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ATHEISM and HUMANISM

7-19-18 Jewish nation state: Israel approves controversial bill
Israel's parliament has passed a controversial law characterising the country as principally a Jewish state, fuelling anger among its Arab minority. The "nation state" law says Jews have a unique right to national self-determination there and puts Hebrew above Arabic as the official language. Arab MPs reacted furiously in parliament, with one waving a black flag and others ripping up the bill. Israel's prime minister praised the bill's passage as a "defining moment". "A hundred and twenty-two years after [the founder of modern Zionism Theodore] Herzl made his vision known, with this law we determined the founding principle of our existence," Benjamin Netanyahu said. "Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, and respects the rights of all of its citizens. (Webmaster's comment: Which is exactly what this law does not do!)" However, the law risks further alienating Israel's large Arab minority, who have long felt discriminated against. Called The Basic Law: Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People, the legislation essentially defines Israel first and foremost as a Jewish state. Among its 11 provisions, it describes Israel as "the national home of the Jewish people" and says the right to exercise national self-determination there is "unique to the Jewish people". It also reiterates the status of Jerusalem under Israeli law, which defines the city - part of which is claimed by the Palestinians as the capital of a future state - as the "complete and united... capital of Israel". Controversially, the law singles out Hebrew as the "state's language", effectively prioritising it above Arabic which has for decades been recognised as an official language alongside Hebrew. (Webmaster's comment: The Jews can be as racist as any other group of religious people!)

7-18-18 Lazy thinking – not bias – is the real reason we believe fake news
It was thought that we’re tricked by fake news because we like to believe stories that confirm our world view. But not thinking actually seems to be to blame. Fake news travels fast. But why does anyone actually believe it? It has been widely assumed that fake news spreads because we like to believe stories that confirm our world view. But a study of more than 3000 people suggests otherwise, finding that whether you believe a headline – fake or otherwise – has more to do with your ability to resist mental shortcuts. Humans are well known for avoiding thinking whenever possible. Unconscious, automatic thinking is fast, effortless and intuitive and allows us to be thrifty with our limited mental resources. The downside is that it also fuels our tendency to jump to conclusions and fail to challenge unhelpful stereotypes. Effortful, deliberative thinking can help us question our biases, but research has shown that it can also be used to shore up polarised views on climate change and gun control. Psychologists David Rand of MIT Sloan School of Management and Gordon Pennycook of University of Regina Hill-Levene School of Business wanted to know whether people believe fake news because of deliberate ignorance or whether they are not simply not stopping to think. To find out they rated volunteers on a scale called the Cognitive Reflection Test, which measures the tendency to challenge gut reactions. They then showed them Facebook posts showing headlines for three kinds of headlines: real news, fake news that bolstered their political viewpoint, and fake news that contradicted them. Each person was asked to rate how accurate they thought each of the stories were.

7-17-18 Trump immigration policy: My life trapped in an American city
A student who came to the US from Mexico illegally as a child says she cannot leave her city because it is surrounded by checkpoints and she fears being deported. Her sisters and parents live hundreds of miles away. This is her story. My family and I migrated to Phoenix, Arizona, when I was eight years old. I'm now 22 and a student of engineering at the University of Texas at El Paso. I'm not a criminal yet in a way I'm treated like one. El Paso has checkpoints around it where immigration officers ask for your documents, documents I obviously don't have. I can't leave the city or I risk deportation. Fortunately, my parents became US residents two years ago but, unfortunately, this isn't the case for my sisters, aged 25 and 18, and me. When they got their papers they moved back to Phoenix in search of more job opportunities after four years of living here. But I risked putting my college education in jeopardy and getting deported if I crossed the checkpoint and was asked for my documents. My parents passed fine and it was a coincidence that my younger sister, then 16, had a school trip to New Mexico. You have to cross a checkpoint on the way there. But as immigration doesn't check school buses looking for undocumented migrants, she was able to travel without any problems. On the way back, my parents went there to pick her up so it was all perfect. But as I'm stuck in El Paso, I'm unable to visit my family. My parents visit me once every three or four months - because of work and other things they can't be here more often. But since they all moved I haven't seen my youngest sister. Her high school graduation was last month and I was unable to go even though everyone in the family was there. And I know neither one of my sisters will be able to attend mine. (Webmaster's comment: TRAPPED ie. Imprisoned by the Brutes of ICE!)

7-17-18 Conservatives' religious liberty con
Religious liberty is not meant to be shared with all faiths. The battle over religious liberty — fought, in recent years, over issues like contraception mandates and gay wedding cakes — is about to reach a fever pitch. Too bad it's based on such a big con job. Let's start with the flashpoint: President Trump's nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. While the tug-and-pull between secularism and religiosity in American society is an ever-present theme in the Court's jurisprudence — and, indeed, the culture wars could barely exist without it — the topic seems likely to be particularly salient during the confirmation debate. Already, conservatives and liberals are laying down their markers. National Review called Kavanaugh a "warrior" for religious liberty — although some conservatives worry he's not committed enough — while Vox warned that on religious liberty, like other topics, he will "will move the Court sharply to the right." What does that mean? The term "religious liberties" sounds anodyne enough: The First Amendment guarantees that Congress shall not prohibit the free exercise of faith. And conservatives frame the recent debates with a libertarian gloss: Government shouldn't make religious folks violate their faith-informed consciences to provide contraception to employees or make wedding cakes for gay couples. On the surface the message is: "Leave us alone and we'll leave you alone." What could be more American? But that message isn't honest. Unless you're a Christian — and let's be honest, unless you're a conservative Christian — conservative advocacy of religious liberties is a big con, a consolidation of rights and privileges not meant to be shared with Muslims, atheists, or other religious minorities. You don't have to reach far for examples. Just last week, the House Appropriations Committee passed an amendment that would let faith-based adoption agencies — such as Catholic Charities — refuse to serve gay couples, based on the religious beliefs of those agencies. That follows the passage of similar laws in states like Kansas and Oklahoma earlier this year. And yes: Those laws were characterized as "religious liberty" bills. Understand: Those agencies aren't just doing charitable work — they're providing state services, paid for by state and federal dollars. Which means that religious liberty isn't just a right to be left alone: Republicans also view it as a right to receive tax-subsidized government contracts, and to discriminate against a portion of the public. That's an unusual interpretation, to say the least. Can you imagine Republicans voting to let Muslims use tax dollars to discriminate against would-be Christian adoptive parents? It would never happen.

7-15-18 Chicago clashes after US police kill black man
Police in Chicago have clashed with protesters after an officer fatally shot a black man who was suspected of carrying a gun. A crowd of about 150 people shouted "murderers", threw objects and jumped on police cars during the confrontation in Chicago's South Side area. Officers armed with batons traded punches with the protesters, local media reports said. Three officers sustained minor injuries and there were four arrests. A string of police killings of black men, some unarmed, has caused outrage and led to protests in cities across the US. Police said the demonstrators in Chicago on Saturday were dispersed at about 22:30 local time (03:30 GMT). The shot man's identity has not yet been released but he is thought to have been aged in his 30s, local media reported. A police statement said officers on patrol in the South Shore district at about 17:30 local time saw the man "exhibiting the characteristics of an armed person". "An armed confrontation ensued resulting in an officer discharging his weapon and fatally striking the offender," the statement said, adding that police recovered a gun and two ammunition magazines at the scene. Chicago police patrol chief Fred Waller told US media that officers saw a bulge in the victim's trousers that they thought was a gun. When they approached the man, he "started flailing and swinging away, trying to make an escape" and then "reached for the gun", Mr Waller said. (Webmaster's comment: The police just murdered a man who was suspected of having a gun. How can that even be remotely legal?)

7-15-18 Afghanistan conflict: Civilian deaths hit record high, says UN
The number of civilians killed in the long-running war in Afghanistan reached a record high in the first six months of this year, the UN says. Some 1,692 fatalities were recorded, with militant attacks and suicide bombs said to be the leading causes of death. The report comes as at at least seven people were killed in an attack on the rural development ministry in Kabul. Recent attacks claimed by Taliban and Islamic State group militants have killed scores across the country. The figures for the conflict, which began in 2001, are the highest since the UN started keeping records in 2009. The report, by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (Unama), says the number of recorded deaths rose by 1% compared with the same period last year. However, the report adds, injuries fell by 5% to 3,430, and the total number of civilian casualties - accounting for deaths and injuries - dropped by 3% to 5,122. The record high death toll came despite an unprecedented ceasefire by Afghan security forces and the Taliban last month, which was largely respected by both sides, Unama said. Earlier this month, Nato leaders gathered at a summit in Brussels to discuss the conflict in Afghanistan. The US has said it is planning a strategic review a year after President Donald Trump agreed to remain involved in the 17-year conflict. The US-led invasion drove the hardline Taliban from power in 2001, as part of a crackdown on Islamist militants after the 9/11 attacks in the US. (Webmaster's comment: And how well has that worked?)

7-15-18 Spain far right protest against moving Franco's remains. Protesters displayed the flag of Franco's Spain and gave fascist salutes.
Some 1,000 people are protesting at the tomb of former Spanish dictator Gen Francisco Franco against plans to move his body, reports say. A far right group had called for a "pilgrimage" to the controversial Valley of the Fallen monument near Madrid. Spain's new socialist government wants to exhume his remains, describing the tomb as a "divisive symbol". It is a shrine for Spain's far right, who pay homage to Gen Franco there. The monument was constructed by the right-wing dictator, who ruled Spain from 1939 until his death in 1975. Victims from both sides of the 1936-39 civil war are interred there. However, the site is controversial for many Spaniards, as it is seen as a place dedicated to the victory of Gen Franco's nationalist forces over their Republican opponents. Reports said protesters were singing the song Cara al Sol, the anthem of the fascist Phalange party, whose founder Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera is also buried at the site. (Webmaster's comment: Worshipped just like shines, monuments, statues, and flags of the Racist Confederacy in the United States!)

