Tag Archives: Science

Machines Learn Better if We Teach Them the Basics

QUANTA MAGAZINE

A wave of research improves reinforcement learning algorithms by pre-training them as if they were human.

Imagine that your neighbor calls to ask a favor: Could you please feed their pet rabbit some carrot slices? Easy enough, you’d think. You can imagine their kitchen, even if you’ve never been there — carrots in a fridge, a drawer holding various knives. It’s abstract knowledge: You don’t know what your neighbor’s carrots and knives look like exactly, but you won’t take a spoon to a cucumber.

Artificial intelligence programs can’t compete. What seems to you like an easy task is a huge undertaking for current algorithms.

Read the full story in Quanta Magazine

The Case of the Incredibly Long-Lived Mouse Cells

WIRED

In a bizarre experiment, scientists kept the rodents’ immune T cells active four times longer than mice can live—with huge implications for cancer, vaccination, and aging research.

DAVID MASOPUST HAS long imagined how to push immune systems to their limits—how to rally the most powerful army of protective cells. But one of the big mysteries of immunology is that so far, nobody knows what those limits are. So he hatched a project: to keep mouse immune cells battle-ready as long as possible. “The idea was, let’s keep doing this until the wheels fall off the bus,” says Masopust, a professor of immunology at the University of Minnesota.

But the wheels never fell off. He was able to keep those mouse cells alive longer than anyone thought possible—indeed, much longer than the mice themselves.

Read the full story in WIRED

The World’s Farms Are Hooked on Phosphorus. It’s a Problem

WIRED

Half of the globe’s crop productivity comes from a key fertilizer ingredient that’s non-renewable—and literally washing away.

DISRUPTING EARTH’S CHEMICAL cycles brings trouble. But planet-warming carbon dioxide isn’t the only element whose cycle we’ve turned wonky—we’ve got a phosphorus problem too. And it’s a big one, because we depend on this element to grow the world’s crops. “I don’t know if it would be possible to have a full world without any mineral phosphorus fertilizer,” says Joséphine Demay, a PhD student at INRAE, France’s National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment.

Since the 1800s, agriculturalists have known that elemental phosphorus is a crucial fertilizer. Nations quickly began mining caches of “phosphate rock,” minerals rich in the element. By the middle of the 20th century, companies had industrialized chemical processes to turn it into a form suitable for supercharging crops, hardening them against disease and making them able to support more people and livestock. That approach worked remarkably well: The post-World War II “Green Revolution” fed countless people thanks to fertilizers and pesticides. But sometimes there’s too much of a good thing.

Read the full story in WIRED

Physicists Controlled Lightning with Lasers on a Mountaintop

INVERSE

The car-sized laser can shoot up to 1,000 pulses per second.

LAST YEAR MARKED the 270th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod — but it’s more than a relic of history. The Franklin rod remains in use today because the simple design exploits some powerful physics: A tall metal rod lures in lightning and chunky wires dissipate the storm’s energy into the earth, sparing humans and surrounding structures.

But thanks to recent physics breakthroughs, a wild new technology could end the rod’s lightning safety monopoly.

Read the full story in Inverse

The Mystery of Nevada’s Ancient Reptilian Boneyard

WIRED

Whale-sized shonisaurs dominated the ocean 230 million years ago. A fossil cluster offers a fascinating glimpse at how they lived—based on where they died.

BERLIN, NEVADA, IS a treasure chest for paleontologists. Just down the road from now-abandoned gold and silver mines, a rockbound collection of bones hints at an even richer past. The Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park is teeming with dozens of fossils of ancient marine reptiles. That bone bed is so abundant and weird that researchers have been scratching their heads over it for decades.

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Scientists Reexamine Why Zebra Stripes Mysteriously Repel Flies

WIRED

While biologists still aren’t exactly sure how it works, a new study closes in on why the insects that pester Savannah animals zig when anything zags.

ABOUT 30 MILES north of the equator, in central Kenya, Kaia Tombak and her colleagues stood beside a plexiglass box. Tombak, who studies the evolution of animals’ social behavior, was dressed for the power of the Savannah sun in a light, long-sleeved shirt and pants. A gang of flies buzzed nearby, and Tombak wondered whether she’d be better off wearing stripes.

Read the full story in WIRED

The Sci-Fi Dream of a ‘Molecular Computer’ Is Getting More Real

WIRED

Chemists have long conceptualized tiny machines that could fabricate drugs, plastics, and other polymers that are hard to build with bigger tools.

DAVID LEIGH DREAMS of building a small machine. Really small. Something minuscule. Or more like … molecule. “Chemists like me have been working on trying to turn molecules into machines for about 25 years now,” says Leigh, an organic chemist from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. “And of course, it’s all baby steps. You’re building on all those that went before you.”

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A Real-Life Body Clock

GROW

A blood test says you’re aging too fast. Now what?

HOLLY MANN remembers a time — it must have been twelve years ago — when she started feeling old. Then 27, the US Army veteran found that she could no longer comfortably exercise. She was sapped of energy, and carried pain in her shoulders, hip, knees, and wrists. “I had a lot of issues that I would frankly associate with somebody who was two decades older than me,” she says. The doctors said that her symptoms stemmed from months of undetected carbon monoxide poisoning. They couldn’t tell her any more than that. Ms. Mann was desperate to feel better — really, she says, to feel younger.

Consulting the internet, she started tinkering with her diet. She tried new workouts. She ordered capsules of Vitamin This and Supplement That. And a few years in, after incremental ups and downs, she started to see real improvements. Though she still faced her share of low-energy days, by 2020, Mann felt noticeably better. She was curious: how much better? Had she, possibly, turned back the hands of time?

Read the full story in GROW

Can Disgusting Images Motivate Good Public Health Behavior?

WIRED

Graphic images have long been tools of campaigns against smoking and STDs. Researchers want to know if they can work for infectious diseases like Covid.

EVERY NOW AND then, I remember the Slideshow. This presentation about sexually transmitted infections was infamous among my fellow South Florida seventh graders. If you got your middle school sex ed elsewhere, it might be hard to imagine just how graphic its slides were. But being gross was the point: If kids saw the symptoms of untreated gonorrhea, the reasoning went, then disgust would sway them from reckless decisions.

Down in the basic wiring of our brains, disgust motivates avoidance. You’re less likely to go on a second date with a first date who smells bad. If a pigeon picks at your sandwich, you might opt to go hungry. Public health data backs this up: When cigarette packaging shows graphic pictures of smokers’ diseased organs, attempts to quit smoking double. “A vivid image is much more powerful than just abstract numbers,” says Woo-kyoung Ahn, a professor of psychology at Yale University. “Disgust is a powerful emotion rooted as an evolutionary adaptation that helps us expel and avoid harmful substances.”

Read the full story in WIRED

This Blood Test Detects Cancer in Dogs. But Do You Want to Know?

WIRED

A startup just showed that its OncoK9 test accurately sounds the alarm for aggressive and advanced cancers. The catch? These often have no cure.

IT WAS TIME for Cici Pepperoni’s annual check-up, but Marina Inserra, the 7-year-old pit bull mix’s owner, wasn’t worried. Inserra worked as a veterinary assistant at the San Diego office where Cici was getting her exam, and as far as she knew, Cici was perfectly fine.

Along with the checkup, Inserra agreed to enter Cici in a clinical study by a company called PetDx that had partnered with her office. The company wanted healthy dogs to donate blood to help validate a test to screen for multiple cancers at once—a liquid biopsy.

Read the full story in WIRED