Alt-week 7.13.13: cancer-smelling machines, singing synchronicity and the solar system's tail

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James Trew
July 13th, 2013
In this article: alt week, alt-week, altweek, video
Alt-week 7.13.13: cancer-smelling machines, singing synchronicity and the solar system's tail

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

Science and research. Two of our favorite words around these parts. This week, we have both in spades. From the first good visualization of the solar system's tail, to the prospect of diagnosing cancer through smell -- this is alt-week.

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A four-year collaboration between the University of the West of England (UWE), University of Liverpool, and Bristol's Urological institute has resulted in a new diagnostic test that can "smell" bladder cancer in its early stages. Called the "Odoreader," it uses a sensor that responds to chemicals found in the gas emitted from urine, which it profiles, allowing the identification of the presence of cancer cells. Unlike other forms of the disease -- such as cervical, or breast -- bladder cancer has no biomarkers, making early detection difficult. Similarly, it has been believed that dogs might be able to smell cancer in patients, but the practicalities have meant this isn't a realistic option. Odoreader, on the other hand, would allow local clinics and doctor's surgeries to diagnose patients reliably in just 30 minutes. Their research is also investigating that the same technique might be effective in detecting other cancers such as prostate while broader testing is completed.

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Most people have experienced an emotional lift from music, but what about a physical one? New research lead by Björn Vickhoff at the University of Gothenburg confirms what many may have suspected for some time -- that singing affects the heart, literally. The project studied fifteen 18 year-olds, singing together as a choir. Various vocal exercises were undertaken, humming chanting and -- of course -- singing. During each task, the hear rate of each member of the choir was monitored. The results showed that not only did the act of singing have a direct impact on heart rate -- likely through the imposed breathing restrictions -- but that the group became synchronised, with all the pulses changing in unison. So, vocal harmony might not be the only rhythm keeping good time, and the same team is keen to investigate further, and determine whether this biological synchronising could also contribute to the shared mental perspective, and the ability to collaborate. The findings of the study take into consideration the theory that there is no self-evident Darwinian explanation for music in human culture, suggesting that coordinated respiratory activity is actually common in most religions, and that synchrony rituals benefit cooperation in cultures across the globe.

Compared to the rest of the vast, unseen universe, our solar system is pretty familiar territory. That doesn't mean that there isn't still plenty to discover -- or in this case -- map for the first time. The system we call home, and dominated by our sun, actually has a "tail" called the heliotail, and its boundaries have just been marked by NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX). It took three years' worth of imagery -- using a technique called energetic neutral atom imaging -- to map the heliotail, which revealed a mixture of slow and fast moving particles in a twisted formation (thanks to the push and pull of magnetic fields). Want to know exactly what this tail might look like? Well that's perhaps, easier said than done, but the video above should give you a pretty good idea, plus a little insight into how IBEX itself gathers the data.

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: Vickhoff, Odoreader at UWE Bristol ]

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