Category: Science

Pic of the Day

solar filament eruprs
Click to enlargeImage Credit: NASA’s GSFC, SDO AIA Team

What’s happened to our Sun? Nothing very unusual — it just threw a filament. [Kind of like a plasma furball]

Toward the middle of 2012, a long standing solar filament suddenly erupted into space producing an energetic Coronal Mass Ejection (CME). The filament had been held up for days by the Sun’s ever changing magnetic field and the timing of the eruption was unexpected. Watched closely by the Sun-orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory, the resulting explosion shot electrons and ions into the Solar System, some of which arrived at Earth three days later and impacted Earth’s magnetosphere, causing visible aurorae.

Loops of plasma surrounding an active region can be seen above the erupting filament in the ultraviolet image…

Thanks, Ursarodinia

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Japanese androids bring us closer to Blade Runner

A future in which it is difficult to tell man and machine apart could soon become reality, scientists say, after recent robotic breakthroughs in Japan.

But as the once-fantastical idea of wise-cracking android sidekicks takes form in laboratories — and the gap between humans and robots narrows — society faces ethical and legal complications as yet undreamed of, they warn…

Robots already perform a wide variety of tasks in Japan: they cook noodles, help patients undergo physiotherapy and have been used in the clean-up after the 2011 nuclear meltdown at Fukushima.

South Korea deploys jellyfish-terminating robots, while a robot with artificial intelligence able to analyse market trends has become a company director in Hong Kong.

One day, predict future-gazers, robots will perform all kinds of household chores, monitor the sick, and even serve up cappuccinos…

But will they look like us..?

“More important is robots and androids as a mirror to reflect humanity. Once we become friends, the boundary between human and robot disappears,” added Hiroshi Ishiguro, a professor at Osaka University.

The blurring of that line has long been a source of worry for humanity, as often depicted in popular culture…

Ishiguro foresees that just as younger people today are attached to their mobile phones — in reality powerful computers that mediate much of their lives — androids will one day become an indivisible part of our landscape.

“Everyone is going to have an android,” he predicted. “Handicapped people need another body. We are going to have more choices.”

In my geek news junkie experience, most people sitting around moralizing about robots, worrying about the effects of their mirror to humanity, don’t know squat about machines, robots, computers – and probably human beings outside of their classrooms and psychologizing seminars.

Go back and read Isaac Asimov, read Ray Kurzweil, quit worrying about what you think Freud thought about Golems. Real life experience will sort things out.

First Buckyballs from boron


Wang Lab/Brown University

Just in time for the World Cup final, researchers have succeeded in building the first ‘buckyballs’ made entirely from boron atoms. Unlike true, carbon-based buckyballs, the boron molecules are not shaped exactly like footballs. But this novel form of boron might lead to new nanomaterials and could find uses in hydrogen storage.

Robert Curl, Harold Kroto and Richard Smalley found the first buckyball — or buckminsterfullerene — in 1985. The hollow cage, made of 60 carbon atoms arranged in pentagons and hexagons like a football, got its name from the US architect and engineer Richard Buckminster Fuller, who used the same shapes in designing his domes. The discovery opened the flood gates for creating more carbon structures with impressive qualities, such as carbon nanotubes and the single-atom-thick graphene. Since then, material scientists have also searched for buckyball-like structures made of other elements.

In 2007, Boris Yakobson, a material scientist at Rice University in Houston, Texas, theorized that a cage made of 80 boron atoms should be stable. Another study published just last week predicts a stable structure with 36 boron atoms.

Publishing…in Nature Chemistry, a team led by Lai-Sheng Wang, a chemist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, has become the first to see such a beast — although its structure is slightly different from that predicted. The researchers call their 40-atom molecule borospherene. It is arranged in hexagons, heptagons and triangles…

In addition to having a less elegant shape, the borosphene balls form a different type of internal bond from their carbon counterparts. This makes them difficult to use as isolated building blocks as they have a tendency to interact with each other, but this reactivity may make boron buckyballs good for connecting in chains. It also makes the balls capable of bonding with hydrogen, which the team says could make them useful in hydrogen storage.

Which should have GM and Toyota knocking at the hallowed doors of Brown University. Both are dedicated to producing alternative-fuel vehicles using hydrogen.

Thanks, Mike

Richard Dawkins & Neil deGrasse Tyson in a dialogue about alien life

I’ve been fortunate over a number of segments in my life to witness – even take a small part in – conversations like this. Not in front of an audience. Not as part of a public dialogue; but, in the context of what historically has been called a “salon”.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away. Well, New England, actually. Where the talent pool for discussions like this is more accessible than most of the country.

Thanks, Mike

Death spiral linked to neonicotinoids expands to include farmland birds

New research has identified the world’s most widely used insecticides as the key factor in the recent reduction in numbers of farmland birds.

