High protein diets are as bad for human health as smoking.

Health experts have defended the nutritional value of meat and dairy products after a University of Southern California study caused media frenzy by linking high level animal protein consumption and cancer.

In particular, the report stressed added chance of death to the over 50’s.

In a statement, the NHS said: “We need to eat protein, we do not need to smoke.”

The National Health Service yesterday assessed claims in the Daily Telegraph that an animal protein rich diet equates to smoking 20 cigarettes a day as a ‘triumph of PR spin’.

This summation appeared in a response to ‘disproportionate’ prominence given to the study by national newspapers.

“In general, reporting of the results of the study was reasonable,” the NHS statement said. “However, the prominence given to the story (which featured as a front page lead in The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian) in the UK media seems disproportionate.”

Furthermore, dietary experts have played down the value of the study.

Misgivings over sample size, duration of the dietary intake surveyed and the disregard of physical activity by the study have been voiced by farming industry spokespeople and health officials alike.

The study, which appeared in the peer reviewed journal Cell Metabolism used 6,400 Americans and monitored dietary intake for 24 hours.

Chief Executive of Dairy UK, Dr Judith Bryans said: “It is deeply regrettable that there is so much misleading information circulated on these matters which is not underpinned by consensus research.

“The US study was a single study and a very small sample size, and those who were in high protein groups were consuming twice the recommended intake of protein. In the UK, the National Diet and Nutrition Survey reports that people over the age of 50 only get 2.5 per cent of their daily energy intake from dairy protein – a combination of milk, cheese and yogurt.”

Along with meat industry groups, Dr Bryans championed the role of animal protein in a mixed diet, and she added: “Overconsumption of any nutrient is not recommended and the interests of consumers would be better served by a more balanced approach to research. We advocate that consumers enjoy a balanced diet.”

Dr Bryans spoke of the raft of studies that highlight dairy products as part of a healthy diet.

Pork and red meat levy boards BPEX and EBLEX Nutrition Manager Maureen Strong stressed the complicated nature of diabetes and cancer.

She said this means there will be no revisions to current dietary advice, despite the study’s conlusions.

“Scientists need to be cautious in interpreting the results from these types of studies and act responsibly when communicating them to the general public,” said Mrs Strong. “Whilst statistical associations may be identified this does not prove a causal link.”

Meanwhile, consumers have been advised of the dangers of smoking, alcohol, lack of physical activity to cancer risk.

Mrs Strong these key risk factors are already well established.

She concluded: “Risk cannot be attributed to one specific food or nutrient and to suggest otherwise is grossly misleading and unhelpful in the promotion of consistent evidence based health messages to the public.”


Space Station Instrument Will Be the Coldest Thing in the Universe


The International Space Station is set to become the coldest place in the known universe. Credit: NASA

When temperatures fall to record lows, some hardy folks like to boast that they went about their daily tasks unfazed by the wind chill warnings. Well, if sub-zero bragging rights are at stake, the International Space Station will soon have the entire universe beat.

In 2016, a new instrument due to be added to the ISS — NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory — will become the coldest location in the known universe. The instrument is capable of achieving a temperature of 100 Pico-kelvin, or one ten-billionth of a degree above absolute zero. For perspective, the average temperature of space is a balmy 2.7 Kelvin, or -454.81 degrees Fahrenheit.

At these extremely low temperatures, ordinary concepts of solid, liquid and gas are irrelevant. Matter can be in two places at once, objects behave simultaneously as particles and waves, and nothing is certain.


Cool Science

The temperature isn’t the only thing that’s cool about the Cold Atom Lab. Scientists will use the instrument to study the behavior of a strange form of matter known as Bose-Einstein condensates. Bose-Einstein condensates occur when atoms get so cold — near absolute zero — that they coalesce into a single wave of matter.

Diagram of the Cold Atom Lab. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cal-Tech

Diagram of the Cold Atom Lab. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cal-Tech

The Cold Atom Lab has one big advantage over Earth: microgravity. Earthbound cooling chambers need to use a lot of energy and powerful magnets to counteract the forces of Earth’s gravity in order to hold a molecule in place for observation. As a result, they can only observe molecular behavior for a second at a time and cannot achieve 100 pico-Kelvin temperatures. Without gravity, and with the aid of magnetic traps, scientists on the ISS can observe molecular behavior for up to 20 seconds at a clip, and drop the temperature closer to absolute zero.

Scientists on the ISS plan to mix two Bose-Einstein condensates together, and no one is really sure what will happen in a hyper-cold, microgravity environment.

If scientists can drop the temperature low enough in the Cold Atom Lab, they’ll be able to assemble atomic wave packets as wide as a human hair — large enough for the human eye to see.

Applications on Earth

A deeper understanding of Bose-Einstein condensates could lead to important technological innovation. Studying this unique state of matter has already yielded new laser and optical physics, such as an atom laser, which promise to improve electronic chip and circuit construction.

And maybe, just maybe, in its spare time the super-cooled chamber can turn its research efforts toward developing an even more futuristic “ice cream of the future.” Astronauts, we’re counting on you.