7-14-18 Scarlett Johansson quits trans role after LGBT backlash
US actor Scarlett Johansson has dropped out of a role in which she was going to play a transgender man following a backlash from the LGBT community. The Avengers star was set to play 1970s Pittsburgh crime boss Dante "Tex" Gill, who was born Jean Gill, in Rub & Tug. But she was criticised by those who said the role should have gone to a transgender actor. "I've learned a lot from the community since making my first statement," Johansson told Out magazine. "While I would have loved the opportunity to bring Dante's story and transition to life, I understand why many feel he should be portrayed by a transgender person." "I am thankful that this casting debate... has sparked a larger conversation about diversity and representation in film," she added. The original announcement was met with intense criticism and some said it showed the limited opportunities given to transgender actors. Trace Lysette, who stars in the Amazon series Transparent, said it was representative of a wider problem in Hollywood. "I wouldn't be as upset if I was getting in the same rooms as Jennifer Lawrence and Scarlett for cis roles, but we know that's not the case," she tweeted. "A mess."

7-14-18 America's secret Cold War nuclear test films released
For the past five years, physicists and experts at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have been declassifying films of atmospheric nuclear tests conducted in the US. The team has located around 6,500 of the estimated 10,000 films that were created during the Cold War testing.

FEMINISM

7-19-18 India Netflix actor Rajshri Deshpande 'disgusted by porn star label'
An Indian actress has said she felt "disgusted" after her sex scene in a Netflix series went viral as a "porn clip". The 30-second video clip from Sacred Games shows consensual sex between a gangster and his wife, played by Rajshri Deshpande. She said people need to be careful before sharing out-of-context material. The series, featuring a number of prominent Bollywood stars, is Netflix's first original drama in India. Deshpande has been called a "porn star" on social media and some users told her that she should be ashamed of the scene. "Why should I be ashamed? I have complete faith in my character and the importance of that scene to the story," she told the BBC's Divya Arya. "My intention was right. I haven't done any wrong," she added. The video clip has been widely shared on the messaging app, WhatsApp, and has been uploaded by multiple users on YouTube. Ms Deshpande has asked people to be more responsible on social media. "If you get a message like this, you need to think about what you should do with it," she said.

7-19-18 Indians, Hispanics and Nigerians defend Kylie Jenner over baby's pierced ears
When new mother Kylie Jenner shared a video cuddling her five-month-old daughter Stormi many of her millions of social media followers noticed her baby's ears were pierced. The video posted on her Instagram channel last week has created a debate about consent and the acceptable age at which children can have their ears pierced. Many people defended the reality TV star saying early ear piercing is common in many different cultures. But some people voiced their concern that, at five months old, Stormi was too young, while others went as far as to call it "child abuse". The voices of opposition were challenged by those who shared their own experiences of being pierced when they were babies including how piercing children's ears was common in some Spanish-speaking, African and Indian communities. On Instagram there were similar messages of support in response to Jenner's original video: "Mexicans pierce their babies ears by one-and-a-half months," read one. "We pierce babies' ears in Iraq before they are six months old all the time. Stop criticising everything people do," read another comment. In the past few days Stormi's piercings have become a global conversation. However, many have raised the point Stormi, as with other young children with pierced ears, had no say in the matter. "If this starts a conversation on the importance of holding off permanent body modification of your children until they are old enough to understand, then so be it," read one tweet. (Webmaster's comment: This is Child Abuse pure and simple the same as Female Genital Multilation!)

7-19-18 Australia PM says Pope must sack archbishop over cover-up
Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull has called on Pope Francis to sack a Catholic archbishop found guilty of concealing child sexual abuse. Archbishop of Adelaide Philip Wilson was convicted in May of covering up abuse by a paedophile priest, but has resisted calls to resign. The most senior Catholic in the world to be convicted of the crime, Wilson has said he will appeal the verdict. Mr Turnbull said: "The time has come for the Pope himself to sack him." Two weeks after Wilson was sentenced to detention, the prime minister said that the "ultimate authority in the Church" must now intervene. "There are many leaders that have called on him [Wilson] to resign - it is clear that he should resign," he told reporters in Sydney. Throughout his trial, Wilson denied having known about the abuse of altar boys by a priest colleague, James Patrick Fletcher, in New South Wales in the 1970s. But a court disagreed, with a judge saying that Wilson had remained silent in a bid to protect the Church's reputation. Fletcher was convicted of nine child sexual abuse charges in 2004, and later died in jail. Earlier this month, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference said only the Pope had the authority to compel Wilson to resign. Some bishops had "offered their advice privately", said Archbishop Mark Coleridge in a statement. It came after a magistrate ordered Wilson to be assessed for a maximum 12-month sentence in "home detention" - meaning he is expected to avoid jail.

7-17-18 Why chivalry remains attractive to some women despite being sexist
Women tend to find male chivalry attractive even though they see it as a threat to fairness, according to a new study. Existing inequality may explain why. Women tend to be attracted to male chivalry even though they see it as a threat to their gender equality, according to a new study. Men who pay for dinner and open doors for women are said to display “benevolent sexism”: the attitude that women should be protected and provided for. These chivalrous acts are superficially positive, but may entrench gender inequality by positioning women as weaker and less competent, says Pelin Gul at Iowa State University. Gul and her colleagues explored heterosexual women’s attitudes to benevolent sexism in a series of experiments involving more than 700 women aged 18 to 70 in the UK. In one experiment, the volunteers were told to imagine a potential partner called Mark. Half were given chivalrous descriptions, such as, “In case of a disaster or emergency situation, he thinks that women should be helped before men”. The other half were given gender neutral descriptions, such as, “In case of a disaster or emergency situation, he thinks that a person’s sex should not be a factor determining who is helped first”. The chivalrous version of Mark was rated as more attractive, even though most participants said he was probably more likely to undermine and patronise them.

7-17-18 Breastfeeding model causes stir on catwalk
A model breastfeeding her baby on the catwalk has caused a stir among those gathered at a fashion show in Miami. Mara Martin held her five-month-old daughter Aria at Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit show on Sunday. "I can't believe I am waking up to headlines with me and my daughter in them for doing something I do every day," she wrote on her Instagram page. Many social media users praised the model as "inspiring", but some accused her of attention seeking. Ms Martin was one of 16 finalists chosen for this year's show in an open casting. She appeared on the catwalk in a gold bikini, breastfeeding Aria at the same time. The baby had headphones on to protect her from the noise of music and the crowd. "My story of being a mother and feeding her while walking is just that," the model wrote later. On her Instagram page, many users left messages of support. "So inspiring!!!! Love this!!!!" wrote one, while another noted: "Yeasss!!! Thank you for being brave and helping to #normalizebreastfeeding!! This makes me so happy!"

7-15-18 How an army of suffragettes saved America from starvation
While legions of men toiled in World War I, 15,000 women set out to solve the food crisis. But that wasn't their only goal. In May 1918, 10 teenage girls sat in Amy C. Ransome's three-story brownstone near Meridian Hill Park in Washington, D.C., listening to her describe what their summer's work would be like. Ransome appeared younger than her 45 years; she loved being around young people, which might have kept her looking so fresh. Two of the girls in the room, Susan and Janet, were her daughters, and the others came from similarly upper-middle class families. All the girls technically should have been in school, but they'd been drawn to a cause larger than themselves. One of the them, Dorothy Gilbertson, had seen a little white sign, like those in many store windows across the city, with black block letters reading: "Recruits wanted, for the Women's Land Army of America. Chance to do your bit by working on a farm." The sign whispered to Dorothy, Don't you realize that the men are at war? How can America have farms without farmers? Remember America's promise to the allies of how she is going to feed the war. Dorothy had no experience working on a farm, but neither did Susan or Janet. In fact, none of these girls were farmers. Amy Ransome herself didn't come from a farming family. She had a Master's degree and had worked for the United States Geological Survey. Since marrying in 1899, she'd been a housewife. Now the young women were being asked to become farmhands, to live in an old sawmill, wear overalls, and do anything their purveying farm owner needed, from "corn shucking and silo making, to mending of the state road and assisting at the County Fair," as Ransome later wrote. This was the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Women's Land Army of America. With so many male farmers off to battle or engaged in new, better-paying jobs in the the war industry, the group sought to prove that women could do men's work. But Ransome and her female farmers had a larger goal in mind: winning women the right to vote.

