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The periodic table of galaxies

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Teleportation is no longer science fiction – thanks to quantum mechanics scientists

Teleportation is no longer science fiction – thanks to quantum mechanics scientists can teleport information securely from one place to another. The latest episode of Quantum Around You explains how.

When most people think about teleportation, they think about someone disappearing in one spot and appearing in another instantly, Star Trek style. While that would be extremely useful, so far scientists haven’t found a way to do it.

But what they have managed to do is teleport information, and in some ways that’s even cooler.

Quantum teleportation, as its known, is a crucial area of research because it’s the only way humans can transmit information completely securely, with no risk of interception.

To do this, scientists exploit the special characteristics of quantum entanglement. You may have heard of it before, but the latest episode of  University of New South Wales (UNSW)‘s Quantum Around You does an amazing job of breaking down the physics behind the process.

As Associate Professor Andrea Morello, from the School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications at UNSW, explains, quantum entanglement is when two electrons become linked and lose their individuality. This means their state or “spin” – which can either be up or down – is defined only as being the opposite of each other.

If you split up two entangled electrons, the person with one can you’re suddenly able to transmit information from one to the other.

That means you could encode information on a single electron (an up spin could mean one thing while a down could mean another, or more commonly, up could represent a ‘1’ in the binary code, while down represents a ‘0’), and the person with the other entangled electron would be able to access that information by looking at what state their electron is in.

So how is that teleportation? What many people don’t realise is that as soon as that information is transmitted, it disappears from the electron of the sender and instantly reappears on the recipient’s electron. Ta da! This is because the sender has to to use another, non-entangled electron to read the information properly, and as soon as they do this the entanglement is lost.

But even though this is a pure example of teleportation, it doesn’t actually contradict Einstein’s theory of relativity, which states nothing can move faster than the speed of light.

Watch the episode above to find out why, and learn more about how scientists are making information disappear and reappear all over the world.


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This garden can kill: meet the residents of England’s infamous Poison Garden

This English garden harbours 100 species of toxic plants, including one that acts as an amazing aphrodisiac… right before it knocks you dead.

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Positioning itself as the world’s most extraordinary contemporary garden, England’s Alnwick Garden harbours a dangerous attraction. Founded in 1750 by the first Duke of Northumberland, the 14-acre complex is now being run by Jane Percy, the current Duchess of Northumberland, who’s taken it upon herself to make it a more engaging and educational place for kids.

When the duchess inherited the garden in 1995, she set about revitalising it. The obvious idea was planting rows and rows of fragrant and stunning roses, but that wasn’t going to inspire a young crowd to spend a day on the grounds. With the help of Belgian landscape gardener, Jacques Wirtz, who’d just been working on the gardens at the residence of the French president, the duchess made sure that the Alnwick Garden would become entirely unique.

“If you’re building something, especially a visitor attraction, it needs to be something really unique,” she told Natasha Geiling at Smithsonian Magazine. “One of the things I hate in this day and age is the standardisation of everything. I thought, ‘Let’s try and do something really different.’”

Rather than building an apothecary garden, filled with hundreds of plants with the capacity to heal a multitude of human ailments, the duchess wanted to create a garden filled with danger, just like the famous Medici poison garden in Italy.

“I thought, ‘This is a way to interest children,'” she told Geiling. “Children don’t care that aspirin comes from a bark of a tree. What’s really interesting is to know how a plant kills you, and how the patient dies, and what you feel like before you die.”

The Poison Garden of Alnwick now houses 100 plant varieties that do can horrible things to a person, even if they so much as smell the air surrounding them. The highly toxic laurel hedges, for example, have claimed several lives outside Alnwick, because they sometimes grow in private gardens of British locals. The duchess says that these locals cut the laurel hedges from their own gardens, load them up in their cars to drive them to the dump, but are put to sleep by the poisonous fumes on the way, causing them to crash.

As a precaution, visitors to the Poison Garden are warned not to smell, touch or taste anything. But that doesn’t stop accidents from happening occasionally, as Geiling reports:

This past summer, seven people reportedly fainted from inhaling toxic fumes while walking through the garden. ‘People think we’re being overdramatic when we talk about [not smelling the plants], but I’ve seen the health and safety reports,’ the duchess says.”

The duchess also grows several drugs in her Poison Garden, including cannabis and cocaine, as a way to educate children about the effects of these plants on the human body. She says it’s a more effective and engaging way of educating kids about drugs than talking at them about it in the classroom.

