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Scooped by Dr. Stefan Gruenwald!

Genes don't just influence your IQ—they determine how well you do in school

Genes don't just influence your IQ—they determine how well you do in school | Amazing Science |

Twin study shows that many different inherited traits shape a person's grades and test scores.

If you sailed through school with high grades and perfect test scores, you probably did it with traits beyond sheer smarts. A new study of more than 6000 pairs of twins finds that academic achievement is influenced by genes affecting motivation, personality, confidence, and dozens of other traits, in addition to those that shape intelligence. The results may lead to new ways to improve childhood education.

“I think this is going to end up being a really classic paper in the literature,” says psychologist Lee Thompson of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, who has studied the genetics of cognitive skills and who was not involved in the work. “It’s a really firm foundation from which we can build on.”

Researchers have previously shown that a person’s IQ is highly influenced by genetic factors, and have even identified certain genes that play a role. They’ve also shown that performance in school has genetic factors. But it’s been unclear whether the same genes that influence IQ also influence grades and test scores.

In the new study, researchers at King’s College London turned to a cohort of more than 11,000 pairs of both identical and nonidentical twins born in the United Kingdom between 1994 and 1996. Rather than focus solely on IQ, as many previous studies had, the scientists analyzed 83 different traits, which had been reported on questionnaires that the twins, at age 16, and their parents filled out. The traits ranged from measures of health and overall happiness to ratings of how much each teen liked school and how hard they worked. Then, the researchers collected data on how well each individual scored on the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exam, an exam that all students in the United Kingdom must take and which is used for admission to advanced classes or colleges.

The team found nine general groups of traits that were all highly hereditary—the identical twins were more likely to share the traits than nonidentical twins—and also correlated with performance on the GCSE. Not only were traits other than intelligence correlated with GCSE scores, but these other traits also explained more than half of the total genetic basis for the test scores.

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Cesium: The element that redefined time

Cesium: The element that redefined time | Amazing Science |

Until about 175 years ago, it was the sun that defined time. Wherever you were, high noon was high noon, and on a clear day a quick glance up into the sky or down at a sundial told you everything you needed to know.

It was not until the 1930s that the physicist Louis Essen developed the first quartz ring clock, the most accurate timepiece of its day, and a precursor of the cesium clock.

Quartz clocks exploit the fact that quartz crystals vibrate at a very high frequency if the right electrical charge is applied to them. This is known as a resonant frequency, everything on earth has one.

It is hitting the resonant frequency of a champagne glass that - allegedly - allows a soprano to shatter it when she hits her top note. It also explains why a suspension bridge at Broughton in Lancashire collapsed in 1831. Troops marching over it inadvertently hit its "resonant frequency", setting up such a strong vibration the bolts sheared. Ever since, troops have been warned to "break step" when crossing suspension bridges.

To understand how this phenomenon helps you to measure time, think of the pendulum of a grandfather clock. The clock mechanism counts a second each time it swings.

Quartz plays the same role as a pendulum, just a lot quicker: it vibrates at a resonant frequency many thousands of times a second.

And that's where cesium comes in. It has a far higher resonant frequency even than quartz - 9,192,631,770 Hz, to be precise. This is one reason Essen used the element to make the first of the next generation of clocks - the "atomic" clocks.

Essen's quartz creation erred just one second in three years. His first atomic clock created at NPL in 1955 was accurate to one second in 1.4 million years. The cesium fountain at NPL today is accurate to one second in every 158 million years. That means it would only be a second out if it had started keeping time back in the peak of the Jurassic Period when diplodocus were lumbering around and pterodactyls wheeling in the sky.

But modern technology means these days even more staggeringly accurate clocks are possible. That's because cesium was always a compromise element when it came to timekeeping. Louis Essen chose cesium, because the frequency of its transition was at the limit of what the technology of his day could measure. We have today new ways of measuring time.

The frequency of the transition of strontium, for example, is 444,779,044,095,486.71 Hz. A strontium clock developed in the US would only have lost a second since the earth began: it is accurate to a second in five billion years. The scientists at NPL reckon optical clocks that keep time to within one second in 14 billion years are on the horizon - that's longer than the universe has been around.

Now, if such insane levels of accuracy seem pointless, then think again. Without the caesium clock, for example, satellite navigation would be impossible. GPS satellites carry synchronized cesium clocks that enable them collectively to triangulate your position and work out where on earth you are.

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No need for water, enzymes are doing it for themselves even under hydrophobic conditions

No need for water, enzymes are doing it for themselves even under hydrophobic conditions | Amazing Science |
New research by scientists at the University of Bristol has challenged one of the key axioms in biology - that enzymes need water to function. The breakthrough could eventually lead to the development of new industrial catalysts for processing biodiesel.

Enzymes are large biological molecules that catalyse thousands of different chemical reactions that are essential for all life, from converting food into energy, to controlling how our cells replicate DNA.

Throughout this diverse range of biological environments in which enzymes perform their various roles, the only constant is an abundance of water.

However, new findings published today [6 October] in Nature Communications, show that water is not essential for enzymes to fulfil their biological role.

This discovery could pave the way for the development of new thermally robust industrial enzymes that could be utilised in harsh processing conditions, with applications ranging from detergent technologies to alternative energies via biofuel production.

Rowan Edwards's curator insight, October 6, 2014 12:27 PM

yet another reason to re-connect with nature. 

