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In what could prove to be a major breakthrough in quantum memory storage and information processing, German researchers have frozen the fastest thing in the universe: light. And they did so for a record-breaking one minute. It sounds weird and it is. The reason for wanting to hold light in its place (aside from the sheer awesomeness of it) is to ensure that it retains its quantum coherence properties (i.e. its information state), thus making it possible to build light-based quantum memory.
And the longer that light can be held, the better as far as computation is concerned. Accordingly, it could allow for more secure quantum communications over longer distances.
Needless to say, halting light is not easy — you can't just put in the freezer. Light is electromagnetic radiation that moves at 300 million meters per second.
Over the course of a one minute span, it can travel about 11 million miles (18 million km), or 20 round trips to the moon. So it's a rather wily and slippery medium, to say the least. But light can be slowed down and even halted altogether. And in fact, researchers once kept it still for 16 seconds by using cold atoms.
For this particular experiment, researcher Georg Heinze and his team converted light coherence into atomic coherences. They did so by using a quantum interference effect that makes an opaque medium — in this case a crystal — transparent over a narrow range of light spectra (a process called electromagnetically induced transparency (EIT)).
The researchers shot a laser through this crystal (a source of light), which sent its atoms into a quantum superposition of two states. A second beam then switched off the first laser, and as a consequence, the transparency. Thus, the researchers collapsed the superposition — and trapped the second laser beam inside.
There is a scene in the film “Spider-Man 2” where Spider-Man prevents a train full of people from crashing by holding it back with about 10 sets of spider silk ropes each less than half an inch thick. It turns out the scene isn’t just fantasy.
“We calculated roughly how thick the fibers were, how many of them he had attached to the walls, how much the locomotive and people weighed, and how fast it appeared to be going,” says Randy Lewis, a professor of biology and biological engineering atUtah State University. “Spider-Man would have been able to stop that train,” says Lewis, a molecular biologist, materials scientist, and chemist who for 25 years has been striving to synthesize spider silk.
Despite being a protein, spider silk is by weight five times stronger than steel and three times tougher than Kevlar, a p-aramid fiber from DuPont. Strength is defined as the weight a material can bear, and toughness is the amount of kinetic energy it can absorb without breaking. The silk’s primary structure is its amino acid sequence, mainly consisting of repeated glycine and alanine blocks.
Potential applications include cables and bulletproof vests. Spider silk’s antimicrobial properties make it suitable for wound patches. Because the silk is not rejected by the human body, it can be used to manufacture artificial tendons or to coat implants. And its thermal conductivity is similar to that of copper but its mass density is one-seventh of copper’s, making it a potential heat management material.
Deprived of sight, blind people manage to squeeze an amazing amount of information out of their other senses. Doing this requires their brains to do some reorganising. To learn about some of these changes, scientists studied the brains of blind people who've learned to use an augmented reality system that converts images into soundscapes.
The system was invented in the early '90s, but it's not widely used. The way it works is a person puts on a pair of goggles with a built-in camera and software that converts images captured by the camera into sounds. For example, the pitch of the sound (high or low) indicates the vertical position of an object; the timing and duration of the sound indicate the object's horizontal position and width (you can see and hear a demo of a similar technology here). For real world scenes, the sounds are complex -- in fact, they sound a bit like a garbled transmission from an alien spacecraft.
But with enough practice people can learn to interpret the sounds and form a mental image of objects -- including people -- that appear in front of them.
When sighted people see an outline or silhouette of a human body, areas of the cerebral cortex that specialise in making sense of visual stimuli become active. One of these, the extrastriate body area, seems particularly interested in bodies: it responds more strongly to images of the human body than to other types of objects.
But blindness cuts off the usual flow of information from the eyes to this part of the brain, and people who've been blind since birth have never actually seen a human form. Something must change in their brains when they learn to perceive body shapes using sound. Do visual parts of the brain start responding to sounds? Or do auditory parts of the brain start responding to body shapes? It's a neat trick either way.
To find out what really happens, Ella Striem-Amit and Amir Amedi of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem scanned the brains of seven congenitally blind people who'd trained for an average of 73 hours on the augmented reality system. After training, they achieved 78 percent accuracy at classifying three different types of objects: people, everyday objects (like a cellphone), or textured patterns.
In some cases, they could do even more. "During training, the participants were asked to report the body posture of the people in the images they 'saw,' and could verbally describe it quite well, and also mimic it themselves," Striem-Amit said.
Striem-Amit and Amedi also found that in blind people as well as sighted people, body shapes also activated an area called the temporal-parietal junction, which some researchers think is involved in figuring out the intentions of other people.
The study illustrates that the brain can be remarkably malleable, says Kalanit Grill-Spector, a neuroscientist at Stanford University. When blind people learn to read Braille, their visual cortex becomes sensitive to touch, she notes. "However, there has been little evidence for auditory stimuli driving responses in visual cortex in the blind," Grill-Spector said. "For example making human sounds such as clapping or laughing does not seem to activate visual cortex in the blind."
