Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Climate change brings new neighborhood birds

As winters have warmed, some species have moved north.

To get a good look at the impacts of global warming, you may need to look no farther than your own yard. Some unexpected species may perch in a local tree or stop by your bird feeder. These newcomers have been lured north by winter’s warmer temperatures, a new study finds. Birds such as cardinals and Carolina wrens are now wintering farther north than they did as little as 20 years ago.

Since 1970, the average winter low temperatures have risen by about 0.38 degree Celsius (0.68 degree Fahrenheit) in eastern North America. Global warming, also known as climate change, is the cause.

For several decades now, the planet has been slowly warming. The world’s animals and plants have responded. Many have begun to move north or south to keep pace with the conditions they’re used to. Such movement is considered one of the best fingerprints of climate change.

Since 1970, the average winter low temperatures have risen by about 0.38 degree Celsius (0.68 degree Fahrenheit) in eastern North America. Global warming, also known as climate change, is the cause.

Benjamin Zuckerberg and Karine Princé are wildlife biologists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They wanted to look for evidence that Earth’s warming had been affecting bird behaviors — such as where they settle for the winter. To do this, they analyzed two decades of data from a program called Project FeederWatch. This citizen-science project at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., collects reports of sightings at bird feeders from early November to late April.

There are currently more than 10,000 participating sites in the United States and Canada. Many of the studied feeders sit in people’s yards.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Teaching Tolerance in Kindergarten

By age 9, children have prejudices that are “highly resistant to change.” So if we want to fight racism and violence (particularly against black men), we need to teach diversity much earlier.

Children develop their sense of empathy between ages 4 and 8. It’s this ability to see and feel something from another’s perspective that helps us choose to treat others equally and to engage rather than to act from fear.

The best way to promote empathy is to provide children with quality, reciprocal relationships with people from diverse communities. But that can be difficult, as 84 percent of elementary school teachers are white. And in most major cities, the majority of public school children are not.

So, teachers need to get creative. Young children can only normalize what they experience regularly. If they only receive knowledge, insight and comfort from white people, this can have lasting effects on what they assume about people of color. It is this disconnect, as civil rights lawyer Constance Rice said, that can make police officers “kill and do things that don’t make sense to you and me.”

One effective way to help young children is to seek out diverse experts who can speak in schools about weather, food, construction, politics and electricity (all common preK- grade 3 topics).

Another way to influence young children’s racial attitudes early on are picture books. Given the particular fear toward black men, using literature to combat negative assumptions means going through classroom books and thinking carefully about how often and in what ways black boys and men are included in stories. Are there enough books with caring, compassionate and smart, black, male characters? Are books in classrooms about black history balanced with those about the everyday lives of black men so that racial diversity becomes normalized for young children?

Having only a handful will not be enough to normalize positive images of black men. But although these kinds of books are still difficult to find, it’s not impossible.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Ebooks at night won’t help you sleep tight, US study finds

Harvard researchers say light-emitting ebooks negatively affect our sleep and lead to next-day grogginess.

Reading a light-emitting ebook before bed is bad for your health, according to a new US study. It warned that use of the devices affected both sleep at night and alertness the following morning.
Researchers from Harvard Medical School’s sleep medicine department put 12 healthy young adults through a two-week experiment, in which the participants would either read a light-emitting ebook for four hours before bedtime or a printed book. Study participants reading a light-emitting ebook took on average almost 10 minutes longer to fall asleep and said they were less sleepy an hour before bedtime than they were reading a paper book.

They also had suppressed evening levels of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin – readers of print showed no suppression – and significantly less REM (rapid eye movement) sleep than print book participants. The next morning, they took “hours longer to fully ‘wake up’ and attain the same level of alertness”, researchers have reported in a new paper published in the journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Harvard’s Anne-Marie Chang, Daniel Aeschbach, Jeanne Duffy and Charles Czeisler wrote that sleep quality and duration has declined over the past 50 years, adversely affecting general health. They point to a recent survey which found that 90% of Americans use an electronic gadget at least a few nights a week before going to sleep. The Harvard study participants were reading on an iPad, but researchers said other devices would cause the same effect. (Lead researcher Czeisler told the BBC: “The light emitted by most ereaders is shining directly into the eyes of the reader, whereas from a printed book or the original Kindle the reader is only exposed to reflected light from the pages of the book.”)

