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AN ECLECTIC MIX OF SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, HISTORY AND THE ARTS

                            

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This amazing starry sky is a cave full of glowworms in New Zealand

NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day features an amazing photo by Phill Round. It looks like a frame from a Spielberg movie—an humanoid figure appearing at the base of a mountain, with the unknown starry sky of an alien world behind it. In reality, it’s a man getting into New Zealand’s Hollow Hill Cave.

From NASA: Captured in this long exposure, the New Zealand glowworms scattered across the cave ceiling give it the inviting and open appearance of a clear, dark night sky filled with stars. Unsuspecting insects fooled into flying too far upwards get trapped in sticky snares the glowworms create and hang down to catch food. Via This amazing starry sky is a cave full of glowworms in New Zealand.

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Your Brain On Coffee

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US researching implants that’ll help your body and mind heal itself

America’s mad science division is at it again, this time imagining a future where your body won’t need (as much) medicine to stay healthy, simply by using the resources it already has. Put simply, a person’s peripheral nervous system runs the internal organs and summons the troops to fight off infections and repair injuries. DARPA’s just received $78.9 million of funding to look into harnessing this system to develop a miniscule implant that’d not only make people healthier and less prone to disease, but could also be used to treat mental health complaints like post traumatic stress disorder in the future.

DARPA’s plan is to build implants no thicker than a nerve fiber that can then be implanted into people’s bodies. Once there, the devices would monitor the status of your nervous system, organs and overall health, keeping the system regulated by triggering responses through electrical impulses. In a way, it’s a bit like building a pacemaker for your central nervous system, except one that’s capable of helping people live with complaints like arthritis and other inflammatory diseases.

According to neural engineer Dr. Douglas Weber, the eventual goal is to turn the body into a “closed-loop system,” that continually assesses itself, ensuring that as soon as any sickness is detected in an organ, the body can quickly deal with it. The upside is that patients won’t need to take medicines (which can have adverse side-affects) because they’ll rely more upon their super-charged immune systems to deal with problems. Of course, even for DARPA, this is a big ask, since current neuromodulation implants are huge and require complex surgery to install, and we doubt that the technology will shrink to nerve-fiber sizes in just five years. That said, we’ll be first in the queue if this ever becomes available Via US researching implants that’ll help your body and mind heal itself.

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Renewable energy now makes up 22% of the world’s power

renewable-energy

“In 2013, renewable power capacity expanded at its fastest pace to date,” said the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) of the results of its latest market report. According to the report, wind, solar, and other clean, renewable energy sources continued to grow rapidly, reaching almost 22 percent of the total energy sources around the world, compared to the 21 percent in 2012 and the 18 percent in 2007.

“Globally, renewable electricity generation is now on par with that of natural gas, which remained relatively stable in 2013,” says the report. “Investment in new renewable power capacity topped USD 250 billion globally in 2013 and is likely to remain at high levels.”

Meanwhile, says Brian Merchant at Motherboard, 14 percent of the US is now powered by renewable energy sources, according to the results of another recent report run by the American Energy Information Administration. The research also indicated that biofuels for transport and renewable heat energy continue to grow, but not at the rate of renewable electricity.

“The news isn’t all rosy, however,” says Merchant. “The IEA also downgraded its forecast for renewables through 2020, because many governments are dropping their support for incentives – right at the time when wind and solar are becoming cost-competitive with fossil fuels.” Via Renewable energy now makes up 22% of the world’s power

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What Character Was Removed from the Alphabet?

ampersandJohnson & Johnson, Barnes & Noble, Dolce & Gabbana: the ampersand today is used primarily in business names, but that small character was once the 27th part of the alphabet. Where did it come from though? The origin of its name is almost as bizarre as the name itself.

The shape of the character (&) predates the word ampersand by more than 1,500 years. In the first century, Roman scribes wrote in cursive, so when they wrote the Latin word et which means “and” they linked the e and t. Over time the combined letters came to signify the word “and” in English as well. Certain versions of the ampersand, like that in the font Caslon, clearly reveal the origin of the shape.

The word “ampersand” came many years later when “&” was actually part of the English alphabet. In the early 1800s, school children reciting their ABCs concluded the alphabet with the &. It would have been confusing to say “X, Y, Z, and.” Rather, the students said, “and per se and.” “Per se” means “by itself,” so the students were essentially saying, “X, Y, Z, and by itself and.” Over time, “and per se and” was slurred together into the word we use today: ampersand. When a word comes about from a mistaken pronunciation, it’s called a mondegreen.

