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

             

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Immortality is one step closer as scientists turn off the ageing process in worms

Will we one day be able to disable the ageing process? It sounds like an impossible goal, but scientists from Northwestern University in the US have found a way to turn off the ‘genetic switch’ that causes us to get older – in worms at least. While it won’t give us the keys to immortality just yet, the discovery could lead to new ways of making us more productive and active in the latter years of our lives.

According to the study, this genetic switch is automatically flipped when a worm reaches reproductive maturity. Stress responses that originally protect its cells by keeping vital proteins folded and functional are switched off at this point, and the ageing process begins in earnest – with the switch disabled, the cells kept up their earlier level of resistance, making the worm better able to handle the wear and tear of growing older.

It’s a big jump from worms to human beings of course, but the two researchers behind these experiments say there are enough common biological links to suggest that the same technique could be applied to other animals. The key moment is associated with reproduction, because it’s at this point that the future of the species has been guaranteed – once the next generation is born, the current generation can get out of the way. Source: Immortality is one step closer as scientists turn off the ageing process in worms

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Independent expert confirms that the “impossible” EM Drive actually works

Over the past year, there’s been a whole lot of excitement about the electromagnetic propulsion drive, or EM Drive – a scientifically impossible engine that’s defied pretty much everyone’s expectations by continuing to stand up to experimental scrutiny.

The drive is so exciting because it produces huge amounts of propulsion that could theoretically blast us to Mars in just 70 days, without the need for heavy and expensive rocket fuel. Instead, it’s apparently propelled forward by microwaves bouncing back and forth inside an enclosed chamber, and this is what makes the drive so powerful, and at the same time so controversial.

As efficient as this type of propulsion may sound, it defies one of the fundamental concepts of physics – the conservation of momentum, which states that for something to be propelled forward, some kind of propellant needs to be pushed out in the opposite direction. For that reason, the drive was widely laughed at and ignored when it was invented by English researcher Roger Shawyer in the early 2000s. But a few years later, a team of Chinese scientists decided to build their own version, and to everyone’s surprise, it actually worked. Then an American inventor did the same, and convinced NASA’s Eagleworks Laboratories, headed up by Harold ‘Sonny’ White, to test it.

The real excitement began when those Eagleworks researchers admitted back in March that, despite more than a year of trying to poke holes in the EM Drive, it just kept on working – even inside a vacuum. This debunked some of their most common theories about what might be causing the anomaly.

Now Martin Tajmar, a professor and chair for Space Systems at Dresden University of Technology in Germany, has played around with his own EM Drive, and has once again shown that it produces thrust – albeit for reasons he can’t explain. Tajmar presented his results at the 2015 American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Propulsion and Energy Forum and Exposition in Florida on 27 July, and you can read his paper here. He has a long history of experimentally testing (and debunking) breakthrough propulsion systems, so his results are a pretty big deal for those looking for outside verification of the EM Drive. To top it off, his system produced a similar amount of thrust as was originally predicted by Shawyer, which is several thousand times greater than a standard photon rocket.  Source: Independent expert confirms that the “impossible” EM Drive actually works

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This Tiny Light-Emitting Device Flashes 90 Billion Times a Second

This may look like a piece of abstract art, but you’re actually looking at the cutting-edge of optical technology. Using a branch of physics known as plasmonics, this microscopic set-up can pulse light on-and-off a bewildering 90 billion times per second.

The system is fairly straightforward, at least in theory. The square lump you can see is actually a nanocube just 75 nanometers across. Sat a mere 20 atoms beneath it is a thin sheet of gold, and between are scattered a series of spheres made of semiconducting material, each just six nanometers wide, known as quantum dots (the pink things in the picture above).

A team from the Pratt School of Engineering at Duk has shown that laser light pulsed onto the cube causes a series of excitations where light and free electrons combine to create what is known as a plasmon. Then, the accurate spacing between the cube and the gold sheet creates a field between the two which excites the quantum dots at incredibly high frequency—in this case, 90 gigahertz. That causes the quantum dots to emit light, pulsing on and off 90 billion times per second.

