Category: Science

Scientists discover that “brainstorming” does not work

The idea that a group of people can come up with a cure for cancer by sitting around a white board and coming up with ideas has been rubbished by science.

Brainstorming, which is the tool of managers throughout the world, is believed to come up with solutions to tough business problems.

However now a batch of studies have revealed that people aren’t necessarily more creative in groups than alone, or vice versa, according to numerous studies.

According to a report published in Fast Company, creativity needs people to come together to share ideas and then going off and having a think.

Apparently, our brains’ creative engines are fuelled both by quiet mind-wandering, allowing novel and unexpected connections to form, and by encountering new information, which often comes from other people.

So while shouting around a white board is good for working with others, it misses the point when it comes to quiet thinking. This means that for lots of people, brainstorming is an utter nightmare.

Introverts just feel alienated, and extroverts are not pushed to reflect more deeply on the ideas they’ve batted around amongst themselves.

So when the office manager suggests brainstorming you just know it is not going to come up with anything useful.

Anti-science republican will make US grate by gutting science

The chairman of the science committee in the US House of Representatives told a cheering crowd of climate change doubters and skeptics that his committees’ job is to school boffins until they understand that science is whatever politicians say it is.

Lamar Smith basically admitted that his committee is now a tool to advance his own political agenda rather than a forum to examine important issues facing the US research community.

“Next week we’re going to have a hearing on our favourite subject of climate change and also on the scientific method, which has been repeatedly ignored by the so-called self-professed climate scientists,” Smith told the Heartland Institute’s 12th annual conference on climate change in Washington, D.C.

The audience cheered loudly as Smith named the boffins who he was summoning to reinforce his view that climate change is a politically driven fabrication which is designed to stop America being great again.

He is also calling out Michael Mann, a climate researcher at Pennsylvania State University in State College and a frequent target of climate change doubters. “That’s why this hearing is going to be so much fun,” Smith said with a huge grin on his normally impassive face.

Since President Donald (Prince of Orange) Trump was elected, Smith is a lot more public about dismissing those who disagree with his flat earth view of the world. One of his efforts involves changing the vocabulary of the debate so that instead of talking about climate science, people about “climate studies”.

He also wants the word progressive to be replaced by the much tainted word “liberal”. Liberal should also be used to replace the word ‘mainstream’ when used with media.

Smith also signalled that he wants an end to federally funded research that doesn’t fit his definition of “sound science”. He expressed support for writing legislation that would punish scientific journals that publish research that does not fit standards of peer review designed by Smith and his committee.

German boffins make artificial sunlight

German boffins have turned on what is being billed as “the world’s largest artificial sun,” a device they hope will help shed light on innovative ways of making climate-friendly fuels.

The giant honeycomb-like setup is made of 149 spotlights, dubbed Synlight, in Juelich, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) west of Cologne, and uses xenon short-arc lamps normally found in cinemas to simulate natural sunlight that is often in short supply in Germany at this time of year.

By focusing the entire array on a single 20-by-20 centimeter (8×8 inch) spot, scientists from the German Aerospace Centre, or DLR , will be able to produce the equivalent of 10,000 times the amount of solar radiation that would normally shine on the same surface.

This creates temperatures of up to 3,000 degrees Celsius (5,432 Fahrenheit) which could be the key to making hydrogen.

Bernhard Hoffschmidt, the director of DLR’s Institute for Solar Research told the press that hydrogen will be the fuel of the future because it produces no carbon emissions when burned, meaning it doesn’t add to global warming.

But while hydrogen is the most common element in the universe it is rare on Earth. One way to manufacture it is to split water into its two components — the other being oxygen — using electricity in a process called electrolysis.

Researchers hope to bypass the electricity stage by tapping into the enormous amount of energy that reaches Earth in the form of light from the sun.

Hoffschmidt said the dazzling display is designed to take experiments done in smaller labs to the next level, adding that once researchers have mastered hydrogen-making techniques with Synlight’s 350-kilowatt array, the process could be scaled up ten-fold on the way to reaching a level fit for industry. Experts say this could take about a decade, if there is sufficient industry support.

The goal is to eventually use actual sunlight rather than the artificial light produced at the Juelich experiment, which cost $3.8 million to build and requires as much electricity in four hours as a four-person household would use in a year.

British school kid corrects Nasa’s figures

A British teenager has been on the blower to Nasa scientists to point out an error in a set of their own data.

Miles Soloman in Sheffield found that radiation sensors on the International Space Station (ISS) were recording false data. The correction was said to be “appreciated” by Nasa, which invited him to help analyse the problem.

“What we got given was a lot of spreadsheets, which is a lot more interesting than it sounds,” Soloman told BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme.

The research was part of the TimPix project from the Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS), which gives students across the UK the chance to work on data from the space station, looking for anomalies and patterns that might lead to further discoveries.

During UK astronaut Tim Peake’s stay on the station, detectors began recording the radiation levels on the ISS.

“I went straight to the bottom of the list and I went for the lowest bits of energy there were,” Miles explained.

Miles’s teacher and head of physics, James O’Neill, said: “We were all discussing the data but he just suddenly perked up in one of the sessions and went ‘why does it say there’s -1 energy here?'”

What Miles had noticed was that when nothing hit the detector, a negative reading was recorded. Since you cannot get negative energy. So Soloman and O’Neill contacted Nasa.

It turned out that Miles had noticed something no-one else had – including Nasa.

Nasa said it was aware of the error, but believed it was only happening once or twice a year but Solomon noticed it was happening several times a day.

SatNav makes you stupid

Using SatNav messes with the parts of your brain which help you navigate normally.

Boffins writing in the journal Nature Communications rscanned the brains of 24 volunteers as they explored a simulation through the streets of London’s Soho district.

The researchers from the University of London found that listening to a satellite navigation’s instructions “switched off” activity in parts of the brain used for navigation.

A bit of the brain called the hippocampus, which is involved in both memory and spatial navigation, appears to encode two different maps of the environment. The first tracks the distance to the final destination as the crow flies and is encoded by the frontal region of the hippocampus, the other tracks the “true path” to the goal and is encoded by its rear region.

During the navigation tasks, the hippocampus acts like a flexible guidance system, flipping between these two maps according to changing demands. Activity in the hippocampal rear region acts like a homing signal, increasing as the goal gets closer.

Analysis of the brain-scanning data revealed activity in the rear right of the hippocampus increased whenever the participants entered a new street while navigating. It also varied with the number of new path options available. The more alternatives there were, the greater the brain activity.

The researchers also found that activity in the front of the hippocampus was associated with a property called centrality, defined by the proximity of each new street to the centre of the network.

Activity could be seen in the participants’ prefrontal cortices when they were forced to make a detour and had to replan their route — and this increased in relation to the number of options available.

However when participants followed SatNav instructions, brain activity in these regions “switched off” and the whole lot had a snooze.

Together, the new findings suggest the rear portion of the hippocampus reactivates spatial memories of possible navigation paths, with more available paths evoking more activity, and that the prefrontal cortex may contribute to path-planning by searching though different route options and selecting the best one.

Time warp takes a jump to the left on common sense

Boffins are becoming increasingly bewildered by some of the antics of time including one which means that time is getting fuzzier as clocks become more precise

A team of physicists from the University of Vienna and the Austrian Academy of Sciences have applied quantum mechanics and general relativity to argue that increasing the precision of measurements on clocks in the same space warps time.

But while the theories are both supported by experiments, they usually do not play well together, forcing physicists to consider a new theory that will allow them both to be correct at the same time.

Now the boffins are working on a theory which suggests that the act of measuring time in greater detail needs the possibility of increasing amounts of energy into time makes any clocks less precise.

Researcher Esteban Castro said the findings suggest that it needs to re-examine its ideas about the nature of time when both quantum mechanics and general relativity are considered.

It also means that the universe doesn’t have a master clock which it runs to and it can never make spaceships run on time.

Silicon Valley’s top brains try to sort out the singularity

Some of Silicon Valley’s top brains are trying to work out how to stuff their grey matter into the machines they build.

Bryan Johnson, the founder of Braintree online payments, and Elon Musk have both been trying to work out how to store their brains on their PCs to obtain a form of immortality.

According to MIT Technology Review, Johnson is effectively jumping on an opportunity created by the Brain Initiative, an Obama-era project which ploughed money into new schemes for recording neurons.

That influx of cash has spurred the formation of several other startups, including Paradromics and Cortera, also developing novel hardware for collecting brain signals. As part of the government brain project, the defense R&D agency DARPA says it is close to announcing $60 million in contracts under a program to create a “high-fidelity” brain interface able to simultaneously record from one million neurons – the current record is about 200 – and stimulate 100,000 at a time.

Several tech sector luminaries are looking for technology that might fuse human and artificial intelligence. In addition to Johnson, Elon Musk has been teasing a project called “neural lace,” which he said at a 2016 conference will lead to “symbiosis with machines”.

And Mark Zuckerberg declared in a 2015 Q&A that people will one day can share “full sensory and emotional experiences,” not just photos. Facebook has been hiring neuroscientists for an undisclosed project at Building 8, its secretive hardware division.

However, Elon Musk has been also moaning that the current speeds for transferring signals from brains are “ridiculously slow”.

 

Trump slashes US science funding

The US government has cut funding to science as part of its cunning plan to return to a nice biblical view of things.

Donald (Prince of Orange) Trump has decided that there is far too much science which assumes really weird things, like the earth is older than six thousand years, and that everything is going to be wiped out by a giant flood. All of this is impossible according to the Bible, so he does not see why the US is funding it.

Instead Trump’s first budget plan wants to invest piles of cash in the military. The plan, released on 16 March, calls for double-digit cuts for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Institutes of Health. It also lays the foundation for a broad shift in the United States’ research priorities, including a retreat from environmental and climate programmes.

Boffins are worried that the Trump administration’s stance will jeopardise US leadership in fields ranging from climate science to cancer biology. The US has only started to recover from President George Bush’s veto on the use of stem cells which were made for similar reasons. But these cuts are more sweeping.

Jason Rao, director of international affairs at the American Society for Microbiology in Washington DC. The greatest threats to the United States, he says, are those presented by infectious diseases, climate change, and energy production — which cannot be addressed effectively without scientific research.

The Trump budget will cut funding for the NIH by 18 percent , to $25.9 billion, making it one of the hardest-hit research agencies. The document also calls for a reorganisation of the NIH’s 27 institutes — including the elimination of the smallest, the Fogarty International Centre — but offers no further detail beyond a pledge to “rebalance Federal contributions to research funding”.

It appears that the move is based on a paranoia in the Bush camp that the NIH is overstepping its powers.

On the plus side Trump would also create a fund within the Department of Health and Human Services, the NIH’s parent, to respond to public health emergencies such as the spread of the Zika virus.

Scientists and public health experts have called for such a fund for years, but advocates say that starting one while cutting research and prevention programmes is pointless. It is cheaper to prevent a crisis than mop one up afterwards.

But the Environmental Protection Agency is going to lose a third of its $8.2-billion budget and 3,200 its 15,000 staff. The EPA’s Office of Research and Development would see its funding reduced by half, from $483 million to $250 million.

All this is because Trump does not believe in climate and environmental regulations. One biologist, who studies chemicals that affect the endocrine system in fish and potentially people, is part of a programme that Trump wants to eliminate. She said that the reason is that if there’s no science to point out potential problems, there won’t be any more regulations.

The White House wants to cut 5.6 percent, or $1.7 billion, from the Department of Energy (DOE). The plan would eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which funds ‘high-risk, high-reward’ research. And it would slash $900 million, or about 20 percent, from the DOE’s Office of Science, which supports research on topics such as high-energy physics, energy, climate change and biology.

The Trump plan does not include an overall funding target for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). But it would eliminate the agency’s long-running, $73-million Sea Grant programme, which supports 33 US colleges and universities that conduct research, education and training about ocean and coastal topics.

Still this is good news for the rest of the world as it will mean that while the US is dumbing down, it can take control of scientific developments without much in the way of competition. The UK did rather well when George Bush dropped the ball on stem cell research so it is likely that European research will do well.

What should be more worrying for Trump is that his moves will give more power to the Chinese and Russian governments who will also have time to catch up.

Robot kills fellow worker

In what could be a first, a robot is being sued for killing a human colleague.

In July 2015, Wanda Holbrook, “a maintenance technician performing routine duties on an assembly line” at an auto-parts maker in Ionia, Michigan, called Ventra Ionia Main, “was ‘trapped by robotic machinery’ and crushed to death”.

On March 7, her husband, William Holbrook, filed a wrongful death complaint in Michigan federal court, naming five North American robotics companies involved in engineering and integrating the machines and parts used at the plant. These included Prodomax, Flex-N-Gate, FANUC, Nachi, and Lincoln Electric.

Holbrook’s job involved keeping robots in working order. She routinely inspected and adjusted processes on the assembly line at Ventra, which makes bumpers.

Holbrook was performing her regular duties when a machine acted very irregularly, according to the lawsuit reported in Courthouse News.

Holbrook was in the plant’s six-cell “100 section” when a robot unexpectedly activated, taking her by surprise. The cells are separated by safety doors and the robot should not have been able to move. But it somehow reached Holbrook, and was intent on loading a trailer-hitch assembly part right where she stood over a similar part in another cell.

The machine loaded the hardware onto Holbrook’s head. She was unable to escape, and her skull was crushed. Co-workers who eventually noticed that something seemed amiss found Holbrook dead.

William Holbrook seeks an unspecified amount of damages, arguing that before her gruesome death, his wife “suffered tremendous fright, shock and conscious pain and suffering”.

He also names three of the defendants — FANUC, Nachi, and Lincoln Electric — in two additional claims of product liability and breach of implied warranty.

The case argues that the robots, tools, controllers, and associated parts were not properly designed, manufactured or tested, and not fit for use.

“The robot from section 130 should have never entered section 140, and should have never attempted to load a hitch assembly within a fixture that was already loaded with a hitch assembly. A failure of one or more of defendants’ safety systems or devices had taken place, causing Wanda’s death,” the lawsuit alleges.

Amazon wants help improving Alexa

Online book seller Amazon.com has launched a new programme to help students build capabilities into its voice controlled assistant Alexa.

The e-commerce company said it is paying for a year long doctoral fellowship at four universities.

Working with professors, the Alexa Fund Fellows will help students tackle complex technology problems in class on Alexa, like how to convert text to speech or process conversation.

Amazon and Google is locked in a race to develop and make cash from artificial intelligence. Amazon has made it easy for third party developers to create skills for Alexa so it can get better faster – a tactic it now is extending to the classroom.

The other idea is that Amazon might be able to recruit sought after engineers whose studies will make them more familiar with Alexa than with other voice controlled assistants.

Schools signed up for the programme include Carnegie Mellon, Johns Hopkins, the University of Southern California and Canada’s University of Waterloo.

Doug Booms, vice president of worldwide corporate development at Amazon, said that the fellowship’s goal is to excite the next generation of scholars about natural language understanding and other voice technologies, not to produce research for Amazon.

Students’ projects will remain their own intellectual property.

For example at the University of Waterloo, students are improving Alexa’s interaction with air conditioners so it understands requests to cool a room to its normal temperature, without requiring the user to specify a number in Celsius.