The Moses Illusion Shows How Bad You Are At Fact-Checking? (Psychology)

Can you come up with the answers to these questions?

1. How many of each animal did Moses take on the Ark?
2. What’s the nationality of Thomas Edison, inventor of the telephone?
3. What were the first words uttered by Louis Armstrong when he set foot on the moon?

If you answered “two,” “American,” and “One small step for man …” congratulations: You got every question wrong. As we’re sure you’re aware, it was Noah, not Moses, who built the Ark; Alexander Graham Bell who invented the telephone; and Neil Armstrong, not Louis Armstrong, who went to the moon. You knew that, of course. So why did the questions fool you? It’s all in how your brain processes information.

This bit of trickery is called the Moses Illusion. It shows how bad you are at picking up on errors in your everyday life. Researchers have fooled countless volunteers in countless labs while trying to figure out what circumstances make this happen and what they can do to help people spot more falsehoods. In the original 1981 study demonstrating this illusion, more than 80 percent of people missed the fact that Moses wasn’t involved in the Ark even though they had previously proven that they knew that. That’s despite the fact that identifying erroneous questions like this was literally one of their tasks; they either had to answer the question, say “don’t know,” or say “wrong” if there was something wrong with the question.

The Moses question tripped people up the most — only around 40 percent of people were fooled by questions like “What was the nationality of Thomas Edison, inventor of the telephone?” A study published in 2000 in the journal Psychological Science explains why. UCLA researchers figured out that there are two ways people are easily fooled by this illusion: if the swapped names are “semantically similar” (on the same topic, the way Moses and Noah are both from the Bible) or “phonologically similar” (sound the same, the way Moses and Noah are both two syllables with an emphasis on the first syllable, which has an “o” sound). With that discovery, the researchers came up with questions that had both qualities in order to test what they called the “Mega-Moses illusion.” Sure enough, a question that swapped out the name “Andrew Johnson” for “Lyndon Johnson” — also a former U.S. vice president with a two-syllable first name and the same last name — fooled more people than questions with just one of those elements at play.

Sure, it’s easy to fool people. But is this actually important beyond letting a few scientists have a laugh? Unfortunately, yes. Vanderbilt psychology professor Lisa Fazio, who wrote about this phenomenon in The Conversation, has shown in her own studies that illusions like this can lead people to pick up false information about the world. When she and her team had people read fictional stories that referred to things like “paddling around the largest ocean, the Atlantic,” people were more likely to say the Atlantic was the world’s largest ocean, even though they had correctly answered “Pacific” on a test they took two weeks before reading the stories.

Even worse, many attempts to help people avoid this tendency have backfired. Researchers have tried giving people more time to read the questions and printing the important information in red ink, and it just made people more likely to answer incorrectly.

Luckily, the thing that’s been proven to work is a practice we can all do, especially as we wade through social-media feeds full of sensational headlines and “fake news.” When people are asked to play fact-checker, correcting errors as they read, they’re much less likely to pick up false information than people who just read what they’re given. The takeaway is clear: assume anything you hear or read could be wrong, and you’re more likely to notice when it is. If you do that, you’ll be just like Einstein, the inventor of electricity.

New Dopamine Sensors Could Help Unlock The Mysteries Of Brain Chemistry (Neuroscience)

In 2018, Lin Tian and her team at UC Davis Health developed dLight1, a single fluorescent protein-based biosensor. This family of highly specific sensors detects dopamine, a hormone released by neurons to send signals to other nerve cells. When combined with advanced microscopy, dLight1 provides high resolution, real-time imaging of the spatial and temporal release of dopamine in live animals.

RdLight1 sensors depicting dopamine in neurons. Credit: UC Regents

Recently, Tian and her team succeeded in expanding the color spectrum of the dLight1 sensor. In an article published Sept. 7 in Nature Methods, they introduced two new spectral variants of dLight1: the yellow YdLight1 and the red RdLight1.

The new sensors will help researchers to detect and monitor different information processing activities in the brain. With the different colors, they will be able to see multiple neurochemical release and neural activities at the same time.

The RdLight1 permits the simultaneous assessment of dopamine, pre- or post-synaptic neuronal activity and the glutamate release in specific types of cells and neuronal projections in animals. Its increased light penetration and imaging depth provide enhanced dopamine signal quality. This allows researchers to optically dissect dopamine’s release and model its effects on neural circuits.

As a neurotransmitter, dopamine plays an important role in movement, attention, learning and the brain’s pleasure and reward system.

