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NASA: Telescopes should be characterizing the atmospheres of habitable exoplanets by 2017 to 2020

NASA: Telescopes should be characterizing the atmospheres of habitable exoplanets by 2017 to 2020 | Amazing Science |

 An analysis of thousands of stars in the Kepler space telescope's database, found 95 possible planets orbiting red dwarfs. Of these, three are Earth-sized candidates in the habitable zone – the region around a star where liquid water can exist. Statistically, that means 6 per cent of all red dwarfs in our galaxy should have rocky planets in the habitable zone.

Most of the stars nearest to us are red dwarfs, including the closest, Proxima Centauri. Based on the distribution of red dwarfs in the Milky Way, Dressing estimates that a potentially habitable planet is only 13 light years away.

Due to orbital geometries, the odds that a given planet transits its star so that we can see it are just 1 in 50, so there's a chance the nearest habitable world will not be one that surveys like Kepler can see. The odds are better that we can see a habitable planet transit within 100 light years of Earth. That's still near enough for planned observatories to check its atmosphere for gases produced by life on Earth, such as a large amount of oxygen.

NASA is currently considering two planet-hunting telescopes that could help find such a nearby world: the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and the Fast Infrared Exoplanet Spectroscopy Survey Explorer (FINESSE). One of these missions is expected to be selected this spring for launch in 2017.

Even if neither space mission goes ahead, large telescopes on the ground should also be able to detect gases like oxygen in exoplanet atmospheres. Ignas Snellen of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands and colleagues think that, once a habitable planet around a red dwarf is found, planned facilities such as the European Extremely Large Telescope could detect such gases in its atmosphere within three to four years.

"We could be in the business of studying the atmospheres of habitable worlds 10 years from now," says David Charbonneau, also of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics. If NASA launches the missions the space telescopes and we get lucky with analysis of Kepler data to confirm exoplanets, then we could be studying the atmospheres by 2017 or 2020 with space or ground based systems.

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Space oddity: Group claims to have created nation in space

Space oddity: Group claims to have created nation in space | Amazing Science |

Welcome to Asgardia! Today, an international group of researchers, engineers, lawyers, and entrepreneurs announced the creation of a nation in space, named after the city of the skies ruled over by Odin in Norse mythology. Although Asgardia does not yet have any land, it is attracting citizens. Anyone can sign up on the nation’s website. Asgardia would allow space entrepreneurs to flourish, and protect Earth, too.


The idea behind the initiative, organizers say, is to create a new legal framework for the peaceful exploitation of space free of the control of Earth-bound nations (governance by Norse deities being preferable, obviously). The nation-building effort is led by Igor Ashurbeyli, a Russian space scientist and engineer who in 2013 founded the Aerospace International Research Center (AIRC) in Vienna, known mostly for publishing the space journal Room. Ashurbeyli told a press conference in Paris today: “The scientific and technological component of the project can be explained in just three words—peace, access, and protection.”


The protection component comes in the form of a satellite, scheduled to be launched in 2017, which will provide a “state-of-the-art protective shield for all humankind from cosmic manmade and natural threats to life on Earth such as space debris, coronal mass ejections, and asteroid collisions.” A bold plan, because the combined might of the world’s space agencies and military have yet to figure out how to prevent their own satellites colliding with each other, let alone protect Earth from a rock the size of a city. And it is not clear whether the organizers have the financing or technical capability to launch their own satellite.


The initiative appears to be an effort to sidestep the oversight of the United Nations’s Outer Space Treaty, which gives nations the duty of overseeing any space activities undertaken from its territory, whether by government bodies, commercial companies, or nonprofit organizations. The nation then takes responsibility for any damage that launchers and satellites may cause both in space and anywhere on Earth. “By creating a new Space Nation, private enterprise, innovation and the further development of space technology to support humanity will flourish free from the tight restrictions of state control that currently exist,” the project said in a statement. It’s not yet clear, however, what kind of governmental oversight, democratic or otherwise, is provided for in the Asgardian constitution—or whether the nation even has one.


Asgardia is not yet recognized by any other nation, nor by the United Nations, and it is not clear how, not having its own territory to launch from, it will be able to loft a satellite without it coming under some other nation’s control as described by the Outer Space Treaty. 

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‘On-the-fly’ 3-D printing system prints what you design, as you design it

‘On-the-fly’ 3-D printing system prints what you design, as you design it | Amazing Science |

Cornell researchers have developed an interactive prototyping system that prints a wire frame of your design as you design it. You can pause anywhere in the process to test or measure and make needed changes, which will be added to the physical model still in the printer.


In conventional 3-D printing, a nozzle scans across a stage depositing drops of plastic, rising slightly after each pass to build an object in a series of layers. With the On-the-Fly-Print system, the nozzle instead extrudes a rope of quick-hardening plastic to create a wire frame that represents the surface of the solid object described in a computer-aided design (CAD) file and allows the designer to make refinements while printing is in progress.

