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The tardigrade genome has been sequenced, and it has the most foreign DNA of any animal

Scientists have sequenced the entire genome of the tardigrade, AKA the water bear, for the first time. And it turns out that this weird little creature has the most foreign genes of any animal studied so far – or to put it another way, roughly one-sixth of the tardigrade’s genome was stolen from other species. We have to admit, we’re kinda not surprised.

A little background here for those who aren’t familiar with the strangeness that is the tardigrade – the microscopic water creature grows to just over 1 mm on average, and is the only animal that can survive in the harsh environment of space. It can also withstand temperatures from just above absolute zero to well above the boiling point of water, can cope with ridiculous amounts of pressure and radiation, and can live for more than 10 years without food or water. Basically, it’s nearly impossible to kill, and now scientists have shown that its DNA is just as bizarre as it is.

So what’s foreign DNA and why does it matter that tardigrades have so much of it? The term refers to genes that have come from another organism via a process known as horizontal gene transfer, as opposed to being passed down through traditional reproduction. Horizontal gene transfer occurs in humans and other animals occasionally, usually as a result of gene swapping with viruses, but to put it into perspective, most animals have less than 1 percent of their genome made up of foreign DNA. Before this, the rotifer – another microscopic water creature – was believed to have the most foreign genes of any animal, with 8 or 9 percent. But the new research has shown that approximately 6,000 of the tardigrade’s genes come from foreign species, which equates to around 17.5 percent. “We had no idea that an animal genome could be composed of so much foreign DNA,” said study co-author Bob Goldstein, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We knew many animals acquire foreign genes, but we had no idea that it happens to this degree. ”So where is the tardigrade getting all its genes from? The foreign DNA comes primarily from bacteria, but also from plants, fungi, and Archaea. And it’s this incredible variety of genes that researchers suggest has allowed the water bear to survive in such extreme conditions. Source: The tardigrade genome has been sequenced, and it has the most foreign DNA of any animal

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A big thank you to Alan Mason for the latest ‘decade ‘ in his twentieth century writing collection.


For the people of Britain, the optimism which marked the sixties, declined during the seventies, culminating in “the winter of discontent” in 1978-9 with a series of unpopular strikes, which greatly inconvenienced everyone. Radical change came in the eighties, starting with the General Election in 1979, which brought Margaret Thatcher to power, as Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. Her principal aim was to “roll back the State”, and reverse the “managed decline” which had typically been Britain’s usual economic situation, under all governments, since the end of WW2 in 1945.

The world of art was not really sure where to go. A whole series of short-lived “movements” had come and gone. The new buzz-words were “installations” and “performance art”. One of the largest installations was produced by the Israeli artist, Dani Karavan. Entitled, the “Museum Plaza (Ma’alot) Environment”, he made it for the Wallraf-Richartz Museum/ Museum Ludwig Cologne, in Germany. It is 50,000 square metres in area, and consists of railroad rails, bricks, concrete, granite, and cast iron (1).

Italian-born Gilbert Proesch, and George Pasmore initially saw themselves as performance artists and living sculptures covered in gold paint, in the nineteen-sixties. In their more conventional artworks, (2) they continued to appear as themselves, within a style of pop art.

In contrast, Paula Rego began producing abstract art and eventually moved into representational work. She was born to a Portuguese family in Lisbon, Portugal, but attended schools in England, where her father worked for the Marconi firm. Her paintings reflect children’s books and memories of childhood, but they have an eerie and unsettling quality (3), despite their apparent innocence. Her work is sometimes identified with the Symbolist Movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as “Symbolist Figuration”.

A different kind of symbolism, one not readily understood by the Western European traditions of art. was being introduced in the eighties. This was the work of Australian aboriginal artists, like Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, (4) who was part of a Western Desert Painters group. He chose to work with modern materials like acrylic paint on canvas, rather than traditional media like sand, wood and bark. Although , “Water Dreaming” appears to be an abstract pattern, it is a symbolic map of a sacred tribal site.

