The Science Behind Friendship and Its Largely Overlooked Importance

Yes, there’s scientific research on that too.

For many of us, the top of our life priority list might look something like this: family, work—maybe exercise. Time with friends can sometimes end up near the bottom.

That’s a mistake, says Lydia Denworth, a science journalist and the author of the new book “Friendship,” which was published last month by W.W. Norton & Co. Ms. Denworth interviews animal biologists studying baboons and rhesus macaque monkeys, anthropologists and neuroscientists to uncover just how important friendship is not only for happiness and emotional health, but, she argues, physical health, too. In fact, friends are key to our very survival, Ms. Denworth asserts.

Here are edited excerpts from an interview.

What does studying how animals relate to each other tell us about human friendships?

At its simplest, it’s just how critical quality social bonds and friendships are. In animals, the big measures that evolutionary biologists study are reproductive success, which they count as either how many babies you have or how long those babies live, and longevity, or how long you survive. Nonhuman primates have very structured hierarchies that they exist in, and everyone assumed that that must have more importance for how long you live and how many babies you have and how healthy they are. And it wasn’t. The most important thing was the strength of the social bonds, how positively and well and regularly an individual animal interacted with other animals. Scientists really couldn’t believe it.

How does friendship affect physical health?

Friendship literally improves your body’s cardiovascular functioning, how your immune system works, how you sleep. You can imagine the food you put in your body makes you healthy or not. But sitting in a coffee shop with someone and just chatting about what’s going on with your life, we always thought emotionally that made you feel good. But actually it really is doing much more.

A big study at Harvard of men across their lives from 20 to 80 found that the single best predictor of your health and happiness at 80 was not your wealth or your professional success. It was your relationships at 50.

What makes a good friendship?

The simple definition that biologists use is a friendship is positive, it makes you feel good, it is long-lasting and stable and it has reciprocity and cooperation in it. So there’s a little give and take. Friendship is about setting up your life so you have people you can rely on when you need them. Literally, it was for when the lions came hunting for your friends. Baboons and monkeys do better when they are together. It’s why humans were never really alone.

There’s not one way to do friendship. Some people are introverts and that’s fine. The difference between not having any close friends and having one is enormous in terms of your emotional health and physical health. Quality matters so much more than quantity. Most people only have an average of four really close friends.

Why do we become friends with one person and not another?

There’s this interesting chemistry to friendship. Just like in romance, you are more drawn to some people than you are others. Some of it is very straightforward: You are interested in the same things, you spend time in the same place. That’s one reason why we are close to relatives, because you have a head start, you spend more time with them than you do anyone else. We do tend to be better friends with people who are more like us.

Having a shared world-view turns out to be important. Scientists looked at all these people in a social network, showed them the same sets of videos and looked at how their brains responded to these videos. They could predict just by looking at the brain processing who was friends with whom. Literally, you hear and see the world more like the people you are friends with. The big question is: Is it cause or effect? Are you drawn to people who already see and process the world more similarly from the start or do you become more similar? Of course, as with so many things, the answer is probably both.

What impact is digital communication and social media having on friendships?

With relationships, it usually is net positive. One reason is just because people who are active on social media tend to have wider, bigger, more diverse social networks. What the research is showing is we tend to use social media as just an extra way to communicate with your good friends. And older adults, relationally, they absolutely benefit from social media because they have a harder time getting out or getting around or they’re further from their families. It really has opened up a new channel for people.

That doesn’t mean if you only operate online, you get all those benefits. You don’t. You need a lot of face-to-face time to get the health benefits. But it’s just not true that being online is automatically this big negative. The people for whom social media has a clearer negative effect seem to be people who are already suffering from depression maybe or loneliness.

Extreme Weather Will Continue to Worsen as the Climate Crisis Becomes More Severe

The changing climate is already having dire consequences on global societies, and the effects will become much worse in the future unless political leaders suitably address the environmental crisis of rising temperatures.

The past decade has been the hottest on record, the UN said Wednesday, warning that the higher temperatures were expected to fuel numerous extreme weather events in 2020 and beyond.​

The World Meteorological Organization, which based its findings on analysis of leading international datasets, said increases in global temperatures had already had dire consequences, pointing to “retreating ice, record sea levels, increasing ocean heat and acidification, and extreme weather”.