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Biologists first to observe direct inheritance of gene-silencing RNA

Biologists first to observe direct inheritance of gene-silencing RNA | Amazing Science |

The basics of genetic inheritance are well known: parents each pass half of their DNA to their offspring during reproduction. This genetic recipe is thought to contain all of the information that a new organism needs to build its body. But recent research has shown that, in some species, parents' life experiences can alter their offspring. Being underfed, exposed to toxins or stricken by disease can cause changes in a parent's gene expression patterns, and in some cases, these changes can be passed down to the next generation. However, the mechanisms that cause this effect—known as non-genetic inheritance—are a mystery.


New research from the University of Maryland provides a surprising possible explanation. For the first time, developmental biologists have observed molecules of double-stranded RNA (dsRNA)—a close cousin of DNA that can silence genes within cells—being passed directly from parent to offspring in the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans. Importantly, the gene silencing effect created by dsRNA molecules in parents also persisted in their offspring.


The work, published October 17, 2016 in the online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that the mechanisms for non-genetic inheritance might be simpler than anyone had suspected. "This is the first time we've seen a dsRNA molecule passing from one generation to the next," said Antony Jose, an assistant professor in the UMD Department of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics and senior author on the study. "The assumption has been that dsRNA changes the parent's genetic material and this altered genetic material is transmitted to the next generation. But our observations suggest that RNA is cutting out the middle man."


Jose and his team, including graduate student and lead author Julia Marré and former research technician Edward Traver, introduced dsRNA marked with a fluorescent label into the circulatory system of C. elegans worms. They then watched as these fluorescent RNA molecules physically moved from the parent's circulatory system into an egg cell waiting to be fertilized.

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In a scientific first, mouse eggs grown from skin cells

In a scientific first, mouse eggs grown from skin cells | Amazing Science |

For the first time, researchers have grown eggs entirely in a lab dish. Skin-producing cells called fibroblasts from the tip of an adult mouse’s tail have been reprogrammed to make eggs, Japanese researchers report online October 17 in Nature. Those eggs were fertilized and grew into six healthy mice.


The accomplishment could make it possible to study the formation of gametes — eggs and sperm — a mysterious process that takes place inside fetuses. If the feat can be repeated with human cells, it could make eggs easily available for research and may eventually lead to infertility treatments.

“This is very solid work, and an important step in the field,” says developmental biologist Diana Laird of the University of California, San Francisco, who was not involved in the study. But, she cautions, “I wouldn’t want patients who have infertility to think this can be done in humans next year,” or even in the near future.


Stem cells reprogrammed from adult body cells have been coaxed into becoming a wide variety of cells. But producing eggs, the primordial cells of life, is far trickier. Egg cells are the ultimate in flexibility, able to create all the bits and parts of an organism from raw genetic instructions. They are far more flexible, or potent, than even the embryonic-like stem cells from which the researchers created them.


Making eggs in a dish is such a difficult task that it required a little help from ovary cells that support egg growth, stem cell researcher Katsuhiko Hayashi of Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan, and colleagues found. The team had previously reprogrammed stem cells to produce primordial germ cells, the cells that give rise to eggs. But they had to put those cells into mice to finish developing into eggs in the ovary (SN: 11/3/12, p. 14).

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“Singing” fish rely on circadian rhythm and melatonin for for nocturnal courtship vocalization

“Singing” fish rely on circadian rhythm and melatonin for for nocturnal courtship vocalization | Amazing Science |
For widemouthed, musical midshipman fish, melatonin is not a sleep hormone — it’s a serenade starter.

In breeding season, male plainfin midshipman fish (Porichthys notatus) spend their nights singing — if that’s the word for hours of sustained foghorn hums. Males dig trysting nests under rocks along much of North America’s Pacific coast, then await females drawn in by the crooning.

New lab tests show that melatonin, familiar to humans as a possible sleep aid, is a serenade “go” signal, says behavioral neurobiologist Ni Feng of Yale University.

From fish to folks, nighttime release of melatonin helps coordinate bodily timekeeping and orchestrate after-dark biology. The fish courtship chorus, however, is the first example of the hormone prompting a launch into song, according to Andrew Bass of Cornell University. And what remarkable vocalizing it is.

