Researchers observe the first known interstellar comet

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To date, every comet humanity has seen inside the Solar System has come from the Solar System, whether it’s the Kuiper Belt or the billions of comets believed to make up the Oort Cloud. Now, however, it looks like astronomers might have found a comet of interstellar origin. They’ve used Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS 1 telescope to track C/2017 U1, an object with a very eccentric, hyperbolic orbit (that is, moving quickly enough to escape gravitational pull) that wasn’t connected to the Sun. The trajectory suggests that it’s a comet which escaped from a nearby star, rather than something knocked out a familiar path and drawn in by the Sun’s gravity.

These are preliminary findings, and there’s more work to be done before researchers can be completely sure. If they confirm the orbit, though, it’ll expand our understanding of space: we’ll have tangible evidence that star systems can "swap" comets if the circumstances are right. The concept wasn’t far-fetched given that comets are fairly common, but it’s good to have tangible proof.

Via: Sky & Telescope

Source: IAU Minor Planet Center

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New gene-editing tools may one day treat thousands of diseases

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The acronyms might not be quite as catchy as CRISPR — since, really, what is? — but what new genetic tools dubbed REPAIR and ABE lack in whimsy they promise to make up in utility. These advances announced Wednesday solve two of the problems hobbling CRISPR, the revolutionary genome-editing technique: that its idea of “editing” is often like 1,000 monkeys editing a Word document, and that making permanent changes to DNA might not be the best approach.

Together, the discoveries, described in separate studies, show that five years after scientists demonstrated that CRISPR can edit DNA, bioengineers are still racing to develop the most efficient, precise, versatile — and therefore lucrative — genome-editing tools possible.

“One reason these are so exciting is, they show the CRISPR toolbox is still growing,” said chemical engineer Gene Yeo of the University of California, San Diego. “There are going to be a lot more, and it’s not going to stop anytime soon.” His lab has been working on one of the CRISPR advances but was not involved in either of the two new studies — it’s “personally frustrating” to get beaten, he added.

One discovery, led by biochemist David Liu of Harvard University, extends his 2016 invention of a way to change a single DNA “letter,” or base, on the 3-billion-letter-long human genome. Classic CRISPR cuts DNA with a molecular scissors and leaves the cell to repair the breach willy nilly, introducing the problem of 1,000 monkeys editing away. In contrast, Liu’s “base editor” replaces the molecular scissors with something like a pencil wielded by an expert forger: It is an enzyme that literally rearranges atoms — cleanly and without collateral damage that the cell needs to fix.

As in classic CRISPR, this version finds its way to a target on the genome via a molecule that acts like a bloodhound. Attached to the bloodhound is the atom-rearranger, which in Liu’s 2016 version turned the DNA letter G into A. Thousands of genetic diseases arise because a gene has a G where it should have an A, so the edit might one day treat or prevent them.

But other inherited disorders need different alphabetical magic. That’s what Liu, postdoctoral fellows Nicole Gaudelli and Alexis Komor, and their colleagues report in a paper in Nature: Their new “ABE” (adenine base editor) can turn A into G. Attached to CRISPR’s bloodhound molecule, ABE works “at virtually any target site in genomic DNA,” Liu said.

In tests so far, it changed DNA in more of the lab-grown human cells that it was slipped into than standard CRISPR (for all its fame, CRISPR often bungles the job). ABE also seems to make fewer off-target edits: In one test, it mistakenly hit four of the 12 off-target sites, compared to CRISPR’s nine, and made that mistake in 1.3 percent of cases compared to 14 percent for CRISPR, Liu said.

“About half of the 32,000 known disease-causing, single-letter mutations have one of the misspellings that ABE can fix”

About half of the 32,000 known disease-causing, single-letter mutations have one of the misspellings that ABE can fix, Liu said. They include sickle cell, Tay-Sachs, and cystic fibrosis, raising hopes that ABE could be used to treat these diseases, or (in early embryos) prevent them. In tests of cells growing in lab dishes, ABE reversed the mutation that causes hereditary hemochromatosis in about 30 percent of the cells, and changed another gene into a form that prevents sickle cell disease even in people who have its disease-causing mutation.

