Groupthink Not a Problem in Simulated Mars Mission

Getting along with your fellow astronauts can be dangerous. Too much consensus — what some psychologists call “groupthink” — can keep crews from being creative in a crisis. But a new study found that six “cosmonauts” on a simulated Mars mission emerged from 105 days in a replica spacecraft with their quirks intact.

The study was the first to directly tackle the possible downside of harmony, rather than antagonism, in a space mission.

“Earlier, we had been focusing on how tension increases over time,” said social psychologist Gro Sandal of the University of Bergen in Norway, lead author of a paper to be published in Acta Astronautica. “This paper has more or less the opposite focus: whether people start to think more and more similar while they are isolated.”

Groupthink is still a controversial concept: Not all social psychologists think it exists. But those who believe in it think it tends to happen when people isolated in an extreme situation — a war zone, for instance, or a ship in the Arctic — start thinking in lockstep and avoiding outward disagreement. Groupthinkers also often feel like they’re united against a common enemy — on a space mission, this could be Mission Control.

“The worst case scenario is … there may be a microculture within the crew that evolves, and the crew starts having values that deviate to a large extent from values on Earth,” Sandal said.

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Appeals Court OKs Fed Funding of Embryonic-Stem-Cell Research

By John Timmer, Ars Technica

A three-judge panel of a US Appeals Court lifted an injunction Friday against the National Institutes of Health’s revised policy on the funding of stem cell research. The new policy, which would open up research funding to many more human embryonic-stem-cell linesm or hESCs, attracted a lawsuit from researchers who focus on adult stem cells, who claimed that their chances of obtaining grants had been diminished.

That suit produced an injunction that would block the NIH from distributing funding for hESC work. The Appeals Court had previously stayed this injunction. Now it has lifted it entirely, although the case is continuing towards trial at the district court level.

Legislation called the Dickey-Wicker Amendment has prevented the U.S. government for decades from funding research in which a human embryo is destroyed. Everyone agrees that this prohibits funding of work in which hESCs are derived through the destruction of fertilized eggs.

Differences arise, however, regarding research that involves hESCs that have been previously created. The George W. Bush administration determined that this is acceptable, provided that the ESC creation occurred prior to a specific date.

The Barack Obama administration lifted this temporal restriction. Work on previously created hESC lines then became eligible for funding, regardless of creation date. Continue Reading “Appeals Court OKs Fed Funding of Embryonic-Stem-Cell Research” »

Gulf Oil Shouldn’t Spill Beneath the Radar

A year after the Deepwater Horizon blowout sent 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, smaller leaks still bubble across the Gulf — but unlike big spills, they’re largely ignored.

A nonprofit organization called SkyTruth, which uses public and commercial satellite imagery to assess environmental damage, recently added airplanes and ships to its Gulf monitoring. But the group can still investigate just a tiny fraction of spills and leaks that may be reported, underreported or not reported at all by oil companies.

SkyTruth founder John Amos, a geologist and a former oil-company research scientist, thinks roughly $3 million per year could buy the necessary data and provide the first continuous, accurate assessment of Gulf oil pollution.

“The oil industry has done a great job convincing the public that modern drilling pollution is nonexistent. But we’ve discovered wells damaged by hurricanes in 2005 that are still leaking,” said Amos, who may have caught an oil company grossly under-reporting one of its leaks. “We have some tools available to do investigations, but in many cases it’s just not enough. For smaller spills, we need an up-close look from satellite imagery.”

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Electric Fish’s Better Brain Linked to Biodiversity Boost

Better brains make one fish, two fish, into lots and lots of fish.

After upgrading their ability to communicate using electrical signals, a group of African fish exploded into dozens of species. This may be the first study to show a link between central brain evolution and increasing species diversity, researchers report in the April 29 Science.

“The brain structure triggered an explosion of signals and an explosion of species as a result,” says Carl Hopkins, who studies neurobiology and animal behavior at Cornell University and was not involved in the new study.

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Video Roulette Perceived as Riskier Than Real

People may be less willing to take risks on activities depicted online through video feeds than they are in person, even when the activity is the same.

In a study of people playing roulette, participants perceived more risk in games broadcast over video than played in person.

The feeling that we don’t have as much influence over something that happens remotely, rather than right in front of us, seems to produce this difference in perception.