These exciting new tools opened a new door to developing color-shifted neurochemical indicators. Together with other tools, they have great potential to unlock the mysteries of brain chemistry in health and disease. The knowledge they gained from these sensors will facilitate the development of safer next-generation therapies to neuropsychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and addiction.

References: Patriarchi, T., Mohebi, A., Sun, J. et al. An expanded palette of dopamine sensors for multiplex imaging in vivo. Nat Methods (2020). link:

We Now Know, How Dantu Blood Group Protects Against Malaria (Medicine)

The secret of how the Dantu genetic blood variant helps to protect against malaria has been revealed for the first time by scientists at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, the University of Cambridge and the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme, Kenya. The team found that red blood cells in people with the rare Dantu blood variant have a higher surface tension that prevents them from being invaded by the world’s deadliest malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum.

The findings, published today in Nature, could also be significant in the wider battle against malaria. Because the surface tension of human red blood cells increases as they age, it may be possible to design drugs that imitate this natural process to prevent malaria infection or reduce its severity.

Malaria remains a major global health problem causing an estimated 435,000 deaths per year, with 61 percent occurring in children under five years of age. P. falciparum is responsible for the deadliest form of malaria and is particularly prevalent in Africa, accounting for 99.7 percent of African malaria cases and 93 percent of global malaria deaths in 2017.

In 2017, researchers discovered that the rare Dantu blood variant, which is found regularly only in parts of East Africa, provides some degree of protection against severe malaria. The intention behind this new study was to explain why.

Red blood cell samples were collected from 42 healthy children in Kilifi, Kenya, who had either one, two or zero copies of the Dantu gene. The researchers then observed the ability of parasites to invade the cells in the laboratory, using multiple tools including time-lapse video microscopy to identify the specific step at which invasion was impaired.

Analysis of the characteristics of the red blood cell samples indicated that the Dantu variant created cells with a higher surface tension—like a drum with a tighter skin. At a certain tension, malaria parasites were no longer able to enter the cell, halting their lifecycle and preventing their ability to multiply in the blood.

The Dantu blood group has a novel ‘chimeric’ protein that is expressed on the surface of red blood cells, and alters the balance of other surface proteins. In Kilifi, a town on the Kenyan coast, 10 percent of the population have one copy of the Dantu gene, which confers up to 40 percent protection against malaria. One percent of the population have two copies, conferring up to 70 percent protection. By contrast, the best malaria vaccines currently provide 35 percent protection.

Because humans have evolved alongside malaria for tens of thousands of years, some people in the worst affected areas have developed genetic resistance to the disease. The most famous example is sickle cell trait, which confers 80 percent resistance to malaria, but can cause serious illness in those with two copies of the gene. There is currently no evidence that the Dantu variant is accompanied by other health complications.

Researchers suggest one of the most significant implications of the study stems from the fact that the surface tension of human red blood cells varies naturally, generally increasing during their approximately 90-day lifespan. This means a proportion of all of our red blood cells are naturally resistant to infection by malaria parasites, and it may be possible to develop drugs that take advantage of this process.

The explanation for how Dantu protects against malaria is potentially very important. The red cell membrane only needs to be slightly more tense than usual to block malaria parasites from entering. Developing a drug that emulates this increased tension could be a simple but effective way to prevent or treat malaria. This would depend on the increase in cell tension not having unintended consequences, of course. But evidence from the natural protection already seen in Dantu people, who don’t seem to suffer negative side effects, is promising.

References: Kariuki, S.N., Marin-Menendez, A., Introini, V. et al. Red blood cell tension protects against severe malaria in the Dantu blood group. Nature (2020). link:

Five New Giant Radio Galaxies Discovered (Astronomy)

With the help of citizen scientists, astronomers have detected five new giant radio galaxies (GRGs). The new GRGs have sizes ranging from 2.3 to 2.6 million light years, and have been identified at redshift between 0.28 and 0.43.

One of new GRGs described in the study. The figure shows radio-near infrared overlay of this source, using SDSS i-band image rather than WISE, given its better angular resolution. Credit: Tang et al., 2020

GRGs are radio galaxies with an overall projected linear length exceeding at least 2.28 million light years. They are rare objects grown in low-density environments. GRGs are important for astronomers to study the formation and the evolution of radio sources.

Now, a team of astronomers led by Hongming Tang of the University of Manchester, UK, reports the finding of five previously unknown GRGs. The detection is based on the Data Release 1 (DR1) of the Radio Galaxy Zoo (RGZ) citizen science project. RGZ DR1 is a manually cross-matched radio galaxy catalog using the efforts of more than 12,000 citizen scientist volunteers.