The plainfin midshipman male creates a steady “mmm” by quick-twitching specialized muscles around its air-filled swim bladder up to 100 times per second in chilly water. A fish can extend a single hum for about two hours, Feng and Bass report October 10 in Current Biology. That same kind of super-fast muscle shakes rattle-snake tails and trills vocal structures in songbirds and bats.
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Dust mite allergens share rare combination of qualities

Dust mite allergens share rare combination of qualities | Amazing Science |

A combination of stability and abundance may be what gives allergy-triggering dust mite proteins their sneeze-inducing power, says a new study by scientists at Duke University and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

Of the thousands of proteins that make up your common house dust mite, only about two dozen trigger the miserable sniffling, sneezing and itching of an allergic reaction. Why people consistently develop allergies to some proteins, be they in dust mites, pollen, cat dander or cockroaches, but not to the large number of other proteins in the environment has been a long standing question for allergen researchers.


To tackle this question, the researchers employed a new technique that makes it possible to measure of the stability allergens and non-allergens in the dust mite on a large scale. "Interestingly the allergens weren't just more abundant, and they weren't just more stable, they were both more abundant and more stable," said Michael Fitzgerald, professor of chemistry at Duke University and a co-author on the study. "This helps us understand at a fundamental level why certain proteins are allergenic."


The results may lead to new allergy treatments or be used to predict when proteins that are artificially added to our environments, such as those used in food, medicine or other consumer products, have the potential to become allergenic.


The study appears online on Oct. 19, 2016 in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.


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Google's 'DeepMind' AI platform can now learn without human input

Google's 'DeepMind' AI platform can now learn without human input | Amazing Science |

The DeepMind artificial intelligence (AI) being developed by Google's parent company, Alphabet, can now intelligently build on what's already inside its memory, the system's programmers have announced. Their new hybrid system – called a Differential Neural Computer (DNC) – pairs a neural network with the vast data storage of conventional computers, and the AI is smart enough to navigate and learn from this external data bank.


“These models can learn from examples like neural networks, but they can also store complex data like computers,” wrote DeepMind researchers Alexander Graves and Greg Wayne. Much like the brain, the neural network uses an interconnected series of nodes to stimulate specific centers needed to complete a task. In this case, the AI is optimizing the nodes to find the quickest solution to deliver the desired outcome. Over time, it’ll use the acquired data to get more efficient at finding the correct answer.


The two examples given by the DeepMind team further clear up the process:

  1. After being told about relationships in a family tree, the DNC was able to figure out additional connections on its own all while optimizing its memory to find the information more quickly in future searches.
  2. The system was given the basics of the London Underground public transportation system and immediately went to work finding additional routes and the complicated relationship between routes on its own.


Instead of having to learn every possible outcome to find a solution, DeepMind can derive an answer from prior experience, unearthing the answer from its internal memory rather than from outside conditioning and programming. This process is exactly how DeepMind was able to beat a human champion at ‘Go’ — a game with millions of potential moves and an infinite number of combinations.


Depending on the point of view, this could be a serious turn of events for ever-smarter AI that might one day be capable of thinking and learning as humans do. Or, it might be time to start making plans for survival post-Skynet.

Via Fernando Gil
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Stephen Wolfram: AI & The Future Of Human Civilization

Stephen Wolfram: AI & The Future Of Human Civilization | Amazing Science |

What makes us different from all these things? What makes us different is the particulars of our history, which gives us our notions of purpose and goals. That's a long way of saying when we have the box on the desk that thinks as well as any brain does, the thing it doesn't have, intrinsically, is the goals and purposes that we have. Those are defined by our particulars—our particular biology, our particular psychology, our particular cultural history.


The thing we have to think about as we think about the future of these things is the goals. That's what humans contribute, that's what our civilization contributes—execution of those goals; that's what we can increasingly automate. We've been automating it for thousands of years. We will succeed in having very good automation of those goals. I've spent some significant part of my life building technology to essentially go from a human concept of a goal to something that gets done in the world.


There are many questions that come from this. For example, we've got these great AIs and they're able to execute goals, how do we tell them what to do?...


STEPHEN WOLFRAM, distinguished scientist, inventor, author, and business leader, is Founder & CEO, Wolfram Research; Creator, Mathematica, Wolfram|Alpha & the Wolfram Language; Author, A New Kind of Science. Stephen Wolfram's Edge Bio Page

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NASA: MAVEN Gives Unprecedented UV View of Mars

NASA: MAVEN Gives Unprecedented UV View of Mars | Amazing Science |

New global images of Mars from the MAVEN mission show the ultraviolet glow from the Martian atmosphere in unprecedented detail, revealing dynamic, previously invisible behavior. They include the first images of "nightglow" that can be used to show how winds circulate at high altitudes. Additionally, dayside ultraviolet imagery from the spacecraft shows how ozone amounts change over the seasons and how afternoon clouds form over giant Martian volcanoes. The images were taken by the Imaging UltraViolet Spectrograph (IUVS) on the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission (MAVEN).


"MAVEN obtained hundreds of such images in recent months, giving some of the best high-resolution ultraviolet coverage of Mars ever obtained," said Nick Schneider of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Schneider is presenting these results Oct. 19 at the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences meeting in Pasadena, California, which is being held jointly with the European Planetary Science Congress.


