Author: Marianne Freiberger

Data, data, data — 21st century life provides tons of it. It's paradise for researchers, or at least it would be if we knew how to make sense of it all. This year's AAAS annual meeting in Vancouver devoted plenty of time to the question of how to understand large amounts of data. And there's one method we particularly liked. It's based on the kind of idea that gave us the London tube map.

Africa isn't a continent that's famous for cutting edge research. But at the University of Stellenbosch, 50km East of Cape Town, South Africa, Kiran Dellimore and his team are engineering medical equipment that will save the lives of people all over the world. Latest projects include replacement heart valves made from kangaroo tissue and equipment to help resuscitate people in emergencies.

How many people died? It's one of the first questions asked in a war or violent conflict, but it's one of the hardest to answer. In the chaos of war many deaths go unrecorded and all sides have an interest in distorting the figures. The best we can do is come up with estimates, but the trouble is that different statistical methods for doing this can produce vastly different results . So how do we know how different methods compare?

Plants are amazingly good at something that is still flummoxing us humans in our quest for sustainable energy sources: turning sunlight into energy in an efficient way. Around 100 bilions tons of biomass are produced annually through photosynthesis. The question is, how exacty do plants do it?

Some of the things I overheard at Stephen Hawking's 70th birthday conference did make me wonder whether I hadn't got the wrong building and stumbled in on a sci-fi convention. "The state of the multiverse". "The Universe is simple but strange". "The future for intelligent life is potentially infinite". And — excuse me — "the Big Bang was just the decay of our parent vacuum"?!

A traditional view of science holds that every system — including ourselves — is no more than the sum of its parts. To understand it, all you have to do is take it apart and see what's happening to the smallest constituents. But the mathematician and cosmologist George Ellis disagrees. He believes that complexity can arise from simple components and physical effects can have non-physical causes, opening a door for our free will to make a difference in a physical world.

Most of us think that we have the capacity to act freely. Our sense of morality, our legal system, our whole culture is based on the idea that there is such a thing as free will. It's embarrassing then that classical physics seems to tell a different story. And what does quantum theory have to say about free will?

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"Astronomers are used to large numbers, but few are as large as the odds I'd have given this celebration today," is how Astronomer Royal Martin Rees started his presentation at Stephen Hawking's birthday symposium yesterday. He was talking about the 1960s when he first met Hawking who was then already suffering motor neurone disease. But Rees' prediction has been proved wrong. Hawking turned 70
yesterday and since the time of their first meeting he has made enormous contributions to cosmology and physics.

Human reasoning is biased and illogical. At least that's what a huge body of psychological research seems to show. But now a psychological scientist from the University of Toulouse in France has come up with a new theory: that logical and probabilistic thinking is an intuitive part of decision making, only its conclusions often lose out to heuristic considerations.

Researchers in Germany have created a rare example of a weird phenomenon predicted by quantum mechanics: quantum entanglement, or as Einstein called it, "spooky action at a distance". The idea, loosely speaking, is that particles which have once interacted physically remain linked to each other even when they're moved apart and seem to affect each other instantaneously.