In their paper, they presented the identification of five previously unknown giant radio galaxies (GRGs) using Data Release 1 of the Radio Galaxy Zoo citizen science project and a selection method appropriate to the training and validation of deep-learning algorithms for new radio surveys.

The newly identified GRGs are designated J0941+3126, J1331+2557, J1402+2442, J1421+1016 and J1646+3627. They all have comparatively high radio luminosities and are likely to be either elliptical or intermediate disk galaxies.

J1402+2442 (also known as B2 1400+24) is the largest out of the newly found GRGs. It has a redshift of approximately 0.337 and its host is a close pair of galaxies, designated SDSS J140224.25+244224.3 and SDSS J140224.31+244226.8. At a redshift of about 0.28, J0941+3126 (or B2 0938+31A) is the smallest GRG from the five reported in the study. This source is hosted by SDSS J094103.62+312618.7.

In the case of J1646+3627, a GRG with a size of at least 2.46 million light years, at a redshift of 0.43, the researchers found that this object is also the brightest cluster galaxy (BCG) in the galaxy cluster GMBCG J251.67741+36.45295. This finding motivated Tang’s team to conduct further study of BCGs. They report that 13 previously known GRGs could be classified as BCG candidates. If confirmed, this would increase the number of known BCG GRGs by more than 60 percent.

The remaining two giant radio galaxies described in the study, namely J1331+2357 and J1421+1016, have sizes of about 2.62 and 2.49 million light years, respectively. J1331+2357 has a redshift of 0.33 and its host galaxy is identified as SDSS J133118.01+235700.4, while J1421+1016, at a redshift of 0.37, has a host galaxy known as SDSS J142142.68+101626.2.

References: Tang et al., Radio Galaxy Zoo: New Giant Radio Galaxies in the RGZ DR1 catalog, arXiv:2009.03583 [astro-ph.GA]. link:

Did Our Ancestors Boil Their Food In Hot Springs? (Archeology)

A team led by researchers at MIT and the University of Alcalá in Spain has discovered evidence that hot springs may have existed in Olduvai Gorge around that time, near early human archaeological sites. The proximity of these hydrothermal features raises the possibility that early humans could have used hot springs as a cooking resource, for instance to boil fresh kills, long before humans are thought to have used fire as a controlled source for cooking.

The proximity of hot springs to early settlements have led researchers to wonder if early humans used hot springs as a cooking resource long before fire. Credit: Tom Björklund

In 2016, one of the author, named sistiaga joined an archaeological expedition to Olduvai Gorge, where researchers with the Olduvai Paleoanthropology and Paleoecology Project were collecting sediments from a 3-kilometer-long layer of exposed rock that was deposited around 1.7 million years ago. This geologic layer was striking because its sandy composition was markedly different from the dark clay layer just below, which was deposited 1.8 million years ago.

Ainara Sistiaga taking samples at Olduvai Gorge, a rift valley setting in northern Tanzania where anthropologists have discovered fossils of hominids that existed 1.8 million years ago. Credit: Ainara Sistiaga

It’s thought that around 1.7 million years ago, East Africa underwent a gradual aridification, moving from a wetter, tree-populated climate to dryer, grassier terrain. Sistiaga brought back sandy rocks collected from the Olduvai Gorge layer and began to analyze them in Summons lab for signs of certain lipids that can contain residue of leaf waxes, offering clues to the kind of vegetation present at the time.

Within the sediments she brought back, Sistiaga came across lipids that looked completely different from the plant-derived lipids she knew. She took the data to Summons, who realized that they were a close match with lipids produced not by plants, but by specific groups of bacteria that he and his colleagues had reported on, in a completely different context, nearly 20 years ago.

The lipids that Sistiaga extracted from sediments deposited 1.7 million years ago in Tanzania were the same lipids that are produced by a modern bacteria that Summons and his colleagues previously studied in the United States, in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park.

One specific bacterium, Thermocrinis ruber, is a hyperthermophilic organism that will only thrive in very hot waters (around 80°C), such as those found in the outflow channels of boiling hot springs.

That is, it appears that heat-loving bacteria similar to those Summons had worked on more than 20 years ago in Yellowstone may also have lived in Olduvai Gorge 1.7 million years ago. By extension, the team proposes, high-temperature features such as hot springs and hydrothermal waters could also have been present.

The region where the team collected the sediments is adjacent to sites of early human habitation featuring stone tools, along with animal bones. It is possible, then, that nearby hot springs may have enabled hominins to cook food such as meat and certain tough tubers and roots.