The American artist, Chuck Close, is part of the “Hyper Realist” movement of the seventies, described briefly in my essay, “TWENTIETH CENTURY WRITING – THE EIGHTH DECADE”. He began experimenting with painting photographs of portraits (5), including very subtle changes, in blurring or emphasis, to create projective effects. Moving on from the earlier photo-realism to microscopic stippled effects and collages.

Of the six books selected to represent the eighties, only three are novels (1, 2, 4), one is more of a historical analysis (3) and one is on modern times (6).

1 A Month in the Country ……………………..J L Carr ………………1980

2 The Balkan Trilogy/The Levant Trilogy …Olivia Manning………1980-2

3 Government …………………………………….B Traven ……………..1980

4 Jean de Florette /Manon des Sources…….Marcel Pagnol…………1988

5 The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail………..Michael Baigent……..1982

6 The Lost Continent…………………………..Bill Bryson……………..1989

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The UK has just invested in a super plane that could fly anywhere in four hours

It almost sounds like a dream: a new kind of hypersonic space-kissing jet that can take you anywhere in the world in just four hours. But the Skylon super plane being developed by UK aerospace firm Reaction Engines is very real.

The project took a big step forward this week with Reaction Engines announcing a new partnership with defence and aerospace giant BAE Systems, whose financial backing, along with a considerable investment from the UK government, will help Reaction develop its new class of aerospace engine dubbed SABRE (Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine) by as early as 2020, with test flights possible just five years later.

It’s thanks to the SABRE engine that the Skylon could theoretically take you to the other side of the planet for lunch, before dropping you safely back home in time for dinner.

SABRE operates in two modes to enable aircraft to directly access space in one step, called single stage to orbit. In its air-breathing mode, the engine sucks in oxygen from atmospheric air, to burn with liquid hydrogen fuel in the rocket combustion chamber. Once outside Earth’s atmosphere, the engine transitions to a conventional rocket mode, switching to on-board liquid oxygen.

One of the pivotal innovations of the system is in cooling. The engine uses ultra-lightweight heat exchangers 100 times lighter than existing technologies that can cool extremely hot airstreams from over 1,000°C to minus 150°C in less than 1/100th of a second.

According to its developers, an aircraft powered by the SABRE engine such as the Skylon will be able to go from standstill on a runway to reaching speeds of over five times the speed of sound while still in Earth’s atmosphere. The engine then transitions to a rocket mode, hitting spaceflight speeds at orbital velocity, as fast as 25 times the speed of sound. Source: The UK has just invested in a super plane that could fly anywhere in four hours

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Fusion reactor designed in hell makes its debut

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When Will Betelgeuse Explode?

If there’s one star in the sky people know about, it’s Betelgeuse. Marking the right shoulder of the hunter Orion—remember, he’s facing us, so it’s on our left—this orange-red star is one of the brightest in the night sky. It’s been studied for as long as we’ve had telescopes, yet for all our advanced technology and knowhow, details about it are maddeningly vague. We don’t even have a good determination of how far away it is!

Still, there’s a lot we do know: It’s a red supergiant, a star that started out life already a lot bigger, more massive, and far more luminous than the Sun. Stars like that go through their nuclear fuel extremely rapidly; while the Sun is only approaching middle age at 4.5 billion years old, Betelgeuse is dying now at an age of less than 10 million years old. And when it does finally give up the ghost, it’ll do so with a bang. A very, very big bang: It’ll go supernova, one of nature’s most dramatic and ridiculously violent events.

But when? A lot’s been written about that. If you believe pseudoscientists and crackpots, you might have thought 2012 was our last chance to see it. Sometimes the news spreads that it’ll go any day now. Somehow, oddly, despite all that nonsense you can still see Betelgeuse shining in the sky.

However, the thing is, it really will explode one day. We don’t really know when, exactly, which is why I usually hedge my bet by saying it could be tonight, but more likely it’ll be hundreds of thousands of years from now … a million years, tops.

