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    The alphabet may have been invented 500 years earlier than we thought

    By Colin Barras

    Could these markings be the beginnings of modern alphabets?Glenn Schwartz
    The early history of the alphabet may require rewriting. Four clay artefacts found at an ancient site in Syria are incised with what is potentially the earliest alphabetic writing ever found. The discovery suggests that the alphabet emerged 500 years earlier than we thought, and undermines leading ideas about how it was invented.
    A popular idea is that the alphabet first appeared in Egypt about 3800 years ago, when 20 or so Egyptian hieroglyphs were repurposed as the first alphabet’s letters. The script was then used to write … More

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    Did you know? Killer whales are actually part of the dolphin family

    By Alexander McNamara
    and Matt Hambly

    Tom Brakefield/Alamy
    Orcas (orcinus orca) are aquatic mammals that can grow up to 8 metres in length, with a dorsal fin that stands up to 1.8 metres tall. But despite being commonly known as killer whales, these intelligent apex predators are actually the largest member of the dolphin family. 
    Highly intelligent, orcas can live in a variety of marine environments all over the world, adapting their diet and hunting habits to better suit their surroundings. It’s not just their appetite that changes, either, they communicate in distinct ‘dialects’, and animals from different populations don’t often interbreed. This makes them the only known non-human species whose culture shapes evolution.
    Animals suffer from motion sickness, too

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    Motion sickness, the feeling of nausea associated with certain movements, affects about one third of people. Although we don’t know the exact cause behind it, we do know that it has something to do with the vestibular system – the delicate structure deep inside the ear responsible for balance. This means that any creature with such a system is susceptible to motion sickness, and that includes cats and dogs.
    Saturated fat may not be as bad as we thought
    edwardolive/Getty Images/
    Mainly found in animal products such as meat, milk and eggs, saturated fat is one of two broad groups of fats in our food, the other being “unsaturated”. Although it is just as calorific as unsaturated fat, saturated fat is thought to be worse for our health because studies have linked higher consumption with a greater risk of heart disease.
    However, some recent research has questioned whether saturated fat is as harmful as claimed. It appears people who follow low-carbohydrate, high-fat diets for weight loss and therefore tend to eat more saturated fat, do not see their cholesterol levels soaring and nor do they have more heart attacks.
    Still, health advice from the NHS suggests we should eat less red meat, drink skimmed milk and use vegetable margarines instead of butter.

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    Why I'm no longer writing a newsletter for Substack

    Paid-for newsletters on Substack were a great innovation, but the way it has changed means I will no longer be writing for it, writes Annalee Newitz

    Humans

    | Comment

    14 April 2021

    Eternity in an Instant/Getty Images
    ONE of the breakout social media stories of the past year has been Substack, a start-up that specialises in helping writers get paid for their newsletters. But in recent months, the company has become infamous for secretly providing financial incentives to a small group of people to write some of the biggest ones on its platform.
    It was the kind of tale we are used to in the gig economy age. In 2017, Substack was a baby start-up on shaky ground. Nobody was sure newsletters could compete with Twitter or other platforms.
    But Substack’s … More

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    Why do so many people love android killer Murderbot?

    Fugitive Telemetry, the latest instalment of the Murderbot series, shows readers still can’t get enough of the killing-machine that prefers boxsets to interacting with humans. What’s its secret, asks Sally Adee

    Humans

    14 April 2021

    Murderbot must figure out how to relate to and live among peoplegremlin/Getty Images
    Fugitive Telemetry, The Murderbot Diaries, volume 6
    Martha Wells

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    Tordotcom
    WHO loves Murderbot? We all love Murderbot. Many of the books in Martha Wells’s series have won (or been shortlisted for) Nebula, Hugo, Locus and other awards. Writers and reviewers are open about their feelings for the eponymous protagonist. “I love Murderbot!” was sci-fi writer Ann Leckie’s take. “I might have a little bit of a thing for a robot,” wrote Jason Kehe, a culture critic at Wired. I have to sheepishly put my hand up as well.
    So why are we fawning over a grouchy, ungendered hybrid of human neural tissue and integrated AI combat weapons?
    Fugitive Telemetry, the latest instalment, only deepens the devotion. The 176-page novella is set between the five novellas of the All Systems Red series and the novel Network Effect.
    Here we find the titular android settling into the uncomfortable novelty of working with – not in the forced service of – humans.
    It has just defected from the Corporation Rim, where it was manufactured to kill people and protect others, according to the priorities of whoever purchased it. This is how it lived for years before secretly hacking the module that controlled it. (Murderbot isn’t its official name – it is how the security android, or SecUnit, wryly refers to itself in private.)
    Having decamped to a faraway station whose governing principles are decidedly more communal and humane, Murderbot is trying to figure out how to relate to and live among people when none of them can tell it what to do.
    “Murderbot is lonely because of the gap between how people see it and how it feels inside”
    But before it can do much introspection, someone turns up dead. Thus ensues a great noir-ish, Agatha Christie-ish murder mystery typical of the series, with far less shoot-’em-up than the series name suggests, plenty of deduction and the navigation of awkward relationships.
    Like all the Murderbot books, the plot is fast and the dialogue punchy, a snappy vehicle to carry the bigger narrative arc of Murderbot as it emerges from its defensive psychological cocoon.
    None of this explains why everyone is catching feelings for the SecUnit. However, like the deeper plot points that join it to the previous books, Fugitive Telemetry shows the android’s tentative, insecure integration into a tight-knit group of humans, doubting all the while that they really like it for who it is inside.
    If this is starting to sound familiar, that is because this is a basic coming-of-age story. Like all sensitive adolescents, Murderbot’s grumpy mien is a front to disguise its loneliness. It is lonely because of the gap between how people see it and how it feels inside.
    Another clue to our feelings might lie in the inspiration for the character. Wells has acknowledged that the series was inspired by a sci-fi love story called The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee. She was intrigued, she told tech website The Verge, that this human-robot romance focused on the bond that might develop between a young woman and a robot rather than the usual “robots take over” fare.
    If you like your robot stories to focus on relationships, I have another book for you: Marge Piercy’s underrated and underread He, She and It, which was published in 1991 and immediately disappeared under Snow Crash, Neuromancer and the rest of the cyberpunk genre.
    It, too, is a story of a human and a robot learning to look at who the other really is, not who each was built to be. That, I guess, is what a good love story is always about.

