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Opportunity Update


On this day in 2003 NASA launched Opportunity, one of a pair of Martian rovers. The rover landed at the Meridiani Planum the following January. Unlike its twin, Spirit, which was launched a month earlier and became stuck in 2009, Opportunity continues to operate. One of the rovers’ scientific goals was to find evidence of liquid water. Several lines of geochemical evidence suggest that liquid water once covered some parts of the planet’s surface, but the findings can also be explained without invoking water. Source: Physics today

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The story of carbon isotopes

Carbon Isotopes

Carbon is of course key to all life on Earth; if you pinch your skin right now you’re touching a huge number of carbon atoms, they literally hold you together. Carbon has 2 stable isotopes; both have 6 protons, but carbon can be stable with either 6 or 7 neutrons, leading to atoms with mass 12 and mass 13. Carbon can also pick up one more neutron and become carbon-14, but this atom is unstable and undergoes radioactive decay with a half life just over 5000 years.

Carbon isotopes are hugely useful in the geologic record because life doesn’t just use carbon, it cares about what type of carbon it uses. Organisms that create solid molecules out of carbon really, really like to take up carbon-12 and really dislike carbon-13.

Most of Earth’s carbon comes out of the planet’s mantle as a basically homogeneous pool. That carbon is then broken up into 2 reservoirs; the kind taken up by life and the kind that floats around. The part taken up by life becomes “light carbon”, made mostly of carbon-12 and missing its carbon-13. The remaining carbon becomes “heavy carbon”, with extra carbon-13.

This relationship can be found even in ancient rocks. Rocks made mostly of the soft tissues of organisms, such as coal or hydrocarbons, are extremely low in carbon-13. The heavy carbon portion winds up forming rocks of a different type – carbonate rocks such as limestones and marbles. Added together, the composition of organic matter and the composition of carbonate formed at a given time generally equals the composition coming out of the mantle. However, any time there’s a change to the biosphere, both pools of carbon “see it”. Continue reading

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The Philae Comet Could Be Home to Microbial Alien Life

Certain features of the comet suggest microbes could be present under its surfaceTwo top astronomers say the comet that is now home to the Philae lander could also be inhabited by microbial alien life.

Several characteristics of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, such as its organic-rich black crust, are best explained by the presence of living organisms beneath its icy surface, reports The Guardian.A

stronomer and astrobiologist Chandra Wickramasinghe and his colleague Max Willis from the University of Cardiff believe comets like 67P could be home to microbes similar to “extremophiles,” which live in the most inhospitable parts of earth. The European Space Agency’s Rosetta craft, which is orbiting the comet, is also said to have picked up strange “clusters” of organic material that resemble viral particles. Source: The Philae Comet Could Be Home to Microbial Alien Life

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Why don’t men live as long as women?

Across the entire world, women can expect to live longer than men. But why does this occur, and was this always the case? According to a new study led by University of Southern California Leonard Davis School of Gerontology researchers, significant differences in life expectancies between the sexes first emerged as recently as the turn of the 20th century. As infectious disease prevention, improved diets and other positive health behaviors were adopted by people born during the 1800s and early 1900s, death rates plummeted, but women began reaping the longevity benefits at a much faster rate.

In the wake of this massive but uneven decrease in mortality, a review of global data points to heart disease as the culprit behind most of the excess deaths documented in adult men, said USC University Professor and AARP Professor of Gerontology Eileen Crimmins.

“We were surprised at how the divergence in mortality between men and women, which originated as early as 1870, was concentrated in the 50 to 70 age range and faded out sharply after age 80,” Crimmins said.

The study was conducted with USC University Professor and ARCO/William F. Kieschnick Professor in the Neurobiology of Aging Caleb Finch and Research Associate Hiram Beltrán-Sánchez of the Center for Demography of Health and Aging at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It examined the lifespans of people born between 1800 and 1935 in 13 developed nations. Focusing on mortality in adults over the age of 40, the team found that in individuals born after 1880, female death rates decreased 70 percent faster than those of males. Even when the researchers controlled for smoking-related illnesses, cardiovascular disease appeared to still be the cause of the vast majority of excess deaths in adult men over 40 for the same time period. Surprisingly, smoking accounted for only 30 percent of the difference in mortality between the sexes after 1890, Crimmins said.

The uneven impact of cardiovascular illness-related deaths on men, especially during middle and early older age, raises the question of whether men and women face different heart disease risks due to inherent biological risks and/or protective factors at different points in their lives, Finch said. “Further study could include analysis of diet and exercise activity differences between countries, deeper examination of genetics and biological vulnerability between sexes at the cell level, and the relationship of these findings to brain health at later ages,” he said.The study, “Twentieth century surge of excess adult male mortality,” appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and was supported by the National Institute on Aging. Source: Why don’t men live as long as women?

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GoPro reveals new Hero4 Session mini action cam

GoPro has announced a new camera that is smaller and lighter than its earlier models. The US firm already dominates the action-cam market, having sold more than $363m (£233m) worth of goods over the first three months of the year. The Hero4 Session benefits from being waterproof without needing a special case, but cannot go as deep as models fitted with separate housings.

One expert said the firm risked having a “confusing” choice of products.GoPro is marketing the new camera as being 50% smaller and 40% lighter than other Hero4 models.

It is:

limited to a maximum resolution of 1080p high definition, rather than the 4K format supported by some other versions

certified to go 33ft (10m) underwater, a quarter of the depth GoPro says its other cameras can go to when placed in its waterhousing accessories

does not feature an LCD touchscreen, but is activated by a single button with the option for it to be controlled via a separate add-on remote or smartphone app

Although the new camcorder may appear to have lower specifications than the firm’s other options, GoPro suggests that its compact form coupled with a new dual-microphone system – designed to better handle wind noise – should appeal to customers intending to use it on a regular basis. Source: GoPro reveals new Hero4 Session mini action cam

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We are surrounded by relatives every day and don’t even know it

Everybody’s curious when it comes to discovering unknown factoids about their family tree, but new research from the UK makes clear just how diversely spread our DNA really is. A new demographic analysis by genealogy service AncestryDNA provides some truly fascinating statistics that highlight just how interwoven the family histories of British people can be. Turns out, for the average Brit, there’s a one-in-300 chance that a complete stranger is in fact their cousin.

“It’s incredible to think that many of us will be in daily contact with unknown relatives – with no idea that we share much more than the same sporting team or commute to work,” said Brad Argent, commercial director of AncestryDNA. Using a population growth model along with census information and fertility rate data from various sources, researchers at AncestryDNA found that the average British person has 193,000 living cousins within Britain. That’s enough cousins to fill Wembley Stadium twice over.

And it only gets weirder: the average Brit would come across two cousins for every 2.6 square kilometres (1 square mile) of land in Britain, and Londoners are estimated to share their daily commute on the Tube (the city’s famous underground network) with some 12,000 or so unknown relatives, with a 24 percent chance they’re in fact sharing the ride with a cousin. Source: We are surrounded by relatives every day and don’t even know it, research reveals

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The Plan to Feed the World by Hacking Photosynthesis

With the world population projected to soar past the 11 billion mark by 2100, we’re going to need to find some creative new ways of putting food on the table. The latest science-powered plan to feed the world? Hacking photosynthesis.

Imagine if we could grow 30 to 60 percent more wheat in a field, using the same amount of space, water, fertilizer, and sunlight. That’s what scientists are now hoping to do, by redesigning the process plants use to turn sunlight into chemical energy. The idea of upgrading photosynthesis isn’t new, but it’s been gaining momentum in step with our ability to manipulate life on a molecular scale. This week, a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences lays out the scientific roadmap that’ll make it happen.