For most people, music is one of life's great pleasures. But the inability to enjoy it is a real condition that has just been recognized and described by science. The new condition, known as specific musical anhedonia, is described in a new paper published this week in the journal Current Biology.
People with the condition have no trouble perceiving or identifying music, or even describing the mood the music is supposed to convey, said Robert Zatorre, a McGill University neuroscientist who co-authored the paper. The condition affects about two per cent of the population. Many of those who have it said they have tried to mask their dislike of music from others.
Zatorre had previously done studies that showed music activates the pleasure and reward centres of the brain, just as food and sex do. Scientists are interested in studying the brain's reward system because problems with it are implicated in a lot of problems such as eating disorders and drug and gambling addictions.
Zatorre and colleagues in Spain, including Josep Marco-Pallares of the University of Barcelona, began to wonder if music activated the pleasure centre of the brain in everyone, or if there were some people who didn't respond the same way.
To figure that out, they surveyed around 500 students at the University of Barcelona about their music habits and response to music — for example, did they often have music playing and did they like to share music with their friends?
Groups of students who scored high, average, and low on the questionnaire were tested in the lab for their body's response to music — changes in heart rate and skin conductance, which indicate emotional or nervous system arousal.
While those who scored average or high on the questionnaire had a strong physiological response to the music, those who scored low "more or less flatlined," Zatorre recalled, confirming that they did not derive pleasure from music.
The students were given additional questionnaires to make sure they weren't depressed and were able to experience pleasure from other things.
Then they were tested in another experiment – a slot-machine-like gambling video game in which they would sometimes receive a big payout.
"People who didn't respond to music nonetheless showed a perfectly normal response to the monetary reward," Zatorre said.
That's interesting because previously, researchers had thought the brain's reward centre was an "all or none" system that was functioning normally, hyperactive, or underactive as a whole.
Have you ever wondered why your laptop or smartphone feels warm when you're using it? That heat is a byproduct of the microprocessors in your device using electric current to power computer processing functions — and it is actually wasted energy.
Now, a team led by researchers from the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science has made major improvements in computer processing using an emerging class of magnetic materials called "multiferroics," and these advances could make future devices far more energy-efficient than current technologies.
With today's device microprocessors, electric current passes through transistors, which are essentially very small electronic switches. Because current involves the movement of electrons, this process produces heat — which makes devices warm to the touch. These switches can also "leak" electrons, making it difficult to completely turn them off. And as chips continue to get smaller, with more circuits packed into smaller spaces, the amount of wasted heat grows.
The UCLA Engineering team used multiferroic magnetic materials to reduce the amount of power consumed by "logic devices," a type of circuit on a computer chip dedicated to performing functions such as calculations. A multiferroic can be switched on or off by applying alternating voltage — the difference in electrical potential. It then carries power through the material in a cascading wave through the spins of electrons, a process referred to as a spin wave bus.
A spin wave can be thought of as similar to an ocean wave, which keeps water molecules in essentially the same place while the energy is carried through the water, as opposed to an electric current, which can be envisioned as water flowing through a pipe, said principal investigator Kang L. Wang, UCLA's Raytheon Professor of Electrical Engineering and director of the Western Institute of Nanoelectronics (WIN).
"Spin waves open an opportunity to realize fundamentally new ways of computing while solving some of the key challenges faced by scaling of conventional semiconductor technology, potentially creating a new paradigm of spin-based electronics," Wang said.
The UCLA researchers were able to demonstrate that using this multiferroic material to generate spin waves could reduce wasted heat and therefore increase power efficiency for processing by up to 1,000 times. Their research is published in the journal Applied Physics Letters.
A team of researchers working at the university of Notre Dame has discovered a whole new group of quasicrystals. In their paper published in the journal Nature, the team describes how they accidently created a new kind of quasicrystal as part of a series of experiments designed to learn more about electron distribution in ferrocenecarboxylic acids.
Quasicrystals are groups of molecules bonded together in structures that resemble crystals in that they are organized, but unlike crystals, the structures are not nearly as uniform. In fact, they are quite the opposite—though they are locally symmetric, they lack any sort of long distance periodicity. Because of their chaotic nature, quasicrystals tend to feel slippery to the touch, which is why they have been used to coat the surface of non-stick frying pans. The first quasicrystal was made, also by accident, in 1982, by Daniel Shechtman (who later won a Nobel prize for his work). Since then many more of them have been made in various labs, (one was even found to exist in a meteorite) though most of them have had one thing in common, they were all formed from two or three metal alloys.
In this latest discovery, the quasicrystals self-formed after the researchers placed a layer of iron containing molecules of ferrocenecarboxylic acid on top of a gold surface. The team was expecting to see a linear group of stable molecules pairing up as dimers, but instead were surprised to find that they had formed into five sided rosettes—it was the rosettes that pushed other molecules into bonding forming crystalline shapes, resulting in the formation of 2D quasicrystals that took the form of several different shapes: stars, boats, pentagons, rhombi, etc., all repeated in haphazard fashion.