    Sally also recommends…
    Book
    Autonomous
    Annalee Newitz
    Tor/Forge Autonomous is another great love story, between a military agent and his robotic partner in hot pursuit of an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, by New Scientist columnist Annalee Newitz. Read their latest column on page 22 More

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    Don't Miss: Netflix teen superpower series Zero

    Francesco Berardinelli/Netflix
    Watch
    Zero is the story of shy teen Omar, a boy from Milan, Italy, who no one notices and who feels invisible. In this sci-fi series, as his inner turmoil morphs into real invisibility, Omar must adapt to his new status. On Netflix from 21 April.

    Read
    The New Breed of robots are best understood as animals, says Kate Darling, an expert in robot ethics. She forecasts that like real animals, robots will supplement, not replace, our own skills and abilities. Review to come next week.
    EMAF
    Visit
    European Media Art Festival is going online this year, from 21 April, with a programme of films, installations, performances and lectures exploring questions about ownership and forms of possession.

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    The Disordered Cosmos review: An insider take on physics and injustice

    A bold new book by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein combines her love of physics with a strong analysis of the inequalities rife in science

    Humans

    14 April 2021

    The Disordered Cosmos argues that science needs close scrutinySOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
    The Disordered Cosmos: A journey into dark matter, spacetime, & dreams deferred
    Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

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    Bold Type Books
    THIS isn’t just a popular science book. There is plenty of physics in it – from the big bang and relativity to particle physics, it is all there. But attention rapidly shifts to the author’s other preoccupation: social injustice, such as inequalities, prejudices and the kind of social grooming and timidity that also hinder us from calling out these vices.
    The author of The Disordered Cosmos is Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, assistant professor of physics and astronomy, a core faculty member in women’s and gender studies at the University of New Hampshire – and a New Scientist columnist. This gives her an excellent position from which she can both engage in rich detail with science’s most fascinating theories and grapple with human and inhuman social failings.
    She works patiently to disabuse readers of the delusion that their favourite pop-sci ideas – those lofty products of cerebral ingenuity and academic brilliance – are immune from the prejudices pervading society.
    Prescod-Weinstein’s heritage is a mix of Black American, Black Caribbean, Eastern European Jewish and Jewish American histories. She identifies as agender, and has a history of debilitating health conditions. The inequalities she covers in her book are issues she has dealt with at first hand.
    Some readers may question whether, say, there are indeed damaging racist undertones in the term “dark matter”, or in the way colour analogies are used in quantum chromodynamics, a theory sometimes referred to in textbooks as “colored physics”. But it is hard to dismiss the broader issues Prescod-Weinstein argues: inequalities around race, gender, class, nationality and disability.
    Diversity and inclusivity are today’s buzzwords, but she quotes Jin Haritaworn and C. Riley Snorton in their appraisal of trans politics theory, and questions whether it is enough for the scientific establishment to aim to be inclusive if what people are included in retains what she calls “a strong relationship with totalitarian, racialized structures”.
    “The author disabuses readers that favourite popsci ideas are immune from everyday prejudices”
    Despite the obvious conflict between her love of physics and her outrage at some of the social and personal injustices she sees in institutions propagating physics, the different focuses of the book aren’t necessarily competing for airtime. And Prescod-Weinstein often uses physics explanations as a springboard or analogy for the social issues she wants to discuss.
    Take the description of “non-binary” wave-particle duality in the double-slit experiment, which precedes her dissection of attitudes to people identifying as non-binary or otherwise. “It should be obvious that when you refuse to respect someone’s pronouns you are making a statement about what’s important and what is not,” she writes. “To tell students that it is too difficult is an egregious, brazen lie.”
    Although there are times when discussions of minority politics get quite dense, perhaps more so than the physics, on the whole, the book feels very intimate – I sometimes felt like I was reading her diary. This can be a treat, such as when she is musing over some charming quirk of particle physics: “I tend to think of bosons as pep squad particles: they are happy to share the same quantum energy state… Fermions? Not so much.”
    At other times, it gets more uncomfortable, as when she lays bare episodes of anguished introspection, self-doubt and emotional fatigue caused by traumatising experiences. It is all recounted to serve a point, but is incredibly personal and confiding.
    So no, her book isn’t a typical popular science read and she makes some comments that may prove unpopular. Beyond the already ardently persuaded, it will be interesting to see how much a broader readership may be convinced by the arguments she presents.