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Captioning on Glass: Google Glass can now display captions for hard-of-hearing users

Captioning on Glass: Google Glass can now display captions for hard-of-hearing users | Amazing Science |

Georgia Institute of Technology researchers have created a speech-to-text Android app for Google Glass that displays captions for hard-of-hearing persons when someone is talking to them in person. “This system allows wearers like me to focus on the speaker’s lips and facial gestures, “said School of Interactive Computing Professor Jim Foley.

“If hard-of-hearing people understand the speech, the conversation can continue immediately without waiting for the caption. However, if I miss a word, I can glance at the transcription, get the word or two I need and get back into the conversation.”

“The smartphone uses the Android transcription API to convert the audio to text,” said Jay Zuerndorfer, the Georgia Tech Computer Science graduate student who developed the app. “The text is then streamed to Glass in real time.”

The “Captioning on Glass” app is now available to install from MyGlass. More information here.

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Researchers take Morpho butterfly cells and use them to grow colorful butterfly wings in the lab

Researchers take Morpho butterfly cells and use them to grow colorful butterfly wings in the lab | Amazing Science |

A pair of researchers, one from Oxford University, the other with the Natural History Museum in London, has found a way to grow butterfly wings in their lab. In their paper published in Bioinspired, Biomimetic and Nanobiomaterials, Helen Townley and Andrew Parker describe the transparent nature of certain butterfly and beetle wings and their efforts to reproduce them using cell cultures to grow colored materials.

Many butterfly wings, it turns out, are not actually colored by pigments or dyes—instead, their wings are made of transparent three-dimensional structures that only appear to look the color they do because of the way they filter and bend light. Because of the small size and intricate nature of these structures, scientists, despite considerable effort, have been unable to reproduce them—they'd like to be able to do so, however, because it would mean creating coatings that would never fade. In this new effort, the researchers took a more natural route—they took cells from a blue morpho butterfly chrysalis and grew them in a dish in their lab. The effort proved fruitful, as the cells grew into fully formed forewings—the first time it's ever been achieved in a lab.

The pair of researchers were hoping that the cells would continue producing wing structure material as long as they received nutrients, but discovered part of the process resulted in the destruction of the cells. Undeterred, they turned to a type of beetle that creates a shell structure that is in the same form as opal, the gemstone (by producing differing sized nanospherical structures in an array). Those cells kept producing, they found, as long as they were fed, producing a seemingly never ending stream of material.

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World's first "solar battery" runs on light and air and stores its own power

World's first "solar battery" runs on light and air and stores its own power | Amazing Science |

Researchers at The Ohio State University have invented a solar battery -- a combination solar cell and battery -- which recharges itself using air and light. The design required a solar panel which captured light, but admitted air to the battery. Here, scanning electron microscope images show the solution: nanometer-sized rods of titanium dioxide (larger image) which cover the surface of a piece of titanium gauze (inset). The holes in the gauze are approximately 200 micrometers across, allowing air to enter the battery while the rods gather light. Image courtesy of Yiying Wu, The Ohio State University.

When the battery discharges, it chemically consumes oxygen from the air to re-form the lithium peroxide. An iodide additive in the electrolyte acts as a “shuttle” that carries electrons, and transports them between the battery electrode and the mesh solar panel. The use of the additive represents a distinct approach on improving the battery performance and efficiency, the team said.

The mesh belongs to a class of devices called dye-sensitized solar cells, because the researchers used a red dye to tune the wavelength of light it captures.

In tests, they charged and discharged the battery repeatedly, while doctoral student Lu Ma used X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy to analyze how well the electrode materials survived—an indication of battery life.

First they used a ruthenium compound as the red dye, but since the dye was consumed in the light capture, the battery ran out of dye after eight hours of charging and discharging—too short a lifetime. So they turned to a dark red semiconductor that wouldn’t be consumed: hematite, or iron oxide—more commonly called rust.

Coating the mesh with rust enabled the battery to charge from sunlight while retaining its red color. Based on early tests, Wu and his team think that the solar battery’s lifetime will be comparable to rechargeable batteries already on the market.

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Bring thermal vision to your phone with this camera add-on

Bring thermal vision to your phone with this camera add-on | Amazing Science |

For the most part, smartphone peripherals can make your mobile devices even more powerful than they already are. A new add-on, dubbed Seek Thermal, aims to do just that by bringing extra imaging features to your handset. The tiny gadget can be attached to an iPhone or Android smartphone (via Lightning port and microUSB, respectively) and, thanks to a companion app, turn that otherwise common device into one with a thermal camera. Seek Thermal notes it wants to help users across different scenarios, such as being aware of what's around them at night time or, why not, look at clogged pipes throughout the household, just to mention a couple. If you're interested, be ready to pay a premium -- both the iPhone and Android models are priced at $199.

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Majorana fermion: Physicists observe elusive particle that is its own antiparticle

Majorana fermion: Physicists observe elusive particle that is its own antiparticle | Amazing Science |

Princeton University scientists have observed an exotic particle that behaves simultaneously like matter and antimatter, a feat of math and engineering that could yield powerful computers based on quantum mechanics.

Using a two-story-tall microscope floating in an ultralow-vibration lab at Princeton's Jadwin Hall, the scientists captured a glowing image of a particle known as a "Majorana fermion" perched at the end of an atomically thin wire—just where it had been predicted to be after decades of study and calculation dating back to the 1930s.