WMO said its research also confirmed data released by the European Union’s climate monitor last week showing that 2019 was the second hottest year on record, after 2016.

“The year 2020 has started out where 2019 left off – with high-impact weather and climate-related events,” WMO chief Petteri Taalas said in a statement, pointing in particular to the devastating bushfires that have been raging in Australia for months.

The bushfires, unprecedented in their duration and intensity, have claimed 28 lives and highlighted the type of disasters that scientists say the world will increasingly face due to global warming.

The fires have already destroyed more than 2,000 homes and burnt 10 million hectares (100,000 square kilometres) of land – an area larger than South Korea or Portugal.

“Unfortunately, we expect to see much extreme weather throughout 2020 and the coming decades, fuelled by record levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” Taalas said.

The UN agency said that average global temperatures during both the past five-year (2015-2019) and 10-year (2010-2019) periods were the highest ever recorded.

“Since the 1980s each decade has been warmer than the previous one,” the UN agency said in a statement, warning that “this trend is expected to continue”.

The United Nations said last year that human-made greenhouse gas emissions needed to tumble 7.6 percent each year to 2030 in order to limit temperature rises to 1.5 Celsius – the more ambitious cap nations signed up to in the landmark Paris climate deal.

Current pledges to cut emissions put Earth on a path of several degrees warming by the end of the century.

Not a fluke

Taalas said that since modern records began in 1850, the average global temperature had risen by around 1.1 degrees Celsius, and warned of significant warming in the future.

“On the current path of carbon dioxide emissions, we are heading towards a temperature increase of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century,” he warned.

Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, which provided one of the datasets, added that the trend line was unmistakable and could not be attributed to normal climate variability – a position taken by US President Donald Trump.

“What’s happening is persistent, not a fluke due to some weather phenomenon: we know that the long-term trends are being driven by the increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” he said.

Data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration meanwhile revealed that polar sea ice coverage continued its downward trend in 2019.

Both the Arctic and Antarctic oceans recorded their second-smallest average annual sea-ice coverage during the 1979–2019 period of record, the agency said.

Broken record

WMO also highlighted a new study published this week in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences with data showing that ocean heat content was at a record high in 2019.

The past five years were also the warmest on record in terms of ocean heat content, that study showed.

Since more than 90 percent of excess heat is stored in the world’s oceans, their heat content is a good way to quantify the rate of global warming, WMO said.

Conservationists said the UN agency’s findings were to be expected.

“It is no surprise that 2019 was the second hottest year on record – nature has been persistently reminding us that we have to pick up the pace,” said Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, leader of WWF’s global climate and energy practice, calling for dramatic measures to halt the warming trend.

“This is not so much a record as a broken record,” added Chris Rapley, a professor of climate science at University College London.

“The message repeats with grim regularity. Yet the pace and scale of action to address climate change remains muted and far from the need.”

In 2019, 27% of Denmark’s Power Was from Wind

A model of clean energy that other countries should take note of.

COPENHAGEN, Jan 2 (Reuters) – Denmark sourced almost half its electricity consumption from wind power last year, a new record boosted by steep cost reductions and improved offshore technology.

Wind accounted for 47% of Denmark’s power usage in 2019, the country’s grid operator Energinet said on Thursday citing preliminary data, up from 41% in 2018 and topping the previous record of 43% in 2017.

European countries are global leaders in utilising wind power but Denmark is far in front of nearest rival Ireland, which sourced 28% of its power from wind in 2018 according to data from industry group WindEurope.

Across the European Union, wind accounted for 14% of consumption last year, the group says.

The higher proportion of wind energy in Denmark last year was partly due to Vattenfall starting operations at the Horns Rev 3 offshore wind farm in the North Sea in August.

The share of power from wind turbines at sea increased to 18% last year from 14% in 2018, Energinet said. Onshore wind accounted for 29% last year.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) said in October that while power generated from wind turbines at sea only accounts for 0.3% of today’s global electricity generation, capacity is set to increase 15-fold over the next two decades.

Denmark aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70% by 2030, with a new climate law passed late last year targeting an increase in the share of electricity sourced from renewable power to 100%.

Denmark, home to wind turbine giant Vestas and the world’s largest developer of offshore wind Orsted, has favourable wind conditions and began investing heavily in wind power in the 1970s.

