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Astrochemists Trying To Decipher Mystery Molecules Discovered in Distant Galaxies

Astrochemists Trying To Decipher Mystery Molecules Discovered in Distant Galaxies | Amazing Science |

In late 2011, a team of NASA and European scientists recorded the "fingerprints" of mystery molecules in two distant galaxies, Andromeda and the Triangulum. Astronomers can count on one hand the number of galaxies examined so far for such fingerprints, which are thought to belong to large organic molecules (molecules that have at least 20 atoms or more), said the team's leader, Martin Cordiner of NASA's Goddard Center for Astrobiology. This is quite small compared to, say, a protein, but huge compared to a molecule of carbon monoxide, a very common molecule in space.


Figuring out exactly which molecules are leaving these clues, known as "diffuse interstellar bands" (DIBs), is a puzzle that initially seemed straightforward but has gone unsolved for nearly a hundred years. The answer is expected to help explain how stars, planets and life form, so settling the matter is as important to astronomers who specialize in chemistry and biology as determining the nature of dark matter is to the specialists in physics.
The significance of the first DIBs, recorded in 1922 in Mary Lea Heger's Ph.D. thesis, was not immediately recognized. But once astronomers began systematic studies, starting with a 1934 paper by P. W. Merrill, they had every reason to believe the problem could be solved within a decade or two.

More than 400 DIBs have been documented since then. But not one has been identified with enough certainty for astronomers to consider its case closed.

"With this many diffuse bands, you'd think we astronomers would have enough clues to solve this problem," muses Joseph Nuth, a senior scientist with the Goddard Center for Astrobiology who was not involved in this work. "Instead, it's getting more mysterious as more data is gathered." Detailed analyses of the bumps and wiggles of the DIBs, suggest that the molecules which give rise to DIBs—called "carriers"—are probably large.

Recently, more interest has been focused on at least one small molecule, a chain made from three carbon atoms and two hydrogen atoms (C3H2). This was tentatively identified with a pattern of DIBs.

On the list of DIB-related suspects, all molecules have one thing in common: they are organic, which means they are built largely from carbon. Carbon is great for building large numbers of molecules because it is available almost  everywhere. In space, only hydrogen, helium and oxygen are more plentiful. Here on Earth, we find carbon in the planet's crust, the oceans, the atmosphere and all forms of life.
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Like Humans, Dolphins Call Each Other By Name

Like Humans, Dolphins Call Each Other By Name | Amazing Science |
Bottlenose dolphins use signature whistles when they're separated.


Bottlenose dolphins call out the specific names of loved ones when they become separated, a study finds. Other than humans, the dolphins are the only animals known to do this, according to the study, published in the latest Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The big difference with bottlenose dolphins is that these communications consist of whistles, not words.


Earlier research found that bottlenose dolphins name themselves, with dolphins having a “signature whistle” that encodes other information. It would be somewhat like a human shouting, “Hey everybody! I’m an adult healthy male named George, and I mean you no harm!”


“Animals produced copies when they were separated from a close associate and this supports our belief that dolphins copy another animal’s signature whistle when they want to reunite with that specific individual,” lead author Stephanie King of the University of St. Andrews Sea Mammal Research Unit told Discovery News.


Captive bottlenose dolphins, however, as well as all of the wild ones, developed their own signature whistles that serve as names in interactions with other dolphins. “A dolphin emits its signature whistle to broadcast its identity and announce its presence, allowing animals to identify one another over large distances and for animals to recognize one another and to join up with each other,” King explained. “Dolphin whistles can be detected up to 20 km away (12.4 miles) depending on water depth and whistle frequency.”

Peter Phillips's curator insight, February 21, 2013 4:12 AM

Dolphins call each other by name!

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What Created Earth's Oceans? Comet 103P/Hartley 2 From The Kuiper Belt Offers New Clue

What Created Earth's Oceans? Comet 103P/Hartley 2 From The Kuiper Belt Offers New Clue | Amazing Science |

For the first time, astronomers have found water on a comet that's a chemical match for water on Earth, a new study says. The discovery backs up theories that water-rich comets helped fill ancient Earth's oceans.

Planet-formation models indicate that early Earth was much too hot to sustain liquid water on its surface, making the origin of Earth's oceans a mystery.

So scientists speculated that our planet's surface water came from comets that slammed into Earth once the planet had cooled.


This theory was dealt a serious blow in the 1980s, however, due to measurements of the ratio of normal to "semiheavy" molecules—the D/H ratio—in comet water.


In a semiheavy water molecule, one hydrogen atom (H) is replaced with a heftier version called deuterium (D). All water in nature has a D/H ratio, and since deuterium is a very stable atom, this ratio can go unchanged for eons.

Since the 1980s researchers have found that several comets in our solar system have D/H ratios that are very different from that of Earth's water.


Those results indicated that, at best, only about 10 percent of Earth's water could have come from comets, with the rest probably coming from water-rich asteroids, explained study leader Paul Hartogh, an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany. In the new study, Hartogh and his team used the European Space Agency's Herschel Space Observatory to examine the D/H ratio of the comet 103P/Hartley 2. The results show that Hartley 2's water is very similar to that of Earth.


Hartley 2 is a so-called Jupiter family comet, because its orbit takes the comet close to the orbits of Jupiter and the other gas giants. Importantly, computer simulations suggest that Hartley 2 originated from the Kuiper belt, a region beyond the orbit of Neptune that is filled with comets and other icy remnants from the formation of our solar system.


This would suggest that the larger group of comets that helped form Earth's oceans originally came from the Kuiper belt. (Related: "Three New 'Plutos'? Possible Dwarf Planets Found.")


By contrast, the comets with D/H ratios that didn't match Earth's are thought to have originated in the Oort cloud, a reservoir of billions of comets that astronomers think exists far beyond the Kuiper belt.

