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From defending the dark, a formula to predict attraction to infotainment in cars and bovine-burying badger: A look back at the innovative and ground-breaking research being done at the U in 2017.

The Consortium for Dark Sky Studies, based at the U, is the first academic center in the world dedicated to studying the quality of the night skies.

The University of Utah has awarded formal recognition to the Consortium for Dark Sky Studies (CDSS), the first academic center in the world dedicated to discovering, developing, communicating and applying knowledge pertaining to the quality of the night skies.

The CDSS is an interdisciplinary, multi-institutional research group based in the College of Architecture and Planning at the U. The consortium of over 25 university, industry, community and governmental partners will research the global issue of light pollution, and the public health, economic and environmental impacts of the so-called “disappearing dark.”

“The importance of this issue reaches far beyond Utah’s borders. The consortium addresses the global issue: how to preserve dark skies and reduce the planet’s seemingly relentless increase, with multiple impacts, in light pollution,” remarks Stephen Goldsmith, co-director of CDSS and associate professor of city and metropolitan planning at the U. “The related trans-disciplinary subjects of research, both abundant and complex, make the consortium a critically important resource for communities in the developed and developing world.”

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A magic formula to predict attraction is more elusive than ever
Study finds machine learning can predict aspects of attraction, but not the perfect soul mate.

Dating websites often claim attraction between two people can be predicted from the right combination of traits and preferences, but a new study casts doubt on that assertion.

The study, which used speed dating data, found a computer could predict who is desirable and how much someone would desire others — who’s hot and who’s not — but it could not unravel the mystery of unique desire for a specific person.

“Attraction for a particular person may be difficult or impossible to predict before two people have actually met,” said Samantha Joel, a University of Utah psychology professor and lead author“A relationship is more than the sum of its parts. There is a shared experience that happens when you meet someone that can’t be predicted beforehand.”

The study, “Is Romantic Desire Predictable? Machine Learning Applied to Initial Romantic Attraction,” was published today in the journal Psychological Science. Co-authors on the paper are Paul W. Eastwick of the University of California, Davis, and Eli J. Finkel of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

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Caution ahead: The growing challenge for drivers’ attention
U professor David Strayer says technology that doesn’t mix with driving continues to increase in many new vehicles.

Many of the infotainment features in most 2017 vehicles are so distracting they should not be enabled while a vehicle is in motion, according to a new study by University of Utah researchers.

The study, led by University of Utah psychology professor David L. Strayer, found in-vehicle information systems take drivers’ attention off the road for too long to be safe.

“This is troublesome because motorists may assume that features that are enabled when they are driving are safe and easy to use,” Strayer said. “Greater consideration should be given to what interactions should be available to the driver when the vehicle is in motion rather than to what features and functions could be available to motorists.

“With the best intentions, we will put some technology in the car that we think will make the car safer, but people being people will use that technology in ways that we don’t anticipate,” he added.

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U study: law aiding infants at risk for hearing loss
University and Utah Department of Health researchers’ new study finds a Utah law has led to increased early identification of infants with hearing loss due to a congenital infection.

A Utah law has led to increased early identification of infants with hearing loss due to a congenital infection, according to a new study by University of Utah and Utah Department of Health researchers.

The study, published today in Pediatrics, is the first to assess how implementation of a state-wide screening can pick up hearing loss in infants due to congenital cytomegalovirus (CMV). Utah, which has the nation’s highest birth rate, was the first state to mandate CMV screening for infants who fail newborn hearing tests. The Utah law is proving a model for other states.

 “Our study demonstrates that policy changes such as the one in Utah that required CMV testing after failed newborn hearing screening can improve the identification of infants with hearing loss, even those without congenital CMV,” said Marissa Diener, lead author and associate professor at the University of Utah’s Department of Family and Consumer Studies. “This is important because timely identification of hearing loss can enable earlier intervention, which is linked to better language outcomes for children.”

The Utah legislation also provided funds for educational campaigns surrounding congenital CMV, which is important given its prevalence, Diener said.

“Although congenital Zika infection is less prevalent in the U. S. than CMV, many people have heard of the Zika virus but fewer are familiar with cytomegalovirus,” Diener said.

Cytomegalovirus is the most common congenital infection, affecting about 1 in 150 children or 30,000 newborns in the U.S. each year. In Utah that equates to roughly one baby born per day.