"This is the most direct way of looking for the Majorana fermion as it is expected to emerge at the edge of certain materials," said Ali Yazdani, a professor of physics who led the research team. "If you want to find this particle within a material you have to use such a microscope, which allows you to see where it actually is."

The hunt for the Majorana fermion began in the earliest days of quantum theory when physicists first realized that their equations implied the existence of "antimatter" counterparts to commonly known particles such as electrons. In 1937, Italian physicist Ettore Majorana predicted that a single, stable particle could be both matter and antimatter. Although many forms of antimatter have since been observed, the Majorana combination remained elusive.

In addition to its implications for fundamental physics, the finding offers scientists a potentially major advance in the pursuit of quantum computing. In quantum computing, electrons are coaxed into representing not only the ones and zeroes of conventional computers but also a strange quantum state that is both a one and a zero. This anomalous property, called quantum superposition, offers vast opportunities for solving previously incalculable systems, but is notoriously prone to collapsing into conventional behavior due to interactions with nearby material.

Despite combining qualities usually thought to annihilate each other—matter and antimatter—the Majorana fermion is surprisingly stable; rather than being destructive, the conflicting properties render the particle neutral so that it interacts very weakly with its environment. This aloofness has spurred scientists to search for ways to engineer the Majorana into materials, which could provide a much more stable way of encoding quantum information, and thus a new basis for quantum computing.

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Quantum meets classical: Qubits with integrated micromagnet increase speed of quantum manipulation in silico

Quantum meets classical: Qubits with integrated micromagnet increase speed of quantum manipulation in silico | Amazing Science |

The ubiquitous classical digital computer encodes data in bits (a portmanteau of binary and digits) in either a 0 or 1 state. On the other hand, while a quantum computer also uses 0/1 data representation, these qubits (from quantum and bits), qubit states 0 and 1 can be simultaneously in what is known as a superposition – and a quantum computer can also make use of entanglement. For these reasons, quantum computers can potentially solve problems whose complexity is too resource-intensive for classical computation. That being said, quantum computers are very difficult to construct. Recently, however, scientists at University of Wisconsin, Madison have fabricated a qubit in a silicon double-quantum dot in which the qubit basis states are the singlet state and the spin-zero triplet state of two electrons. (A double quantum dot links two quantum dots – semiconductor nanostructures that confine the motion of conduction band electrons, valence band holes, or excitons in all three spatial directions.) Moreover, the researchers have for the first time integrated a proximal micromagnet, allowing them to create a large local magnetic field difference between the two sides of the quantum dot - thereby greatly increasing their ability to manipulate the qubit without injecting noise that would induce superposition decoherence.

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Soil ecologists confirm: Manhattan's Central Park is home to 170,000 different kinds of microbes

Soil ecologists confirm: Manhattan's Central Park is home to 170,000 different kinds of microbes | Amazing Science |
The urban oasis boasts about 170,000 different types of microbes, recent dirt samples show. That diversity is comparable to a tropical rain forest. About 2,000 species are found only in the park.

Manhattan's Central Park is surrounded by one of the densest cities on the planet. It's green enough, yet hardly the first place most people would think of as biologically rich.  But a team of scientists got a big surprise when they recently started digging there. They were 10 soil ecologists — Kelly Ramirez from Colorado State University was among them. "We met on the steps of the natural history museum at 7 a.m. with our collection gear, coolers and sunblock," she recalls.

Their goal: to collect about 600 soil samples from across the park and look for microbes. Why? Because Ramirez was the head of something called The Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative.

Given her love of dirt, Ramirez was the right person for the job. "I think soil biodiversity is like the stars beneath our feet," she says. "There is so much going on in the soil — it's just a hot spot, teeming with so many different types of organisms."

Microbes are architects of soil. They alter its chemistry, even its shape. And in terms of its microbes, Central Park was terra incognita. So the team fanned out and dug. Onlookers were — well, blasé. This was New York City. "I think because they're used to weird things going on in the park," says Ramirez, "it just probably looked sort of normal that we were collecting."

And what the team found turned out to be very surprising — almost 170,000 different kinds of microbes. They didn't expect an urban park to measure up to the wild places they'd sampled around the world. "There's as much biodiversity in the soils of Central Park as we found in the soil ... from the Arctic to Antarctica," says Ramirez, who's now at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology. She's including places like temperate forests, tropical forests and deserts. The species numbers are an average of all those places — some are a bit more or less diverse than Central Park. The team also found 2,000 species of microbes that are apparently unique to Central Park.

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Ancient magma plumbing found buried below moon's largest dark spot

Ancient magma plumbing found buried below moon's largest dark spot | Amazing Science |

Scientists have found a nearly square peg underneath a round hole—on the moon. Several kilometers below Oceanus Procellarum, the largest dark spot on the moon’s near side, scientists have discovered a giant rectangle thought to be the remnants of a geological plumbing system that spilled lava across the moon about 3.5 billion years ago. The features are similar to rift valleys on Earth—regions where the crust is cooling, contracting, and ripping apart. Their existence shows that the moon, early in its history, experienced tectonic and volcanic activity normally associated with much bigger planets.

“We’re realizing that the early moon was a much more dynamic place than we thought,” says Jeffrey Andrews-Hanna, a planetary scientist at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden and lead author of a new study of the Procellarum’s geology. The discovery also casts doubt on the decades-old theory that the circular Procellarum region is a basin, or giant crater, created when a large asteroid slammed into the moon. “We don’t expect a basin rim to have corners,” Andrews-Hanna says.

