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Updated: 2 years 14 weeks ago

What is geologic time, and how does it work?

May 2, 2018 - 5:44am

We all recognise the names of some time periods such as Jurassic or Devonian - but how many us of actually understand how geologists divide up the earth’s past?

I’m sure you all remember where you were when you found out that the statistical correlation of magneto-biostratigraphic calcareous nannofossils with M-sequence magnetic anomalies approximated new boundaries for Tethyan Kimmeridgian of Sardinia (Muttoni et al. 2018). I was on my laptop at the time.

I’ll confess, I struggle to even begin to understand what this new paper is about, beyond the broad principle that a chunk of the rock record as it relates to geological time is being slightly tweaked.

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Why genetic IQ differences between 'races' are unlikely

May 2, 2018 - 12:00am

The idea that intelligence can differ between populations has made headlines again, but the rules of evolution make it implausible

The idea that there may be genetic differences in intelligence between one population and another has resurfaced recently, notably in the form of a New York Times op-ed by the Harvard geneticist David Reich. In the article, Reich emphasises the arbitrary nature of traditional racial groupings, but still argues that long periods of ancestry on separate continents have left their genetic marks on modern populations. These are most evident for physical traits like skin and hair colour, where genetic causation is entirely uncontroversial. However, Reich asserts that all genetic traits, including those that affect behaviour and cognition, are expected to differ between populations or races.

This extrapolation from the genetics of physical traits to how our brains work brings back memories of an argument made by the US researchers Charles Murray and Richard J Herrnstein in their 1994 book The Bell Curve, recently resurrected by Murray in conversations with the US neuroscientist and author Sam Harris. In the book, Murray and Herrnstein claim that observed differences in the mean IQ scores of ethnic groups are “highly likely” to be due to both environmental and genetic factors. This sounds quite reasonable at first: the argument concedes that environmental and cultural factors play a big part in any differences seen in the mean IQ scores of various groups. But it also suggests that since genetic variation will contribute to higher or lower IQ in any given population, the genetic differences between one group and another will also underpin mean differences in IQ.

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Ecstasy ingredient could help ease PTSD symptoms, study finds

May 1, 2018 - 4:30pm

Research suggests MDMA could reduce symptoms when combined with talking therapies

MDMA, the main ingredient of the party drug ecstasy, could help reduce symptoms among those living with post-traumatic stress disorder, research suggests.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is commonly treated with drugs, psychotherapies or both. However, some find little benefit, with certain talking therapies linked to high dropout rates.

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David Goodall: doctors threaten 104-year-old scientist's bid to end his life

May 1, 2018 - 3:52pm

Philip Nitschke says Perth doctors believe Goodall ‘a danger to himself and not fit to travel’

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Doctors in Perth are threatening to stop Australia’s oldest scientist flying to Switzerland to end his life through voluntary euthanasia.

Edith Cowan University honorary research associate David Goodall, 104, does not have a terminal illness but his quality of life has deteriorated.

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Terrawatch: rocks could have a role in combatting climate change

May 1, 2018 - 2:30pm

German scientists propose using basalt and dunite to soak up carbon from the atmosphere

They might seem solid, but rocks gradually erode. Wind, rain, ice and snow all contribute to weathering; nibbling away at mountains, sea cliffs, limestone pavements and even solid granite tors.

Freshly exposed rock surfaces react with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to make bicarbonate ions, which flow down to the ocean (hitching a ride on rivulets of rainwater) and are used by ocean critters to make limestone. This natural process helps to keep the Earth cool by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and locking it up in rocks underground for a few million years.

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Brain tumour research to get £18m injection

May 1, 2018 - 11:00am

The sum is part of a £25m boost in funding by Cancer Research UK for brain cancer over the next five years

Brain tumour research is to get an £18 million injection of funding to aid projects ranging from exploring how such cancers begin to developing new ways to treat them.

