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Science News

Dog sniffs out grammar

A border collie takes command of sentence rules
A border collie named Chaser participates in an experiment testing her ability to understand commands given before she can see any of the objects named in those directives. After hearing a four-word command, Chaser consistently turned around and carried the correct item from the head of the bed to the living room, where she placed it next the appropriate object.By Bruce Bower

Chaser isn’t just a 9-year-old border collie with her breed’s boundless energy, intense focus and love of herding virtually anything. She’s a grammar hound.

In experiments directed by her owner, psychologist John Pilley of Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., Chaser demonstrated her grasp of the basic elements of grammar by responding correctly to commands such as “to ball take Frisbee” and its reverse, “to Frisbee take ball.” The dog had previous, extensive training to recognize classes of words including nouns, verbs and prepositions.

“Chaser intuitively discovered how to comprehend sentences based on lots of background learning about different types of words,” Pilley says. He reports the results May 13 in Learning and Motivation.

Throughout the first three years of Chaser’s life, Pilley and a colleague trained the dog to recognize and fetch more than 1,000 objects by name. Using praise and play as reinforcements, the researchers also taught Chaser the meaning of different types of words, such as verbs and prepositions. As a result, Chaser learned that phrases such as “to Frisbee” meant that she should take whatever was in her mouth to the named object.

Why Portland Is Wrong About Water Fluoridation

X-ray of all 32 human teethBy Kyle Hill

Late last night, Portlanders rejected a plan to fluoridate their city’s water supply (and the water of over a dozen other cities). It’s the fourth time Portland has rejected the public health measure since 1956. It’s the fourth time they’ve gotten the science wrong.

When new medical treatments are implemented, when new drugs are introduced into the populace, there is always some hesitation. There are (hopefully) some clinical trials to back up the new intervention, but the long-term implications are often unclear. Water fluoridation doesn’t have this problem. For over 65 years, it has been rigorously tested as a public health measure, and considered one of the most successful measures of the last 100 years, alongside others like recognizing that tobacco use is a health hazard.

Simply put, the refusal of water fluoridation doesn’t have any scientific support. A review on fluoride’s effect on IQ out of Harvard was waved about as the main scientific opposition, but has since been thoroughly refuted. Decades of studies in different cities in different states, involving millions of people, have concluded that there is a safe level of fluoride—one part-per-million—that can be added to water for enormous benefit to our teeth and oral health with little to no adverse effects.

Technology News

UBC engineer helps pioneer flat spray-on optical lens

Kenneth Chau, University of British Columbia, is excited about the newly published research that explains how he and his colleagues developed a negative-index material that can be sprayed onto surfaces and act as a lens.Physics & Chemistry

A University of British Columbia engineer and a team of U.S. researchers have made a breakthrough utilizing spray-on technology that could revolutionize the way optical lenses are made and used. Kenneth Chau, an assistant professor in the School of Engineering at UBC's Okanagan campus, is a key investigator among colleagues at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland. Their work -- the development of a flat lens -- is published in the May 23 issue of the journal Nature.

Nearly all lenses -- whether in an eye, a camera, or a microscope -- are presently curved, which limits the aperture, or amount of light that enters.

"The idea of a flat lens goes way back to the 1960s when a Russian physicist came up with the theory," Chau says. "The challenge is that there are no naturally occurring materials to make that type of flat lens. Through trial and error, and years of research, we have come up with a fairly simple recipe for a spray-on material that can act as that flat lens."

The research team has developed a substance that can be affixed to surfaces like a glass slide and turn them into flat lenses for ultraviolet light imaging of biological specimens.

In risky new tack, Microsoft stacks Surface against iPad

Microsoft is taking a chance by comparing Surface RT with the iPad. The comparisons -- even those listed by Microsoft -- aren't that favorable.
Microsoft has launched a Web page that compares the iPad 4 to Surface RT and other tablets. But not all comparisons are in Microsoft's favor.by Brooke Crothers

Microsoft's "iPad vs. Windows" campaign now includes iPad vs. Surface RT. Is Microsoft picking the right fight?

On the back of new ads that zero on the iPad's (purported) weaknesses, Microsoft has thrown up a comparison page that stacks the iPad against four Windows 8 tablets.