As with all forms of CRISPR, before ABE helps any patients, scientists will have to test whether it’s safe and effective. “But having the molecular machine is a good start,” said Liu, a co-founder of the CRISPR company Editas Medicine. He and colleagues have filed for patents on ABE.

Harvard biologist George Church, who tied for first in the race to make CRISPR work in human cells, called base editing “especially interesting.” Changing a single DNA letter, he said, means “fewer worries about the editing enzyme [in classic CRISPR] later going rogue or silent.” He also expects that crops with a single base change will not be designated as “transgenic,” reducing regulatory barriers to commercialization.

In a separate study, CRISPR pioneer Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute and his colleagues discovered a new version of CRISPR that can edit RNA, DNA’s friskier cousin. While DNA mostly sits sedately in cells and issues orders to make proteins that keep life living, RNA zips around the cell carrying out those orders, and then disappears. That makes RNA a tantalizing target: By editing the errant orders (RNA) rather than their issuer (DNA), scientists might be able to make temporary, reversible genetic edits, rather than CRISPR’s permanent ones.

“Editing DNA is hard to reverse, but once you stop providing the RNA-editing system, the changes will disappear over time,” said Zhang, also a co-founder of Editas. “That might make it possible to treat conditions where you don’t need a permanent edit,” such as when the immune system is in overdrive and causing inflammation.

To create what Zhang and his colleagues call REPAIR (“RNA editing for programmable A to I [G] replacement”), they fused an enzyme that binds to RNA with one that changes the RNA letter A (adenosine) to inosine, a molecule similar to the RNA letter G (guanosine), they report in Science. Other labs, including that of CRISPR developer Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, have also developed RNA editors, including oneusing the same Cas13 enzyme. But REPAIR’s creators say theirs is more efficient and less error-prone.

In tests on human cells growing in the lab, REPAIR corrected misspellings in the RNA that was made by disease-causing DNA — in this case, Fanconi anemia, an inherited and devastating bone marrow disease, or nephrogenic diabetes insipidus, a serious inborn kidney disease. Although the DNA still had its disease-causing mutations, 23 percent and 35 percent, respectively, of the RNA made by those defective genes was REPAIR’ed. Those levels might be high enough to treat the diseases. Some 5,800 inherited diseases are the result of the G-to-A glitch that REPAIR can fix, including epilepsy and Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

Both REPAIR and ABE might venture where CRISPR stumbles: in mature cells, like neurons, that don’t divide. In unpublished research, Liu said, he and his team have shown that ABE can edit genes in neurons, raising the possibility of treating devastating neurological diseases with ABE.

The furious race to improve CRISPR, via ABE or REPAIR or whatever comes next, Church said, are “potent reminders of how far CRISPR is from precise genome-editing in humans.”

This article originally published at STAT
here

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9 things you peak at in life by the time you hit 30

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Research has found plenty of things to savor about growing old, including an increased ability to build empathy and achieve financial security.

But the scientific research on when people "peak" in various aspects of their life — as determined by the median ages across certain trends — also suggest people max out certain abilities in their youth.

Here’s a sample of the abilities and traits people peak at by the time they hit their 30th birthday.

SEE ALSO: Here are the ages you peak at everything throughout life

Age 7 — Learning a new language

There’s still some debate among linguists and psychologists about whether people lose their ability to absorb a new language as they age, but it’s widely accepted that the brain is more malleable, or "plastic," before kids reach puberty.

If you want your child to learn a language, best to give them lessons as soon as possible.

 

Age 18 – Brain processing power

One of the key ways cognitive scientists test brain processing power is through something called a digit symbol coding test.

A researcher will equate a number with a certain symbol before giving a subject a string of numbers and asking them to convert the numbers to the correct symbols.

On average, 18-year-olds fare best on the task, according to a study published in 2016.

Age 22 — The ability to remember names

Cognitive ability declines as people age, but recalling a stranger’s name after meeting them is one skill that goes pretty quickly.

According to a 2010 study, people peaked in remembering others’ names around age 22.

See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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The underground ‘Thirsty House’ could battle droughts by collecting and filtering rainwater to drink

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  • Designed by architect Jie Zhang, the "Thirsty House" is a concept for a subterranean home that collects and filter rainwater for residents to drink.
  • The design is a winner in this year’s Red Dot Design Awards.
  • There are no immediate plans to build the first Thirsty House.

 

Droughts are common around the world, from California to Egypt to Brazil. Globally, approximately 2.7 billion people don’t have access to basic amounts of fresh water for at least one month ever year — a problem that could grow worse as urban populations increase in water-stressed areas. 

When freshwater becomes scarce, communities often turn to groundwater. But that can also go dry. According to Mother Jones, during the height of California’s 2015 drought, farms and cities drilled so deeply for groundwater that they tapped into reserves with rainwater that was 20,000 years old.

A new house design could help preserve rainwater before it soaks into the ground. Called the "Thirsty House," it collects and filter enough water to be self-sustaining. 

Designed by architect Jie Zhang, the concept was on Monday named a "best of the best" winner of this year’s Red Dot Design Awards in the "habitat" category. Though there are no immediate plans to build a prototype of the house, Zhang told Fast Company that it is technically possible with today’s technology.

20140408 Thirsty House_letter11_oThe Thirsty House could be made from fiberglass composite materials that require little or no water during construction. If Zhang were to construct it, she believes the best location would be underground, on a slope at the bottom of a valley. That way, the house could easily gather rainwater that naturally collects in pools via special pockets in the walls. The home’s interior system would then automatically filter the water.

The kitchen, where residents would use clean water, would be on the top floor. Used water would then flow down through pipes to the lower level, where it could be used to flush toilets.20140408 Thirsty House_letter8_oZhang said the design is intended to be a "manifesto" in favor of a more water-conscious world.

"A manifesto for a water-scarce future, the Thirsty House stands as a residual trace and a lasting memorial to the threatened resource, to evoke the awareness of the on-going water crisis and propose a frugal way of living in relationship to water," she wrote in her Red Dot entry.

SEE ALSO: Ikea is selling furniture that you can assemble in minutes with your bare hands

Join the conversation about this story »

NOW WATCH: Watch Google repeatedly mock Apple at its October Pixel event

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Missing Flight MH370 Inspires New Way to Locate Ocean Impacts

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Photo: AP

The Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 investigation has been reopened with the help of a private firm. Its incomplete story has refused to offer closure to the families of its 239 victims and has sparked conspiracy theories. But scientists have continued investigating the impact since it occurred three and a half years ago. It’s inspired one team to create a new way of locating large disturbances in the ocean, like earthquakes, meteors—and even striking airplanes.

Scientists generally discount gravity when studying the speed of sound in water. But a few cases see gravity rearing its head, like low frequency waves created by some ocean disturbances. Adding the effects back in allows researchers to turn the problem around—rather than creating a wave, they can use the mathematics to listen to the wave and then find the place where it began.

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Usama Kadri, applied mathematician at the University of Cardiff, previously discussed these ideas with the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. He thinks they have far more applications, according to the paper published today in the journal Scientific Reports. That includes “locating falling meteorites to detecting landslides, snowslides, storm surges, and rogue waves.” Perhaps they could even be used to “detect movements in Earth’s interior and plate tectonics.”

The researchers began with an experiment using weights dropped in a large pool to confirm how an object smacking the water would look in a hydrophone. They compared this to the data they took from Indian Ocean hydrophones to find examples of impacts and seismic events from the real world. They confirmed that the waves seem to carry information about the impact with them, most importantly its location, that could be decoded by the mathematics of the so-called acoustic-gravity wave theory.

The researchers didn’t find the airplane, but signals did show up in Indian Ocean hydrophones the day of the disappearance—one in a reasonable location. Unfortunately they were weak signals, leading to “a relatively large uncertainty in the locations.” The paper leaves potential scenarios up to “search experts to discuss.” Which they probably will.

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“It is almost inconceivable and certainly societally unacceptable in the modern aviation era … for a large commercial aircraft to be missing and for the world not to know with certainty what became of the aircraft and those on board,” the ATSB wrote, reports Jalopnik. Though no one, neither Kadri nor the ATSB, wants to falsely raise the hopes of the victims’ families.

There are limitations to most recent experiment—after all, it was done in a tank, and not the ocean. Other researchers are impressed with Kadri’s work as we’ve previously reported. But they cautioned that more modeling, both of the airplane striking the ocean and of the effects of the ocean floor itself, are required.

But this, combined with new maps of the sea floor, has shown just how much science has come out of the flight’s disappearance.

[Scientific Reports, Time]

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What’s inside a whale’s blowhole — and it’s not seawater

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Following is a transcript of the video.

If you ever watch a whale breathe, you’ll see plumes of mist shoot out of a hole in its head.

Contrary to popular belief, that’s not seawater. It’s actually a cocktail mix of hot air and bacteria.

As a whale breaches the surface, it opens its blowhole. It then forces warm air from the lungs into the cold atmosphere. The temperature change triggers water vapor in the whale’s breath to condense into water droplets.

The same phenomenon happens when you exhale on a cold day. The result is a misty spout that can be seen for miles.

But that’s only half the story.

Scientists recently observed something new in whale spouts. They collected samples from 26 humpback whales. Within the spouts, they discovered 25 microbial species.

The species were different from what was in the seawater indicating that they came from the whale’s respiratory tract. This is the first step in understanding lethal disease in whales.

In the last 19 months, an unusually high number of humpbacks died along the Atlantic coast. Respiratory illness is common among stranded and deceased whales.

This new record of microbes in healthy whales could help scientists determine what’s making whales so sick.

Join the conversation about this story »

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Why scientists are redefining the kilogram

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Physics is a funny thing. Despite dictating the behaviors and states of everything from atoms to stars, our interpretation of its effects are rooted in very human constructs. Meters, amperes and seconds were all defined using arbitrary terms and methods. For years, the kilogram and meter weren’t just terms, they were physical objects held in a Paris vault that some Victorian-era committee just decided would be the standard. But now, for the first time since the international system of units (SI) was launched in 1960, the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) is redefining four basic units of measurement, not by any human metric but by the immutable forces of the universe.

"This is the most important decision that the BIPM has made in maybe 100 years, which may be a slight exaggeration, but at least since 1960 when they adopted the international system of units," Dr. Terry Quinn, emeritus director of the BIPM, said.

A committee from the BIPM met in Paris this week and voted on Friday to recommend redefining the kilogram, mole, ampere and Kelvin. The motion will be put up for a vote at the General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) next November.

"For the scale that’s in your grocery store or bathroom, nothing’s going to change," Dr. David Newell of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) said. Instead, as Dr. Quinn explains, "it will give you the ability to make accurate measurements on scales far different from the current scale."

"This redefinition is a major overhaul," Newell said. But it’s certainly not the first. For example, we define the second by a specific number of cycles of radiation in a cesium-133 atom (9,192,631,770 periods). It was originally considered to be the fraction 1/86400 of the mean solar day.

The meter used to be a real thing that you could hold (like the kilogram still is) rather than the distance light travels in 1/299,792,458 seconds. "The SI is slowly evolving to the use of the invariance of nature," Newell said, rather than basing our observations on specific, physical artifacts.

"What is going to change is that with this redefinition, the uncertainties of fundamental constants is either going to go to zero," he said. "Or the uncertainties of the related fundamental constants is going to be drastically reduced."

This means researchers will have far more accurate tools with which to make measurements. That higher fidelity will empower them to go back and reexamine the laws of physics that we believe to be correct and see if they’re as accurate as we think they are. "We may actually find that we don’t know everything," Newell said. Eventually, we may even take those insights and once again redefine the scientific measurement system when our technology has sufficiently advanced.

Another advantage is these fundamental constants appear throughout nature, Newell explained. Researchers would no longer be tied to the kilogram and would be able to easily scale their units between the macroscopic and microscopic worlds.

"Moreover the present system is explicit unit based — the second, the kilogram, the meter, the ampere — and there’s definitions for all of them," Newell continued. "The new system is explicitly constants-based — the transition frequency of a cesium atom is an exact number of hertz, the speed of light is an exact number of meters per second."

Take amperes, for example. An ampere (or amp) is the basic unit of electrical current and is defined by the SI as the equivalent to one coulomb (the base unit of electrical charge) per second. Originally it was defined using a thought experiment.

