dog sunsetAnimals (not just people) likely have spiritual experiences, according to a prominent neurologist who has analyzed the processes of spiritual sensation for over three decades.

Research suggests that spiritual experiences originate deep within primitive areas of the human brain -- areas shared by other animals with brain structures like our own.

The trick, of course, lies in proving animals' experiences.

"Since only humans are capable of language that can communicate the richness of spiritual experience, it is unlikely we will ever know with certainty what an animal subjectively experiences," Kevin Nelson, a professor of neurology at the University of Kentucky, told Discovery News.

"Despite this limitation, it is still reasonable to conclude that since the most primitive areas of our brain happen to be the spiritual, then we can expect that animals are also capable of spiritual experiences," added Nelson, author of the book "The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain," which will be published in January 2011.

The finding is an extension of his research on humans, which has been published in many peer-reviewed journals. A Neurology journal study, for example, determined that out-of-body experiences in humans are likely caused by the brain's arousal system, which regulates different states of consciousness.

"In humans, we know that if we disrupt the (brain) region where vision, sense of motion, orientation in the Earth's gravitational field, and knowing the position of our body all come together, then out-of-body experiences can be caused literally by the flip of a switch," he said. "There is absolutely no reason to believe it is any different for a dog, cat, or primate’s brain."

Other mammals also probably have near-death experiences comparable to those reported by certain humans, he believes. Such people often say they saw a light and felt as though they were moving down a tunnel.

The tunnel phenomenon "is caused by the eye's susceptibility to the low blood flow that occurs with fainting or cardiac arrest," he said. "As blood flow diminishes, vision fails peripherally first. There is no reason to believe that other animals are any different from us."

Nelson added, "What they make of the tunnel is another matter."

The light aspect of near-death experiences can be explained by how the visual system defines REM (rapid eye movement) consciousness, he believes.

"In fact," he said, "the link between REM and the physiological crises causing near-death experience are most strongly linked in animals, like cats and rats, which we can study in the laboratory."

Mystical experiences -- moments that inspire a sense of mystery and wonderment -- arise within the limbic system, he said. When specific parts of this system are removed from animal brains, mind-altering drugs like LSD have no effect.

Since other animals, such as non-human primates, horses, cats and dogs, also possess similar brain structures, it is possible that they too experience mystical moments, and may even have a sense of spiritual oneness, according to Nelson.

Marc Bekoff, a professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, also believes animals have spiritual experiences, which he defines as experiences that are nonmaterial, intangible, introspective and comparable to what humans have.

Both he and primatologist Jane Goodall have observed chimpanzees dancing with total abandon at waterfalls that emerge after heavy rains. Some of the chimps even appear to dance themselves into a trance-like state, as some humans do during religious and cultural rituals.

Goodall wondered, "Is it not possible that these (chimpanzee) performances are stimulated by feelings akin to wonder and awe? After a waterfall display the performer may sit on a rock, his eyes following the falling water. What is it, this water?"

"Perhaps numerous animals engage in these rituals, but we haven't been lucky enough to see them," Bekoff wrote in a Psychology Today report.

"For now, let's keep the door open to the idea that animals can be spiritual beings and let's consider the evidence for such a claim," he added.

"Meager as it is, available evidence says, 'Yes, animals can have spiritual experiences,' and we need to conduct further research and engage in interdisciplinary discussions before we say that animals cannot and do not experience spirituality."



Review of "Bad Universe"

Bad Universe promotional postcardImage by thebadastronomer via Flickr
We recently watched "Bad Universe" on the Discovery Channel, hosted by Phil Plait.  The first show was about asteroids and how they might threaten Earth, and what could be done about them.  Phil Plait was quite interesting, even though he kept wanting to press the "fire" button on the gadgets.  :)

Although the show did dramatize asteroid collisions, it did not focus on that aspect too much, like many other science shows do.  Instead, it analyzed different types of asteroids, and how their makeup affects efforts to redirect their path.  It also analysed the effects of impact at different distance, using a scale model explosion.  I was not aware of the Hiroshima measuring scale!

I will watch this show again.  I'd even watch this particular episode again. It was quite entertaining, brilliant, and informative.


Antivaxxers take note: vaccines stop polio outbreak in Tajikistan | Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine

From the Discover: Bad Astronomy blog
See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herd_immunity


This is wildly good news! Through Vaccine Central I learned that a major polio outbreak in Tajikistan has been stopped!

How? Through vaccination.

Yup. The first reports of polio were confirmed in April — 413 of them. However, that ended in late June, when no new cases were reported. That is credited to the thousands of doctors and nurses who not only vaccinated at least 97% of the children in each region of the mountainous country, but also flooded the area with multi-lingual informational leaflets, posters, and banners.

And they succeeded! With no new reports, it appears this outbreak was stopped cold.

And with the AVN in Australia getting hammered repeatedly in the press, I can now have some hope that the movement here in the United States, spearheaded by Jenny McCarthy, will die off as well. Vaccinations work, and they save a lot of lives.

Antivaxxers take note: vaccines stop polio outbreak in Tajikistan | Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine


New Legal Decisions Will Impact Net Neutrality and Startups

New Legal Decisions Will Impact Net Neutrality and Startups:

Two important legal decisions were made this week that could have significant impact on technology startups.

On Tuesday, a U.S. Federal Appeals Court determined that the FCC had overstepped its regulatory authority in demanding that Comcast cease its 'throttling' of peer-to-peer service users. And on Wednesday, the U.K. House of Commons approved the 'Digital Economy Bill', which grants sweeping regulatory power to the British government, including the ability to block websites and punish consumers and companies who are found to violate copyright law.

The Federal Appeals Court decision calls into question the reach of the FCC, and raises questions about the future of a number of policy plans for the Obama Administration, including the National Broadband Plan. Austin Schlick writes on the broadband plan's official blog that several recommendations from the plan may be impacted, including 'supporting robust use of broadband by small businesses to drive productivity, growth and ongoing innovation; lowering barriers that hinder broadband deployment; strengthening public safety communications; cybersecurity; consumer protection, including transparency and disclosure; and consumer privacy.'

The British bill has seen widespread opposition from numerous sectors, including Facebook, Google, and Yahoo, and some are contending that it will have a chilling effect on startups in the UK.

Both of these decisions point to the high stakes involved with securing 'net neutrality' - both for consumers and businesses alike. Although there is by no means unanimity on what, if any, role governments should have in regulating technology ideas and infrastructure, few would disagree that startups benefit from a climate that fosters technological and business innovation. Furthermore, all businesses, not merely ones in the technology sector, are becoming dependent on quick access to the Internet for their ability to develop, deliver and distribute their services to customers.

Fred Wilson argues in a post on his blog today that perhaps it is time to reframe the terms of the debate, moving away from the phrase 'net neutrality' and instead to argue on behalf of 'internet freedom.' He writes 'Internet Freedom is about sustaining the era of permissionless innovation that has characterized the first fifteen years of the commercial Internet in this country and brought us thousands of new big profitable companies, millions of jobs, and a vast array of new services and devices that have changed our lives and made them better.'

As courts, legislatures, and agencies try to create policies around digital technologies, how will new startups be effected?


New, Ancient Way Of Making Oxygen Discovered

New, Ancient Way Of Making Oxygen DiscoveredDutch bacteria have a previously unknown method to produce oxygen. The process uses methane and nitric oxide, it might predate the development of photosynthesis by hundreds of millions of years, and it could allow life to survive on other planets.

Three natural methods of oxygen production were known before this study. The best known and most common is photosynthesis, in which plants, algae, and some bacteria convert carbon dioxide and water into sugars, which releases oxygen as a waste product. The other two methods are the creation of oxygen from chlorates in bacteria cells and the conversion of reactive oxygen materials using enzymes.

The newly discovered process is used by a microbe found in nearly oxygen-free canals and ditches in the Netherlands, although its particular strain was first discovered in caves in Australia. In the presence of methane gas and nitrites, the microbes broke down the nitrites into nitric oxide, which they then split into nitrogen and oxygen. The oxygen was then used to burn the methane for energy, and the nitrogen was released as a waste product.

The researchers at The Netherlands at the Radboud University in Nijmegen are confident this is what the microbes are doing, but they're less certain how the microbes are doing it. There is some thought an enzyme of some sort is involved, but there are hundred of proteins whose properties are still unknown that could be directing the expression of the enzyme. As such, the exact mechanics of this new oxygen-creating process remain poorly understood, although it's definitely unlike anything seen before.

The researchers are also excited about the potential wider implications of this discovery. Primordial bacteria might have used this method to create oxygen on the early pre-photosynthesis Earth, when the atmosphere was rich in methane and poor in oxygen. This process may also shed new light on the mechanics of methane cycles.

But perhaps most intriguingly, this new process provides a potential method for life to exist on oxygen-low, methane-heavy environments like those of the planets and moons of the outer solar system. In fact, this method would not require there to be any free oxygen in the atmosphere at all - as long as there was sufficient methane and nitrites, that would actually be more than enough for microbes using this process to survive, even thrive.