More here: The Plan to Feed the World by Hacking Photosynthesis

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Vitruvian Man

The Vitruvian Man is a world-renowned drawing created by Leonardo da Vinci around the year 1487. It is accompanied by notes based on the work of the famed architect, Vitruvius. The drawing, which is in pen and ink on paper, depicts a male figure in two superimposed positions with his arms and legs apart and simultaneously inscribed in a circle and square. The drawing and text are sometimes called the Canon of Proportions or, less often, Proportions of Man. It is stored in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, Italy, and, like most works on paper, is displayed only occasionally.

The drawing is based on the correlations of ideal human proportions with geometry described by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius in Book III of his treatise De Architectura. Vitruvius described the human figure as being the principal source of proportion among the Classical orders of architecture. Other artists had attempted to depict this concept, with less success. Leonardo’s drawing is traditionally named in honor of the architect.

This image exemplifies the blend of art and science during the Renaissance and provides the perfect example of Leonardo’s keen interest in proportion. In addition, this picture represents a cornerstone of Leonardo’s attempts to relate man to nature. Encyclopaedia Britannica online states, “Leonardo envisaged the great picture chart of the human body he had produced through his anatomical drawings and Vitruvian Man as a cosmografia del minor mondo (cosmography of themicrocosm). He believed the workings of the human body to be an analogy for the workings of the universe.”

According to Leonardo’s preview in the accompanying text, written in mirror writing, it was made as a study of the proportions of the (male) human body as described in Vitruvius:

  • a palm is the width of four fingers
  • a foot is the width of four palms
  • a cubit is the width of six palms
  • a pace is four cubits
  • a man’s height is four cubits (and thus 24 palms)
  • erit eaque mensura ad manas pansas” (Literally: “It will be the same in measure to the spread out hands.”)
  • the length of a man’s outspread arms (arm span) is equal to his height
  • the distance from the hairline to the bottom of the chin is one-tenth of a man’s height
  • the distance from the top of the head to the bottom of the chin is one-eighth of a man’s height
  • the distance from the bottom of the neck to the hairline is one-sixth of a man’s height
  • the maximum width of the shoulders is a quarter of a man’s height
  • the distance from the middle of the chest to the top of the head is a quarter of a man’s height
  • the distance from the elbow to the tip of the hand is a quarter of a man’s height
  • the distance from the elbow to the armpit is one-eighth of a man’s height
  • the length of the hand is one-tenth of a man’s height
  • the distance from the bottom of the chin to the nose is one-third of the length of the head
  • the distance from the hairline to the eyebrows is one-third of the length of the face
  • the length of the ear is one-third of the length of the face
  • the length of a man’s foot is one-sixth of his height
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New Discovery in Particle Physics Raises Hope for a “Theory of Everything”

….so far the standard model has been very resilient, successfully able to explain everything that the experimental physicists managed to throw at it. That might be about to change. Two collaborations of scientists working at the LHC – one using the Compact Muon Solenoid detector and another carrying out the LHC beauty experiment – at the particle physics lab CERN near Geneva measured the decays of so-called B mesons. B mesons are weird particles made up of a specific quark and an antiquark. They looked at two different kinds of particle: a “neutral” B meson and a “strange” B meson.

All B mesons are short-lived and decay spontaneously into a bunch of other mesons. But this study specifically looked at the decays of B mesons into pairs of so-called muons, which are heavier versions of electrons, and their antiparticles. These decays are particularly interesting because their probabilities can be calculated within the standard model with little ambiguity and high precision. From the experimental point of view, the muons are relatively easy to detect and can be measured with high accuracy.

Starting point for a theory of everything – So, according to the standard model, on average about four of every billion strange B-mesons decay into the muon-antimuon pair (instead of into other particles). For the Neutral B-meson this number is even smaller, about one in ten billion. These are very small numbers indeed and explain why past experiments have failed to detect them.But the new experiments have been able to observe these decays, and to measure their probabilities. They show that while the strange B-meson decays into muons at the same rate that the standard model predicts, the neutral B-meson does so about four times more often than predicted (although the accuracy here was somewhat lower). Source: New Discovery in Particle Physics Raises Hope for a “Theory of Everything”

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What are Quarks?