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Match, Manipulate and Medicate: Old Drugs Targeted for New Uses

Match, Manipulate and Medicate: Old Drugs Targeted for New Uses | Amazing Science |

In 1993, scientists working for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer had a conundrum on their hands. Their new wonder drug, the product of years of intense and costly research, failed to show any effectiveness in treating patients with angina pectoris, a common cause of severe chest pain. Then named UK-92,480, the drug was destined to be shelved. if it were not for the keen observation that some patients reported sustained erections as a side effect of their treatment. The researchers were baffled at first but then realized the opportunity on their hands. Five years later, UK-92,480 gained FDA approval as an oral treatment for erectile dysfunction and was released to market. Today it has been rebranded as sildenafil — or Viagra — and has become a windfall for Pfizer.


Could other failed drugs find their own stories of serendipity? Certainly, finding novel uses for failed drugs is not a new idea. Aside from Viagra, a number of well-known drugs had originally been developed for other purposes, such as Rogaine, which had started as a drug for high blood pressure, and AZT, the anti-HIV drug that was originally supposed to be a cancer drug. In each case, advances in our understanding of diseases and human biology led researchers back to the past, repurposing old drugs based on a better understanding of their mechanisms of action.


Pharmaceutical companies have taken an interest in reviving their failed drugs. From their perspective, drug development is a risky business. Bringing a drug from the lab to the clinic typically takes 13 years and an investment of around $1 billion, with a 95 percent risk of failure. Some drugs may not be structurally suitable for efficient mass production, some show dangerous side effects, and some simply do not work against the target disease. In total, around 30,000 drugs have been shelved by pharmaceutical companies over the past three decades, and some of these failed drugs have shown new promise for treating other diseases. Because they have already been tested in humans, details about their production, dosage, and toxicity are readily available, which can expedite the process of developing new disease treatments. Instead of starting from scratch, successful repurposing of even a few drugs could save companies substantial amounts of cost and time.


A new development in drug retargeting strategies has been the creation of drug libraries that allow receptor sites to be matched up with pre-existing chemical compounds. Last year, Dr. Elias Lolis, Professor of Pharmacology at Yale School of Medicine, and Dr. Michael Cappello, Professor of Pediatrics, Microbial Pathogenesis, and Public Health at Yale School of Medicine, jointly published a paper detailing how this approach can be applied to treating hookworm infestations. Previous research had suggested that hookworms manipulate the human immune system by mimicking a key human regulator with their own protein, AceMIF. Together, Lolis and Cappello’s research teams screened a chemical library of almost a thousand FDA-approved compounds for possible drugs that could inhibit AceMIF activity, effectively preventing a hookworm from shutting down the human’s immune response. From this study, they were able to identify two potential anti-hookworm drugs previously tested for other purposes: sodium meclofenamate, an anti-inflammatory drug, and furosemide, a diuretic.


Recently, the National Institute of Health, through their National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), launched a massive $20 million program to reopen research into 58 drugs shelved by various pharmaceutical companies. Worth up to $2 million each, these grants will be awarded to proposals from academics, non-profit groups, and biotechnology corporations investigating novel applications for these failed drugs. Even this effort, however, has not been without controversy. Some, like former Pfizer President John LaMattina, have criticized the NCATS undertaking, claiming that companies themselves have already taken similar rediscovery initiatives.


Others worry about potential intellectual property issues that may impede the process to push the repurposed drug through to the clinic. Companies may be hesitant to sacrifice any measure of intellectual property rights of their compounds, which are central to their value. On the other hand, without patent protection, researchers will have a difficult time convincing companies to continue developing off-patent drugs and bring them to market. Although advances in both biological understanding and computational technology offer exciting possibilities in old drugs, the road to the clinic remains long and treacherous.

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New hyperbolic metamaterial waveguide slows down light and captures a wide range of wavelengths

New hyperbolic metamaterial waveguide slows down light and captures a wide range of wavelengths | Amazing Science |

A new type of material that halts and absorbs light may lead to advances in solar energy, stealth technology, and other fields, experts report. Researchers ath the University at Buffalo developed a “hyperbolic metamaterial waveguide” that halts and ultimately absorbs each frequency of light, at slightly different places in a vertical direction, to catch a “rainbow” of wavelengths. The technology is essentially an advanced microchip made of ultra-thin films of metal and semiconductors and/or insulators.


“Electromagnetic absorbers have been studied for many years, especially for military radar systems,” says Qiaoqiang Gan, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at University at Buffalo.


“Right now, researchers are developing compact light absorbers based on optically thick semiconductors or carbon nanotubes. However, it is still challenging to realize the perfect absorber in ultra-thin films with tunable absorption band.


“We are developing ultra-thin films that will slow the light and therefore allow much more efficient absorption, which will address the long existing challenge.”


Light is made of photons that, because they move extremely fast, are difficult to tame. In their initial attempts to slow light, researchers relied upon cryogenic gases, which are very cold—roughly 240 degrees below zero Fahrenheit—and difficult to work with outside a laboratory.


Gan previously helped pioneer a way to slow light without cryogenic gases. He and other researchers at Lehigh University made nanoscale-sized grooves in metallic surfaces at different depths, a process that altered the optical properties of the metal. While the grooves worked, they had limitations. For example, the energy of the incident light cannot be transferred onto the metal surface efficiently, which hampered its use for practical applications.


Researchers say the technology could lead to advancements in an array of fields. For example, in electronics there is a phenomenon known as crosstalk, in which a signal transmitted on one circuit or channel creates an undesired effect in another circuit or channel. The on-chip absorber could potentially prevent this.


The on-chip absorber may also be applied to solar panels and other energy-harvesting devices. It could be especially useful in mid-infrared spectral regions as thermal absorber for devices that recycle heat after sundown, Gan says.


Technology such as the stealth bomber involves materials that make planes, ships, and other devices invisible to radar, infrared, sonar, and other detection methods. Because the on-chip absorber has the potential to absorb different wavelengths at a multitude of frequencies, it could be useful as a stealth-coating material.

