TED Science worth knowing newsletter

We're back from TED2019, and there's a lot of great science talks coming your way, from imaging black holes to tinkering with plants to help combat climate change. Here's some of what's been happening in the world of science that you may have missed …


Image: Flickr / Rural Matters (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Scientists revive activity in a pig brain after death

Using a chemical substitute for blood, scientists have restored circulation and cellular activity in a pig brain four hours after its slaughter. The finding seems to overturn decades of orthodoxy that brain cells die in seconds or at most minutes after blood flow and oxygen supply cease. But the researchers were at pains to emphasize that the brain was not alive per se: "Clinically defined, this is not a living brain, but it is a cellularly active brain," said neuroscientist Zvonimir Vrselja of Yale University in a press release. The cells consumed sugars and released CO2, and immune cells seemed to function, but no coordinated electrical signals -- brain waves -- were observed. The research raises the prospect, albeit distant, of organs kept alive outside the body -- as well as a whole host of ethical questions

Watch: TED Talks about the brain

Image: Flickr / Marco Verch (CC BY 2.0)

Technique turns imagined words into intelligible speech

Electrodes on the skull, paired with a machine-learning algorithm trained on spoken words, can work together to produce intelligible sentences from thought. While the tool has to be specially trained on each individual's brain, it raises hopes for technologies to help those who wish to speak but can't. It's not a mind reader, though -- at least not yet.

TED Talk: This is your brain on communication

Image: Flickr / UBC Micrometeorology (CC BY 2.0)

Permafrost melting across the Arctic

Thawing soils in the Arctic release yet more greenhouse gases, which in turn promotes more warming that further thaws permafrost. It's what scientists call a "negative feedback loop," and it's well underway in the north. Worse, it's more abrupt than researchers had anticipated, including forests turned to lakes, trees that lean as if drunk, rivers clogged with sediment and even entire hillsides that suddenly slump. We may have passed the point where such a meltdown in the north could be prevented, but it would be good to understand better how much worse it is going to get. 

TED Talk: The disarming case to act right now on climate

Recently discovered

New study: the universe is younger and expanding faster
The universe is expanding faster than it used to, meaning it's about a billion years younger than we thought, according to a new study by Nobel Prize winner Adam Riess. His findings are sending a shudder through the world of physics, making astronomers rethink some of their most basic concepts. (Associated Press)

The search for the kryptonite that can stop CRISPR
Powerful gene-editing tools have the potential to heal -- or to harm. Now there's a race to develop the antidote to the next bioweapon. (MIT Technology Review)

The most ancient type of molecule in the universe is detected in space
The positively charged molecule known as helium hydride is believed to have played a starring role in the early universe, forming when a helium atom shared its electrons with a hydrogen nucleus, or proton. Not only is it thought to be the first molecular bond (and first chemical compound) to have appeared as the universe cooled after the Big Bang, but it also opened up the path to the formation of molecules of hydrogen. (The Guardian)

With a simple twist, a "magic" material is now the big thing in physics
The stunning emergence of a new type of superconductivity with the mere twist of a carbon sheet has left physicists giddy, and its discoverer nearly overwhelmed. (Quanta)

Scotland post-surgical deaths drop by a third, and checklists are to thank
A study indicated a 37 percent decrease in post-surgical deaths in Scotland since 2008, which it attributed to the implementation of a safety checklist. The 19-item list created by the World Health Organization is supposed to encourage teamwork and communication during operations. The death rate fell to 0.46 per 100 procedures between 2000 and 2014, analysis of 6.8 million operations showed. Dr. Atul Gawande, who introduced the checklist and co-authored the study, published in the British Journal of Surgery, said: "Scotland's health system is to be congratulated for a multi-year effort that has produced some of the largest population-wide reductions in surgical deaths ever documented." (BBC)

On this day in science

On this day, May 6 ... in 1889, the Eiffel Tower is opened to the public. And in 1937, the burning of the Hindenburg zeppelin killed 37 people and ended dreams of blimp-born travel.
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