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How Science Helped Pen the Declaration of Independence

On July 4, 1776, representatives of 13 colonies on the eastern shores of North America signed a Declaration of Independence from England. Winning independence was still a bloody war ahead, an unlikely outcome. Declaring independence was rashness, potentially carrying a death sentence for treason. Not, perhaps, what you would expect of well-educated men, many of them gentlemen steeped in the most sophisticated culture of their time. But steeped they were, and some of them really knew their philosophy and their science. The declaration they signed was no rough, back-woods piece of work.

The era was “The Enlightenment,” the “Age of Reason.” Science had become part of a cultured man’s way of thinking. Like their educated European contemporaries, signers of the Declaration, holding degrees from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and William and Mary, regarded science as a wondrously valuable tool for acquiring knowledge, and viewed its achievements as the clearest manifestation of reason. Isaac Newton’s discoveries represented, for them, human intellect operating at its best.

Thomas Jefferson, only a few years out of university, was chosen by his more seasoned colleagues to draft the Declaration. They altered very little in his draft. During Jefferson’s seven years at William and Mary, beginning at age 16 in 1760, he had read law and also been mentored by a fine scientist, William Small. “It was my great fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life that Dr. William Small of Scotland was then professor of mathematics, a man profound in most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communication, correct and gentlemanly manners and an enlarged and liberal mind.” Jefferson had encountered Newton’s Principia and Opticks, and Newton’s calculus, in which he was to prove himself highly proficient. Jefferson played violin and cello and called music the “favorite passion of my soul,” but “the tranquil pursuits of science,” he wrote later, were his “supreme delight.” Public responsibilities left far too little time for them.

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson proclaimed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident….” In an earlier draft, he had written, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.” Whether it was Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin who introduced the change (scholars now favor Jefferson), “self-evident” sounds more blunt, more down-to-earth, as in, “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize that these things are true, King George.” More here: How Science Helped Pen the Declaration of Independence

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China says its bullet trains will soon be able to reach 500 km/h

China has announced that’s it’s developed new technology that will help its bullet trains reach an ultra-fast 500 km/h. That isn’t quite as fast as Japan’s Maglev trains, which hit record-breaking speeds of 590 km/h earlier this year, but it’s more than twice the top speed of most trains in the US, and more than three times that of Australia’s rail network. And in a win for the local economy, the technology is all its own.

“Now we have our own permanent magnet synchronous traction system with full intellectual property rights, marking a new chapter in China’s high-speed railways,” Ding Rongjun, head of the Zhuzhou Institute in the country’s Hunan province, where the technology was developed, told China Daily.

So what’s a permanent magnet synchronous traction system? It’s basically a motor that uses permanent magnets rather than a magnetic field created by windings of the rotor to propel the train forward. That means the new 690-kilowatt traction system has significantly fewer parts and is lighter and more efficient, allowing China’s already-speedy bullet trains to go 50 percent faster.But unlike the Maglev system, the train remains in contact with the track, and so is still subject to the effects of friction.  Source: China says its bullet trains will soon be able to reach 500 km/h

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Solar Impulse plane lands in Hawaii

Solar Impulse, the aeroplane that is powered only by the sun, has landed in Hawaii after making a historic 7,200km flight across the Pacific from Japan. Pilot Andre Borschberg brought the vehicle gently down on to the runway of Kalaeloa Airport at 05:55 local time (15:55 GMT; 16:55 BST). The distance covered and the time spent in the air – 118 hours – are records for manned, solar-powered flight. The duration is also an absolute record for a solo, un-refuelled journey. Mr Borschberg’s time betters that of the American adventurer Steve Fossett who spent 76 hours aloft in a single-seater jet in 2006.