AI System Shows Somewhat Human-Like Creativity In Chess, In a Possible Landmark AI Moment

Artificial intelligence’s power brings with it the possibility of doing immense good or immense harm to humanity, and it is going to be up to society to ensure that AI functions in benevolent ways. Stockfish has also been the most dominant chess engine for quite some time, and to see it defeated consistently by a human-like, dynamic chess engine is both amazing and unsettling.

DeepMind’s artificial intelligence programme AlphaZero is now showing signs of human-like intuition and creativity, in what developers have hailed as ‘turning point’ in history.

The computer system amazed the world last year when it mastered the game of chess from scratch within just four hours, despite not being programmed how to win.

But now, after a year of testing and analysis by chess grandmasters, the machine has developed a new style of play unlike anything ever seen before, suggesting the programme is now improvising like a human.

Unlike the world’s best chess machine – Stockfish – which calculates millions of possible outcomes as it plays, AlphaZero learns from its past successes and failures, making its moves based on, a ‘nebulous sense that it is all going to work out in the long run,’ according to experts at DeepMind.

When AlphaZero was pitted against Stockfish in 1,000 games, it lost just six, winning convincingly 155 times, and drawing the remaining bouts.

Yet it was the way that it played that has amazed developers. While chess computers predominately like to hold on to their pieces, AlphaZero readily sacrificed its soldiers for a better position in the skirmish.

Speaking to The Telegraph, Prof David Silver, who leads the reinforcement learning research group at DeepMind said: “It’s got a very subtle sense of intuition which helps it balance out all the different factors.

“It’s got a neural network with millions of different tunable parameters, each learning its own rules of what is good in chess, and when you put them all together you have something that expresses, in quite a brain-like way, our human ability to glance at a position and say ‘ah ha this is the right thing to do’.

“My personal belief is that we’ve seen something of turning point where we’re starting to understand that many abilities, like intuition and creativity, that we previously thought were in the domain only of the human mind, are actually accessible to machine intelligence as well. And I think that’s a really exciting moment in history.”

AlphaZero started as a ‘tabula rasa’ or blank slate system, programmed with only the basic rules of chess and learned to win by playing millions of games against itself in a process of trial and error known as reinforcement learning.

It is the same way the human brain learns, adjusting tactics based on a previous win or loss, which allows it to search just 60 thousand positions per second, compared to the roughly 60 million of Stockfish.

[…]

The new analysis was published yesterday in the journal Science, and the DeepMind team are now hoping to use their system to help solve real world problems, such as why proteins become misfolded in diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

The new results suggest that it could come up with new solutions that humans might miss or take far longer to discover.

AI System Successfully Predicts Alzheimer’s Years in Advance

Important research of Alzheimer’s disease since it’s one of those diseases where the treatment will be more effective the earlier it’s caught.

Artificial intelligence (AI) technology improves the ability of brain imaging to predict Alzheimer’s disease, according to a study published in the journal Radiology.

Timely diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is extremely important, as treatments and interventions are more effective early in the course of the disease. However, early diagnosis has proven to be challenging. Research has linked the disease process to changes in metabolism, as shown by glucose uptake in certain regions of the brain, but these changes can be difficult to recognize.

“Differences in the pattern of glucose uptake in the brain are very subtle and diffuse,” said study co-author Jae Ho Sohn, M.D., from the Radiology & Biomedical Imaging Department at the University of California in San Francisco (UCSF). “People are good at finding specific biomarkers of disease, but metabolic changes represent a more global and subtle process.”

The study’s senior author, Benjamin Franc, M.D., from UCSF, approached Dr. Sohn and University of California, Berkeley, undergraduate student Yiming Ding through the Big Data in Radiology (BDRAD) research group, a multidisciplinary team of physicians and engineers focusing on radiological data science. Dr. Franc was interested in applying deep learning, a type of AI in which machines learn by example much like humans do, to find changes in brain metabolism predictive of Alzheimer’s disease.

The researchers trained the deep learning algorithm on a special imaging technology known as 18-F-fluorodeoxyglucose positron emission tomography (FDG-PET). In an FDG-PET scan, FDG, a radioactive glucose compound, is injected into the blood. PET scans can then measure the uptake of FDG in brain cells, an indicator of metabolic activity.