More than 250,000 people worldwide, including 11,400 people in the UK alone, are diagnosed with a brain tumour every year and often the prognosis is bleak. According to Cancer Research UK figures, just 14% of those diagnosed survive for 10 years or more, while less than 1% of brain tumours are preventable.

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Sajid Javid and the strange science behind power poses

May 1, 2018 - 9:18am

The new home secretary was the latest politician to strike a power pose on Monday. But what does the science say about this odd stance?

Standing like Wonder Woman doesn’t get you any actual superpowers, but various members of the British government are doing it anyway. The latest politician to join the ranks of the power stance team is Sajid Javid, whose promotion to home secretary was accompanied by a photo call in which he stood with his legs so far apart he practically reinvented manspreading. His colleagues have also been pictured doing this stance, which is known in lifestyle and management coaching circles as the “power pose”. It’s known to me, however, as “a bit of nonsense”.

The power pose was popularised by a 2012 TED talk (which to date has 46m views, making it one of the most popular on the site) in which social psychologist Amy Cuddy claims standing like you’re showing off a golden codpiece (my words, not hers) could “significantly change the way your life unfolds”.

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Relic claimed to be bone from St Clement rescued from the bin

May 1, 2018 - 9:08am

Fragment linked to pope martyred almost 2,000 years ago found after rubbish collection run in central London

A small leather case containing a fragment of bone claimed to be a relic of St Clement, a pope who was martyred almost 2,000 years ago, has been found in rubbish collected from central London.

The waste disposal firm is now appealing for suggestions from the public for a more suitable final resting place for a saint than a bin.

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Why the ‘introverts v extroverts’ battle helps neither side

May 1, 2018 - 1:00am

The internet is full of content championing introverts, but extroverts are getting a bad rep by extension. In this ‘us versus them’ mentality, nobody wins

When Carl Jung first introduced the concepts of introversion and extroversion as human personality traits back in the 1920s, he probably never thought that nearly 100 years later his theory would form the basis of a very quiet – but nonetheless persistent – battle of wills.

Type “being an introvert/extrovert” into Google and you get a plethora of emotive and divisive article headlines: listicles, op-eds, motivational blog posts – even scientific journals – all waxing lyrical about the benefits or downfalls of being one or the other. It’s true that Jung’s theories are pretty old by now and certainly not without their criticisms and weaknesses, but they’re essentially the basis around which this introvert v extrovert narrative has formed.

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Exploration of transhumanism movement wins Wellcome book prize

April 30, 2018 - 11:59am

Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine, about humanity’s attempts to conquer death through technology, wins £30,000 prize

Irish debut author Mark O’Connell has won the Wellcome book prize for his exploration of transhumanism, a movement that seeks to use technology to solve “the modest problem of death”, as O’Connell puts it.

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New beetle species named after Leonardo DiCaprio

April 30, 2018 - 9:00am

Water beetle species found in Malaysia was named after the Titanic star for his environmental activism

A new species of water beetle found clinging to a sandstone rock in a fast-flowing stream that leads to a waterfall in Malaysian Borneo has been named after the actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

The tiny black insect, which has a partially retractable head and slightly protruding eyes, was named after the star of Titanic and The Revenant for his environmental activism.

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Boaty McBoatface leads £20m mission to melting Antarctic glacier

April 30, 2018 - 4:00am

British and US scientists are to examine the risk of the Thwaites glacier collapsing, which is already responsible for a 4% sea-level rise


The precarious state of a vast, remote Antarctic glacier will provide an inaugural mission for the British vessel once dubbed Boaty McBoatface, as scientists from the UK and US set up a new £20m research operation.

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The five habits that can add more than a decade to your life

April 30, 2018 - 3:00am

Major study calculates effect on lifespan of habits including healthy eating and not smoking

People who stick to five healthy habits in adulthood can add more than a decade to their lives, according to a major study into the impact behaviour has on lifespan.