Despite being in the cockpit for so long, the Swiss pilot told the BBC that he did not feel that tired: “Interestingly, not really. I am also astonished. We got so much support during the flight from so many people; it gave me so much energy.” He said he looked forward to having a shower and visiting one of the many steakhouses suggested to him on the way into Hawaii’s O’ahu island. “We have some work to do, and to meet people, because I am sure a lot of people will want to see the aeroplane and discuss its technologies. But there is no way we shouldn’t try some surfing,” he joked. Source: Solar Impulse plane lands in Hawaii

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F1 changes to bring the noise and cut driver aids

The Formula One Strategy Group has released details about changes to the sport, which are aimed at injecting some extra excitement into the racing from 2016 onwards. Changes to the cars’ exhaust systems and tires have been tabled, while electronic aids will be cut back in an attempt to make the racing more challenging for drivers and more unpredictable for fans.

Chief among the complaints leveled at the modern V6 turbo powerplants is the noise – or lack thereof. Whereas Formula 1’s old V8 engines screamed and howled all the way to their 18,000 rpm redlines, the current generation of power units are far more muted, and fans have complained about the dull sound they produce. To deal with this, the Strategy Group plans on revising the exhaust systems to create a more evocative, exciting sound.

Exhaust sound has been the least of McLaren and Honda’s problems this season. Honda, which returned to F1 in 2015, has battled reliability issues all season, and was penalized for using an extra engine beyond the four allowed by current regulations. The new F1 regulations will allow new engine manufacturers an extra engine, and apply retrospectively to Honda this season “for the sake of fairness.”

Teams will also have extra freedom in terms of tire compounds, with details for next season being worked out with official supplier Pirelli. In the shorter term, the range of driver aids available to drivers will be restricted from the Belgian Grand Prix on, with an emphasis on race starts. The amount of in-race coaching will also be restricted.

Although details are scarce, the Strategy Group has even been discussing a number of changes to the qualifying and race weekend format that are now being assessed by the FIA and F1 Management for introduction in 2016. Looking further down the track, the Formula One Strategy Group plans to make cars look faster and more aggressive, with proposals for new wings and a new floor shape for 2017 already being assessed by teams. These changes would also make the cars wider and create significantly more aerodynamic downforce than the current aero kits produce. Source: F1 changes to bring the noise and cut driver aids

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What Would The Sky Look Like If You Could See All The Asteroids?

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James Cameron has created giant solar flowers that track the Sun

Avatar director James Cameron is no stranger to taking on big projects. Not only has he recreated an extraterrestrial world and a 1912 cruise ship for his films, he’s also IRL pioneered deep-sea exploration and advised NASA. And now Cameron has created a solar device that he hopes will not only help people harness more of the Sun’s energy, but offer a more attractive alternative to the existing roof-top panels. The ‘Solar Sun Flower’ is built to track the Sun as it moves across the sky, so it can soak up as much daylight as possible.

“The idea was to unify form and function with this life-affirming image that anyone looking at it would instantly get,” Cameron told Alissa Walker over at Gizmodo. Looking more like an artwork than an energy generator, the 10-metre-tall structure is made up of a central face surrounded by 14 ‘petals’. All of this space is covered with state-of-the-art solar panels, and Cameron worked with tech company Sonnen to develop a tracking system that uses astronomical data to calculate the Sun’s position throughout the day and align the Solar Sun Flower’s face accordingly.

The first flowers were installed last month on the Malibu campus of the MUSE school, a not-for-profit institution that encourages environmental learning and sustainability, and was co-founded by Cameron’s wife, Suzy Amis Cameron. They’re currently connected to the grid, but Cameron told Walker that he’s looking forward to trying out Tesla’s soon-to-be-released Powerwall battery to store the energy the produce. Right now, a set-up that links five Solar Sun Flowers generates around 260 kWh per day, which meets roughly 75 to 90 percent of the school’s energy demands. But in the height of summer, Cameron predicts this could reach 100 percent. To put that into perspective, the average US household uses around 29 kWh of electricity per day, so just one of these beauties would have you covered. Source: James Cameron has created giant solar flowers that track the Sun

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Solar Impulse breaks solo record

The Solar Impulse plane has broken the record for the longest non-stop solo flight without refuelling. The milestone was achieved 76 hours into the latest leg of its attempt to circumnavigate the globe.Pilot Andre Borschberg is making steady progress as he attempts the first solar-powered crossing of the Pacific. After leaving Nagoya, Japan, early on Monday (local time), he has now passed Midway Island and is heading towards his destination of Kalaeloa, Hawaii.  At 76 hours into the journey, he broke the record for the longest ever non-stop solo flight without refuelling.

