK for spaceport to launch satellites into orbit

For the 600 residents of the most northern island in the Shetlands, it could be the most exciting thing since Unstfest – the annual shindig that this year offered, among its attractions, a scything demonstration over-16s could join.

The proposals are at an early stage, but if the Shetland Space Centre Ltd gets its way, Unst could become the UK’s premier spaceport with a local economy revitalised by blasting satellites into orbit. The company was set up on the island, a breathtaking fragment nearer Norway than Edinburgh, after it was identified as the most promising launch site in Britain, in a study supported by the UK Space Agency.

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Powerful new robotic camera captures stunning new image of Orion nebula

Tue, 14 Nov 2017 17:00:36 GMT2017-11-14T17:00:36Z

First image from camera newly installed at the Palomar Observatory, California hints at the ‘treasure trove of discoveries’ to come from its survey of the skies

The turbulent cosmic cloud known as the Orion nebula has been captured by astronomers with a powerful robotic camera freshly installed at the Palomar Observatory near San Diego in California.

Related: Astronomers discover a giant world – but is it a planet?

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Brexit threatens UK's reputation for scientific research, watchdog says

Wed, 15 Nov 2017 00:01:44 GMT2017-11-15T00:01:44Z

Leadership is ‘sorely lacking’ in key areas such as robotics and climate change, parliament’s spending monitor warns

Britain risks losing its reputation as a scientific research powerhouse as a result of Brexit, the head of parliament’s spending watchdog has warned.

Related: The government wants a Brexit deal on science and research, says Jo Johnson

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Lunching ranger discovers species lost for 40 years

Tue, 14 Nov 2017 08:52:26 GMT2017-11-14T08:52:26Z

In 1975 two conservationists discovered a gorgeous salamander in the rainforests of Guatemala. No one ever saw it again – and Jackson’s climbing salamander was feared extinct – until last month when local forest guard, Ramos León-Tomás, sat down in the forest for lunch.

The last time anyone saw Jackson’s climbing salamander – I didn’t yet exist. It was 1975: Margaret Thatcher took over leadership of the Tories, Saigon fell to Communist forces, the USSR was still a thing, and everyone was listening to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. And in Guatemala, reeling from over a decade of civil war, two American conservationists found a little treasure of black and gold: they named it Jackson’s climbing salamander. Then it vanished as if it had never been.

Forty-two years later a lot has changed. The world is hotter than it has been in over 100,000 years and species are vanishing at rates that portend mass extinction. Yet, miracles can still happen.

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Did you solve it? This apple teaser is hard core!

Mon, 20 Nov 2017 17:00:35 GMT2017-11-20T17:00:35Z

The solution to today’s puzzle

On my puzzle blog earlier today I set you the following puzzle:

You and your two friends Pip and Blossom are captured by an evil gang of logicians. In order to gain your freedom, the gang’s chief, Kurt, sets you this fearsome challenge. The three of you are put in adjacent cells. In each cell is a quantity of apples. Each of you can count the number of apples in your own cell, but not in anyone else’s. You are told that each cell has at least one apple, and at most nine apples, and no two cells have the same number of apples.

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Can you solve it? This apple teaser is hard core!

Mon, 20 Nov 2017 07:10:23 GMT2017-11-20T07:10:23Z

The logic puzzle that has a peel

UPDATE: The solution can be seen here

Hi guzzlers,

What’s the similarity between a logic puzzle and an apple? Deduce! Sorry ... let’s begin.

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No, there hasn’t been a human 'head transplant', and there may never be

Fri, 17 Nov 2017 14:20:06 GMT2017-11-17T14:20:06Z

Neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero is in the news again, claiming to have performed the first successful human head transplant. But even cursory analysis reveals that he hasn’t. And scientific logic suggests he never will

In February 2015, Sergio Canavero appeared in this very publication claiming a live human head will be successfully transplanted onto a donor human body within two years. He’s popped up in the media a lot since then, but two years and nine months later, how are things looking?

Well, he’s only gone and done it! As we can see in this Telegraph story from today, the world’s first human head transplant has been successfully carried out. Guess all those more timid neurobods who said it couldn’t be done (myself included) are feeling pretty foolish right now, eh?

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Why 'how I afforded a house' articles are misleading – and bad psychologically

Thu, 16 Nov 2017 12:57:13 GMT2017-11-16T12:57:13Z

A look at the barrage of recent articles about how millennials can buy a home on a modest income reveals how unhealthy these pieces – and the expectations around them – really are

Life in the modern world is hard. Even without all the Nazis and climate change, there are still countless things to pile on the stress. Obviously, those of us in the first world have it much better than those elsewhere; our lives aren’t one long gruelling struggle for survival, we have things very easy on that front. But that’s not quite how the brain works. Our normal lives, no matter how objectively privileged they may be from an outside perspective, provide the “baseline” for our expectations, and stress is experienced by things that challenge or disrupt that. As a result, while we may never have to worry about where the next glass of clean water is coming from, we still have a plethora of psychological stressors to choose from, many of which stem from the demands and expectations of the society around us.

