Category: Science

Hinode satellite recorded X-ray footage of solar eclipse


Click to enlarge

On October 23rd, while North America was witnessing a partial eclipse of the sun, the Hinode spacecraft observed a “ring of fire” or annular eclipse from its location hundreds of miles above the North Pole. This image was taken by the X-ray Telescope – the XRT.

The Hinode spacecraft was in the right place at the right time to catch the solar eclipse. What’s more, because of its vantage point Hinode witnessed a “ring of fire” or annular eclipse…

…The XRT was developed and built by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Hinode’s X-ray Telescope is the highest resolution solar X-ray telescope ever flown.

The XRT collects X-rays emitted from the sun’s corona — the hot, tenuous outer layer that extends from the sun’s visible surface into the inner solar system. Gas in the solar corona reaches temperatures of millions of degrees. The energy source that heats the corona is a puzzle. The sun’s surface is only 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, while the corona is more than 100 times hotter.

Science is so beautiful. But, then, the quest for truth always is.

Thanks, Ursarodinia

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DNA yields secrets of early humans


Universal Human

DNA analysis of a 45,000-year-old human has helped scientists pinpoint when our ancestors interbred with Neanderthals…The genome sequence from a thigh bone found in Siberia shows the first episode of mixing occurred between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago.

The male hunter is one of the earliest modern humans discovered in Eurasia.

The study in Nature journal also supports the finding that our species emerged from Africa some 60,000 years ago, before spreading around the world…

The work of Prof Svante Paabo, from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, is rewriting the story of humanity. Prof Paabo and his colleagues have pioneered methods to extract DNA from ancient human remains and read its genetic code.

From this sequence, the scientist has been able to decipher an increasingly detailed story of modern humans as they spread across the globe.

“The amazing thing is that we have a good genome of a 45,000-year-old person who was close to the ancestor of all present-day humans outside Africa…”

Prof Paabo has analysed DNA from part of a leg bone of a man that lived in Western Siberia around 45,000 years ago. This is a key moment at the cross roads of the world, when modern humans were on the cusp of an expansion into Europe and Asia.

The key finding was that the man had large, unshuffled chunks of DNA from a now extinct species of human, Neanderthals, who evolved outside of Africa.

“Our analysis shows that modern humans had already interbred with Neanderthals then, and we can determine when that first happened much more precisely than we could before…”

Prof Paabo’s 45,000-year-old man seems to have lived at a point that was both geographically, and in time, a crossroads for humanity…”This does seem to mark a watershed where modern humans were pushing the boundaries further and further in their dispersal out of Africa,” according to Prof Chris Stringer.

Prof Paabo also compared the DNA of the man living 45,000 years ago with those living today. He found that the man was genetically midway between Europeans and Asians – indicating he lived close to the time before our species separated into different racial groups.

Fascinating stuff. I’ve had DNA tests that determined the coarser texture of how my ancestors spread from their African genesis into the steppes of Central Asia. Eventually ending up traveling west to the Scottish Highlands and, then, sweeping back east to the Danube before retreating to stay in Scotland.

How far back do you want your “Heritage” fruits and veggies to go?

Fruits and vegetables have changed a lot since the onset of agriculture 10,000 years ago, as generation after generation of farmers artificially bred crops to select for more desirable traits like size and taste.

But that change can be hard to visualize. So James Kennedy, a chemistry teacher in Australia, created some terrific infographics to show just how drastic the evolution has been. This one, for instance, shows how corn has changed in the last 9,000 years — from a wild grass in the early Americas known as teosinte to the plump ears of corn we know today…

Mind you, not all attempts at selective breeding turn out so well. As Sarah Yager recently wrote at The Atlantic, apple-growers in the United States during the 20th century tried to breed Red Delicious apples to be as bright and shiny as possible and stay on shelves for as long as possible without noticeable bruising. The result? “As genes for beauty were favored over those for taste, the skins grew tough and bitter around mushy, sugar-soaked flesh.” Nowadays, as storage and transport have become more advanced, tastier apple varieties like the Honeycrisp or Gala are surpassing the Red Delicious.

The article gives watermelon and peaches the same treatment and ends with links to FDA definitions that range from selective breeding to the difference between cisgenesis and transgenesis. I’ll launch into that some other time – once again – trying to explain to the Vegan Left that science doesn’t define DNA as good or evil.

Thanks, Mike

Partial eclipse of the sun, today

Partial eclipse

Sunsets are always pretty. One sunset this month could be out of this world. On Thursday, Oct. 23rd, the setting sun across eastern parts of the USA will be red, beautiful and … crescent-shaped.

“It’s a partial solar eclipse,” explains longtime NASA eclipse expert Fred Espenak. In other words, the New Moon is going to ‘take a bite’ out of the sun…

The partial eclipse of Oct. 23rd will be visible from all of the United States except Hawaii and New England. Coverage ranges from 12% in Florida to nearly 70% in Alaska. Weather permitting, almost everyone in North America will be able to see the crescent.