In the paper the researchers write: “The use of light-emitting electronic devices for reading, communication, and entertainment has greatly increased recently. We found that the use of these devices before bedtime prolongs the time it takes to fall asleep, delays the circadian clock, suppresses levels of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, reduces the amount and delays the timing of REM sleep and reduces alertness the following morning. Use of light-emitting devices immediately before bedtime also increases alertness at that time, which may lead users to delay bedtime at home.”
They point out that the use of technology before bedtime is “most prevalent” in children and young adults, and call for further studies on the impact of the light exposure on learning and development.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Picture This: Christmas from space

Satellites survey human behavior by snapping pictures of holiday lights.

SAN FRANCISCO — Evening trips to the mall. Christmas parties. Rooftop lights. The December holidays are bright — dazzling enough to be seen by satellites orbiting high above Earth. Researchers recently used satellite data to track when, where and how often we turn on lights. The findings, they say, point to how human activities drive electricity use.

Scientists sent radiometers into space and pointed them toward Earth. These instruments measure the intensity of light. In 2012, the research team released a set of “Earth at Night” maps. They had used data collected on nights with ideal conditions — evenings that were both moonless and cloud-free.

Miguel Román is a physical scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. He and his team wanted to analyze how light patterns change from day to day. To do that, his team improved its scans so that the scientists could collect data even on nights with clouds and a bright moon. (Unfortunately, the system can’t cope with snow. Light reflecting off the white stuff “contaminates the signal,” Román says.)

From 2012 to 2014, the satellite snapped daily pictures of 70 U.S. cities. The scientists used those images to measure how much the cities brightened between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. They compared the cities’ holiday glow to their light output the rest of the year.

It was “a huge effort,” says Román. “It took three years’ worth of data.” But with the team’s revamped system, “we can do comparisons across cities, even across neighborhoods within cities,” Román says. He described his group’s new findings December 16 at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

Many cities radiated 20 to 50 percent more light during holiday nights
, the researchers found. The light intensity climbed a bit more in the suburbs than in busy city centers. But overall, it seems that everyone in the United States — regardless of income or ethnic background — celebrates the holidays, Román says.

A different picture emerged when his team analyzed another part of the world: the Middle East. There, the major holiday is Ramadan. It’s the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. On those 30 days, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk.

Coolest Archaeological Discoveries of 2014

Thanks to the careful work of archaeologists, we learned more in the past year about Stonehenge's hidden monuments, Richard III's gruesome death and King Tut's mummified erection. From the discovery of an ancient tomb in Greece to the first evidence of Neanderthal art, here are 10 of Live Science's favorite archaeology stories of 2014.

1. An Alexander the Great-era tomb at Amphipolis

Rarely do archaeological digs attract so much attention in real time. But at Amphipolis, an ancient coastal city in northern Greece, the discovery of a lavish 2,300-year-old tomb has created a national frenzy. In August, state archaeologists broke through the entrance of a huge burial mound that's been billed as the largest of its kind in the Greek world. (Its perimeter measures about 1,600 feet, or 490 meters.) [See Photos of the Ancient Tomb at Amphipolis]

Excavators found broken sphinxes, two female statues called caryatids, a remarkably intact mosaic floor and some skeletal material, which is awaiting analysis. It's still unclear who was buried inside the tomb, but some have speculated that it could be someone from Alexander the Great's inner circle.

2. Stonehenge's secret monuments

Capping a four-year survey of the landscape around England's Stonehenge, researchers reported that they found signs of at least 17 previously unknown Neolithic shrines. The big announcement — which was accompanied by TV specials on the BBC and Smithsonian Channel — could change the way historians have thought of Stonehenge.

"Stonehenge is undoubtedly a major ritual monument, which people may have traveled considerable distances to come to, but it isn't just standing there by itself," project leader Vincent Gaffney, an archaeologist at the University of Birmingham, told Live Science in September. "It's part of a much more complex landscape with processional and ritual activities that go around it." [See Images of Hidden Stonehenge Monuments]

3. A shipwreck under the World Trade Center

In the summer of 2010, archaeologists in New York discovered a school-bus-size shipwreck in an unlikely place: the site of the World Trade Center, still under construction after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. This year, tree-ring researchers who were studying the ship's fragile timbers announced that they had uncovered new details about the vessel.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Seven ways that chemistry puts the magic into Christmas

From the enticing aroma of the turkey in the oven to the “whoosh’” of the flames as the brandy-soaked pudding comes alight, Christmas is a wonderful time for the senses. But have you ever considered the science behind our best-loved festive traditions? Here are seven of my food and flammable favourites:

Candle light, shining bright

Candle-lit carol services are part of Christmas for many people, as are the ones entwined in holly on the table. Traditionally beeswax was used but while it gives great flames, it is rather expensive. Nowadays the vast majority of candles are made of paraffin wax obtained as one of the products of oil refining. These waxes are hydrocarbons, molecules made of two different elements: carbon and hydrogen.

When you light a candle, wax is melted, and the molten wax gets drawn up the wick, which gives a larger area for the wax to evaporate. It is the gaseous wax that burns, forming carbon dioxide and water, and giving out energy, which is where the heat and light come from.

But not all the carbon atoms get turned into carbon dioxide at one go – it is carbon-rich soot particles glowing hot that give out the yellow light that characterises a candle flame.

Turkey time

Most people know that cooking involves chemistry, and where better to start than the Christmas Day turkey? The turkey meat you cook is muscle tissue, about 20% of which is protein (nearly all the rest is water), with a small but important amount of carbohydrate. If you “hang” the meat and allow it to age, enzyme catalysts naturally present in the muscle start to break down the proteins so that they lose their naturally rigid structure and the meat becomes more tender.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

How to survive the worst moments of learning a language

From talking on the phone for the first time to using local slang and being faced with a wall of laughter, Erica Buist on how to get over some of the most painful language mistakes.

Learning a language makes an appearance on a lot of bucket lists. People picture themselves strolling through a market in a foreign land, conversing easily with locals – and you always look tanned in the daydream, too. But on the way to becoming the fluent and unaccountably sexier new you, there are a few emotional troughs you have to get through.

By the time I moved to Mexico I had dragged myself to intermediate level via a Spanish GCSE and a refresher course at uni, but before the two-year stretch that would make me fluent, I wish someone had warned me about some of these challenges. Since coming home five years ago, I’ve flirted with French and Italian – but I’m not ready for anything serious. Because learning a language involves an initiation. Here are a few things a language will put you through before you become fluent:

Your first hilarious mispronunciation, mistranslation and malapropism

Every language has words that are startlingly close in pronunciation to other, ruder words and no one is better at finding them than language students. During one Spanish class, I wanted it known by all and sundry that the answer was “J”, or “jota”. The Spanish “t” sound is softer than the English, but I over-softened it and shouted, “joda!”, or, “fuck!” – in the imperative, no less, so I sounded like a porn director with no specific vision.

Mistranslations are another danger. During an English conversation exchange, a Mexican student translated the Spanish term for “manual labour” directly into the immortal sentence, “hand jobs are getting cheaper”. Moments later an American classmate tried to complain that she was hot. Unfortunately, estoy caliente means “I’m horny”.

How to get past it: Tell the story. It’s funny. Not only will you never make that mistake again, people will probably share their own embarrassing errors – thus saving you the trouble of making them later.

When a group conversation moves faster than your brain

You understand what’s being said, and you want to join in – but by the time you formulate a sentence that’s fit for native ears, the conversation has moved on.

How mindfulness could give you the gift of a calmer Christmas

In the run-up to Christmas we find our to-do lists bloated with added chores: present shopping, card writing, preparing to travel or receive guests. We are bombarded with adverts telling us what to buy and where. We tackle the shopping crowds searching for the perfect gift and the juiciest turkey. Our energy and purses are pulled in all directions while we limp on at work waiting for the holiday to arrive.

As the day approaches we may dream of happy families singing around the fire or worry whether everyone will like their gifts or if there will be arguments.
Media images distort our expectations of the perfect Christmas with celebrities advising us on the recipes and crafts to add extra joy to the holidays.

And then there’s the ghost of Christmas past. Maybe we are feeling that Christmases are not as good as they used to be or maybe we are dreading a repeat of an earlier disastrous year. It can be a lot to contend with and perhaps not everyone feels as festive as the songs and adverts would have us believe.

Some of us may be seeking a way to avoid being bogged down by the stress. We could try a single ticket to that Caribbean Island or perhaps embrace the spirit of Scrooge and say “bah humbug” as we lock ourselves out from the world. If these options seem a little extreme, an alternative is to take inspiration from the teachings of mindfulness.

Enter mindfulness
A modern interpretation of ancient Eastern philosophies, mindfulness incorporates guided meditation that helps us learn about the inner workings of our mind. This helps break habitual patterns of thinking and behaving that can increase distress and unhappiness.

Meditation practises that focus on monitoring the activity of the mind or cultivating compassion are familiar in both historical Eastern traditions and modern mindfulness interventions. The way in which mindfulness meditation is different is the way in which it has been packaged. Often it is taught to beginners as an eight-week course that includes a selection of meditation practises and teachings that have been brought together and adapted to address specific issues such as emotional stress or chronic pain.

Monday, 15 December 2014

The Chinese dream for higher education and the dilemma it presents

The number of university students in China, including those in part-time higher adult education, expanded from 12.3m students in 2000 to 34.6m in 2013. China has become an exceptional example of increasing access for students to higher education – but this expansion has also been accompanied by some unexpected and even negative consequences.

The annual number of graduates is expected to reach 7.27m in 2014 and
the challenge is to find them appropriate jobs, especially as over-education – where the supply of graduates exceeds labour market demand – is becoming serious. An uneven distribution of higher education by geographic region and social group has also resulted in growing inequality of opportunity, creating barriers for students from inland regions and from rural families, especially those applying to key national universities.

Such achievements and problems were considered in the 2012
Ministry of Education’s Guidance and Measures document on quality, structural adjustment and educational equality. This policy change, signalled by China’s president, Jing Xiping, has offered an opportunity to rethink the relationship between social justice and Chinese higher education.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Poor Kids and the 'Word Gap'

The White House launches a new literacy initiative aimed at low-income children.

“Education,” Horace Mann declared in 1848, “is a great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance wheel of the social machinery.” But increasingly, the condition of American children—and even their eventual role in society—is determined well before their first day of kindergarten. I’ve taught the children of wealthy, well-educated parents, and I’ve taught children raised in poverty, and in my own experience, these two populations arrive at the schoolhouse door with two very different skill sets and expectations.

According to a 2012 report by the Brookings Institution, less than half of poor children show up to school prepared with the early math and reading skills, emotional and behavioral control, and physical well-being needed to be ready to learn, and that disadvantage persists into adulthood. The report continues, “children with higher levels of school readiness at age five are generally more successful in grade school, less likely to drop out of high school, and earn more as adults, even after adjusting for differences in family background.”

Much of this disadvantage has been attributed to what researchers call the “word gap.” Higher-income parents spend nearly a half hour more per day engaged in direct, face-to-face, Goodnight Moon time with their children than low-income parents do, and by the time these children are 5 years old, the poor ones will have heard 30 million fewer words than their wealthy peers. Nearly all of my more affluent students read in their leisure time, but approximately two out of every 10 of my poor students tell me, “I don’t read” when I offer to help them pick out an independent reading book.

Because the word gap first appears during periods of critical neurological and cognitive development, its effects cannot be easily remedied by later interventions. Teachers, standards, technology, even those hallowed halls of ivy—none of this matters as much to a child’s educational and economic future than an informed and empowered parent.

Unfortunately, explained Ann O’Leary, Director of the Children & Families Program at Next Generation in a phone call, “there’s a lack of alignment among low-income parents regarding how much talking, singing, and reading to children really matters over a lifetime,” and research backs that up. One study found that low-income parents underestimate their power to influence their children’s cognitive development, sometimes by as much as 50 percent. Wealthy parents spend more time engaged in these activities because they have better access to information, and O’Leary argued that when parents understand the impact they have on their child’s cognitive development, they invest.

'Enchanted objects' will kill the internet of things in 2015

Smart objects that blend fashion and our everyday lives will kill off the internet of things in 2015, according to Cedric Hutchings, CEO of Withings. The French company, best known for its smart scales and sensor-packed watches, is now targeting fashion over traditional tech in a bid to expand its business.

Speaking at Le Web 2014 in Paris, Hutchings said the smart devices of the future would be integrated into "dumb" objects we already take for granted: "Wearables need not to be 'dropables'. We have to fix the shortcomings of these devices to appeal to more people," he said.

Examples of such un-droppable, useful objects were given by David Rose, a researcher at MIT's media labs and CEO of Ditto Labs. Rose said that umbrellas that flash a light when rain is forecast and doorbells that ring differently when it is someone you know as opposed to a stranger were examples of what he called "enchanted objects".

Thursday, 11 December 2014

CERN inspires primary-school students to Play with Protons

This spring we highlighted the activities of primary-school teacher Tina Nantsou of Hill Memorial School in Athens, Greece, who, together with CERN, launched the Playing with Protons project to instill in her students the excitement of particle physics research. The documentary above charts the progress of the project, from its inception in Nantsou's classroom to a visit to CERN for 12 lucky students in her class.

In the Greek national curriculum, students are introduced to the basics of physics when they are 11 years old. Hill School helps pupils to begin to understand the natural world from the age of seven through hands-on, creative experimentation. After Nantsou attended the Physics Teacher's Programme at CERN in August 2013, she teamed up with Angelos Alexopoulos of the CERN Education Group to inspire these younger pupils to take an interest in particle physics, and in CERN.

"I was blown away from everything that was happening [at CERN]," she says. "I really have to pass on this experience to my students."

The resulting project – Playing with Protons – started in September 2013 and continued for a full school year. “The project focuses on the process and not the outcome, allowing students to try, experiment and learn from their mistakes,” says Nantsou. “By creating imaginative and unique mockups, the kids, for example, learn to visualize their ideas and at the same time to develop problem-solving skills. And all this in a cooperative, fun atmosphere.”

The 45 students involved in the project drew lots to choose 12 students – 6 boys and 6 girls – who visited CERN. "I did not know what particle physics was until I was in university," Ewan Hill, an ATLAS scientist at the University of Victoria in Canada, told the students on their visit. "You guys have 10-15 years more advanced schooling than I did!"

"It is important to get students interested in science when they are young," says Alexopoulos. "Playing with Protons is one of an increasing number of noteworthy efforts in Greece, such as national-level virtual visits to LHC experiments, that help young learners to appreciate not only the importance of science in their daily lives but also the beauty of how science works."

The project also has the support of Dimitri Nanopoulos of Texas A&M University in the US, Greece's scientific delegate to CERN.

Alexopoulos says that inspiring the next generation of scientists is a key task for his country – Greece – which researchers are leaving to find jobs elsewhere. "The country is currently experiencing a brain drain," he says, "Which makes projects like this all the more important."

At a recent teachers' seminar at SNFCC (link is external) in Athens, Greece as part of CERN's 60th anniversary celebrations, Nantsou presented the Playing with Protons project to other teachers. Incidentally, also presenting at the seminar was Andreas Valadakis of Varvakios Pilot School, who visited CERN along with a winning team from last year's "Beamline for schools" competition.

The aim of Playing with Protons is to be an example of good practice to help spread creative and collaborative approaches to teaching modern physics at primary schools across Greece, and further afield.

Find out more:
Nantsou blogs (in Greek) about her hands-on experiments for children at Science Experiments for Kids (link is external)

Monday, 8 December 2014

What happens in the brain when you learn a language?

Scans and neuroscience are helping scientists understand what happens to the brain when you learn a second language.
Learning a foreign language can increase the size of your brain. This is what Swedish scientists discovered when they used brain scans to monitor what happens when someone learns a second language. The study is part of a growing body of research using brain imaging technologies to better understand the cognitive benefits of language learning. Tools like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electrophysiology, among others, can now tell us not only whether we need knee surgery or have irregularities with our heartbeat, but reveal what is happening in our brains when we hear, understand and produce second languages.

The Swedish MRI study showed that learning a foreign language has a visible effect on the brain. Young adult military recruits with a flair for languages learned Arabic, Russian or Dari intensively, while a control group of medical and cognitive science students also studied hard, but not at languages. MRI scans showed specific parts of the brains of the language students developed in size whereas the brain structures of the control group remained unchanged. Equally interesting was that learners whose brains grew in the hippocampus and areas of the cerebral cortex related to language learning had better language skills than other learners for whom the motor region of the cerebral cortex developed more.

In other words, the areas of the brain that grew were linked to how easy the learners found languages, and brain development varied according to performance. As the researchers noted, while it is not completely clear what changes after three months of intensive language study mean for the long term, brain growth sounds promising.

Looking at functional MRI brain scans can also tell us what parts of the brain are active during a specific learning task. For example, we can see why adult native speakers of a language like Japanese cannot easily hear the difference between the English “r” and “l” sounds (making it difficult for them to distinguish “river” and “liver” for example). Unlike English, Japanese does not distinguish between “r” and “l” as distinct sounds. Instead, a single sound unit (known as a phoneme) represents both sounds.

When presented with English words containing either of these sounds, brain imaging studies show that only a single region of a Japanese speaker’s brain is activated, whereas in English speakers, two different areas of activation show up, one for each unique sound.

For Japanese speakers, learning to hear and produce the differences between the two phonemes in English requires a rewiring of certain elements of the brain’s circuitry. What can be done? How can we learn these distinctions?

Friday, 5 December 2014

Why elephants never forget

It’s a common saying that elephants never forget. But the more we learn about elephants, the more it appears that their impressive memory is only one aspect of an incredible intelligence that makes them some of the most social, creative, and benevolent creatures on Earth. Alex Gendler takes us into the incredible, unforgettable mind of an elephant.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Five ways to keep your home warm this winter

If you live in a poorly insulated home, and many of us do, you could spend thousands this winter on energy bills. But our ancestors had many ways to keep snug at little or no cost. Now, thanks to modern infrared cameras and advances in environmental physics, we can understand how these methods work and measure how effective they are.

The key to understanding how to keep warm is the fact you lose more heat by radiation to your surroundings than you do by convection to the air. This is why your house feels so cold when you get back from a winter break, even after you’ve turned on the central heating; though the air quickly warms up, the walls take far longer to do so and may continue to make you shiver for up to a day.

In the same way, in poorly insulated houses the inside of the external walls can be several degrees colder than the air and the internal walls, making you feel chilly.

Fortunately, there are five simple ways to overcome this and minimise your energy bills.

Close your curtains at night

During the day, your windows let in more radiant energy than gets out; sunlight can enter through the glass, but the window is opaque to the infrared radiation trying to escape. At night, however, single-glazed windows can get extremely cold – in my Victorian house which we try and keep at a room temperature of 20°C, an infrared camera showed internal window temperatures of as low as 7°C on a frosty night.

Even double-glazed windows aren’t great insulators and can fall to around 14°C. This results in energy losses of 50-100 watts per square metre, equivalent to running an old-fashioned light bulb.