She told Smithsonian Magazine that one of her favourite additions to the garden is the innocently named angel’s trumpet, or Brugmansia, native to South America. In small amounts it can induce a psychedelic trip like LSD, but can easily kill. But not before making you feel amazing first. “It’s an amazing aphrodisiac before it kills you,” she says. “[Angel’s trumpet] is an amazing way to die because it’s quite pain-free. A great killer is usually an incredible aphrodisiac.”

By the way, Australians? Don’t think you’re safe from the toxic plant fumes, because just as we’re home to all kinds of animals that can kill us, we also harbour a plant that happens to be one of the deadliest and most painful varieties in the entire world:


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Sleeping Brains Understand Words

Have you ever heard someone describe a task as being so easy that they ‘could do it in their sleep’? A fascinating new study from a team of French neuroscientists shows that this statement may be literally true, far more often than you’d think: Inducing Task-Relevant Responses to Speech in the Sleeping Brain


Sid Kouider and colleagues’ elegant experiment went as follows. Volunteers were asked to perform a word categorization task: spoken words were played to them and they had to press a button with their left hand (say) if the word was a kind of animal, or press a button with their right hand if it was an object.

So far, so simple – but the kicker was that participants were allowed to fall asleep during the task. The experiment took place in a quiet, dark room to help them nod off. Once a volunteer was soundly asleep, the task continued – more animal and object words were played to them while they slept.

The key question was: did the volunteers’ brains continue to perform the task while they were asleep? This might seem like a hard hypothesis to test – how can a brain ‘perform’ a button pressing task, without pressing any buttons, and how would we know even if it? Well, the participants were wired up to an EEG system to record brain electrical activity, before the experiment began. Based on the EEG data from the awake phase of the experiment, Kouider et al were able to record the different neural activations that accompanied pressing a button with either the left or the right hand. (These activations happen on opposite sides of the brain, fittingly.)

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The authors then examined whether these same ‘button pressing’ patterns occurred in response to the stimuli presented during sleep – and amazingly, they did, in most cases. The truly remarkable result was that the sleeping brains ‘produced’ the correct responses to the stimuli. If an animal word was played, the brain’s activity was usually consistent with it making a (say) left hand button press.

So this is pretty amazing and suggests that the brain can perform a high-level language task, involving understanding the meaning of words, while asleep. There are some questions, of course. As Kouider et al say:

First, one might question whether participants in our study were truly asleep… in order to be fully confident that the trials that we included in our analysis genuinely reflect a state of sleep, microarousals and arousals (associated with button presses or not) were detected and trials in the direct vicinity of these events were discarded.

Finally, this paper made me think of the Chinese Room – a philosophical thought-experiment in which a man with an elaborate instruction book is able to respond, in Chinese, to questions posed in Chinese, even though he doesn’t know the language and has no (conscious) understanding of what he’s saying. Is a sleeping brain rather like that man? A sleeping brain has no conscious experience of the outside world, so far as we know. Yet somehow it knows how to respond to words…!


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Nature’s Anti-Aging Secret Ecologists are finding animals and plants that defy aging.

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A dozen years ago, Daniel Doak began crawling around the Alaskan tundra carrying a container of colorful party toothpicks. He was there on the chilly North Slope at the top of the continent to study moss campion, a low, flat plant that explodes with pink flowers in early summer.

Moss campion seedlings are “the size of the head of a pushpin,” Doak says, and 20 years can pass before they grow much bigger. Nonetheless, Doak, an ecologist at the University of Colorado, dutifully identified, mapped and measured the plants, using the toothpicks to mark the location of the smallest ones.

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Moss campion in bloom.

Tracy Feldman

Every summer he returns, and after all those years of strained eyes and bruised knees, he now has data on 2,500 plants in the Arctic and thousands more at sites across the globe, from the Rocky Mountains to the Pyrenees. (Moss campion grows across a wide swath of the world’s high latitudes and elevations.) That information led Doak and his collaborator, Duke University ecologist William Morris, to a surprising find: The plants live for centuries. And that insight is helping to shape an emerging field: the science of how nature ages.