The eclipse will be especially beautiful in eastern parts of the USA, where the Moon and sun line up at the end of the day, transforming the usual sunset into something weird and wonderful…

A partial eclipse may not be total, but it is totally fun.

See for yourself on Oct. 23rd. The action begins at approximately 6 pm on the east coast, and 2 pm on the west coast. Check NASA’s Eclipse Home Page for viewing times near your hometown.

Thanks, Ursarodinia

2014 IgNobel Prizes awarded


Some of my favorites:

NEUROSCIENCE PRIZE [CHINA, CANADA]: Jiangang Liu, Jun Li, Lu Feng, Ling Li, Jie Tian, and Kang Lee, for trying to understand what happens in the brains of people who see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast.

REFERENCE: “Seeing Jesus in Toast: Neural and Behavioral Correlates of Face Pareidolia,” Jiangang Liu, Jun Li, Lu Feng, Ling Li, Jie Tian, Kang Lee, Cortex, vol. 53, April 2014, Pages 60–77. The authors are at School of Computer and Information Technology, Beijing Jiaotong University, Xidian University, the Institute of Automation Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China, and the University of Toronto, Canada…

PUBLIC HEALTH PRIZE [CZECH REPUBLIC, JAPAN, USA, INDIA]: Jaroslav Flegr, Jan Havlíček and Jitka Hanušova-Lindova, and to David Hanauer, Naren Ramakrishnan, Lisa Seyfried, for investigating whether it is mentally hazardous for a human being to own a cat…

REFERENCE: “Changes in personality profile of young women with latent toxoplasmosis,” Jaroslav Flegr and Jan Havlicek, Folia Parasitologica, vol. 46, 1999, pp. 22-28…

REFERENCE: “Describing the Relationship between Cat Bites and Human Depression Using Data from an Electronic Health Record,” David Hanauer, Naren Ramakrishnan, Lisa Seyfried, PLoS ONE, vol. 8, no. 8, 2013, e70585. WHO ATTENDED THE CEREMONY: Jaroslav Flegr, David Hanauer, Naren Ramakrishnan…

ECONOMICS PRIZE [ITALY]: ISTAT — the Italian government’s National Institute of Statistics, for proudly taking the lead in fulfilling the European Union mandate for each country to increase the official size of its national economy by including revenues from prostitution, illegal drug sales, smuggling, and all other unlawful financial transactions between willing participants.

REFERENCE: “Cambia il Sistema europeo dei conti nazionali e regionali – Sec2010″, ISTAT, 2014…

A good time was had by all…

Thanks, Mike

Sugary soft drinks linked to accelerated aging

Consumption of sugary soda drinks such as cola and lemonade may be linked to accelerated DNA ageing, say researchers who have studied the impact of the drinks in more than 5,000 people.

High-sugar fizzy drinks have been under fire from campaigners for contributing to obesity and type-2 diabetes, but this is the first study to suggest a link with ageing. The researchers found that people who reported drinking a 350ml bottle of fizzy drink per day had DNA changes typical of cells 4.6 years older.

Yes, this sort of sugar consumption shortens your life much as smoking.

The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, asked 5,309 healthy adults aged between 20 and 65 about their consumption of fizzy drinks and examined the DNA from each participant’s white blood cells.

The team found that telomeres – protective DNA caps on the end of chromosomes – were shorter in people who reported habitually drinking more fizzy drinks.

Telomeres are repetitive sections at the end of chromosomes that get shorter each time cells divide. They act as a kind of genetic ticking clock and in the past have been associated with human lifespan as well as the development of some forms of cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Other studies have suggested a link between telomere length and lifestyle factors such as smoking and psychological stress.

Prof Elissa Epel, of UCSF, stressed that the study only showed an association and did not prove that sugary drink consumption caused cell ageing. If high soda consumption was to blame, it may be due to the huge rush of sugars into the blood after a drink, leading to oxidative stress and inflammation – “the perfect storm for degrading telomeres,” said Epel.

Next in line for study – a tighter focus on sugar. Overdue as far as I’m concerned.

Thanks, Mike

Oppenheimer’s reputation repaired by unredacted security records


Oppenheimer with a socialist who wouldn’t be allowed into the country, today

The release of unredacted transcripts of secret government hearings held in 1954 by the Atomic Energy Commission produced headlines last week as the disclosures reaffirmed the once-questioned loyalty of Los Alamos Manhattan Project mastermind J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Many are asking why it took six decades to release the previously secret sections, other than that the now-restored portions tended to exonerate Oppenheimer. One expert says there was no classified information in the redactions.

All questions of security in the United States are regulated by paranoid idiots.

In a monumental fall from grace, Oppenheimer went from the man who harnessed the power of the atom for the bombs that ended World War II to losing his security clearance after the AEC hearings amid accusations that this chain-smoking American eccentric was a Soviet spy.

The hearings were held against the backdrop of 1950s red-scare America, fueled by factors including the fact that Oppenheimer’s brother and wife had been communists, and his lack of enthusiasm for building the more powerful hydrogen or “Super” bomb.

RTFA. The JOURNAL isn’t quite as much of a PITA as some. They don’t require registration; but, you must answer one or more survey questions which earns them relevant baksheesh I guess.