This is problematic for a couple reasons, PhysicsWorld points out. First, it relies on other units of measure — specifically kilograms, meters and seconds — for its definition. This methodology is exactly what the BIPM is trying to get away from. Second, the aforementioned "thought experiment" can never be tested in reality, because it imagines a situation with wire infinitely long, so at some point, you’re going to have to approximate.

Instead, the BIPM wants to define amps by the number of electrons that flow through a wire by the exact number of electrons that actually flow through a wire. Recently, a team of researchers from German National Metrology Institute (PTB) in Braunschweig developed a Single Electron Pump. Electrons are generated on one side of a circuit, become trapped as they pass through a series of gates and then are released one at a time on the other side where they can be easily counted. Using this, we can define the ampere as the specific number of single electrons passing through a wire for a given length of time.

Kilograms are equally quirky. The International Prototype Kilogram (IPK) is a cylinder of platinum-iridium sitting in a Paris Vault and is what all other kilograms are measured against. Problem is, materials have a habit of gaining and losing atoms due to chemical interactions with the atmosphere. Of the six official copies of the IPK, one has lost about 5 micrograms while two others have gained more than 50 micrograms of mass. You’d be hard-pressed to notice if someone dropped a 50 microgram weight on your toe but for the scientific community, those fluctuations make a big difference.

The IPK isn’t just susceptible to atmospheric reactions. Being a physical object, it can be stolen or damaged. However, "you can’t steal Planck’s Constant," Quinn quipped.

"If I were to drop [the IPK] on the floor and chip a piece off, the definition of mass would have to be changed because it is defined as this hunk of metal," Dr. Willie May, former director of NIST and current VP of the BIPM, said.

"But, by definition, it can’t change," Quinn interjected. "And so what would happen, had Dr. May dropped it on the floor and knocked a piece off, it would have remained the IPK and the mass of the rest of the universe would have changed."

That’s where the Kibble Balance comes in. Now on normal balancing scales, you determine the mass of an object by adding mass to the opposite side until they are in equilibrium. In the Kibble balance, the gravitational force generated by the weight on one side is countered with electromagnetic force on the other. With this method, and a bit of math, researchers can measure something called the Planck Constant. Thus we can define kilograms in terms of the Planck Constant rather than a lump of metal.

Kelvin, thankfully, is a bit more straightforward. It’s the measure of temperature, terminating at absolute zero when all molecular motion stops. That absolute nature is important, since, unlike mass, relative temperatures don’t stack. For example, smash two 10-pound blobs of clay, each heated to 100 degrees Fahrenheit together, the result will weigh 20 pounds but it won’t be any hotter. As such, measuring temperatures in Kelvin is more accurate than Fahrenheit or Celsius though it’s still being framed in an outdated model.

Should the CGPM approve the redefinition of Kelvin next year, the unit will be defined using an acoustic thermometer. These devices measure the speed of sound waves travelling through a low-gravity gas sphere. Since the speed of those waves is fixed for a set temperature, you can calculate that by measuring the frequency of the resonating sound waves and the volume of the sphere.

Even the mole is getting a makeover. This fundamental unit measures the amount of substance known as the Avogadro constant. Moles are used to bridge the gap between the micro- and macroscopic worlds. It provides a usable frame of reference when dealing with minuscule items. Or, as XKCD once pointed out, a mole of moles would be 602,214,129,000,000,000,000,000 animals (602 trillion trillion moles). That’s also the number of sand grains needed to bury the entire UK to a depth of about 40 centimetres, according to the NPL, or the number of human cells on Earth.

The Mole is defined using an experiment known as the "primary method," which involves weighing a material of known composition. However, because this system bases the value of the mole on the mass of the prototype kilogram, the CGPM is considering redefining the unit.

Instead, the group wants to drop carbon (the reference substance for moles) altogether and replace it with a 1Kg, 94-mmm wide, nearly spherical mass of 99.9995-percent pure silicon-28. Since the physical characteristics of the sphere — weight, diameter, size of the individual crystal lattices — are known, as well as how much a single silicon atom weighs, these measurements can be used to calculate the total number of atoms in the sphere and, in turn, a revised Avogadro’s constant.