The previous mark was set by the American Steve Fossett in 2006. His jet-powered Virgin GlobalFlyer vehicle completed a full circumnavigation of the world in that time, travelling more than 41,000km.In contrast, Mr Borschberg’s Solar Impulse plane, which carries no fuel at all, had gone “only” some 5,500km in its 76 hours of flight. Source: Solar Impulse breaks solo record

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The secret to taller, smarter children is genetically diverse parents

The more distantly related a person’s parents are, the more likely they are to be taller, smarter, and better educated, researchers in the UK have found. The results of one of the largest studies to date into genetic diversity, encompassing data from 110 genetic studies of 350,000 individuals living across Africa, Asia, Europe and North America, suggest that the increasing average in height and cognitive ability around the world could be the result of more frequent pairings of people from diverse genetic backgrounds.

Whether we’re talking about flies, whales, dogs, or humans, the survival of any species on Earth relies on a healthy pool of genetic diversity. For centuries now, we’ve known that the more closely related a child’s parents, the more at risk they’ll be of developing genetic defects, such as deafness, muteness, blood diseases, and physical deformities. But it’s been unclear if this scenario could be reversed: if the more distantly related a child’s parents are, the more likely they’ll be to possess advantageous genetic traits. So researchers from several institutions around Britain examined the genetic information of 354,224 individuals from 102 cohorts spanning four continents, and identified every case of homozygosity – where a child inherits exact copies of genes from both parents, allowing adverse, recessive traits to be more easily expressed. A common result of inbreeding, homozygosity can be used to determine how closely related a child’s parents are.

Once the team had figured this value out for their study population, they compared this to 16 traits of public health importance, including height, lung capacity, blood pressure, and cholesterol level. They found that of these traits, just four could be correlated to genetic diversity – height, lung capacity, cognitive ability, and level of eduction. For example, children that resulted from first cousin pairings ended up being on average 1.2 cm shorter and having 10 months’ less education than those from more genetically diverse parents. “Most people would believe a diverse gene-pool is a good thing, but the discovery that height is associated with diversity wouldn’t have been foreseen,” one of the team, Nathan Richardson from the UK Medical Research Council, told Philip Oldfield at The Guardian. Source: The secret to taller, smarter children is genetically diverse parents

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Have you ever wondered who all the different leaders in the church are and what it is that they do. Well we put Alan Mason on the case. Here is his enlightening report. – Deskarati

This article is written in response to a simple and interesting question about what the words, “vicar” of “priest” mean exactly. As with most simple questions, the answers can be complicated, but here the issues are pared down and illustrated with square Venn diagrams where possible. The key words are given in bold type for easy reference.

PRIEST: There is no simple definition of the word, but I offer this as a possibility. A priest is a person, accepted by a particular faith community as having authority and competence to preside at religious ceremonies, such as leading the people in prayer and worship, birth and welcome, coming of age, marriage, death and funeral rites, and other important occasions. The priest will also preach, teach and explain the particular faith to the people, and counsel them over any difficulties they may have.


Four major faith communities are given here, but there are of course many more. The Venn diagram indicates four exclusive sets; people in one set cannot be in any of the others. The fifth set in the centre is of priests. A person can only be a priest if he belongs to one of the four sets.

Continue reading

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Leap second: What does it mean?

Midnight will come later tonight, as for the first time in three years, an extra second is added to the official time set by atomic clocks. The “leap second” means the last minute of June will have 61 seconds in it.
It last happened in 2012, and caused temporary problems for some websites.

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