Cold War hysteria fit perfectly into the reactionary politics of the American establishment post-WW2. Oppenheimer, with a scientist’s objectivity and reliance on observable and verifiable fact did not. Our politicians would rather reject talent than admit their foolishness. Which is why government transparency is a contradiction in terms.

His earnestness about trying to build peace – alienated him from hawkish thugs like Edward Teller who wanted more and bigger bombs every week [and got them] – sealed the deal. No pleas for peace in imperial ideology.

I was lucky enough to meet Dr. Oppenheimer a couple of times. He was just part of the audience at discussions about working to promote peace at forums sponsored by the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy.

US spy plane lands after 22 months in space


Click to enlargeCC/U.S. Air Force

The US military has landed its robotic space plane, ending a classified 22-month mission that marked the third in Earth orbit for the experimental programme widely believed to be related to spying.

The X-37B touched down at Vandenberg air force base in California on Friday, bringing to a close the third and longest mission the vehicle has undertaken since its maiden voyage in 2010.

The spacecraft conducted unspecified experiments for 674 days while in orbit. The US air force said the orbiter, built by Boeing, performed “risk reduction, experimentation and concept-of-operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies”, although details of the missions are secret.

In a written release announcing the craft’s return, the air force only said it had been conducting “on-orbit experiments”…

US officials have previously denied the project had anything to do with creating a “space weapon” that could knock down other satellites.

But, our government, our military ain’t about to tell ordinary citizens a damned thing. We just get to pick up the tab.

Thanks, Mike

Importance of tiny creatures in grassland ecology

A newly published study reveals the importance of earthworms, beetles, and other tiny creatures to the structure of grasslands and the valuable ecosystem services they provide.

When asked to describe a forest or a meadow, most people would probably begin with the plants, the species diversity, or the color of the foliage. They probably wouldn’t pay much attention to the animals living in the soil.

But a new Yale-led study shows the critical importance of earthworms, beetles, and other tiny creatures to the structure of grasslands and the valuable ecosystem services they provide.

During a 3-year study, researchers found that removing these small animals from the soil of a replicated Scottish sheep meadow altered the plant species that grew in the ecosystem, reduced overall productivity, and produced plants that were less responsive to common agricultural management, such as fertilization.

The results reflect the long-term ecological impacts of land use changes, such as the conversion of forests to agricultural land…

“We know these soil animals are important controls on processes which cause nutrients and carbon to cycle in ecosystems, but there was little evidence that human-induced loss of these animals has effects at the level of the whole ecosystem, on services such as agricultural yield,” said Mark Bradford…lead author of the study…

“Yet that’s exactly what we found.”

RTFA for the details of approach, method, discovery. The Yale School of Forestry has been around a couple thousand years – it feels like, sometimes. They never stop pressing for more and better understanding of the environment.

Thanks, Mike

A breakthrough in fusion energy


Click to enlargeEric Schulzinger/Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin Corp says…it had made a technological breakthrough in developing a power source based on nuclear fusion, and the first reactors, small enough to fit on the back of a truck, could be ready for use in a decade.

Tom McGuire, who heads the project, said he and a small team had been working on fusion energy at Lockheed’s secretive Skunk Works for about four years, but were now going public to find potential partners in industry and government for their work.

Initial work demonstrated the feasibility of building a 100-megawatt reactor measuring seven feet by 10 feet, which could fit on the back of a large truck, and is about 10 times smaller than current reactors, McGuire told reporters.

In a statement, the company, the Pentagon’s largest supplier, said it would build and test a compact fusion reactor in less than a year, and build a prototype in five years…

Lockheed sees the project as part of a comprehensive approach to solving global energy and climate change problems.

Compact nuclear fusion would produce far less waste than coal-powered plants since it would use deuterium-tritium fuel, which can generate nearly 10 million times more energy than the same amount of fossil fuels, the company said.

Ultra-dense deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, is found in the earth’s oceans, and tritium is made from natural lithium deposits.

It said future reactors could use a different fuel and eliminate radioactive waste completely.

McGuire said the company had several patents pending for the work and was looking for partners in academia, industry and among government laboratories to advance the work.

Lockheed said it had shown it could complete a design, build and test it in as little as a year, which should produce an operational reactor in 10 years, McGuire said.

Everything material about this is a positive. The only potential negatives are [1] Luddite fears over any power source that carries the word nuclear somewhere in the patent. It’s why for example no commercial food packaging in the United States uses gamma ray sterilization – even though it would dramatically increase safety from pathogens, reduce costs. And [2] the combination of American military vendors and the construction dollars needed to produce plants with appropriate safeguards will increase potential cost several-fold. The greedy bastards hate to leave well enough alone.

Still, the potential for cheap energy is so great it can overcome American greed. It will put creeps like the Koch Bros out of business yet do comparatively little harm to home-based energy sources like solar panels. Reactors like the smallest one proposed would produce sufficient electricity to power 100,000 homes. It needs a grid.

For the technically-interested, here’s a link to process details.