One modern societal pressure, in the UK at least, is that of owning property. It’s supposedly the done thing, buying a house or whatever, and often with a view to making a profit on it later, so much so that, in London particularly, people’s homes can earn more than they do. However, in recent years this expectation has been hit by countless obstacles, many of which have culminated in younger people simply not buying homes. This, obviously, threatens the status quo, which is something those with power and influence would rather avoid.

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Orcas vs great white sharks: in a battle of the apex predators who wins?

Thu, 16 Nov 2017 11:12:26 GMT2017-11-16T11:12:26Z

It’s difficult to imagine the voracious and predatory great white shark as prey. Could orcas really be overpowering them and removing their livers?

The great white shark, Carcharodon carcharias, is considered the most voracious apex predator in temperate marine ecosystems worldwide, playing a key role in controlling ecosystem dynamics.

As a result, it is difficult to imagine a great white as prey. And yet, earlier this year the carcasses of five great whites washed ashore along South Africa’s Western Cape province. Ranging in size from 2.7 metres (9ft) to 4.9 metres (16ft), the two females and three males all had one thing in common: holes puncturing the muscle wall between the pectoral fins. Strangest of all, their livers were missing.

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The deferred promise of Islamic-world science

Thu, 16 Nov 2017 07:00:21 GMT2017-11-16T07:00:21Z

Ten years ago, there was excitement about the prospects for science and innovation across the Islamic world. Was this optimism misplaced?

Last week, almost 3,000 scientists and policymakers from 120 countries gathered on the shores of the Dead Sea in Jordan for the 2017 World Science Forum. It was a landmark moment for Jordanian science, and a tribute to the vision of Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan, president of Jordan’s Royal Scientific Society, who is in the vanguard of a new generation of leaders championing science and innovation in the region. Jordan is also home to the Middle East’s first advanced light source facility – the Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications, or Sesame – which was inaugurated earlier this year as a shared resource for researchers from Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey.

In its final declaration, the World Science Forum called for more scientific cooperation to promote peace and address regional challenges. But the meeting also provided an opportunity to take stock of the state of science across the Middle East and wider Islamic world. And while the symbolism of the Sesame project was rightly celebrated, there was little of the outright optimism that characterised these debates ten or fifteen years ago.

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There's more than one way to build a tree, 374m-year-old fossils reveal | Susannah Lydon

Wed, 15 Nov 2017 15:26:03 GMT2017-11-15T15:26:03Z

Fossils from China show that evolution found an alternative – and ultimately overly-complicated – way to increase the size of the earliest tree trunks

In the world of knee-high land plants 400m years ago, the battle to grow tall was won by plants which found biomechanical solutions to fight gravity. Vascular plants had already evolved a plumbing system, allowing them to transport water, and the food produced by photosynthesis, around the plant. The water-conducting cells in the xylem – dead, hollow and stiffened by the polymer lignin – also afforded them some structural support. But there are limits to the height that a plant can grow with a stem of fixed girth.

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Potentially habitable world found just 11 light years away

Wed, 15 Nov 2017 13:49:12 GMT2017-11-15T13:49:12Z

Ross 128 b has been discovered effectively on our cosmic doorstep. It will become a prime target in the search for life beyond the Earth

A potentially habitable world, termed Ross 128 b, has been discovered just 11 light years away. It is roughly Earth-sized and orbits its parent star once every 9.9 days.

Astronomers calculate that its surface temperature could lie somewhere between –60° and 20°, making it temperate and possibly capable of supporting oceans, and life.

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No 'lost tribes' or aliens: what ancient DNA reveals about American prehistory

Wed, 15 Nov 2017 07:00:01 GMT2017-11-15T07:00:01Z

New genetics research settles questions about the peoples of Newfoundland and Labrador – and helps highlight what genetics can’t tell us

Genetics research has transformed our understanding of human history, particularly in the Americas. The focus of the majority of high profile ancient DNA papers in recent years has been on addressing early events in the initial peopling of the Americas. This research has provided details of this early history that we couldn’t access though the archeological record.

Collectively, genetics studies have shown us that the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas are descended from a group that diverged from its Siberian ancestors beginning sometime around 23,000 years before present and remained isolated in Beringia (the region of land that once connected Siberia and North America) for an extended period of time. When the glaciers covering North America melted enough to make the Pacific coast navigable, southward travel became possible, and patterned genetic diversity across North and South America reflects these early movements.

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When it comes to claims about screen time we need more sense and less hype

Tue, 14 Nov 2017 15:03:11 GMT2017-11-14T15:03:11Z

A new study claims a link between screen time and increased rates of depression and suicide in US teens. But what do the data actually say? And how can we move towards a more rational debate about digital technology?

Screen time is one of the more divisive contemporary issues in psychological science. In a sense, this is no surprise – smartphone use, particularly among children and adolescents, has consistently increased in recent years. And as with any new form of disruptive technology, there are questions around what constitutes healthy and maladaptive use, both at an individual and societal level.