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Skylon Spaceplane: The Spacecraft of Tomorrow

Skylon Spaceplane: The Spacecraft of Tomorrow | Amazing Science |

In a world where private space industry is poised to take over, the world's first single stage to orbit spacecraft may be the privately developed Skylon spaceplane. However, rockets are also a huge financial drain on any spaceflight, being only partially reusable. Wouldn’t it be nice if it were cheaper and more economical to get to orbit? Cue the Skylon spaceplane, currently scheduled to commence test flights in 2019.


Over 30 years in the making, Skylon is a vehicle being developed by British company Reaction Engines Limited, and is being built as the world’s first fully reusable spaceplane (a spacecraft that takes off and lands horizontally like a conventional aircraft). In fact, each Skylon spaceplane is intended to be reusable over 200 times — quite a drastic improvement over any space vehicle in active use today.


The most notable benefit of this would be a dramatic reduction in the cost of transporting items to orbit. With current launch vehicles, it costs over $23,000 per kilogram to lift cargo into orbit. This is to cover both the cost of a huge amount of fuel, and the price of the launch vehicle itself. A reusable vehicle like Skylon would slash this price down to just over $1,000 per kilogram. Much more manageable!


Creating fully reusable launch systems has been an ambition of the aerospace industry for well over half a century now. Despite plentiful research and development work and a menagerie of design concepts, no such vehicle has yet been created. The closest humanity has come so far was the Space Shuttle, where the orbiter craft and the two solid rocket engines were able to be reused — albeit only after a few months of refitting work. The ultimate aim has always been a Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO) vehicle, capable of launching directly into space from ground level, without needing to discard any rocket boosters on the way.


To date, tests for Skylon’s air breathing SABRE rocket engines have proved rather successful; based on a unique design which constantly cools incoming air, SABRE engines have effectively double the efficiency of existing jet engines. 


Specifically developed by Reaction Engines Limited, these engines would give Skylon a top speed of over 30,000 km/h, enabling a suborbital journey from London to Sydney, Australia in approximately 4 hours. As well as being capable of reaching mach 5 for surface to surface transport, these engines allow Skylon to leave the atmosphere and enter orbit; the initial goal is to provide a cargo transport system to carry goods up to space stations by 2022, with intentions to later modify the vehicle to carry passengers.

While funding has yet to be secured to complete the program, the British and European Space Agencies have given a green light to the Skylon project, announcing their confidence in the vehicle and stating that there are no impediments to further development of the project. Reaction Engines are hoping to have a working prototype flying by 2016, and aim to construct a fleet of them within the next decade.


With each vehicle approximately 82 meters in length and costing slightly under $1.1 billion each, if Reaction Engines are successful then they may well revolutionize orbital transport in the near future. While it may still be too early to say anything for certain, I think we can afford ourselves a certain amount of optimism for Skylon. Things are looking very promising.

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Eating fermented fruit off the ground: Origins of alcohol consumption traced to ape ancestor

Eating fermented fruit off the ground: Origins of alcohol consumption traced to ape ancestor | Amazing Science |

The taste for alcohol may be an ancient craving. The ability to metabolize ethanol — the alcohol in beer, wine and spirits — might have originated in the common ancestor of chimpanzees, gorillas and humans roughly 10 million years ago, perhaps when this ancestor became more terrestrial and started eating fruits fermenting on the ground.


Chemist Steven Benner of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, Fla., reached that conclusion by “resurrecting” the alcohol-metabolizing enzymes of extinct primates. Benner and his colleagues estimated the enzymes’ genetic code, built the enzymes in the lab and then analyzed how they work to understand how they changed over time.

“It’s like a courtroom re-enactment,” said biochemist Romas Kazlauskas of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Benner “can re-enact what happened in evolution.”


Today, humans rely on an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase 4, or ADH4, to break down ethanol. The enzyme is common throughout the esophagus, stomach and intestines, and is the first alcohol-metabolizing enzyme that comes into contact with what a person drinks. Among primates, not all ADH4s are the same — some can’t effectively metabolize ethanol.


To see how ADH4 evolved, Benner’s team read the stretches of DNA that make ADH4 in 27 modern primate species, including lemurs, monkeys, apes and humans. Then they mapped the DNA sequences on a primate family tree and inferred what the genes might have looked like long ago at points on the tree where evolutionary branches separated. The branching points represent extinct primate ancestors. 


Most primate ancestors wouldn’t have been able to metabolize ethanol, the results showed. But at the branching point leading to gorillas, chimps and humans — which represents an ancestor that lived roughly 10 million years ago — the enzyme becomes a powerful alcohol digester. Compared with earlier enzymes, this one was 50 times as efficient, Benner reported, and was nearly capable of breaking down the level of ethanol found in modern alcoholic beverages.


Because gorillas, chimps and humans all spend at least some time on the ground, Benner thinks a terrestrial lifestyle arose in these primates’ common ancestor around 10 million years ago. Being on the ground, the ancestor would have come across fruit that had fallen from trees. With a damaged husk or skin, yeast could have invaded the fruit and fermented its sugars into ethanol. Thus, individuals who could digest ethanol would have survived better than those who couldn’t. This would also explain why the ability to metabolize ethanol didn’t evolve in tree-dwelling primates like orangutans that rarely encounter fermented fruit.


But it may be too soon to link metabolizing ethanol with living on the ground, said Jeremy DeSilva, a biological anthropologist at Boston University. “There’s very little fossil evidence from the general time period when humans, gorillas and chimpanzees last shared a common ancestor.” Scientists still debate whether this ancestor was strictly arboreal or split its time between the ground and the trees. “This is cool work,” he said. “We’ll be able to evaluate it with better evidence as we find more fossils from that time period.”

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New TACS therapy uses electricity to cancel out Parkinson tremors

New TACS therapy uses electricity to cancel out Parkinson tremors | Amazing Science |

A new therapy could help suppress tremors in people with Parkinson's disease, an Oxford University study suggests.