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Premature births cost health plans $6 billion annually
New study in pediatrics provides estimate of high costs of premature infants, especially those with major birth defects.

A new study estimates employer-sponsored health plans spent at least $6 billion extra on infants born prematurely in 2013 and a substantial portion of that sum was spent on infants with major birth defects.

Birth defects affect 1 in 33 babies and are a leading cause of infant mortality in the United States. More than 5,500 infants die each year because of birth defects. The babies who live with birth defects are at increased risk for developing many lifelong physical, cognitive and social challenges that also affect their families.

The study, by researchers at the University of Utah and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, illustrates the substantial burden on insurers of premature births as well as the challenges in assessing the potential financial benefit of new interventions to prevent early births.

Pediatrics published the study, “Employer-Sponsored Plan Expenditures for Infants Born Preterm,” on Sept. 21.

Authors of the paper are: Scott D. Grosse, research economist at the CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities; Norman J. Waitzman, professor and chair of the Department of Economics at the University of Utah; Ninee Yang, researcher, CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics; Karon Abe, researcher, CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities; and Wanda D. Barfield, director, Division of Reproductive Health at the CDC’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

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Biology majors Ethan Frehner and Tara Christensen didn’t set out to create a media buzz with their badger time-lapse video, but that’s exactly what they did.

Biology majors Ethan Frehner and Tara Christensen never dreamed that their undergraduate research project would appear in the New York Times. Or in National GeographicNPRNewsweek. . . the list goes on.

It’s all due to a badger. On March 31, a paper published in Western North American Naturalist with honors student Frehner as first author and Christensen as a co-author described the discovery of a previously unknown badger behavior. Camera traps in Utah’s west desert had caught a badger burying a calf carcass twice its weight.

Watch a time-lapse video (produced by Christensen) of the badger burial here. As of April 21 the video had been viewed 1,413,643 times on the University of Utah’s YouTube channel — the most views of any video produced by the U. The story was also covered by major national and international news outlets. See the full coverage of the story here.

The badger earned a wide range of social media reactions. “Cache cow!” “This badger must really prefer ground beef.” “How was your day? I got emotional at a video of a badger burying a dead calf.” Many marveled at the badger’s tenacity, ambition and ingenuity. The headline of the Twitter Moment said it all: “No job is too big for the Utah badger.”

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Corrosive seawater encourages growth of rare minerals.

Around A.D. 79, Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote in his Naturalis Historia that concrete structures in harbors, exposed to the constant assault of the saltwater waves, become “a single stone mass, impregnable to the waves and every day stronger.”

He wasn’t exaggerating. While modern marine concrete structures crumble within decades, 2,000-year-old Roman piers and breakwaters endure to this day, and are stronger now than when they were first constructed. University of Utah geologist Marie Jackson studies the minerals and microscale structures of Roman concrete as she would a volcanic rock. She and her colleagues have found that seawater filtering through the concrete leads to the growth of interlocking minerals that lend the concrete added cohesion. The results are published today in American Mineralogist.

Roman concrete vs. Portland cement

Romans made concrete by mixing volcanic ash with lime and seawater to make a mortar, and then incorporating into that mortar chunks of volcanic rock, the “aggregate” in the concrete. The combination of ash, water, and quicklime produces what is called a pozzolanic reaction, named after the city of Pozzuoli in the Bay of Naples. The Romans may have gotten the idea for this mixture from naturally cemented volcanic ash deposits called tuff that are common in the area, as Pliny described.

The conglomerate-like concrete was used in many architectural structures, including the Pantheon and Trajan’s Markets in Rome. Massive marine structures protected harbors from the open sea and served as extensive anchorages for ships and warehouses.

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U mathematician, Christopher Hacon, was awarded the 2018 Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics for his work on the geometry of higher dimensions.

Christopher Hacon was on vacation in Italy, with a poor internet connection, when he noticed that several prominent mathematicians were trying to get in touch with him. “I was getting the feeling that something important was happening,” he says.

He was right. They were calling to tell Hacon that he had won the 2018 Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics. He had won several prestigious and prominent awards previously, but this one was different. For one thing, none of the previous awards ceremonies had been hosted by Morgan Freeman.