Initially, Doak simply wanted to understand how organisms respond to harsh environmental conditions, such as the frigid temperatures of an Alaskan winter. “How does a species make a living,” he wondered, “in a place where it’s tough to get established and tough to live?” So Doak and Morris recorded basic demographic data, measuring things like how fast the plants grow — and how long they live. “We do the equivalent of what the Census Bureau does,” says Doak. “We ask, ‘Are you alive? How big are you? How many children do you have?’ ”

By tracking the plants year after year, Doak has shown that moss campion follows a biological strategy known as negative senescence. Senescence is the scientific term for what we commonly think of as aging. All aging really signifies is time lived. To us, there’s no separating the passage of time from the process of decline. We see it in ourselves: gray hair, bad knees, flagging energy. But in negative senescence, the risk of death decreases as an organism grows older.

For years, biologists believed this strategy was largely impossible. Everything that survives for long enough, they thought, will eventually enter a deteriorating slide toward death. A combination of long-term data sets and new computational tools is painting a different picture: plants and animals that stay healthy, and even reproduce, for far longer than anyone would have predicted. Death may still be their ultimate fate, but it doesn’t represent the end point of decline. It arrives via catastrophe, or a whim of nature, or as a result of human-caused changes to the environment.

Doak and other scientists examining how various species age have discovered that in some cases, they simply don’t. Evolution may sometimes favor organisms that follow a different path. “Clearly there are ways for natural selection to dramatically change how senescence happens,” Doak says. “It doesn’t seem that hard to defeat senescence.”

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Duke scientists William Morris (left) and Patrick Corcoran study tiny moss campion plants in Alaska’s Wrangell Mountains.

Rachel Mallon

Questions of Life and Death

Doak’s conclusion would have seemed heretical just a few years ago.

Why living things age is one of biology’s most vexing questions. For the past several decades, biologists have clung to a trio of theories, all of which hold that senescence is inescapable. One theory holds that organisms age because of built-up genetic mutations that aren’t weeded out by natural selection — a disease, say, that hits after your reproductive prime. Another maintains that aging occurs because some traits that make you better at reproducing may also cue your demise. And according to a third theory, as organisms age they deteriorate and must spend more energy to repair cell damage — to the detriment of other essential physical functions.

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Toothpicks mark the smallest seedlings.

Daniel Doak

For years scientists have quibbled over which theory proved the best, but few doubted that, among the three, they explained the evolution of aging.

Now a new branch of the science of aging has sprouted, from a part of the world that, oddly, was excluded before: nature. And its early results suggest that those long-standing theories only tell part of the story. Until as recently as a decade ago, the mostly lab-based scientists who studied aging assumed that senescence wasn’t visible in nature. You wouldn’t see it in the wild, they believed, because the cruel realities of nature simply don’t allow anything to live long enough to decline. But years of data from long-term studies by Doak and other scientists examining plants, birds, mammals and fungi in the field are showing the flaws in these assumptions.

“There’s dogma in the literature — which is more oriented toward the cell biology of aging — that wild animals don’t actually senesce,” says Daniel Nussey, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Edinburgh who studies aging in Soay sheep on a remote Scottish island. “That is absolutely wrong. This process can be seen, and it is shaped by evolution.”

In fact, signs of nature aging are all around us. Nussey’s wild sheep shed several pounds the year before they die; alpine ibex older than 8 or 9 can’t tolerate harsh weather; some plants lose their ability to survive drought. Elderly albatross seek out food in different areas than they did in their youth. Why organisms age differently — the comparative biology of aging — is a growing fascination for scientists. “We’re trying to understand what it is that drives variation in this process,” Nussey says.

That variation, it turns out, includes species that simply don’t follow the established rules. Back in 2004, a team of scientists looked at the emerging evidence from ecology and proposed that aging isn’t inevitable at all. In a controversial paper published in the journal Theoretical Population Biology, they wrote that “some, and perhaps many, species show negative senescence” — a situation in which death rates actually fall as the years pass.

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Bristlecone pines, like this one in California’s White Mountains, can live for thousands of years.

Neil Lucas/Nature Picture Library

Live Slow, Die Old

Since then, evidence of negative senescence has been stacking up.

In the case of moss campion, the plant has evolved a strategy of slow, deliberate growth. Doak believes it spends much of its early energy building an extremely long tap root that helps ensure water and nutrients later on, but slows the plant’s above-ground growth in the meantime. In the moss campion’s tundra home, “it’s very hard to get established,” says Doak. But once it is, its chances of surviving and eventually reproducing are high. There’s not much that will kill moss campion. The plant is so flat and low to the ground, and its leaves so tiny (less than half an inch long), that caribou and Dall sheep have a hard time eating it.