Microsoft isn't using the Surface RT in the anti-iPad ads. Rather, the Asus VivoTab is its weapon of choice.

But Surface RT is front and center on the comparison page. One small problem: the (highly-selective) Microsoft feature chart doesn't necessarily portray Surface RT as the clear winner (see image above).

On the first three -- thinness, battery life, and weight -- the iPad wins. Scrolling down the page, Microsoft not surprisingly focuses on microSD/USB slots, Microsoft Office RT (standard on Surface RT), and multitasking.

Environmental News

Reforestation Study Shows Trade-Offs Between Water, Carbon and Timber

A study by ASU scientists examines reforestation regimes to support the increased need for water required by expansion of the Panama Canal. The image illustrates land use land cover in the Panama Canal watershed (year 2008). (Credit: Simonit/Perrings)Arizona State University College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

May 23, 2013 — More than 13,000 ships per year, carrying more than 284 million tons of cargo, transit the Panama Canal each year, generating roughly $1.8 billion dollars in toll fees for the Panama Canal Authority. Each time a ship passes through, more than 55 million gallons of water are used from Gatun Lake, which is also a source of water for the 2 million people living in the isthmus.

However, the advent of very large "super" cargo ships, now more than 20 percent of the ships at sea, has demanded change. The Panama Canal is being expanded to create channels and locks three times larger than at present, leaving the authority to consider how best to meet the increased demand for water. One proposed measure is the reforestation of the watershed.

To help planners and policy makers understand the effects of reforestation, ASU scientists Silvio Simonit and Charles Perrings studied the effects of reforestation on a 'bundle' of ecosystem services: dry-season water flows, carbon sequestration, timber and livestock production.

Earth's Mantle Affects Long-Term Sea-Level Rise Estimates

The East Coast shoreline, also known as the Orangeburg Scarp, as it may have appeared 3 million years ago. (Credit: Image courtesy of Syracuse University)Syracuse University

May 23, 2013 — From Virginia to Florida, there is a prehistoric shoreline that, in some parts, rests more than 280 feet above modern sea level. The shoreline was carved by waves more than 3 million years ago -- possible evidence of a once higher sea level, triggered by ice-sheet melting. But new findings by a team of researchers, including Robert Moucha, assistant professor of Earth Sciences in The College of Arts and Sciences, reveal that the shoreline has been uplifted by more than 210 feet, meaning less ice melted than expected.

Equally compelling is the fact that the shoreline is not flat, as it should be, but is distorted, reflecting the pushing motion of Earth's mantle.

This is big news, says Moucha, for scientists who use the coastline to predict future sea-level rise. It's also a cautionary tale for those who rely almost exclusively on cycles of glacial advance and retreat to study sea-level changes.

Medical News

A molecular window on itch

Researchers discover chemical puppet master behind the need to scratch
ItchingBy Puneet Kollipara

Long a mystery, the sensation of itch has yielded a clue. The neurons that detect itch rely on a newly identified chemical to send the “I need to scratch!” message to the brain, according to a study in mice. Remove the molecule, and the mice don’t itch, researchers report in the May 24 Science.

For people, an itch can be annoying or it can be debilitating. But researchers don’t know yet how the brain senses an itch. Treatments for itch often don’t work.

The new study takes a big step forward, says Glenn Giesler Jr., a neuroscientist at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. “Now we're beginning to understand the mechanisms, and that's got to lead to better treatments.”

Scientists believe that detection of itch starts in neurons with fibers that extend to the skin. Using chemical messengers called neurotransmitters, these cells relay their signal to other neurons in a region of the spinal cord called the dorsal horn. Once there, the signal passes from neuron to neuron until it reaches the brain.

Less is more for smart perception

Brains of high-IQ people automatically ignore the least relevant sights
IQBy Bruce Bower

People with high IQs see the world in their own way. Their brains seamlessly separate the visual wheat from the chaff, allowing them to home in on the most relevant information, a new study finds.

Using a simple visual exercise, a team led by psychologist Duje Tadin of the University of Rochester in New York found that high-IQ volunteers excelled at detecting the direction in which small objects moved but struggled at tracking large moving objects.

That’s a useful trait, the scientists report May 23 in Current Biology. In many situations, small moving objects in the foreground are more important to track than background activity. But whether people are driving a car, walking down a street or writing on a computer in an open workspace, their visual field includes humans and objects in the background that are in constant motion.