The technique – called transcranial alternating current stimulation or TACS – cancels out the brain signal causing the tremors by applying a small, safe electric current across electrodes on the outside of a patient’s head.


The preliminary study, conducted with 15 people with Parkinson's disease at Oxford's John Radcliffe Hospital, is published in the journal Current Biology. The researchers showed a 50 per cent reduction in resting tremors among the patients.


Physical tremors are a significant and debilitating symptom of Parkinson's disease, but do not respond well to existing drug treatments. Tremors can be successfully treated with deep brain stimulation, a technique that involves surgery to insert electrodes deep into the brain itself to deliver electrical impulses. But this invasive therapy is expensive and carries some health risks, including bleeding in to the brain, which means it is not suitable for all patients.


In TACS in contrast, the electrode pads are placed on the outside of the patient's head, so it does not carry the risks associated with deep brain stimulation. Tremors experienced by Parkinson's sufferers can be devastating and any therapy that can suppress or reduce those tremors significantly improves quality of life for patients.


 Professor Peter Brown of the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences, who led the study, said: 'Tremors experienced by Parkinson's sufferers can be devastating and any therapy that can suppress or reduce those tremors significantly improves quality of life for patients. 


'We are very hopeful this research may, in time, lead to a therapy that is both successful and carries reduced medical risks. We have proved the principle, now we have to optimise it and adapt it so it is able to be used in patients. Often that is the hardest part.'

Matthew Christopher's curator insight, February 19, 2014 7:32 AM

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Development of a novel type of graphene transistor with new operating principle

Development of a novel type of graphene transistor with new operating principle | Amazing Science |

AIST researchers have developed a graphene transistor with a new operating principle. In the developed transistor, two electrodes and two top gates are placed on graphene and graphene between the top gates is irradiated with a helium ion beam to introduce crystalline defects. Gate biases are applied to the two top gates independently, allowing carrier densities in the top-gated graphene regions to be effectively controlled. An electric current on/off ratio of approximately four orders of magnitude was demonstrated at 200 K (approximately −73 °C). In addition, its transistor polarity can be electrically controlled and inverted, which to date has not been possible for transistors. This technology can be used in the conventional production technology of integrated circuits based on silicon, and is expected to contribute to the realization of ultra-low-power-consumption electronics by reducing operation voltage in future.


In the developed transistor, the on state or off state is controlled according to whether the polarities of the voltages applied to the two top gates are the same or different. Therefore, by fixing one gate bias and changing its polarity, it is possible to control whether the transistor operation by sweeping the other gate voltage is n-type or p-type. In the present experiment, voltages of −100 mV and +100 mV were applied to the source and drain terminals, respectively. 


The transistor polarity of conventional silicon transistors is determined by the type of ion for doping, so it is not possible to change the polarity once a circuit is formed. However, because the polarity of the developed transistor can be electrostatically controlled, it is possible to realize an integrated circuit whose circuit structure can be electrically changed.


The researchers are aiming to realize CMOS operation in which transistor polarities can be changed through electrical control. They are also aiming to create a device prototype using a large-scale wafer with graphene synthesized by the CVD method (chemical vapor-phase deposition method). At the same time, efforts to achieve higher-quality graphene will be made in order to improve the on/off ratio of electric current at room temperature and carrier mobility.

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NASA Telescopes Spy Ultra-Distant Galaxy Amidst Cosmic 'Dark Ages'

NASA Telescopes Spy Ultra-Distant Galaxy Amidst Cosmic 'Dark Ages' | Amazing Science |

With the combined power of NASA’s Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes, as well as a cosmic magnification effect, astronomers have spotted what could be the most distant galaxy ever seen. Light from the primordial galaxy traveled approximately 13.2 billion light-years before reaching NASA’s telescopes, shining forth from the so-called cosmic dark ages when the universe was just 3.6 percent of its present age.


Based on the Hubble and Spitzer observations, astronomers think the distant galaxy was less than 200 million years old when it was viewed. It also is small and compact, containing only about 1 percent of the Milky Way’s mass. According to leading cosmological theories, the first galaxies indeed should have started out tiny. They then progressively merged, eventually accumulating into the sizable galaxies of the more modern universe.


Astronomers relied on gravitational lensing to catch sight of the early, distant galaxy. In this phenomenon, predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago, the gravity of foreground objects warps and magnifies the light from background objects.


In the big image at left, the many galaxies of a massive cluster called MACS J1149+2223 dominate the scene. Gravitational lensing by the giant cluster brightened the light from the newfound galaxy, known as MACS 1149-JD, some 15 times, bringing the remote object into view.


At upper right, a partial zoom-in shows MACS 1149-JD in more detail, and a deeper zoom appears to the lower right. In these visible and infrared light images from Hubble, MACS 1149-JD looks like a dim, red speck. The small galaxy’s starlight has been stretched into longer wavelengths, or “redshifted,” by the expansion of the universe. MACS 1149-JD’s stars originally emitted the infrared light seen here at much shorter, higher-energy wavelengths, such as ultraviolet.


The far-off galaxy existed within an important era when the universe began to transit from the so-called cosmic dark ages. During this period, the universe went from a dark, starless expanse to a recognizable cosmos full of galaxies. The discovery of the faint, small galaxy opens a window onto the deepest, remotest epochs of cosmic history.


“This galaxy is the most distant object we have ever observed with high confidence,” said Wei Zheng, a principal research scientist in the department of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and lead author of a new paper appearing in Nature.

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Modern flying machines can't match the maneuverability of actual least not yet

Modern flying machines can't match the maneuverability of actual least not yet | Amazing Science |

When it comes to maneuverability, modern flying machines pale in comparison to an everyday pigeon. Birds can flap their wings to swoop, dive, glide, and alight on perches. Fixed-wing airplanes and rotary-wing helicopters rarely show that dynamism. In recent years, though, scientists have started finding ways to mimic the mechanics of bird flight through various robotic ornithopters, aircraft that fly with flapping wings. Aircraft based on today’s lab experiments could soon find use in military or search-and-rescue missions.


