Tech

Might a recent extrasolar visitor be an alien spacecraft?

’OUMUAMUA, an object tumbling through space that was discovered on October 19th, has already made history. The speed at which it is moving relative to the sun means that it cannot be native to the solar system. Its official designation is thus 1I/2017 U1, with the “I” standing for “interstellar”—the first time this designation has ever been used. That is ...

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Military robots are getting smaller and more capable

ON NOVEMBER 12th a video called “Slaughterbots” was uploaded to YouTube. It is the brainchild of Stuart Russell, a professor of artificial intelligence at the University of California, Berkeley, and was paid for by the Future of Life Institute (FLI), a group of concerned scientists and technologists that includes Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal. It ...

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British wine glasses have got bigger over the years

IN 1674 George Ravenscroft, an English glass merchant, was granted a patent for the discovery made at his factory in London that adding lead oxide to the melt resulted in a clearer, more durable product. Thus was born lead crystal, and with it the fashion, in England, of drinking wine from glass vessels rather than, say, pewter ones. Wine glasses ...

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Ecologists debate whether climate change helps or hurts reindeer

MANY people fear that the rapid disappearance of Arctic sea ice spells doom for polar bears. The effect of global warming on another famous northern species, the reindeer, is, however, less cut and dried. Until recently, researchers thought reindeer benefit, rather than suffer, from climate change. The lichens, grasses and shrubs they eat grow better in warmer summers, and their ...

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Data from half a million people show that natural selection has not stopped

MODERN life is so cushy that some wonder if human evolution has stopped. Unlikely, reply biologists, for family sizes (and therefore numbers of descendants) still vary. A study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences uses a new statistical method to examine how genetic contributions to certain human traits correlate with how many children a person ...

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How soon will computers replace The Economist’s writers?

THE machines are coming. A much-cited study in 2013 concluded that half of American jobs were at risk in the coming decades. Writers are not immune. Another paper, which surveyed researchers into artificial intelligence (AI), concluded that computers would be writing school essays by the mid-2020s and churning out bestselling books by the 2040s. In the spirit of going fast ...

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Not all warning colouration signals toxicity

Just don’t bother BRIGHT colours in the natural world are often a warning. In the case of tiger snakes, blue-ringed octopuses, arrow-poison frogs, hornets and many other species, the warning is that the animal carries toxins that will sicken or kill. Thus it was that Alfred Russel Wallace, co-inventor of the theory of natural selection and an avid insect collector, ...

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Motorised nose wheels will let planes leave gates by themselves

THE frustrations of air travel are many and varied: enduring the scrum to board; rummaging for room in the overhead lockers; waiting patiently for “the last two remaining passengers” to be extracted from the shops. After all that, those on the aircraft often find that it has failed to push back from the gate in time to meet its take-off ...

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