In studying the quasicrystals using scanning tunnelling microscopy, the researchers found that they were held together by weak hydrogen bonds rather that the strong ionic bonds found in other such molecules. Weak hydrogen bonds are generally more common in organic molecules that exhibit complex structures.
In their paper, the researchers suggest their discovery might lead to the creation or discovery of many other similar types of quasicrystals, though it's still not clear to what use they might be put.
When a person suffers a broken bone, treatment calls for the surgeon to insert screws and plates to help bond the broken sections and enable the fracture to heal. These “fixation devices” are usually made of metal alloys.
But metal devices may have disadvantages: Because they are stiff and unyielding, they can cause stress to underlying bone. They also pose an increased risk of infection and poor wound healing. In some cases, the metal implants must be removed following fracture healing, necessitating a second surgery. Resorbable fixation devices, made of synthetic polymers, avoid some of these problems but may pose a risk of inflammatory reactions and are difficult to implant.
Now, using pure silk protein derived from silkworm cocoons, a team of investigators from Tufts University School of Engineering and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) has developed surgical plates and screws that may not only offer improved bone remodeling following injury, but importantly, can also be absorbed by the body over time, eliminating the need for surgical removal of the devices.
The findings, demonstrated in vitro and in a rodent model, are described in the March 4 issue of Nature Communications. “Unlike metal, the composition of silk protein may be similar to bone composition,” says co-senior author Samuel Lin, MD, of the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at BIDMC and Associate Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School. “Silk materials are extremely robust. They maintain structural stability under very high temperatures and withstand other extreme conditions, and they can be readily sterilized.”
A new species of dinosaur found in Portugal likely used brute force to take down prey, a new study says. Torvosaurus gurneyi, perhaps the biggest predatory dinosaur yet found in Europe, was an especially strong carnivore that likely used its four-inch-long (ten-centimeter-long), blade-shaped teeth and sharp-clawed forearms to rip into its prey.
The 32-foot-long (10-meter-long) beast roamed the Iberian Peninsula—home to modern-day Spain, Portugal, Andorra, and parts of France—about 150 million years ago during the late Jurassic period.
Christophe Hendrickx, a Ph.D. student at the New University of Lisbon in Portugal, discovered the giant while studying bones believed to belong to Torvosaurus tanneri, a related species that lived in North America's Rocky Mountain region around the same time. When the continents were connected as part of the supercontinent Pangaea, dinosaurs could potentially have migrated from North America to Europe or vice versa. But upon closer inspection, these bones—taken from the fossil-rich Lourinhã Formation in west-central Portugal—didn't look like T. tanneri. For one, the upper jaw had fewer teeth, this bone and the tail vertebrae differed—all suggesting that Hendrickx and supervisor Octávio Mateushad revealed a new species.
Discovering planets outside our Solar System has raised hopes that we may one day contact alien lifeforms. But will this ever happen?
Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” So said sci-fi author Arthur C Clarke. We’ve been fascinated by the idea life may exist elsewhere, and for over 50 years the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (Seti) has been scanning the galaxy for messages from an alien civilisation to no avail.
But the discovery of planets outside our solar system, or exoplanets, has raised hopes that efforts to contact alien lifeforms may one day succeed. BBC’s Horizon joined the planet hunters who discovered a new world called Gliese 581 c. To date, it is one of the most Earth-like planets found around another star, and it may have habitats capable of supporting life.
For the first time, a team of American astronomers has used near-infrared spectroscopy to directly detect water vapor in the atmosphere of a gas giant planet in close orbit around Tau Bootis — a bright star in Bootes that may have even helped Odysseus home from Troy.
But not even Odysseus could have imagined that 21st century spectroscopy would be teasing data from the hellishly hot atmosphere of a 3.8 Jupiter-mass planet around a star only 50 light years from earth.
Water has been detected in the atmospheres of several extrasolar planets using other techniques. However, this detection via thermal emission, as reported in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, enables astronomers to directly characterize the atmospheres of such “hot Jupiters.”
“This discovery of water on Tau Bootis b is absolutely wonderful,” said longtime extrasolar planet hunter Geoff Marcy, an astronomer at the University of California at Berkeley, who along with astronomer Paul Butler, first discovered the planet in 1996.
And it’s all the more “incredible,” says Marcy, considering that only 18 years ago, he and colleagues still thought it “a miracle” to be able to indirectly detect any such extrasolar Jupiter-mass planets, much less study their atmospheres.
Penn State University astronomer Chad Bender, one of the paper’s co-authors, says this is the first time anyone has detected water in a non-transiting planet. That is, a planet having its atmosphere probed by the background glow from its parent star.
That’s important, says Bender, because the population of non-transiting extrasolar planets is much larger than those that from our line of sight appear to transit across the face of their parent stars.
Scientists are mapping out a mission to the metallic asteroid Psyche, which is thought to be the exposed iron core of a protoplanet. The proposed mission would reveal insights about planet formation and afford the first-ever good look at a metal world.
