Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Climate change brings new neighborhood birds

As winters have warmed, some species have moved north.

To get a good look at the impacts of global warming, you may need to look no farther than your own yard. Some unexpected species may perch in a local tree or stop by your bird feeder. These newcomers have been lured north by winter’s warmer temperatures, a new study finds. Birds such as cardinals and Carolina wrens are now wintering farther north than they did as little as 20 years ago.

Since 1970, the average winter low temperatures have risen by about 0.38 degree Celsius (0.68 degree Fahrenheit) in eastern North America. Global warming, also known as climate change, is the cause.

For several decades now, the planet has been slowly warming. The world’s animals and plants have responded. Many have begun to move north or south to keep pace with the conditions they’re used to. Such movement is considered one of the best fingerprints of climate change.

Since 1970, the average winter low temperatures have risen by about 0.38 degree Celsius (0.68 degree Fahrenheit) in eastern North America. Global warming, also known as climate change, is the cause.

Benjamin Zuckerberg and Karine Princé are wildlife biologists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They wanted to look for evidence that Earth’s warming had been affecting bird behaviors — such as where they settle for the winter. To do this, they analyzed two decades of data from a program called Project FeederWatch. This citizen-science project at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., collects reports of sightings at bird feeders from early November to late April.

There are currently more than 10,000 participating sites in the United States and Canada. Many of the studied feeders sit in people’s yards.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Teaching Tolerance in Kindergarten

By age 9, children have prejudices that are “highly resistant to change.” So if we want to fight racism and violence (particularly against black men), we need to teach diversity much earlier.

Children develop their sense of empathy between ages 4 and 8. It’s this ability to see and feel something from another’s perspective that helps us choose to treat others equally and to engage rather than to act from fear.

The best way to promote empathy is to provide children with quality, reciprocal relationships with people from diverse communities. But that can be difficult, as 84 percent of elementary school teachers are white. And in most major cities, the majority of public school children are not.

So, teachers need to get creative. Young children can only normalize what they experience regularly. If they only receive knowledge, insight and comfort from white people, this can have lasting effects on what they assume about people of color. It is this disconnect, as civil rights lawyer Constance Rice said, that can make police officers “kill and do things that don’t make sense to you and me.”

One effective way to help young children is to seek out diverse experts who can speak in schools about weather, food, construction, politics and electricity (all common preK- grade 3 topics).

Another way to influence young children’s racial attitudes early on are picture books. Given the particular fear toward black men, using literature to combat negative assumptions means going through classroom books and thinking carefully about how often and in what ways black boys and men are included in stories. Are there enough books with caring, compassionate and smart, black, male characters? Are books in classrooms about black history balanced with those about the everyday lives of black men so that racial diversity becomes normalized for young children?

Having only a handful will not be enough to normalize positive images of black men. But although these kinds of books are still difficult to find, it’s not impossible.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Ebooks at night won’t help you sleep tight, US study finds

Harvard researchers say light-emitting ebooks negatively affect our sleep and lead to next-day grogginess.

Reading a light-emitting ebook before bed is bad for your health, according to a new US study. It warned that use of the devices affected both sleep at night and alertness the following morning.
Researchers from Harvard Medical School’s sleep medicine department put 12 healthy young adults through a two-week experiment, in which the participants would either read a light-emitting ebook for four hours before bedtime or a printed book. Study participants reading a light-emitting ebook took on average almost 10 minutes longer to fall asleep and said they were less sleepy an hour before bedtime than they were reading a paper book.

They also had suppressed evening levels of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin – readers of print showed no suppression – and significantly less REM (rapid eye movement) sleep than print book participants. The next morning, they took “hours longer to fully ‘wake up’ and attain the same level of alertness”, researchers have reported in a new paper published in the journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Harvard’s Anne-Marie Chang, Daniel Aeschbach, Jeanne Duffy and Charles Czeisler wrote that sleep quality and duration has declined over the past 50 years, adversely affecting general health. They point to a recent survey which found that 90% of Americans use an electronic gadget at least a few nights a week before going to sleep. The Harvard study participants were reading on an iPad, but researchers said other devices would cause the same effect. (Lead researcher Czeisler told the BBC: “The light emitted by most ereaders is shining directly into the eyes of the reader, whereas from a printed book or the original Kindle the reader is only exposed to reflected light from the pages of the book.”)

In the paper the researchers write: “The use of light-emitting electronic devices for reading, communication, and entertainment has greatly increased recently. We found that the use of these devices before bedtime prolongs the time it takes to fall asleep, delays the circadian clock, suppresses levels of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, reduces the amount and delays the timing of REM sleep and reduces alertness the following morning. Use of light-emitting devices immediately before bedtime also increases alertness at that time, which may lead users to delay bedtime at home.”
They point out that the use of technology before bedtime is “most prevalent” in children and young adults, and call for further studies on the impact of the light exposure on learning and development.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Picture This: Christmas from space

Satellites survey human behavior by snapping pictures of holiday lights.

SAN FRANCISCO — Evening trips to the mall. Christmas parties. Rooftop lights. The December holidays are bright — dazzling enough to be seen by satellites orbiting high above Earth. Researchers recently used satellite data to track when, where and how often we turn on lights. The findings, they say, point to how human activities drive electricity use.

