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New Scientist Weekly

Reversing blindness; power beamed from space; animal love languages

Season 1, Ep. 237

#237

Glaucoma, which can cause blindness by damaging the optic nerve, may be reversible. Researchers have managed to coax new optic nerve cells to grow in mice, partly restoring sight in some. How the treatment works through an eyeball injection and why, for humans, prevention and early detection are still the best options.

Black holes, just like planets and stars, spin. But they may be spinning a lot slower than we thought. When black holes gobble up matter around them, they start spinning faster and we’ve largely used this understanding to guess their speed. But new research also weighs the slowing effect of massive gas jets that black holes emit – revealing that many may have slowed dramatically since their births. How these new estimates of spin also offer insights into a black hole’s history. 

What if we could generate solar power in space, far more efficiently than on Earth – and then beam it down to our houses? An MIT experiment has managed to do one of the most crucial steps of that science fiction-seeming process, converting electricity from a satellite into microwaves that were then successfully received by a collector in California. How these microwaves could supply the power grid on Earth and help ween us off of fossil fuels – if they can overcome some major hurdles. 

Apes like to playfully tease each other, just like humans do. While their methods may be a bit different from ours – poking, hitting, pulling on hair and stealing – it looks like they’re often doing it for fun, rather than to harass or assert dominance. This new finding could explain why humans evolved to enjoy jokes.

Plus: A weird cooling quirk of Antarctica’s atmosphere; the microbes that make your tea taste delicious; and the flamboyant love languages of cuttlefish, scorpions and even dog-loving humans.

Hosts Christie Taylor and Chelsea Whyte discuss with guests Michael Le Page, Alex Wilkins and Chen Ly. To read more about these stories, visit newscientist.com.

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  • 246. Carbon storage targets ‘wildly unrealistic’; world’s biggest brain-inspired computer; do birds dream?

    33:01
    #246Our best climate models for helping limit global warming to 1.5oC may have wildly overestimated our chances. To reach this goal, models are relying heavily on geological carbon storage, a technology that removes carbon from the atmosphere and places it underground. But it may not be nearly as effective as models have suggested, making the task of decarbonising much more difficult. Do we need to rethink our approach?Intel has announced it has constructed the world’s biggest computer modelled on the human brain and nervous system. This neuromorphic computer, called Hala Point, may only be the size of a microwave oven, but its innovative technology could someday run artificial intelligence that’s smarter and more energy efficient.After a blast of sound from a keyboard shot through her whole body, experimental musician Lola De La Mata was hit with debilitating tinnitus. It was so profound it left her with vertigo, difficulty walking, speech problems and unable to make music. Years later, she is now putting a spotlight on the condition with a new album, Oceans on Azimuth. Hear her story and music from the album in a special feature. Plus, read Clare Wilson’s recent feature about the future of tinnitus and hearing loss.Do birds dream? They just might. Birds’ vocal cords move in their sleep, as if they’re singing, but don’t actually make a sound. Now researchers have managed to use these vocal movements to synthesise their songs and hear them aloud – with surprising results. Does this prove that birds dream?Plus: The biggest stellar mass black hole ever found is very close by; fossil hunters uncover the jawbone of an extinct reptile that may have been the biggest ever to swim the oceans; how skin wounds can cause gut problems.Hosts Timothy Revell and Christie Taylor discuss with guests Madeleine Cuff, Matt Sparkes and Karmela Padavic-Callaghan. To read more about these stories, visit newscientist.com.
  • 245. The multiverse just got bigger; saving the white rhino; musical mushrooms