Discovered in 1852, the main-belt asteroid Psyche is unique in that it is believed to be the exposed core of an ancient protoplanet that never completely formed, or whose rocky outer layers were destroyed. It is the most massive known M-type (metallic) asteroid, with a composition of 90-percent iron and nickel, and 10-percent silicate rock — similar to Earth's core.
The Earth's nickel-iron core is a dynamo that creates a massive magnetic field around the planet. Scientists believe Psyche also generates a magnetic field, perhaps nearly as strong as that of Earth.
Psyche is an irregularly-shaped asteroid measuring about 150 miles (240 kilometers) along its largest side. This makes it the 10th or 11th largest known asteroid (sizes are not known precisely, preventing exact rankings). The largest asteroids, including Ceres and Vesta, are protoplanets – survivors from the early formation of the solar system.
A new technology developed at the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Systems Biology allows simultaneous analysis of hundreds of cancer-related protein markers from miniscule patient samples gathered through minimally invasive methods.
Minimally invasive techniques – such as fine-needle aspiration or circulating tumor cell analysis – are increasingly employed to track treatment response over time in clinical trials, as such tests can be simple and cheap to perform. Fine needle aspirates are also much less invasive than core biopsies or surgical biopsies, since very small needles are used. The challenge has been to comprehensively analyze the very few cells that are obtained via this method. "What this study sought to achieve was to vastly expand the information that we can obtain from just a few cells," explains Cesar Castro, MD, of the MGH Cancer Centerand CSB, a co-author of the Science Translational Medicine paper. "Instead of trying to procure more tissue to study, we shrank the analysis process so that it could now be performed on a few cells.”
Up until now, pathologists have been able to examine only a handful of protein markers at a time for tumor analyses. But with this new technology, researchers at CSB have demonstrated the ability to look at hundreds of markers simultaneously down to the single-cell level. "We are no longer limited by the scant cell quantities procured through minimally invasive procedures," says Castro. "Rather, the bottleneck will now be our own understanding of the various pathways involved in disease progression and drug target modulation."
The novel method centers on an approach known as DNA-barcoded antibody sensing, in which unique DNA sequences are attached to antibodies against known cancer marker proteins. The DNA 'barcodes' are linked the antibodies with a special type of glue that breaks apart when exposed to light. When mixed with a tumor sample, the antibodies seek out and bind to their targets; then a light pulse releases the unique DNA barcodes of bound antibodies that are subsequently tagged with fluorescently-labeled complementary barcodes. The tagged barcodes can be detected and quantified via imaging, revealing which markers are present in the sample.
After initially demonstrating and validating the technique's feasibility in cell lines and single cells, the team went on to test it on samples from patients with lung cancer. The technology was able to reflect the great heterogeneity – differences in features such as cell-surface protein expression – of cells within a single tumor and to reveal significant differences in protein expression between tumors that appeared identical under the microscope. Examination of cells taken at various time points from participants in a clinical trial of a targeted therapy drug revealed marker patterns that distinguished those who did and did not respond to treatment.
A new global monitoring system has been launched that promises "near real time" information on deforestation around the world.
Global Forest Watch (GFW) is backed by Google and over 40 business and campaigning groups.
It uses information from hundreds of millions of satellite images as well as data from people on the ground. Businesses have welcomed the new database as it could help them prove that their products are sustainable.
Despite greater awareness around of the world of the impacts of deforestation, the scale of forest loss since 2000 has been significant - data from Google and the University of Maryland says the world lost 230 million hectares of trees between 2000 and 2012.
Forest campaigners say this is the equivalent of 50 football fields of trees being cut down, every minute of every day over the past 12 years.
One of the big problems in dealing with tree loss has been a lack of accurate information. Over the same time period as all these trees were lost, around 800,000 sq km of new forest was planted.
To tackle the dearth of reliable and up to date information, the US based World Resources Institute (WRI) has led the development of GFW, using half a billion high resolution images from Nasa's Landsat program.
The tool will be aimed at politicians and decision makers but also at indigenous groups.
Most people take it for granted that we have yet to make contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. Trouble is, the numbers don’t add up. Our Galaxy is so old that every corner of it should have been visited many, many times over by now. No theory to date has satisfactorily explained away this Great Silence, so it’s time to think outside the box. Here are eleven of the weirdest solutions to the Fermi Paradox.
There's no shortage of solutions to the Fermi Paradox. The standard ones are fairly well known, and we’re not going to examine them here, but they include the Rare Earth Hypothesis (the suggestion that life is exceptionally rare), the notion that space travel is too difficult, or the distances too vast, the Great Filter Hypothesis (the idea that all sufficiently advanced civilizations destroy themselves before going intergalactic), or that we’re simply not interesting enough.
But for the purposes of this discussion, we’re going to look at some of the more bizarre and arcane solutions to the Fermi Paradox. Because sometimes it takes a weird explanation to answer a weird question. So, as Enrico Fermi famously asked, “Where is everybody?”