(The ampersand is also used in an unusual configuration where it appears as “&c” and means etc. The ampersand does double work as the e and t.) Edited from How ampersand came from a misunderstanding

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Enceladus

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On this day in 1789 William Herschel discovered Saturn’s sixth-largest moon, Enceladus. The moon’s richly textured surface implies that Enceladus has been tectonically active in (geologically) recent times. Geyser-like jets of water vapor shoot into space from its south pole. Indirect evidence of a large subsurface ocean of water suggests that Enceladus could harbor extraterrestrial life.

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In Greek mythology Enceladus was one of the Gigantes (Giants), who according to Hesiod, were the offspring of Gaia, born from the blood that fell when Uranus (Sky) and was castrated by their son Cronus. The Giants fought Zeus and the other Olympian gods in the Gigantomachy, their epic battle for control of the cosmos. A Giant named Enceladus, fighting Athena, is attested in art as early as an Attic Black-figure pot dating from the second quarter of the sixth century BC. In literature, references to the Giant occur as early as the plays of the fifth century BC Greek tragedian Euripides, where, for example, in Euripides’ Ion the chorus describes seeing on the late sixth century Temple of Apollo at Delphi, Athena “brandishing her gorgon shield against Enceladus”.

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‘Gut Reaction’ – Part 2

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When did Primates first appear?

After an ‘interesting’ discussing last night I have tried to find the answer to the question ‘When did primates first appear?’ After reading wiki and a couple of other articles the following seems to encompass the latest perceived understanding. There is a bit here for all sides of the debate: – Deskarati

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Many people take an understandably human-centered view of primate evolution, focusing on the bipedal, large-brained hominids that populated the jungles of Africa a few million years ago. But the fact is that primates as a whole–a category of megafauna mammals that includes not only humans and hominids, but monkeys, apes, lemurs, baboons and tarsiers–have a deep evolutionary history that stretches as far back as the age of dinosaurs.

purgatorius

purgatorius

The first mammal that palaeontologists have identified as possessing primate-like characteristics was Purgatorius, a tiny, mouse-sized creature of the late Cretaceous period (just before the K/T Impact Event that rendered the dinosaurs extinct). Although it looked more like a tree shrew than a monkey or ape, Purgatorius had a very primate-like set of teeth, and it (or a close relative) may have spawned the more familiar primates of the Cenozoic Era. (Genetic sequencing studies suggest that the earliest primate ancestor may have lived a whopping 20 million years before Purgatorius, but as yet there’s no fossil evidence for this mysterious beast.)

archicebus

archicebus

Recently, scientists have touted the equally mouse-like Archicebus, which lived 10 million years after Purgatorius, as the first true primate, and the anatomic evidence in support of this hypothesis is even stronger. What’s confusing about this is that the Asian Archicebus seems to have lived around the same time as the North American and Eurasian Plesiadapis, a much bigger, two-foot-long, tree-dwelling, lemur-like primate with a rodent-like head. The teeth of Plesiadapis displayed the early adaptations necessary for an omnivorous diet–a key trait that allowed its descendants tens of millions of years down the line to diversify away from trees and toward the open grasslands. Via Evolution – The Story of Prehistoric Primates.

Posted in Deskarati Q&A, Evolution | 4 Comments

Schrödinger’s cat caught on quantum film

Schrödinger’s cat is the poster child for quantum weirdness. Now it has been immortalised in a portrait created by one of the theory’s strangest consequences: quantum entanglement. These images were generated using a cat stencil and entangled photons. The really spooky part is that the photons used to generate the image never interacted with the stencil, while the photons that illuminated the stencil were never seen by the camera.

When two separate particles are entangled, measurements of their physical properties are correlated, and they effectively share a single quantum state. Gabriela Barreto Lemos at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna and her colleagues used this quantum connection between particles to make these images of a cat without directly photographing it. To do it, the researchers created yellow and red pairs of entangled photons. The yellow photons were fired at the cat stencil, while the red photons were sent to the camera. Thanks to their entanglement, the red photons formed the image of the cat because of the quantum link to their yellow twins.

The silicon stencil was transparent to red light and the camera could only detect red light. This demonstrates that the technique can image objects that are invisible to the detected photons. Via Schrödinger’s cat caught on quantum film

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Astronaut Chris Hadfield on space oddities

Fans of UNSW Science and ScienceAlert got to pose a series of questions to youtube’s most famous astronaut Chris Hadfield. Watch the interview with Veritasium’s Derek Muller at the exclusive Space Oddity event at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum – the annual ScienceAlert event celebrating all things science.

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3D-printed vertebra used in world-first spine surgery

3d-spineDuring a recent five-hour operation, surgeons at a Peking University hospital in Beijing were able to remove a tumour located on the second vertebra of a 12-year-old cancer patient named Minghao and replace it with a 3D-printed part.

