Category: News

Dogs Might Be More Rational Than Humans

By Yasemin Saplakoglu

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — At the 2018 Liberty Science Center Genius Gala, Laurie Santos, one of the night’s honorees, performed an experiment on stage. She showed the audience a box with a cylindrical handle jutting from its side. She first jiggled the handle a few times and then opened the top of the box. She then repeated the process.

Santos said that if she asked a human to then open the box, the human would do the exact same thing: try to jiggle the handle first before attempting to pop the top open. But instead of asking a human, Santos invited a dog onto the stage to try to open the box, which contained a reward in the form of a doggy treat. Santos showed the dog, just as she did humans, how to open the box: Jiggle the handle, and open the top. The dog watched closely, but when it came time to claim its treat, it did its own sniffing and, ignoring the handle, popped the top open with its nose. It turns out that the handle wasn’t connected to anything in the box and had nothing to do with opening it.

Dogs are “really good at learning from us, but they might, in funny ways, be better at learning from us than we are from ourselves,” Santos, a cognitive psychologist at Yale University, told Live Science. They are “less irrational in following our behavior than humans are.”

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Cosmic Conflict: Diverging Data on Universe’s Expansion Polarizes Scientists

By Lee Billings

What began as a debate over astronomical measurements is on the verge of becoming a full-blown crisis in how we understand the cosmos. Two data sets—one from the newborn universe nearly 14 billion years ago, the other from stars as we see them today—are yielding contradictory answers to a deceptively simple question: How fast is the universe expanding?

The gap between answers is only 9 percent, but that far exceeds each data set’s estimated uncertainties. Researchers on each side of the gap call it “the tension,” and are digging in their heels about the validity of their observations. This tension is the stuff of scientific dreams—and nightmares. It hints that somewhere, somehow, our understanding of the laws of nature may be fundamentally flawed—with potentially profound implications for physics, and perhaps even the fate of all things.

“If the tension isn’t a fluke and it’s not an error in measurement, it implies we’re missing something in our models,” says Adam Riess, an astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins University and the Space Telescope Science Institute. “Making this measurement for the early universe and then comparing it to today’s is an end-to-end test of the whole story we’ve constructed about the universe. The trouble is, if something definitely doesn’t fit, we don’t know where exactly the story diverges.”

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Probing Pence: Did his Hillsdale College commencement speech get anything right?

By Andrew Seidel

Every year, the Freedom From Religion Foundation gets complaints about graduations in public schools. Preachers delivering sermons, staff and students scheduled to deliver prayers, the graduation being held in a church — you name the violation, we’ve seen it. None of these is an issue for a commencement ceremony at a private religious college, such as Hillsdale College in southern Michigan, which, however, had a problem of its own.

The trouble with Hillsdale’s commencement, which was full of religion, was that it was also full of lies and alternative facts (but perhaps I repeat myself). The source of this problem was Vice President Mike Pence, who addressed the graduating class.

One of Pence’s favorite lines, which he used when he accepted the Republican nomination and trotted out again for the graduates, nicely illustrates the Pence problem: “I’m a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican — in that order.” Pence considers himself a Christian before anything else, including someone who values facts and truth (but perhaps I repeat myself yet again).

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Inside the Fight Against America’s Wave of Anti-LGBT Adoption Bills

By Samantha Allen

On May 11, Oklahoma became the eighth state to allow state-licensed child welfare agencies to cite religious beliefs in order to discriminate against LGBT people looking to foster or adopt children.

The Sooner State won’t be the last, either: Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer has already said that he “look[s] forward to signing” a similar bill that has already cleared the legislature.

Both of these laws are notable losses for LGBT advocates in a year that has mostly seen the failure of anti-LGBT bills, as The Washington Post noted this April.

Legal challenges already underway could reverse the rising tide of anti-LGBT adoption bills: Troy Stevenson, executive director for the advocacy group Freedom Oklahoma, told The Daily Beast that they have retained counsel and are “definitely filing” a lawsuit, but still determining the best timing.

The American Civil Liberties Union already has a lawsuit underway against a similar anti-LGBT adoption law in Michigan, which took effect in June 2015.

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Why Do Some Fruits and Vegetables Conduct Electricity?

By Joanna Fantozzi

At any science fair, you’re almost guaranteed to see at least two go-to experiments: the clichéd papier-mâché volcano and the ever-popular pickle or potato battery. Many people may think it’s amazing that a simple piece of produce can conduct electricity. As it turns out, that’s not the whole story.

There are many types of electrical conductors. These include traditional electrical conductors, such as the copper and silver wires that are used to run electrical currents in homes and buildings, and ionic conductors, which can power electricity via free moving ions. Organic material, such as human tissue or the potato in your science experiment, are ionic conductors that create ionic circuits. Electrolytes — chemical compounds that create ions when they are dissolved in water — in these materials do all of the work.

“Fruits and vegetables conduct electricity in the same way a salt solution will complete an electrical circuit,” Michael Hickner, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at Penn State, told Live Science. “It’s due to the ions in the salt solution. They don’t conduct electrons [as traditional electrical conductors do].

