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Alt-week 11.10.12: the contagious smell of fear, finding Bigfoot, and the theory of everything


Alt-week takes a look at the best science and alternative tech stories from the last seven days.

There are some questions that have puzzled the human race more or less since the dawn of time. Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? You know the sort of thing. While we might not have the answers to these just yet, thanks to science, we're getting there. In this week's instalment we discover that you can, in fact, smell fear. Meanwhile, one scientist pledges to launch an ambitious hunt for Bigfoot, and we get an early hint at what could be the start of an explanation for life, the universe and everything. This is alt-week.

Staring deep into space is rewarding on multiple levels. First, you're gazing upon the best light show in the universe. Second, you're peering far back into the history of everything. A fact we're wonderfully reminded of by the observation of the most distant supernova to date. The discovery comes via Jeff Cooke of the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia and colleagues, who actually spotted a pair of "superluminous supernovae." The most distant of the two, catchily referred to as SN 1000+0216, is estimated to be 12 billion years old. With the universe believed to be 13.7 billion years old, that's quite some way back. The exploded stars are calculated to have been about 100 times the size of our sun, and were spotted with the 3.6-meter Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. SN 1000+0216 beats the previous record holder by roughly a billion years, which happened to be discovered by the same team back in 2009.

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The idea of being able to "smell" fear occupies a curious place between fact and folklore. While it's understood that some animals posses the sensory equipment to sense, or pick up on, emotions via smell, in the human realm it has largely been just a turn of phrase. Research headed up by Gün Semin at Utrecht University, however, suggests there might actually be something to it. The Netherlands-based team set up an experiment where men were shown either scary, or gross video (the Shining, and Jackass for example), while samples of their sweat were taken. Later, a group of women were set a visual task, while subjected to the smell of the men's emotion-enhanced sweat. The researchers found that the women's faces would change to match the relevant emotion -- eyes widening for fear, faces scrunching for disgust. Proof, if some were needed, that you really can smell horse pucky.

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The existence of fear-laced odor isn't the only urban legend being put to the test this week. An Idaho-based scientist is tackling one of the most famous mysteries of recent times: the existence of Bigfoot. While many people claim to have spotted the large primate in the wild, there is still a lack of hard evidence for the creature's existence. Jeffrey Meldrum, Associate Professor of Anatomy and Anthropology at Idaho State University is attempting to raise $300,000 in private donations to fund a project to find the elusive animal once and for all. Dubbed the Falcon Project, Meldrum plans to scour the Pacific Northwest with heat detecting cameras and an aerial blimp. What makes this more notable than other attempts is that the plans have been approved by Idaho State University. Should funding be successful, the aim is to start the search next spring. But with the odds stacked against them -- such as the lack of any fossils, or any other concrete evidence -- Meldrum faces a large amount of scepticism from his scientific peers. Reuters reports that donations have been slow so far, but with two cable channels potentially interested in making a TV series about the hunt, there's at least the chance of some respite from America's Next top Model.

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The quest for a general theory of everything might sound like something from a Douglas Adams novel, but it is, in fact, a serious preoccupation of physics. Being able to predict the outcome of any experiment, and link all physical phenomena together has remained tricky, not least due to the difficulty of tying Einstein's theory of relativity together with quantum mechanics. University of Oxford physicist, David Deutsch, however, has spent much of his career considering whether we've even been asking the right questions at all. In a recent journal by Deutsch, we're given a hint as to how his theory might unfold, which essentially looks at events he calls constructors -- anything that causes physical change in a system, while itself remaining unchanged. The next part of the theory then explores which of these are required to achieve a certain result, which are not, and why that is. New Scientist suggests "that his long-awaited theory could account for several fundamental mysteries, such as why time flows in only one direction." Deutsch believes that most current theories don't explain why some state changes are possible, and some aren't -- such as dye dissolved in water not being able to gather itself, or return to the state of one solid whole again. Deutsch's work towards explaining these ideas -- called Constructor Theory -- is the basis to understanding why such state changes aren't possible. It's hoped that Constructor Theory could even lead to an understanding of the strange, yet rigid, rules of quantum mechanics -- and ultimately provide the foundation for the lofty task of explaining exactly why everything is the way it is. Apart from why people think it's okay to cut in lines. That's literally unexplainable.

Altweek 111012 the contagious smell of fear, finding Bigfoot

Seen any other far-out articles that you'd like considered for Alt-week? Working on a project or research that's too cool to keep to yourself? Drop us a line at alt [at] engadget [dot] com.

[Image credits: Adrian Malec and Marie Martig, Patricia Patterson]

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