Cats Domesticated Themselves, Ancient DNA Shows
In true feline form, cats took their time deciding whether to jump into humans’ laps.
In a new comprehensive study of the spread of domesticated cats, DNA analysis suggests that cats lived for thousands of years alongside humans before they were domesticated. During that time, their genes have changed little from those of wildcats, apart from picking up one recent tweak: the distinctive stripes and dots of the tabby cat.
Researchers surveyed the DNA of more than 200 cats spanning the last 9,000 years, including ancient Romanian cat remains, Egyptian cat mummies, and modern African wildcat specimens. Two major cat lineages contributed to the domestic feline we know today, they report in a study published Monday in Nature Ecology & Evolution.
The earlier ancestors of today’s domestic cats spread from southwest Asia and into Europe as early as 4400 B.C. The cats likely started hanging around farming communities in the Fertile Crescent about 8,000 years ago, where they settled into a mutually beneficial relationship as humans’ rodent patrol. (See little-known small cats in “Out of the Shadows, the Wildcats You’ve Never Seen.”)
NASA has found 49 rocky planets that might support alien life
NASA scientists on Monday announced the discovery of 219 new objects beyond our solar system that are almost certainly planets.
What's more, 10 of these worlds may be rocky, about the size of Earth, and habitable.
The data comes from the space agency's long-running Kepler exoplanet-hunting mission. From March 2009 through May 2013, Kepler stared down about 145,000 sunlike stars in a tiny section of the night sky near the constellation Cygnus.
Most of those stars are hundreds or thousands of light-years away, so there's little chance humans will ever visit them — at least anytime soon. However, the data could tell astronomers how common Earthlike planets are and what the chances of finding intelligent extraterrestrial life might be.
The Sun's "evil" twin is probably lurking beyond the Solar System
Since the 1980s, astronomers have been searching for the Sun's "evil" twin, dubbed Nemesis due to its habit of slinging deadly asteroids our way every 26 million years or so. Lately, the Nemesis hypothesis has fallen out of favor after decades of sky surveys have turned up no trace of the star, but a new mathematical model from UC Berkeley suggests that almost every star is born with a buddy – including our Sun.
The team probed the Perseus cloud, a stellar nursery some 600 light years away, to take stock of the number of single and binary stars. Combining several data sets from different surveys, the researchers identified 19 binary-star systems and 45 single-star systems.
Intriguingly, in wide binary systems in which the two stars are further than 500 Astronomical Units (AU) apart, all of the stars were very young – under 500,000 years old. The slightly older stars – between 500,000 and 1 million years – were all closer together, about 200 AU.
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That means that even though the hypothetical Nemesis has never been detected, the Sun probably does have a long-lost twin, which has since migrated out into the Milky Way – it probably isn't evil, though.
Cryogenically Frozen Brains Will Be ‘Woken up’ and Transplanted in Donor Bodies Within Three Years, Neurosurgeon Claims
Given the remarkable advances that have been made in medicine in recent years, it’s hard to believe anything is still truly impossible. Artificial intelligences are diagnosing diseases, real-life cyborgs walk among us, and we’re finding promising new clues on our quest for immortality. Even more remarkable breakthroughs are on the way, but if any one research team truly faces seemingly insurmountable odds, it has to be that of Professor Sergio Canavero, Director of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group.
Four years ago, the acclaimed neurosurgeon announced his plan to complete the world’s first human head transplant, and this week, in an interview with OOOM, he confirmed that the controversial operation will take place within the next 10 months. According to Canavero, the operation will occur in Harbin, China, with Xiaoping Ren of Harbin Medical University leading the surgical team, and contrary to previous reports, a Chinese citizen, not Russian Valery Spiridonov, will be the recipient of a donor body.
However, the most remarkable news to come out of Canavero’s interview doesn’t have anything to do with the head transplant at all, but what he plans to do afterwards: “As soon as the first human head transplant has taken place, i.e., no later than in 2018, we will be able to attempt to reawaken the first frozen head.”
Power Causes Brain Damage
If power were a prescription drug, it would come with a long list of known side effects. It can intoxicate. It can corrupt. It can even make Henry Kissinger believe that he’s sexually magnetic. But can it cause brain damage?
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The historian Henry Adams was being metaphorical, not medical, when he described power as “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.” But that’s not far from where Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, ended up after years of lab and field experiments. Subjects under the influence of power, he found in studies spanning two decades, acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.
Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, recently described something similar. Unlike Keltner, who studies behaviors, Obhi studies brains. And when he put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy. Which gives a neurological basis to what Keltner has termed the “power paradox”: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place.
An Artificial Intelligence Developed Its Own Non-Human Language
A buried line in a new Facebook report about chatbots’ conversations with one another offers a remarkable glimpse at the future of language.