Exactly how early humans may have cooked with hot springs is still an open question. They could have butchered animals and dipped the meat in hot springs to make them more palatable. In a similar way, they could have boiled roots and tubers, much like cooking raw potatoes, to make them more easily digestible. Animals could have also met their demise while falling into the hydrothermal waters, where early humans could have fished them out as a precooked meal.

While there is currently no sure-fire way to establish whether early humans indeed used hot springs to cook, the team plans to look for similar lipids, and signs of hydrothermal reservoirs, in other layers and locations throughout Olduvai Gorge, as well as near other sites in the world where human settlements have been found.

References: Ainara Sistiaga, Fatima Husain, David Uribelarrea, David M. Martín-Perea, Troy Ferland, Katherine H. Freeman, Fernando Diez-Martín, Enrique Baquedano, Audax Mabulla, Manuel Domínguez-Rodrigo, and Roger E. Summons, “Microbial biomarkers reveal a hydrothermally active landscape at Olduvai Gorge at the dawn of the Acheulean, 1.7 Ma”, PNAS, 2020 doi: link:

Astronomers Find Warm Jupiter Orbiting Cool Red Dwarf (Astronomy)

Using a combination of available TESS photometry; high-precision, near-infrared spectroscopy with the Habitable-zone Planet Finder; and speckle and adaptive optics imaging astronomers confirmed the planetary nature of a warm Jupiter transiting the early M dwarf TOI-1899.

TOI-1899b warm jupiter exoplanet around red dwarf. Credit: Hitendra Prakash

TOI-1899 is an M0-type star located 419 light-years away in the constellation of Cygnus.

Also known as TIC 172370679 and 2MASS 19574239+4008357, the star has a temperature of 3,652 degrees Celsius and is much cooler than the Sun.

TOI-1899 is about 60% the size and mass of the Sun and is around 7.4 billion years old.

The newfound planet orbits the star once every 29 days at a distance of only 0.16 AU.

Designated TOI-1899b, the alien world is two-thirds the mass of Jupiter but 10% larger in radius.

The single-transit, indicated by the dip, of the planet TOI-1899 b passing in front of its host star as detected by NASA’s TESS mission. The single 5-hour event can only reveal the size of planet and a detailed characterization of the transiting object required data from the Habitable-zone Planet Finder Spectrograph, a Penn State led near-infrared spectrograph recently installed on the 10m Hobby-Eberly Telescope at McDonald Observatory in Texas. Credit: Caleb Cañas, Penn State

TOI-1899b was detected by TESS using the transit method, which searches for stars showing periodic dips in their brightness as a telltale sign of an orbiting object crossing in front of the star and blocking a portion of its light.

The signal was then confirmed as a planet using precision observations from the HPF spectrograph.

References: Caleb I. Cañas et al, A Warm Jupiter Transiting an M Dwarf: A TESS Single-transit Event Confirmed with the Habitable-zone Planet Finder, The Astronomical Journal (2020). DOI: 10.3847/1538-3881/abac67

Fish Exposed To Noise Pollution Die Early (Biology)

According to Numair Masud and colleagues, fish stressed by noise are less able to fight off disease and prolonged exposure can lead to an early death.

In their paper, they tested the impact of random blasts of white noise played into fish tanks on the susceptibility of guppy fish to parasitic infection.

One group of fish was exposed to “acute” noise played for 24 hours, another group had the noise played for seven days.

All fish were anaesthetised and infected with a parasite, either after the noise exposure in the case of the acute group, or during it for the chronic group.

A third control group of fish were infected but left in a silent tank.

The authors found that while the fish exposed to acute noise had the highest disease burden over a 17-day monitoring period, those in the chronic group were more likely to die earlier—at day 12, compared with day 14 for both other groups of fish.

By contrast, fish experiencing chronic noise had the lowest parasite burden. However, these hosts died significantly earlier compared with those exposed to acute and no noise treatments. By revealing the detrimental impacts of acute and chronic noise on host–parasite interactions, they added to the growing body of evidence demonstrating a link between noise pollution and reduced animal health.

Co-author Numair Masud said further experiments would be needed to show the exact effect on immune response.

But he said the findings could have implications for conservation efforts as well as for fish farms, where the species being reared are highly susceptible to parasites.

References: Numair Masud , Laura Hayes , Davide Crivelli , Stephen Grigg and Jo Cable, “Noise pollution: acute noise exposure increases susceptibility to disease and chronic exposure reduces host survival”, Royal Society Open Science (2020). link: