Viruses Have a Secret, Altruistic Social Life - Facts So Romantic


Reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine's Abstractions blog. Social organisms come in all shapes and sizes, from the obviously gregarious ones like mammals and birds down to the more cryptic socializers like bacteria. Evolutionary biologists often puzzle over altruistic behaviors among them, because self-sacrificing individuals would at first seem to be at a severe disadvantage under natural selection. William D. Hamilton, one of the 20th century's most prominent evolutionary theorists, developed a mathematical theory to explain the evolution of altruism through kin selection--for instance, why most individual ants, bees and wasps forgo the ability to reproduce and instead pour all their efforts into raising their siblings. Bacteriologists developed game-theory models to explain why bacteria in groups produce metabolites for their neighbors, even though some cheaters take advantage of the situation.

Behind Every Robot Is a Human

The Atlantic

Hundreds of human reviewers across the globe, from Romania to Venezuela, listen to audio clips recorded from Amazon Echo speakers, usually without owners' knowledge, Bloomberg reported last week. We knew Alexa was listening; now we know someone else is, too. This global review team fine-tunes the Amazon Echo's software by listening to clips of users asking Alexa questions or issuing commands, and then verifying whether Alexa responded appropriately. The team also annotates specific words the device struggles with when it's addressed in different accents. According to Amazon, users can opt out of the service, but they seem to be enrolled automatically.

Man, Woman, and Robot in Ian McEwan's New Novel

The New Yorker

A former electronics whiz kid, he has squandered his youth on dilettantish studies in physics and anthropology, followed by a series of botched get-rich-quick schemes. His parents are dead, his friends (if they exist) go unmentioned, and his employment consists of forex trading on an old laptop in his two-room apartment. He seems to leave home only to buy chocolate at a local newsstand or, once, after noticing a pain in his foot, to have an ingrown toenail removed, an apt literalization of his enervating self-involvement. Perhaps out of some desire for correction, Charlie sells his mother's house to finance the purchase of Adam, one of twenty-five cutting-edge androids built to serve as an "intellectual sparring partner, friend and factotum." The impulsive slacker is all too ready to exchange his birthright for a mess of wattage.

Paradox Is Illuminating the Black Hole - Issue 71: Flow


This essay is one of the five winners in the 2019 writing competition held by the Black Hole Initiative at Harvard University. "The Black Hole Initiative offers a unique environment for thinking about the topic of black holes more creatively and comprehensively," says BHI director, Avi Loeb. To add context to the exciting April 10 announcement that astronomers have observed a black hole for the first time, this week Nautilus is featuring all five winning essays. The way up and the way down are one and the same," says the Sage. Paradox has a way of plaguing thought.

The NASA Twins Study: A multidimensional analysis of a year-long human spaceflight


Space is the final frontier for understanding how extreme environments affect human physiology. Following twin astronauts, one of which spent a year-long mission on the International Space Station, Garrett-Bakelman et al. examined molecular and physiological traits that may be affected by time in space (see the Perspective by Löbrich and Jeggo). Sequencing the components of whole blood revealed that the length of telomeres, which is important to maintain in dividing cells and may be related to human aging, changed substantially during space flight and again upon return to Earth. Coupled with changes in DNA methylation in immune cells and cardiovascular and cognitive effects, this study provides a basis to assess the hazards of long-term space habitation. Science, this issue p. eaau8650; see also p. 127 To date, 559 humans have been flown into space, but long-duration ( 300 days) missions are rare (n 8 total). Long-duration missions that will take humans to Mars and beyond are planned ...

Sustained rescue of prefrontal circuit dysfunction by antidepressant-induced spine formation


A better understanding of the mechanisms underlying the action of antidepressants is urgently needed. Moda-Sava et al. explored a possible mode of action for the drug ketamine, which has recently been shown to help patients recover from depression (see the Perspective by Beyeler). Ketamine rescued behavior in mice that was associated with depression-like phenotypes by selectively reversing stress-induced spine loss and restoring coordinated multicellular ensemble activity in prefrontal microcircuits. The initial induction of ketamine's antidepressant effect on mouse behavior occurred independently of effects on spine formation. Instead, synaptogenesis in the prefrontal region played a critical role in nourishing these effects over time. Interventions aimed at enhancing the survival of restored synapses may thus be useful for sustaining the behavioral effects of fast-acting antidepressants. Science, this issue p. eaat8078; see also p. 129 Depression is an episodic form of mental illness, yet the circuit-level mechanisms driving the induction, remission, and recurrence of depressive episodes over time are not well understood. Ketamine relieves depressive symptoms rapidly, providing an opportunity to study the neurobiological substrates of transitions from depression to remission and to test whether mechanisms that induce antidepressant effects acutely are distinct from those that sustain them. Contrasting changes in dendritic spine density in prefrontal cortical pyramidal cells have been associated with the emergence of depression-related behaviors in chronic stress models and with ketamine's antidepressant effects.

News at a glance


In science news around the world, Sydney Brenner, the Nobel laureate who made seminal discoveries in genetics and developmental biology, dies at age 92. Japan's Hayabusa2 mission continues its novel exploration of the asteroid Ryugu by blowing a crater in it so the spacecraft can collect samples; scientists are eager to study material from beneath the surface that has not undergone eons of space weathering. The U.S. National Institutes of Health has begun to restrict visitors from certain countries at its campus in Bethesda, Maryland, for national security reasons, sparking concerns from its staff scientists. Only 10 days after Google created an eight-member external advisory council on the ethics of artificial intelligence research, the company pulled the plug last week amid controversy over the views and affiliations of the council's members. The use of chemicals to disperse oil spills largely doesn't create a mixture more toxic than the oil itself, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences reports.

In Quantum Games, There's No Way to Play the Odds - Facts So Romantic


Reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine's Abstractions blog. In the 1950s, four mathematically minded U.S. Army soldiers used primitive electronic calculators to work out the optimal strategy for playing blackjack. Their results, later published in the Journal of the American Statistical Association, detailed the best decision a player could make for every situation encountered in the game. Yet that strategy--which would evolve into what gamblers call "the book"--did not guarantee a player would win. Blackjack, along with solitaire, checkers, or any number of other games, has a ceiling on the percentage of games in which players can expect to triumph, even if they play the absolute best that the game can be played.

The Age of Robot Farmers

The New Yorker

It was a hot February morning at Wish Farms, a large strawberry-growing operation outside Plant City, Florida. Gary Wishnatzki, the proprietor, met me at one of the farm offices. In the high season, Wish Farms picks, chills, and ships some twenty million berries--all handpicked by a seasonal workforce of six hundred and fifty farm laborers. Wishnatzki is a genial sixty-three-year-old third-generation berry man, who wears a white goatee and speaks softly, with a Southern drawl. His grandfather Harris Wishnatzki was a penniless Russian immigrant who started out peddling fruits and vegetables from a pushcart in New York's Washington Street Market in 1904.

Nassim Taleb's Case Against Nate Silver Is Bad Math - Facts So Romantic


It began, late last year, with Silver boasting about the success of his election models and Taleb shooting back that Silver doesn't "know how math works." Silver said Taleb was "consumed by anger" and hadn't had any new ideas since 2001. The argument has gotten personal, with Silver calling Taleb an "intellectual-yet-idiot" (an insult taken from Taleb's own book) and Taleb calling Silver "klueless" and "butthurt." Here is a recap of what they're fighting about so you can know who's right (Silver, mostly) and who's wrong (Taleb). The origin of Taleb's ire can be found in Silver's success since 2008--and his some-time failures.