7-14-18 How academics in STEM fields are combating sexual harassment
There's 'no evidence' that current policies at universities are helping the problem. Sexual harassment is rife in science, medicine, and engineering, and there's "no evidence" that all the harassment training and reporting pathways that universities have set up are making any difference. That's the conclusion of a 290-page, two-year-long study of sexual harassment of women in the sciences, published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, a non-profit created by Congress during Abraham Lincoln's presidency to answer science questions for the nation. "We need to move beyond legalistic policies and training focusing only on the most obvious acts of abuse," Lilia Cortina, a psychologist from the University of Michigan who worked on the study, said during a public talk announcing the report's release. "Those acts simply don't happen without a firm foundation of disrespect, derision, and devaluation of women. So what are we doing to take aim at that disrespect?" Cortina was part of a team of 21 experts — comprising college professors, industry scientists, a former Congresswoman, and an administrator at a professional society for geophysicists — who examined existing research and commissioned two new studies to help them evaluate how prevalent sexual harassment is during women's science careers and what to do about it. The results are sobering: At least one in five female science students experience harassment from faculty or staff at their universities, and more than 40 percent of female medical students do, one of the newly commissioned studies found. (Men may also be harassed, especially if they're seen as violating gender norms, but it happens more often to women.) Anti-harassment policies at universities are often designed to cover the school in court — but not to really solve the problem. And women might be held back in their fields as a result: Research suggests that workers who are sexually harassed perform more poorly in their jobs, while college women who are harassed get lower grades and report more health problems.

7-14-18 Saudi Arabia woman 'arrested for hugging' singer Majid al-Mohandis
A woman in Saudi Arabia has been arrested after running on stage to hug a male singer during a concert, according to reports. Majid al-Mohandis was performing at a festival in the western city of Taif when the woman darted on to the stage. Videos posted online showed her holding on to Mr Mohandis while security staff tried to pull her off him. Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to mix in public with men who are unrelated to them. Mr Mohandis, whose website says is "the prince of Arab singing", has not commented on the incident. The Iraqi-born singer, who also has Saudi citizenship, continued to perform after the incident. A public prosecutor will now consider harassment charges against the woman, police told Okaz, a leading Saudi newspaper, and Efe news agency. The country has strict morality laws regarding alcohol prohibition, modest clothing and gender segregation. Restrictions that had long been placed on women attending public events in the kingdom have been relaxed in the past year under a series of reforms by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

SCIENCE - GLOBAL WARMING and ENVIRONMENT

7-19-18 Slowing Gulf Stream current to boost warming for 20 years
The prospect of the Gulf Stream slowing down and even stopping altogether has worried many experts in recent years. Some believed that this would cause a rapid cooling around the world with resulting global chaos. But this new study finds the Gulf Stream go-slow will have a significant impact on planetary temperatures, but not in a chilled out way. Researchers say a slower current will carry less heat down to the deep oceans meaning more will enter the atmosphere. Worries over the fate of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (Amoc), of which the Gulf Stream is part, were graphically illustrated in the 2004 film, The Day After Tomorrow. It focused on a sudden collapse of the Amoc caused by global warming leading to a disastrous freezing and the dawning of a new ice age. So much for Hollywood - the reality according to the corresponding author of this new study is very different. "The headlines have said that the Gulf Stream is collapsing and the Ice Age is coming sooner than scientists think," Prof Ka-Kit Tung from the University of Washington told BBC News. "The answer from our work is no to both of them." Instead Prof Tung and his colleagues have reconstructed what's happened with the flow of the Amoc over the past 70 years. They found a natural pattern with declines, flat periods and increases over the decades. What is the Gulf Stream? It's a powerful ocean current that is part of the Amoc and it flows from the Gulf of Mexico, around Florida and up along the east coast of the US, before crossing the Atlantic towards Ireland, the UK and Europe.

How The Gulf Stream Works

7-18-18 The death of 9-year-old girl may be a tipping point for air pollution
The family of Ella Kissi-Debrah want an inquest to rule air pollution as the cause of her death, while other legal cases are challenging government inaction on dirty air. AIR pollution kills 7 million people a year worldwide. In the US, the figure is about 200,000 people. In the European Union, it is a shocking half a million. At least, these are the sorts of figures health authorities release. But they don’t mean we can identify any of the 7 million individuals killed by air pollution each year. Rather, it is a way of representing statistically the years of life lost to air pollution, as most of us will die earlier from the toll it takes on our health. If the family of Ella Kissi-Debrah get their way, though, this might change. Ella was a Londoner with severe asthma who died aged 9 in 2013. An inquest in 2014 found she died of respiratory failure, caused by asthma. Her family want a new inquest to rule that air pollution killed her. “We will be arguing that there’s a real prospect that without air pollution Ella would not have died,” says the family’s lawyer, Jocelyn Cockburn. It is an extraordinary case. There have been legal battles over air pollution before, but none like this. So is it possible to attribute an individual death to air pollution? And what would it mean if we can? Ella’s family live next to a very busy road, and she walked or was driven along it to get to and from school. Between 2010 and her death in 2013, she was taken to hospital nearly 30 times with asthma attacks. At the time of the inquest, her family had not given air pollution any thought – no doctor had even mentioned it. But Ella’s mother, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, regarded her death as unexplained and kept looking for answers.

7-18-18 The myth of clean natural gas
The rise of fracking has transformed America's fossil fuels sector. With fracked oil and natural gas, the United States has once again become one of the world's top energy producers, nearly matching Saudi Arabia and Russia. Natural gas in particular has gotten wide attention, in part because it is much more carbon-efficient than coal when burned to produce electricity. The slogan was that it could serve as a "bridge fuel" between dirty coal and clean renewables — and thus fight climate change, at least relative to continuing reliance on coal. It's increasingly clear, however, that natural gas is already nearly past its point of maximum usefulness. It should simply be phased out as soon as possible — as soon as coal is gone, it should be next on the chopping block, if not right beside. The first and biggest problem with natural gas is leaks. The fuel is largely composed of methane, and the smaller greenhouse gas footprint of the fuel relies on all that methane actually getting burned. If there are leaks at the wellhead, or the pipelines, or at the power plant, it cuts into the climate change benefit very quickly, because methane is tremendously effective at capturing heat. Measured over 20 years, a given quantity of methane captures about 86 times as much heat as the same amount of carbon dioxide. It turns out there are a ton of such leaks. Comprehensive leak data hasn't been assembled, largely because the energy industry — and now the United States government, but I repeat myself — doesn't want it to be. However, it's a fairly simple procedure to fly a plane over the big drilling fields, test for methane concentrations, figure out a reasonable model of gas dispersal, and calculate a leak rate. Lo and behold, a recent study found (yet again) that leaks are so bad they basically cancel out the climate advantages of natural gas compared to coal (though natural gas still produces fewer poisonous fumes and heavy metals). It's theoretically possible that all these leaks might be plugged. But the industry patently does not want the regulation required to achieve that, and it barely matters in any case. Natural gas is not that much better than coal — it's still releasing a great deal of carbon dioxide, after all.

7-18-18 Cape Town drought was made three times more likely by global warming
The city’s water crisis shows the high cost of failing to adapt to climate change, as it ignored warnings that water demand would exceed supply. Climate change made Cape Town’s recent drought three times more likely, climate models suggest. The water shortage has been so severe that water was limited to no more than 50 litres per person per day and at one stage the city almost had to switch off the water supply. Cape Town’s situation was caused by three years of below average rainfall, starting in 2015. But, until now, it has been unclear exactly how much of a role global warming played. Local rainfall records do not go back very far, so it is not clear how rainfall patterns have changed. However, the drought also affected much of the western Cape region, including places that have rainfall records going right back to the 1930s. So a team brought together by the World Weather Attribution initiative ran several climate models to see how well they match the region’s climate since 1930 – the world as it is. They then ran the best-performing of these models without the 1°C global warming so far – the world as it might have been without climate change. Finally, they ran them again in a world that is 2°C warmer. The team conclude that climate change tripled the risk of such a severe drought, and that the risk will triple again as the world warms by another degree. “For an event related to rainfall, three times is huge,” says team member Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at the University of Oxford. “This is the first study we have done where we have seen a significant change in drought risk.”

7-17-18 ‘The Poisoned City’ chronicles Flint’s water crisis
Journalist Anna Clark weaves together history and science to explain the public health disaster. America is built on lead. Networks of aging pipes made from the bluish-gray metal bring water into millions of U.S. homes. But when lead, a poison to the nervous system, gets into drinking water — as happened in Flint, Mich. — the heavy metal can cause irreparable harm (SN: 3/19/16, p. 8). In The Poisoned City, journalist Anna Clark provides a thorough, nuanced account of the public health disaster in Flint — one that, she argues, was magnified by government malfeasance and decades of systemic racism. Trouble first began in April 2014. To save the cash-strapped city some money, Flint’s emergency manager switched the city’s source of water from Detroit’s water system, which drew from Lake Huron, to one that tapped the Flint River. But the city’s water treatment program didn’t include corrosion control, which the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said wasn’t necessary — a violation of federal law. The result: Corroded pipes leached lead into drinking water. Residents, forced to use the brown, smelly tap water, developed rashes and lost clumps of hair. Twelve people died from Legionella bacteria, which the corrosive water dislodged from pipes, and dozens more were sickened. Despite residents’ complaints, as well as an independent analysis that found higher-than-allowable lead levels, state officials insisted that the water was safe, even when their own internal records showed it was not. “Anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax,” said one spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. That’s when one of the book’s heroes, pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha, enters Clark’s story. About 18 months after Flint switched to its new water source, the percentage of children under age 5 with high blood-lead levels nearly doubled from 2.1 to 4 percent, Hanna-Attisha discovered after taking a close look at Flint kids’ medical records. (Hanna-Attisha’s own account of her experiences, What the Eyes Don’t See, was published in June.)