As a scientist, that date range is a little bothersome. That’s why I was delighted to read a research paper trying to nail down this very fact. While it’s still a bit iffy, and details are still elusive, the astronomers who did the research were able to make a much more refined prediction: Betelgeuse will go boom in about 100,000 years.

Wow. That’s sooner than I would have thought. It’s still a long way off, of course, but in a galactic sense that’s a blink of the eye. Lots more here: Betelgeuse: Astronomers give it 100,000 years before it explodes.

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Ants Circling

Alfy – you might want to turn the sound down

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Three Claims

The present St Pauls’ Cathedral has three unique claims to fame. It was the first Protestant cathedral to be built in England; all the medieval cathedrals were originally Catholic foundations. Secondly, it is the first English cathedral to be wholly the concept of one man; Sir Christopher Wren. By contrast, the medieval cathedrals had been designed by, and added to, by a variety of different hands over the many centuries, since their foundation. Thirdly, it is the first English cathedral to be built in a neo- Classical style.

Bishops and Cathedrals

A cathedral is so called, because it is the place of the Bishop’s Chair (“cathedra” in Latin). Londinium was a Roman town, and it is likely that Christians were there from the First Century AD. The first real evidence is the fact that the then Bishop of London attended the Council of Arles (southern France) in AD 314.

Old St Paul’s

In the middle of the 17 Century the Gothic medieval “Old St Paul’s” (2) was in a dilapidated state and by 1661 Sir Christopher Wren had been asked to advise on its restoration and reconstruction. Five years later, the Great Fire of 1666 reduced the cathedral to a blackened shell, so that demolition and a fresh start was now the only option. This was a marvellous opportunity which Wren seized with both hands.

A Classical Design

He produced a number of designs, some of which were rejected on grounds of the size and cost, before the final one was accepted, in 1675. He was given a lot of latitude to change this design, and he made full use of this freedom. He was keen to make a cathedral in keeping with the architectural trend for Greco-Roman classical styles.

Wren had been commissioned to design replacements for the many City churches destroyed in the Great Fire, before he began on St Pauls’ and the spires of these “show his powers of invention in transforming a Gothic feature into a Classical one” (References A).

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Diesel and Urea

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Big Obsidian Flow

lava flow

The rocky area at the center of this image is the Big Obsidian Lava Flow, the youngest lava flow in the state of Oregon. The lava flow slowly oozed out of a vent in the Newberry Caldera structure during an eruption 1300 years ago.

The lava flow covers a different unit from the same eruption. The eruption began with an explosive phase as volatiles like H2O and CO2 forced their way to the surface. Those gases formed vesicles that built pressure and blasted the molten rock out of its vent.

Some time after that initial explosive eruption, a portion of the remaining magma within the volcanic plumbing system reached the surface and began to ooze its way forward. The lava flow was a viscous rhyolite and probably only moved forward by at most a couple meters per day during the eruption. Because rhyolite is high viscosity, it can be difficult for crystals to begin growing in the lava before it cools off; a lava flow is able to cool off before any crystals begin to form is the basic requirement of forming obsidian and this lava flow is one of several sources of that glassy rock found in this state. Via EarthStory

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These implantable LCD lenses could replace glasses and contacts forever

Instead of having spectacles perched awkwardly on your nose, or itchy contacts that you can’t stop losing, what if the same optical technology could be implanted inside the eyeball – a permanent set of contact lenses to correct your sight? That’s the aim of a new invention by UK student Devesh Mistry, which uses an auto-focusing liquid crystal material to correct defects in vision.

Mistry’s work is aimed at helping elderly people with failing eyesight, and in particular, those suffering from presbyopia: the condition is usually found in the over-45s and causes the natural lens inside a person’s eyeballs to become stiff and inflexible. That rigidity means that the eye muscles can’t work properly to bring long-range objects into focus.

