Scientific News (December 2017)

Well and truly rooked

An AI program, has successfully taught itself the game of Chess, and within hours has triumphantly won against a world-leading professional chess program. The AlphaZero program, went up against specially designed software Stockfish 8, triumphantly dispatching its competitor with wins or final draws after 100 games according to Google’s, DeepMind Division.

AlphaZero successfully won 25 games, playing the white pieces on the board and having the first move, 3 games were played using the black pieces of the board. A further 72 games ended with ties. Each computer program was given a minute for thinking time each move.

Deepmind has continually proven successful, and has come up against some of the worlds most renowned players. The fruits of the research have yet to be reviewed by its peers, however, experts believe that the AI program’s achievements will only strengthen Google’s competitive position. Demis Hassabis, Chief Executive of Deepmind was previously involved with the production of computer games, including the successful game Themepark.

Based in London, the team are now working on further developments that include a system which is able to defeat humans when playing the strategy space game “Starcraft”. DeepMind have already successfully been able to defeat global players of the Chinese board game “Go”. It has also be confirmed that the system has been able to teach itself how to successfully play a variety of video games including Pong and Space Invaders.

Originally released in 2008, the volunteers and software researchers have worked hard to improve elements within the software. The hard work has paid off against Stockfish 8 by winning 2016’s Top Chess Engine Championship. Peter Heine Nielsen, a Chess Grandmaster has been hugely impressed with Deepmind’s victorious achievements by saying “I always wondered how it would be if a superior species landed on Earth and showed us how they played Chess, now I know!”

The success of AlphaGo Zero’s achievements do not stop at Chess, it has proved successful also with a Japanese board game called Shogi. Playing against another AI program called “Elmo”, AlphaZero gained a further victory again with a short self-training session, winning 90 games, tying 2 games and suffering 8 losses.

Research didn’t stop there. The team then pondered how AlphaZero would play an earlier version of itself. 8 hours of self-training of the game “Go”, saw 60 successful wins and 40 losses. The games were close according to Professor Woolridge, due to the limited rules that each program had to contend with.

AI expert, Professor Joanna Bryson from The Univeristy of Bath have warned people to be cautious regarding the new research, and believes that it is a clever publicity stunt by Google. By putting themselves in a strong position against its challengers, it is believed that it would attract the programmers as well as putting themselves in a greater position when negotiating deals with governments and other officials who show an interest in the AI sector.

Google will not comment on their work until the research has been published within a journal.

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Teenage kicks

An immature brain during your adolescent years could be the reason why many teenage children do not respond to monetary or other incentives. Research is showing that adults show more assertiveness with their efforts when something has a higher matter. However, some teenagers with their still developing brain find it more difficult to meet future goals according to a group of US psychologists.

Monetary incentives to help improve student’s grades have been met with mixed successes. The research, recently published in a journal called Nature Communications, has shown that some adolescents struggle to perform, even when there are treats or incentives.

Harvard University researchers used a group of young people from the age of 13 to 20, and measured their brain activity whilst playing a computer game using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). Some players were given incentives, such as winning or losing money for successful or unsuccessful game play.

Results showed that some of the older adolescents studied had been able to raise their performance whilst playing their game when the stakes had been raised, and few of the younger Guinea Pigs performed in a similar manner, demonstrating that the brain connectivity within adolescents is still growing and developing during our teenage years.

The results of this research proves that as we get older and live through our teens, our brains learn to adjust and become better in order to deal with incentives when offered, working the brain to aim for a higher goal.

Studies shown that different parts of the brain take longer to mature. It is when the Prefrontal Cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for thought planning, controlling personal emotions and empathy is formed that the brain is considered to have reached full maturity.

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Superconductive puzzle

A range of copper-based compounds that superconduct or transmit electricity without resistance at remarkably high temperatures, form an odd group of superconducting materials. These materials may be about to come into their own in mainstream applications. The standard theory of superconductivity, more commonly known as Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer theory was unable to the classify the odd group of compounds. In a report within the journal Physical Review Letters, researchers suggest that new evidence shows that the theory still does apply even with these quirky materials.