Scientists sent radiometers into space and pointed them toward Earth. These instruments measure the intensity of light. In 2012, the research team released a set of “Earth at Night” maps. They had used data collected on nights with ideal conditions — evenings that were both moonless and cloud-free.

Miguel Román is a physical scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. He and his team wanted to analyze how light patterns change from day to day. To do that, his team improved its scans so that the scientists could collect data even on nights with clouds and a bright moon. (Unfortunately, the system can’t cope with snow. Light reflecting off the white stuff “contaminates the signal,” Román says.)

From 2012 to 2014, the satellite snapped daily pictures of 70 U.S. cities. The scientists used those images to measure how much the cities brightened between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. They compared the cities’ holiday glow to their light output the rest of the year.

It was “a huge effort,” says Román. “It took three years’ worth of data.” But with the team’s revamped system, “we can do comparisons across cities, even across neighborhoods within cities,” Román says. He described his group’s new findings December 16 at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

Many cities radiated 20 to 50 percent more light during holiday nights
, the researchers found. The light intensity climbed a bit more in the suburbs than in busy city centers. But overall, it seems that everyone in the United States — regardless of income or ethnic background — celebrates the holidays, Román says.

A different picture emerged when his team analyzed another part of the world: the Middle East. There, the major holiday is Ramadan. It’s the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. On those 30 days, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk.

Coolest Archaeological Discoveries of 2014

Thanks to the careful work of archaeologists, we learned more in the past year about Stonehenge's hidden monuments, Richard III's gruesome death and King Tut's mummified erection. From the discovery of an ancient tomb in Greece to the first evidence of Neanderthal art, here are 10 of Live Science's favorite archaeology stories of 2014.

1. An Alexander the Great-era tomb at Amphipolis

Rarely do archaeological digs attract so much attention in real time. But at Amphipolis, an ancient coastal city in northern Greece, the discovery of a lavish 2,300-year-old tomb has created a national frenzy. In August, state archaeologists broke through the entrance of a huge burial mound that's been billed as the largest of its kind in the Greek world. (Its perimeter measures about 1,600 feet, or 490 meters.) [See Photos of the Ancient Tomb at Amphipolis]

Excavators found broken sphinxes, two female statues called caryatids, a remarkably intact mosaic floor and some skeletal material, which is awaiting analysis. It's still unclear who was buried inside the tomb, but some have speculated that it could be someone from Alexander the Great's inner circle.

2. Stonehenge's secret monuments

Capping a four-year survey of the landscape around England's Stonehenge, researchers reported that they found signs of at least 17 previously unknown Neolithic shrines. The big announcement — which was accompanied by TV specials on the BBC and Smithsonian Channel — could change the way historians have thought of Stonehenge.

"Stonehenge is undoubtedly a major ritual monument, which people may have traveled considerable distances to come to, but it isn't just standing there by itself," project leader Vincent Gaffney, an archaeologist at the University of Birmingham, told Live Science in September. "It's part of a much more complex landscape with processional and ritual activities that go around it." [See Images of Hidden Stonehenge Monuments]

3. A shipwreck under the World Trade Center

In the summer of 2010, archaeologists in New York discovered a school-bus-size shipwreck in an unlikely place: the site of the World Trade Center, still under construction after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. This year, tree-ring researchers who were studying the ship's fragile timbers announced that they had uncovered new details about the vessel.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Seven ways that chemistry puts the magic into Christmas

From the enticing aroma of the turkey in the oven to the “whoosh’” of the flames as the brandy-soaked pudding comes alight, Christmas is a wonderful time for the senses. But have you ever considered the science behind our best-loved festive traditions? Here are seven of my food and flammable favourites:

Candle light, shining bright

Candle-lit carol services are part of Christmas for many people, as are the ones entwined in holly on the table. Traditionally beeswax was used but while it gives great flames, it is rather expensive. Nowadays the vast majority of candles are made of paraffin wax obtained as one of the products of oil refining. These waxes are hydrocarbons, molecules made of two different elements: carbon and hydrogen.

When you light a candle, wax is melted, and the molten wax gets drawn up the wick, which gives a larger area for the wax to evaporate. It is the gaseous wax that burns, forming carbon dioxide and water, and giving out energy, which is where the heat and light come from.

But not all the carbon atoms get turned into carbon dioxide at one go – it is carbon-rich soot particles glowing hot that give out the yellow light that characterises a candle flame.

Turkey time

Most people know that cooking involves chemistry, and where better to start than the Christmas Day turkey? The turkey meat you cook is muscle tissue, about 20% of which is protein (nearly all the rest is water), with a small but important amount of carbohydrate. If you “hang” the meat and allow it to age, enzyme catalysts naturally present in the muscle start to break down the proteins so that they lose their naturally rigid structure and the meat becomes more tender.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

How to survive the worst moments of learning a language

From talking on the phone for the first time to using local slang and being faced with a wall of laughter, Erica Buist on how to get over some of the most painful language mistakes.

Learning a language makes an appearance on a lot of bucket lists. People picture themselves strolling through a market in a foreign land, conversing easily with locals – and you always look tanned in the daydream, too. But on the way to becoming the fluent and unaccountably sexier new you, there are a few emotional troughs you have to get through.