“This is the first use of a 3D-printed vertebra as an implant for orthopaedic spine surgery in the world,” said one of the surgeons, Director of Orthopaedics at Peking University, Liu Zhongjun, in a statement to the press. According to CBS News, before he made it into surgery, Minghao had been lying in the orthopaedics ward of the hospital for more than two months. He could barely stand up for more than a few minutes at a time due to the damage caused by a tumour growing in his neck. In the past, patients with this condition would have received a piece of standardised, hollow titanium tube as an implant, but the new technique involving 3D-printing technology offers them a much greater customisation and a speedier, more comfortable recovery.

“Using existing technology, the patient’s head needs to be framed with pins after surgery,” Zhongjun explained, adding that the patient’s head can’t touch the bed for at least three months following the surgical procedure. “But with 3D printing technology, we can simulate the shape of the vertebra, which is much stronger and more convenient than traditional methods.” Minghao is now in recovery, and while it’s still not comfortable for him to speak so soon after the surgery, the team at Peking University said he was in a good physical condition and is expected to make a strong recovery. Via 3D-printed vertebra used in world-first spine surgery

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“ALAIN-FOURNIER” (HENRI ALBAIN-FOURNIER) – A LOST TALENT

Thanks to Alan Mason for this interesting new post. You can find all of Alan’s posts here.

In related earlier essays, posted on deskarati, I spoke about two British men of promise, whose life and talent was lost to the nation by their death in WWI. They were Henry Moseley, a brilliant physicist, and George Butterworth, a gifted composer. In this essay I want to review the story of a young Frenchman who was a promising writer. His name was Henri Albain-Fournier, but he is better known by his pen-name, the hyphenated surname “Alain-Fournier” without a forename. He wrote a short novel called “Le Grand Mealnes” (1) in 1912, which has been widely translated into many languages, including English, and is still widely read and discussed today.

French Provinces and Departements

After the French Revolution, at the close of the 18 Century, the names of all the old “Provinces” were swept away and replaced by the new, and much smaller, “Departements” whose names were based on geographical features like rivers or mountains. The whole idea was political, to discourage provincial loyalties, and make the French loyal and subservient only to the State and the national government in Paris. Needless to say, this Napoleonic system has only been partially successful, and the French accept the Departements because they have no choice, but to this day, all provincial French people know from which Province they come, and this is the base of their psychological and social loyalties.
Continue reading

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Horse Heroes of WW1

The 22nd August marks the 100th anniversary of the first horses to be shipped out to the front line of WW1. Despite the horrific condition in the trenches, the bond that developed between soldiers and their animals was often a deeply emotional one as this picture of 650 officers and men lining up in the shape of a horse head shows.

Good-Friends-cropped

The image to the left shows a driver from the Royal Regiment of Artillery, lying in the grass reading. His horse is lying resting on the grass beside him. This peaceful scene is testament to the strong bond that often developed between the drivers and their horses. It must have been very difficult to train the horses to withstand the noise of the very heavy guns and the constant shelling.

Of the one million horses supporting the British forces, just 60,000 returned to the U.K. A great number were killed whilst in service, and many of those who survived were sold into a life of hard labour across Africa. These once majestic animals who had come from the green pastures across England did not enjoy the comfortable life of retirement they deserved having served their country so faithfully. Image ©The National Library of Scotland. Edited from www.thebrooke.org/horseheroes

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China pursues 52 km collider project

Particle physicists in China have unveiled plans to build a huge 52 km particle collider that would smash electrons and positrons together to study the Higgs boson in unprecedented detail. The so-called “Higgs factory”, if given government approval, would be built by 2028 and put the country at the forefront of international particle physics.

Researchers are currently preparing a proposal to the government to carry out a full R&D study into the machine, which they envisage having an energy of 250 GeV. However, Yifang Wang, director of the Institute of High Energy Physics (IHEP) in Beijing, warns that the project is still in its infancy. “We are still at a very early stage of the discussion and we have a long way to go to get government support,” says Wang. Via China pursues 52 km collider project

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Goodbye Dickie

The actor and film-maker Richard Attenborough has died at the age of 90.

Lord Attenborough was one of Britain’s leading actors before becoming a highly successful director, winning both best picture and best director Oscars for Gandhi in 1983.

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Water splitter runs on an ordinary AAA battery

Hongjie Dai and colleagues have developed a cheap, emissions-free device that uses a 1.5-volt battery to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen gas could be used to power fuel cells in zero-emissions vehicles. Stanford University Professor Hongjie Dai has developed an emissions-free electrolytic device that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen at room temperature.

In 2015, American consumers will finally be able to purchase fuel cell cars from Toyota and other manufacturers. Although touted as zero-emissions vehicles, most of the cars will run on hydrogen made from natural gas, a fossil fuel that contributes to global warming.