The problem with the debate about screen time, however, is that very often the arguments devolve into overly-simplistic scaremongering claims. This peaked back in August, with the publication of an opinion piece in the Atlantic by Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University. Under the headline Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?, Twenge argued that teenagers are on the verge of a catastrophic mental health crisis, and the culprit was the smartphone.

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On a roll: blue whales switch 'handedness' when rolling to scoop food

Mon, 20 Nov 2017 17:00:35 GMT2017-11-20T17:00:35Z

Blue whales show ‘lateralisation’ – like handedness in humans – when rolling, choosing left or right depending on depth and type of roll

They are the largest animals on Earth, can live to around 90 years old and have a tongue that weighs as much as an elephant. Now scientists have revealed another insight into blue whales: how they roll.

A study has found that blue whales have a tendency to roll to one side or the other when lunging for prey, with the preference apparently down to the depth of the water and the type of roll they execute.

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'It's a delicate place': Nasa captures 20 years of Earth's seasonal changes – video

Sat, 18 Nov 2017 02:50:26 GMT2017-11-18T02:50:26Z

A Nasa oceanographer explains how the US space agency successfully captured 20 years of changing seasons to form a striking new global map. The projection of the Earth and its biosphere is derived from two decades of satellite data from September 1997 to September 2017

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Chester Zoo successfully breeds rare Catalan newt

Fri, 17 Nov 2017 15:06:52 GMT2017-11-17T15:06:52Z

Twelve Montseny newts – one of world’s rarest amphibians - hatched as part of joint breeding project with Catalan authorities

Conservationists at Chester Zoo have successfully bred one of the world’s rarest amphibians – the Catalan newt – in an attempt to save it from extinction.

The zoo is the first organisation outside Catalonia to become involved in the breeding project for the newt, the rarest amphibian in Europe.

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Primodos pregnancy test report criticised as 'whitewash' by MPs

Thu, 16 Nov 2017 12:18:27 GMT2017-11-16T12:18:27Z

Politicians question report that found no evidence hormonal pregnancy tests taken in 1960s and 1970s caused birth defects

MPs have attacked a report into controversial hormone pregnancy tests including Primodos as “a whitewash, an injustice, a betrayal”.

Campaigners believe the drugs caused serious disabilities in babies, but a report by an expert working group set up by the Commission on Human Medicines (CHM) concluded there was no “causal association” between the disabilities and Primodos.

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Archaeologist uncovers rich history at Bradford's lost football ground

Wed, 15 Nov 2017 18:30:22 GMT2017-11-15T18:30:22Z

Forgotten home of Bradford Park Avenue, abandoned when club folded in 1974, hailed as ‘Angkor Wat of football’

In his 40-year career as an archaeologist, Jason Wood has travelled the world, searching for Roman remains in Jordanian citadels and helping to restore royal palaces in Nepal. But his recent project was a little less exotic: digging up a patch of grass by some woods in Bradford.

Ever since he was a small boy, Wood had been thinking about the site on Horton Park Avenue, across the road from the ornate Grand Mosque. He remembered his dad pointing out the overgrown grass where a football club had once stood, wondering for decades how a ground that could hold 37,000 fans could be left to the worms and the weeds.

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Most UK supermarkets falling short in fight against antibiotics crisis

Tue, 14 Nov 2017 00:01:15 GMT2017-11-14T00:01:15Z

Overuse of antibiotics on farms is major cause of growing resistance in humans, as campaigners name Lidl as worst performer

Most of the UK’s biggest supermarket chains are falling short on measures to reduce the use of antibiotics in the production of the meat and animal products they sell, campaigners have warned, with potentially harmful impacts on human health.

Lidl performed worst of the nine supermarket chains examined by the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, a pressure group made up of several NGOs.

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'Tobacco at a cancer summit': Trump coal push savaged at climate conference

Mon, 13 Nov 2017 21:40:30 GMT2017-11-13T21:40:30Z

The US administration’s attempt to portray fossil fuels as vital to reducing poverty and saving US jobs is ridiculed in Bonn

The Trump team was heckled and interrupted by a protest song at the UN’s climate change summit in Bonn on Monday after using its only official appearance to say fossil fuels were vital to reducing poverty around the world and to saving jobs in the US.

While Donald Trump’s special adviser on energy and environment, David Banks, said cutting emissions was a US priority, “energy security, economic prosperity are higher priorities”, he said. “The president has a responsibility to protect jobs and industry across the country.”

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One Facebook ‘like’ is all it takes to target adverts, academics find

Mon, 13 Nov 2017 20:00:10 GMT2017-11-13T20:00:10Z

Online ad campaigns based on smallest expressions of preference reveal effect of ‘mass psychological persuasion’

Online ad campaigns created by academics in Britain and the US have targeted millions of people based on psychological traits perceived from a single “like” on Facebook – demonstrating, they say, the effect of “mass psychological persuasion”.

More than 3.5 million people, mostly women in the UK aged 18-40, were shown online adverts tailored to their personality type after researchers found that specific Facebook likes reflected different psychological characteristics.