Nightside images show ultraviolet (UV) "nightglow" emission from nitric oxide (abbreviated NO). Nightglow is a common planetary phenomenon in which the sky faintly glows even in the complete absence of external light. Mars' nightside atmosphere emits light in the ultraviolet due to chemical reactions that start on Mars' dayside. Ultraviolet light from the sun breaks down molecules of carbon dioxide and nitrogen, and the resulting atoms are carried around the planet by high-altitude wind patterns that encircle the planet. On the nightside, these winds bring the atoms down to lower altitudes where nitrogen and oxygen atoms collide to form nitric oxide molecules. The recombination releases extra energy, which comes out as ultraviolet light.


Scientists predicted NO nightglow at Mars, and prior missions detected its presence, but MAVEN has returned the first images of this phenomenon in the Martian atmosphere. Splotches and streaks appearing in these images occur where NO recombination is enhanced by winds. Such concentrations are clear evidence of strong irregularities in Mars' high altitude winds and circulation patterns. These winds control how Mars' atmosphere responds to its very strong seasonal cycles. These first images will lead to an improved determination of the circulation patterns that control the behavior of the atmosphere from approximately 37 to 62 miles (about 60 to 100 kilometers) high.

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DNAdigest and Repositive: Connecting the World of Genomic Data

DNAdigest and Repositive: Connecting the World of Genomic Data | Amazing Science |

There is no unified place where genomics researchers can search through all available raw genomic data in a way similar to OMIM for genes or Uniprot for proteins. With the recent increase in the amount of genomic data that is being produced and the ever-growing promises of precision medicine, this is becoming more and more of a problem. DNAdigest is a charity working to promote efficient sharing of human genomic data to improve the outcome of genomic research and diagnostics for the benefit of patients. Repositive, a social enterprise spin-out of DNAdigest, is building an online platform that indexes genomic data stored in repositories and thus enables researchers to search for and access a range of human genomic data sources through a single, easy-to-use interface, free of charge.

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MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center have set a new world record for plasma pressure

MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center have set a new world record for plasma pressure | Amazing Science |

Scientists and engineers at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center have set a new world record for plasma pressure in the Alcator C-Mod tokamak nuclear fusion reactor. Plasma pressure is the key ingredient to producing energy from nuclear fusion, and MIT’s new result achieves over two atmospheres of pressure for the first time.


Nuclear fusion has the potential to produce nearly unlimited supplies of clean, safe, carbon-free energy. Fusion is the same process that powers the sun, and it can be realized in reactors that simulate the conditions of ultrahot miniature “stars” of plasma — superheated gas — that are contained within a magnetic field.


During the 23 years Alcator C-Mod has been in operation at MIT, it has repeatedly advanced the record for plasma pressure in a magnetic confinement device. The previous record of 1.77 atmospheres was set in 2005 (also at Alcator C-Mod). While setting the new record of 2.05 atmospheres, a 15 percent improvement, the temperature inside Alcator C-Mod reached over 35 million degrees Celsius, or approximately twice as hot as the center of the sun. The plasma produced 300 trillion fusion reactions per second and had a central magnetic field strength of 5.7 tesla. It carried 1.4 million amps of electrical current and was heated with over 4 million watts of power. The reaction occurred in a volume of approximately 1 cubic meter (not much larger than a coat closet) and the plasma lasted for two full seconds.


Other fusion experiments conducted in reactors similar to Alcator have reached these temperatures, but at pressures closer to 1 atmosphere; MIT’s results exceeded the next highest pressure achieved in non-Alcator devices by approximately 70 percent. While Alcator C-Mod’s contributions to the advancement of fusion energy have been significant, it is a science research facility. In 2012 the DOE decided to cease funding to Alcator due to budget pressures from the construction of ITER. Following that decision, the U.S. Congress restored funding to Alcator C-Mod for a three-year period, which ended on Sept. 30 2016. 

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European-led Mars lander to start descent on Red Planet

European-led Mars lander to start descent on Red Planet | Amazing Science |
A Mars lander is due to leave its mothership and head toward the Red Planet's surface to test technologies for Europe's first planned Mars rover, which will search for signs of past and present life.


After a seven-month journey from Earth as part of the European-Russian ExoMars program, the Schiaparelli lander is expected to separate from spacecraft Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) on October 20 and start a three-day descent to the surface. Schiaparelli represents only the second European attempt to land a craft on Mars, after a failed mission by the British landing craft Beagle 2 in 2003.