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    Exploring 'Aquaterra', the drowned continent walked by our ancestors

    A continent’s worth of land inhabited by ancient people has been submerged by rising seas over the past 20,000 years. Now we’re discovering its secrets

    Humans

    14 April 2021

    By Colin Barras

    Divers explore a submerged coastal cave in MexicoKaren Doody/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images
    BEAUTIFUL corals, graceful sea turtles and 4-metre-long tiger sharks. It is easy to see why tourists flock to the Dampier Archipelago in north-west Australia to dive among the thrilling – if occasionally intimidating – marine life. But these seas contain something that isn’t advertised by tour guides. When Chelsea Wiseman and her colleagues went diving here in 2019, they found stone tools on the seabed. The artefacts were last touched by human hands at least 7000 years ago, before the sea rose, the land drowned and the sharks moved in.
    “We were ecstatic, just blown away, to find the tools,” says Wiseman, an archaeologist at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. And with good reason. During the early millennia of human evolution, sea levels were mostly much lower than they are today, with huge areas of what is now submerged coastal shelf inhabited by our ancient relatives. What they were up to in these Stone Age coastal areas has long been a mystery because studying these underwater sites is so hard.
    With the archaeology of our coastal waters largely unexplored, we are missing a huge piece of human history. Now, however, that is changing. Underwater archaeology like that carried out by Wiseman and her team is already showing us how people lived and thrived along Stone Age coasts. It even suggests that, as the seas rose, people took action to hold them back, in a poignant foreshadowing of today. And as the coasts were a crucial route for Stone Age travellers, studying them is changing our understanding of how … More

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    Suffrage Science podcast salutes the achievements of female scientists

    Award-winner Sally Davies, a former chief medical officer for EnglandPaul Grover/Shutterstock
    Suffrage Science
    First Create the Media, with MRC London Institute of Medical Sciences

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    ON 8 March every year, millions of people celebrate International Women’s Day, a slot in the global calendar that is both a unifying recognition of the achievements of women and an urgent warning that gender inequality is still rife.
    Science, of course, is no exception to this. Women still make up just 28 per cent of the STEM workforce, while men dominate the highest-paying sectors, such as engineering. A decade ago, to mark the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day and to help address these crucial gaps, the Suffrage Science awards were born.
    The Suffrage Science podcast, hosted weekly by science communicator Kat Arney, explains the prizes’ origins by shining a spotlight on past winners, women who have achieved extraordinary things in their careers despite facing an all-too-familiar bias and a lack of opportunities.
    In the first episode, Arney talks to the founders of the project: Amanda Fisher, director of the MRC London Institute of Medical Sciences, and Vivienne Parry, a science writer and broadcaster. As Arney explains, the awards work by selecting the next winners based on nominations from previous ones, thereby helping to grow a global network of inspirational female role models. The awards, bespoke pieces of jewellery that pay homage to scientific research and the suffrage movement, are passed on to new winners every two years.
    Since 2011, 148 women across many scientific disciplines and countries have won awards. Their impact and reach surprised Parry – as she tells Arney, they have seen some early nominees become fine scientists, heading their own departments and creating a new cohort of great scientists.
    The episode also features women’s rights activist Helen Pankhurst, the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, who led the UK suffragette movement.
    In episode two, Arney talks to Sally Davies, the first female master of Trinity College, University of Cambridge, and former chief medical officer for England, who won a Suffrage Science award in 2011. Among Davies’s many achievements – and the one she is most proud of, she tells Arney – was putting the global threat of antimicrobial resistance firmly on the UK’s radar.
    Her successes were accompanied by the difficulties of simply being a woman, as she explains: “I’ve always felt throughout my career that I had to be better than the men to get the job, not as good as [them].”
    Listening to Fisher and other guests, I felt connected to them through our shared struggles as women and the recognition of how deeply gender discrimination is etched into every aspect of our experience. But underlying this solidarity, a tough message remains: we haven’t made the progress in improving prospects for women that we like to think we have, says Fisher. For example, there is much to be done in addressing issues faced by women from ethnic minority backgrounds.
    The pandemic has widened the divide and even reversed progress in some cases, with women doing by far the majority of homeschooling and childcare, often putting their own jobs at risk. For Helen Pankhurst, there needs to be a new narrative. “Fundamentally, it’s about saying this isn’t good enough – this isn’t good enough for me, for the next generations, for those that came before us. We can and we must do better.”

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