Lenses made with liquid crystals – the same material found in modern-day television sets and computer monitors – can focus and adjust themselves automatically in response to prompts from the eye muscles, and that means a damaged eye could be effectively repaired. The implant operation would work along similar lines to the one already used to remove and replace cataracts, Mistry says.

“Liquid crystals are a very under-rated phase of matter,” he explained to The Times. “Everybody’s happy with solids, liquids and gases and the phases of matter, but liquid crystals lie between crystalline solids and liquids. They have an ordered structure like a crystal, but they can also flow like a liquid and respond to stimuli.” And it’s those qualities that make the new research so promising, even if there’s some way to go yet before such an operation is going to be possible: Mistry is hoping to have a prototype lens ready by the time he completes his doctorate at the University of Leeds in 2018. Source: These implantable LCD lenses could replace glasses and contacts forever

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The Orionids meteor shower

The Orionids meteor shower, which is generated by the famous Halley’s Comet, is happening this week. Halley’s Comet is only visible from Earth once every 75 years, but residual chunks from its tail generate two annual meteor showers: the Eta Aquarids in May and the Orionids in October.

Meteor showers typically come from the dusty, rocky guts that comets leave behind as they fly through the Solar System. When Earth passes through a comet’s tail, its gravitational pull attracts their debris, which then enters the atmosphere, burns up, and is seen as a falling star or meteor. This week’s Orionid meteor shower is your last chance of the year to catch a glimpse of this famous comet’s guts as they rain down through Earth’s atmosphere.

The best time to see the Orionids this year, which is when the most meteors will be streaking across the sky, will be in the early morning hours – right before dawn – on Wednesday, October 21 and Thursday, October 22, according to Source: Here’s how to watch this week’s stunning meteor shower

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A Scientist Is Selling the Right To Name His Newly-Discovered Moth On eBay

Brown MothAn entomologist has decided to use eBay to auction off the naming rights for a newly-discovered species of moth. When a new species is discovered, the honor of naming it goes to whoever found it. However, Eric H. Metzler, an entomologist from the Wedge Entomological Foundation, decided to ask Western National Parks Association—who funded some of his research—to start an online auction and take the proceeds.

“It’s getting harder and harder to get funding to do this research because it’s not seen as a priority in the way it used to be, even though it’s fundamental to our understanding of biodiversity,” says Paolo Viscardi, a curator at University College London’s Grant Museum. “Any mechanism where you can raise more funds to continue your work is taken—so I guess [auctioning of the naming rights] is another way to fund your research.” Source: Slashdot

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A 15cm Interactive Binary Ruler

Not bad for £9  or $15

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Life on Earth originated 300 million years earlier than we thought, new evidence suggests

Researchers have found evidence of ancient microorganisms that lived in what is now Western Australia at least 4.1 billion years ago. If confirmed, the discovery suggests that life originated on Earth 300 million years earlier than previously thought.

This would mean that life originated not that long after the formation of our planet – just over 4 million years to be precise – which might sound like a really long time, but it’s a proverbial blink of an eye in the history of Earth. It would also change our understanding of what it takes for life to form here, and, excitingly, elsewhere in the Universe.

“Life on Earth may have started almost instantaneously,” said one of the lead researchers, Mark Harrison, a geochemist from the University of California, Los Angeles. “With the right ingredients, life seems to form very quickly.”

The new research also suggests that life existed on Earth prior to the massive bombardment of the inner Solar System – a period of intense asteroid activity which formed the Moon’s large craters around 3.9 billion years ago. It was previously believed that life didn’t appear on Earth until after this event, around 3.8 billion years ago. And it was long assumed that before the bombardment the planet was a dry and desolate place that was incapable of sustaining life.

