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How can great musicians seem to do the impossible?

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by Joel N. Shurkin, Inside Science

Even old jokes can have a scientific basis in fact.

You know the one about the tourist who stops a native New Yorker on the street and asks, “Excuse me sir, but how do you get to Carnegie Hall?”

"Practice, practice, practice."

That New Yorker is absolutely correct. Scientists have found that the brains of professional musicians are physiologically different from the brains of other people, and they got that way mostly because of practice, practice, practice.

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New Technique Lets Scientists See Through Whole Organisms

by Michael Keller

Seeing is believing when it comes to understanding how organisms work. For biologists trying to learn about what’s going on inside a body, one of the biggest obstacles is not being able to put their eyeballs on a part or system without other objects getting in the way. The answer is usually going in with one invasive tool or another, which ends up damaging or destroying the thing they’re trying to investigate. 

Now California Institute of Technology scientists say they have improved upon a solution to clearing up the picture. The technique builds on work that garnered widespread attention last year. In that effort, assistant professor of biology Viviana Gradinaru and her team used detergent and a polymer to make a rodent brain transparent for study in unprecedented detail. 

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How Quantum Mechanics Helps Us Breathe

by Peter Gwynne, Inside Science

Why don’t we suffocate whenever we try to take a breath? An international team of scientists has used quantum mechanics – the science that usually deals with events at the level of the ultra-small – to solve this human-sized mystery.

Quantum mechanics has long proved its value in understanding such phenomena as the behavior of electrons and in classifying subatomic particles. But in recent years theorists have increasingly shown how it applies to all facets of life, large and small.

The new research, led by Cédric Weber of Kings College, London and reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, confirms that point.

"This work," said team member David O’Regan, a physicist at Ireland’s Trinity College, Dublin, "helps to illustrate the fact that quantum-mechanical effects, which may sometimes be viewed as somehow very exotic or only relevant under extreme conditions, are at play in the day-to-day regimes where biology, chemistry, and materials science operate."

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Scientists Comb Through Mountains Of Data To Find Biodiversity Hotspots

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by Michael Keller

The world’s once hidden hotspots of biodiversity are coming into view thanks to some pioneering work that is bringing conservation into the age of Big Data.

Scientists in Australia and the U.S. have figured out a way to analyze the genetic sequences of species found in an area, and then compare those results to other places to understand both how rich in biodiversity and how unique the species in a place are, a characteristic called endemism. They can then see whether high-scoring locations are in need of protection.

“Our model lets you see where unique diversity is and how localized it is,” University of California, Berkeley biologist Brent Mishler tells Txchnologist. “Then we can look at this data on a map, see where protected areas are, and whether these areas of high and endangered diversity that we found aren’t yet covered.”

To do it, Mishler and his team turned the old idea behind locating biodiversity hotspots—by counting species in an area and taking into account how endangered they are—and turning it on its head. Instead, their model looks at the DNA sequences of different species in a place to measure the genetic variety there and compares it to other areas to assess how rare the community is.

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