By the time I moved to Mexico I had dragged myself to intermediate level via a Spanish GCSE and a refresher course at uni, but before the two-year stretch that would make me fluent, I wish someone had warned me about some of these challenges. Since coming home five years ago, I’ve flirted with French and Italian – but I’m not ready for anything serious. Because learning a language involves an initiation. Here are a few things a language will put you through before you become fluent:

Your first hilarious mispronunciation, mistranslation and malapropism

Every language has words that are startlingly close in pronunciation to other, ruder words and no one is better at finding them than language students. During one Spanish class, I wanted it known by all and sundry that the answer was “J”, or “jota”. The Spanish “t” sound is softer than the English, but I over-softened it and shouted, “joda!”, or, “fuck!” – in the imperative, no less, so I sounded like a porn director with no specific vision.

Mistranslations are another danger. During an English conversation exchange, a Mexican student translated the Spanish term for “manual labour” directly into the immortal sentence, “hand jobs are getting cheaper”. Moments later an American classmate tried to complain that she was hot. Unfortunately, estoy caliente means “I’m horny”.

How to get past it: Tell the story. It’s funny. Not only will you never make that mistake again, people will probably share their own embarrassing errors – thus saving you the trouble of making them later.

When a group conversation moves faster than your brain

You understand what’s being said, and you want to join in – but by the time you formulate a sentence that’s fit for native ears, the conversation has moved on.

How mindfulness could give you the gift of a calmer Christmas

In the run-up to Christmas we find our to-do lists bloated with added chores: present shopping, card writing, preparing to travel or receive guests. We are bombarded with adverts telling us what to buy and where. We tackle the shopping crowds searching for the perfect gift and the juiciest turkey. Our energy and purses are pulled in all directions while we limp on at work waiting for the holiday to arrive.

As the day approaches we may dream of happy families singing around the fire or worry whether everyone will like their gifts or if there will be arguments.
Media images distort our expectations of the perfect Christmas with celebrities advising us on the recipes and crafts to add extra joy to the holidays.

And then there’s the ghost of Christmas past. Maybe we are feeling that Christmases are not as good as they used to be or maybe we are dreading a repeat of an earlier disastrous year. It can be a lot to contend with and perhaps not everyone feels as festive as the songs and adverts would have us believe.

Some of us may be seeking a way to avoid being bogged down by the stress. We could try a single ticket to that Caribbean Island or perhaps embrace the spirit of Scrooge and say “bah humbug” as we lock ourselves out from the world. If these options seem a little extreme, an alternative is to take inspiration from the teachings of mindfulness.

Enter mindfulness
A modern interpretation of ancient Eastern philosophies, mindfulness incorporates guided meditation that helps us learn about the inner workings of our mind. This helps break habitual patterns of thinking and behaving that can increase distress and unhappiness.

Meditation practises that focus on monitoring the activity of the mind or cultivating compassion are familiar in both historical Eastern traditions and modern mindfulness interventions. The way in which mindfulness meditation is different is the way in which it has been packaged. Often it is taught to beginners as an eight-week course that includes a selection of meditation practises and teachings that have been brought together and adapted to address specific issues such as emotional stress or chronic pain.

Monday, 15 December 2014

The Chinese dream for higher education and the dilemma it presents

The number of university students in China, including those in part-time higher adult education, expanded from 12.3m students in 2000 to 34.6m in 2013. China has become an exceptional example of increasing access for students to higher education – but this expansion has also been accompanied by some unexpected and even negative consequences.

The annual number of graduates is expected to reach 7.27m in 2014 and
the challenge is to find them appropriate jobs, especially as over-education – where the supply of graduates exceeds labour market demand – is becoming serious. An uneven distribution of higher education by geographic region and social group has also resulted in growing inequality of opportunity, creating barriers for students from inland regions and from rural families, especially those applying to key national universities.

Such achievements and problems were considered in the 2012
Ministry of Education’s Guidance and Measures document on quality, structural adjustment and educational equality. This policy change, signalled by China’s president, Jing Xiping, has offered an opportunity to rethink the relationship between social justice and Chinese higher education.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Poor Kids and the 'Word Gap'

The White House launches a new literacy initiative aimed at low-income children.

“Education,” Horace Mann declared in 1848, “is a great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance wheel of the social machinery.” But increasingly, the condition of American children—and even their eventual role in society—is determined well before their first day of kindergarten. I’ve taught the children of wealthy, well-educated parents, and I’ve taught children raised in poverty, and in my own experience, these two populations arrive at the schoolhouse door with two very different skill sets and expectations.

According to a 2012 report by the Brookings Institution, less than half of poor children show up to school prepared with the early math and reading skills, emotional and behavioral control, and physical well-being needed to be ready to learn, and that disadvantage persists into adulthood. The report continues, “children with higher levels of school readiness at age five are generally more successful in grade school, less likely to drop out of high school, and earn more as adults, even after adjusting for differences in family background.”

Much of this disadvantage has been attributed to what researchers call the “word gap.” Higher-income parents spend nearly a half hour more per day engaged in direct, face-to-face, Goodnight Moon time with their children than low-income parents do, and by the time these children are 5 years old, the poor ones will have heard 30 million fewer words than their wealthy peers. Nearly all of my more affluent students read in their leisure time, but approximately two out of every 10 of my poor students tell me, “I don’t read” when I offer to help them pick out an independent reading book.