This isn’t the end of the BIPM’s efforts. The group is eyeing the atomic second ahead of the unit’s 50th anniversary of being tied to the radiation cycles of Cesium-133. "At the time we used the best atomic clock we could possibly have," Quinn explained. "But a lot of science has taken place, and there are now ways of making atomic clocks 100 times better. And in the next 10 years, I would say, there will be a new definition of the atomic second that is 100 times better."

Such an advancement will have implications in everything from space exploration and cutting-edge physics research to more accurate GPS navigation in your car.

"If we allow the art of the possible," May said, "you open up the future to things you’ve never even thought of."

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I tried the popular Silicon Valley diet credited with boosting energy and prolonging life — and I can see why people are obsessed

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I’ve been ignoring my mother for a week and a half.

For the past 10 days, I’ve stifled the small voice she instilled in the back of my mind to remind me that forgoing breakfast is nutritional doom — all for the sake of a hot new diet known as intermittent fasting.

The diet essentially involves abstaining from food for a set period of time ranging from 16 hours to several days — and surprisingly, it has a lot of scientific backing.

Large studies have found intermittent fasting to be just as reliable for weight loss as traditional diets. And a few studies in animals have suggested it could have other benefits, such as reducing the risk for certain cancers and even prolonging life.

Silicon Valley loves it. A Bay Area group called WeFast meets weekly to collectively break their fasts with a hearty morning meal. Facebook executive Dan Zigmond confines his eating to a narrow time slot; many other CEOs and tech pioneers are sworn "IF" devotees — some even fast for up to 36 hours at a time.

I opted to try a form of the diet known as the 16:8, in which you fast for 16 hours and eat (or "feed," as some proponents call it) for eight hours. With this regimen, you can eat whatever you want — so long as it doesn’t fall outside the designated eight-hour window.

Here’s how it went.

SEE ALSO: Silicon Valley’s favorite diet could help with weight loss and even life extension — but there’s one big pitfall

DON’T MISS: I tried the science-backed 7-minute fitness routine that’s going viral, and it actually works

Before starting my fast, I had a standard checkup with a doctor called Krista Varady, one of the first researchers to study intermittent fasting in humans.

Varady is a nutrition professor at the University of Illinois and wrote a book about fasting called "The Every-Other-Day Diet" in 2013. She told me that the most scientifically supported benefit of intermittent fasting is weight loss.

To this end, most of Varady’s IF research has involved obese people. Study subjects have lost a significant amount of weight — roughly the same amount they would have on a traditional diet that involves strict eating and calorie counting.

I told Varady that I was trying out the diet not to lose weight but rather to find out how feasible the plan was. She said that while certain people shouldn’t try intermittent fasting — those over 70, people with type 1 diabetes, and women who are pregnant or lactating— "most people can give it a try."

Some research suggests that intermittent fasting has a handful of other benefits, from increased focus to a reduced risk of certain diseases. Some studies even suggest it may help prolong life, but most of that research has been in animals, not people.

Anecdotally, intermittent fasters report that their diets have helped them become more productive, build muscle faster, and sleep better. Members of a Silicon Valley startup called "HVMAN" skip eating on Tuesdays and claim they get more work done on that day than any other.

Varady said that hundreds of people in her studies have reported similar benefits. "But we haven’t studied or quantified any of that yet," she said.

With the go-ahead from my doctor and Varady, I was ready to find out for myself. Based on some advice from other IF fans, I chose to break my daily fast at 12 p.m. and stop eating at 8 p.m., giving me eight hours to eat or "feed."

I wanted my last meal before my first 16-hour fast to be good, so I made one of my favorites: homemade pizza. I eat pretty healthy most of the time — for my favorite pizza recipe, I top whole-wheat crust with tomato sauce, a blend of cheeses, arugula, and chicken breast. I gobbled a few pieces and got ready to fast.

See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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The Real Fakery Of The Ouija Board

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Photo by Paul Tamayo

There’s a simple explanation for how the Ouija board works: it’s not ghosts, but how you feel about them.

