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Scientists Created "Ghosts" in the Lab

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Have you ever experienced the creepy sensation that you’re not the only person in the room? You get a chill, maybe the hair on the back of your neck stands up, and for a second you think maybe you do believe in ghosts. 

This sensation is commonly reported in people with certain neurological or psychiatric disorders, or those exposed to extreme conditions. In 1970, mountaineer Reinhold Messner reported seeing a “phantom” climber descending the slopes of a particularly extreme summit alongside him. This also happens in people who have recently experienced another extreme condition: the loss of a spouse. In most cases, the sufferer reports the very real sensation of an unseen presence. This is the stuff of which ghost stories are made, but researchers say they know why this feeling occurs, and they’ve even recreated it in the lab. 

Olaf Blanke, a researcher from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland (EPFL), first had to find the scientific culprit for these strange sensations. He and his team analyzed brain scans of patients suffering from neurological disorders who experience the ghostly feeling. They found abnormalities in the areas controlling how the brain sees the body, or one’s own spatial self-awareness. These abnormalities “can sometimes create a second representation of one’s own body, which is no longer perceived as ‘me’ but as someone else, a ‘presence,’” says Giulio Rognini, who led the study. 

Armed with an understanding of where the feeling of being haunted comes from, the researchers set out to recreate it in “healthy” people. A group of subjects—oblivious as to the experiment’s purpose—were blindfolded, their fingers connected to a robotic device. When the test subjects moved the device, a robotic arm behind them mimicked the movement, poking them in the back. Sounds pretty straightforward, but when researchers introduced a slight delay between the subject’s movement and the resulting poke, the subjects were spooked. They felt they were being touched by another presence. Some even reported sensing more than one “ghost.” 

“Actually some subjects reacted very strongly and they reported not only that they felt that somebody else was touching them but that somebody else was also present,” Blanke says. For some people the sensation was so strong, they didn’t want to finish the experiment. 

“This confirms [the sensation] is caused by an altered perception of their own bodies in the brain,” Blanke says. So the next time you feel like you’re being watched, remember it might just be your brain playing tricks on your perception.

Aside from disappointing ghost hunters, this research could someday help treat disorders like schizophrenia or other neurological and psychiatric conditions. 

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Why Adding Water to Your Whiskey Makes It Taste Better
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Don’t ever let people tease you for watering down your whiskey. If they’re true aficionados, they’ll know that adding a splash of water or a few cubes of ice to your drink will actually enhance its natural flavors. But how can something as flavorless as water make a barrel-aged scotch or bourbon taste even better? Chemists think they’ve found the answer.

As The Verge reports, researchers from the Linnæus University Centre for Biomaterials Chemistry in Sweden analyzed the molecular composition of whiskey in the presence of water. We already know that the molecule guaiacol is largely responsible for whiskey’s smoky taste and aroma. Guaiacol bonds to alcohol molecules, which means that in straight whisky that guaiacol flavor will be fairly evenly distributed throughout the cask. Alcohol is repelled by water, and guaiacol partially so. That means when a splash of the water is added to the beverage the alcohol gets pushed to the surface, dragging the guaiacol along with it. Concentrated at the top of the glass, the whiskey’s distinctive taste and scent is in the perfect position to be noticed by the drinker.

According to the team’s experiments, which they laid out in the journal Scientific Reports [PDF], whiskey that’s been diluted down to 40 percent to 45 percent alcohol content will start to show more guaiacol sloshing near the surface. Most commercial whiskey is already diluted before it's bottled, so the drink you order in a bar should fall within this range to begin with. Adding additional water or ice will boost the flavor-enhancing effect even further.

As for just how much water to add, the paper doesn’t specify. Whiskey lovers will just have to conduct some experiments of their own to see which ratios suit their palate.

[h/t NPR]

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Gray, George Robert; Hullmandel & Walton; Hullmandel, Charles Joseph; Mitchell, D. W / Public Doman
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Animals
DNA Tests Show ‘Extinct’ Penguin Species Never Existed
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Gray, George Robert; Hullmandel & Walton; Hullmandel, Charles Joseph; Mitchell, D. W / Public Doman

Science is a self-correcting process, ever in flux. Accepted hypotheses are overturned in the face of new information. The world isn’t flat after all. Disease isn’t caused by demons or wickedness. And that Hunter Island penguin? Yeah, apparently that was just a figment of our imaginations. Researchers writing in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society say the remains of one supposed species are in fact a “jumbled mixture” of bones from three extant species.

The bones were unearthed in the 1980s during the excavation of a prehistoric trash heap on Tasmania’s Hunter Island. Two scientists named Tets and O’Connor argued that the remains were different enough from other penguins to constitute their own genus and species, one which must have died out during the Holocene epoch. The proud potential penguin parents dubbed the apparently extinct bird Tasidyptes hunterivan, and that was that.

Except that this is science, where no story is ever really over. Other biologists were not satisfied with the evidence Tets and O’Connor presented. There were only four bones, and they all bore some resemblance to species that exist today. Fortunately, in 2017, we’ve got ways of making fossils talk. A research team led by Tess Cole of the University of Otago used DNA barcoding to examine the genetic code of each of the four bones.

“It was a fun and unexpected story,” Cole said in a statement, “because we show that Tasmania’s ‘extinct' penguin is not actually an extinct or unique penguin at all.”

Snares penguins dive into the water.
Snares penguins (Eudyptes robustus).
Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The bones were “a jumbled mixture of three living penguin species, from two genera": the Fiordland crested penguin or Tawaki (Eudyptes pachyrhynchus) and the Snares crested penguin (Eudyptes robustus), both of New Zealand, and the Australian little fairy penguin (Eudyptula novaehollandiae).

“This study shows how useful ancient DNA testing can be,” Cole said. “Not only does it help us identify new but extinct species, but it can help us rule out previously postulated species which did not exist, as in this case.”

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