Oldest Human Footprints Outside of Africa Found

Researchers discovered the oldest human footprints outside of Africa in Britain.

View of footprint surface looking north. Credit: Simon Parfitt

Citizens of Britain can now trace their origins several large steps backward in time. Archaeologists recently discovered the oldest set of human footprints outside of Africa along the eastern coast of Britain.

Rough seas last summer in the village of Happisburgh, Norfolk, washed away portions of the shore revealing a set of about 50 footprints. Researchers estimate the prints are between 800,000 and 1 million years old, which is now the oldest evidence of early humans ever found in northern Europe.

Footprints’ History

Due to the various sizes of footprints, researchers believe a mixed group of at least five adults and juveniles were walking along mudflats of what was then the Thames River estuary. Based on the size of the prints, researchers believe the group was related to Homo antecessor, or “Pioneer Man,” which died off some 800,000 years ago. The group was likely scouting the area for food, and could have been related.

Researchers found 50 footprints from a group of five adults and juveniles.

Researchers found 50 footprints from a group of five adults and juveniles.

Prior to the Norfolk find, the oldest human remains found in Britain were a set of tools dating back 700,000 years. Older human evidence tends to be found in southern Europe where researchers, for example, have unearthed 780,000-year-old skull fragments in southern Spain.

The Norfolk find sheds new light on the tenacity and adaptability of northern Europe’s earliest human ancestors, Chris Stringer, an archaeologist with the project, told theAssociated Press:

“This makes us rethink our feelings about the capacity of these early people, that they were coping with conditions somewhat colder than the present day,” he said. “Maybe they had cultural adaptations to the cold we hadn’t even thought were possible 900,000 years ago. Did they wear clothing? Did they make shelters, windbreaks and so on? Could they have the use of fire that far back?”

A Rare Find

The discovery is significant to our understanding of human origins, but it’s also incredibly lucky. Finding preserved footsteps is difficult, given the punishing forces of erosion along seacoasts. Previously, the record for the oldest set of footprints in Britain was 7,500 years old, which pales in comparison to the Norfolk find. The Norfolk team called the Happisburgh prints a “one in a million” find.

Fortunately, archaeologists captured plenty of photographic evidence to study Britain’s oldest footprints in May 2013, because what the sea gives it also takes away. Most of the ancient footprints have already disappeared due to erosion. However, researchers are optimistic that the same forces could someday unveil new evidence, as well.

Yangtze River Dolphin’s Genes Indicate Humans Caused Its Extinction



river dolphin baiji

A free-ranging baiji swims in China’s Yangtze River in this undated photo. Credit: Kaiya Zhou

The verdict is in regarding the recent extinction of a Chinese river dolphin: humans, not a glitch in the animal’s genes, were responsible.

Researchers reconstructed the entire genome of a baiji (Lipotes vexillifer), or Yangtze River dolphin, using tissue remains from a specimen frozen since 1985. The baiji, poetically known as the “Goddess of the Yangtze,” is a symbol of the challenge of marine conservation in the face of expanding human activity.



As recently as the 1950s, there were an estimated 5,000 baiji living in China’s Yangtze River. The country’s rapid industrialization, however, resulted in habitat loss and water pollution. That coincided with a rapid decline in the dolphin’s numbers. The last confirmed baiji sighting was in 2004. Two years later, after a broad survey failed to find a single animal, the species was declared “functionally extinct.”

A research team has now sequenced the genome of a male baiji and then resequenced the genomes of three additional specimens to create a broader understanding of the species’ evolution. The findings appear today in Nature Communications.

Dolphin Genetics

Researchers found evidence for a genetic bottleneck that reduced diversity in the species some 10,000 years ago, coinciding with a rapid decrease in global and local temperatures. However they concluded there was no genetic reason for the animals to go extinct, and that human activity alone was to blame.

Although the researchers who sequenced the baiji’s genome focused on reconstructing the species’ past to understand its evolution, the results of their work could one day be used to resurrect “the Goddess of the Yangtze” through de-extinction.

Facebook Algorithm Predicts If Your Relationship Will Fail



couple on facebook in relationship

If you tell Facebook you’re in a relationship, but don’t say with whom, then you might think you’ve got some privacy. But think again: A newly developed algorithm can identify which “friend” you’re dating and predict whether or not that relationship will last.

The number-crunching was conducted by a computer scientist and a Facebook engineer, using a dataset of 1.3 million Facebook users who met three criteria. Each was 1) at least 20 years old, 2) listed their relationship status as married, engaged or dating and 3) had at least 50 friends. The researchers used the data to come up with a new metric they call dispersion—the extent to which two people’s mutual friends overlap.

Facebook as Fortune-Teller

In a relationship with high dispersion, a woman would be connected to all of her boyfriends’ closest friends, and he to hers, but those friends would not be friends with one another. In a relationship with low dispersion, by contrast, those mutual friends are more connected to each other.