Astronauts, get your welding goggles on – the space station is going into the foundry business. The International Space Station (ISS) is set to do a spot of industrial research this June, when ESA’s Materials Science Laboratory-Electromagnetic Levitator (MSL-EML) heads for the station aboard Europe's’ Automated Transfer Vehicle 5 (ATV-5) Georges Lemaître unmanned space freighter as part of a program to study the casting of alloys in a weightless environment.
Most metals have are crystalline and their properties depend on this microstructure, which develops as they cool. An everyday version of this is tempering, where a steel knife blade is heated to red hot and then plunged into cold water. The sudden cooling alters the crystalline microstructure of the steel, making it hard and able to hold a sharp edge.
The example is a simple one, but the process is actually extremely complex. It’s even more so when molten metal is cooled inside a casting. The temperature and density differences, convection forces as the cooling molten metal rises and falls in the mold, and any number of other factors are among the many reasons why casting metals, especially exotic alloys, is often as much art as science.
Microgravity is one way of reducing this complexity, so scientists are better able to understand it. In the absence of gravity, there aren't any convection forces, so metal castings have an even temperature. Furthermore, in a gravity-free environment metal samples can be suspended in a magnetic field and heated using conduction coils. This means there are no complicating factors, such as the molten sample sticking to a crucible wall or being contaminated by it.
By means of microgravity, scientists hope to gain a better understanding of an alloy’s surface tension, viscosity, melting range, fraction solid, specific heat, heat of fusion, mass density, and thermal expansion among other things. This would be of tremendous importance for everything from casting turbine blades to developing lighter weight alloys.
Psychologists have long been investigating the connection between facial expressions and emotions. A theory first offered by Paul Ekman, says that there are six primary emotions that are globally recognized and easily construed through specific facial expressions: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust.
According to new research published in the journal Current Biology, scientists at the University of Glasgow have discovered that there are only four basic emotions: happiness, sadness, fear/surprise and anger/disgust.
In a unique approach, the study team looked at the ‘temporal dynamics’ of facial expressions, thanks to a unique system developed at the University of Glasgow. They studied the array of different muscles inside the face involved with conveying different emotions, called ‘Action Units,’ in addition to the time-frame over which each muscle was triggered.
The scientists determined that while the facial expression signals of happiness and sadness are clearly unique across time, fear and surprise share a typical signal — the wide open eyes — at the start of the signaling mechanics. Likewise, anger and disgust share the wrinkled nose.
It is these first signals that could possibly represent simpler danger signals. Later in the signaling mechanics, facial expressions transfer signals that differentiate all six ‘classic’ facial expressions of emotion, the researchers said.
“Our results are consistent with evolutionary predictions, where signals are designed by both biological and social evolutionary pressures to optimize their function,” said study author Rachael Jack, a psychologist at the Scottish university.
“First, early danger signals confer the best advantages to others by enabling the fastest escape,” Jack explained. “Secondly, physiological advantages for the expresser – the wrinkled nose prevents inspiration of potentially harmful particles, whereas widened eyes increases intake of visual information useful for escape – are enhanced when the face movements are made early.”
“What our research shows is that not all facial muscles appear simultaneously during facial expressions, but rather develop over time supporting a hierarchical biologically-basic to socially-specific information over time,” she added.
The unique system developed by the study team uses cameras to record a three-dimensional image of participants’ faces. These participants were expressly trained to be able to activate all 42 individual facial muscles separately.
From the image, the system computer could generate a specific or random facial expression on a 3D model based on the triggering of different Action Units or clusters of units to impersonate all facial expressions.
Participants were then asked to observe the computer model as it generated various expressions and determine which emotion was being articulated. The researchers could then tell which specific Action Units observers correlate with specific emotions.
The study team discovered that the signals for fear/surprise and anger/disgust were confused at the beginning stage of transmission and only became more obvious later when other Action Units were incorporated.
“Our research questions the notion that human emotion communication comprises six basic, psychologically irreducible categories. Instead we suggest there are four basic expressions of emotion,” Jack said.
Imagine a ribbon roughly one hundred million times as long as it is wide. If it were a meter long, it would be 10 nanometers wide, or just a few times thicker than a DNA double helix. Scaled up to the length of a football field, it would still be less than a micrometer across — smaller than a red blood cell. Would you trust your life to that thread? What about a tether 100,000 kilometers long, one stretching from the surface of the Earth to well past geostationary orbit (GEO, 22,236 miles up), but which was still somehow narrower than your own wingspan?
The idea of climbing such a ribbon with just your body weight sounds precarious enough, but the ribbon predicted by a new report from the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) will be able to carry up to seven 20-ton payloads at once. It will serve as a tether stretching far beyond geostationary (aka geosynchronous) orbit and held taught by an anchor of roughly two million kilograms. Sending payloads up this backbone could fundamentally change the human relationship with space — every climber sent up the tether could match the space shuttle in capacity, allowing up to a “launch” every couple of days.
The report spends 350 pages laying out a detailed case for this device, called a space elevator. The central argument — that we should build a space elevator as soon as possible — is supported by a detailed accounting of the challenges associated with doing so. The possible pay-off is as simple as could be — a space elevator could bring the cost-per-kilogram of launch to geostationary orbit from $20,000 to as little as $500.
