Stanford researcher declares that the sixth mass extinction is here

June 20, 2015

There is no longer any doubt: We are entering a mass extinction that threatens humanity’s existence.

That is the bad news at the center of a new study by a group of scientists including Paul Ehrlich, the Bing Professor of Population Studies in biology and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Ehrlich and his co-authors call for fast action to conserve threatened species, populations and habitat, but warn that the window of opportunity is rapidly closing.

“[The study] shows without any significant doubt that we are now entering the sixth great mass extinction event,” Ehrlich said.

Although most well known for his positions on human population, Ehrlich has done extensive work on extinctions going back to his 1981 book, Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearance of Species. He has long tied his work on coevolution, on racial, gender and economic justice, and on nuclear winter with the issue of wildlife populations and species loss. Read more

Large majority of Americans — including gun owners — support stronger gun policies

June 3, 2015

A large majority of Americans–including gun owners–continue to support stronger policies to prevent gun violence than are present in current federal and most state law, according to a new national public opinion survey conducted by researchers with the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The survey is a follow-up to one conducted by the same researchers in early 2013, shortly after the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut that left 26 dead.

The results are published online in Preventive Medicine. Read more

Is American democracy in crisis?

February 18, 2014

The Federal shutdown may be the most striking evidence to support claims that America’s political system is broken, but it is far from the only example. Writing in Governance, acclaimed political scientists Norman Ornstein and Jared Diamond explore if tribalism is at the heart of the problem, or if the U.S. is facing a far greater political crisis.

“The state of our overall political process as the most dysfunctional I have seen in over 44 years of watching Washington and American politics up close,” writes Norman Ornstein, from the American Enterprise Institute. “If we are not in the most dysfunctional period in our history, we are certainly in the top five.”

American political history has recorded many inept and ineffectual congresses, from the scandals of the 1970′s to the divided house of the 1860′s, so what makes the 112th and 113th congresses any different? Ornstein argues that the rise in political extremism, manifested in open tribalism, is to blame. Read more

Newly discovered 3-star system could debunk Einstein’s theory of General Relativity

January 6, 2014

By ESO/F. Courbin et al (http://www.eso.org/public/images/eso0847a/) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By ESO/F. Courbin et al (http://www.eso.org/public/images/eso0847a/) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A newly discovered system of two white dwarf stars and a superdense pulsar–all packed within a space smaller than the Earth’s orbit around the sun — is enabling astronomers to probe a range of cosmic mysteries, including the very nature of gravity itself.

The international team, which includes UBC astronomer Ingrid Stairs, reports their findings in the journal Nature on January 5.

Originally uncovered by an American graduate student using the National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Telescope, the pulsar – 4,200 light-years from Earth, spinning nearly 366 times per second – was found to be in close orbit with a white dwarf star and the pair is in orbit with another, more distant white dwarf.

The three-body system is scientists’ best opportunity yet to discover a violation of a key concept in Albert Einstein’s theory of General Relativity: the strong equivalence principle, which states that the effect of gravity on a body does not depend on the nature or internal structure of that body.

“By doing very high-precision timing of the pulses coming from the pulsar, we can test for such a deviation from the strong equivalence principle at a sensitivity several orders of magnitude greater than ever before available,” says Stairs, with UBC’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. “Finding a deviation from the strong equivalence principle would indicate a breakdown of General Relativity and would point us toward a new, revised theory of gravity.”

“This is the first millisecond pulsar found in such a system, and we immediately recognized that it provides us a tremendous opportunity to study the effects and nature of gravity,” says Scott Ransom of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), who led the study. “This triple system gives us a natural cosmic laboratory far better than anything found before for learning exactly how such three-body systems work and potentially for detecting problems with General Relativity that physicists expect to see under extreme conditions.”

Background

When a massive star explodes as a supernova and its remains collapse into a superdense neutron star, some of its mass is converted into gravitational binding energy that holds the dense star together. The strong equivalence principle says that this binding energy will still react gravitationally as if it were mass. Virtually all alternatives to General Relativity hold that it will not.

Under the strong equivalence principle, the gravitational effect of the outer white dwarf would be identical for both the inner white dwarf and the neutron star. If the strong equivalence principle is invalid under the conditions in this system, the outer star’s gravitational effect on the inner white dwarf and the neutron star would be slightly different and the high-precision pulsar timing observations could easily show that.