The work is based on data gathered by GRAIL (Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory), a pair of NASA spacecraft that orbited the moon in 2012. Sensitive to tiny variations in the gravitational tug of the moon, GRAIL mapped density variations below the surface (because regions of higher density produce slightly higher gravitational forces). Below known impact basins, GRAIL found the expected ringlike patterns, but underneath the Procellarum region, the mysterious rectangle emerged. “It was a striking pattern that demanded an explanation,” Andrews-Hanna says.

Scientists already know that the Procellarum region is rich in radioactive elements that billions of years ago would have produced excess heat. The study team theorizes that as this region cooled, the rock would have cracked in geometrical patterns, like honeycomb patterns seen on Earth in basalt formations, but on a much larger scale. In a study published today inNature, the researchers propose that these cracks eventually grew into rift valleys, where magma from the moon’s mantle welled up and pushed apart blocks of crust. Lava spilled out and paved over the Oceanus Procellarum, creating the dark spot that is seen today. The extra weight of this dense material would have caused the whole region to sink slightly and form the topographic low that has made the Procellarum seem like a basin.

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An unusual strain of enterovirus-D68 has been confirmed in 277 children in 40 states

An unusual strain of enterovirus-D68 has been confirmed in 277 children in 40 states | Amazing Science |

Health officials are looking for the cause of a neurologic illness that's affected 10 children in Colorado. The children were hospitalized between August 9 and September 28 with muscle weakness in their limbs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Something is affecting the children's motor nerves, causing weakness primarily in their shoulders, triceps, biceps and hips, says Dr. Joyce Oleszek, a pediatric rehabilitation specialist at Children's Hospital Colorado. Doctors are also seeing some weakness in the neck and facial muscles in these patients.

"It seems to be attacking the spinal cord and brain stem," Oleszek said at a press conference Monday. MRI tests spotted abnormalities in the children's spinal gray matter. Most of the children experienced a respiratory illness before being admitted to the hospital, although only two had a history of asthma.

The latest case was a girl who arrived at Children's Hospital Colorado over the weekend. She and three of the other patients are still at the hospital. The rest have been discharged, said Dr. Sam Dominguez, a microbial epidemiologist at the hospital. Doctors do not know if the neurological damage will be permanent.

The CDC is investigating the cause of these symptoms. Health officials do not believe that the cases were caused by polio, as at least eight of the 10 children are up to date on their polio vaccinations. "We don't know, at this point, if there is any association between the enterovirus EV-D68 that's circulating and the paralytic conditions some of the children in Colorado are experiencing," CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said.

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“Deadly diarrhea” rates in US hospitals nearly doubled in last 10 years, study shows

“Deadly diarrhea” rates in US hospitals nearly doubled in last 10 years, study shows | Amazing Science |

Infections with the intestinal superbug C. difficile nearly doubled from 2001 to 2010 in U.S. hospitals without noticeable improvement in patient mortality rates or hospital lengths of stay, according to a study of 2.2 million C. difficile infection (CDI) cases published in the October issue of the American Journal of Infection Control, the official publication of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC).

 In this retrospective study from The University ofTexas College of Pharmacy, researchers analyzed 10 years of data from the U.S. National Hospital Discharge Surveys (NHDS). From 2001 to 2010, rates of CDI among hospitalized adults rose from 4.5 to 8.2 CDI discharges per 1,000 total adult hospital discharges.


"Several factors may have contributed to the rise inCDI incidence in recent years," said Kelly Reveles, PharmD, PhD, lead author on the study. "Antibiotic exposure remains the most important risk factor forCDI." 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)C. difficile is the most common bacteria responsible for causing healthcare-associated infections in U.S. hospitals and is linked to 14,000 deaths each year. Reducing the use of high-risk, broad-spectrum antibiotics by 30 percent could lower CDI by 26 percent, estimates the CDC. The White House recently announced a new Executive Order and National Strategy for Combating Antibiotic-resistant Bacteria, which emphasized the need for antibiotic stewardship programs to help clinicians improve prescribing practices.

"It's been estimated that up to half of antibiotic used in humans is unnecessary," said APIC 2014 President Jennie Mayfield, BSN, MPH,CIC. "To make headway against CDI, hospitals and health facilities need to get serious about antibiotic stewardship."

According to The University of Texas College of Pharmacy study, most CDI patients were female (59 percent), white (86 percent), and more than 65 years of age (70 percent).  

Of the 2.2 million adult CDI discharges, 33 percent had a principal diagnosis of CDI; 67 percent were classified as secondary CDI, meaning that CDI was not the primary reason they were hospitalized. Approximately 7.1 percent, or 154,184 patients, died during the study period.

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First Ebola, now Marburg virus. Why are deadly viruses on the rise in Africa?

First Ebola, now Marburg virus. Why are deadly viruses on the rise in Africa? | Amazing Science |

As the Ebola virus ravages western and central Africa, one of its virulent cousins has turned up in the opposite corner of the continent. Ugandan authorities report that a healthcare worker in Kampala, the country’s capital, died on Sep. 28 of Marburg virus, a hemorrhagic fever with similar symptoms to Ebola. The 30-year-old radiographer had come down with symptoms about 10 days earlier, said the health ministry.

Does this augur another terrifying outbreak like the one that’s killed more than 3,400 in western Africa? Probably not. One of the reasons the Ebola virus has killed so many is that this is the first time it’s turned up in western Africa, and the region’s governments have lacked the expertise and infrastructure to contain the virus’ spread.