Landing on Mars, Earth's neighbor some 56 million kilometers away, is a notoriously difficult task that has bedevilled most Russian efforts and given NASA trouble as well. The United States currently has two operational rovers on Mars, Curiosity and Opportunity. But a seemingly hostile environment has not detracted from the allure of Mars, with US President Barack Obama recently highlighting his pledge to send people to the planet by the 2030s.


Elon Musk's SpaceX is developing a massive rocket and capsule to transport large numbers of people and cargo to Mars with the ultimate goal of colonising the planet, with Mr Musk saying he would like to launch the first crew as early as 2024.

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70% Of Earth's Fresh Water Is Frozen

70% Of Earth's Fresh Water Is Frozen | Amazing Science |

About 71% of the Earth is covered in water. Most of that is in oceans, rivers, and lakes, but some is frozen in the Earth's two ice sheets. Those ice sheets, which cover most of Greenland and Antarctica, only contain 2% of the world's total water supply, but a whopping 70% of the Earth's fresh water.


Scientists estimate that if the Antarctic Ice Sheet—the larger of the two—melted, sea level would rise by around 60 meters (200 feet). Not only that, but it could affect the weather: a study showed that less sea ice in the Arctic causes rainier summers in western Europe, and another study suggests that it's causing more extreme heat waves in the United States and elsewhere. And counterintuitively, melting ice also causes more melting ice.


A 2016 study found that a shrinking in the Greenland Ice Sheet causes what are known as "blocking events," where high-pressure systems park themselves on top of one area for days or even weeks. This brings warm, moist air that heats the surface below and causes even more ice to melt. Explore the relationship between polar ice and climate change in the videos below.

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Unsolved math: The moving sofa problem

Unsolved math: The moving sofa problem | Amazing Science |

So you're moving into your new apartment, and you're trying to bring your sofa. The problem is, the hallway turns and you have to fit your sofa around a corner. If it's a small sofa, that might not be a problem, but a really big sofa is sure to get stuck. If you're a mathematician, you ask yourself: What's the largest sofa you could possibly fit around the corner? It doesn't have to be a rectangular sofa either, it can be any shape.


This is the essence of the moving sofa problem. Here are the specifics: the whole problem is in two dimensions, the corner is a 90-degree angle, and the width of the corridor is 1. What is the largest two-dimensional area that can fit around the corner?


The largest area that can fit around a corner is called—I kid you not—the sofa constant. Nobody knows for sure how big it is, but we have some pretty big sofas that do work, so we know it has to be at least as big as them. We also have some sofas that don't work, so it has to be smaller than those. All together, we know the sofa constant has to be between 2.2195 and 2.8284.

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Innovative technique for shaping light could solve bandwidth crunch

Innovative technique for shaping light could solve bandwidth crunch | Amazing Science |

As data demands continue to grow, scientists predict that it's only a matter of time before today's telecommunication networks reach capacity unless new technologies are developed for transporting data. A new technique could help avert this bandwidth crunch by allowing light-based optical networks to carry more than one hundred times more data than is possible with current technologies.


Laser light comes in many different shapes, or spatial modes. However, today's optical networks use just one spatial mode to carry information, limiting the amount of data that can be transmitted at one time. Researchers led by Andrew Forbes, a professor at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, developed a technique known as spatial multiplexing that reshapes a laser beam into many spatial modes that can each carry information.


In a paper presented at the OSA Laser Congress in Boston, the researchers demonstrate optical communication with more than 100 spatial modes by combining their new spatial multiplexing approach with wavelength division multiplexing (WDM), which uses different wavelengths of light to carry information.


"We created 35 spatial modes encoded in three different wavelengths, producing 105 total modes," said Carmelo Rosales-Guzmán, research fellow and first author of the paper. "Our new method might serve as the basis for future communication technologies."


The researchers demonstrated that their technique can transmit data with 98 percent efficiency in a laboratory free-space optical network, which uses light to transmit information over the air. The scientists say the approach should also work in optical fibers, the basis for fiber-optic communications.

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Quantum computers: 10-fold boost in stability achieved

Quantum computers: 10-fold boost in stability achieved | Amazing Science |

Australian engineers have created a new quantum bit which remains in a stable superposition for 10 times longer than previously achieved, dramatically expanding the time during which calculations could be performed in a future silicon quantum computer. 


The new quantum bit, made up of the spin of a single atom in silicon and merged with an electromagnetic field - known as 'dressed qubit' - retains quantum information for much longer that an 'undressed' atom, opening up new avenues to build and operate the superpowerful quantum computers of the future. The result by a team at Australia's University of New South Wales (UNSW), appears today in the online version of the international journal, Nature Nanotechnology.


"We have created a new quantum bit where the spin of a single electron is merged together with a strong electromagnetic field," said Arne Laucht, a Research Fellow at the School of Electrical Engineering & Telecommunications at UNSW, and lead author of the paper. "This quantum bit is more versatile and more long-lived than the electron alone, and will allow us to build more reliable quantum computers."


