Nov 30, 2017

Axios Science

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1. The trauma of war across generations

Axios' Erin Ross writes: A study of children evacuated from Finland during World War II and their siblings who remained behind found the female descendants of evacuated women were four times more likely to be hospitalized for mental illness.

The research, published Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry, adds to a small but growing body of research that suggests the impacts of trauma may be passed down across generations.

Why it matters: "Our study's inter-generational findings demonstrate, yet again, that mental health is a 'life course' issue," study author Stephen Gilman tells Axios — and one that could affect multiple lives. This is particularly important because today's refugee crises don't just span years, they can last entire lifetimes, notes Gilman.

What they did: Past research has shown the 50,000 children who were evacuated from Finland during WWII were more likely to experience mental illness than those who were not. To control for pre-existing genetic tendencies towards mental illness, the researchers looked at the rates of hospitalization among the descendants of first cousins: 3,000 children who were descended from evacuees, and over 90,000 who were descended from siblings who stayed.

Read Erin's full story here.

2. Axios stories to spark your brain
3. The precursors to quantum computers

Two teams of physicists have built the largest controlled quantum simulators yet, which allows them to determine how matter can behave at the quantum level, something conventional supercomputers struggle to do.

Why it matters: Companies like IBM, Google and Microsoft plus university researchers are racing to build quantum computers. It's still an open playing field with each approach so far offering its own advantages and disadvantages. The designs used in these simulators could be one way to get there and, while restricted versions of a quantum computer, they are a step into the territory where quantum devices are thought to be able to outperform classical ones.

The big picture: The goal of quantum computing is to create a machine that can solve a range of problems a classical computer cannot. The reality is that currently just a handful of quantum bits, or qubits, can be controlled well enough to perform computations. One approach then is to first build quantum simulators that can use a larger number of well-controlled qubits to solve specific problems in order to figure out how best to then try to design a universal quantum computer.

Read more here.

4. What we're reading elsewhere
  • Death of Dolly: Fears that the cloned sheep's short life was written in her DNA are unfounded, according to a study of her bones, writes Sarah Zhang in The Atlantic. (Bonus from Zhang: Genome sequencing of "yeti" samples unravels the relationship between Tibetan and Himalayan brown bears.)
  • Sex addiction: Science says there is no such thing, per Paige Winfield Cunningham in WashPost.
  • Life, expanded: Antonio Regalado from MIT Technology Review looks at bacteria built from a genetic code that goes beyond DNA's As, Cs, Ts and Gs. The new alphabet "could be useful in concealing intellectual property or, perhaps, to disguise a bioweapon," he writes.
  • Investigation: BuzzFeed's Stephanie Lee reports on Cornell University's new investigation of food behavior scientist Brian Wansink, whose fourth paper this year was retracted last week.
5. Something wondrous

Erin writes: Little known fact: scallops have eyes, and they're made out of crystals.We only eat a small part of a scallop so we rarely see their shells, let alone their eyes. But they have up to a hundred laid out like a necklace of tiny, iridescent, blue-black pearls nestled in the tentacles that line their shell.Those eyes are relatively unique in the animal kingdom. In the same way a radio telescope uses a large, reflective dish to gather light and centers it on a sensor, scallop eyes have a mirror that focuses light on their retina. "It's a small, compact visual system. It's hard to form an image in water with such a small eye," says study author Benjamin Palmer of the Weizmann Institute, who reports today in the journal Science that the reflective film on scallops' eyes is formed from stacks of semi-rectangular crystals of guanine, one of the four chemicals that make up DNA. "It's amazing to look at the control these animals exert over the crystallization process," Palmer tells Axios.Normally, guanine doesn't like to form square crystals. Attempts to build such crystals through traditional chemical means are clumsy, but the scallops accomplish it easily. By studying them, and other similar creatures, scientists might learn better ways to create efficient, light-collecting molecules like these in the lab for materials science applications.

Yes, but: Although their eyes are elegant, scallops are not. If they see a predator they swim rapidly away like underwater Pac-Men.