Not only is a geostationary orbit intrinsically useful for satellites, but it’s far enough up the planet’s gravity well to be able to use it in cheap, Earth-assisted launches. A mission to Mars might begin by pushing off near the top of the tether and using small rockets to move into a predictably unstable fall — one, two, three loops around the Earth and off we go with enough pep to cut huge fractions off the fuel budget. Setting up a base on the Moon or Mars would be relatively trivial, with a space elevator in place.
Those are not small advantages, and are worth significant investment from the private sector. Governments and corporations spend billions installing infrastructure in space — an elevator could easily pay for itself, and demand investment from anyone with an interest in ensuring cheap access to it down the line. A space elevator is relevant to scientists, telecoms, and militaries alike — and with Moon- and asteroid-based miningbecoming less hare-brained by the minute, Earth’s notorious resource sector could get on-board as well. It will certainly be expensive, probably the biggest mega-project of all time, but since a space elevator can offer a solid value proposition to everyone from Google to DARPA to Exxon, funding might end up being the least of its problems.
During harvest last year, banana farmers in Jordan and Mozambique made a chilling discovery. Their plants were no longer bearing the soft, creamy fruits they'd been growing for decades. When they cut open the roots of their banana plants, they saw something that was turning banana plants into a rotting mass.
Scientists first discovered the fungus that is turning banana plants into this rotting mass in Southeast Asia in the 1990s. Since then the pathogen, known as the Tropical Race 4 strain of Panama disease, has slowly but steadily ravaged export crops throughout Asia. The fact that this vicious soil-borne fungus has now made the leap to Mozambique and Jordan is frightening. One reason is that it’s getting closer to Latin America, where at least 70% of the world’s $8.9-billion-a-year worth of exported bananas is grown.
Chiquita, the $548-million fruit giant with the world’s largest banana market share, is downplaying the risk. ”It’s certainly not an immediate threat to banana production in Latin America [where Chiquita's crops are],” Ed Lloyd, spokesman for Chiquita, told the Charlotte Business Journal in late December, explaining that the company is using a “risk-mitigation program” to approach the potential spread.
Even if it takes longer to arrive, the broader ravaging of the commercial banana appears inevitable. And we don’t need to imagine what that would mean for banana exports—the exact scenario has already happened. Starting in 1903, Race 1, an earlier variant of today’s pathogen, ravaged the export plantations of Latin America and the Caribbean. Within 50 years, Race 1 drove the world’s only export banana species, the Gros Michel, to virtual extinction. That’s why 99% of the bananas eaten in the developed world today are a cultivar called the Cavendish, the only export-suitable banana that could take on Race 1 and live to tell.
Over the half-century it took to wipe out the Gros Michel, Race 1 caused at least $2.3 billion in damage (around $18.2 billion in today’s terms.) And that was in the commercial heart of global banana production. Tropical Race 4, by comparison, has damaged $400 million in banana crops in the Philippines alone.
But the bigger difference now is that, compared its 20th-century cousin, Tropical Race 4 is a pure killing machine—and not just for Cavendishes. Scores of other species that are immune to Race 1 have no defenses against the new pathogen. In fact, Tropical Race 4 is capable of killing at least 80%—though possibly as much as 85%—of the 145 million tonnes (160 million tons) of bananas and plantains produced each year, says Ploetz.
In humans, a tiny area in the center of the retina called the fovea is critically important to viewing fine details. Densely packed with cone photoreceptor cells, it is used while reading, driving and gazing at objects of interest. Some animals have a similar feature in their eyes, but researchers believed that among mammals the fovea was unique to primates — until now.
University of Pennsylvania vision scientists report that dogs, too, have an area of their retina that strongly resembles the human fovea. What’s more, this retinal region is susceptible to genetic blinding diseases in dogs just as it is in humans.
“It’s incredible that in 2014 we can still make an anatomical discovery in a species that we’ve been looking at for the past 20,000 years and that, in addition, this has high clinical relevance to humans,” said William Beltran, an assistant professor of ophthalmology in Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine.
The word “fovea” comes from the Latin meaning “pit,” owing to the fact that in humans and many other primates, the inner layers of the retina are thin in this area, while the outer layers are packed with cone photoreceptor cells. It is believed that this inner layer thinning allows the foveal cone cells privileged access to light.
It is known that dogs have what is called an area centralis, a region around the center of the retina with a relative increase in cone photoreceptor cell density. But dogs lack the pit formation that humans have, and, before this study, it was believed that the increase in cone photoreceptor cell density didn’t come close to matching what is seen in primates. Prior to this study, the highest reported density in dogs was 29,000 cones per square millimeter compared to more than 100,000 cones per square millimeter seen in the human and macaque foveas.
It turns out that previous studies in dogs had missed a miniscule region of increased cell density. In this study, while examining the retina of a dog with a mutation that causes a disease akin to a form of X-linked retinal degeneration in humans, the Penn researchers noticed a thinning of the retinal layer that contains photoreceptor cells.
