Why is it important to identify “Patient Zero” in disease outbreaks?

I recently watched the excellent, Contagion, a film by Steven Soderbergh, which gives a harrowing, scientifically realistic depiction of the outbreak of a highly contagious, often fatal disease. Highlighting both the potentially rapid spread of virus outbreaks and the influence of social media scaremongers/conspiracists in today’s interconnected world, the film is a great advert for why we need our politics informed by scientists’ thinking more than ever.

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How can evolutionary theory be used to make video games?

Red Dead Redemption, GTA IV, Limbo. Works of creative genius by some of the most imaginative, most talented video game designers on the entire planet. All made by humans, of course. One PhD student at Imperial College, London, however, is on a mission to show that in the future some of our video games might be made, not be people, but by computers.

Step forward ANGELINA, one of the early AI pioneers of this new realm.

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How can you survive the Apocalypse? Part Three: Food

Tesco’s motto might be Every Little Helps, but in an apocalypse Britain’s biggest supermarket will probably be offering nothing–unless you raid one of its depots early before the rest of the desperate get there. Then you might be able to snag a year’s supply of petfood or something.

But, pillaging aside, what can the appliance of science do for your eating habits when Armageddon falls?

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How does the quadratic equation help robots juggle?

Like it or not, over the coming decades robots will play an increasing role in our lives. They will clean our homes, mix our cocktails, even drive our cars. They may even become street entertainers, amazing us with their catching skills!

What has any of this got to do with the humble quadratic equation? The seemingly innocuous polynomial with the complicated “solution” that’s found in the front pages of exam papers, and is the bane of many high school mathematics students’ lives.

Read on to find out.

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How can we tell organic molecules on meteorites came from outer space?

Last week I attended one of Café Scientifique’s series of public forums at the Royal Society in London, in which Dr Zita Martins, a University Research Fellow at Imperial College, London, gave a short talk entitled “What’s left to explore in the solar system?” Her talk and extended Q & A session actually focused on her analysis of meteorites–rocks of non-terrestrial origin that reach the surface of the Earth–and covered a wide-range of fascinating subjects.

Meteorites, as opposed to meteors that disintegrate in the atmosphere, give us a unique glimpse into the material universe away from our planet, and have important things to tell us about asteroids, solar system formation, and possibly even the origin of life. During the Q & A session I asked Dr Martins how we could be sure that the organic material found within a special class of metorites called carbonaceous chondrites were of extraterrestrial origin.

Before I relay what she told me, I’m going to answer another question first: how can we tell if a rock is a meteorite which has undergone a spectacular multi-million mile journey through the depths of space, surviving the fireball entry through Earth’s scorching atmosphere, or is, well, a darn boring rock?

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