“We have made some of the most accurate measurements of masses in astrophysics,” says Anne Archibald of the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy and one of the authors of the study. “Some of our measurements of the relative positions of the stars in the system are accurate to hundreds of meters.” Archibald led the effort to use the measurements to build a computer simulation of the system that can predict its motions.

The NRAO’s Scott Ransom adds: “This is a fascinating system in many ways, including what must have been a completely crazy formation history, and we have much work to do to fully understand it.”

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The scientists’ observational program used the National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Telescope, the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, and the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope in the Netherlands. They also studied the system using data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the GALEX satellite, the WIYN telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona, and the Spitzer Space Telescope.

stairs@astro.ubc.ca
University of British Columbia

International ‘war’ on illegal drugs is failing to curb supply

October 1, 2013

marijuana2Since 1990, the street price of illegal drugs has fallen in real terms while the purity/potency of what’s on offer has generally increased, both of which are indicators of availability.

The United Nations recently estimated that the illicit drug trade is worth at least US $350 billion every year. And needle sharing is one of the key drivers of blood borne infections, including HIV. The drug trade is also linked to high rates of violence.

Over the past several decades most national drug control strategies have focused on law enforcement to curb supply, despite calls to explore approaches, such as decriminalisation and strict legal regulation.

The researchers analysed data from seven international government-funded drug surveillance systems, which had at least 10 years of information on the price and purity of cannabis, cocaine and opiates, including heroin. Read more

Gray hair and vitiligo reversed at the root

May 5, 2013

Hair dye manufacturers are on notice: The cure for gray hair is coming. That’s right, the need to cover up one of the classic signs of aging with chemical pigments will be a thing of the past thanks to a team of European researchers. In a new research report published online in The FASEB Journal (http://www.fasebj.org) people who are going gray develop massive oxidative stress via accumulation of hydrogen peroxide in the hair follicle, which causes our hair to bleach itself from the inside out, and most importantly, the report shows that this massive accumulation of hydrogen peroxide can be remedied with a proprietary treatment developed by the researchers described as a topical, UVB-activated compound called PC-KUS (a modified pseudocatalase). What’s more, the study also shows that the same treatment works for the skin condition, vitiligo.

“To date, it is beyond any doubt that the sudden loss of the inherited skin and localized hair color can affect those individuals in many fundamental ways,” said Karin U. Schallreuter, M.D., study author from the Institute for Pigmentary Disorders in association with E.M. Arndt University of Greifswald, Germany and the Centre for Skin Sciences, School of Life Sciences at the University of Bradford, United Kingdom. “The improvement of quality of life after total and even partial successful repigmentation has been documented.”

To achieve this breakthrough, Schallreuter and colleagues analyzed an international group of 2,411 patients with vitiligo. Of that group, 57 or 2.4 percent were diagnosed with strictly segmental vitiligo (SSV), and 76 or 3.2 percent were diagnosed with mixed vitiligo, which is SSV plus non-segmental vitiligo (NSV). They found that for the first time, patients who have SSV within a certain nerval distribution involving skin and eyelashes show the same oxidative stress as observed in the much more frequent general NSV, which is associated with decreased antioxidant capacities including catalase, thioredoxin reductase, and the repair mechanisms methionine sulfoxide reductases. These findings are based on basic science and clinical observations, which led to successful patient outcomes regarding repigmentation of skin and eyelashes.

“For generations, numerous remedies have been concocted to hide gray hair,” said Gerald Weissmann, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of The FASEB Journal, “but now, for the first time, an actual treatment that gets to the root of the problem has been developed. While this is exciting news, what’s even more exciting is that this also works for vitiligo. This condition, while technically cosmetic, can have serious socio-emotional effects of people. Developing an effective treatment for this condition has the potential to radically improve many people’s lives.”

Contact: Cody Mooneyhan
cmooneyhan@faseb.org
301-634-7104
Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology

Religion is a potent force for cooperation and conflict, research shows

May 17, 2012

Across history and cultures, religion increases trust within groups but also may increase conflict with other groups, according to an article in a special issue of Science.

