This Week in Science 2017–10–22

by | October 22, 2017

Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Original publication in Humanist Voices.

“A long-standing goal of artificial intelligence is an algorithm that learns, tabula rasa, superhuman proficiency in challenging domains. Recently, AlphaGo became the first program to defeat a world champion in the game of Go. The tree search in AlphaGo evaluated positions and selected moves using deep neural networks. These neural networks were trained by supervised learning from human expert moves, and by reinforcement learning from self-play. Here we introduce an algorithm based solely on reinforcement learning, without human data, guidance or domain knowledge beyond game rules. AlphaGo becomes its own teacher: a neural network is trained to predict AlphaGo’s own move selections and also the winner of AlphaGo’s games. This neural network improves the strength of the tree search, resulting in higher quality move selection and stronger self-play in the next iteration. Starting tabula rasa, our new program AlphaGo Zero achieved superhuman performance, winning 100–0 against the previously published, champion-defeating AlphaGo.”


“Thousands of scientific papers contain a fundamental error, according to a new study published in the online journal PLOS One.

In more than 33,000 publications, scientists unknowingly used the wrong types of cells for their experiments, and the mistakes remain uncorrected, contaminating the scientific literature.

It matters, the researchers say, because if scientists are using the wrong cells, their observations and conclusions might be inaccurate.

“We’re not saying those 33,000 articles are wrong,” said Willem Halffman from Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

“But among those 33,000 there are definitely some with wrong conclusions.”

It’s a dirty secret in science, one that many researchers don’t like to talk about. The problem was first identified in the 1960s by early whistleblowers.”


“Basic research in the space sciences holds essentially limitless potential for tackling profound questions of our existence and opening the doors of exploration, innovation and future economic opportunity. Space science continues to generate extraordinary discoveries, whether groups are exploring Mars, investigating the fundamental physics of the universe or discovering new exoplanets around nearby stars.

This drive to explore and exploit space has led to the emergence of new companies and innovations in traditional aerospace companies seeking to reform the way spacecraft are designed, built, launched and operated. There has also been a surge in private resources dedicated to creating new commercial capabilities and initiating the next wave of space exploration — though not yet for discovery-driven scientific missions. [NASA Could Reach Mars Faster with Public-Private Partnerships, Companies Tell Congress]”


“THE PANDEMIC OF sexual harassment and abuse — you saw its prevalence in the hashtag #metoo on social media in the past weeks — isn’t confined to Harvey Weinstein’s casting couches. Decades of harassment by a big shot producer put famous faces on the problem, but whisper networks in every field have grappled with it forever. Last summer, the storywas women in Silicon Valley. Last week, more men in media.

Earthquakes of this magnitude are never any fun for people atop shifting tectonic plates. But the new world they create can be a better one. No one misses Gondwanaland.

Still, records of those lost continents remain in the fossil record. The downstream effects of sexual harassment have the potential to color everything from the apps you use to the news you read. From now on, when we watch movies that Weinstein touched we’ll think about the women actors, wondering what they had to go through to be there — or what happened to the ones who couldn’t bear it, who left, who didn’t get the jobs, who self-deported their talent from Hollywood. We’ll wonder who enabled it, who let it happen and then perhaps surfed to their own success on Weinstein’s waves of destruction. The same goes for movies directed by Woody Allen or Roman Polanski. Or others.

There’s a word for that kind of work: “problematic.” It’s stuff you love tainted by people you hate. It’s Steve Ditko’s weird Randian objectivism metastasizing into Spider-Man, and Dr. Seuss doing anti-Japanese propaganda work during World War II. It’s Roald Dahl, anti-semite. Can we love Kind of Blueand Sketches of Spain and also condemn Miles Davis for beating his wives? Is Ender’s Game less of a masterpiece for Orson Scott Card’s homophobia? Maybe. Looking hard at the flaws of the artist is an important way to engage with the art.”


“Amy Hinsley has spent years studying wildlife conservation and she’s become an expert in her field. But whenever she attended a scientific conference, she felt reluctant to put up her hand and ask a question.

“I would wonder whether my question was good enough or I would hesitate to ask a question,” said Dr. Hinsley, a 33-year-old research fellow at the University of Oxford who studies the black market for endangered plants and animals.

A few years ago, she raised her insecurities with fellow researcher Alison Johnston, a statistician in the department of zoology at Cambridge University, and found she’d had similar experiences.”


“n ordinary discourse, a theory is a guess or a surmise, as in “that’s only a theory.” In science, however, a theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that is supported by confirmed facts and/or observations. Verification of a theory’s predictions ensures its eventual acceptance by the community of scientists working in the particular discipline.

“Acceptance by the community” means that a consensus has been reached. In other words, at least a large majority, if not almost all, of the scientists who work in the discipline have agreed that the particular theory is the best way to explain or understand the relevant phenomena. In contrast to the bogus claim of some global warming deniers, reaching consensus is an integral feature of successful scientific theories. Once reached, the culmination of consensus is the publication of monographs and textbooks, and the introduction of university/college courses on the subject.

How consensus may be achieved is beautifully illustrated by the development of quantum theory.”


“With time and money running out, Brazilian scientists are turning up the pressure on the federal government to avoid a total collapse of the national science and technology funding system before the end of the year.

Researchers last week delivered a petition with more than 82,000 signatures to congressional leaders in Brasília, demanding the reversal of deep budget cuts that have left research institutions struggling to pay even basic water and electricity bills. The petition delivery was part of a series of meetings and protests held across Brazil.

As a result of Brazil’s mounting economic woes, federal funding for science and technology is now at its lowest level in modern history, dropping by more than half over the past 5 years. The science ministry kicked off this year with a slim $1.8 billion budget, but President Michel Temer’s administration later reduced that by 44%, imposing a spending cap of just over $1 billion.”


“The three young dinosaurs had snuggled together to sleep when disaster struck. A thick layer of ash or soil, probably from a volcanic eruption or sand storm, poured over them and the animals, each the size of a large dog, died within minutes.

For 70 million years they lay entombed, cradled beside each other within a slab of rock, until US scientists uncovered their remains earlier this year. Subsequent analysis of the fossilised bones — which come from the Gobi desert — reveal the first known example of roosting among dinosaurs.

The discovery, outlined at the recent Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology meeting in Calgary, has caused considerable excitement among scientists because communal roosting — sleeping in groups — is exhibited by many modern species, including crows and bats.”


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