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It’s That Dress Again, But Now For Your Ears

By Stephen L. Macknik

It’s an epic auditory insult. Akin to: I say tomato and you say “blow it out your ear.” I just listened to the new amazing illusion, in which about half of the denizens of my current café hear a voice say “Yanny” whereas I clearly hear “Laurel.” It’s a magical-seeming deception that seems innocent when you hear it. But it reveals itself as mysterious—and a little bit sinister—when you ask your friends, listening to the same recording at the same time, what they hear, and its totally different from what you hear. Try it now:


My wife agrees with me—Laurel—saving our marriage from otherwise certain divorce—but our three rotten kids instead all hear “Yanny.”

So what is going on? We’ll have to find out when neuroscientists around the world start digging in to determine its neural underpinnings of this equivocal percept in the lab. But this is what we can tell you at this time, drawing some inferences from equivalent visual illusions, like The famous Dress that took the world by storm in February of 2015.

Dress Illusion, about half of the world’s population sees a white-gold dress, whereas the other half sees a blue-black dress. Like the Yanny-Laurel Illusion, nothing at first seems amiss, until you start talking to somebody about your experience and discover that their sensation is completely different from yours.

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Tony Perkins appointed to US panel on international religious freedom

By Jack Jenkins

(RNS) — Tony Perkins, the head of the conservative Christian lobbying group Family Research Council, has been appointed to a U.S. government commission dedicated to “defending the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad.”

On Monday (May 14), the Congressional Record revealed that Perkins had been appointed to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on the recommendation of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission created in 1998 through the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act, and issues an annual report every May 1 on international religious freedom issues.

“I am grateful to Majority Leader McConnell for appointing me to this prestigious position. From my post at USCIRF, I look forward to doing all that I can to ensure that our government is the single biggest defender of religious freedom internationally,” Perkins, an evangelical Christian and frequent faith adviser to President Trump’s administration, said in a press release.

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Gay ‘Conversion Therapy’ Is Now Illegal In Maryland

By Nina Golgowski

It’s now officially illegal to perform so-called gay “conversion therapy” on minors in Maryland.

The Youth Mental Health Protection Act, which Gov. Larry Hogan (R) signed into law Tuesday, threatens mental health or child care practitioners with disciplinary action if they are found attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of anyone under the age of 18.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said the new law makes Maryland “a better place for countless young people.”

“No child should ever be subjected to the abusive practice of so-called ‘conversion therapy,’” he said in a statement. “This dangerous and inhumane form of child abuse has no basis in science and is uniformly rejected by every major mental health and child welfare organization.”

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Must Pensacola cross come down? Appeal arguments to be heard this week

By Lawrence Specker

It has been nearly a year since a judge ruled that a Christian cross long displayed in a Pensacola public park must come down. This week a higher court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the city’s appeal.

The case goes back to 2016 and has provoked official interest in Alabama, which is one of more than a dozen states to express support for Pensacola’s right to keep the 34-foot cross in Bayview Park. Its judicial handling also prompted criticism from Roy Moore during his run to become governor of Alabama.

The cross was erected in 1969 by the Pensacola Jaycees, replacing an earlier wooden version built by the National Youth Administration. In 2016 a quartet of plaintiffs — Amanda and Andreiy Kondrat’Yev, Andre Ryland and David Suhor — sued for its removal, charging that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The city argued that the cross did not represent a violation and should be left alone.

In June 2017, Senior U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson ruled in favor of plaintiffs. Vinson made it abundantly clear that the ruling was distasteful to him but that precedent in such cases was clearly established. “It is still the law of the land and I am not free to ignore it … the law is the law,” he wrote. 

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Here’s What’s Needed for Self-Flying Taxis and Delivery Drones to Really Take Off

By Larry Greenemeier

Amazon, Uber and other tech giants want to fill the skies with small autonomous aircraft ferrying packages and people from place to place. For that to happen, these robotic drones—also called unmanned aircraft systems (UASs)—need an air traffic control system to keep them from crashing into buildings, human-piloted aircraft or one another. NASA is developing a UAS Traffic Management (UTM) network with several other organizations that the group plans to finish testing next year. Uber, in particular, has a lot riding on the UTM’s success—the ride-sharing company made several announcements last week to promote its proposeduberAIR taxi service. Big questions remain, however, as to whether and when any monitoring and management system will be able to handle the expected volume of large self-flying aircraft, which will be traveling great distances to deliver everything from pizzas to passengers.

Uber is onboard with NASA, at least. The company announced at its Elevate aviation conference in Los Angeles on May 8 and 9 it had signed an agreement to provide NASA with details and data about the inaugural uberAIR service it has planned for Dallas–Fort Worth. In return, the agency will use Uber’s data to make computer simulations of small passenger-carrying aircraft flying over the Texas Metroplex during peak air traffic times. Uber will analyze those simulations to help plan air taxi management in the already crowded skies over Dallas as well as Los Angeles and Dubai—the other cities hoping to start testing uberAIR by 2020.

Uber is targeting urban areas that have a population of more than two million people and a density of more than “2,000 people per square mile,” according to documents on Uber’s Web site. The cities must also have a large and dispersed layout that allows air taxis “to offer significant time-saving benefits at speeds of” 240 to 320 kilometers per hour. The company also points out flights will go from “node to node rather than point to point,” meaning there will be specific—rather than random—pickup and drop-off sites.

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