You remember the Ouija board, right? If you went to sleepovers as a kid, you might have played with one. You gathered around with a few friends, put your fingers on the pointer, and asked a question. The pointer seemed to move of its own accord as it spelled out answers to your questions. Maybe you thought it was a fun game, or that you were actually speaking to the dead. Maybe you thought more sinister forces were making it move, or simply someone else sitting around the table.

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It’s widely accepted by scientists that the Ouija board works through the ideomotor effect. The people whose hands hover over the little pointer that glides around the board are actually moving it to spell out the answers, even if they don’t mean to. Ideomotor movements are unconscious gestures we make in response to strong ideas or emotions. Though there are different theories of the ideomotor effect, expectation and imagination play a key role—anticipating an action, whether that’s performing it or resisting it.

Photo by Paul Tamayo

The Ouija board, from its design to the myths surrounding it, practically hums with the desire for movement. We have this idea of the pointer swooping around the board. Maybe we think of it because we want it to happen, or because we’re afraid it will. Those thoughts prime our hands unconsciously, almost irresistibly, to make that first twitch. Once the movement begins, the excitement and drama build up—Who’s moving it? I’m not; are you?—making us all the more susceptible to ideomotor movements and all the more unaware that we’re making them.

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Since ideomotor movements are unconscious, they’re easily attributable to outside forces: spirits in the case of the Ouija board. We think the Ouija board is spelling things we couldn’t possibly write or know, but we’re simply so caught up in the moment that we don’t notice we’re doing it ourselves. Sometimes the questions asked of the board are answerable by one of the participants, who unknowingly begins spelling out an answer and unintentionally encourages others to do the same. Other times, the question is broad and open-ended, providing room for an eager group to invent it together. Despite the powerful nature of ideomotor movements, the Ouija board’s otherworldly workings have been debunked simply by blindfolding participants. When users can’t see the letters on the board, it spells out gibberish or misses the letters altogether:

If you’re a believer, this might be a bummer. The Ouija board is the kind of thing that some people want to believe is real, a hope that’s kept the object relevant in American culture since the 19th century. The board does unexpected, inexplicable things that its users believe they couldn’t do on their own. That potential for surprise was part of the allure of Spiritualism, the religious movement from which the Ouija board grew.

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Popular in Europe as a fad focused on contacting the dead, Spiritualism caught on in America in 1848 with the Fox sisters. They were young girls from upstate New York who claimed to communicate with a spirit in their house via a series of unexplained rappings. Spiritualism blossomed from there, with as many mediums popping up as there were spirits willing to spill the secrets of the afterlife.

Image via Wikimedia.

Originally known as a spirit board or talking board, the first Ouija boards were made with household objects in the mid 1800s. Users pushed a glass toward alphabet cards on a table, or even moved the table itself. The planchette—the movable indicator we now associate with the board—appeared in the 1850s as the board’s popularity grew. Moving a planchette was easier than chasing a flying table around the room. Some planchettes had a hole for a pencil to facilitate automatic writing. Feminist scholar Anne Braude notes that the planchette was “easy to use, required no experience or expertise, and could lead to the discovery or encouragement of mediumship in unsuspecting investigators.” Spiritualism found power in communal, domestic spaces like the kitchen and the parlor, and in any of their inhabitants—mostly women—with an open mind and some simple tools.

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Through the late 19th to mid 20th century, Spiritualism’s popularity waned as more and more mediums were proven to be frauds. But the mystery and possibility at the heart of the board remained alluring, and people outside Spiritualist circles wanted to cash in. In 1890, Charles Kennard and several other investors started the Kennard Novelty Company to manufacture the board as a toy. Smithsonian reports that the name Ouija was not, as widely believed, a mix of the French and German words for “yes” (prominent on the board), but rather a name the board itself provided through the sister-in-law of one of the investors, Helen Peters. The name is potentially the misspelling of the name of a women’s rights activist named Ouida, whose picture Peters was wearing in a locket at the time, a fact that would certainly fit with the board’s history. According to Ouija historian Robert Murch, to prove the board worked in order to secure a patent, the chief patent officer demanded it spell out his name, which was supposedly unknown to the patent-seekers. The board did so, to the amazement of the officer, and the patent was granted.

Images from the Kennard Company’s original patent.