One of the most impressive of the new flock is SmartBird, a prototype flier made by Festo, a German-based automation technology company. The remote-controlled aircraft has wowed audiences on a worldwide tour as it uncannily flies like its avian inspiration, a herring gull. Made mainly of carbon fiber, SmartBird weighs 0.88 pound and has a wingspan of 6.6 feet. A motor, housed in the torso, drives the lightweight wings and requires only a 7.4-volt battery to operate. The inner section of the machine’s split wings produces lift; propulsion comes from the outer wing area.


As the wings beat up and down, they aerodynamically twist to change their angle of attack (tilting upward or downward), using the same technique birds use to generate thrust. Meanwhile, the tail section tilts and rotates to guide the robot left or right, analogous to the way a bird’s tail feathers help with control and guidance.


Festo does not plan any further generations of the SmartBird, and ornithopters in general still have a long way to go—especially in being able to land like a bird—before they are ready for the runway. “I don’t think jet airliners will be flapping anytime soon,” says Russ Tedrake of the Robot Locomotion Group at MIT, which has experimented with a flapping-wing craft dubbed “Phoenix.” “But it’s likely we’ll see some sort of application in the military.”


To that end, a company called AeroVironment, with funding from Darpa (the research wing of the U.S. military), unveiled its Nano Hummingbird in 2011. This battery-powered, camera-equipped, floridly painted robot can precisely hover and fly forward. More advanced versions of this palm-size flapper could spy and perform reconnaissance while acting like an ordinary hummingbird in the bush.

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An extreme rarity: A meteor hit and an asteroid near-miss on same day

An extreme rarity: A meteor hit and an asteroid near-miss on same day | Amazing Science |

An asteroid half the size of a football field passed closer to Earth than any other known object of its size on Friday, the same day an unrelated and much smaller space rock blazed over central Russia, creating shock waves that shattered windows and injured 1,200 people.

Asteroid 2012 DA14, discovered just last year, passed about 17,200 miles from Earth at 2:25 p.m. EST (1925 GMT), closer than the networks of television and weather satellites that ring the planet.


"It's like a shooting gallery here. We have two rare events of near-Earth objects approaching the Earth on the same day," NASA scientist Paul Chodas said during a webcast showing live images of the asteroid from a telescope in Australia.


Scientists said the two events, both rare, are not related -the body that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, at 10:20 p.m. EST Thursday (0320 GMT Friday) came from a different direction and different speed than DA14.

"It's simply a coincidence," Chodas said.


NASA has been tasked by the U.S. Congress to find and track all near-Earth objects that are .62 miles in diameter or larger.


The effort is intended to give scientists and engineers as much time as possible to learn if an asteroid or comet is on a collision course with Earth, in hopes of sending up a spacecraft or taking other measures to avert catastrophe.


About 66 million years ago, an object 6 miles in diameter smashed into what is now the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, leading to the demise of the dinosaurs, as well as most plant and animal life on Earth.


Scientists estimate that only about 10 percent of smaller objects, such as DA14, have been found.


"Things that are that tiny are very hard to see. Their orbits are very close to that of the Earth," said Paul Dimotakis, a professor of aeronautics and applied physics at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

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Subatomic calculations from the Higgs boson indicate finite lifespan for our universe

Subatomic calculations from the Higgs boson indicate finite lifespan for our universe | Amazing Science |

Scientists are still sorting out the details of last year's discovery of the Higgs boson particle, but add up the numbers and it's not looking good for the future of the universe, scientists said.


"If you use all the physics that we know now and you do what you think is a straightforward calculation, it's bad news," Joseph Lykken, a theoretical physicist with the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. 

Lykeen spoke before presenting his research at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston.


"It may be that the universe we live in is inherently unstable and at some point billions of years from now it's all going to get wiped out," said Lykken, who is also on the science team at Europe's Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, the world's largest and highest-energy particle accelerator.


Physicists last year announced they had discovered what appears to be a long-sought subatomic particle called the Higgs boson, which is believed to give matter its mass.


Work to study the Higgs' related particles, necessary for confirmation, is ongoing. If confirmed, the discovery would help resolve a key puzzle about how the universe came into existence some 13.7 billion years ago - and perhaps how it will end.


"This calculation tells you that many tens of billions of years from now, there'll be a catastrophe," Lykken said. "A little bubble of what you might think of as an ‘alternative' universe will appear somewhere and then it will expand out and destroy us," Lykken said, adding that the event will unfold at the speed of light.


Scientists had grappled with the idea of the universe's long-term stability before the Higgs discovery, but stepped up calculations once its mass began settling in at around 126 billion electron volts - a critical number it turns out for figuring out the fate of the universe.


The calculation requires knowing the mass of the Higgs to within one percent, as well as the precise mass of other related subatomic particles. "You change any of these parameters to the Standard Model (of particle physics) by a tiny bit and you get a different end of the universe," Lyyken said.


Earth will likely be long gone before any Higgs boson particles set off an apocalyptic assault on the universe. Physicists expect the sun to burn out in 4.5 billion years or so, and expand, likely engulfing Earth in the process.

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proto-RNA Molecules Self-Assemble in Water, Hint at Origins of Life

proto-RNA Molecules Self-Assemble in Water, Hint at Origins of Life | Amazing Science |

The base pairs that hold together two pieces of RNA, the older cousin of DNA, are some of the most important molecular interactions in living cells. Many scientists believe that these base pairs were part of life from the very beginning and that RNA was one of the first polymers of life. But there is a problem. The RNA bases don’t form base pairs in water unless they are connected to a polymer backbone, a trait that has baffled origin-of-life scientists for decades. If the bases don’t pair before they are part of polymers, how would the bases have been selected out from the many molecules in the “prebiotic soup” so that RNA polymers could be formed?


Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are exploring an alternate theory for the origin of RNA: they think the RNA bases may have evolved from a pair of molecules distinct from the bases we have today. This theory looks increasingly attractive, as the Georgia Tech group was able to achieve efficient, highly ordered self-assembly in water with small molecules that are similar to the bases of RNA. These “proto-RNA bases” spontaneously assemble into gene-length linear stacks, suggesting that the genes of life could have gotten started from these or similar molecules.


The discovery was made by a team of scientists led by Georgia Tech Professor Nicholas Hud, who has been trying for years to find simple molecules that will assemble in water and be capable of forming RNA or its ancestor. Hud’s group knew that they were on to something when they added a small chemical tail to a proto-RNA base and saw it spontaneously form linear assemblies with another proto-RNA base. In some cases, the results produced 18,000 nicely ordered, stacked molecules in one long structure.

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One in 70 million chance: Texas woman has 2 sets of identical twins

One in 70 million chance: Texas woman has 2 sets of identical twins | Amazing Science |

A Texas woman got a quadruple Valentine's Day gift this year, giving birth to four babies -- two sets of identical twins. The twins were not the result of fertility treatments, the hospital said. Each pair of twins shared a placenta, the hospital said. Identical twins result when a fertilized egg splits into two embryos. Twins occur in about 2% of all pregnancies. Of those, 30% are identical twins. The odds of having two sets of twins at once is about 1 in 70 million, said Dr. Alan Penzias, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School.

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A legion of robots from China could change the future of manufacturing

A legion of robots from China could change the future of manufacturing | Amazing Science |

After at least 16 workers had committed suicide over the years at its factory in Shenzhen, Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn (which assembles Apple products) pledged last year to supplement its 1.2 million workers in China with more than 1 million robots within three years. Foxconn chairman Terry Gou, commenting on the prospect of using robots instead people, once said, “As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache.”


But if Foxconn succeeds in building an army of robots, it could not only clear Gou’s headache but bring the industrial robot industry as a whole to a tipping point, wrote research firm GaveKal in a note on Nov 28. Industrial robots are not commonly used by manufacturers, in part because the robot industry is dominated by a handful of firms who have not had an incentive to expand market share via lower prices. These are companies like Japan’s Fanuc Robotics, Zurich-based ABB Robotics, or Germany’s KuKa Robotics.


So far Foxconn has only made about 30,000 robots, according to GaveKal. The “Foxbots” are expected to be able to polish, paint and pack products. They are thought to make fewer mistakes and produce 6% more than their human counterparts. If a robot ran for 20 hours a day, it would work about three times as long as a Chinese person legally can.


But more important are reports that Foxconn is producing these machines at a cost of $20,000 to $25,000 each. At that price, they are half as much as the average industrial robot, which could cost as much as $60,000, GaveKal research analyst Yuchan Li notes.


This is technology that could “remake the competitive landscape,” Li continues, and with it all firms that produce consumer electronics. Foxconn could also become a major producer of industrial robots within a few years. Li writes: "Our point is that an industry which has promised much in recent years but failed to reach critical scale, may be getting close to a point when mass adoption becomes viable for both giant producers such as Foxconn and by extension almost everyone else who wants to compete".


One reason Foxconn may be able to keep the cost of making the robots low is the fact that it can build the robots within its own factories, says Jim McGregor, founder of the technology research firm Tirias. Still, he warns, the ultimate question is whether the Foxbots can handle assembling Apple products, which require processes more complicated than those used in heavy industry. “When you get into electronics assembly, it really comes down to can robots do it more effectively and can they do it cost effectively, and being cost effective has always been the hard part,” McGregor says.

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Stronger Than Steel: Bulk Metallic Glasses - Constructing the Future

Stronger Than Steel: Bulk Metallic Glasses - Constructing the Future | Amazing Science |

Bulk metallic glasses, referred to commonly as metallic glasses, are technically defined as alloys with critical cooling rates low enough to allow the formation of layers of over 1mm in thickness. Colloquially, they are a metallic alloy that exploits the favorable properties of both metals and glasses, including flexibility, strength, and durability.


Ordinary metals are crystalline solids, with high density, conductivity, and strength. Their molecules are ordered in a lattice structure, and disruptions in that lattice structure are known as dislocations. Common metals have approximately one dislocation in one billion molecules, or 10^14 dislocations in a cubic centimeter. It is these dislocations, rather than the natural ordering of metals, that ultimately define the properties of metals.


Glasses, on the other hand, are amorphous, or non-crystalline, solids. As anyone who has broken a window knows, glasses are brittle when solid; however, they become molten and exhibit fluid properties at high temperatures. This characteristic, known as the “glass transition,” allows glasses to be molded into creative and complex shapes.


These physical characteristics of glass and metals significantly affect their processing potential. During processing, metals display plasticity – the permanent deformation of the metal material. Glasses, however, with no lattice structure or dislocations, instead displays elasticity – a reversible deformation of the material under a force. Both plastic deformation and elastic deformation are necessary when shaping complex objects, yet neither glass nor metal can fully encompass both properties.


This is where bult metallic glasses come into play. “We combine two previously mutually exclusive properties,” remarked Jan Schroers, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science at Yale University, resulting in the metallic alloys known as bulk metallic glasses. Joining advanced structural properties – strength, durability, and deformation – with the flexibility sufficient for molding complex shapes, these bulk metallic glasses are a ‘super-metal’ of sorts, an enhanced alloy with a range of capabilities.

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Water’s pyramid shape confirmed

Water’s pyramid shape confirmed | Amazing Science |

Researchers at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) have confirmed the original model of the molecular structure of water. The findings have made it possible to resolve a long-standing scientific debate about liquid H2O’s structure.


The tetrahedral model was first hypothesised nearly 100 years ago. It assumes that each water molecule forms a hydrogen bond with four adjacent molecules. Research conducted in 2004 almost overturned this concept, when it was suggested that water molecules form bonds with only two other molecules.