Superconductors temperatures should be subjected to  extreme sub-zero temperatures in order to enable them to work. The temperature should stay above Absolute Zero (-273.15 celsius), however, some superconductors that are copper-based will only work when temperatures are above the boiling point of liquid nitrogen ( a positively balmy -196 celscius).

The discovery of a superconductor that works at comparitively high temperatures, may be the future in terms of massive energy savings and well as being a significant spearhead in new technologies. Scientists are keen to obtain a further understanding of the physics behind these new high-temperature superconductors.

Researchers found that when the superconductors were placed in a magnetic field, ‘whirlpools’ of electrical current were observed – proof positive that these were indeed superconductive. The copper-based superconductors, also known as cuprates however, did not exhibit these whirlpools in line with the accepted and predicted theory, thus suggesting an alternative theory was required, and an explanation as to how the materials superconduct.

Physicist, Christoph Renner of the University of Geneva and fellow colleagues have researched whirlpools. “This was one of the remaining mysteries.”

Renner and his colleagues have investigated these whirlpools, and their investigations have found evidence that supports their theory about high temperature copper-based superconductors. They then studied compounds of yttrium, barium, copper and oxygen.

Whirlpools in superconductors can be investigated using a scanning tunnelling microscope. This is done by moving the tip of the microscope over the whirlpool. The recordings show the change in electrical current. Renner and his research team made the observations. In the copper compound, they used two elements for electrical testing. The first electrical current detected was from the superconducting electrons, while the second was from the non-superconducting electrons. The non-superconducting electrons obscured any evidence of the whirlpool, as they were spread across the entire surface of the material.

Reducing the amount of non-superconducting electrons allowed Renner and his fellow scientists to see the full extent of these whirlpools. Once they had done this, they were able to confirm their theory, as they were able to see the reactions in the whirlpool phenomena that they expected to be generated from the superconducting electrons. Mikael Fogelström of Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, did not take part in the research, however he commented, “That, I think, is quite astonishing; it’s quite a feat.” He feels that there are still plenty of questions to be answered around this subject. “It leaves many things still open, but it sort of gives a new picture.”

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Cancer treatment gains credibility in the mainstream

A report has been released, detailing the case of a 38 year old cancer patient. Her breast cancer had spread to her bones, and to cope with the diagnosis, she turned to alcohol and subsequently became reliant upon it. At this point, her doctors stopped all treatments for the cancer; instead they gave her a new drug, which had the aim of discouraging her from drinking. Unfortunately, she died 10 years later after falling from a window whilst being inebriated. On completion of the autopsy, pathologists found some unexpected results. The tumours in the woman’s bones had melted away, and there were only minimal cancer cells left in her bone marrow.

This report was released in back in 1971, and combined with a number of lab based studies, it has been suggested that the drug called Disulfiriam (also known as Antabuse) not only makes people sick after even the smallest amount of alcohol, but may also indirectly be used to fight cancer.

Researchers have found that it can block a molecule which is part of the process involved in getting rid of cellular waste. Michele Pagano of the New York University School of Medicine, a biologist who studies cancer has said, “This paper solves a puzzle that has persisted in cancer research for decades.” Mr Pagano was not however involved in this study.

Scientists started looking at the use of Disulfiram in the use of cancer treatment in 1970, with their research showing that cancer cells were killed, and tumour growth slowed in animals. In 1993, another small clinical trial was carried out on women with breast tumours, following the removal of the tumour and the use of the drug. The results showed an increase in survival rates. Since this initial trial, Disulfiram has not received much attention or use in the treatment of cancer, this is due in part to the fact that scientists could not agree on how it worked.