Because the word gap first appears during periods of critical neurological and cognitive development, its effects cannot be easily remedied by later interventions. Teachers, standards, technology, even those hallowed halls of ivy—none of this matters as much to a child’s educational and economic future than an informed and empowered parent.

Unfortunately, explained Ann O’Leary, Director of the Children & Families Program at Next Generation in a phone call, “there’s a lack of alignment among low-income parents regarding how much talking, singing, and reading to children really matters over a lifetime,” and research backs that up. One study found that low-income parents underestimate their power to influence their children’s cognitive development, sometimes by as much as 50 percent. Wealthy parents spend more time engaged in these activities because they have better access to information, and O’Leary argued that when parents understand the impact they have on their child’s cognitive development, they invest.

'Enchanted objects' will kill the internet of things in 2015

Smart objects that blend fashion and our everyday lives will kill off the internet of things in 2015, according to Cedric Hutchings, CEO of Withings. The French company, best known for its smart scales and sensor-packed watches, is now targeting fashion over traditional tech in a bid to expand its business.

Speaking at Le Web 2014 in Paris, Hutchings said the smart devices of the future would be integrated into "dumb" objects we already take for granted: "Wearables need not to be 'dropables'. We have to fix the shortcomings of these devices to appeal to more people," he said.

Examples of such un-droppable, useful objects were given by David Rose, a researcher at MIT's media labs and CEO of Ditto Labs. Rose said that umbrellas that flash a light when rain is forecast and doorbells that ring differently when it is someone you know as opposed to a stranger were examples of what he called "enchanted objects".

Thursday, 11 December 2014

CERN inspires primary-school students to Play with Protons

This spring we highlighted the activities of primary-school teacher Tina Nantsou of Hill Memorial School in Athens, Greece, who, together with CERN, launched the Playing with Protons project to instill in her students the excitement of particle physics research. The documentary above charts the progress of the project, from its inception in Nantsou's classroom to a visit to CERN for 12 lucky students in her class.

In the Greek national curriculum, students are introduced to the basics of physics when they are 11 years old. Hill School helps pupils to begin to understand the natural world from the age of seven through hands-on, creative experimentation. After Nantsou attended the Physics Teacher's Programme at CERN in August 2013, she teamed up with Angelos Alexopoulos of the CERN Education Group to inspire these younger pupils to take an interest in particle physics, and in CERN.

"I was blown away from everything that was happening [at CERN]," she says. "I really have to pass on this experience to my students."

The resulting project – Playing with Protons – started in September 2013 and continued for a full school year. “The project focuses on the process and not the outcome, allowing students to try, experiment and learn from their mistakes,” says Nantsou. “By creating imaginative and unique mockups, the kids, for example, learn to visualize their ideas and at the same time to develop problem-solving skills. And all this in a cooperative, fun atmosphere.”

The 45 students involved in the project drew lots to choose 12 students – 6 boys and 6 girls – who visited CERN. "I did not know what particle physics was until I was in university," Ewan Hill, an ATLAS scientist at the University of Victoria in Canada, told the students on their visit. "You guys have 10-15 years more advanced schooling than I did!"

"It is important to get students interested in science when they are young," says Alexopoulos. "Playing with Protons is one of an increasing number of noteworthy efforts in Greece, such as national-level virtual visits to LHC experiments, that help young learners to appreciate not only the importance of science in their daily lives but also the beauty of how science works."

The project also has the support of Dimitri Nanopoulos of Texas A&M University in the US, Greece's scientific delegate to CERN.

Alexopoulos says that inspiring the next generation of scientists is a key task for his country – Greece – which researchers are leaving to find jobs elsewhere. "The country is currently experiencing a brain drain," he says, "Which makes projects like this all the more important."

At a recent teachers' seminar at SNFCC (link is external) in Athens, Greece as part of CERN's 60th anniversary celebrations, Nantsou presented the Playing with Protons project to other teachers. Incidentally, also presenting at the seminar was Andreas Valadakis of Varvakios Pilot School, who visited CERN along with a winning team from last year's "Beamline for schools" competition.

The aim of Playing with Protons is to be an example of good practice to help spread creative and collaborative approaches to teaching modern physics at primary schools across Greece, and further afield.

Find out more:
Nantsou blogs (in Greek) about her hands-on experiments for children at Science Experiments for Kids (link is external)

Monday, 8 December 2014

What happens in the brain when you learn a language?

Scans and neuroscience are helping scientists understand what happens to the brain when you learn a second language.
Learning a foreign language can increase the size of your brain. This is what Swedish scientists discovered when they used brain scans to monitor what happens when someone learns a second language. The study is part of a growing body of research using brain imaging technologies to better understand the cognitive benefits of language learning. Tools like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electrophysiology, among others, can now tell us not only whether we need knee surgery or have irregularities with our heartbeat, but reveal what is happening in our brains when we hear, understand and produce second languages.

The Swedish MRI study showed that learning a foreign language has a visible effect on the brain. Young adult military recruits with a flair for languages learned Arabic, Russian or Dari intensively, while a control group of medical and cognitive science students also studied hard, but not at languages. MRI scans showed specific parts of the brains of the language students developed in size whereas the brain structures of the control group remained unchanged. Equally interesting was that learners whose brains grew in the hippocampus and areas of the cerebral cortex related to language learning had better language skills than other learners for whom the motor region of the cerebral cortex developed more.