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Evidence of world's earliest winemaking uncovered by archaeologists

Mon, 13 Nov 2017 20:00:10 GMT2017-11-13T20:00:10Z

Humans made grape wine hundreds of years earlier than previously believed, according to analysis of clay pottery dating back to 6,000 BC

A series of excavations in Georgia has uncovered evidence of the world’s earliest winemaking, in the form of telltale traces within clay pottery dating back to 6,000BC – suggesting that the practice of making grape wine began hundreds of years earlier than previously believed.

While there are thousands of cultivars of wine around the world, almost all derive from just one species of grape, with the Eurasian grape the only species ever domesticated.

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Breastfeeding could reduce eczema risk in children, new research suggests

Mon, 13 Nov 2017 16:00:06 GMT2017-11-13T16:00:06Z

Study examining the impact of breastfeeding support programmes shows 54% reduction in eczema for children involved

Breastfeeding could reduce the risk of eczema in children, according to new research into the impact of programmes designed to support new mothers in feeding their babies.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that babies should be fed just breast milk for six months to help protect them from infection, prevent allergies and provide nutrients and energy.

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How a DNA revolution has decoded the origins of our humanity

Sun, 19 Nov 2017 00:05:46 GMT2017-11-19T00:05:46Z

Mapping the genomes of our ancestors has allowed scientists to uncover secrets and discover new mysteries in our evolution

Scientists made a remarkable discovery at Trou Al’Wesse in Belgium earlier this year. Inside a cave that overlooks the Hoyoux river they found clear evidence it had been occupied by Neanderthals tens of thousands of years ago. Yet the cave contained no skull fragments, no teeth – nor any other skeletal remains of this extinct species of human being.

The team, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, were sure of their ground, however. Their genetic analysis of soil samples, scraped from the cave floor, had pinpointed the presence of Neanderthals through that most definitive of biological markers: their DNA.

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The spray's the thing: how actors use perfumes to get into character

Mon, 20 Nov 2017 06:00:21 GMT2017-11-20T06:00:21Z

Playing Thatcher? Dab on Bluebell. Got a part in Hairspray? Reach for the Madame Rochas. We lift the lid on how actors use smells – from the finest fragrances to cheap tinned mackerel – to nail a role

Before I go on stage, says Michael Ball, I ask myself a question: “Do I smell nice for all the ladies and gentlemen?” The actor chooses a signature scent for each of his roles, from bay rum for the vengeful barber Sweeney Todd to his mum’s favourite Madame Rochas for Hairspray’s Edna Turnblad.

Ball’s not alone in deploying scent to to get beneath a character’s skin. Anne-Marie Duff has a fragrance for each role too. “If ever I smell that perfume on somebody else,” she has said, “it will remind me of a story I’ve told.” Nikki Amuka-Bird, meanwhile, says she “uses aromatherapy oils – lavender for characters with a slow tempo, ylang ylang for sensuous characters”.

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In search of the neutrino, ghost particle of the universe

Sat, 04 Nov 2017 18:00:10 GMT2017-11-04T18:00:10Z

A huge, extraordinary machine will soon begin to study an elusive particle in a bid to reveal some of the deep secrets of the cosmos

On the outskirts of Karlsruhe, in south-west Germany, engineers have buried a giant, stainless steel device, bigger than a blue whale, inside the town’s institute of technology. The machine looks for all the world like a grounded zeppelin or a buried blimp.

In fact, the apparatus is one of the world’s biggest vacuum chambers. Air pressure inside it is lower than that on the surface of the moon and it has been installed to help solve a single, intricate problem: finding the mass of the universe’s most insignificant entity, the neutrino.

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Frederick Kurzer obituary

Thu, 16 Nov 2017 18:03:07 GMT2017-11-16T18:03:07Z

My friend Frederick Kurzer, who has died aged 95, was reader in chemistry at the Royal Free hospital school of medicine and a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry for more than 70 years.

The son of Jacques Kurzer, a dealer in oriental rugs, and his wife, Rosa (nee Löwy), Frederick was born in the spa town of Carlsbad (now Karlovy Vary) in the German-speaking area of what was then Czechoslovakia. With one sister, Dorothy, he lived in Carlsbad and went to the local school until 1939, when the family fled to London to escape the Nazis. He attended Clark’s college, Cricklewood, and from there went to Regent Street Polytechnic (now part of the University of Westminster), where he studied for a chemistry degree. In 1940, like many German-speaking Jewish men, he was interned by the British government on the Isle of Man.

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Is the British art of understatement ever so slightly dying out?

Mon, 13 Nov 2017 13:15:14 GMT2017-11-13T13:15:14Z

Gradable adverbs such as ‘rather’, ‘quite’ and ‘awfully’ are disappearing from our speech, according to linguistics professor Paul Baker. Is it a frightful shame – or are we just getting better at saying what we mean?

Name: understatement.

Age: not all that new.