Not so in Uganda. Since both Marburg and Ebola crop up periodically there, the health ministry is practiced at containment in a way that Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea simply aren’t. Ugandan authorities say they’ve already quarantined the 80 people who came in contact with the patient. In addition, Marburg’s incubation period is only 14 days, compared with Ebola’s 21, making it relatively easier to limit the virus’ spread.

Why do these viruses seem to be flaring up more often? While it’s not yet clear where the Ugandan patient contracted Marburg, in general, this is likely happening because, as mining and agricultural industry push further into tropical forests, humans are coming into contact with infected animals much more frequently. Several Marburg outbreaks, for instance, have begun by infecting miners.

Forests are home to what are called the viruses’ “reservoir hosts,” the animal populations that harbor a virus in between human outbreaks but are immune to its symptoms. While Marburg hides out in fruit bats, other similar viruses thrive in rodent populations.

No one knows for certain where Ebola lies low in between epidemics, which makes it hard to anticipate where future outbreaks will occur. However, some research suggests that, like Marburg, fruit bats also incubate Ebola.

Nevermore Sithole's curator insight, October 6, 2014 3:48 PM

First Ebola, now Marburg virus. Why are deadly viruses on the rise in Africa?

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The impossible triple star KIC 2856960

The impossible triple star KIC 2856960 | Amazing Science |

There's news of an 'impossible' triple star system recently discovered by astronomers. One that 'defies known physics.' Needless to say, there's no need to abandon physics quite yet.

It all comes from a new paper being published in MNRAS titled "KIC 2856960: the impossible triple star." Despite the overly-hyped title, it is interesting work. It's based upon data gathered from the Kepler satellite, which looked at the brightness of stars over time looking for exoplanets. Kepler finds exoplanets via the transit method, where the brightness of a star can be seen to dip when a planet passes in front of it. But the method can also be used to study multiple star systems if they happen to have the right alignment. Just as a planet can cause a star to dip in brightness when it passes in front, one star passing in front of another can have a similar effect.

The team looked at the data from KIC 2856960, for which Kepler gathered data over 4 years. In the data we see a small dip in brightness about 4 times a day, and a larger dip every 204 days. From this, it looks like a close binary of smaller stars (with orbital periods of 0.26 days) orbiting a third star with a period of 204 days. So it is a fairly common triple star system. Not a big deal, move on to other data.

But this team wanted to determine some of the characteristics of this system, such as their exact orbits and masses, so they looked at the data in more detail. Determining the details of a system can be tricky. There are all sorts of things that can add to noise in your data, such as starspots and other stellar activity. This is why exoplanets are divided into confirmed planets and candidate planets. Once you've eliminated the noise you can, you try to match the observed fluctuations to particular orbits, and then see if those orbits are stable. Sometimes the results can be deceiving.

What the team found was that the more they looked at the data for KIC 2856960, the more confusing things got. At first glance it looks like a triple star system, but when they tested candidate orbits, none of them seemed to fit. Several of them kind of fit, but there was always some unexplained fluctuation in the data. So the team tried other models, and found a 4-star system that basically worked, but it required the orbits one binary system to be in exact resonance with the other, which seems highly unlikely.

In other words, the Kepler data is inconclusive. It could be a strange 4-star system, or it could be a triple-star system with something else buried in the data. We can't be certain at this point. This does not make KIC 2856960 an "impossible" system. There's no evidence that it is defying known physics, just that the data is odd and we don't understand it.

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High Efficiency Achieved for Harvesting Hydrogen Fuel From the Sun using Earth-Abundant Materials

High Efficiency Achieved for Harvesting Hydrogen Fuel From the Sun using Earth-Abundant Materials | Amazing Science |

Today, the journal Science published the latest development in Michael Grätzel’s laboratory at EPFL: producing hydrogen fuel from sunlight and water. By combining a pair of solar cells made with a mineral called perovskite and low cost electrodes, scientists have obtained a 12.3 percent conversion efficiency from solar energy to hydrogen, a record using earth-abundant materials as opposed to rare metals.

The race is on to optimize solar energy’s performance. More efficient silicon photovoltaic panels, dye-sensitized solar cells, concentrated cells and thermodynamic solar plants all pursue the same goal: to produce a maximum amount of electrons from sunlight. Those electrons can then be converted into electricity to turn on lights and power your refrigerator.

At the Laboratory of Photonics and Interfaces at EPFL, led by Michael Grätzel, where scientists invented dye solar cells that mimic photosynthesis in plants, they have also developed methods for generating fuels such as hydrogen through solar water splitting. To do this, they either use photoelectrochemical cells that directly split water into hydrogen and oxygen when exposed to sunlight, or they combine electricity-generating cells with an electrolyzer that separates the water molecules.

By using the latter technique, Grätzel’s post-doctoral student Jingshan Luo and his colleagues were able to obtain a performance so spectacular that their achievement is being published today in the journal Science. Their device converts into hydrogen 12.3 percent of the energy diffused by the sun on perovskite absorbers – a compound that can be obtained in the laboratory from common materials, such as those used in conventional car batteries, eliminating the need for rare-earth metals in the production of usable hydrogen fuel.