Among participants in the new study, the lower the IQ, the less able a person was to spot movements of small objects, but the better able to monitor large objects.

Space News

Rough Roving: Curiosity's Wheels Show Damage

Curiosity’s dusty wheels. Dents are evident on the inner edge of the wheel’s skin and scratches cover the outer edge.by Ian O'Neill

If, like me, you spend time obsessively perusing the thousands of incredible raw images flooding from NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity every day (or sol), you may have noticed that the car-sized robot is picking up obvious signs of wear and tear. Dust is an inevitable part of rolling in the Martian dirt, but Curiosity’s 20 inch (50 centimeter) wheels have picked up more than just dust, they have some pretty gnarly dents and scratches, too.

Having only traveled less than a kilometer from its landing site, 281 sols into its several-mile, two year primary mission (a mission that will be extended assuming full health of the rover is maintained), could these early signs of wheel damage be a problem for the longevity of Curiosity’s Mars roving?

Pushing this concern for Curiosity’s mobility to one side for now, I pondered the tough engineering tests these wheels would have been subjected to during rover construction. But surprises do happen, after all, especially when exploring a brand new region on an alien world. Could the material inside Gale Crater be harsher than predicted?

Take, for example, Curiosity’s rocket-powered landing on the Martian surface on Aug. 5, 2012. On viewing the stunning high-resolution photos from the robot’s MastCam, I noticed small rocks littered the deck of the rover. Indeed, during landing, mission managers suspected an errant piece of gravel was the likely culprit that damaged one of Curiosity’s wind sensors.

For Rent: Shuttle Launch Pad

Shuttle Launch Padby Irene Klotz

NASA on Thursday posted a “For Lease” sign on one of its space shuttle launch pads, as it continues to downsize and revamp the Kennedy Space Center following the program’s retirement.

The space agency is looking for a commercial company or companies to take over operations and maintenance of Launch Complex 39A beginning no later than Oct. 1. The lease would last at least five years.

“Such commercial use would not only preserve the pad against the deterioration that would result from nonuse, it would further support NASA in fulfilling its mandate to, ‘seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space,’” the agency wrote in its solicitation.

NASA intends to develop the shuttle’s second launch pad, 39B, for its heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule, a follow-on to the space shuttle that is needed to send astronauts to destinations beyond the space station’s 250-mile (400-km) high orbit.

With SLS launches only expected every year or two years, NASA also is looking for commercial partners to use pad 39B as well.

Odd News

Once Upon A Time, The Catholic Church Decided That Beavers Were Fish

BeaverBy Jason G. Goldman

From time to time, politicians and other rulers-of-men like to categorize the natural world not according to biology, but rather for convenience or monetary gain. Take, for example, the tomato. The progenitor of ketchup is a seed-bearing structure that grows from the flowering part of a plant. It is, by definition, a fruit. In 1893, however, the US Supreme Court ruled in the case of Nix v. Hedden that the tomato was a vegetable, subject to vegetable import tariffs. Even if the tomato is, technically, a fruit, it tends to be treated in American cuisine as a vegetable, wantonly littering our salads with its jelloey gooeyness.

Corn and rice are another good example. The Bible forbids Jewish people from eating chametz – foods made from wheat, barley, spelt, rye, or oats – on Passover. Ashkenazi Jews consider corn, rice, and legumes, a class of foods called kitniyot, as forbidden on Passover as well. It isn’t that they’re forbidden, per se, but that they’re easily confused for the real thing. As I learned in my high school Talmud class, the medieval Rabbis decided to forbid these not-technically-forbidden grains because of a principle called marit ayin, which literally means “what it looks like.” The Wikipedia explanation is quite good: “While not against the laws of passover to consume kitniyot, a person might be observed eating them and thought to be eating chametz despite the law, or erroneously conclude that chametz was permitted. To avoid this confusion, they were simply banned outright.”

Still, neither the Supreme Court’s reclassification of the tomato is a fruit, nor the medieval Rabbis’ designation of corn and rice as forbidden grains, is the most amusing example of non-scientific categorization. The Catholic Church has them all beat.

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to Overnight News Digest on Thu May 23, 2013 at 09:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech.

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