In the report, researchers at the Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research lab describe using machine learning to train their “dialog agents” to negotiate. (And it turns out bots are actually quite good at dealmaking.) At one point, the researchers write, they had to tweak one of their models because otherwise the bot-to-bot conversation “led to divergence from human language as the agents developed their own language for negotiating.” They had to use what’s called a fixed supervised model instead.
In other words, the model that allowed two bots to have a conversation—and use machine learning to constantly iterate strategies for that conversation along the way—led to those bots communicating in their own non-human language. If this doesn’t fill you with a sense of wonder and awe about the future of machines and humanity then, I don’t know, go watch Blade Runner or something.
The larger point of the report is that bots can be pretty decent negotiators—they even use strategies like feigning interest in something valueless, so that it can later appear to “compromise” by conceding it. But the detail about language is, as one tech entrepreneur put it, a mind-boggling “sign of what’s to come.”
The idea of creating a new universe in the lab is no joke
Physicists aren’t often reprimanded for using risqué humour in their academic writings, but in 1991 that is exactly what happened to the cosmologist Andrei Linde at Stanford University. He had submitted a draft article entitled ‘Hard Art of the Universe Creation’ to the journal Nuclear Physics B. In it, he outlined the possibility of creating a universe in a laboratory: a whole new cosmos that might one day evolve its own stars, planets and intelligent life. Near the end, Linde made a seemingly flippant suggestion that our Universe itself might have been knocked together by an alien ‘physicist hacker’. The paper’s referees objected to this ‘dirty joke’; religious people might be offended that scientists were aiming to steal the feat of universe-making out of the hands of God, they worried. Linde changed the paper’s title and abstract but held firm over the line that our Universe could have been made by an alien scientist. ‘I am not so sure that this is just a joke,’ he told me.
Fast-forward a quarter of a century, and the notion of universe-making – or ‘cosmogenesis’ as I dub it – seems less comical than ever. I’ve travelled the world talking to physicists who take the concept seriously, and who have even sketched out rough blueprints for how humanity might one day achieve it. Linde’s referees might have been right to be concerned, but they were asking the wrong questions. The issue is not who might be offended by cosmogenesis, but what would happen if it were truly possible. How would we handle the theological implications? What moral responsibilities would come with fallible humans taking on the role of cosmic creators?
Theoretical physicists have grappled for years with related questions as part of their considerations of how our own Universe began. In the 1980s, the cosmologist Alex Vilenkin at Tufts University in Massachusetts came up with a mechanism through which the laws of quantum mechanics could have generated an inflating universe from a state in which there was no time, no space and no matter. There’s an established principle in quantum theory that pairs of particles can spontaneously, momentarily pop out of empty space. Vilenkin took this notion a step further, arguing that quantum rules could also enable a minuscule bubble of space itself to burst into being from nothing, with the impetus to then inflate to astronomical scales. Our cosmos could thus have been burped into being by the laws of physics alone. To Vilenkin, this result put an end to the question of what came before the Big Bang: nothing. Many cosmologists have made peace with the notion of a universe without a prime mover, divine or otherwise.
United Methodist Church Appoints Transgender Deacon
The United Methodist church commissioned a transgender deacon on Sunday ― the first time an openly non-binary person has assumed the role.
M Barclay, a transgender person who doesn’t identify as male or female and who uses the pronoun “they,” was appointed in the church’s Northern Illinois Conference over the weekend.
“For so long, I’ve longed to be a pastoral presence in the world — and certainly you can do that without a collar — but we have ordination for a reason, and part of that is that I can publicly identify as a pastor now,” Barclay told United Methodist News Service.
Barclay previously worked as the director of communications for Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial United Methodist group that advocates for full inclusion of LGBTQ people the church.
A Resolution Condemning White Supremacy Causes Chaos at the Southern Baptist Convention
The Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting turned chaotic in Phoenix this week over a resolution that condemned white supremacy and the alt-right. On Tuesday, leaders initially declined to consider the proposal submitted by a prominent black pastor in Texas, Dwight McKissic, and only changed course after a significant backlash. On Wednesday afternoon, the body passed a revised statement against the alt-right. But the drama over the resolution revealed deep tension lines within a denomination that was explicitly founded to support slavery.
A few weeks before the meeting was slated to start, McKissic published his draft resolution on a popular Southern Baptist blog called SBC Voices. The language was strong and pointed.
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Over the last several years, the Southern Baptist Convention has made “racial reconciliation” one of its priorities, building on work begun in 1995 when it first apologized for its role in sustaining and promoting slavery. In 2015, the denomination passed a resolution supporting racial reconciliation, and in 2016, it called on Christians to stop displaying the Confederate battle flag.
But to many in the denomination, any progress was significantly undermined by the 2016 election. With 81 percent of white evangelicals supporting Trump, African Americans in particular felt like they had been betrayed. As Anyabwile said of his fellow Christians in an interview with me shortly after Trump was elected, “I feel like they haven’t understood any of my concerns as a racial minority and an African American.”