To Doak, it makes sense that natural selection would, in this case, act against aging. “Random catastrophes aren’t going to kill you, and it’s worth your while to put your investment in yourself rather than just in putting out offspring,” he says. Rather than “live fast, die young,” the campion strategy is more “live slow, die old.” Really, really old.

With some organisms, really old can mean millennia. High in the White Mountains near the California-Nevada border live some of the oldest trees in the world. Their trunks thick and gnarled, their oldest needles, born when JFK was president, still hanging on, these bristlecone pines are nearly 5,000 years old. Living five millennia is quite a feat, but what’s even more surprising is that these trees show no sign of decline. They are more likely to survive environmental stress than their younger cohorts, and they continue to reproduce at a steady rate. Their measured growth allows them to build extra-durable wood that resists rot, drought and lightning. In other words, in this case, natural selection appears to favor avoiding senescence entirely.

But plants are hardly the only organisms defying the aging process. Studies of turtles and lizards have also turned up negative senescence. One long-term study of three-toed box turtles in Missouri found that the animals were still reproducing well into their 70s.

In the mammal world, naked mole rats are the longest-living rodents. They can reach nearly 30 years of age in captivity. Scientists have found that breeding females “show no decline in fertility even well into their third decade of life,” according to a 2008 study published in the Journal of Comparative Physiology B. That makes sense, says Doak: “They live underground, in a resource-poor environment. They live cooperatively, meaning that your only chance to reproduce is after you’ve lived for a while and moved up the social strata.” Natural selection in this scenario favors individuals that live longer.

A New Threat

Doak’s moss campion research has lately turned up more than just evidence for negative senescence. He’s also found signs that global warming may be exerting a tangible influence on death’s odds. Close monitoring of the Alaskan moss campion plants over the years reveals that what’s most likely to kill the plants today is climate. “In winters when it’s quite cold but there are warm periods, the plants lose the blanket of snow that covers them,” Doak explains. They come down with the equivalent of freezer burn; ultimately, they die from being freeze-dried. “We’ve been seeing more and more of that over the course of our study,” he says.

While global warming represents a hurdle for the plants, Doak himself faces a more existential challenge. “It’s very difficult,” he admits, “to show that senescence doesn’t ever occur.” To prove conclusively that something doesn’t age would itself require human immortality. And, unfortunately, negative senescence in humans remains elusive.


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20 Things You Didn’t Know About… Galaxies

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The Milky Way rotates at 560,000 miles per hour, and makes a full revolution every 200 million years.

 1. Eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant was one of the first people to theorize that the Milky Way was not the only galaxy in the universe. Kant coined the term island universe to describe a galaxy.

2. Astronomers now estimate that there are 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe.

3. One of the earliest uses of the English term Milky Way was in Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th-century poem “The House of Fame.” He likened the galaxy to a celestial roadway.

4. While we’re talking road trips: Due to the expansion of the universe, all other galaxies are receding from our own. Galaxies farther from the Milky Way are speeding away faster than those nearby.

5. Some of the galaxies receding from the Milky Way are ellipsoidal, like footballs. Galaxies can also be thin and flat with tentacle-like arms — just like the Milky Way.

6. Galaxies come in irregular shapes, too, including many dwarf galaxies. These galaxies, the smallest in the universe, contain only a few hundred or a few thousand stars (compared with 100 billion stars in the Milky Way).

7. You’ll often find dwarf galaxies clustered around larger galaxies.

8. Dwarf galaxies frequently lose their stars to their larger neighbors via gravity. The stars stream across the sky as the dwarf galaxies are ripped apart. Alas, you can’t see it with the naked eye.

9. You also can’t see the enormous black hole lurking in the center of the Milky Way, though if you’ve ever looked at the constellation Sagittarius, the archer, you’ve looked in the right direction.

10. Most galaxies have a black hole at the center, and astronomers have found the mass is consistently about 1/1000th the mass of the host galaxy.

11. Two of the closest galaxies to the Milky Way — the Small Magellanic Cloud and the Large Magellanic Cloud — may not have black holes. Or, because both are low-mass galaxies, their central black holes may be too small to detect.

12. Every galaxy does have dust, though. Produced by stars, the dust causes light to look redder than it really is when observed visually, which can make it difficult for astronomers studying properties of stars.

13. That dust can really travel, too. Some galaxies drive galactic winds, expelling dust and gas at hundreds of kilometers per second into the intergalactic medium, the space between galaxies.