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Starwatch: First interstellar visitor's name is nod to Hawaiian sighting

Sun, 12 Nov 2017 21:30:05 GMT2017-11-12T21:30:05Z

Astronomers using the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope on Maui identified 1I/‘Oumuamua as it passed 24m km from Earth

Astronomers finally have a name for the first known object from interstellar space to visit our solar system. The International Astronomical Union announced last week that it is to be called 1I/‘Oumuamua where “1I” designates it as the first interstellar object and ‘Oumuamua is a Hawaiian word that is said to reflect the way that this is akin to a scout or messenger reaching out to us from the past.

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Richard Gordon obituary

Fri, 10 Nov 2017 17:51:39 GMT2017-11-10T17:51:39Z

Apollo 12 astronaut thwarted in his ambition to walk on the moon

Of the 24 astronauts Nasa sent to the moon, only a dozen actually landed there. Richard Gordon, who has died aged 88, was one of the 12 who did not, and in some ways the one whose frustration might have been the highest. Gordon piloted the space module Yankee Clipper on the Apollo 12 mission, orbiting above the moon while his fellow astronauts Pete Conrad and Alan Bean landed the lunar module. He was the backup command pilot for Apollo 17, and was scheduled to command Apollo 18 and finally land on the moon; but that mission was cancelled due to lack of funding, and there have been no further lunar landings.

If Gordon was disappointed at how things turned out, he took it in his stride: “The name of the game, as far as I was concerned, was to walk on the moon ... but I had a job and a function to perform.” Bean described Gordon as “a happy guy” and the “best possible crew mate”, recalling that Gordon made him and Conrad remove their spacesuits covered with moon dust before re-entering the space module. Once, when asked if he had regrets, Gordon quipped “Hell no. If you knew those guys you’d be happy to be left alone.” But the view from 60 miles above the lunar surface inspired him. “It makes you think about the fragility of our Earth, and the things we do to it,” he said.

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Country diary: millions of birds arrive on their autumn migration

Fri, 10 Nov 2017 05:30:10 GMT2017-11-10T05:30:10Z

Langstone, Hampshire Many birds migrate at night, using the stars to orient themselves. For some, Britain is the last stop – for others, a staging post

Waking in the small hours, I find my bedroom bisected by a ribbon of light. The waxing gibbous moon hangs like a beaten silver pendant, backlighting wisps of cloud that cling to the inky sky like cobwebs. As I raise my binoculars to view the moon’s craters, I notice a tiny silhouette flutter across the lunar disc.

Nocturnal migration allows birds to spend the daylight hours fuelling up in preparation for the long distances they must travel. It is believed that birds use the stars to help orient themselves, and it is advantageous for them to fly at night when the air is cooler and the atmosphere less turbulent. The cover of darkness also helps them to avoid attack by avian predators.

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Spacewatch: Nasa space telescope faces cuts to reduce costs

Thu, 09 Nov 2017 21:30:00 GMT2017-11-09T21:30:00Z

Rising costs of a flagship telescope designed to have 100 times the field of view of Hubble are forcing Nasa to cut back to ensure the mission goes ahead at all

Nasa plans to “downscope” one of its flagship missions to keep it within cost estimates. This almost certainly means reducing its scientific capabilities.

The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFirst) is designed to study essential astrophysical and cosmological questions. This ambitious mission began in 2016 when Nasa asked its scientists and engineers to come up with a mission that was as sensitive as the Hubble space telescope, but would have 100 times its field of view.

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Don't know your spleen from your adrenals? Test yourself

Wed, 08 Nov 2017 17:25:31 GMT2017-11-08T17:25:31Z

New research suggests we are dangerously ignorant of the location of some of our anatomical structures

When it comes to the human body, it’s not merely our posteriors that most of us have trouble distinguishing from our elbows.

In a recent survey, fewer than 15% of participants could pinpoint their adrenal glands. The spleen was correctly located by 20% of participants and the gallbladder by 25%. Four in 10 were unable to pinpoint the heart on a blank template of the human body.

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A gold star for the nurseries that have stopped being glitter bugs | Jules Howard

Mon, 20 Nov 2017 10:00:26 GMT2017-11-20T10:00:26Z

As well as polluting our seas with microplastics, the devilish dandruff turns up all over my house and about my person – I applaud those schools banning it

What will the rocks record about the lives we lead? What might a future palaeontologist, human or otherwise, make of the structures that will come to signify these moments in which you and I live our lives? They will notice extinctions, of course. Fossils of mammals’ tusks and horns will abound in the rocks, only to disappear when we humans turn up. They will come across our mines – enormous trace fossils, perhaps the largest ever to have existed. They will see, by studying fossil pollen, that the climate changed. They will find our discarded KFC bones and they will wonder how the world supported so many chickens. And there, among it all, they will probably find that most awful of human inventions: glitter. Oodles of it – purples, pinks and reds – crushed into rocks the world over. Mineralised madness. Our lowest ebb. What will those future palaeontologists make of it? What will glitter say about us?

Perhaps this is our mark in the geological strata. A post-glitter epoch that all started with a handful of nurseries

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By knowing how abusers like Kevin Spacey work, we can root them out | Deborah Orr

Sat, 18 Nov 2017 05:59:24 GMT2017-11-18T05:59:24Z

Predators hunt out their victims, like pigs sniffing out truffles. Knowing what narcissistic behaviour to look out for can preempt danger

Twenty people have now made allegations of inappropriate behaviour against Kevin Spacey, the majority from his time as the Old Vic’s artistic director. Fourteen of the allegations are so serious that complainants have been advised to go to the police.