Hydrogen bonds, which give water some of its unique properties such as its liquid aggregate state and high boiling point, are formed due to the different charges carried by the oxygen and hydrogen atoms. It was traditionally suggested that water has a tetrahedral structure at room temperature so that on average, each water molecule would be linked with four adjacent ones via two donor and acceptor bonds.

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Ever wanted X-ray specs or super-human vision? Look at the Milky Way and Universe in a range of wavelengths

Ever wanted X-ray specs or super-human vision? Look at the Milky Way and Universe in a range of wavelengths | Amazing Science |

Chromoscope shows you the view of the Universe that we get from Earth. The view is mostly dominated by our galaxy - The Milky Way - which is the band running horizontally across the middle. The direction of the centre of the Galaxy is, appropriately, in the centre of the screen. All the stars, and many of the nebulae you can see are also in the Milky Way. Some of the objects you can see in visible light are far beyond our own galaxy. With other types of light you can see objects far across the Universe and even see light that set off shortly after the Big Bang.

Guillaume Decugis's curator insight, February 19, 2013 12:40 PM

Pretty cool way to play with zooming options and visible/non-visible light.

Loreto Vargas's curator insight, February 20, 2013 11:33 AM


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Seven months old babies can distinguish between two languages with vastly different grammatical structures

Seven months old babies can distinguish between two languages with vastly different grammatical structures | Amazing Science |

According to new research study from the University of British Columbia and Université Paris Descartes, infants in bilingual environments use pitch and duration cues to discriminate between languages – such as English and Japanese – with opposite word orders. In English, a function word comes before a content word (the dog, his hat, with friends, for example) and the duration of the content word is longer, while in Japanese or Hindi, the order is reversed, and the pitch of the content word higher.


“By as early as seven months, babies are sensitive to these differences and use these as cues to tell the languages apart,” says UBC psychologist Janet Werker, co-author of the study.


Previous research by Werker and Judit Gervain, a linguist at the Université Paris Descartes and co-author of the new study, showed that babies use frequency of words in speech to discern their significance.


“For example, in English the words ‘the’ and ‘with’ come up a lot more frequently than other words – they’re essentially learning by counting,” says Gervain. “But babies growing up bilingual need more than that, so they develop new strategies that monolingual babies don’t necessarily need to use.”


“If you speak two languages at home, don’t be afraid, it’s not a zero-sum game,” says Werker. “Your baby is very equipped to keep these languages separate and they do so in remarkable ways.”

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Tooth decay bacteria evolved as diet changed

Tooth decay bacteria evolved as diet changed | Amazing Science |
Mesolithic hunter-gatherers living on a meat-dominated, grain-free diet had much healthier mouths that we have today, with almost no cavities and gum disease-associated bacteria, a genetic study of ancient dental plaque has revealed.


An international team of researchers, led by a group at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, University of Adelaide, extracted DNA from dental plaque from 34 prehistoric northern European human skeletons, and traced the changes in the nature of oral bacteria from the last hunter-gatherers to Neolithic and medieval farmers and modern individuals.


"Dental plaque represents the only easily accessible source of preserved human bacteria," says lead author Dr Christina Adler, now associate lecturer in dentistry at the University of Sydney.


The researchers found the composition of bacteria changed with the introduction of farming and again 150 years ago during the Industrial Revolution.


In contrast to the hunter-gatherer and early agriculturist diet, a modern diet full of refined carbohydrates and sugars has given us mouths dominated by cavity-causing bacteria.


"What we found was that the early [hunter-gatherer] groups really had a lot lower frequencies of any of the disease-associated bacteria compared to what you see today [and] that the number of species per person's mouth, or the diversity, was much higher in the past," says Adler.


However, while the researchers noted that bacteria associated with dental cavities such as S. mutans became dominant around the time of the Industrial Revolution, the frequency of bacteria associated with periodontal diseases such as gingivitis has not changed much since farming began.


This may have implications for the notion that gum disease and associated bacteria are a significant contributor to the recent increase in conditions such as cardiovascular disease and atherosclerotic plaques, says co-author Professor Alan Cooper, director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA.


"It has been suggested that the presence of this permanent inflammation state along the gums was promoting an immune inflammatory response, which in turn leads to cardiovascular disease," says Cooper.


"The idea was that a recent increase in the bacteria P. gingivalis [which causes gingivitis], was associated with the recent increases in cardiovascular disease, however we could show that this particular species has been fairly stable throughout the farming period."


The results will no doubt be good news for advocates of the so-called 'paleolithic diet' - high in meat, low in grains. Cooper says it would be interesting to study the effects of the diet on the bacterial population of the mouths, particularly after reseeding with healthy bacteria.

Vincent D'Antonio's curator insight, June 10, 2013 9:11 AM

gain, connects to evolutionary biology.

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Biofuel rush is wiping out unique American grasslands

Biofuel rush is wiping out unique American grasslands | Amazing Science |

Say goodbye to the grass. The scramble for biofuels is rapidly killing off unique grasslands and pastures in the central US.


Christopher Wright and Michael Wimberly of South Dakota State University in Brookings analysed satellite images of five states in the western corn belt. They found that 530,000 hectares of grassland disappeared under blankets of maize and soya beans between 2006 and 2011. The rate was fastest in South Dakota and Iowa, with as much as 5 per cent of pasture becoming cropland each year.


The trend is being driven by rising demand for the crops, partly through incentives to use them as fuels instead of food. The switch from meadows to crops is causing a crash in populations of ground-nesting birds. One of the US's most important breeding grounds for wildfowl, an area called the Prairie Pothole Region, is also at risk, with South Dakota's crop fields now within 100 metres of the wetlands. "Half of North American ducks breed here," says Wright.


Bill Henwood of the Temperate Grasslands Conservation Initiative in Vancouver, Canada, says the results are distressing. "Exchanging real environmental impacts for the dubious benefits of biofuels is counterproductive," he says. "Last year's record drought in the corn belt all but wiped out the crops anyway."