Building a quantum computer has been called the 'space race of the 21st century' - a difficult and ambitious challenge with the potential to deliver revolutionary tools for tackling otherwise impossible calculations, such as the design of complex drugs and advanced materials, or the rapid search of massive, unsorted databases.


Its speed and power lie in the fact that quantum systems can host multiple 'superpositions' of different initial states, which in a computer are treated as inputs which, in turn, all get processed at the same time.


"The greatest hurdle in using quantum objects for computing is to preserve their delicate superpositions long enough to allow us to perform useful calculations," said Andrea Morello, leader of the research team and a Program Manager in the Centre for Quantum Computation & Communication Technology (CQC2T) at UNSW.

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Mice share each other's pain through the sense of smell

Mice share each other's pain through the sense of smell | Amazing Science |
Pain can jump from one mouse to another, presumably through chemicals detected by the nose.


Pain is contagious, at least for mice. After encountering bedding where mice in pain had slept, other mice became more sensitive to pain themselves. The experiment, described online October 19 in Science Advances, shows that pain can move from one animal to another — no injury or illness required.  


The results “add to a growing body of research showing that animals communicate distress and are affected by the distress of others,” says neuroscientist Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal of the University of California, Berkeley.


Neuroscientist Andrey Ryabinin and colleagues didn’t set out to study pain transfer. But the researchers noticed something curious during their experiments on mice who were undergoing alcohol withdrawal. Mice in the throes of withdrawal have a higher sensitivity to pokes on the foot. And surprisingly, so did these mice’s perfectly healthy cagemates. “We realized that there was some transfer of information about pain” from injured mouse to bystander, says Ryabinin, of Oregon Health & Sciences University in Portland.


When mice suffered from alcohol withdrawal, morphine withdrawal or an inflaming injection, they become more sensitive to a poke in the paw with a thin fiber — a touchy reaction that signals a decreased pain tolerance. Mice that had been housed in the same cage with the mice in pain also grew more sensitive to the poke, Ryabinin and colleagues found. These bystander mice showed other signs of heightened pain sensitivity, such as quickly pulling their tails out of hot water and licking a paw after an irritating shot.


The results are compelling evidence for the social transmission of pain, says neuroscientist Christian Keysers of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience in Amsterdam.

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Nanowires as sensors in new type of atomic force microscope

Nanowires as sensors in new type of atomic force microscope | Amazing Science |

A new type of atomic force microscope (AFM) uses nanowires as tiny sensors. Unlike standard AFM, the device with a nanowire sensor enables measurements of both the size and direction of forces. Physicists at the University of Basel and at the EPF Lausanne have described these results in the recent issue of Nature Nanotechnology.


Nanowires are extremely tiny filamentary crystals which are built-up molecule by molecule from various materials and which are now being very actively studied by scientists all around the world because of their exceptional properties.


The wires normally have a diameter of 100 nanometers and therefore possess only about one thousandth of a hair thickness. Because of this tiny dimension, they have a very large surface in comparison to their volume. This fact, their small mass and flawless crystal lattice make them very attractive in a variety of nanometer-scale sensing applications, including as sensors of biological and chemical samples, and as pressure or charge sensors.


The team of Argovia Professor Martino Poggio from the Swiss Nanoscience Institute (SNI) and the Department of Physics at the University of Basel has now demonstrated that nanowires can also be used as force sensors in atomic force microscopes. Based on their special mechanical properties, nanowires vibrate along two perpendicular axes at nearly the same frequency. When they are integrated into an AFM, the researchers can measure changes in the perpendicular vibrations caused by different forces. Essentially, they use the nanowires like tiny mechanical compasses that point out both the direction and size of the surrounding forces.


The scientists from Basel describe how they imaged a patterned sample surface using a nanowire sensor. Together with colleagues from the EPF Lausanne, who grew the nanowires, they mapped the two-dimensional force field above the sample surface using their nanowire "compass". As a proof-of-principle, they also mapped out test force fields produced by tiny electrodes.


The most challenging technical aspect of the experiments was the realization of an apparatus that could simultaneously scan a nanowire above a surface and monitor its vibration along two perpendicular directions. With their study, the scientists have demonstrated a new type of AFM that could extend the technique's numerous applications even further.

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Atomic-sized MRI uses quantum bits to help discover new drugs

Atomic-sized MRI uses quantum bits to help discover new drugs | Amazing Science |

Researchers have used quantum computing tech to miniaturize a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner, making it small enough to pick up the structure of single biomolecules without damaging them or losing information in the process. This could make it a key tool for drug discovery and other biotech research.