    29:29
    #245The multiverse may be bigger than we thought. The idea that we exist in just one of a massive collection of alternate universes has really captured the public imagination in the last decade. But now Hugh Everett’s 60-year-old “many worlds interpretation”, based on quantum mechanics, has been upgraded.The northern white rhino is on the brink of extinction but we may be able to save it. Scientists plan to use frozen genes from 12 now dead rhinos to rebuild the entire subspecies. But how do you turn skin cells into actual rhinos and will it work?A single-celled alga has done something thought to have happened just three times in the entire history of life on Earth. Braarudosphaera bigelowii has formed a unique bond with a bacterium living inside it and has developed a new cellular structure. This organelle may be why this alga became so successful and widespread.We’ve got a new way of looking for aliens without having to go planet hopping. The method involves scouting the universe for planets that are close together and look similar to each other – hinting that an advanced civilisation may have colonised them.We’ve had the orbits of the planets turned into music, we’ve heard the sonification of data and even heard what a black hole sounds like. This time, it’s the turn of mushrooms. Musician and artist Brian D’Souza has used a process called biosonification to produce musical tones from Shiitake and Reishi mushrooms. Learn more about Brian D’Souza here. And get details of his live performance on April 19th here.Plus, we mark the passing this week of Peter Higgs, who first proposed the existence of the Higgs boson and later won the Nobel Prize for his efforts.Hosts Timothy Revell and Rowan Hooper discuss with guests Karmela Padavic-Callaghan, Michael Le Page and Corryn Wetzel. To read more about these stories, visit newscientist.com.
  • 244. Miniature livers made from lymph nodes in groundbreaking medical procedure

    30:58
    #244Researchers have successfully turned lymph nodes into miniature livers that help filter the blood of mice, pigs and other animals – and now, trials are beginning in humans. If successful, the groundbreaking medical procedure could prove life-saving for thousands of people waiting for liver transplants around the world. So far, no complications have been seen from the procedure, but it will be several months before we know if the treatment is working as hoped in the first of 12 trial participants with end-stage liver disease.Even on a remote island untouched by tourists, fishing, pollution and development, the climate crisis is still wreaking havoc on the coral of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Reporter James Woodford visited One Tree Island, a refuge ordinarily spared from the reef’s past catastrophic bleaching events, and discovered that this year’s marine heatwave has managed to reach even that protected spot. There, he spoke with coral experts and now shares both the science and the difficult experience of witnessing environmental devastation. Russia is suspected of launching a record-breaking GPS jamming attack, a form of electronic warfare that’s been on the rise in parts of Europe since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Lasting more than 63 hours, the newest attack impacted thousands of aircraft, which rely on GPS for navigation. Is the threat set to continue – and how can GPS-reliant airlines adjust?Snakes might be self-aware just like humans – another animal to add to the growing list. The mirror test, which investigates how animals respond to versions of their reflections, has long been used to detect self-recognition in everything from orangutans to roosters and horses. To test snakes, however, a smell-based method had to be invented, which garter snakes have passed. Does this change our understanding of reptiles?Plus: Detecting what may be the smallest galaxy in the known universe; how babies recognise spoken nursery rhymes heard in the womb; and why you should “yell at” your misbehaving robot.Hosts Christie Taylor and Timothy Revell discuss with guests Grace Wade, James Woodford, Jeremy Hsu and Chen Ly. To read more about these stories, visit newscientist.com.
  • 243. Immune system treatment makes old mice seem young again; new black hole image; unexploded bombs are becoming more dangerous