7-17-18 Weird ‘wind drought’ means Britain’s turbines are at a standstill
Britain is experiencing a prolonged “wind drought” that has slowed or halted the blades on turbines around the country. Britain is experiencing a “wind drought” that has slowed or halted the blades on turbines around the country. July’s wind energy output so far is down 40 per cent when compared to the same period last year – despite more wind turbines having been installed in the interim, according to new figures. “We’ve been typically doing between 2 to 3 gigawatts of wind [generation],” says Rob Gross of Imperial College London, which complied the data, “At a windier time of the year we might be doing 9 or 10.” An unusually prolonged period of high pressure is to blame for the drought, says Grahame Madge, a spokesman for the UK Met Office. The jet stream has remained further north, meaning an area of dense, high pressure air over the UK hasn’t budged. “It’s like a lid, it keeps everything still,” says Madge. “From the forecast looking out over the next couple of weeks, there doesn’t seem to be any significant change on the way.” The price of natural gas, which is being burned more to compensate for the lack of wind, has ticked up slightly. Ireland is facing similar problems with a lack of wind while falling water levels in rivers have also curtailed hydroelectric power generation in July. Climate change might mean that less wind is available for energy production in general during the coming decades. One projection, published in Nature Geoscience in December, suggested that wind power would decrease in the northern hemisphere but increase in the southern hemisphere. This might mean a loss of as much as 18 per cent of wind over the central US by the year 2100, according to the study.

7-16-18 Wildfires are making extreme air pollution even worse in the northwest U.S.
Smoke from blazes ravaging western states is counteracting clean air improvements. The northwestern United States has become an air pollution hot spot — literally. Air quality in states from Nevada to Montana is worse than it was 30 years ago on the days with the most extreme air pollution. Bigger and more frequent wildfires that spew plumes of fine particulate matter into the sky are largely to blame, researchers report July 16 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. By contrast, the rest of the country has seen decreasing trends in similar smog and haze over the last three decades. Legislation such as the Clean Air Act, which mandates air quality standards and the regulation of vehicle and factory emissions of particulate matter, is making a difference, says study coauthor Daniel Jaffe, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington in Bothell. But the increase in lung-clogging particulate matter from wildfires shows how the effects of climate change — which is, in part, driving the worsening fires — can counteract those gains, Jaffe says. Wildfire smoke is filled with fine particulates, minuscule solids or droplets that can be inhaled into the lungs, exacerbating breathing problems. Children, the elderly and people with asthma are most at risk, but communities near wildfires can temporarily experience levels of pollutants so high that it’s unsafe for anyone to be outside for very long. “When we start to think about people’s health, episodic events matter a lot,” says Gannet Hallar, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, who wasn’t part of the study.

7-15-18 What's the most effective way to talk about climate change?
All this gloom and doom might not be helping. Frightening stories about climate change seem to come in a never-ending wave these days. In just the past few months, we've learned that Antarctica is melting three times faster than it was a decade ago, rising seas might flood more than 300,000 U.S. homes twice a month within decades, and that India is facing the worst water crisis in its history. How do our brains respond to this onslaught of negative news? Not well. "Climate change has all the hallmarks of an issue which is difficult for people to engage with psychologically," says Lorraine Whitmarsh, professor of environmental psychology at the University of Cardiff in Wales. People perceive the risks of climate change "as both considerably uncertain and also as being mostly in the future and geographically distant, all factors that lead people to discount them," according to a 2009 American Psychological Association report on the topic. In other words, the worst impacts of climate change feel far away — in both time and place — to many Americans. So while it will increasingly impact all of us, every day, it's hard for us to get worked up about it. So do news stories with frightening projections about the future prod us to action, or make us stick our heads in the sand? It's a debated topic in psychology, and some recent research suggests there's not enough evidence to empirically say whether or not "arousing fear" is an effective way to communicate the risks of climate change. But other psychologists argue we know enough to say scare tactics don't work when it comes to engaging the public. "What we know from psychological studies is that if you overuse fear-inducing imagery, what you get is fear and guilt in people, and this makes people more passive, which counteracts engagement," said Norwegian psychologist and author of What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming. So what does work in effectively communicating the risks of climate change?

7-14-18 Five places that have just broken heat records
Parts of the world are sweltering in record temperatures - and it's not a problem confined only to summer in the northern hemisphere. Records are being broken across the globe - so where have things been particularly bad? And why is this happening?

  1. Eastern Canada: Cities across the region suffered a deadly heat wave last week, with at least 70 deaths attributed to the record hot spell in Quebec province alone. In Canada's capital Ottawa, in Ontario, the humidity index - the method used there to measure the combined humidity level and temperature - hit 47C (116.6F) on 2 July.
  2. The Caucasus region: The capital of Georgia, Tbilisi, hit an all-time high of 40.5C (104.9F) on 4 July, but the heat has put a significant strain on (often ageing) power grids in other countries nearby.
  3. Southern California: Record after record fell in southern parts of California last week. Chino, outside LA, saw its hottest-ever temperature - 48.9C (120F).
  4. Sydney, Australia: Bear in mind that it is the middle of winter in the southern hemisphere - but despite this, it is scorching in some places. Last week, the temperature in Sydney topped 24.7C (76.5F) over two days in July for the first time since records began.
  5. Algeria (maybe): Now, there are grounds to believe Africa's hottest reliable record temperature was registered in Ouargla, northern Algeria, on 5 July: 51.3C (124.3F).

7-14-18 Huge iceberg threatens Greenland village
A huge iceberg has drifted close to a village in western Greenland, prompting a partial evacuation in case it splits and the resulting wave swamps homes. The iceberg is looming over houses on a promontory in the Innaarsuit village but is grounded and did not move overnight, local media say. Local officials say they have never seen such a big iceberg before. Last summer, four people died after waves swamped houses in northwestern Greenland after an earthquake. Those of Inaarsuit's 169 residents living nearest the iceberg have been moved, Danish news agency Ritzau said. "There are cracks and holes that make us fear it can calve anytime," village council member Susanne Eliassen told the local newspaper Sermitsiaq. The village's power station and fuel tanks are close to the shore, she said. Some experts have warned that extreme iceberg events risk becoming more frequent because of climate change. This in turn increases the risk from tsunamis. In June New York University scientists released video footage of a massive iceberg breaking away from a glacier in eastern Greenland.

7-14-18 Earth’s coldest place
Scientists have found out just how cold the coldest place on Earth can get: a truly chilly minus 144 degrees Fahrenheit, NationalGeographic.com reports. That freezing temperature was recorded on an ice sheet deep in Antarctica during the polar winter. The measurement shatters the previous known coldest air temperature: minus 128.6, recorded at Russia’s Vostok weather station, near the South Pole, in 1983. Inhaling air that cold can cause your lungs to hemorrhage after a few breaths, so Russian researchers wore masks that warmed the air when they went outside to check on instruments. A team at the University of Colorado speculated that the temperature was likely even colder at a nearby spot, where the domed East Antarctic ice sheet reaches its apex. The team used satellite measurements to map surface temperatures there and found that the air at human head height was about minus 137, dropping to minus 144 at ground level. “It’s a place where Earth is so close to its limit, it’s almost like another planet,” study leader Ted Scambos says. With Antarctica warming because of climate change, this might be the coldest air temperature scientists will ever record on Earth.

SCIENCE - EVOLUTION and GENETICS

7-19-18 Smart bandage sees when wound is infected and treats it automatically
A high-tech bandage can keep an eye on chronic wounds by detecting infections and releasing medication. Time doesn’t heal all wounds. Chronic wounds that don’t heal on their own require constant and intensive monitoring and treatment, and a new smart bandage may be able to help. Some types of injuries, like burns or diabetic wounds, heal slowly and are thus extremely prone to infection. Ali Tamayol at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and his colleagues developed a high-tech new bandage that can detect infection and inflammation, and treat it without requiring constant check-ins with medical professionals. The bandage contains two kinds of sensors. The first is a pH sensor that can detect when bacteria infect a wound, as this turn its pH from acidic to alkaline. And the second is a temperature sensor, which can tell when the area is getting hot and inflamed. The sensors are embedded in a sheet of hydrogel, a super-absorbent jelly material, which soaks up any blood seeping from the wound. The hydrogel can also hold tiny capsules full of antibiotics or other medicine. That way, when the sensors find signs of infection, a tiny heater can be triggered to warm up the bandage and release the antibiotics. The whole thing is attached to transparent medical tape, and it’s less than 3 millimetres thick. “For people who live far away from medical facilities or do not have immediate access, the bandage can transmit data to those medical settings so if there’s need for intervention they can call the patient in, but it can also automatically respond if needed,” says Tamayol. The researchers performed a battery of tests on the bandage, including testing it on human cells contaminated with bacteria. It killed more than 90 per cent of the bacteria, bringing the pH of the cells back up to its normal value.

7-19-18 Neanderthal hand axes were also used as lighters for starting fires
There is no doubt that our ancient cousins used fire but we’ve only just found clues that reveal how they lit these fires. Our ancestors started using fire at least a million years ago and cooking may have played a key role in our evolution. But could early humans light fires, and if so how did they do it? In the case of the Neanderthals at least, we may finally have an answer. Dozens of 50,000-year-old hand axes from around Europe have tiny scratches on their flat sides, Andrew Sorensen of Leiden University in the Netherlands and colleagues have shown. And the mostly likely explanation, they argue, is that the axes were used to strike sparks. “The hand axe was like a Swiss Army knife for Neanderthals,” says Sorensen. In addition to being used for cutting, he thinks the axe was held in one hand and a piece of iron pyrites struck against the flat side with the other hand to create sparks. The flat side of a hand axe are rough and ideal for striking sparks. Sorensen can light a fire in as little as 10 seconds this way. “It’s quite an effective method,” he says. What’s more, it creates the same patterns of scratches as those seen on ancient axes. “These traces match what we are able to produce during fire-making experiments,” Sorensen says. “And using the flat side, as I’m sure the Neanderthals knew, helps to keep the edges of the tool sharp for other tasks.” Iron pyrites corrodes once exposed to air, so the small pieces used to strike sparks would be preserved only in exceptional circumstances – and none has yet been found. So the evidence is not completely conclusive, Sorensen says, but it is “pretty solid”.