Dark matter could meet its nemesis on Earth

A SPINNING disc may be all that is needed to overturn Newton's second law of motion - and potentially remove the need for dark matter.

The second law states that a force is proportional to an object's mass and its acceleration. But since the 1980s, some physicists have eyed the law with suspicion, arguing that subtle changes to it at extremely small accelerations could explain the observed motion of stars in galaxies.

The key is to cancel out the acceleration of Earth's rotation, its orbit round the sun, and the orbit of the sun round the galactic centre. The basic idea was first proposed in 2007, when Alex Ignatiev calculated that the accelerations all cancel out for a millisecond at two particular points on Earth's surface, twice a year. That makes the experiment possible in theory, but not feasible.

Now, De Lorenci's team has figured out that a spinning disc can reproduce the effect any time and anywhere on Earth. Their calculations show that if the disc is positioned accurately and its speed precisely controlled, the acceleration at specific points on the disc's rim would cancel out the accelerations produced by the motion of the Earth and the sun.

If the second law is correct at all accelerations, a measuring device mounted on the rim should register no anomalous force at these points. However, if MOND is correct, the device should feel an aberrant kick. "We are able to control the conditions to produce the MOND regime in any place at any time," says De Lorenci.


Transgenic mice could solve the obesity epidemic

By tweaking an enzyme in mice, researchers expected to get rodents with low cholesterol, but fatty livers. Instead they found a switch which might be a weight loss miracle.

The researchers from the University of Alberta bred a mouse lacking a single enzyme that's associated with fat metabolism — triacylglycerol hydrolase (TGH). TGH is partly responsible for releasing triglycerides from the liver where they go on to form very low-density lipoproteins (VLDLs), which are considered "bad" cholesterol. The scientists thought that breeding a mouse deficient in TGH would have fewer VLDLs, and instead found the mice that not only had lower cholesterol, but also system wide metabolic improvement — seemingly without downside.

The researchers hypothesized that removing the TGH would mean the more fat would build up in the liver, as the mechanism by which the fat was released was missing. Instead of getting tiny rodent foie gras, the triglycerides were burned almost immediately rather than being stored, and the liver compensated by synthesizing less fat. The rodents ate more, but also expended more energy, and showed no change in body weight compared to their normal cousins.

The interesting thing? Drugs already exist to block TGH in the human body. While more research needs to be done about the systemic effects of blocking TGH, how specific these drugs are, and if diet alters the way the liver functions in these mice, but it's an important step towards understanding how the body deals with fat and cholesterol. Who knows, we may even get a drug that helps you lose weight without utterly horrible side effects.


Old star is 'missing link' in galactic evolution

A newly discovered star outside the Milky Way has yielded important clues about the evolution of our galaxy. Located in the dwarf galaxy Sculptor some 280,000 light-years away, the star has a chemical make-up similar to the Milky Way's oldest stars, supporting theories that our galaxy grew by absorbing dwarf galaxies and other galactic building blocks. Some recent studies had questioned the link between dwarf galaxies and the Milky Way, citing differences between the chemistry of their stars. But the differences may not be so big after all, according to new research published in Nature. "It was a question of finding the right kind of star, and doing that required some new techniques," says Josh Simon , an astronomer at the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution and a member of team that confirmed the star's telltale chemistry. Using earlier techniques, he says, "it was very difficult to recognize exactly which stars were the key ones to study."

"This star is likely almost as old as the universe itself," said astronomer Anna Frebel of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, lead author of the Nature paper reporting the finding.

In addition to the star's total metal abundance, researchers also compared the abundance of iron to that of elements such as magnesium, calcium, and titanium. The ratios resembled those of old Milky Way stars, lending more support to the idea that these stars originally formed in dwarf galaxies.



Losing Your Hands Makes It Harder To See Nearby Objects

It turns out that you need more than just your eyes to see things that are right in front of you. Neuroscientists have found that we can't accurately judge the distance of nearby objects without also using our hands.

The area within arm's length - in other words, the area with which we can directly interact - is called the "action space." Previous research had indicated that the brain judges distance within the action space in terms of the hands.

However, it had not been confirmed whether the hands merely help our brains better understand spatial positions or if they are actually required to figure out where objects in the action space are.

To test this question, a research team at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Hadassah Hospital-Mount Scopus tested a group of people who had had their hands amputated to see how their visual perception of nearby objects had been affected. The volunteers were told to focus on a screen where a cross was projected in the center. On either side were squares of variable distance from the cross. The subjects were asked to judge which of the two squares was farther away.