    26:10
    #243As we age our immune systems do too, making us less able to fight infections and more prone to chronic inflammation. But a team of scientists has been able to reverse these effects in mice, rejuvenating their immune systems by targeting their stem cells. But there’s a long road to trying the same thing in humans.Have you seen the incredible new black hole image? Just a couple of years since the Event Horizon Telescope’s first, fuzzy image of Sagittarius A* – the black hole at the centre of our galaxy – a new picture offers a closer look. The stunning image released this week features the spiralling lines of Sgr A*’s magnetic field, which is seeding new questions about how black holes behave.Millions of tonnes of unexploded ordnance litter the globe from conflicts both ongoing and long past. And as time passes these bombs are not getting any less dangerous – new research finds some are actually becoming more prone to exploding.Physicists have theorised that there is a particle called the graviton that carries the force of gravity – much like a photon carries light, or a gluon carries the strong nuclear force. But the graviton has so far remained elusive. Now, researchers think they’ve seen one, or at least a particle with the correct properties to be a graviton. How this experiment unfolded, and why even a possible sighting is exciting to theorists.Plus: How a bad night’s sleep makes you feel older; why therapy horses get stressed when they don’t have a choice; and a robot that can design, build and test paper planes.Hosts Christie Taylor and Sophie Bushwick discuss with guests Grace Wade, Alex Wilkins, Michael Le Page and Karmela Padavic-Callaghan. To read more about these stories, visit newscientist.com.
  • 242. How declining birth rates could shake up society; Humanoid robots; Top prize in mathematics

    27:17
    #242Human population growth is coming to an end. The global population is expected to peak between 2060 and 2080, then start falling. Many countries will have much lower birth rates than would be needed to support ageing populations. These demographic projections have major implications for the way our societies function, including immigration and transportation, and what kinds of policies and systems we need. Remember Rosie the Robot from The Jetsons? Humanoid robots capable of many different tasks may be one step closer after two big announcements from chip-making giant NVIDIA. The company revealed what it calls its most powerful AI chip yet, as well as a new computer for humanoid robots called Jetson Thor.A group of California orcas known as transient killer whales have been observed using a never-before seen way of hunting down prey in the deep waters of the open ocean. Until now, their distance from the coast had kept this group’s hunting methods mysterious. It turns out these orcas have ingenious and brutal methods for hunting whale calves and other mammals. Two big maths stories this week. The Abel prize has gone to mathematician Michel Talagrand for his groundbreaking work in understanding randomness. His work has been integral in everything from weather forecasts to large language models and quantum computers. Plus, a group of mathematicians plans to direct a computer to prove the famously complex final theorem of the long-dead Pierre de Fermat – which could advance the field of mathematics research immensely if successful. Plus: Archaeologists uncover a perfectly preserved ancient settlement in Britain; bad news for life in the universe as one in twelve stars may be gobbling up their orbiting planets; why teenagers’ sweat is particularly smelly.Hosts Christie Taylor and Timothy Revell discuss with guests Clare Wilson, Jeremy Hsu, Chen Ly and Alex Wilkins. To read more about these stories, visit newscientist.com.
  • 241. Gaza’s impending long-term health crisis

    26:16
    #241More than 2 million Palestinians in Gaza face widespread hunger, disease and injury as the war quickly becomes the worst humanitarian crisis in modern memory. Even once the war ends, the devastating physical and emotional health consequences will be felt for many years to come, especially by children. And aid groups like UNICEF and the World Health Organization have no long-term plans to meet the post-war health needs of the population.Gravity on Mars may occasionally be strong enough to stir up the oceans on Earth, even from 225 million kilometres away. A team led by researchers at the University of Sydney says Mars could be responsible for creating tiny wobbles in Earth’s orbit – just enough to slightly warm the oceans.What if every piece of music ever recorded was replaced by AI-generated Taylor Swift covers? Researchers dreamed up this implausible-sounding thought-experiment to demonstrate the vulnerability of data to AI corruption – but is this actually a risk?Phonon lasers, which use ultra-concentrated sound vibrations instead of light, may one day help us with things like medical imaging and deep-sea monitoring. A team has now created the most powerful phonon laser ever made. It’s brighter and narrower than its competition and can stay on far longer. But challenges remain in moving this technology out of the lab. Plus: Why Jupiter’s moon Europa may be less likely to host life than scientists hoped; how North America’s threatened sequoia trees are thriving thousands of miles from home; and why pythons may be the most sustainable meat for us to eat.Hosts Christie Taylor and Sophie Bushwick discuss with guests Grace Wade, Jacob Aron, Matthew Sparkes and Karmela Padavic-Callaghan. To read more about these stories, visit newscientist.com.
  • 240. Woolly mammoth breakthrough?; The Anthropocene rejected; Bumblebee culture