Despite the fact that ideomotor movement had been studied in relation to Spiritualist practices like the spirit board as early as 1852, mystery was one of the Ouija board’s biggest selling points. The only way to see if the Ouija board worked was to try it yourself. William Fuld, a Kennard employee, took over the Ouija patent in 1892. While the original patent made no mention of how the Ouija board worked, Fuld’s 1892 patent claims it worked via “the involuntary muscular motion of the hands of the players, or through some other agency,” satisfying both science and the mystical. 

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Though the ensuing years, the Ouija board continued speaking to whatever was most on Americans’ minds, be that spiritual enlightenment or more mundane pleasures. Advertisements from the 1920s for Fuld’s Ouija boards present it as a joyful party game. Romantic songs and Norman Rockwell paintings from this time emphasize its frivolity and light-heartedness. The board saw renewed popularity during World War II, as Americans looked anywhere they could for comfort. In the late 40s and early 50s the board turned family-friendly and mainstream, with some of Fuld’s trade ads noting that it was “woven into the very fabric of American tradition.” In the late 50s and early 60s, as American interest in the esoteric surged, the board appealed to people curious about psychic phenomena.

A slideshow of talking boards from the excellent Talking Board Historical Society.

The Ouija board saw an upswing in popularity in the 60s and 70s, following a wave of new spiritual and countercultural movements involving the occult. Parker Brothers acquired rights to the board from William Fuld’s descendants in 1966, and sales soared. While the board still had some trappings of fun and romance, a more sinister vibe crept in, aided by movies like 1973’s The Exorcist. The possibility that dark forces might be at work contributed to the Ouija board’s allure, especially for young people looking to rebel against their parents’ conservative values. It was especially popular among young women, the same demographic who first used it during its Spiritualist heyday.

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Hasbro acquired Parker Brothers in 1991, and through the 90s interest in the board declined. More recent boards have been redesigned to glow in the dark or as tie-ins to movies or other popular media franchises. While Ouija boards are still commercially available, and several movies have been made about them recently, they’re nowhere near as popular as they used to be.

A 1991 commercial for the Ouija board

The Ouija board isn’t made in a magic factory staffed by demons as a unique portal to another world. Its power comes from a combination of psychology and our deep human need to make meaning. In the story of the board’s original patenting, something as mundane as the patent officer’s name becomes astounding. The ideomotor effect at the heart of the board works because of the scene we set when we open the box, the curiosity and desires we channel through it together. The Ouija board lets us write, say, or know things we don’t think we’re capable of. Instead of being a disappointment that ruins our childhoods, the truth behind the Ouija board takes that power away from ghosts and spirits and puts it back in our hands. 

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Honda’s Sports EV Concept puts an AI assistant in the passenger seat

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If you thought Honda’s Urban EV Concept was a clever mix of modern electric car technology with boxy retro style, you’d better brace yourself. The automaker has unveiled the Sports EV Concept, which adapts that new-and-old formula to a low-slung, nimble coupe — we can see traces of the 1300 Coupe mixed in with other intriguing design cues (check out the B-pillar wrapping around the otherwise all-glass roof). Frankly, it’s one of the better-looking EV concepts we’ve seen. Honda hasn’t talked performance figures, but the real focus appears to be on the AI under the hood.

Like the NeuV concept from earlier in the year, the Sports EV includes the Honda Automated Network Assistant. Aside from handling basic tasks like navigation, it uses an "emotion engine" that’s supposed to gauge the feelings that influence your driving decisions. Honda wants to foster communication that "unites the driver and car," which could be rather important when you’re blasting down a twisty backroad.

There’s only one problem at this point: unlike with the Urban EV Concept, Honda hasn’t said if or when the Sports EV might go into production. And that’s a shame. While a finished version probably wouldn’t look as slick (the fascia displays and giant wheels would no doubt be the first things to go), it’s at once very stylish and a welcome nod to Honda’s ’70s-era aesthetics. Having said that, the Urban and Sports concepts remind us of Volkswagen’s I.D.: it hints at a broader shift in Honda’s design direction as it embraces electric cars. Even if the Sports EV never makes it to production, you could see its influence sitting on your driveway in the years ahead.

Source: Honda (1), (2)

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