Antibiotic resistance, Higgs boson, likes on social networks and four-winged birds

A few samples from this week’s science news:

– This week’s issue of the scientific journal Nature focuses its editorial on the threat posed by the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and on the importance of that threat being given proper attention by policy-makers worldwide.

Over the last decades, misuse and overprescription of antibiotics have led to an increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria and related infections. Despite a growing number of voices warning against the dangerous consequences of such practices, antibiotics remain largely over-prescribed by doctors and are still widely used as a growth supplement in livestock. The general decline in research and development of new classes of antibiotics is making the situation even more alarming. While Nature’s editorial show that policy-makers are beginning to pay the rise of antibiotic resistance the attention it deserves, it also reminds us that tackling the crisis will not be an easy task. Besides getting researchers, health-care professionals, policy-makers as well as the pharmaceutical and agricultural industries to work together, it will require strong political wills, international cooperation and substantial funding. And, if I may add, an increase in the general public’s awareness. Most of us have never known a time when dying of a bacterial infection was not that rare. In fact, many people think of it as a thing of the past, gone forever. We should take care that it remains so.

– The Higgs boson is still behaving as the Higgs.

Eight months ago, researchers in particle physics working on data obtained from the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva announced that they had detected a “Higgs-like particle” (see my previous post on the Breakthrough of the Year 2012). The Higgs boson, whose existence was hypothesized in 1964, was considered the last missing piece of the standard model of particle physics (which describes the particles making up ordinary matter), so its experimental detection in July 2012 was much celebrated (well, at least by physicists). The amount of data that had then been analyzed by the researchers was enough to identify the new particle as a Higgs boson with a high degree of certainty. However, there remained lots of unanalyzed data to go through to further define the properties of this new particle and see if they matched the ones predicted for the Higgs boson in the standard model. New results reported during a recent meeting in Italy show that last summer’s “Higgs-like particle” continues to behave as expected: its properties (e.g. no spin, positive parity, decay in τ leptons) match the ones predicted by the standard model, further confirming that this “Higgs-like particle” is indeed very likely a Higgs boson.

– What your “Likes” on social networks may reveal about you.

Using the Facebook Likes of some 58,000 American volunteers, researchers from the University of Cambridge (UK) built a mathematical model that predicted personal psychodemographic features or “attributes” based on Likes. They also collected demographic data from the volunteers and asked them to take personality tests to evaluate traits such as intelligence, emotional stability or openness. As reported in the scientific journal PNAS on March 11 (open access article), the model turned out to be quite accurate at predicting a number of personal attributes: males and females were correctly identified in 93% of cases, African Americans and Caucasian Americans in 95% of cases, homosexual and heterosexual men in 88% of cases and Democrats and Republicans in 85% of cases. The model was almost as accurate as a personality test in assessing an individual’s degree of openness to experience and could also predict traits such as extraversion or intelligence. In the last part of the article, the authors give a few examples of association between attributes and Likes: some of the best predictors of “high intelligence” are thus “The Colbert Report”, “Science”, and “Curly Fries”, while for “low intelligence” they include “Sephora”, “I Love Being a Mom” and “Harley Davidson”. To be fair, the authors do note that the link between a Like and its predicted attribute is not always clear – that for example there is no obvious connection between Curly Fries and high intelligence…

– A study published in the scientific journal Science this week suggests that early birds possessed four wings, with feathers found on both fore- and hindlimbs.

Most paleontologists today agree that birds evolved from a group of feathered dinosaurs some 150 to 100 million years ago. It is also known that a non-avian dinosaur called Microraptor, had feathers on both arms and legs and could probably fly (although it’s not quite clear how it did so). A Chinese research team has now analyzed new fossil specimens of early birds and found evidence of the presence of feathers not only on the arms, but also on the legs. However it remains unclear whether these leg wings were used to fly and if they were, how.

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