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Southern Hemisphere Analysis Reveals That Global Warming Is Underestimated By 24% To 58%

Southern Hemisphere Analysis Reveals That Global Warming Is Underestimated By 24% To 58% | Amazing Science |

Oceanographers from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have discovered the heat content change of the Earth has been severely underestimated.  New calculations suggest that the amount of heat added to the Earth in the last 35 years is 24% to 58% higher than thought, due to poor sampling of ocean temperatures in the Southern Hemisphere.  The results have global implications as the ocean absorbs over 90% of the heat due to trapping by greenhouse gases.  The implications are that there has been greater net inflow of energy from the Sun, and greater amounts being stored in the world’s oceans.

The scientists obtained satellite measurements of sea surface heights, and combined it with ocean temperature data collected between 1970 and 2004, a 35 year period.  The reason for using sea surface height is that the volume change of the ocean is intimately linked to temperature: water expands as it is being warmed and additional water is added by increased melt from land ice.

Climate models show that the changes in sea surface height of the two hemispheres were consistent with the satellite measurements.  However, simulated temperature changes in the shallow layers (down to 700 meters) are not consistent with collected data before 2004.  This is believed to be due entirely to the sparsity of measurements of the Souther Hemisphere before new technology was installed to increase accuracy of the data.  Later data shows consistency between model and satellite observations.

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Aids: Origin of HIV pandemic 'was 1920s Kinshasa'

Aids: Origin of HIV pandemic 'was 1920s Kinshasa' | Amazing Science |

The origin of the Aids pandemic has been traced to the 1920s in the city of Kinshasa, in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, scientists say.

An international team of scientists say a "perfect storm" of population growth, sex and railways allowed HIV to spread. A feat of viral archaeology was used to find the pandemic's origin, the team report in the journal Science. They used archived samples of HIV's genetic code to trace its source, with evidence pointing to 1920s Kinshasa.

Their report says a roaring sex trade, rapid population growth and unsterilized needles used in health clinics probably spread the virus. Meanwhile Belgium-backed railways had one million people flowing through the city each year, taking the virus to neighboring regions. Experts said it was a fascinating insight into the start of the pandemic. HIV came to global attention in the 1980s and has infected nearly 75 million people.

A team at the University of Oxford and the University of Leuven, in Belgium, tried to reconstruct HIV's "family tree" and find out where its oldest ancestors came from. The research group analyzed mutations in HIV's genetic code. "You can see the footprints of history in today's genomes, it has left a record, a mutation mark in the HIV genome that can't be eradicated," said Prof Oliver Pybus from the University of Oxford.

HIV is a mutated version of a chimpanzee virus, known as simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), which probably made the species-jump through contact with infected blood while handling bush meat. The virus made the jump on multiple occasions. One event led to HIV-1 subgroup O which affects tens of thousands in Cameroon. Yet only one cross-species jump, HIV-1 subgroup M, went on to infect millions of people across every country in the world.

The answer to why this happened lies in the era of black and white film and the tail-end of the European empires. In the 1920s, Kinshasa (called Leopoldville until 1966) was part of the Belgian Congo. Prof Oliver Pybus said: "It was a very large and very rapidly growing area and colonial medical records show there was a high incidence of various sexually transmitted diseases."

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Illumina Says 228,000 Human Genomes Will Be Sequenced in 2014

Illumina Says 228,000 Human Genomes Will Be Sequenced in 2014 | Amazing Science |

Henry Ford kept lowering the price of cars, and more people kept buying them. The San Diego–based gene sequencing company Illumina has been doing something similar with the tools needed to interpret the human genetic code.

A record 228,000 human genomes will be completely sequenced this year by researchers around the globe, said Francis de Souza, president of Illumina, the maker of machines for DNA sequencing, during MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

De Souza said Illumina’s estimates suggest that the number will continue to double about every 12 months, reaching 1.6 million genomes by 2017, as the technology shifts from a phase of collapsing prices to expanding use in medicine.

The price of sequencing a single genome has dropped from the $3 billion spent by the original Human Genome Project 13 years ago to as little as $1,000, he said.

During an interview, De Souza questioned whether the price would keep falling at that rate. “It’s not clear you can get another order of magnitude out of this,” he said. Instead, he said, his company’s focus is now on making DNA studies more widespread in hospitals, police labs, and other industries.

“The bottleneck now is not the cost—it’s going from a sample to an answer,” De Souza said. “People are saying the price is not the issue.”

Illumina’s sequencing machines, which cost as much as $1 million each, are unmatched in their speed and accuracy. But the company’s growth has rested sometimes precariously on two curves. One has been the collapsing price of sequencing. The other is the soaring demand from genome scientists and funding agencies.

During the EmTech conference, De Souza said Illumina’s success was due to a “hard pivot” the company made in 2006, when it got into the DNA sequencing business by acquiring Solexa, a U.K. startup, and bet its fortunes “on a technology with no sales, that no one knew if it would work.”

That bet succeeded spectacularly, with Illumina machines now accounting for more than 90 percent of all DNA data produced. Last year, Illumina sold $1.4 billion worth of equipment, chemicals, and tests, about 25 percent more than the year before.

But De Souza says Illumina is now pivoting again. This time, its big bet is that DNA sequencing will become routine in medicine, not just in research labs. To make sure that happens, he said, the company is investing in simplifying its technology, winning FDA approval for more diagnostic tests doctors could order directly, developing ways to store DNA data in the cloud, and even launching a DNA app store. “The big pivot now is to the clinic. Getting there will change everything that we do,” he said.