Scientists at the University of Melbourne, lead by Professor Lloyd Hollenberg, used atomic-sized quantum bits (usually used inside quantum computers), to act as quantum sensors to image each atom that makes up more complicated bio-molecules. "By using quantum sensing to image individual atoms in a bio-molecule, we hope to overcome several issues in conventional biomolecule imaging," Prof Hollenberg said.


Current techniques involve using a crystal of the molecule that needs to be imaged, and X-ray diffraction to pick up the molecule's average structure. Both parts of this can lead to important information getting dropped in the process. Some bio-molecules can't be crystallized either, according to the news release.


"In a conventional MRI machine large magnets set up a field gradient in all three directions to create 3D images; in our system we use the natural magnetic properties of a single atomic qubit," says University of Melbourne PhD researcher Mr. Viktor Perunicic. In short, atomic quantum bits make great nano sensors.


"The construction of such a quantum MRI machine for single molecule microscopy could revolutionize how we view biological processes at the molecular level, and could lead to the de

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Mysterious origin of European bison revealed using DNA and cave art

Mysterious origin of European bison revealed using DNA and cave art | Amazing Science |

Threatened forest icon may be a hybrid of two extinct species.


The European bison (Bison bonasus) may be the continent’s largest land mammal, but its origins have long been a mystery. Hunted for millennia and pushed into the wild corners of Europe as agriculture expanded, the bison — also known as wisent — were reduced to just a few zoo specimens by the late 1920s. Today, a semi-wild population roams Białowieża Forest, near the Poland–Belarus border, where they slip between hornbeams and mighty oaks, their curly coats and horns lending an aura of the Pleistocene to the ancient forest. It took a reach into the past using ancient DNA and cave art to unveil the wisent’s origin story. Researchers published the species’ family tree on 19 October in Nature Communications1.


The team took almost a decade to complete their work. Much of the analysis used ancient mitochondrial DNA derived from 65 bison specimens ranging from 14,000 to more than 50,000 years ago. But it wasn’t until technological advances made it possible to examine nuclear DNA that researchers were able to produce a coherent family tree.


According to the team’s analysis, the wisent is a hybrid of two extinct animals: the steppe bison (Bison priscus), the Eurasian ancestor of the American bison, and the aurochs (Bos primigenius), the ancestor of modern cattle. The steppe bison went extinct more than 11,000 years ago and the last aurochs was shot in 1627. From the DNA evidence researchers estimate that hybridization took place 120,000 or more years ago. In most cases, hybrid animals are less fertile and fit than their parents. But in this case, a whole new species seems to have taken flight.

Via Integrated DNA Technologies
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Bees can learn to pull a string for food and spread the skill to others

Bees can learn to pull a string for food and spread the skill to others | Amazing Science |

Bumblebees can learn to pull strings for food and pass on the ability to a colony, according to researchers at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL).


Pulling strings to obtain food is an experiment often used to test the intelligence of apes and birds, but it is the first time this technique has been discovered in an insect. Moreover the cultural spread of such a technique from a single informed individual has also been described for the first time in an invertebrate animal.


The results, published in PLOS Biology, show that rare innovator bees were able to solve the problem of pulling the string to reach a sugar water reward by themselves while most others could learn to pull the string when trained.


Naïve bees were then able to learn the task by observing a trained demonstrator bee while this skill was passed down through several generations of learners, ensuring its longevity in the population.


Dr Sylvain Alem, lead author of the study, said: "We found that when the appropriate social and ecological conditions are present, culture can be mediated by the use of a combination of simple forms of learning. Thus, cultural transmission does not require the high cognitive sophistication specific to humans, nor is it a distinctive feature of humans."

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Human Cell Atlas—a collection of maps descibing the cellular basis of health and disease

Human Cell Atlas—a collection of maps descibing the cellular basis of health and disease | Amazing Science |

In London on 13 and 14 October, 2016, a collaborative community of world-leading scientists met and discussed how to build a Human Cell Atlas—a collection of maps that will describe and define the cellular basis of health and disease.


Cells are the most fundamental unit of life, yet we know surprisingly little about them. They vary enormously within the body, and express different sets of genes. Without maps of different cell types and where they are located in the body, we cannot describe all their functions and understand the biological networks that direct their activities.


A complete Human Cell Atlas would give us a unique ID card for each cell type, a three-dimensional map of how cell types work together to form tissues, knowledge of how all body systems are connected, and insights into how changes in the map underlie health and disease. It would allow us to identify which genes associated with disease are active in our bodies and where, and analyze the regulatory mechanisms that govern the production of different cell types.


This has been a key challenge in biology for more than 150 years. New tools such as single-cell genomics have put it within reach. It is an ambitious but achievable goal, and requires an international community of biologists, clinicians, technologists, physicists, computational scientists, software engineers, and mathematicians.