“People prefer face-to-face” contact, said Jim Phillips, a psychologist at Monash University near Melbourne, Australia and co-author of a study published April 20 in Computers in Human Behavior. “Providers of electronic services struggle with such tendencies when they try to replace face-to-face with computer mediated transactions.” Continue Reading “Video Roulette Perceived as Riskier Than Real” »

Study Takes Monkey Memory to New Level

The ability of rhesus macaques to draw shapes from memory suggests that monkeys may have as-yet-unexplored powers of recall, possibly similar in some ways to human recollection.

In earlier studies, macaques have recognized previously-seen objects. Psychologists consider recall to involve different cognitive capacities than recognition, which seems to use different parts of the brain and is arguably less demanding. Recognition is just a matching task, but recall hints at a richer life of the mind.

“The question that was driving us was, ‘How would you know if an animal was thinking about or remembering something that wasn’t there?’” said psychologist Benjamin Basile of Emory University. “The difference between recall and recognition is really critical.”

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Still Searching: SETI Pioneer Jill Tarter Talks Shutdown, Aliens

For many alien enthusiasts, Jill Tarter is synonymous with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. As the SETI Institute’s research director — and the inspiration for Jodie Foster’s character in Contact — she’s done more than anyone to raise the search for cosmic company from a fringe effort to serious science.

After receiving a TED prize in 2009, Tarter had grand plans for the Allen Telescope Array, a proposed field of 350 big-nosed radio dishes that would be the world’s only dedicated SETI telescope, as well as its most sensitive. But this week, budget cuts forced the ATA’s existing 42 dishes into hibernation mode. The rest are now just a dream. talked with Jill Tarter about the shutdown and what it means for the future of SETI. The dishes are in hibernation mode now. What exactly does that mean?

Tarter: It means the array runs on a smaller staff. We keep the caretaker staff. We keep power on the antennas, so the cryogenics stay cold and they don’t get harmed. We just put them in a safe mode. But you can’t operate them, you can’t take data. Does that mean you’re expecting to bring it back up?

Tarter: We’re doing everything we possibly can to bring it out of hibernation. But that, you know, that requires new funding.

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Ancient Teeth Show Neanderthals Were Righties

Right-handedness reaches back a half million years in the human evolutionary family, at least if scratched-up fossil teeth have anything to say about it.

Stone-tool scratches on the front teeth of Neanderthals and their presumed European ancestors occur at angles denoting right-handedness in most of these Stone Age hominids, just as in human populations today, say anthropologist David Frayer of the University of Kansas in Lawrence and his colleagues.

Scientists have linked prevalent right-handedness in human populations to a left-brain hemisphere that controls right-sided body movements and enables critical language functions. Given the new tooth evidence, populations of largely right-handed Neanderthals and their predecessors must have possessed a gift for gab, Frayer’s team proposes in a paper published online April 14 in Laterality.

“Findings so far suggest that most European hominids were right-handed by at least 500,000 years ago,” Frayer says. “A capacity for language appears to have ancient, not recent, roots.”

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Laser Hole Punch Turns Hair Into Forensic Time Machine

A new laser-powered chemical analysis technique is so sensitive that it can take dozens of samples from a single strand of hair, distinguishing between the chemical signatures of each.

Existing methods destroy small samples, and don’t give exact time-based measurements. But using the new technique, forensic scientists could turn that strand of hair into hour-by-hour measurements of what someone ate or where they went.

“With a single hair, we’ve shown you can take carbon isotope measurements over time instead of just chopping up the sample and averaging everything,” geochemist Jim Moran of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, whose team describe the technique April 12 in Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry.

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Reader Photo: Stunning Interactive Sky Image

This stunning 360 degree panorama of the night sky was stitched together from 37,000 images by a first-time astrophotographer.

Nick Risinger, a 28-year-old native of Seattle, trekked more than 60,000 miles around the western United States and South Africa to create the largest-ever true-color image of the stellar sphere. The final result is an interactive, zoomable sky map showing the full Milky Way and the stars, planets, galaxies and nebulae around it.

“The genesis of this was to educate and enlighten people about the natural beauty that is hidden, but surrounds us,” Risinger said.

The project began in March 2010, when Risinger and his brother took a suite of six professional-grade astronomical cameras to the desert in Nevada. By June, Risinger had quit his job as a marketing director for a countertop company to seek the darkest skies he could find.

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