Now scientists at Stanford University have developed a low-cost, emissions-free device that uses an ordinary AAA battery to produce hydrogen by water electrolysis. The battery sends an electric current through two electrodes that split liquid water into hydrogen and oxygen gas. Unlike other water splitters that use precious-metal catalysts, the electrodes in the Stanford device are made of inexpensive and abundant nickel and iron.

“Using nickel and iron, which are cheap materials, we were able to make the electrocatalysts active enough to split water at room temperature with a single 1.5-volt battery,” said Hongjie Dai, a professor of chemistry at Stanford. “This is the first time anyone has used non-precious metal catalysts to split water at a voltage that low. It’s quite remarkable, because normally you need expensive metals, like platinum or iridium, to achieve that voltage.” Via Water splitter runs on an ordinary AAA battery

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Crazy Russians

Don’t watch this if you are of a nervous disposition.

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Changes in eye can predict changes in brain

Researchers at the Gladstone Institutes and University of California, San Francisco have shown that a loss of cells in the retina is one of the earliest signs of frontotemporal dementia (FTD) in people with a genetic risk for the disorder — even before any changes appear in their behavior.

Published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, the researchers, led by Gladstone investigator Li Gan, PhD and UCSF associate professor of neurology Ari Green, MD, studied a group of individuals who had a certain genetic mutation that is known to result in FTD. They discovered that before any cognitive signs of dementia were present, these individuals showed a significant thinning of the retina compared with people who did not have the gene mutation.

“This finding suggests that the retina acts as a type of ‘window to the brain,’” said Dr. Gan. “Retinal degeneration was detectable in mutation carriers prior to the onset of cognitive symptoms, establishing retinal thinning as one of the earliest observable signs of familial FTD. This means that retinal thinning could be an easily measured outcome for clinical trials.”

Although it is located in the eye, the retina is made up of neurons with direct connections to the brain. This means that studying the retina is one of the easiest and most accessible ways to examine and track changes in neurons. Via Changes in eye can predict changes in brain

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A whole organ has been grown inside an animal for the first time

thymus

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland have taken a group of cells from a mouse embryo and grown them into a fully functional thymus, an immune system organ, in an adult mouse. This is the first time a whole organ has been grown from scratch inside an animal, and the findings, which have been published in Nature Cell Biology, could pave the way for alternatives to organ transplants.

The thymus is an organ that’s found near the heart and produces T-cells, which fight infection and are critical to the immune system. To grow the organ, the researchers first took fibroblast cells from a mouse embryo, genetically reprogrammed them and triggered their transformation into a type of cell that’s found in the thymus. To do this, they forced the fibroblast cells to express only a single gene, which isn’t normally expressed by fibroblasts. This gene lead to the production of a protein called FOXN1, which triggered the fibroblasts to turn into thymus cells. These cells were then mixed with some support cells and placed inside mice, where they developed into a complete thymus. These newly grown thymuses were fully functional, and could even produce T-cells.

Clare Blackburn, a stem cell scientist at the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh who was part of the research team, told James Gallagher, a journalist for BBC News: “This was a complete surprise to us, that we were really being able to generate a fully functional and fully organised organ starting with reprogrammed cells in really a very straightforward way. This is a very exciting advance and it’s also very tantalising in terms of the wider field of regenerative medicine.” Via A whole organ has been grown inside an animal for the first time

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Train your heart to protect your mind

Exercising to improve our cardiovascular strength may protect us from cognitive impairment as we age, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Montreal. “Our body’s arteries stiffen with age, and the vessel hardening is believed to begin in the aorta, the main vessel coming out of the heart, before reaching the brain. Indeed, the hardening may contribute to cognitive changes that occur during a similar time frame,” explained Claudine Gauthier, first author of the study. “We found that older adults whose aortas were in a better condition and who had greater aerobic fitness performed better on a cognitive test. We therefore think that the preservation of vessel elasticity may be one of the mechanisms that enables exercise to slow cognitive ageing.”

The researchers worked with 31 young people between the ages of 18 and 30 and 54 older participants aged between 55 and 75. This enabled the team to compare the older participants within their peer group and against the younger group who obviously have not begun the aging processes in question. None of the participants had physical or mental health issues that might influence the study outcome. Their fitness was tested by exhausting the participants on a workout machine and determining their maximum oxygen intake over a 30 second period. Their cognitive abilities were assessed with the Stroop task. The Stroop task is a scientifically validated test that involves asking someone to identify the ink colour of a colour word that is printed in a different colour (e.g. the word red could be printed in blue ink and the correct answer would be blue). A person who is able to correctly name the colour of the word without being distracted by the reflex to read it has greater cognitive agility. Via Train your heart to protect your mind.

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