7-19-18 Baby snake 'frozen in time' gives insight into lost world
The fossil of a baby snake has been discovered entombed inside amber. The creature has been frozen in time for 99 million years. The snake lived in what is now Myanmar, during the age of the dinosaurs. Scientists say the snake fossil is "unbelievably rare". "This is the very first baby snake fossil that we have ever found," Prof Michael Caldwell of the University of Alberta in Canada told BBC News. The baby snake lived in the forests of Myanmar during the Cretaceous period. It has been given the name, Xiaophis Myanmarensis, or dawn snake of Myanmar. A second amber fossil was discovered, which appears to contain part of the shed skin of another much larger snake. It is unclear whether this is a member of the same species. The animal became stuck in tree sap, a sticky substance that can preserve skin, scales, fur, feathers or even whole creatures. "It's the super-glue of the fossil record," said Prof Caldwell. "Amber is totally unique - whatever it touches is frozen in time inside of the plastic-like resin."

Earliest fossils

  • Snakes: The oldest known snake fossils date from between 140 million and 167 million years ago.
  • Lizard: Megachirella wachtleri lived in the Triassic Period, about 240 million years ago.
  • Dinosaur: The earliest known dinosaur fossil dates to around the same time as the earliest lizard. Dinosaurs went on to dominate the Earth for 165 million years.
  • Horse: It lived around 52 million years ago and was only about the size of a fox. However, true horses only appear around 20 million years ago.
  • Human: The oldest example is a jawbone fragment from the Afar Region of Ethiopia and dating to between 2.80 and 2.75 million years ago.

7-18-18 This amber nugget from Myanmar holds the first known baby snake fossil
The delicate skeleton dates to about 99 million years ago. The first known fossil remains of a baby snake have turned up in a hunk of amber found in Myanmar. The critter, a new species named Xiaophis myanmarensis, met its untimely demise about 99 million years ago, during the Cretaceous Period, an international team of researchers reports July 18 in Science Advances. How do we know it’s a baby? First, it’s tiny. The skeleton, which is missing its skull, is about 5 centimeters long. In total, the snake was probably less than 8 centimeters. Plus, its incomplete bone formation matches what’s seen today in neonatal snakes. Really? Nobody has found a fossilized baby snake before? The fossil record for snakes has been notoriously sparse until about the last 20 years, says coauthor Michael Caldwell, a paleontologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. Snakes don’t preserve well in general. And this baby is especially delicate, with 97 wafer-thin vertebrae packed into just 47 millimeters of skeleton. What can it teach us? This fossil, plus skin from a larger snake of a different species, offers the first evidence that some Cretaceous-era snakes lived in forests. That’s not necessarily a surprise, Caldwell says. By then, snakes were distributed broadly around the world. But other snake fossils don’t always have enough clues to ID the animal’s habitat. Because amber oozes from a tree, anything preserved inside it must have lived nearby.

7-18-18 First snake found in amber is a baby from the age of the dinosaurs
Around 100 million years ago, this baby snake hatched on a tropical island in the Indian Ocean and then got stuck in resin oozing from a tree. Around 100 million years ago, a baby snake hatched on a tropical island in the Indian Ocean. The tiny snake, just 10 centimetres long, got stuck in resin oozing from a tree. That chunk of resin remained buried as the island drifted north and became part of what is now Myanmar. When it was finally dug up a few years ago, the skeletal remains were misidentified as a centipede and the amber sold to a private collector. But it has now been studied by an international team, who have scanned the amber to build up a 3D image of the skeleton. “The baby is unquestionably a snake,” says team member Michael Caldwell of the University of Alberta, Canada, a palaeontologist who specialises in studying ancient snakes and lizards. This would make it the first ever snake found in amber. Unfortunately, only around 4 cm of the back half of the snake survived, so the skull is missing. The team also studied a second piece of amber that contains what they think is a piece of skin shed by a larger snake – possibly of the same species as the baby. However, in this case the team cannot be completely certain that the skin is from a snake rather than a lizard. Snake fossils of any kind are very rare. Worldwide only around 15 fossils have been found from this period. And no snakes have ever been found in amber. “This is absolutely the first,” say Caldwell. But he is hopeful more will soon be found. In fact, other amber snake fossils might be sitting in collections already, but have yet to be identified, he says. Most amber fossils are of insects and their ilk, but bits of dinosaurs and birds have also found. Last year another team unveiled the best preserved ancient bird ever found.

7-18-18 No, mobile phones still won’t give you brain cancer
We are so glued to our phones that people can't seem to stop worrying that they give you cancer – but if they did, we would have seen a massive increase in tumours. The supposed health risk from mobile phones is the story that will never die. The latest claim, branded an “inconvenient truth” by the Observer newspaper, is that new research shows they cause cancer in rats. But like all previous incarnations of this tale, the real truth is that the evidence has been overblown and there is nothing to worry about. Cell phones have been accused of everything from causing brain cancer to “frying” men’s testicles over the years. Phones emit radiation to communicate with mobile phone masts, and radiation has always had a bad rap, thanks to the well-known effects of X-rays and nuclear fall-out. But phones use a form known as non-ionising radiation, meaning it doesn’t carry enough energy to tear electrons away from their atoms and turn them into ions. It’s this electron-stripping that means X-rays, for instance, can cause cancerous mutations in our DNA. The latest work, done by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), exposed rats and mice to non-ionising radio-frequency radiation like that emitted by phones. As the NIH already reported in interim findings two years ago, some of the exposed animal groups did have a higher incidence of damage to the heart, and cancers in nerves to the heart. But the animals were given much higher doses of radiation than people experience in real life – even those of us who are glued to our phones. They were kept in special chambers that exposed them to high levels of radiation over their whole body, for nine hours a day for the duration of their two-year lives. So the findings cannot be assumed to also apply to humans, NIH researcher John Bucher said in a statement. More importantly, there has been no good evidence that cancers of these types are increasing in people. Our use of mobile phones and other wireless devices in our homes has been increasing at unprecedented rate. Cancer incidence is tracked carefully in countries such as the UK and the US – if tumours of the heart or brain were on the rise, we would know about it by now.

7-18-18 Deaths from liver disease have been rising since the financial crisis
Cirrhosis deaths were falling in the US until the financial crisis hit in 2008, but have sharply risen since then, especially among young people. Deaths from liver disease have risen in the US since the financial crisis, with a particularly sharp rise in alcohol-related cirrhosis among young people. Analysing a database of US death certificates from 2009 to 2016, Elliot Tapper at the University of Michigan and Neehar D Parikh of the Ann Arbor Healthcare System found a 65 per cent increase in deaths caused directly by cirrhosis, as well as a doubling of deaths from liver cancer, which is often linked to cirrhosis. This is a reverse in recent trends – between 1999 and 2008, deaths from cirrhosis fell by an average of 0.5 per cent each year. Cirrhosis has a variety of causes, including obesity and alcohol abuse. Deaths due to cirrhosis caused by alcohol consumption in particular grew in all age groups. However, the change was especially sharp among people under 35, rising by 98 per cent —a surprising finding, as drinking in this age group is thought to have decreased overall. “What you’re probably seeing is that while the average amount of alcohol use may be declining, there is a very important group of people for whom alcohol is having an outsized impact on their lives,” says Tapper. Because of the timing of the upswing in deaths, the researchers suspect that this could be connected to unemployment and other economic issues resulting from the 2008 financial crisis. Deaths from suicide and opioid abuse have also risen during the same period.

7-18-18 How a variation on Botox could be used to treat pain
Drugs made with botulinum toxin may offer an alternative to opioids, a study in mice finds. Painkillers crafted with a part of the wrinkle-smoothing drug Botox provide long-term pain relief in mice. Researchers added the modified Botox to molecules that target pain-messaging nerve cells. Mice given a single spinal injection of the new drugs showed signs of pain relief for the full duration of the experiments, around three weeks, researchers report online July 18 in Science Translational Medicine. Such painkillers could potentially one day be developed for humans as alternatives to more addictive drugs, such as opioids. Created by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, botulinum toxin causes the food poisoning disease botulism. Botox, which is made from the toxin, is often injected into people to iron out worry lines and has been used to treat conditions that involve overactive muscles, such as repetitive neck spasms or overactive bladder (SN: 4/5/08, p. 213). The toxin has also been used to reduce the frequency of migraines. Biochemist Bazbek Davletov of the University of Sheffield in England and colleagues focused on botulinum toxin because it can stop certain nerve cells from communicating with one another for up to five months with each injection. And “you locally inject less than a millionth of a gram, which is helpful to avoid any immune response,” he says.