Managers at the Old Vic say they are sorry they did not create an environment in which people felt they could speak out if they were receiving unwanted attention. This failure has been put down to a “cult of personality” around the actor.

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A moment that changed me: seeing my first moth fish | Fiona Gell

Fri, 17 Nov 2017 10:33:00 GMT2017-11-17T10:33:00Z

I was 22 and fascinated by fish behaviour. But when scientist Amanda Vincent showed me this strange creature I became convinced that my future lay in conservation — not in the lab

Like many of the most important occasions in my life, the moment that changed me involved fish. Holding the desiccated carcass of a sea moth while talking to my heroine, the fish biologist and conservationist Dr Amanda Vincent, altered the course of my life.

I was 22, and had just finished my biology degree. For my dissertation research I had spent a couple of months following butterflyfish in the Ras Mohammed national park in the Egyptian Red Sea. I had grown to recognise them by their individual markings and, by snorkelling at a discreet distance, I had mapped their territories and recorded their daily routine.

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We're in a post-truth world with eroding trust and accountability. It can't end well | Nick Enfield

Thu, 16 Nov 2017 17:00:00 GMT2017-11-16T17:00:00Z

In our new normal, experts are dismissed and alternative facts flagrantly offered. This suspicion of specialists is part of a bigger problem

We often defer to others’ expertise, and for good reason. The entire edifice of modern society only exists thanks to the division of labour, from construction to machine operation to medical treatment. The system works as long as we have trust in others’ knowledge, skills and intentions.

This trust is often tested, most notably of late in relation to those who specialise in politics. People-powered movements from anarchism to populism want to see equality of participation in political decision-making. Indeed, this is at the heart of all versions of democracy. It raises the question of whether we should trust political insiders.

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Bigotry against indigenous people means we're missing a trick on climate change

Wed, 15 Nov 2017 14:54:20 GMT2017-11-15T14:54:20Z

Traditional farming strategies could protect humanity against global warming and prevent deadly wildfires. Yet scientists seem determined to ignore them

Prejudice against indigenous people is visible and ingrained in cultures everywhere, from US football team names (the Washington Redskins for example) to Hindu folk tales where the forest peoples are rakshasas, or demons.

But it’s arguable that these prejudices also influence our science and policy. Take, for example, the specialised method of rotational farming used by many indigenous farmers all over the world but particularly in the global south. Farmers use seasonal fires to clear and farm parcels of natural landscapes and rotate their crops while the previously farmed parcel is allowed to regain fertility and natural vegetation – a method known as swidden agriculture. This technique helps preserve the soil quality and creates variation that helps counter the dominance of a few species and promotes biodiversity. It also helps prevent larger wildfires of the type that ravaged California recently, leaving 41 people dead and causing financial losses worth $30bn (£22.7bn). After decades of neglect, the US Forest Service is now embracing the Native American methods of fire management.

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So, what's the problem with 'so'? | David Shariatmadari

Wed, 15 Nov 2017 12:15:41 GMT2017-11-15T12:15:41Z

BBC Radio 4 listeners (and John Humphrys) are fuming over an ‘unwelcome linguistic epidemic’. In fact, it goes back as far as Beowulf

Another day, another linguistic bugbear held up for ridicule. This time, it’s the harmless, modest, blink-and-you-miss-it word “so”. What has this innocent syllable done to offend the British public? If you have been struggling to get through to the BBC recently it’s because their switchboard has been jammed with complaints about it.

Here’s Robert from Wakefield: “I have been increasingly irritated over the last couple of years by the increasing use of the word ‘so’ when prefacing a sentence.” (I know how you feel Robert, I’ve been increasingly irritated by the increasing use of the word increasing). And Kay from Belfast: “I don’t think ‘so’ is an appropriate word with which to begin a sentence.”

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Am I a narcissist? You asked Google – here’s the answer | Anouchka Grose

Wed, 15 Nov 2017 08:00:02 GMT2017-11-15T08:00:02Z

Every day millions of internet users ask Google life’s most difficult questions, big and small. Our writers answer some of the commonest queries

Inevitably, yes. The question is, how deep is your love? Narcissism is seen by some as a matter of layering. For Freud, there is primary and secondary narcissism – primary narcissism meaning the drive for self-preservation, and secondary narcissism meaning seeing yourself as if from the outside and thinking, you are great. You’re pretty much born with the first one (although it can get eroded), and then the second one comes along later. If you’re a basically nice person, your well-balanced narcissism won’t get in the way of your capacity to love other people.

Related: This narcissism epidemic is harming women far more than it harms men | Madeleine Bunting

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I'm a pacifist, so why don't I support the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots?