For now, most DNA sequencing is still done by science labs. Of the 228,000 genomes Illumina estimates will be sequenced this year, more than 80 percent are part of scientific research projects, De Souza said. Those include a plan that the U.K.’s government is undertaking to decode 100,000 genomes over several years.

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Taking a closer look at quark-gluon plasma

Taking a closer look at quark-gluon plasma | Amazing Science |

To create and study the quark-gluon plasma, nuclear scientists used particle accelerators called the Relativistic Heavy-ion Collider (RHIC) at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland. By accelerating heavy atomic nuclei to high energies and blasting them into each other, scientists are able to recreate the hot temperature conditions of the early universe.

Inside protons and neutrons that make up the colliding atomic nuclei are elementary particles called quarks, which are bound together tightly by other elementary particles called gluons. Only under extreme conditions, such as collisions in which temperatures exceed by a million times those at the center of the sun, do quarks and gluons pull apart to become the ultra-hot, frictionless perfect fluid known as quark-gluon plasma.

"The temperature is so high that the boundaries between different nuclei disappear so everything becomes a hot-plasma soup of quarks and gluons," says Wang. This ultra-hot soup is contained within a chamber in the particle accelerator, but it is short-lived—quickly cooling and expanding—making it a challenge to measure. Experimentalists have developed sophisticated tools to overcome the challenge, but translating experimental observations into precise quantitative understanding of the quark-gluon plasma has been difficult to achieve until now, he says.

In this new work, Wang's team refined a probe that makes use of a phenomenon researchers at Berkeley Lab first theoretically outlined 20 years ago: energy loss of a high-energy particle, called a jet, inside the quark gluon plasma.

"When a hot quark-gluon plasma is generated, sometimes you also produce these very energetic particles with an energy a thousand times larger than that of the rest of the matter," says Wang. This jet propagates through the plasma, scatters, and loses energy on its way out.

Since the researchers know the energy of the jet when it is produced, and can measure its energy coming out, they can calculate its energy loss, which provides clues to the density of the plasma and the strength of its interaction with the jet. "It's like an x-ray going through a body so you can see inside," says Wang.

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New map exposes previously unseen details of seafloor

New map exposes previously unseen details of seafloor | Amazing Science |

Accessing two previously untapped streams of satellite data, scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego and their colleagues have created a new map of the world's seafloor, creating a much more vivid picture of the structures that make up the deepest, least-explored parts of the ocean. Thousands of previously uncharted mountains rising from the seafloor and new clues about the formation of the continents have emerged through the new map, which is twice as accurate as the previous version produced nearly 20 years ago.

Developed using a scientific model that captures gravity measurements of the ocean seafloor, the new map extracts data from the European Space Agency's (ESA) CryoSat-2 satellite, which primarily captures polar ice data but also operates continuously over the oceans, and Jason-1, NASA's satellite that was redirected to map the gravity field during the last year of its 12-year mission.

Combined with existing data and drastically improved remote sensing instruments, the new map, described in the journal Science, has revealed details of thousands of undersea mountains, or seamounts, extending a kilometer or more from the ocean bottom. The new map also gives geophysicists new tools to investigate ocean spreading centers and little-studied remote ocean basins.

"The kinds of things you can see very clearly now are abyssal hills, which are the most common land form on the planet," said David Sandwell, lead scientist of the paper and a geophysics professor in the Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics (IGPP) at Scripps.

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk promises a self-driving model for next year

Tesla CEO Elon Musk promises a self-driving model for next year | Amazing Science |

Last night, Elon Musk told the world that Tesla was ready to reveal its "D" on October 9th, as well as preparing us for "something else" to expect along the way. But the CEO isn't done teasing just yet. In a recent interview with CNN Money, Musk's let it be known that a Tesla car next year "will probably be 90 percent capable of autopilot," though he didn't dive into any specifics about which model(s) this comment was in reference to.

"So 90 percent of your miles could be on auto. For sure highway travel," the Tesla boss added. Such a thingwould be possible, Musk said, by combining different sensors with image-recognition cameras, radars and long-rage ultrasonics -- which, without a doubt, paints a bright picture for future vehicles from the company. "Other car companies will follow ... Tesla is a Silicon Valley company. I mean, if we're not the leader, then shame on us."

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New paint-on, clear bandage not only protects wounds and burns but enables direct measurement of tissue oxygen

New paint-on, clear bandage not only protects wounds and burns but enables direct measurement of tissue oxygen | Amazing Science |

Inspired by a desire to help wounded soldiers, an international, multidisciplinary team of researchers led by Assistant Professor Conor L. Evans at the Wellman Center for Photomedicine of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Harvard Medical School (HMS) has created a paint-on, see-through, “smart” bandage that glows to indicate a wound’s tissue oxygenation concentration.  Because oxygen plays a critical role in healing, mapping these levels in severe wounds and burns can help to significantly improve the success of surgeries to restore limbs and physical functions. The work was published today in The Optical Society’s (OSA) open-access journal Biomedical Optics Express.