More info:

James Lloyd's curator insight, November 5, 2013 1:30 AM

I can understand why biogas is getting caught up in the fuel debate when you see this - however, int he UK we must be careful we don't simply jump on coat tails.  It is far easier for us to protect conservation areas and in truth we simply don't have the wilderness to destroy that countries like canada and the USA do.

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How Blue Eyed Parents Can Have Brown Eyed Children - Understanding Genetics

How Blue Eyed Parents Can Have Brown Eyed Children - Understanding Genetics | Amazing Science |

Eye color is much more complicated than is usually taught in high school (or presented in The Tech’s eye color calculator).  There we learn that two genes influence eye color. One gene comes in two versions, brown (B) and blue (b).  The other gene comes in green (G) and blue (b).  All eye color and inheritance was thought to be explained by this simple model.  Except of course for the fact that it is obviously incomplete.


The model cannot, for example, explain how blue eyed parents can have a brown eyed child.  Yet this can and does happen (although it isn’t common).   

New research shows that the first gene is actually two separate genes, OCA2 and HERC2.  In other words, there are two ways to end up with blue eyes.  

Normally this wouldn’t be enough to explain how blue eyed parents can have a brown eyed child.  Because of how eye color works (see below), if one gene can cause brown eyes, it would dominate over another that causes blue.  In fact, that is what happens with green eyes in the older model.  The brown gene dominates over the green one resulting in brown eyes.


The key is that if someone makes a lot of pigment in the front part of their eye, they have brown eyes.  And if they make none there, they have blue.

Part of the pigment making process involves OCA2 and HERC2.  A working HERC2 is needed to turn on OCA2 and OCA2 helps to actually get the pigment made.  They need each other to make pigment.


So someone with only broken HERC2 genes will have blue eyes no matter what OCA2 says.  This is because the working OCA2 can't be turned on so no pigment gets made.


And the opposite is true as well.  Someone with broken OCA2 genes will have blue eyes no matter what the HERC2 genes are.  Turning on a broken pigment making gene still gives you no pigment.  You need a working HERC2 and a working OCA2 to have brown eyes.


Because the two genes depend on each other, it is possible for someone to actually be a carrier of a dominant trait like brown eyes.  And if two blue eyed parents are carriers, then they can have a brown eyed child.

Mercor's curator insight, February 19, 2013 4:47 AM

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MIT: "Bullet Time" Will Enable Exascale Computing

MIT: "Bullet Time" Will Enable Exascale Computing | Amazing Science |

The famous Hollywood filming technique will change the way we access the huge computer simulations of the future, say computer scientists.


In the coming era of exascale supercomputing, in-situ visualization is an inevitable approach to reduce the output data size. A problem of the in-situ visualization is that it loses interactivity unless a steering method is adopted. A group of scientists has now proposed new method for interactive analysis of in-situ visualization images produced by a batch simulation job. A key idea is to apply a lot of--from thousands to millions of--in-situ visualizations at once. Then the viewer analyze the image database interactively in the post processing. When each movie is compressed to the order of 10 MB, the total size of one million movies is only the order of 10 TB that is smaller than the size of raw numerical data in exascale supercomputing. A feasibility study of the proposed method has been successfully performed. Multiple movie files are produced by a simulation and they are analyzed with a specially designed movie player. One can interactively change the view angle, visualization method, and their parameters by retrieving a proper sequence of images form the movie data set.

Via Sakis Koukouvis
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Laser spotlight reveals machine 'climbing' DNA

Laser spotlight reveals machine 'climbing' DNA | Amazing Science |

New imaging technology has revealed how the molecular machines that remodel genetic material inside cells 'grab onto' DNA like a rock climber looking for a handhold.

The experiments, reported in this week's Science, use laser light to generate very bright patches close to single cells. When coupled with fluorescent tags this 'spotlight' makes it possible to image the inner workings of cells fast enough to see how the molecular machines inside change size, shape, and composition in the presence of DNA.


The Oxford team built their own light microscopy technology for the study, which is a collaboration between the research groups of Mark Leake in Oxford University's Department of Physics and David Sherratt in Oxford University's Department of Biochemistry.


The molecular machines in question are called Structural Maintenance of Chromosome (SMC) complexes: they remodel the genetic material inside every living cell and work along similar principles to a large family of molecules that act as very small motors performing functions as diverse as trafficking vital material inside cells to allowing muscles to contract.


The researchers studied a particular SMC, MukBEF (which is made from several different protein molecules), inside the bacterium E.coli. David Sheratt and his team found a way to fuse 'fluorescent proteins' directly to the DNA coding for MukBEF, effectively creating a single dye tag for each component of these machines.


Up until now conventional techniques of biological physics or biochemistry have not been sufficiently fast or precise to monitor such tiny machines inside living cells at the level of single molecules.


'Each machine functions in much the same way as rock-climber clinging to a cliff face,' says Mark Leake of Oxford University’s Department of Physics, 'it has one end anchored to a portion of cellular DNA while the other end opens and closes randomly by using chemical energy stored in a ubiquitous bio-molecule called adenosine triphosphate, or 'ATP': the universal molecular fuel for all living cells.


'This opening and closing action of the machine is essentially a process of mechanical 'grabbing', in which it attempts to seize more free DNA, like the rock-climber searching for a new handhold.'


It is hoped that pioneering biophysics experiments such as this will give fresh insights into the complex processes which are vital to life, and pave the way for a whole new approach to biomedical research at the very tiny length scale for understanding the causes of many diseases in humans, and how to devise new strategies to combat them. 

ComplexInsight's curator insight, June 6, 2013 2:53 AM

its turtles all the way down... as we obtain more and more data and insight into cellular molecular mechanisms  their organisation, interactions, spatial and temporal dynamics become increasingly mechanistic with multiscale emergent propertiesarising from local interactions. This pioneering biophysics approach will likely generate a lot more insights into molecular mechanisms as it gets increasingly adopted for other experiments.