The researchers had access to data from the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI), a major multi-site study focused on clinical trials to improve prevention and treatment of this disease. The ADNI dataset included more than 2,100 FDG-PET brain images from 1,002 patients. Researchers trained the deep learning algorithm on 90 percent of the dataset and then tested it on the remaining 10 percent of the dataset. Through deep learning, the algorithm was able to teach itself metabolic patterns that corresponded to Alzheimer’s disease.

Finally, the researchers tested the algorithm on an independent set of 40 imaging exams from 40 patients that it had never studied. The algorithm achieved 100 percent sensitivity at detecting the disease an average of more than six years prior to the final diagnosis.

“We were very pleased with the algorithm’s performance,” Dr. Sohn said. “It was able to predict every single case that advanced to Alzheimer’s disease.”

Although he cautioned that their independent test set was small and needs further validation with a larger multi-institutional prospective study, Dr. Sohn said that the algorithm could be a useful tool to complement the work of radiologists — especially in conjunction with other biochemical and imaging tests — in providing an opportunity for early therapeutic intervention.

“If we diagnose Alzheimer’s disease when all the symptoms have manifested, the brain volume loss is so significant that it’s too late to intervene,” he said. “If we can detect it earlier, that’s an opportunity for investigators to potentially find better ways to slow down or even halt the disease process.”

Oceans Have More Heat Than Previously Thought, Making Climate Change More Threatening

Climate change is one of the most serious problems facing humanity this century, and unless there is action to avert its damaging consequences, the world faces a dark future.

Offering a stark warning that humanity may have even less time to drastically cut carbon emissions than the United Nations suggested in its latest alarming report on the climate crisis, new research (pdf) published in the journal Nature on Wednesday shows that Earth’s oceans have retained 60 percent more heat each year over the past 25 years than scientists previously believed.

“We thought that we got away with not a lot of warming in both the ocean and the atmosphere for the amount of CO2 that we emitted. But we were wrong,” Laure Resplandy, a geoscientist at Princeton University who led the new study, told the Washington Post. “The planet warmed more than we thought. It was hidden from us just because we didn’t sample it right. But it was there. It was in the ocean already.”

The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change argued in its report released earlier this month that humanity must cut carbon emissions in half by 2030 in order to avert climate catastrophe by 2040—but that timeframe was based on previous and possibly conservative estimates of global warming.

As the Post‘s Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis noted, “higher-than-expected amount of heat in the oceans means more heat is being retained within Earth’s climate system each year, rather than escaping into space.”

“In essence,” they added, “more heat in the oceans signals that global warming is more advanced than scientists thought.”

Improving and Extending Phone Battery Life

It is a regular complaint among smartphone users that their batteries fade too quickly. With how integral battery life is, along with how expensive newer phones have become and how having an uncharged phone could be a problem in certain dire situations, it is worth briefly addressing how to get more usage out of phone batteries.

Phones use lithium-ion batteries, which means that batteries gradually lose their capacity as the number of charge and discharge cycles grows. There are ways to lessen this degradation, but it will occur over time nonetheless.

Battery life depends on how you’re using the phone on a specific day along with how you’ve previously used it. So there’s value in adopting better charging habits to retain more battery in the future.

First of all, keeping phones plugged in once they reach full charge damages the battery in the long-run. Keeping phones plugged in like that puts them in a high-tension state that does harm to the battery’s internal chemistry. When possible, it’s also better to just charge the phone regularly instead of all the way to 100 percent charge, as the high voltage state puts stress on the battery.

The majority of battery degradation occurs during the more fully charged into discharged cycles . This means that it’s better to limit battery discharge (outside of on and fully charged) in the cycles when possible so that the battery doesn’t go into a deep discharge cycle.

Additionally, it should be noted that the fast charge option often available today can significantly reduce the battery life in a cycle, using wifi is less power-intensive than using 4G data, and reducing screen brightness, avoiding excessive heat, and limiting video use are all ways to extend battery life in a given cycle.

There will eventually be much stronger batteries, just as there eventually be battery protections from water. (Something called F-POSS — which repeals water and oil from sticking to it by having low surface energy — is already in development.) Until then though, users will probably want to handle their somewhat energy-fragile phone batteries with care.