“Moralizing gods, emerging over the last few millennia, have enabled large-scale cooperation and sociopolitical conquest even without war,” says University of Michigan anthropologist Scott Atran, lead author of the article with Jeremy Ginges of the New School for Social Research.

“Sacred values sustain intractable conflicts like those between the Israelis and the Palestinians that defy rational, business-like negotiation. But they also provide surprising opportunities for resolution.”

As evidence for their claim that religion increases trust within groups but may increase conflict with other groups, Atran and Ginges cite a number of studies among different populations. These include cross-cultural surveys and experiments in dozens of societies showing that people who participate most in collective religious rituals are more likely to cooperate with others, and that groups most intensely involved in conflict have the costliest and most physically demanding rituals to galvanize group solidarity in common defense and blind group members to exit strategies. Secular social contracts are more prone to defection, they argue. Their research also indicates that participation in collective religious ritual increases parochial altruism and, in relevant contexts, support for suicide attacks.

They also identify what they call the “backfire effect,” which dooms many efforts to broker peace. In many studies that Atran and Ginges carried out with colleagues in Palestine, Israel, Iran, India, Indonesia and Afghanistan, they found that offers of money or other material incentives to compromise sacred values increased anger and opposition to a deal.

“In a 2010 study, Iranians who regarded Iran’s right to a nuclear program as a sacred value more violently opposed sacrificing Iran’s nuclear program for conflict-resolution deals involving substantial economic aid, or relaxation of sanctions, than the same deals without aid or sanctions,” they write. “In a 2005 study in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian refugees who held their ‘right of return’ to former homes in Israel as a sacred value more violently opposed abandoning this right for a Palestinian state plus substantial economic aid than the same peace deal without aid.”

This dynamic is behind the paradoxical reality that the world finds itself in today: “Modern multiculturalism and global exposure to multifarious values is increasingly challenged by fundamentalist movements to revive primary group loyalties through greater ritual commitments to ideological purity.”

But Atran and Ginges also offer some insights that could help to solve conflicts fueled by religious conviction. Casting these conflicts as sacred initially blocks standard business-like negotiation tactics. But making strong symbolic gestures such as sincere apologies and demonstrations of respect for the other’s values generates surprising flexibility, even among militants and political leaders, and may enable subsequent material negotiations, they point out.

“In an age where religious and sacred causes are resurgent, there is urgent need for joint scientific effort to understand them,” they conclude. “In-depth ethnography, combined with cognitive and behavioral experiments among diverse societies (including those lacking a world religion), can help identify and isolate the moral imperatives for decisions on war or peace.”

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Atran is also affiliated with Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique−Institut Jean Nicod, Paris, and with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

Established in 1949, the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (ISR) is the world’s largest academic social science survey and research organization, and a world leader in developing and applying social science methodology, and in educating researchers and students from around the world. ISR conducts some of the most widely-cited studies in the nation, including the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers, the American National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, the Columbia County Longitudinal Study and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the Institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China, and South Africa. ISR is also home to the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), the world’s largest digital social science data archive. Visit the ISR Web site at http://www.isr.umich.edu for more information.

Contact: Diane Swanbrow
swanbrow@umich.edu
734-647-9069
University of Michigan

Less educated Americans leaving religion behind

August 21, 2011

While religious service attendance has decreased for all white Americans since the early 1970s, the rate of decline has been more than twice as high for those without college degrees compared to those who graduated from college, according to new research to be presented at the 106th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association. Read more

Holograms reveal brain’s inner workings

August 17, 2011

Like far away galaxies, powerful tools are required to bring the minute inner workings of neurons into focus. Borrowing a technique from materials science, a team of neurobiologists, psychiatrists, and advanced imaging specialists from Switzerland’s EPLF and CHUV report in The Journal of Neuroscience how Digital Holographic Microscopy (DHM) can now be used to observe neuronal activity in real-time and in three dimensions—with up to 50 times greater resolution than ever before. The application has immense potential for testing out new drugs to fight neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Read more

Doris Day releasing a new album after 20 years

August 16, 2011

Doris Day is making a musical comeback, releasing her first album in almost 20 years.

The 87-year-old screen legend, had her first hit record Sentimental Journey in 1945.  She went on to become a Hollywood movie star in such film classics as Calamity Jane and The Man Who Knew Too Much and has won both an Oscar and a Grammy. Read more

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