7-18-18 The real cabbage soup diet: What Britons ate down the ages
Ancient Britons were eating dairy, peas, cabbage and oats, according to gunk trapped in their teeth. Scientists analysed dental plaque found on the teeth of skeletons from the Iron Age to post-Medieval times. They found evidence of milk proteins, cereals and plants, as well as an enzyme that aids digestion. In modern samples, they found proteins that reflect a more cosmopolitan diet, including potatoes, soya and peanuts. The research gives a picture of what people have been eating through the ages, including food that leaves no trace in the archaeological record. Lead researcher, Dr Camilla Speller, from the department of archaeology at the University of York, said the technique can distinguish between different crops and show whether people were consuming dairy products, like milk or cheese. "In the teeth we look at from individuals who lived around the Victorian era, we identified proteins related to plant foods, including oats, peas and vegetables in the cabbage family," she said. "Occasionally, we find evidence of milk and oats in the same mouth - I like to think it's from eating porridge!" In the new study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B, researchers analysed 100 archaeological samples from across England, as well as 14 samples from living dental patients and individuals who have recently died. Dietary proteins were found in about one third of the analysed samples. Proteins found in ancient dental plaque have already revealed that humans were drinking milk as far back as 6,500 BC.

7-18-18 The truth about intelligence: What is it really?
Far from being an indefinable concept, a single measure of intelligence underpins our problem-solving, musicality and even creativity and emotional skills. When researchers talk about intelligence, they are referring to a specific set of skills that includes the abilities to reason, learn, plan and solve problems. The interesting thing is that people who are good at one of them tend to be good at all of them. These skills seem to reflect a broad mental capability, which has been dubbed general intelligence or g. That’s not to say people don’t specialise in different areas. Some will be particularly good at solving mathematical problems, others will have particularly strong verbal or spatial abilities, and so on. When it comes to intelligence tests, although these specific skills account for about half of the variation between people’s performance, the other half is down to g. “If you took a sample of 1000 people and gave them all IQ tests, the people who do better on the vocabulary test will also do better, on average, on the reaction speed test, and so on,” says Stuart Ritchie, an intelligence researcher at the University of Edinburgh, UK. This seems to fly in the face of old ideas. In the early 1980s, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner argued for the existence of multiple intelligences, including “bodily-kinaesthetic”, “logical-mathematical” and “musical”. However, most researchers now believe these categories reflect different blends of abilities, skills and personality traits, not all of which are related to cognitive ability. Likewise, recent research indicates that so-called emotional intelligence – the ability to regulate one’s emotions and relate to other people – is simply a mixture of general intelligence and personality.

7-18-18 The truth about intelligence: Can I become cleverer?
Brain-training is thriving despite doubts it can actually boost your smarts. But there is a way to increase your IQ score and keep your brain sharp for longer. During the early 1990s, a paper was published in Nature revealing that students performed better on an intelligence test if they listened to Mozart while taking it. So was born the billion-dollar brain-training industry. Sadly, other researchers have been unable to replicate the “Mozart effect”. Studies of computer games that claim to improve mental performance have produced mixed results too. “Brain training, Baby Einstein, and so on have been fairly disappointing in terms of being able to boost IQ,” says Stuart Ritchie at the University of Edinburgh, UK. However, one intervention has repeatedly been shown to work: education. True, intelligent children often remain in school for longer, but that can’t be the whole story. During the 1960s, the Norwegian government added two extra years of compulsory education to its curriculum and rolled out the change gradually, allowing comparisons between different regions. When researchers investigated IQ scores from tests taken by all Norwegian men as part of their compulsory military service, they concluded that the additional schooling added 3.7 IQ points per year.

7-18-18 The truth about intelligence: Do IQ tests really work?
Russell Warne has spent many hours scrutinising undergraduate psychology textbooks. As a professor of psychology at Utah Valley University, he wasn’t looking for insight, but for mistakes – and he found plenty. Some of the worst concerned IQ tests. “The most common inaccuracy I found, by far, was the claim that intelligence tests are biased against certain groups,” he says. Yet intelligence researchers are at pains to ensure that IQ tests are fair and not culturally biased. “Another, very common one was the idea that intelligence is difficult to measure.” No wonder IQ tests are often considered controversial and flaky. But that simply isn’t the case. “Despite the critiques, the intelligence test is one of the most reliable and solid behavioural tests ever invented,” says Rex Jung at the University of New Mexico. That said, you shouldn’t trust the kind of 10-minute test that might pop up in your Facebook feed. A comprehensive IQ test takes well over an hour and is ideally administered by a professional examiner. It is designed to assess precisely those cognitive skills that constitute intelligence, so consists of a series of subtests that cover reasoning, vocabulary, mental processing speed, spatial ability and more. Shorter IQ tests, assessing fewer of these skills, can still provide a general indication of someone’s mental abilities, however, because the nature of intelligence means that someone who scores highly on one type of cognitive test will also do comparatively well on others.

7-18-18 The truth about intelligence: What makes someone smarter than others?
Our search for genes associated with brainpower is starting to bear fruit, but isn’t the whole story. Your IQ is influenced by many subtle factors. One reason people may find discussing intelligence uncomfortable is the belief that it is something you are born with and so you can do nothing to influence it. This undercuts social equality, and feeds into the link between intelligence testing and eugenics, which still looms large for many. However, there is no escaping the fact that intelligence is inherited to some degree. Researchers found that the IQ of children adopted at birth bore little correlation with that of their adoptive parents, but strongly correlated with that of their biological parents. What’s more, this association became stronger as the children grew older. “That’s counter-intuitive for most people,” says Robert Plomin at King’s College London, who led the study. “They think as you go through life, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune build up and environmental differences become cumulatively more important, because they think that genes only influence what happens at the moment of conception.” That’s not true, of course. In fact, hundreds of studies all point in the same direction. “About 50 per cent of the difference in intelligence between people is due to genetics,” he says.

7-18-18 Specky geeks and airheads? The truth behind intelligence stereotypes
Cliches about cleverness and stupidity abound. It turns out that most of them are horribly wrong, but perhaps that should come as no surprise given that our thinking about intelligence is so riddled with myths and misconceptions. Is there any solid foundation to calling people evil geniuses, airheads, absent-minded professors, specky geeks and more?

  • Evil genius: Psychopaths may think of themselves as intellectually superior but, in general, they have below average IQ scores and do poorly at school.
  • Specky geek: Highly intelligent people are twice as likely to be short-sighted as people who have low IQ scores.
  • Rational intellectual: When asked to analyse a controversial issue, intelligent people often come up with more arguments both to support and critique it compared with less cognitively gifted individuals.
  • Absent-minded professor : Some people are great at recalling facts, but struggle to remember personal encounters and experiences.
  • Beautiful airhead: As if fortune hadn’t smiled on them enough, beautiful people may also be more intelligent.
  • Mumnesiac: A woman’s brain shrinks by up to 7 per cent during pregnancy and she may experience a short-term decline in her memory for words.

7-18-18 The truth about intelligence: How useful is a high IQ?
A smart brain might help you do well in tests, but there are many other ways it can affect your life, both positively and negatively. Exams are not the only route to success, as billionaire businessmen Richard Branson and Alan Sugar – who left school aged 15 and 16 – will attest. Nevertheless, good grades can open doors, and intelligence certainly helps when it comes to educational attainment. IQ test performance accounts for roughly two-thirds of the variance in people’s school exam scores – other factors including motivation and mental and physical health also influence how well children do. But intelligence isn’t just useful in school. IQ predicts how people will respond to workplace training and how well they will do their job, even in non-academic professions such as being a car mechanic or carpenter. It also predicts social mobility. This is, perhaps, because general intelligence reflects people’s ability to handle complexity in everyday affairs, according to Stuart Richie at the University of Edinburgh, UK. Many tasks, from supermarket shopping to juggling our diaries, require us to deal with unexpected situations, to reason and make judgements and to identify and solve problems. This is true of our social interactions too. People who score better in IQ tests are also healthier and live longer. One explanation could be that they are better educated, so more likely to be in professional jobs that command higher salaries, helping them afford things like gym memberships and healthier foods. Another is that learning, reasoning and problem-solving skills are useful in avoiding accidents, preventing chronic disease and sticking to complex treatment regimes if you do fall ill. In addition, a lower IQ might be caused by events during fetal development or childhood – such as a blow to the head – that influence health and longevity.

7-18-18 Welcome to the Meghalayan Age - a new phase in history
The official history of Earth has a new chapter - and we are in it. Geologists have classified the last 4,200 years as being a distinct age in the story of our planet. They are calling it the Meghalayan Age, the onset of which was marked by a mega-drought that crushed a number of civilisations worldwide. The International Chronostratigraphic Chart, the famous diagram depicting the timeline for Earth's history (seen on many classroom walls) will be updated. It should be said, however, there is disquiet in the scientific community at the way the change has been introduced. Some researchers feel there has been insufficient discussion on the matter since the Meghalayan was first raised as an idea in a scholarly paper six years ago. Geologists divide up the 4.6-billion-year existence of Earth into slices of time. Each slice corresponds to significant happenings - such as the break-up of continents, dramatic shifts in climate, and even the emergence of particular types of animals and plant life. We currently live in what is called the Holocene Epoch, which reflects everything that has happened over the past 11,700 years - since a dramatic warming kicked us out of the last ice age. But the Holocene itself can be subdivided, according to the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS). It is the official keeper of geologic time and it proposed three stages be introduced to denote the epoch's upper, middle and lower phases. These all record major climate events. The Meghalayan, the youngest stage, runs from 4,200 years ago to the present. It began with a destructive drought, whose effects lasted two centuries, and severely disrupted civilisations in Egypt, Greece, Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and the Yangtze River Valley.