The finding represents a significant escalation of the known dangers of the insecticides and follows an assessment in June that warned that pervasive pollution by these nerve agents was now threatening all food production.

The neonicotinoid insecticides are believed to seriously harm bees and other pollinating insects, and a two-year EU suspension on three of the poisons began at the end of 2013. But the suspected knock-on effects on other species had not been demonstrated until now.

Peer-reviewed research, published in the leading journal Nature this Wednesday, has revealed data from the Netherlands showing that bird populations fell most sharply in those areas where neonicotinoid pollution was highest. Starlings, tree sparrows and swallows were among the most affected…

The researchers, led by Hans de Kroon, an ecologist at Radboud University, in the Netherlands, examined other possible reasons for the bird declines seen during the study period of 2003 to 2010, including intensification of farming. But high pollution by a neonicotinoid known as imidacloprid was by far the largest factor.

“It is very surprising and very disturbing,” de Kroon said. Water pollution levels of just 20 nanograms of neonicotinoid per litre led to a 30% fall in bird numbers over 10 years, but some water had contamination levels 50 times higher. “That is why it is so disturbing – there is an incredible amount of imidacloprid in the water,” he said. “And it is not likely these effects will be restricted to birds.”

De Kroon added: “All the other studies [on harm caused by neonicotinoids] build up from toxicology studies. But we approached this completely from the other end. We started with the bird population data and tried to explain the declines. Our study really makes the evidence complete that something is going on here. We can’t go on like this any more. It has to stop.”

RTFa for all the details. As a modern society I expect the Netherlands will respond to scientific studies as the peer-review process continues.

Here in the land of Tea Parties and the Best Government Money Can Buy – I am less assured of any efforts to proceed with caution and a decision process based on science. But, then – you already knew that.

Thanks, Mike

Who would want to talk to meat?

Milky-Way

So there are 100 Earth-like planets for every grain of sand in the world. Think about that next time you’re on the beach.

Moving forward, we have no choice but to get completely speculative. Let’s imagine that after billions of years in existence, 1% of Earth-like planets develop life (if that’s true, every grain of sand would represent one planet with life on it). And imagine that on 1% of those planets, the life advances to an intelligent level like it did here on Earth. That would mean there were 10 quadrillion, or 10 million billion intelligent civilizations in the observable universe.

Moving back to just our galaxy, and doing the same math on the lowest estimate for stars in the Milky Way (100 billion), we’d estimate that there are 1 billion Earth-like planets and 100,000 intelligent civilizations in our galaxy.

SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is an organization dedicated to listening for signals from other intelligent life. If we’re right that there are 100,000 or more intelligent civilizations in our galaxy, and even a fraction of them are sending out radio waves or laser beams or other modes of attempting to contact others, shouldn’t SETI’s satellite array pick up all kinds of signals?

But it hasn’t. Not one. Ever.

Where is everybody?

There are a number of answers. All speculative. A topic, in fact, that I have been discussing with a few of the folks associated with this blog…for years.

Here’s one of the best conclusions – taken from the point of view of an alien species checking out our region of the Milky Way galaxy:

“They’re made out of meat.”

“Meat?”

“Meat. They’re made out of meat.”

“Meat?”

“There’s no doubt about it. We picked up several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through. They’re completely meat.”

“That’s impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars?”

“They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don’t come from them. The signals come from machines.”

“So who made the machines? That’s who we want to contact.”

“They made the machines. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Meat made the machines.”

“That’s ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You’re asking me to believe in sentient meat.”

Here’s a link to the rest of this extraterrestrial discussion.

Thanks, Ursarodinia
Thanks, Mike

Corneas regrown using adult stem cells


Shutterstock

Medical researchers working with human stem cells have discovered a way to improve regrowth of corneal tissue in the human eye. Using a molecule known as ABCB5 to act as an identifying marker for rare limbal stem cells, the researchers were able to use antibodies to detect ABCB5 on stem cells in tissue from donated human eyes and use them to regrow anatomically correct, fully functional human corneas in mice…

Up until now, the use of tissue or cell transplants to help the cornea regenerate have been used, but as it was both unknown whether there were actual limbal stem cells in the grafts, or how many, the outcomes were generally inconsistent.

As a result of this recent research, transplants have now been made in mice using human ABCB5-positive limbal stem cells that resulted in the restoration and long-term maintenance of normal, transparent corneas. Control mice that received either no cells or ABCB5-negative cells failed to have their cornea restored.

“Limbal stem cells are very rare, and successful transplants are dependent on these rare cells,” said Bruce Ksander, Ph.D., of Massachusetts Eye and Ear, co-lead author on the research. “This finding will now make it much easier to restore the corneal surface. It’s a very good example of basic research moving quickly to a translational application.”…one of the first known examples of constructing tissue from an adult-derived human stem cell.

Not only a potential boon for folks with diseases of the cornea – preventing blindness or restoring sight – I imagine this should aid folks with injury-damaged corneas.