A new and much larger study into the drug began at the turn of the millenium, and was a coordinated effort between a team of scientists made up from Denmark, Czech Republic and the US. Their research was carried out through Denmark’s unique Cancer Registry. Between 2000 and 2013, more than 240,000 cases of cancer were diagnosed. This allowed the team to confirm the drugs ability to slow the rate of multiplication down, and confirmed the positive effects Disulfiriam had on the treatment of cancer. Of the 3000 people who had taken part in the trial, the death rate from cancer of those taking Antabuse dropped by 34% of the study group, namely the people who continued to take it. For those who had stopped taking it, the death rate was higher. The benefits of the drug were also investigated on prostate and colon cancer sufferers. The benefits of taking Antabuse were also confirmed as beneficial to life preservation.

As part of the research, mice were used to investigate the growth of breast cancer tumours. When Disulfiriam was used, the growth of the tumours slowed, especially when it was combined with a copper supplement – this was already known to increase the effects of it. It was then shown that when the mice broke down Disulfiriam, it produced a metabolite called Ditiocarb, which would combine with the copper. This then blocks the equipment that cells need in order to dispose of excess proteins. Jiri Bartek from the Danish Cancer Society Research Centre, a co-leader of the study said that “Everything is frozen”. The build-up of protein causes the cancer cells to die.

Disulfiriam targets very specific cells within the body of the animal. Whereas other drugs may be a lot more invasive and still not directly target the diseased area. Pagano said that the way that Disulfiriam targets the disease proteins is why it is so effective. The investigations carried out by Bartek’s also answered another burning question, which is why are normal cells not harmed by disulfiriam? The answer that the group found was that the copper metabolite is 10 times more profuse in tumour tissue in comparison to other groups of tissues.

Ever since the initial findings on Disulfiriam back in 1971 a number of biologists have looked into its uses within cancer treatments. Thomas Hedley of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm said that this is “…not the cure” for a large majority of cancer patients. He has however advised that the drug could help to extend the lives of cancer sufferers. There has been positive reaction to cancer when Disulfiriam has been combined with chemotherapy during a trial on a limited number of lung cancer patients. Bartek and his team are now investigating further the impact of Disulfiriam-copper combinations in treatments for breast and colon cancers, as well as the effects on Glioblastoma (a type of brain cancer).

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Sci-Hub on its last legs?

A court order was issued earlier this month to stop filesharing on the rogue academic paper site Sci-Hub (see Scientific News – September 2017). This has a number of associated domains from the main site just to confuse the issue, which have now been put on ice. sci-hub.io, sci-hub.ac and sci-hub.cc have had their domains placed on ‘ServerHold’, according to the records held by Whois. Having a domain placed on ServerHold means an ICANN code has been placed on the domain. This prevents the site from being active. This was done on November 17th for sci-hub.io and sci-hub.ac, and on 21st November for sci-hub.cc.

The aim of the Sci-Hub domain is to make academic papers more easily accessible for other researchers, which in short means that they can be accessed without the need to pay for them. Whilst doing this, Sci-Hub are plagiarising huge numbers of papers and written articles from the original authors. In response to this, several scientific journals have instigated legal action against Sci-Hub for breaking copyright rules and regulations.

In June, there was a massive win for Elsevier, who were awarded $15 million, against the operator of the Sci-Hub site Alexandra Elbakyan. The American Chemical Society were also awarded $4.8 million by the US judge in the Eastern District Court of Virginia. This was awarded on the basis of breach of copyright, and the fact that Sci-Hub had illegally distributed the work of the ACS. The judge in Virginia subsequently ordered the blocking of the Sci-Hub domains.

Verisign control the .cc domains and they have issued the following comments about the situation. “Verisign responds to lawful court orders subject to our technical capabilities. When the Company is presented with such lawful orders impacting domain names within our registries, we respond within our technical capabilities. Beyond that, we have no comment.”

There is only one of the Sci-Hub domains still active and that is the .bz domain, the registrar for this is todaynic.com. Sci-Hub posted comments on the vk social networking site, on here they posted the numbers of the servers that were listed as DNS but could still be used.

Elbakyan has said that she is currently working on trying to resolve the situation and has every intention of continuing to run the Sci-Hub.

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Scientific News (November 2017)

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