7-18-18 Ecuador's colonial past 'written in soil'
The arrival of European settlers in Ecuador had a profound effect on the country's population and environment. This is according to new findings from The Open University. Researchers studying soil cores from the Quijos valley found that they revealed a detailed story of the area's history after Spanish settlers arrived in the 1500s. The subsequent decimation of the region's indigenous population is told by surprising historians - plants. When two European tourists arrived in Ecuador's Quijos valley in the 1850s and 1860s, they described its landscape as dense, impenetrable and "unpeopled by the human race". The region's cloud forest, a belt of growth which falls between the high altitude grasslands and tropical rainforest, runs along the flanks of the Andes mountains. Yet records from Spanish settlers showed a population of over 30,000 Quijos peoples living in the area just 300 years previously. Although its 19th century visitors regarded it as pristine, it had actually undergone profound changes in the wake of European colonisation. Dr Nicolas Loughlin started his PhD at The Open University looking for evidence of changes to Ecuador's cloud forests at the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago. Taking soil cores from Lake Huila in the Quijos valley, he began to look for prehistoric pollen. What he ended up finding was something much more recent. He told BBC News: "I started looking at the pollen and the fungal spores and the charcoal [in the cores]. We started seeing these really interesting changes... and when we had them dated, we could link these very specific changes where you go from almost all forest-type pollen, to grass-type pollen, at a very specific point."

7-18-18 We’ve started to uncover the true purpose of dreams
For the first time, researchers have got evidence that dreams help soothe the impact of emotional events in our lives, acting like overnight therapy. DREAMING really does help us process our memories and come to terms with our daily lives. That might sound uncontroversial but we have never had clear evidence that this is the case – until now. The finding raises the prospect of hacking our dreams to boost learning, memory and emotional well-being. Mark Blagrove at Swansea University in the UK and his colleagues have found that the emotional strength of the experiences we have when we are awake is linked to the content of our dreams, and the intensity of our dreaming brainwaves. The team asked 20 student volunteers to keep a detailed diary of their daily lives for 10 days, logging the main things they had done, any personally significant events that had taken place, and any major concerns or worries they had had. Where appropriate, the students noted any accompanying emotion, and scored it for intensity. On the evening of the tenth day, the volunteers slept in the team’s dream lab while wearing an EEG cap that measured their brainwaves. Each person was woken during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, and if they had been dreaming, a report of the dream was recorded. The team then compared the content of such dreams with the daily logs, looking for links. For example, you might have a scary near miss while cycling, and later dream about riding a bike. During REM sleep, electrical activity in the brain oscillates at a frequency between 4 and 7 hertz, generating a type of brainwave known as theta waves. Blagrove’s team found that the intensity of a person’s theta waves was positively correlated with the number of diary items that appeared in their dreams.

7-18-18 ‘Toxic’ levels of borax in toy slime are unlikely to hurt children
A report by consumer group Which? has warned that many toy slime products break European Union limits on borax, but a few precautions should keep people safe. If you don’t have children, you may well be unaware that slime is a thing. A huge thing, and many kids love to spend hours making slime using a plethora of internet recipes. But concerns have been raised that it can contain potentially toxic levels of chemicals. Should parents be worried about their children playing with it? A report by consumer group Which? has found that some slimes bought online in the UK contain up to four times the permitted concentration of an element called boron, in the form of sodium borate, or borax. What the report does not say is that home-made slime could well contain even higher levels. The report sparked alarming headlines, but actually the risks are very low. Polymers such as PVA glue are the main ingredient in slimes. They are molecules made of long chains of repeating units. Mix them with water and you get a liquid. To turn that liquid into slime, you add an “activator” that makes the chains stick together despite being in water – and borax is commonly used. So is toy slime safe? The Which? report states that “Exposure to excessive levels of boron could cause irritation, diarrhoea, vomiting and cramps in the short term”. While this is true, what the report does not say it is that children are exceedingly unlikely to have excessive levels of boron even after playing with the slime found to have 1400 milligrams of boron per kilogram, way above the European Union safety limit of 300 mg/kg limit for toys of this kind.

7-17-18 Blood test detects melanoma skin cancer while it’s easily treatable
A blood test that detects melanoma in its early stages may allow people to get treatment before the cancer spreads and becomes difficult to cure. A new blood test that picks up melanoma in its early stages could help to catch the skin cancer before it turns deadly. At the moment, melanoma is normally detected by visually scanning the skin. Suspicious-looking moles are cut out and sent for lab testing, but only 30 per cent turn out to be cancerous, while many true cancers are missed. Now, Mel Ziman at Edith Cowan University in Australia and her colleagues have developed a blood test that they hope will allow more accurate detection of melanoma. The test works by detecting antibodies that the immune system produces soon after melanoma starts to grow. In a study of 105 patients with early-stage melanoma and 104 healthy people, the test accurately identified the cancer in 82 per cent of cases. Picking up melanoma at this early stage is important so that patients can get treated before it spreads, says Ziman. The cure rate is up to 99 per cent when it’s detected early, compared to 15 to 20 per cent when it has spread, she says.

7-17-18 An ancient swimming revolution in the oceans may have never happened
Fossil analysis suggests the rise of creatures that could swim was gradual, not sudden. About 540 million years ago, the oceans were an alien landscape, devoid of swimming, or nektonic, creatures. Some scientists have hypothesized, based on fossil evidence, that swimmers suddenly dominated in the oceans during the Devonian Period, between 419 million and 359 million years ago. But an in-depth study of marine fossils now suggests that this so-called Devonian Nekton Revolution never actually took place. Christopher Whalen and Derek Briggs, both paleontologists at Yale University, examined nearly 2,000 different genera of marine fossils dating to the Paleozoic Era, a vast span of geologic time between 540 million and 252 million years ago. Based on the creatures’ shapes, or morphologies, the researchers assessed whether the animals swam, and if they stayed close to the seafloor or ventured higher up in the water column. The analysis showed no sudden burst of swimmers during the Devonian, the researchers contend July 18 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Instead, over time, “the water column was slowly filling with larger, more actively swimming animals,” Whalen says. “By the end of the Paleozoic, the oceans looked more like the oceans we know today.” The Paleozoic got started with a bang with a burst of biodiversity famously known as the Cambrian explosion that brought into the world most of its modern major phyla, from arthropods to tardigrades. Some 40 million years later, the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event added new branches to the tree of life, with cephalopods such as jellyfish and gastropods such as snails.

STRONG SWIMMER: The armored, jawed fish Dunkleosteus was a top ocean predator around 380 million to 360 million years ago, during the late Devonian Period.

7-17-18 Prehistoric bake-off: Scientists discover oldest evidence of bread
Scientists have discovered the earliest known evidence of bread-making, from a 14,000-year-old dig site. The bake would have looked like a flatbread and tasted a bit like today's multi-grain varieties, they say. Our ancestors may have used the bread as a wrap for roasted meat. Thus, as well as being the oldest bread, it may also have been the oldest sandwich. The find, from the Black Desert in Jordan, pushes back the first evidence for bread by more than 5,000 years. The stone age bread-makers took flour made from wild wheat and barley, mix it with the pulverised roots of plants, added water, and then baked it. The product would have looked like a flatbread and tasted a bit like today's multi-grain bread, they say. "This is the earliest evidence we have for what we could really call a cuisine, in that it's a mixed food product," Prof Dorian Fuller of University College London told BBC News. "They've got flatbreads, and they've got roasted gazelle and so forth, and that's something they are then using to make a meal." Bread has long been part of our staple diet. But little is known about the origins of bread-making. Until now, the oldest evidence of bread came from Turkey; those finds are 9,000 years old. Scientists uncovered two buildings, each containing a large circular stone fireplace within which charred bread crumbs were found. Analysed under the microscope, the bread samples showed tell-tale signs of grinding, sieving and kneading.

7-16-18 Stone Age bakers made first bread thousands of years before farming
Evidence of the first early bread suggests humans were baking with wheat and oats thousands of years before they began farming the cereals. A trail of ancient bread crumbs has helped archaeologists put the origins of bread making in the Stone Age. The find provides the first direct evidence that humans were baking with wheat and oats thousands of years before they began farming the cereals. Bread has been an important staple food for millennia. Stale loaves of bread dating back 3500 years have turned up in Ancient Egyptian tombs, and there are domed ovens that might have been used for baking at a 9000-year-old early farming settlement called Catalhoyuk in Turkey. Go back earlier in time, though, and the evidence for bread dries up. This is why the discoveries at Shubayqa 1 are potentially so important, says Amaia Arranz-Otaegui at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. The site lies in northeastern Jordan and it dates back 14,400 years – a time when Stone Age hunter-gatherers in the Near East were beginning to settle down in near-permanent settlements but a few millennia before farming took off in the region. At two ancient fireplaces within the site, Arranz-Otaegui and her colleagues found hundreds of pieces of charred food. Among them were 24 fragments, each about 6 millimetres across, with a bread-like porous structure. A closer look showed they contain the remains of cereals – wild barley, einkorn wheat and oats – and non-cereals including tubers.