Zeroing in on this region, they examined retinas of normal dogs using advanced imaging techniques, including confocal scanning laser ophthalmoscopy, optical coherence tomography and two-photon microscopy. By enabling the scientists to visualize different layers of the retina, these techniques allowed them to identify a small area of peak cone density and then estimate cone numbers by counting the cells in this unique area.
Based on their observations, the researchers found that cone densities reached more than 120,000 cells per square millimeter in a never-before-described fovea-like region within the area centralis — a density on par with that of primate foveas.
Human patients with macular degeneration experience a loss of photoreceptor cells — the rods and cones that process light — at or near the fovea, resulting in a devastating loss of central vision. To see whether the fovea-like region was similarly affected in dogs, the Penn researchers used the same techniques they had employed to study normal dogs to examine animals that had mutations in two genes (BEST1 and RPGR) that can lead to macular degeneration in humans.
In both cases, the onset of disease affected the fovea-like region in dogs in a very similar way to how the diseases present in humans -- with central retinal lesions appearing earlier than lesions in the peripheral retina.
This is the clearest evidence that our ancestors speared and killed the extinct giant.
These unique photographs seen by the world for the first time show the wounded vertebrae of the woolly mammoth found in Siberia. Forensic evidence proves the hole was made by a spear or javelin, meaning the huge creature was slain by ancient man some 13,470 years ago. It does not answer the conundrum that still puzzles scientists: why did the mammoths vanish from the face of the planet? Man's butchery may have been a factor, but can it really be the only one? Our exclusive pictures from Khanty-Mansiysk show the remains of a mammoth located a dozen years ago close to the confluence of the rivers Ob and Irtysh in the west of Siberia.
The images show the thoracic vertebrae of a mammoth, which in all probability was marooned in a clay swamp when the hunters went in for the kill. It is believed the weapon was thrown with great force at the creature. The vertebrae is pierced by a cone-shaped hole resulting from the penetration of a notched point, and there are fragments of quartzite flakes lodged inside, according to Russian scientists.
The discovery was made at the Lugovskoe 'mammoth graveyard' by scientists Alexander Pavlov and Eugeny Mashchenko in a swampy area where thousands of bones of mammals - mainly mammoths - have been unearthed by scientists since the 1990s. It remains unclear to what extent our ancestors ate the woolly mammoth when other, perhaps more succulent, food sources were available. Yet a related discovery last year in Lugovskoe was the remains of a 13,270 year old fireplace belonging to early men in this region.
The current theory is that mammoth bone was burned with charcoal, the fat from the bone giving a superior heat. Anton Rezvy, 39, head of the palaeontological department of the Khanty-Mansiysk Museum of Nature and Man, explained: 'The vertebra was found in Lugovskoe mammoth cemetery.'
There’s a scene in the 1988 movie Rain Man in which Raymond Babbitt (played by Dustin Hoffman) recites a waitress’s phone number. Naturally the waitress is shocked. Instead of mental telepathy, Raymond had memorized the entire telephone book and instantly recognized the name on her nametag. Hoffman’s character was heavily influenced by the life of Kim Peek, a real memory savant who recently passed away. Peek was born without a corpus callosum, the fibers that connect the right and left hemispheres of the brain. He was also born missing parts of the cerebellum, which is important for motor control and the learning of complex, well-rehearsed routines. But what Peek lacked in brain connections and conceptual cognitive functioning, he more than made up for in memory. He had the extraordinary ability to memorize any text in just one sitting. With two pages in front of him, he had the uncanny ability for each eye to focus on a different page. His repertoire included the Bible, the complete works of Shakespeare, U.S. area codes and zip codes, and roughly 12,000 other books. He was known to stop performances to correct actors and musicians who had made a mistake! He could also tell you what day of the week your birthday fell on in any year.
Savantism disproportionately affects males, with about five male savants for every one female, and the syndrome generally occurs in people with IQs between 40 and 70. Like others with ASD, when savants take IQ tests they tend to score higher on nonverbal problems than verbal problems. As Darold Treffert, a world-renowned expert on savant syndrome, observes, “IQ scores, in my experience with savants, fail to adequately capture and reflect the many separate elements and abilities that contribute to ‘intelligence’ overall in everyone.”
Even so, savants vary markedly in their abilities. Savant skills fall along a continuum, ranging from “splinter skills” (such as memorization of license plates), to “talented” savants who have musical or artistic skills that exceed what is expected based on their handicap, to “prodigious” savants where the skill is so remarkable it would be impressive with or without the disability. To date, fewer than 100 prodigious savants have been documented. Interestingly, there is almost always no “dreaded trade-off ” between the incredible skills of savants and their development of language, social skills, and daily living functioning.
How can we explain the extraordinary feats of savants? No one knows the whole story, but there are some clues. Bernard Rimland, who passed away in 2006, maintained the largest database in the world of people with autism (more than 34,000 cases). He observed that the savant skills that were most frequently present were right-hemisphere skills, and their deficits were most strongly associated with left-hemisphere functions.