People tend to have highest dispersion with their family members and with romantic partners, the researchers found. And by taking into account factors like age, gender and where users live, the algorithm could narrow this down to the most likely boyfriend/girlfriend with 60 percent accuracy. That may not seem like great odds, but keep in mind that with the minimum number of friends (50), the chances of a random correct guess would only be 2 percent.

One Failure Leads to Another

Even the algorithm’s incorrect guesses were surprisingly informative, as The New York Times describes,

Particularly intriguing is that when the algorithm fails, it looks as if the relationship is in trouble. A couple in a declared relationship and without a high dispersion on the site are 50 percent more likely to break up over the next two months than a couple with a high dispersion, the researchers found. (Their research tracked the users every two months for two years.)

The paper, published in ArXiv this week, argues that the most successful relationships are those with high dispersion, where romantic partners widen each other’s social worlds while maintaining their own circle of friends. This makes sense. What may be more surprising is if and how Facebook decides to put this metric to use. Keep that in mind next time you consider changing your relationship status on the FB.

Postcard to Saturn: A Big-Hearted Mosaic of Earthlings


Click to enlarge. Trust me, just do it… (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

On July 19, the Cassini spacecraft looked back toward Earth, 898 million miles away, and snapped a photo of us — one of many that went into a remarkable mosaic of the Saturn system assembled by mission scientists.

In that composite image, Earth was a pixel-sized pale blue dot.

On that same day people from more than 40 countries and 30 U.S. states snapped pictures of themselves as they waved back at Cassini and posted them to Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, etc. Now, using these images, the Cassini mission has assembled a brand new mosaic — the one above.

If you haven’t already, click on it to enlarge it….

Pretty cool, eh? But wait. Now you really have to go to this link and then click on the image there. Trust me… But please come back here when you’re done.

Even more cool, right? Positively spectacular, I would say.

Now, spread it around so other Earthlings can enjoy it.

Can You See Your Own Brain Waves?


An intriguing new paper in the Journal of Neuroscience introduces a new optical illusion – and, potentially, a new way to see ones own brain activity.

The article is called The Flickering Wheel Illusion: When α Rhythms Make a Static Wheel Flicker by Sokoliuk and VanRullen.


Here’s the illusion:

It’s a simple black and white “wheel” with 32 spokes.

To see the illusion, get the wheel in your peripheral vision. Look around the edge of your screen and maybe a bit beyond – you should find a ‘sweet spot’ at which the center of the wheel starts to ‘flicker’ on and off like a strobe light.

Remarkably, it even works as an afterimage. Find a ‘sweet spot’, stare at that spot for a minute, then look at a blank white wall. You should briefly see a (color-reversed) image of the wheel and it flickers like the real one (I can confirm it works for me).

By itself, this is just a cool illusion. There are lots of those around. What makes it neuroscientifically interesting is that – according to Sokoliuk and VanRullen – that flickering reflects brain alpha waves.

First some background. Alpha (α) waves are rhythmical electrical fields generated in the brain. They cycle with a frequency of about 10 Hz (ten times per second) and are strongest when you have your eyes closed, but are still present whenever you’re awake.

When Hans Berger invented the electroencephalograph (EEG) and hooked it up to the first subjects in 1924, these waves were the first thing he noticed – hence, “alpha”. They’re noticable because they’re both strong and consistent. They’re buzzing through your brain right now.

But this raises a mystery – why don’t we see them?

Alpha waves are generated by rhythmical changes in neuronal activity, mainly centered on the occipital cortex. Occipital activity is what makes us see things. So why don’t we see something roughly 10 times every second?

It’s hard to say what we ‘ought’ to see – perhaps flashing lights, or colors, or patterns – but it is rather interesting that we don’t see (or feel or hear) anything at alpha frequency.

Or do we? Sokoliuk and VanRullen argue that the flickering of the wheel is related in some intimate way to alpha. They offer two lines of evidence here.

Firstly, in a task in which people had to compare the illusionary flicker against a wheel that was actually flickering at different frequencies, the most popular frequency perceived as matching the illusion was 9.1 Hz – i.e. a typical alpha wave one.

But there was a lot of variability:

Secondly, the authors say that perceiving the illusion (not just seeing the physical wheel) causes increased alpha waves:

How could this happen? The authors speculate that there’s a:

Correspondence between the spatial organization of visual cortex (retinotopy, cortical magnification, lateral connections) and the temporal dynamics of neuronal information propagation (neuronal time constants, conduction delays)…

Once alpha activity reaches a critical threshold, the rapid alternation of favorable and less favorable phases for sensory processing produces a “pulsed-inhibition” that can become visible as a regular flicker in the center of the wheel.

This is an extremely cool set of experiments, but to my mind they haven’t yet shown a ‘smoking gun’ which proves that the flicker really is alpha, as opposed to being something that happens to provoke alpha, and be of roughly alpha frequency.

Perhaps a smoking gun would be to show a correlation between an individual’s own alpha frequency (these, we know, differ between people, but are very stable for each individual) and that person’s perceived flicker rate.