“Information about tissue oxygenation is clinically relevant but is often inaccessible due to a lack of accurate or noninvasive measurements,” explained lead author Zongxi Li, an HMS research fellow on Evans' team.
Now, the “smart” bandage developed by the team provides direct, noninvasive measurement of tissue oxygenation by combining three simple, compact and inexpensive components: a bright sensor molecule with a long phosphorescence lifetime and appropriate dynamic range; a bandage material compatible with the sensor molecule that conforms to the skin’s surface to form an airtight seal; and an imaging device capable of capturing the oxygen-dependent signals from the bandage with high signal-to-noise ratio.
This work is part of the team’s long-term program “to develop a Sensing, Monitoring And Release of Therapeutics (SMART) bandage for improved care of patients with acute or chronic wounds,” says Evans,  senior author on the Biomedical Optics Express paper.

The bandage is applied by “painting” it onto the skin’s surface as a viscous liquid, which dries to a solid thin film within a minute. Once the first layer has dried, a transparent barrier layer is then applied atop it to protect the film and slow the rate of oxygen exchange between the bandage and room air—making the bandage sensitive to the oxygen within tissue.
The final piece involves a camera-based readout device, which performs two functions: it provides a burst of excitation light that triggers the emission of the phosphors inside the bandage, and then it records the phosphors’ emission. “Depending on the camera’s configuration, we can measure either the brightness or color of the emitted light across the bandage or the change in brightness over time,” Li said. “Both of these signals can be used to create an oxygenation map.”  The emitted light from the bandage is bright enough that it can be acquired using a regular camera or smartphone—opening the possibility to a portable, field-ready device.

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The Evolution of Sleep: 700 Million Years of Melatonin

The Evolution of Sleep: 700 Million Years of Melatonin | Amazing Science |

A new study on melatonin hints that it evolved some 700 million years ago. The authors of the study propose that our nightly slumbers evolved from the rise and fall of our tiny oceangoing ancestors, as they swam up to the surface of the sea at twilight and then sank in a sleepy fall through the night.

Melatonin, the “hormone of darkness,” is a key regulator of vertebrate circadian physiology and behavior. Despite its ubiquitous presence in Metazoa, the function of melatonin signaling outside vertebrates is poorly understood. Now, a research team investigates the effect of melatonin signaling on circadian swimming behavior in a zooplankton model, the marine annelid Platynereis dumerilii. They find that melatonin is produced in brain photoreceptors with a vertebrate-type opsin-based photo-transduction cascade and a light-entrained clock. Melatonin released at night induces rhythmic burst firing of cholinergic neurons that innervate locomotor-ciliated cells. This establishes a nocturnal behavioral state by modulating the length and the frequency of ciliary arrests. Based on these findings, they propose that melatonin signaling plays a role in the circadian control of ciliary swimming to adjust the vertical position of zooplankton in response to ambient light.

“If you take larvae in daytime and put them in darkness, they stay in their own daytime behavior,” Dr. Maria Antonietta Tosches, one of the co-authors of the study said. The melatonin-driven cycle continues to determine how they swim. “They have a clock that’s controlling this,” she said. That the melatonin network works so similarly in worms and humans suggests that it was what arose in their common ancestor. “It could have been the first form of sleeping,” said Detlev Arendt, another co-author of the new study.

David C. Plachetzki, an evolutionary biologist at the University of New Hampshire who was not involved in the study, called it “an exciting paper — it’s a very complete story.”

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Two new Jupiter-sized extrasolar planets found, each orbiting one star of a binary-star system

Two new Jupiter-sized extrasolar planets found, each orbiting one star of a binary-star system | Amazing Science |

Astronomers at Keele University have found two new Jupiter-sized extra-solar planets, each orbiting one star of a binary-star system.

Most known extra-solar planets orbit stars that are alone, like our Sun. Yet many stars are part of binary systems, twin stars formed from the same gas cloud.  Now, for the first time, two stars of a binary system are both found to host a ``hot Jupiter'' exoplanet.

The discoveries, around the stars WASP-94A and WASP-94B, were made by a team of British, Swiss and Belgian astronomers. The Keele-led WASP-South survey found tiny dips in the light of WASP-94A, suggesting that a Jupiter-like planet was transiting the star; Swiss astronomers then showed the existence of planets around both WASP-94A and then its twin WASP-94B. Marion Neveu-VanMalle (Geneva Observatory), who wrote the announcement paper, explains: "We observed the other star by accident, and then found a planet around that one also!"

Hot Jupiter planets are much closer to their stars than our own Jupiter, with a "year" lasting only a few days. They are rare, so it would be unlikely to find two Hot Jupiters in the same star system by chance.   Perhaps WASP-94 has just the right conditions for producing Hot Jupiters?  If so WASP-94 could be an important system for understanding why Hot Jupiters are so close to the star they orbit.

The existence of huge, Jupiter-size planets so near to their stars is a long-standing puzzle, since they cannot form near to the star where it is far too hot.

They must form much further out, where it is cool enough for ices to freeze out of the proto-planetary disk circling the young star, hence forming the core of a new planet.   Something must then move the planet into a close orbit, and one likely mechanism is an interaction with another planet or star.  Finding Hot-Jupiter planets in two stars of a binary pair might allow us to study the processes that move the planets inward.

Professor Coel Hellier, of Keele University, remarks: "WASP-94 could turn into one of the most important discoveries from WASP-South. The two stars are relatively bright, making it easy to study their planets, so WASP-94 could be used to discover the compositions of the atmospheres of exoplanets".

The WASP survey is the world's most successful search for hot-Jupiter planets that pass in front of (transit) their star. The WASP-South survey instrument scans the sky every clear night, searching hundreds of thousands of stars for transits. The Belgian team selects the best WASP candidates by obtaining high-quality data of transit light curves.

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