In other words, the areas of the brain that grew were linked to how easy the learners found languages, and brain development varied according to performance. As the researchers noted, while it is not completely clear what changes after three months of intensive language study mean for the long term, brain growth sounds promising.

Looking at functional MRI brain scans can also tell us what parts of the brain are active during a specific learning task. For example, we can see why adult native speakers of a language like Japanese cannot easily hear the difference between the English “r” and “l” sounds (making it difficult for them to distinguish “river” and “liver” for example). Unlike English, Japanese does not distinguish between “r” and “l” as distinct sounds. Instead, a single sound unit (known as a phoneme) represents both sounds.

When presented with English words containing either of these sounds, brain imaging studies show that only a single region of a Japanese speaker’s brain is activated, whereas in English speakers, two different areas of activation show up, one for each unique sound.

For Japanese speakers, learning to hear and produce the differences between the two phonemes in English requires a rewiring of certain elements of the brain’s circuitry. What can be done? How can we learn these distinctions?

Friday, 5 December 2014

Why elephants never forget

It’s a common saying that elephants never forget. But the more we learn about elephants, the more it appears that their impressive memory is only one aspect of an incredible intelligence that makes them some of the most social, creative, and benevolent creatures on Earth. Alex Gendler takes us into the incredible, unforgettable mind of an elephant.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Five ways to keep your home warm this winter

If you live in a poorly insulated home, and many of us do, you could spend thousands this winter on energy bills. But our ancestors had many ways to keep snug at little or no cost. Now, thanks to modern infrared cameras and advances in environmental physics, we can understand how these methods work and measure how effective they are.

The key to understanding how to keep warm is the fact you lose more heat by radiation to your surroundings than you do by convection to the air. This is why your house feels so cold when you get back from a winter break, even after you’ve turned on the central heating; though the air quickly warms up, the walls take far longer to do so and may continue to make you shiver for up to a day.

In the same way, in poorly insulated houses the inside of the external walls can be several degrees colder than the air and the internal walls, making you feel chilly.

Fortunately, there are five simple ways to overcome this and minimise your energy bills.

Close your curtains at night

During the day, your windows let in more radiant energy than gets out; sunlight can enter through the glass, but the window is opaque to the infrared radiation trying to escape. At night, however, single-glazed windows can get extremely cold – in my Victorian house which we try and keep at a room temperature of 20°C, an infrared camera showed internal window temperatures of as low as 7°C on a frosty night.

Even double-glazed windows aren’t great insulators and can fall to around 14°C. This results in energy losses of 50-100 watts per square metre, equivalent to running an old-fashioned light bulb.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

The Best Science Books of 2014

The math of soul mates, the psychology of nothing, the physics of faith, and more illuminating insights on the universe and our place in it.

“If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from,” Carl Sagan wrote in his timeless meditation on science and religion, “we will have failed.” It’s a sentiment that dismisses in one fell Saganesque swoop both the blind dogmatism of religion and the vain certitude of science — a sentiment articulated by some of history’s greatest minds, from Einstein to Ada Lovelace to Isaac Asimov, all the way back Galileo. Yet centuries after Galileo and decades after Sagan, humanity remains profoundly uneasy about reconciling these conflicting frameworks for understanding the universe and our place in it.

That unanswerable question of where we came from is precisely what physicist Alan Lightman — one of the finest essayists writing today and the very first person to receive dual appointments in science and the humanities at MIT — explores from various angles in The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew (public library | IndieBound).

At the intersection of science and philosophy, the essays in the book explore the possible existence of multiple universes, multiple space-time continuums, more than three dimensions. Lightman writes:

Science does not reveal the meaning of our existence, but it does draw back some of the veils.
Theoretical physics is the deepest and purest branch of science. It is the outpost of science closest to philosophy, and religion.

In one of the most beautiful essays in the book, titled “The Spiritual Universe,” Lightman explores that intersection of perspectives in making sense of life:

I completely endorse the central doctrine of science. And I do not believe in the existence of a Being who lives beyond matter and energy, even if that Being refrains from entering the fray of the physical world. However, I certainly agree with [scientists who argue] that science is not the only avenue for arriving at knowledge, that there are interesting and vital questions beyond the reach of test tubes and equations. Obviously, vast territories of the arts concern inner experiences that cannot be analyzed by science. The humanities, such as history and philosophy, raise questions that do not have definite or unanimously accepted answers.

The secret of fast runners: symmetry

Scientists can predict the best sprinters among elite runners just by looking at their knees.

To be a swift runner you need strong muscles, a powerful heart, determination and — symmetrical knees? That’s what scientists learned when they studied some of the world’s top sprinters.

Science has shown that animals and people with more symmetrical bodies tend to be stronger and healthier than those who are a bit lopsided. But this is the first time researchers have been able to predict who will be the fastest runners just by measuring their knees.

“Among the very best sprinters in the world, knee symmetry predicts who’s going to be the best of the best,” says Robert Trivers of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N. J. As an evolutionary biologist, he studies how organisms have adapted over generations to their environments.

His team published its new findings online November 17 in the journal PLOS ONE.

Trivers knew symmetrical knees could aid runners. In an earlier study, he showed that children who at age 8 had more symmetrical knees developed into the fastest runners by the time they were 22. Now he wanted to know why symmetry made such a difference in top athletes.