Wed, 15 Nov 2017 07:42:02 GMT2017-11-15T07:42:02Z

A new campaign is calling for a ban on autonomous weapons. But a ban is not the solution – neither is inflaming the public with dystopian visions of the future

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots has called on the UN to ban the development and use of autonomous weapons: those that can identify, track and attack targets without meaningful human oversight. On Monday, the group released a sensationalist video, supported by some prominent artificial intelligence researchers, depicting a dystopian future in which such machines run wild.

I am gratified that my colleagues are volunteering their efforts to ensure beneficial uses of artificial intelligence (AI) technology. But I am unconvinced of the effectiveness of the campaign beyond a symbolic gesture. Even though I identify myself strongly as a pacifist, I have reservations about signing up to the proposed ban. I am not alone in this predicament.

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Why is spirituality correlated with life satisfaction? | Daniel José Camacho

Sun, 12 Nov 2017 15:44:52 GMT2017-11-12T15:44:52Z

Spirituality, in its purest form, is not an escape from the world but a richer engagement with it

Spirituality enables people to see more within the world and within others. It’s no surprise that this leads to a greater sense of fulfillment. A new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute has found that higher levels of spirituality are strongly correlated with higher life satisfaction.

As a person of faith, my experience with organized religion has ebbed and flowed throughout my life. Yet I have always appreciated how spiritualities across a variety of traditions animate expansive visions and compassionate ethics. Even as the religious landscape in the United States rapidly changes, the importance of spirituality won’t necessarily go away. Now, there’s more evidence to flesh this out.

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Delving into a hidden world – in pictures

Fri, 13 Oct 2017 11:37:02 GMT2017-10-13T11:37:02Z

The winning and shortlisted entries for the the Royal Society of Biology’s 2017 Photographer of the Year and Young Photographer of the Year competitions. This gorgeous and intriguing series of images features species from across the globe, and ranges from microscopic insights into the development of frogspawn, to the incredible emerald hues of an Indian lake photographed from 30,000 feet

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SpaceX successfully launches reused Falcon 9 rocket – video

Thu, 12 Oct 2017 05:43:33 GMT2017-10-12T05:43:33Z

SpaceX launched a partially used Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.  Billionaire SpaceX founder Elon Musk has hailed the twin achievement of salvaging a used rocket and re-launching it yet again as a revolutionary step in his quest to slash launch costs and shorten intervals between space shots

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Our Restless Earth: photography competition winners 2017 – in pictures

Mon, 09 Oct 2017 10:51:36 GMT2017-10-09T10:51:36Z

The Geological Society of London has announced the 12 winners of its photography competition. The chosen images represent the dynamic processes which have shaped the UK and Ireland over its tectonic history, from ancient volcanic activity to ice age glaciers. The pictures will feature in a free exhibition at the Geological Society to mark Earth Science Week, 7-15 October.

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Month-old meerkat triplets make their way in the world – video

Thu, 05 Oct 2017 05:27:36 GMT2017-10-05T05:27:36Z

Staff at Symbio wildlife park, located on the southern outskirts of Sydney, have announced the arrival of meerkat triplets. Born on 31 August to first-time parents Aya and Penfold, and weighing in at an estimated 25g and just 8cm, the pups have now emerged from the comfort of their den and are beginning to discover the world beyond. Still finding their feet, they are shadowing their parents’ every move and will continue to do so for up to 12 weeks, as they learn the ropes of being a meerkat

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Why discovering gravitational waves was a big deal – video

Tue, 03 Oct 2017 14:14:02 GMT2017-10-03T14:14:02Z

Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of spacetime and were anticipated by Albert Einstein a century ago.  Three American physicists have won the Nobel prize in physics for the discovery. We explain why it is so important

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Elon Musk: we can launch a manned mission to Mars by 2024 – video

Fri, 29 Sep 2017 10:48:47 GMT2017-09-29T10:48:47Z

Elon Musk gives an update on the progress SpaceX, his commercial space agency, is making on interplanetary space travel. Musk tells the audience that he believes a cargo mission to Mars will be possible by 2022, with a manned mission following in 2024. He envisages the creation of an inhabited city on the planet, with up to 100 people able to travel to the base per trip

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Work in progress: from ants to zika, scientists photograph their research – in pictures

Fri, 29 Sep 2017 10:00:22 GMT2017-09-29T10:00:22Z

Researchers from around the world submitted photos of the various forms of life they study to the BMC Research in Progress Photo Competition; the winners and their weird and wonderful subjects have now been revealed

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Modern Toss – cartoon

Sat, 23 Sep 2017 11:00:14 GMT2017-09-23T11:00:14Z

Wanna live like comma people? Well, it’s National Punctuation Day in the US on 24 September!

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Oldest Homo sapiens bones ever found shake foundations of the human story

Wed, 07 Jun 2017 17:00:03 GMT2017-06-07T17:00:03Z

Idea that modern humans evolved in East Africa 200,000 years ago challenged by extraordinary discovery of 300,000-year-old remains in Moroccan mine

Fossils recovered from an old mine on a desolate mountain in Morocco have rocked one of the most enduring foundations of the human story: that Homo sapiens arose in a cradle of humankind in East Africa 200,000 years ago.