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Watching the brain in action real-time

Watching the brain in action real-time | Amazing Science |

Watching millions of neurons in the brain interacting with each other is the ultimate dream of neuroscientists! A new imaging method now makes it possible to observe the activation of large neural circuits, currently up to the size of a small-animal brain, in real time and three dimensions. Researchers at the Helmholtz Zentrum München and the Technical University of Munich have recently reported on their new findings in Nature’s journal ‘Light: Science & Applications’.


Nowadays it is well recognized that most brain functions may not be comprehended through inspection of single neurons. To advance meaningfully, neuroscientists need the ability to monitor the activity of millions of neurons, both individually and collectively. However, such observations were so far not possible due to the limited penetration depth of optical microscopy techniques into a living brain.

A team headed by Prof. Dr. Daniel Razansky, a group leader at the Institute of Biological and Molecular Imaging (IBMI), Helmholtz Zentrum München, and Professor of Molecular Imaging Engineering at the Technical University of Munich, has now found a way to address this challenge. The new method is based on the so-called optoacoustics*, which allows non-invasive interrogation of living tissues at centimeter scale depths.

”We discovered that optoacoustics can be made sensitive to the differences in calcium ion concentrations** resulting from neural activity and devised a rapid functional optoacoustic neuro-tomography (FONT) system that can simultaneously record signals from a very large number of neurons”, said Dr. Xosé Luis Deán-Ben, first author of the study. Experiments performed by the scientists in brains of adult zebrafish (Danio rerio) expressing genetically encoded calcium indicator GCaMP5G demonstrated, for the first time, the fundamental ability to directly track neural dynamics using optoacoustics while overcoming the longstanding penetration barrier of optical imaging in opaque brains. The technique was also able to trace neural activity during unrestrained motion of the animals.

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The giant rings of 'Mega Saturn' are spinning the wrong way (retrograde)

The giant rings of 'Mega Saturn' are spinning the wrong way (retrograde) | Amazing Science |

Astronomers first noticed the strange ring system in 2007. While observing a star called 1SWASP J140747, located in the Centaurus constellation about 420 light years from Earth. 

They noticed the star's light flickered as something passed in front of it, just like a solar eclipse. Analysis revealed a huge Saturn-like ring system with an massive object at the centre, which was named J1407b. The object is more massive than Jupiter (by about 80 times) and could be a giant planet or a brown dwarf, a type of star which failed to ignite.


In effect, the rings are circling J1407b against the grain, in the opposite direction to its orbit around the star. Crunching the numbers revealed that these types of retrograde ring systems can survive at least 10E5 years, or 100,000 years, producing eclipses that last for 56 days.


Dr Rieder told the New York Times: ‘If you have the planet moving clockwise and the rings moving counterclockwise, that is much more stable than if they move in the same direction, clockwise.’ 


But while the pair’s simulations may answer one question, it raises the issue of how the rings came to be spinning in the opposite direction from their orbit. Writing in a paper published this week in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, they explain the answer could be the same reason why some of the planets in our own solar system have wonky orbits – collisions. They explain: ‘It is possible that such a collision between two rocky bodies in orbit around a planet results in a significant amount of retrograde moving material [around] J1407b, resulting in the rings we see today.’ 

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A team of physicists dispels Rayleigh's curse

A team of physicists dispels Rayleigh's curse | Amazing Science |

The resolution of an optical system (like a telescope or a camera) is limited by the so-called Rayleigh criterion. An international team, led by Complutense University of Madrid, has broken this limit, showing that it is not a fundamental curse. This opens the door to considerable improvement in resolution and could force the revision of Optics textbooks. This research is the culmination of a thrilling race between four groups of scientists around the world.


An ideal optical system would resolve a point perfectly as a point. However, due to the wave nature of light, diffraction occurs, caused by the limiting edges of the system's apertures. The result is that the image of a point is a blur. This limits the resolution of any imaging system, including microscopes, telescopes, and cameras. The quantitative formulation of this phenomenon is the time-honored Rayleigh's limit.


Rayleigh's curse limits the minimum distance that can be distinguished with visible light: on the order of 0.1 micrometer (a bacterium, for example, has a size of 2 micrometers), "which is a great limitation to our ability to see finer details", says Luis Sánchez Soto, Professor at the Faculty of Physics at Complutense University of Madrid (UCM).


In cooperation with scientists from Palacký University in Olomouc (Czech Republic), the physicist has managed to break this limit, reaching resolutions up to 17 times lower than those purported by Lord Rayleigh. "Textbook Optics should be reconsidered and Rayleigh's limit shall be placed in a broader context", says Sánchez Soto, who is also a researcher at the Max-Planck Institute for the Science of Light in Erlangen (Germany).


The research, published in Optica, is the culmination of a thrilling race between four teams of scientists around the world. Everyone wanted to prove the violation of this limit, but the group led by the Spanish was the first to achieve it.

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