Of course, the first question from an old fart like me is – when will this be covered by my medicare insurance? Don’t need it, yet – but, cataracts are pretty much inevitable. Only a question of how many, how fast are they growing? :)

The brave new world of three-parent IVF

In August 1996, at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, N.J., a 39-year-old mechanical engineer from Pittsburgh named Maureen Ott became pregnant. Ott had been trying for almost seven years to conceive a child through in vitro fertilization. Unwilling to give up, she submitted to an experimental procedure in which doctors extracted her eggs, slid a needle through their shiny coat and injected not only her husband’s sperm but also a small amount of cytoplasm from another woman’s egg. When the embryo was implanted in Ott’s womb, she became the first woman on record to be successfully impregnated using this procedure, which some say is the root of an exciting medical advance and others say is the beginning of the end of the human species.

The fresh cytoplasm that entered Ott’s eggs (researchers thought it might help promote proper fertilization and development) contained mitochondria: bean-shaped organelles that power our cells like batteries. But mitochondria also contain their own DNA, which meant that her child could possess the genetic material of three people. In fact, the 37 genes in mitochondrial DNA pass directly from a woman’s egg into every cell of her offspring, including his or her germ cells, the sperm or eggs that eventually produce the next generation — so if Ott had a girl and the donor mitochondria injected into Ott’s egg made it into the eggs of her daughter, they could be passed along to her children. This is known as crossing the germ line…In May 1997, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl…

Two months later, her doctors published her case in the journal Lancet; soon, at least seven other U.S. clinics were doing the injection. Because the amount of donor mitochondria added to Ott’s egg was small, it was unclear how much third-party DNA would be present in the cells of her daughter. Ott says her doctors ran tests and did not find any, but it has been found in two other children born from the procedure. Although IVF drugs and devices are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, IVF procedures (like all medical procedures) are generally not. But what media outlets came to call “three-parent babies” compelled the agency to take action. In 2001, the FDA informed IVF clinics that using a third person’s cytoplasm — and the mtDNA therein — would require an Investigational New Drug application…

Now, more than a decade later, two research groups in the United States and one in Britain each believes it has nearly enough data to begin clinical trials for a new technique based on the transfer of mitochondria — only in this case, researchers want to pair the nuclear DNA of one egg with all the mitochondria of another. Their aim is not to cure infertility. Rather, they hope to prevent a variety of devastating diseases caused by mutations in mtDNA. The new technique, which they call mitochondrial-replacement therapy, is far more advanced than the cytoplasm injection — and the researchers have studied the procedure’s impact on animals and human cells up to a pivotal point: They have created what appear to be viable three-parent embryos. They have yet to implant one in a woman, though…

Is our fear of crossing the germ line causing us to block a technology that could improve people’s lives, and if so, is the fear itself a thing we should also be afraid of?

RTFA. I’ve barely introduced the topic. You can presume my personal opinion would not be acceptable to any flavor of the FDA. Crass politics aside – unlikely in the USA – science moves ahead in tiny conservative steps. Bodies like the FDA are more conservative than that.

I think consenting adults have the right and freedom to participate in an unlimited range of experiments excepting those designed to destroy humans, individually and as a species. Our government and military already have that market cornered, anyway.

Like I said. RTFA. Think about what you think.

An algae that switches its internal quantum computer on and off

Scientists have shown that certain algae which use quantum effects to optimize photosynthesis are also capable of switching it off. It’s a discovery that could lead to highly efficient organic solar cells and quantum-based electronics.

Like quantum computers, some organisms are capable of scanning all possible options in order to choose the most efficient path or solution. For plants and some photosynthetic algae, this means the ability to make the most of the energy they receive and then deliver that energy from leaves with near perfect efficiency. This effect, called quantum decoherence, is what allows some algae to survive in very low levels of light.

Recently, scientists from the UNSW School of Physics studied one of these algae, a tiny single-celled organism called cryptophytes. They typically live at the bottom of pools of water, or under thick ice, where light is scarce. The researchers found that there’s a class of cryptophytes in which quantum decoherence is switched off, and it’s on account of a single genetic mutation that alters the shape of a light-harvesting protein.

In quantum mechanics, a system is coherent when all quantum waves are in step with each other. When it’s coherent, it can exist in many different states simultaneously, an effect known as superposition.

The researchers used x-ray crystallography to determine the crystal structure of the light-harvesting complexes from three different species. Two cryptophyte species had a mutation that led to the insertion of an extra amino acid that changes the structure of the protein complex, which disrupts decoherence.

The next step for the scientists will be to determine whether the switching effect is assisting the algae’s survival. What’s more, further understanding of this phenomenon could eventually lead to technological advances, such as better organic solar cells and quantum-based electronic devices.

I’m beginning to worry that quantum mechanics is starting to rub off on my little gray cells. This is making sense to me – and it only took five or six decades.

Thanks, Mike