But a growing body of research, including this latest discovery, suggests that this wasn’t the case. “The early Earth certainly wasn’t a hellish, dry, boiling planet; we see absolutely no evidence for that,” said Harrison. “The planet was probably much more like it is today than previously thought.” Source: Life on Earth originated 300 million years earlier than we thought, new evidence suggests

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The Stairclimbing Wheelchair

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Quantum computing explained

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Here’s how to make perfect diamonds in the microwave

Right now, odds are that one in every four diamonds on sale around the world is a blood diamond – mined in a war zone and sold to finance armed conflict and civil war. And for those wanting to steer clear of such a commodity, it’s becoming nearly impossible to figure out the difference between a clean and a dirty diamond.

Which is why the market for lab-made diamonds is slowly but surely growing, offering a cheaper, more environmentally friendly, and ethically sound option that looks just as pretty as its natural counterpart. “To a modern young consumer, if they get a diamond from above the ground or in the ground, do they really care?” Chaim Even-Zohar from Tacy, an Israel-based diamond consulting firm, points out to Bloomberg Businessweek. And nope, these artificial diamonds are nothing like those cheap, lab-grown imitation diamonds, such as cubic zirconia – they have the exact same physical structure and chemical composition as a diamond that’s been pulled out of the ground.

The process works by placing a tiny fragment of diamond (called a carbon seed) into a microwave along with varying amounts of a carbon-heavy gas – methane is most commonly used. The gas mixture is heated to very high temperatures in the microwave to produce a plasma ball, and inside this, the gas breaks down and the carbon atoms crystallise and accumulate on the diamond seed, causing it to grow.

The process can take up to 10 weeks to produce a marketable diamond, but it works so well, experts reportedly need a machine to tell the lab-grown gems apart from natural ones sourced from mines or riverbeds. So far, synthetic diamonds make up a tiny fraction of the US$80 billion global diamond market, with Bloomberg reporting that in 2014, an estimated 360,000 carats of lab-grown diamonds were manufactured, while about 146 million carats of natural diamonds were mined. Source: Here’s how to make perfect diamonds in the microwave

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Changing environments

grand canyonThese very different rocks stacked atop each other in the Grand Canyon bear witness to a change in climate some 260 million years ago as the supercontinent Pangaea had more or less finished welding together and brought a drier continental climate to the land that became the western USA. The reddish underlying mudstones of the Hermit Shale were deposited in flood plains and tidal flats, and contain fossil plants and animal tracks.

The overlying sandstone of the Cococino formation were deposited in a vast desert as windblown sand, gradually covering the mudstone and drying it out. Some of the fossil cracks in the mudstone have been filled with sand, giving us a snapshot of a moment in time way back in the Permian era. It is mostly made up of well rounded quartz grains of a regular size, with very minor feldspar, which geologists would call a ‘mature’ sediment, as opposed to one made of crystals that are easily weathered, either physically or chemically.

So there you have it, great events recorded in a small patch of rock. It speaks of welding continents, growing mountains and the drying of the land to form a great dune desert a very long time ago, and the best bit is that this message from the past can still be read and interpreted today, and the events that formed them imagined as we let our minds travel away into deep time.

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Wildlife Photographer of the Year

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The Tallest Observation Decks In the World in 2020

2020 observation decks

A crop of new skyscrapers are coming due over the next five years–and with them, nine new observation decks that will be taller than any others ever built.

The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat recently released a study about observation decks that looks at how they’ve evolved over the last 120 years of skyscraper design, and where they’ll be in the future. While the Washington Monument once had the tallest publicly-accessible space in the world, that reign ended in 1889 when the Eiffel Tower was completed. But neither could compare to the rising heights of tall, steel-framed buildings on the horizon: By 1931, the Empire State Building had clinched the title, with more than 250 feet on Eiffel’s crowd-pleaser.

While it’s eye-opening to see the historical trends mapped, it’s the Council’s future projections that are really impressive. The US currently has one tower in the top ten tallest decks–the Willis Tower, at #9–by 2020 it’ll barely make the top 20 at #17 worldwide. Instead, the vast majority of high observation decks will be in Asia, with a few cameos by skyscrapers in the Middle East. For reference, only the shaded buildings are finished right now: Source: Here’s Where the Tallest Observation Decks In the World Will Be in 2020

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