On Dec. 3, Hacon and his wife Aleksandra, a lecturer in math at the U, attended the star-studded, Hollywood-style Breakthrough Prize presentation in Mountain View, California. He joined 19 other scientists, including Hacon’s co-laureate, James McKernan, honored for achievements in life science, physics and math. Hacon and McKernan shared the $3 million award. He donned a tuxedo and he and his wife walked the red carpet as part of the ceremony. “It’s a very unusual situation for a mathematician,” Hacon says.

Hacon was born in England, but moved with his family to Italy at age 3 where his father, mathematician Derek Hacon, began work as a postdoctoral scholar. Hacon says he saw his father’s mathematical research, but was initially interested in physics and engineering. But admission to a top mathematics program at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, Italy, set him on the path to his current academic career.

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Statistics student offers insight into the world of basketball statistics.

It’s probably in your inbox already – the invitation to join your teenage nephew’s March Madness bracket challenge. Favorite methods for picking winning teams abound – some people pick by uniform color, some by geography, some by which mascot could devour the other.

If your preferred method is statistics, however, University of Utah senior Sean Sloan can help. Sloan is a mathematics major by day, but by night, or at least any night that the Utah Jazz play at home, he’s a basketball operations intern at Vivint Smart Home Arena. As a part of the Jazz’ analytics team, Sloan helps track players’ movements during games using a camera network above the arena, which helps calculate player statistics for each game. Front office and coaching staff then use the statistics to assess areas of weakness and strength, both for individual players and for the team as a whole.

In the college basketball world, the “godfather” of stats, in Sloan’s words, is Salt Lake City resident Ken Pomeroy. Pomeroy’s website,, displays an array of statistics for NCAA Division I college basketball teams that goes far beyond simple wins and losses. “He tries to factor out wins and losses and dive deeper into it,” Sloan says of Pomeroy. “A lot of it is efficiency.”

Sloan explains what the Pomeroy numbers mean. Adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies are the number of points scored or allowed, respectively, per 100 possessions. Adjusted tempo, or the number of possessions per 40 minutes of play, is a measure of a team’s speed. A low tempo is not necessarily bad, Sloan says. “If your pace is slow, you shouldn’t be hurt if you don’t score a lot of points because you can still be very efficient.” An example is the University of Virginia, dead last in terms of tempo. But their defense is the stingiest among Division I teams. “They may not score a lot, but they can hold teams to a low amount of points,” Sloan says.

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A new spin on electronics
U lead study discovers a “miracle material.”

A University of Utah-led team has discovered that a class of “miracle materials” called organic-inorganic hybrid perovskites could be a game changer for future spintronic devices.

Spintronics uses the direction of the electron spin — either up or down — to carry information in ones and zeros. A spintronic device can process exponentially more data than traditional electronics that use the ebb and flow of electrical current to generate digital instructions. But physicists have struggled to make spintronic devices a reality.

The new study, published in Nature Physics in May, is the first to show that organic-inorganic hybrid perovskites are a promising material class for spintronics. The researchers discovered that the perovskites possess two contradictory properties necessary to make spintronic devices work — the electrons’ spin can be easily controlled, and can also maintain the spin direction long enough to transport information, a property known as spin lifetime.

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Utah home to earliest use of wild potato in North America
Researchers from the Natural History Museum of Utah and Red Butte Garden at the University of Utah have discovered the earliest evidence of wild potato use in North America.

The town of Escalante in southern Utah is no small potatoes when it comes to scientific discovery; a new archaeological finding within its borders may rewrite the story of tuber domestication.

Researchers from the Natural History Museum of Utah and Red Butte Garden at the University of Utah have discovered potato starch residues in the crevices of a 10,900-year-old stone tool in Escalante, Utah — the earliest evidence of wild potato use in North America. This is the first archaeological study to identify a spud-bearing species native to the southwestern United States, Solanum jamesii, as an important part of ancient human diets. The researchers pieced together evidence from stone tools, ethnographic literature and modern gardeners to show that Utahans have used the species intermittently for over 10,000 years. The Escalante area was even previously known as “Potato Valley” to early settlers.

“This potato could be just as important as those we eat today not only in terms of a food plant from the past, but as a potential food source for the future,” says Lisbeth Louderback, senior author of the study, assistant professor of anthropology at the U and curator of archeology at the Natural History Museum of Utah. “The potato has become a forgotten part of Escalante’s history. Our work is to help rediscover this heritage.”

See the video here and click here for the full story.