    27:39
    #240A major step has been made toward bringing woolly mammoths back from extinction – sort of. The company Colossal has the ambitious goal of bringing its first baby mammoth into the world by 2028. And its newest advance, announced this week, is in turning adult Asian elephant cells into stem cells. But it’s still a long way from here to the company’s vision of cold-adapted elephants fighting climate change in the Arctic – or even that 2028 baby mammoth. When did humans begin to affect the Earth’s systems enough to mark the beginning of a new geological era? The Anthropocene is often informally used to describe the current era of Earth’s geological timeline, one in which human activity has reshaped the planet – and some geologists have been lobbying to say it began officially in 1950, with the first detectable nuclear fallout. But in a leaked decision that shocked many, scientists have apparently voted not to make the Anthropocene textbook-official yet. But the story doesn’t end there.US Army researchers are trying to figure out if AI can help them make better decisions during conflict. Using commercial chatbots powered by models like OpenAI’s GPT-4, the US military has been letting AI call the shots in the midst of battle – in the video game Starcraft II. Is the technology good enough? Bumblebees may be capable of culture. It’s a finding that’s causing much debate in the scientific community. Researchers challenged bees to complete a tricky puzzle box, which the bees could not do without being shown how – but the bees who were trained to solve the puzzle then quickly taught their hivemates. Teaching others something they can’t do alone could be considered cumulative culture, which was thought to be unique to humans. Is it time to rethink our exceptionalism?Plus: How the creation of new strains of cheese mould could lead to brand new flavours of blue cheese and even new drugs; how microplastics found in our bodies may increase heart disease risk; why some white dwarfs look younger than they are – with consequences for astronomy.Hosts Christie Taylor and Timothy Revell discuss with guests Michael Le Page, Chen Ly, Jeremy Hsu and Sofia Quaglia. To read more about these stories, visit newscientist.com.
  • 239. Is personalised medicine overhyped?; Pythagoras was wrong about music; How your brain sees nothing

    26:17
    #239Two decades ago, following the Human Genome Project’s release of a first draft in 2001, genetic testing was set to revolutionise healthcare. “Personalised medicine” would give us better treatments for serious conditions, clear pictures of our risks and individualised healthcare recommendations. But despite all the genetic tests available, that healthcare revolution has not exactly come to fruition. Amid news that genetic testing poster child firm 23andMe has hit financial troubles, we ask whether personalised medicine was overhyped.Ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras once established strict mathematical rules for what constitutes pleasing music – those rules involve ratios and harmonies that were the basis of much of Western music theory. But comprehensive new research finds people’s preferences have little to do with Pythagoras’ rules.The invention of the numeral zero to represent nothing is a cornerstone of some of our greatest accomplishments as a species, like calculus, literature and philosophy. Now researchers have figured out how our brains comprehend the idea of nothing – and it may have started as registering the absence of predators, prey, or even weather conditions. The experiment finds where “nothing” lives in our brain and traces back the invention of the numeral zero to our animal roots.If you want to make friends with a dog but are wary of petting them, there is a way. All you need to do is follow them around and copy their movements. Research into this behavioural synchronisation could prove beneficial to helping nervous pups connect better with people.Plus: Making plankton poo heavier with clay – for the environment; YouTube’s recommendation algorithm seems to have stopped inadvertently radicalising people; the specific chemical compounds that make an orange taste orangey.Hosts Christie Taylor and Timothy Revell discuss with guests Clare Wilson, Jacob Aron, James Woodford and Sam Wong. To read more about these stories, visit newscientist.com.Music credit:“Bonang,” Wesleyan University Virtual Instrument Museum 2.0, accessed February 29th, 2024, https://wesomeka.wesleyan.edu/vim2/items/show/3