Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Strange but true: Is meditation as good as a holiday?

What's better for you: meditation or a holiday? Photo / Thinkstock
What's better for you: meditation or a holiday? Photo / Thinkstock

Could meditating in your lounge be just as good for you as that break in Fiji?

A group of US researchers, including a team from Harvard Medical School, designed a test to compare the effect of meditation and vacation on gene expression patterns in nearly 100 study participants they took on holiday.

They found that a normal resort holiday provided a strong and immediate impact on molecular networks associated with stress and immune pathways, along with short-term improvements in well-being, as measured by feelings of vitality and distress.

A meditation retreat, for those who already used meditation regularly, was associated with molecular networks characterised by antiviral activity.

"Based on our results, the benefit we experience from meditation isn't strictly psychological; there is a clear and quantifiable change in how our bodies function," said Harvard's Dr Rudolph Tanzi.

"Meditation is one of the ways to engage in restorative activities that may provide relief for our immune systems, easing the day-to-day stress of a body constantly trying to protect itself.

"The prediction is that this would then lead to healthier ageing."

Another step towards the "climate-friendly cow"

In the future, breeding of climate-friendly cows will be sped up using genetic information, scientists say.

Half of New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture - and much of that comes from ruminant animals like cows and sheep.

In their rumen, in the front part of their stomachs, a soup of microbes breaks down the plant material they've ingested before converting it into fatty acids that are absorbed for energy.

The process creates hydrogen gas.

Microbes convert that into methane, which is mostly belched - rather than farted - into the atmosphere.

A recent study identified areas in the cow's genotype, a variation of which was linked to the amount of methane produced per kilogram of milk produced.

"We will investigate whether these genes affect the variation in the microbial make-up of cows' rumen or other characteristics of cows such as the size of their rumen, production level or capability to use fodder," said study author Professor Johanna Vilkki, of the Natural Resources Institute Finland.

Information available in the near future will indicate whether or not cows with low emissions and a good production capability can be selected for breeding on the basis of genetic data, she said.

Ninth planet of the solar system opened. Photo / 123RF
Ninth planet of the solar system opened. Photo / 123RF

Could Planet Nine doom the solar system?

The solar system could be thrown into disaster when the sun dies if the mysterious "Planet Nine" exists.

That's according to new research from the University of Warwick in the UK, which has discovered the presence of Planet Nine - the hypothetical planet which may exist in the outer solar system - could cause the elimination of at least one of the giant planets after the sun dies, hurling them out into interstellar space through a sort of pinball effect.

When the sun starts to die in about seven billion years, it will blow away half of its own mass and inflate itself - swallowing the Earth - before fading into an ember known as a white dwarf.

This mass ejection will push Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune out to what was assumed a safe distance.

However, study author Dr Dimitri Veras reported the existence of Planet Nine could rewrite this happy ending.

He found that Planet Nine might not be pushed out in the same way, and in fact might instead be thrust inward into a death dance with the solar system's four known giant planets - most notably Uranus and Neptune.

The most likely result is ejection from the solar system - forever.

A male robot is thinking about something. Photo / 123RF
A male robot is thinking about something. Photo / 123RF

Robots just got creepier

We know that babies can learn by observing what's going on around them - and now it seems robots can, too.

Researchers at the University of Sheffield in the UK say it's now possible for machines to learn how natural or artificial systems work by simply observing them, without being told what to look for.

This could mean advances in the world of technology with machines able to predict, among other things, human behaviour.

The study was inspired by a test developed by pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing to reveal how a given system worked.

"In our case, we put a swarm of robots under surveillance and wanted to find out which rules caused their movements," said study author Dr Roderich Gross.

"To do so, we put a second swarm - made of learning robots - under surveillance too."
The movements of all the robots were recorded, and the motion data shown to interrogators.

Unlike in the original Turing test, however, the interrogators used were not human but rather computer programmes that learn by themselves.

Their task was to distinguish between robots from either swarm, and were rewarded for correctly categorising the motion data from the original swarm as genuine, and those from the other swarm as counterfeit.

"The learning robots that succeed in fooling an interrogator - making it believe their motion data were genuine - receive a reward."

Gross believed Turing Learning could lead to advances in science and technology.

"Scientists could use it to discover the rules governing natural or artificial systems, especially where behaviour cannot be easily characterised using similarity metrics," he said.

"Computer games, for example, could gain in realism as virtual players could observe and assume characteristic traits of their human counterparts.

"They would not simply copy the observed behaviour, but rather reveal what makes human players distinctive from the rest."

Duck-billed dinosaur was a dentist's dream

Imagine how much dental care you'd need if you had 300 or more teeth packed together on each side of your mouth.

Duck-billed dinosaurs, or hadrosaurs, lived in the Cretaceous period between 90 million and 65 million years ago, sported this unique dental system.

But it had never been fully understood until it was examined at the microscopic level through recent research by Canadian scientists.

Rather than shedding teeth and replacing them with new ones like other reptiles, hadrosaurs' mouths contain several parallel stacks of six or more teeth apiece, forming a "highly dynamic network" of teeth that was used to grind and shear tough plant material.

Although hadrosaur teeth appear to be fused in place, the researchers showed the newest teeth were constantly pushed towards the chewing surface by a complex set of ligaments.

Study co-author Professor Robert Reisz, of the University of Toronto, said hadrosaurs had "probably the most complex dental system ever made".

"It's very elegant - not a single brick of teeth working as a solid unit," he said.
"It's more like chain mail, providing flexibility as well as strength."

- NZ Herald

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