The results reveal that hand amputations affect visuospatial perception. When the right square was slightly farther away from the center, participants with right-hand amputations tended to perceive it as being at the same distance from the center as the left square; this suggests that these volunteers underestimated the distance of the right square relative to the left. Conversely, when the left square was farther away, left-hand amputees perceived both squares as being equally far away from the center — these participants underestimated the left side of near space.

Interestingly, when the volunteers were seated farther away from the screen, they were more accurate in judging the distances, indicating that hand amputations may only affect perception of the space close to the body.


Weight scale for atoms could map 'island of stability'

The mass of an atom heavier than uranium has been measured for the first time (Image: <a href="http://garrisonphoto.org/sxc/">bjearwicke</a>/stock.xchng)Hunting for the universe's heaviest atoms just got a little easier, thanks to a new technique that directly measures the mass of elements heavier than uranium. The method could help find an "island" of unusually stable elements that is thought to extend beyond the current end of the periodic table.

Uranium, which contains 92 protons, is the heaviest element known to occur in nature. But researchers have synthesised a number of even heftier elements, with as many as 118 protons.

These extreme atoms are quite short-lived – many fall apart just milliseconds after they are created. But nuclear theorists suspect that a class of 'super-heavy' atoms, boasting the right combination of protons and neutrons, could have lifetimes of decades or longer (see Hunting the biggest atoms in the universe).

Elements in this so-called island of stability could act as powerful nuclear fuel for future fission-propelled space missions. They might also be exhibit useful new chemical properties. Element 114, for example, has shown hints that it behaves like a gas at room temperature even though it should be a member of the lead family on the periodic table.


'Space diver' to attempt first supersonic freefall

Joe Kittinger set the record for the highest jump in 1960, when he dropped from a helium balloon at an altitude of 31 kilometres (Image: US Air Force Archive)A "space diver" will try to smash the nearly 50-year-old record for the highest jump this year, becoming the first person to go supersonic in freefall. The stunt could help engineers design escape systems for space flights.

On 16 August 1960, US Air Force Captain Joe Kittinger made history by jumping out of a balloon at an altitude of some 31,333 metres. "I stood up and said a prayer and stepped off," he recalled (see Space diving: The ultimate extreme sport).

Since then, many have tried to break that record but none have succeeded – New Jersey native Nick Piantanida actually died trying in 1966. Now Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner has announced he will make the attempt, with help from Kittinger and sponsorship from the energy drink company Red Bull.

He will face extreme peril. He should reach supersonic speeds 35 seconds after he jumps, and the resulting shock wave "is a big concern", the project's technical director, Art Thompson, said at a press briefing on Friday. "In early aircraft development, they thought it was a wall they couldn't pass without breaking apart. In our case, the vehicle is flesh and blood, and he'll be exposed to some extreme forces.

"The jump height is above a threshold at 19,000 metres called the Armstrong line, where the atmospheric pressure is so low that fluids start to boil. "If he opens up his face mask or the suit, all the gases in your body go out of suspension, so you literally turn into a giant fizzy, oozing fluid from your eyes and mouth, like something out of a horror film," Thompson explained. "It's just seconds until death."

To protect himself, Baumgartner will wear a more flexible version of the airtight, pressurised spacesuit currently used aboard the space shuttle (see Future spacesuits to act like a second skin). That will let him bend to achieve the standard, belly-down skydiving position needed to decelerate.

Red Bull would not reveal the cost of the project. And though it says it will launch this year from North America, it has not yet specified a date or launch site. This uncertainty depends in part on finding the ideal weather conditions for the flight, Thompson said.

By showing that a person can safely return to Earth from that speed and altitude, the "Stratos" mission team hopes to show that astronauts might survive with similar systems if they needed to bail out of spacecraft.



Research shows two gay parents are better than a songle straight one

Anti-gay marriage activists have argued vigorously that children need a mother and father. Now a new research study shows that kids do need two parents — but that gender doesn't matter.

The research, which also speaks to the issue of gay adoption, is summarized in the lead article of the new Journal of Marriage and Family. Scholars, at USC and New York University, looked at a range of existing studies, including research on gay and lesbian parents, finding that it's ideal if a child is raised by two parents who are "responsible, committed, stable," but that the gender doesn't cause radical differences.

Sociologist Timothy Biblarz of the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences says in a release about the study:

Significant policy decisions have been swayed by the misconception across party lines that children need both a mother and a father. Yet, there is almost no social science research to support this claim. One problem is that proponents of this view routinely ignore research on same-gender parents. The bottom line is that the science shows that children raised by two same-gender parents do as well on average as children raised by two different-gender parents. This is obviously inconsistent with the widespread claim that children must be raised by a mother and a father to do well.

Full scientific article available via Journal of Marriage And Family