Archaeologists unearthed the bones of at least five people at Jebel Irhoud, a former barite mine 100km west of Marrakesh, in excavations that lasted years. They knew the remains were old, but were stunned when dating tests revealed that a tooth and stone tools found with the bones were about 300,000 years old.

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Mystery bird: black-and-red broadbill, Cymbirhynchus macrorhynchos | @GrrlScientist

Tue, 07 Aug 2012 16:30:00 GMT2012-08-07T16:30:00Z

This lovely southeast Asian mystery bird is a distant relative of another mystery bird that I shared this week.

Black-and-red broadbill, Cymbirhynchus macrorhynchos (protonym, Todus macrorhynchos), Gmelin, 1788, also known as the black-red broadbill, common rouge-et-noir bird, Arakan black-and-red broadbill or as the allied broadbill, photographed along the Menanggul River, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.

Image: Alex Vargas, 16 November 2010 (with permission, for GrrlScientist/Guardian use only) [velociraptorise].
Nikon D5000, Nikkor 300mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR 1/160s f/4.0 at 420.0mm iso500 with a Nikon 1.4X Teleconverter on.

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Can you solve it? Secrets of Russian intelligence

Mon, 06 Nov 2017 07:10:09 GMT2017-11-06T07:10:09Z

Three puzzles that came in from the cold

UPDATE: The solutions to the puzzles can now be found here.

Hi guzzlers,

Every day we read stories concerning the prowess of Russian hackers. But why are they so good? A clue may lie in the fact that Russia has long excelled in maths outreach, which has been instrumental in creating a supply of people with the right skills. More of this later. Meanwhile, here are three puzzles with Russian origins.

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Did you solve it? Are you smarter than a Brazilian 15-year-old?

Mon, 23 Oct 2017 16:00:21 GMT2017-10-23T16:00:21Z

The answers to today’s puzzles

On my puzzle blog earlier today I set this question from Brazil’s State School Mathematics Olympiad

Homero is clutching three identical pieces of string in his fist, as illustrated below left. He asks Sofia to tie two ends of the string, chosen at random, at either side of his fist, as illustrated below centre, so that there is one free end at either side.

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Can you solve it? Are you smarter than a Brazilian 15-year-old?

Mon, 23 Oct 2017 06:15:13 GMT2017-10-23T06:15:13Z

A question from the tropics about string

UPDATE: To read the answers click here

Guzzlers, tudo bem?

Here’s a question from Brazil’s State School Maths Olympiad, one of the largest and most remarkable maths competitions in the world.

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The bangs, crackles and hums of Earth's seismic orchestra

Wed, 15 Mar 2017 17:43:55 GMT2017-03-15T17:43:55Z

Study gets to the bottom of ‘musical symphony’ produced in regions prone to mega-quakes as scientists work toward better quake hazard forecasting

You are at a classical music concert. There is an orchestra with three main sections. High up at the back, the percussion section has one very loud, large and moody-looking drum that gets struck very rarely. A handful of triangles produce occasional quieter “tings”. Further down, in the middle, there is a small band of violinists, but they are playing the strings so slowly the audience can barely hear them. Down at the front, a family of double bass instruments produces low-pitched, gentler hums from time to time.

This somewhat unconventional orchestra is like a type of tectonic plate boundary known as a subduction zone. Subduction zones delineate the battle lines between the collision of two titanic tectonic plates. Yet, this encounter is rather one-sided. One plate firmly stands its ground; the other sinks into the depths of the Earth. The grinding and sliding of these two plates produces a musical concert that can be detected by sensitive geophysical instruments and by humans during large quakes. The shallow parts of subduction plate boundaries can produce devastating mega-earthquakes with magnitude eight or greater (like the giant drum in the percussion section). In the tens to hundreds of years between these massive quakes, scientists eagerly listen to the signals at subduction zones to estimate whether the plate boundary fault is primed for a future quake, and to forecast what a rupture may look like.

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Cats vs dogs: in terms of evolution, are we barking up the wrong tree? | Elsa Panciroli

Wed, 26 Jul 2017 07:00:34 GMT2017-07-26T07:00:34Z

New research reveals humans have identified as either cat or dog lovers since the stone age, but in fact, our pets are more closely related than you might think

Are you a dog person, or a cat person? The question is often treated as dichotomous: if you appreciate the solidity of a steadfast pooch, you can’t also relish the coquettish companionship of a kitty. Recent studies suggest humankind could have been divided by their pet-preferences since the stone age. In evolutionary terms, however, the question is far from black and white. Cats and dogs belong together, related to one another by a common ancestor. They share this ancestry with a whole suite of other animals, large and small. One may as well ask: are you a badger person, or a hyaena-person? Do you prefer meerkats, or weasels?

Our beloved pets belong to the order Carnivora. This group includes bears, hyaenas, mongooses, civets, skunks, badgers and more, as well as marine members, the seals, walruses, and sea-lions. The name of the group is a little misleading: not all meat-chomping mammals are part of Carnivora, and not all members of Carnivora feast on flesh.

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