To find out, he brought a team of researchers to the island nation of Jamaica in the Caribbean. They measured the knees, ankles, and feet of 73 elite sprinters at the MVP Track and Field Club in Kingston. Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce was among the athletes studied. She won Olympic gold medals in the 100-meter (328-foot) sprint in both 2008 and 2012.
The researchers then took the same measurements from 116 local non-runners who were about the same ages and sizes as the elite athletes.

“Elite sprinters had more symmetrical knees than normal people,” Trivers says. “Their ankles were also slightly more symmetrical.” But their feet were not special. “It seems the feet are completely irrelevant,” he concludes.

Exam pressure is driving more teens to eating disorders and self-harm

Child psychologist Professor Tanya Byron hits out.

Growing numbers of teenagers are suffering from eating disorders and self-harm due to the pressure of exams, leading child psychologist Professor Tanya Byron has said.

In an address to the Girls’ School Association in London, she said she was astonished at the attitude of some parents who were worried that treating disorders might interfere or interrupt exam preparation.

“Parents are often very concerned and shocked at how any treatment may impact on their child’s continued preparation for exams,” she added. “For instance, you may tell them that their child may not be able to do her GCSEs at present.”

Parents’ attitudes can cause “incredible damage” to their child, she said.

Professor Byron said that self-harm amongst boys was also increasing, and that even the children of “aspirational middle class parents” were vulnerable.

“It is absolutely heart-breaking and it is increasing,” she added.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Mobile phones in the classroom: teachers share their tips

From multimedia to geocaching, the possibilities for using mobiles to engage learners are endless. Teachers tell Emma Drury how and why they are using the devices in school.

Jo Debens, geography teacher, Priory School, Portsmouth

The geography department at my school has been leading the use of mobile device in learning. Throughout last year the mobile@priory charter was created and led by head of department David Rogers and co-constructed by students to enable them to use mobile devices in learning. This was trialled through the geography department and found great success with students becoming more actively engaged with their learning.

Some of the examples of where we use mobile devices range from simply taking photos and videos to share in class or recording homework, to creating revision podcasts or animations. The point often is student choice, encouraging independent learning and allowing students to choose what approach will suit them. We have found that encouraging mobile device use has enabled our students to access resources that we cannot provide otherwise. For example, students access the internet for research (such as the internet or our department blogs/Facebook support page).

On fieldwork, students can record images, video, sound, take notes, use GPS technology and mapping software to record information essential to their coursework. In school we have used mobiles to record work, for example the students used chalk around school to leave messages or symbols regarding social spaces and guerilla messages and then used mobiles to take images or record video or sound interviews of them discussing their work which could then be shared with the class. The focus is on the learning, the discussion on what they gained from the activity not on the device.

One activity sees students investigating secret places in school - they have to find a space, and find evidence or clues about that space to share with others. Many use their mobiles to record sound or image clues to share. We also introduced a geocaching project where students hid Olympic themed geocaches at Box Hill and used mobile devices with GPS to use the website and online research before hiding their geocaches and then seeing them go live and have real people from the public able to find their work.

The benefit for us as teachers is the personalisation, and the freedom for students to access resources. Often the lower ability children find mobile devices enable them to interact more freely and use tools to learn. We find that it encourages student voices and increases engagement.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Today’s 13-year-olds are not as bad as we’re led to believe

In 1982 I was toying with the idea of a career in teaching. That year a controversial film, Made in Britain, starring Tim Roth was released and I almost didn’t become a teacher. The film’s central character, Trevor was a dysfunctional, violent, foul-mouthed youth – everything society hates and fears. My natural fear was how would I, as a young teacher, cope with a classroom full of such kids? Of course the film is fictional. It portrayed the 1980s accurately – but did it portray Britain’s youth accurately?

With the way some of the media represents young people, you may be forgiven for thinking that Roth’s character is alive and well and infesting our streets and schools. Different newspapers have their favourite terms for teenagers: the
Daily Mail likes “yobs”, while the Daily Express goes with “feral kids”.

Changing preoccupations of Year 9s
 But a new longitudinal study of 13 to 14-year-olds has painted a very different picture of the youth of today. They are drinking and smoking less and bullying is on the decrease – despite the inexorable rise of social media making bullying much easier than it was 30 years ago.

The media has briefly picked up on some of these elements, such as the decline in drinking and smoking and
bullying. But they have also focused on how the youth of today communicate less with each other one-to-one and prefer computer games to actual contact with their peers. This cherry-picks the data to fit a stereotype of the lone child, shut off from society playing violent games – a potential outcast from society.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

The Best Children's Books of 2014

Intelligent and imaginative tales of love, loneliness, loyalty, loss, friendship, and everything in between.
“I don’t write for children,” Maurice Sendak scoffed in his final interview. “I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’”

“It is an error,” wrote J.R.R. Tolkien seven decades earlier in his superb meditation on fantasy and why there’s no such thing as writing for children, “to think of children as a special kind of creature, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immature, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large.” Indeed, books that bewitch young hearts and tickle young minds aren’t “children’s books” but simply great books — hearts that beat in the chest of another, even if that chest is slightly smaller.

This is certainly the case with the most intelligent and imaginative “children’s” and picture-books published this year. (Because the best children’s books provide, as Tolkien believed, perennial delight, step into the time machine and revisit previous selections for 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010.)

Bubbles, Bubbles Everywhere!

Bubbles are scientific?

That was the question I had when I first realized there was a Bubbles show at Science World at TELUS World of Science. Then, after watching the show and learning more about bubbles leading up to doing my own first Bubbles show performance, I learned that there is actually a lot of science and math involved. Even more, there’s a special chemistry and geometry when it comes to making bubbles.

What's bubble chemistry?
Well, bubbles are more than just a soap solution filled with air. Bubbles are actually made from a bubble film that looks like a sandwich with soap on the outsides and water on the inside. The soap works to reduce the surface tension of water so that the water can stretch. This means that bubble film is elastic and stretches out and snaps back to its original shape.
Why are bubbles round?
This is where the math comes in. Forming a bubble takes energy and bubbles want to form a shape that is the least stretched out. This shape must have the least amount of surface area for its size. The shape that results is a sphere. This is why bubbles are round when they are floating through the air around us!

Friday, 21 November 2014

Daily tips to help teachers stay happy and healthy during the week

As the week drags on in school, it can be hard to keep your head above water. Professor Gail Kinman explains what small things teachers can do every day to maintain their mind, body and soul.
As well their duty of care for students, teachers also need to look after themselves.
Professor Gail Kinman, a chartered psychologist and an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society, shares three tips a day for the five days of the working week on things that you can do to de-stress and promote a healthy mind, body and soul.

We challenge you to do one or all of these three things every day this week and tell us how they work for you by tweeting us via @GuardianTeach. 


It’s a universally acknowledged truth that no one likes Mondays, so you need to begin your day calmly.
  • Try relaxing for two minutes before your students arrive in the morning. Visualise the day ahead going as well as possible because this is good for the soul.
  • At the first break of the day step out of auto-pilot and clear your mind by eating a piece of fruit mindfully. Focus on the experience of eating without multi-tasking or your mind wandering.
  • After work or during lunch go for a walk on your own. Focus on what you see, smell, hear, taste, and feel. Don’t use the time to make plans or dwell on problems. 


Tuesday is a good day to pay attention to the early signs that you are becoming stressed.
  • Think about how the week is going and watch for things that are starting to worry you. This will help you spot your trigger points and take remedial action.
  • Half way through the day, why not reduce muscle tension? Tense your shoulders without straining, then relax while breathing deeply. Feel the stress fading away.
Tuesday should be a day for forgiveness. Most of us store up many negative emotions that could be released by forgiving ourselves and others. 


You’re bang in the middle of the week and making sure you feel refreshed is important; sleep is vital.
  • Avoid the enemies of sleep. Keep a regular sleep schedule, have a relaxing bedtime routine, eat healthily and get regular exercise.
  • Try the three-minute breathing space during lunchtime. Sit comfortably and focus on your breath. Your mind will wander, gently bring it back.
  • You could also take a five-minute lunchtime vacation. Picture yourself in the most relaxing place you can imagine. You will feel more refreshed on your return. 


The best medicine for a happy Thursday is laughter; have a giggle with colleagues or listen to your favourite comedy show.
  • Laughing has wide-ranging benefits, improving cardiovascular health and helping you connect with others so start the day with a chuckle.
  • Challenge negative self-talk. Work on reducing the “should/shouldn’t/must” statements to reduce stress and increase confidence.
  • Identify a buffer zone. Respite from work demands is essential for health and performance. What can you do after work to help you recover? 

Learning a language – 10 things you need to know

Thinking about learning a foreign language? From ignoring your age to avoiding the F-word, our multilingual experts share their tips.
1. Make realistic, specific goals

You have decided to learn another language. Now what? On our recent live chat our panellists first piece of advice was to ask yourself: what do you want to achieve and by when? Donavan Whyte, vice president of enterprise and education at Rosetta Stone, says: “Language learning is best when broken down into manageable goals that are achievable over a few months. This is far more motivating and realistic.”

You might be feeling wildly optimistic when you start but aiming to be fluent is not necessarily the best idea. Phil McGowan, director at Verbmaps, recommends making these goals tangible and specific: “Why not set yourself a target of being able to read a newspaper article in the target language without having to look up any words in the dictionary?”

2. Remind yourself why you are learning

It might sound obvious, but recognising exactly why you want to learn a language is really important. Alex Rawlings, a language teacher now learning his 13th language, says: “Motivation is usually the first thing to go, especially among students who are teaching themselves.” To keep the momentum going he suggests writing down 10 reasons you are learning a language and sticking it to the front of the file you are using: “I turn to these in times of self-doubt.”

3. Focus on exactly what you want to learn

Often the discussion around how to learn a language slides into a debate about so-called traditional v tech approaches. For Aaron Ralby, director of Linguisticator, this debate misses the point: “The question is not so much about online v offline or app v book. Rather it should be how can we assemble the necessary elements of language for a particular objective, present them in a user-friendly way, and provide a means for students to understand those elements.”

When signing up to a particular method or approach, think about the substance behind the style or technology. “Ultimately,” he says, “the learning takes place inside you rather that outside, regardless of whether it’s a computer or book or a teacher in front of you.”