It is estimated that as much as 99% of medicinal molecules administered during a therapy don't reach their targets and subsequently stay in the body of the patient. Some of these molecules can be very toxic, especially cancer drugs, and the potential side effects of many therapeutic drugs can be downright frightening – just read the instruction leaflet that comes with your pills.These effects often occur when a drug is active throughout the body, not just where and when it is needed. As opposed to having patients simply swallow a pill, health care professionals have long envisioned delivering specific quantities of medicines to targeted areas of the body, thereby increasing the treatment’s effectiveness while reducing side effects. In order to achieve this, a 'vehicle' of sorts is needed to safely and accurately deliver the medicine to the desired location within the body.
The ultimate goal of nanotechnology-enabled drug delivery, especially with regard to cancer therapy, is to ferry most of the administered drug to the target, while eliminating the accumulation of the drug at any non-target tissues.
Nanomedicine applications with targeted nanoparticles are expected to revolutionize cancer therapy. The use of such nanoparticles to deliver therapeutic agents is currently being studied as a promising method by which drugs can be effectively targeted to specific cells in the body, such as tumor cells.Biological barriers – the skin, mucosal membranes, the blood-brain barrier and cell/nuclear membranes – seriously limit the delivery of drugs into the desired sites within the body, resulting in a low delivery efficacy, poor therapeutic efficacy, and high cost.Nanomedicine researchers have developed numerous biological, chemical, and physical strategies to overcome these barriers.
Bottlenose dolphins use auditory (or echoic) information to recognize their environments, and many studies have described their echolocation perception abilities. However, relatively few systematic studies have examined their visual perception. A team of scientists now tested dolphins on a visual-matching task using two-dimensional geometric forms including various features. Based on error patterns, they used multidimensional scaling to analyze perceptual similarities among stimuli. In addition to dolphins, they conducted comparable tests with terrestrial species: chimpanzees were tested on a computer-controlled matching task and humans were tested on a rating task. The overall perceptual similarities among stimuli in dolphins were similar to those in the two species of primates. These results clearly indicate that the visual world is perceived similarly by the three species of mammals, even though each has adapted to a different environment and has differing degrees of dependence on vision.
Because dolphins have adapted to an underwater environment, they have developed a perceptual system that differs considerably from that of terrestrial mammals such as primates. One strikingly different aspect of the perceptual system of dolphins is echolocation1,. They can recognize shapes, materials, and the texture of objects using this form of biological sonar. Many echolocation studies on cetaceans have been conducted both in the laboratory and in the wild4. A few studies have investigated dolphins' ability to use cross-modal integration through vision–echolocation matching5, 6,. In these studies, dolphins were very accurate in matching three-dimensional complex objects using information gathered via echolocation. On the other hand, these results indirectly suggest that dolphins may also visually discriminate complex objects. Dolphins (e.g., bottlenose dolphins) have poorer in-air and underwater visual acuity (12.6 min of visual angle from a distance of 2.5 m) than that of primates10. Nevertheless, they still visually recognize and discriminate human gestural signs11, 12, 13, mirror images of themselves14, 15, numbers of objects16, three-dimensional objects4, 17, and two-dimensional forms17, 18. Moreover, researchers have used visual stimuli to study the basic features of the vision and various cognitive abilities of dolphins17, 18.
How can a super-thin 3-inch disk levitate something 70,000 times its own weight? In a riveting demonstration, Boaz Almog shows how a phenomenon known as quantum locking allows a superconductor disk to float over a magnetic rail -- completely frictionlessly and with zero energy loss. Experiment: Prof. Guy Deutscher, Mishael Azoulay, Boaz Almog, of the High Tc Superconductivity Group, School of Physics and Astronomy, Tel Aviv University.
It is three years since India last reported a case of polio. Patralekha Chatterjee reports on how the country appears to have finally managed to beat the disease. Despite a healthcare system beset by severe problems, India has ushered in the new year with an achievement to be proud of.
In 2009, India reported 741 polio cases, more than any other country in the world, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. The last case was reported from the eastern state of West Bengal in 2011, when an 18-month-old girl was found to have contracted the disease.
The country faced unique challenges in eradicating polio.
Among them was the high population density and birth rate, poor sanitation, widespread diarrhea, inaccessible terrain and reluctance of a section of the population, notably members of the Muslim community in certain pockets, to accept the polio vaccine.
Nicole Deutsch, head of polio operations in India for UN children's charity Unicef, said: "Despite these obstacles, India proved to the world how to conquer this disease: through the strong commitment of the government, seamless partnership comprising the government, Rotary clubs, WHO and Unicef, and above all the tireless hard work of millions of front-line workers - vaccinators, social mobilisers and community and health workers - who continue to implement innovative strategies to rid India of polio,"
The introduction of bivalent oral polio vaccine in 2010 also helped India to battle the disease. Previously, India had been using a monovalent vaccine that protected only against type 1 poliovirus transmission, not type 3. which was causing repeated disease outbreaks.
But it was organisation that was key in enabling India to cover the last mile in its battle against polio.