14. These winds are caused by starlight exerting pressure on the dust and gas; the fastest galactic winds are in distant galaxies that are forming stars more rapidly than the Milky Way.

15. The Milky Way rotates at about 250 kilometers per second (about 560,000 mph) and completes a full revolution about every 200 million years.

16. One galactic revolution ago, dinosaurs ruled the Earth.

17. Galaxies rotate faster than predicted based on the gravity of their stars alone. Astronomers infer that the extra gravitational force is coming from dark matter, which does not emit or reflect light.
18. Dark matter aside, galaxies are mostly empty space. If the stars within galaxies were shrunk to the size of oranges, they would be separated by 4,800 kilometers (3,000 miles).

19. If galaxies were shrunk to the size of apples, neighboring galaxies would only be a few meters apart. The relative proximity of galaxies means that galaxies occasionally merge.

20. In about 4 billion years, the Milky Way will merge with the Andromeda galaxy. The result of the merging process — which will take at least a hundred million years — will be an ellipsoidal galaxy nicknamed “Milkomeda.”


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Link found between tobacco use and sexually transmitted oral virus

Rearchers from Johns Hopkins Medicine have found an association between exposure to tobacco and the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus type 16. This virus is believed to be responsible for the development of both mouth and throat cancers.
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Cigarettes are just one of the many ways in which people can be exposed to tobacco.

The study, published in JAMA, followed up on the observation that there was an association between prevalence of the virus and the number of self-reported cigarettes smoked per day by an individual.

The researchers found that human papillomavirus type 16 (HPV16) infection was more prevalent among participants who had either used or recently been exposed to tobacco, regardless of their sexual behavior.

HPV16, a virus commonly transmitted through oral sex, is found in 80% of cancers located in the back of the throat. The number of mouth and throat cancer cases has risen by 225% in the US over the past 2 decades.

“The practice of oral sex is common, but this cancer is rare,” says study author Gypsyamber D’Souza. “So there must be cofactors in the process that explain why some people develop persistent HPV16 infections and HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancers when most other people don’t.”

Tobacco exposure ‘significantly associated’ with the virus

For the study, the researchers examined 6,887 participants of the National Health and Nutrition Examination, a nationally representative sample of the US population. Of the 6,887 subjects, 2,012 (28.6%) were tobacco users and 63 (1.0%) were known to be infected with HPV16.

The participants were screened for biomarkers reflecting all forms of tobacco exposure – environmental, smoking and use of smokeless tobacco – and for oral HPV16 infection.

In addition to clinical testing – blood and urine testing and a 30-second oral rinse and gargle – the participants completed computer-assisted self-interviews in order to capture self-reported tobacco use and sexual behaviors.

Measures of tobacco exposure and oral sexual behavior were both found to be significantly associated with prevalence of oral HPV16 infection. The virus was more prevalent in participants who were current tobacco users (2.0%), compared with former users or those who had never used tobacco (0.6%).

Two tobacco-related chemicals, cotinine and NNAL (4-(methylnitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)-1-butanol), were measured in the blood and urine of the participants. For every increase in the level of cotinine in the blood that was equivalent to smoking three cigarettes a day, the likelihood of HPV16 infection also increased by 31%.

Similarly, with each increase in the level of NNAL in the urine that was equivalent to smoking four cigarettes a day, the chances of HPV16 prevalence rose by 68%.

Unknown causes

“These results may provide an additional reason for smoking cessation and suggest that even modest amounts of tobacco use are associated with higher oral HPV prevalence,” says Dr. Carole Fakhry, study author and assistant professor of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

The researchers also emphasize that, despite finding a significant association between tobacco and the prevalence of oral HPV16, smoking and tobacco exposure do not in themselves cause HPV16 directly. People who are not exposed to tobacco are still able to develop HPV16 infections.

A limitation of the study is that it is unable to provide a causative explanation for the association between tobacco and oral HPV16. The researchers are also unable to completely exclude the possibility that people who use or are exposed to more tobacco might also have more oral sex, thus increasing the risk of HPV16 prevalence.

“It appears that tobacco exposure increases the likelihood of having oral HPV16 infection, and although we do not yet know why, we suspect that the virus may not be cleared from the body as easily in people who use tobacco,” says Dr. D’Souza.

The study authors believe that their findings highlight a need to assess the role of tobacco in the prevalence of oral HPV16 infection and its progression to malignancy.