4. Read for pleasure

For many of our panellists, reading was not only great for making progress, but one of the most rewarding aspects of the learning experience. Alex Rawlings explains that reading for pleasure “exposes you to all sorts of vocabulary that you won’t find in day-to-day life, and normalises otherwise baffling and complicated grammatical structures. The first book you ever finish in a foreign languages is a monumental achievement that you’ll remember for a long time.”

Monday, 17 November 2014

Your vocabulary aged 40 depends on how much you read as a teenager

Reading for pleasure as a child has been powerfully linked in research to the development of vocabulary and maths skills up to the age of 16. But does reading still have a part to play in the breadth of our adult vocabulary? Does it matter what kind of books you read, or is it just the amount of reading that counts?

Our study of a representative sample of more than 9,400 British people born in 1970 looked at how vocabularies developed between the ages of 16 and 42. The test involved asking people to pair words from one list with words of a similar meaning from another list. For example, they were asked to find other words meaning “hirsute”, “grotesque” or “cerebral”.

The good news is that learning doesn’t stop at the end of the school years – whether they read regularly or not. In fact, our study members demonstrated large gains in vocabulary between the ages of 16 and 42. At age 16, their average vocabulary test score was 55%. By age 42, study members scored an average of 63% on the same test.

Another piece of good news is that reports of the death of reading seem to have been exaggerated. More than a quarter, or 26%, of respondents said that they read books in their spare time on a daily basis, with a further 33% saying that they read for pleasure at least once a month. This left a minority of 41% who said that they read in their leisure time only every few months or less often.

University influences reading choices

People varied widely in the types of books they liked to read – and this was linked to their level of educational attainment. We were struck by the differences in literary tastes between graduates of the elite Russell Group of UK universities and other universities. When asked which kinds of books they usually liked to read, 43% of graduates of Russell Group universities included classic fiction such as Jane Eyre or Bleak House, compared to 29% of graduates of other universities and 11% of people with no qualifications.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Teachers launch weather balloons, and a passion for science

A weather-balloon kit helped two teachers inspire their students with custom experiments.


Making science, technology, engineering and math into hands-on endeavors can spark interest in these fields and cement concepts learned in the classroom. As science coordinator and a physics teacher at Harrisonburg (Va.) High School, Andy Jackson* was looking for a good, complex hands-on project for sophomores and juniors in the school’s Governor’s STEM Academy. Jackson and the so-director of the STEM academy, Myron Blosser*, came across a hands-on project in May when they visited the National Science Teachers Association STEM Forum and Expo in New Orleans, La.

They ran across a company that offers high altitude weather balloon kits. Made by Stratostar, the kits come with boxes to hold a payload of experiments. Transmitters will send data from the experiments and information about the balloon’s location back to the ground. Jackson and Blosser purchased a package, and two other teachers in the science department, Christina Welsh and Kasey Hovermale headed up the project with their students.

After more than seven weeks of preparation, their students launched their first balloon flight last week. It lofted a 2.7 kilogram (6 pound) payload to 25,908 meters (85,000 feet) and carried it 78 miles west of their launch site. The project gave the students a chance to decide what experiments to send, and to place the cameras and sensors in the payload themselves. The data will be used to design and carry out future flight experiments based on the temperature, sound and humidity data they obtained.

“When we saw this weather balloon idea, we thought ‘This is it,’” Jackson says. “We needed something that would integrate different disciplines. This tied in atmospheric science, chemistry and engineering.”

What they do…

These weather balloons — between 0.7 and 2.4 meters (2.5 to 8 feet) in diameter — work on a fairly simple principle. The balloon is attached to a small payload (less than 5.4 kilograms), filled with helium and released. In short order, it rises into near space, an altitude of between 19,812 and 99,974 meters. As the balloon rises, the atmospheric pressure falls. This causes the helium in the balloon to expand. When the balloon gets high enough, the expanding gas makes it pop. The science payload now falls back to Earth, aided by a small parachute. Meanwhile, the sensors send data on the payload’s location back to the ground, so that teachers can send out search parties to pick it up.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Spiders disguise themselves as ants to hide and hunt their prey

All spiders are predators, but most of them are small and have rudimentary defences against larger animals that in turn prey on them. Spiders have thus evolved a range of predatory behaviours that, at the same time, allow them to evade the threat of predation. Some of the most effective strategies involve deceiving ants.

More than 300 species of spiders are known to mimic the outward appearance of ants, a phenomenon called myrmecomorphy. Aggressively territorial, ants are typically avoided by several predators, thus making them the perfect creatures to impersonate. Most ant-mimicking spiders have a “false waist” and are covered with reflective hairs to simulate the shiny, three-segmented bodies of ants. They have coloured patches around their eyes to make their simple eyes look more like an ant’s compound eyes.

The spiders also behave like ants by waving their front pair of legs near their heads like antennae, and adopting an erratic zig-zag pattern of movement that is more like ants than spiders.

There are two reasons why a spider would want to mimic an ant: to eat them, and to avoid being eaten by them.

Imitation as a form of battery

The first reason, “aggressive ant-mimicry”, is a rare but intriguing phenomenon – and it is employed by spiders to deceive their prey. Ants make for dangerous prey – they have strong jaws, poisonous stings, and chemical defences – and, acting collectively, can launch strong attacks. Aggressive ant-mimicking spiders thus prefer to attack their victims while they are alone. And after killing the ant the spider also has to ensure that other ants do not attack it while it carries the corpse to its nest.