7-16-18 CRISPR gene editing is not quite as precise and as safe as thought
A study has found that CRISPR can delete large chunks of DNA, suggesting it could cause cancer if used to treat diseases by editing many cells in the body. A study of CRIPSR suggests we shouldn’t rush into trying out CRISPR genome editing inside people’s bodies just yet. The technique can cause big deletions or rearrangements of DNA, says Allan Bradley of the Wellcome Sanger Institute in the UK, meaning some therapies based on CRISPR may not be quite as safe as we thought. The CRISPR genome editing technique is revolutionising biology, enabling us to create new varieties of plants and animals and develop treatments for a wide range of diseases. The CRISPR Cas9 protein works by cutting the DNA of a cell in a specific place. When the cell repairs the damage, a few DNA letters get changed at this spot – an effect that can be exploited to disable genes. At least, that’s how it is supposed to work. But in studies of mice and human cells, Bradley’s team has found that in around a fifth of cells, CRISPR causes deletions or rearrangements more than 100 DNA letters long. These surprising changes are sometimes thousands of letters long. This finding is not a problem for the purposes for which CRISPR is currently being used. But some groups are developing treatments that would involve using CRISPR to edit billions of cells inside the human body. If Bradley is right, there’s a chance that a few of these cells might turn cancerous. “There’s a risk of causing cancer sometime in a patient’s lifetime,” says Bradley. “We need to understand more before rushing into human clinical trials.”

7-16-18 Wireless implant lights up inside the body to kill cancer
Researchers have developed a sticky sheet that could allow a wirelessly-powered LED chip to be stuck inside the body to deliver "photodynamic therapy". A new light-emitting device that can be implanted in the body could be used to treat cancer. Photodynamic therapy, which is already used to treat some cancers, involves the patient taking a drug that makes cells vulnerable to light. Doctors then shine a light on the tumour for around 10 to 45 minutes, using a flexible tube called an endoscope if the tumour is inside the body, One difficulty is that if the tumour is located in an organ that moves, such as the oesophagus or the lung, the illumination is irregular, which makes it hard to control the dose. If the dose is too small, the treatment won’t work, and if it’s too high, it can damage healthy tissue by overheating it. To overcome this problem, some researchers have tried to develop ways to deliver light at a lower intensity for a longer period of time by implanting optical fibres inside the body. But keeping the light source in the right place is challenging: surgical sutures can’t be used on fragile organs such as the brain and liver, or organs that move like the skin and intestines. Now Toshinori Fujie at Waseda University, Japan, and colleagues have developed a device that is sandwiched between two thin, sticky sheets that attach it to the body. These sheets are covered in a sticky polymer based on proteins found in mussels’ feet. The device consists of an LED chip powered wirelessly by NFC – the technology used in contactless payment terminals – so there is no need for batteries to be implanted in the body.

7-16-18 Publicity over a memory test Trump took could skew its results
Familiarity with the exam may help people score better, masking early dementia symptoms. When President Donald Trump took a mental test as part of his physical in January, the results called attention to far more than his fitness for office. (He passed with a perfect score, according to his physician.) It put a test commonly used to catch early signs of dementia in the spotlight. That publicity could lead to missed diagnoses, researchers warn July 16 in JAMA Neurology. Google searches of the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, a 10-minute screening test consisting of 30 questions, spiked in the week after news coverage of Trump’s physical. Of 190 news articles about his performance identified by the researchers, 53.7 percent included some or all of the test’s questions and answers. And 17 percent encouraged readers to see how their mental abilities stacked up against the president’s. That might make it more difficult for clinicians to screen patients for early signs of dementia. Taking the test once increases your score the next time you take it, a phenomenon called a learning effect. The study didn’t track how many readers took the memory test. But for those who did, researchers say, the learning effect could artificially inflate some patients’ scores and make it harder for doctors to pick up on the memory symptoms linked to Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. Most of the news articles quoted questions from one specific version of the test, so the researchers suggest that doctors should administer alternate versions to prevent skewed results.

7-15-18 The brain may clean out Alzheimer’s plaques during sleep
If sleep deprivation puts garbage removal on the fritz, the memory-robbing disease may develop. Neuroscientist Barbara Bendlin studies the brain as Alzheimer’s disease develops. When she goes home, she tries to leave her work in the lab. But one recent research project has crossed into her personal life: She now takes sleep much more seriously. Bendlin works at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, home to the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention, a study of more than 1,500 people who were ages 40 to 65 when they signed up. Members of the registry did not have symptoms of dementia when they volunteered, but more than 70 percent had a family history of Alzheimer’s disease. Since 2001, participants have been tested regularly for memory loss and other signs of the disease, such as the presence of amyloid-beta, a protein fragment that can clump into sticky plaques in the brain. Those plaques are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia. Each person also fills out lengthy questionnaires about their lives in the hopes that one day the information will offer clues to the disease. Among the inquiries: How tired are you? Some answers to the sleep questions have been eye-opening. Bendlin and her colleagues identified 98 people from the registry who recorded their sleep quality and had brain scans. Those who slept badly — measured by such things as being tired during the day — tended to have more A-beta plaques visible on brain imaging, the researchers reported in 2015 in Neurobiology of Aging.

ANIMAL INTELLIGENCE and ZOOLOGY

7-18-18 How dodgy sausages are saving a cute marsupial from toxic toads
In a true-life alien versus predator story, a touch of food poisoning could save an endangered Australian species from a relentless toxic tide. RICK SHINE can’t stand the smell of whisky. His aversion stems from a youthful excess of the spirit that left him puking. That was more than five decades ago. Now the evolutionary biologist at the University of Sydney is trying to trigger the same sickness-induced repulsion in Australian predators. It’s not that they have a drinking problem. But they do need to learn to avoid another noxious substance: cane toads. These large amphibians are a massive nuisance. Some 80 years ago, a few were transported from Hawaii to Queensland in north-eastern Australia to gobble up pests that were damaging fields of sugar cane. Today, perhaps as many as 1.5 billion of them cover northern Australia. It’s like a cheap all-you-can-eat buffet for native carnivores – one that comes with guaranteed food poisoning. When threatened, the toads secrete venom from glands on their shoulders that is strong enough to kill many predators on the spot. As a result, cane toads are decimating populations of native species including lizards, freshwater crocodiles and the northern quoll, a now endangered marsupial. Shine hopes he can save the predators’ lives by putting them off cane toads in much the same way he acquired his loathing of whisky. It is not the first time conservationists have tried this approach, formally known as conditioned taste aversion. In 2011, wildlife biologist Bill Given had the idea of trying it out on lions. Their drastic decline is partly down to a taste for livestock, which leads farmers to shoot them. So Given began feeding beef laced with a nauseating toxin to lions that had killed cattle and been brought to a safari lodge in Botswana. Pinning down the right dosage has been tricky. And the lions’ robust constitution hinders learning. “Their systems are quite forgiving when they get ill,” he says. Nevertheless, he has successfully triggered aversion in one lioness, and is hopeful that he is finally closing in on the best approach.

7-16-18 Honeybees gang up to roast invading hornets alive — at a terrible cost
The worker bees that form “hot defensive bee balls” are effectively kamikaze fighters, with the heat from the ball shortening their life expectancy. When hornets attack, bees know what to do. A few hundred workers can swarm into balls around hornets and roast them alive with their body heat. The formation of such “hot defensive bee balls” was first described in 1995 in Japanese honeybees. Now we know the defence is something of a kamikaze mission for the bees involved. When hornets attack a hive to carry off bees to eat, a group of worker bees quickly surround the intruder. The bees vibrate their wing muscles to generate temperatures of about 46oC for more than 30 minutes, enough to kill the hornets. It’s crucial they deploy the balls quickly, otherwise the hornet releases pheromones that attracts reinforcements. Entomologist Atsushi Ugajin at Tamagawa University near Tokyo began wondering about the costs to the honeybees. He wondered if heat exposure in the balls might reduce their life expectancy. To find out, he and his colleagues marked about 350 Japanese honeybee workers with colours to record their age in days. Then they divided a batch of bees that were 15-20 days old into two groups, one of which was allowed to form hot balls and one of which was kept in the hive at 32o C. Workers typically live for several weeks. The bees that avoided the hot balls were all dead 16 days after the ball, but the ones that took part were all dead within 10 days. But what happens when another hornet inevitably attacks? Hornets often attack hives 30 times a week in the autumn. So Ugajin performed another experiment, exposing the bees to a second hornet attack. It turned out that battle-hardened bees that had joined in the first ball were more likely to help out in a second ball.

7-14-18 Horse sense: Happiest equines love to snort, says study
Scientists haven't given too much attention to the significance of horse snorting before now. The expulsion of air through the equine nose has normally been connected with "clearing phlegm, flies or other irritants". But now researchers in France say that these blow-outs are a key indicator of what's going on in the equine mind. They found horses living in relaxed environments produced far more snorts than those in stressful conditions. Understanding when a horse is feeling happy, scientifically, is quite difficult. Cats are easy by comparison; their purring is a clear sign of contentedness. Horses give off conflicting signals - their heart rates increase at the anticipation of food, but decrease during grooming, something that humans generally believe they enjoy. Some people believe that horses being playful are showing they are happy. But researchers say that this isn't always the case, as play can be a "coping mechanism" when horses are faced with unexpected events, and it may also be a way of reducing social tension in the group. In this study, the scientists wanted to test the anecdotal idea that snorting in horses occurs more often in positive situations. Horses snorted far more when they were out in pasture than when they were in a stall. Among riding school horses, snorts occurred at a rate of around five per hour which was about half of what the horses in naturalistic conditions produced. These were also correlated with positive behaviours such as ears pointing forward. When the researchers looked at other measures of welfare and stress they concluded that "the more snorts emitted the more they were in a good welfare state".

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