Related: Loneliness isn't inevitable – a guide to making new friends as an adult

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It’s official: the Brexiter v remainer battle will never, ever end | Andrew Brown

April 30, 2018 - 2:00am

Dig in for the long haul, folks. Research on Brexit voting habits shows an intrinsic conservatism against liberalism

The Cambridge Analytica scandals have made it obvious that some people’s votes can be predicted and manipulated by knowing their emotional triggers. But new research suggests that the way people think, in apparently unemotional ways, is also a reliable predictor of political attitudes, and in particular, of nationalism and enthusiasm for Brexit.

Related: Brexiters tend to dislike uncertainty and love routine, study says

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Partial rather than full knee replacements better for many – report

April 30, 2018 - 12:00am

Less invasive procedure, often for osteoarthritis, used in only 9% of cases, researchers find

Many more people facing surgery for knee problems would be better off with a partial rather than total knee replacement, which should allow them to recover faster, say experts.

Partial replacements are also cheaper, say researchers from Oxford University. The NHS, however, needs to get the support of surgeons, many of whom rarely carry out the less invasive procedure.

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Starwatch: Mars and Saturn on view with the moon

April 29, 2018 - 2:30pm

Early risers can see a fine grouping in the southern sky, and southern observers should also see shooting stars

Throughout the early hours of 5 May, a nice grouping of solar system objects will be visible in the southern sky.

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Letter: Patricia Lindop obituary

April 29, 2018 - 8:43am

Anthony Tucker’s obituary for Patricia Lindop mentioned that she helped found the Society for Education in the Applications of Science. Thanks to Lord (Brian) Flowers and Patricia, I was a grateful beneficiary of a grant from the society in 1976, to study for a PhD on the Technologies of Political Control at Lancaster University. It wasn’t a smooth journey.

In April 1977, Special Branch raided the university and took my research, as I had inadvertently stumbled across aerials at the back of the university feeding into the US’s Echelon monitoring programme via Menwith Hill in north Yorkshire. Lawyers were needed to get it back.

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Extra time: how smart exercise keeps you younger for longer

April 29, 2018 - 2:00am

Creaking knees, stiff back, dodgy shoulders… Age is no friend to the human body. So how are veteran athletes like Roger Federer and Jo Pavey still at the top of their game? And what can you do to keep up?

Slow down, that used to be the mantra for middle age. The dread half-century reached, fiftysomethings were expected to take up less challenging physical activities – if they were physical at all. A gentle stroll around the golf course, perhaps, rewarded with a gin and tonic at the 19th hole; or membership of the local bowling club, blazered crown green rather than 10-pin.

Physical decline as the body aged was inevitable, something to be grumbled about, accepted and dealt with. That fundamental law has not changed, but the way we manage ageing has. Getting older need not mean getting weaker, at least not until the end is truly nigh.

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Self-destructive species: from exploding ants to postnatal octopuses

April 29, 2018 - 12:00am
Animals that sacrifice their lives, for their homes or offspring – or just because they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time

Earlier this month, a group of scientists described a newly discovered ant species, Colobopsis explodens, in the journal ZooKeys. As the name suggests, the worker ants of the species, which is found in south-east Asia, are known to explode when attacked, releasing sticky, toxic fluid from their abdomens. The explosion kills the ant, which sacrifices itself to protect its nest mates.

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This revolution in our understanding of depression will be life-transforming | Edward Bullmore

April 28, 2018 - 11:00pm
The discovery of genes that are linked to the crippling condition throws up exciting new possibilities for its successful treatment

Depression runs in families, we know. But it is only very recently, and after considerable controversy and frustration, that we are beginning to know how and why. The major scientific discoveries reported last week by the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium in Nature Genetics are a hard-won breakthrough in our understanding of this very common and potentially disabling disorder.

If your parents have been depressed, the chances that you have been or will be depressed are significantly increased. The background risk of depression in the general population is about one in four – each of us has a 25% chance of becoming depressed at some point in our lives. And if your parents have been depressed, your risk jumps by a factor of three.

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