The team reckons that the ultra-high frequency of light emission could be used to create new kinds of ultra-fast light circuitry to transmit data. To make that a reality, though, will require a single quantum dot to be situated between the cube and the gold sheet to create a single photon source. Well, nobody said it was going to be easy. Source: This Tiny Light-Emitting Device Flashes 90 Billion Times a Second

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The Decade Volcanoes

The Decade Volcanoes

The science of volcanology is relatively young when you consider our species has a knack for building where we shouldn’t. Volcanic soils are well known for their fertility and as such many societies throughout history have settled in volcanic regions, some eventually suffering the consequences. It wasn’t until 1841 that the first volcanological observatory (The Vesuvius Observatory) was founded and since then the field has progressed hugely. As an example of this, during the 90’s as part of the United Nations International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR) the Decade Volcanoes Project was established.

The task of the IAVCE (International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior) was to identify volcanoes with a history of: large, potentially destructive eruptions, more than 1 associated hazard and close to regions of high population density. They produced a list of 16 volcanoes spanning 13 countries that were identified as being worthy of particular study, the so called decade volcanoes: Mount Rainier (USA), Mauna Loa (USA), Colima (Mexico), Santa María (Guatemala), Galeras (Columbia), Teide (Spain), Mount Etna (Italy), Mount Vesuvius (Italy), Santorini (Greece), Mount Nyiragongo(Democratic Republic of the Congo) , Mt. Merapi (Indonesia), Ulawun (Papua New Guinea), Taal (Philippines) , Sakurajima (Japan), Unzen (Japan) and Avachinsky-Koraksky (Russia). Via The Earth Story

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New technology lets scientists easily rewrite living organisms’ genetic code

With a few easy tweaks, scientists can cut-and-paste DNA inside living cells, thanks to a promising new technique that could make possible everything from testing new drugs or curing genetic diseases. And researchers just discovered a way to make the process a whole lot cheaper and easier, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Developmental Cell. For less than US$100, the new process allows scientists to make some of the key materials needed to modify an organism’s entire genome, or its complete set of DNA, the researchers said.

The advance is based on a technique that allows scientists to narrow in on a specific gene and cut-and-paste bits of DNA to change its function, known as CRISPR-Cas9. Jennifer Doudna at UC Berkeley and her colleagues first discovered this natural process that bacteria use to protect themselves against invading viruses. But the technique is much more powerful than that — it basically gives scientists the ability to rewrite specific chunks of an organism’s genetic code, including that of humans.

Here’s how it works: When a bacterium encounters DNA from a virus, it makes a strand of RNA, a molecular cousin to DNA, that matches the sequence of the viral DNA, known as a guide RNA. The guide RNA latches onto a protein (the Cas9 part of the CRISPR-Cas9 name), and together they search for the matching virus. When they find a match, the protein, which acts like a pair of scissors, cuts up the viral DNA, destroying it. Continue reading

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You don’t look the way you think you do

Hate the way you look in all your photos? Sorry, but that might actually be your face, new research suggests. In fact, the study shows that we’re so terrible at recognising what we really look like in images, we’d be better off letting a stranger choose our next profile pic or passport photo.

Scientists from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia have found that people are 7 percent worse than a stranger at ranking which of their photos look the most like them. The research was intended to provide insight into the challenges of photo identification in situations such as border control, but it might also shed some light on why it’s so hard to find a picture we like of ourselves – apparently, we’re just deluded about how the rest of the world sees us.

“It seems counter-intuitive that strangers who saw the photo of someone’s face for less than a minute were more reliable at judging likeness,” lead researcher Davie White said in a press release. “However, although we live with our own face day-to-day, it appears that knowledge of one’s own appearance comes at a cost. Existing memory representations interfere with our ability to choose images that are good representations or faithfully depict our current appearance.” Source: Sorry, you don’t look the way you think you do, study reveals

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The red and blue sections of this map each contain 5% of the world’s population

This mind-blowing map was created by self-confessed data-cruncher Max Galka, and shows two different areas that each house 5 percent of the world’s population.One includes several of the major OECD countries, such as Australia, Ireland and Canada, as well as nine US states. The other includes just one country – Bangladesh – and three eastern Indian states: Bihar, Jharkhand, and West Bengal. The remaining 90 percent of the world? Well, they’re spread out across the remaining white area.  Source: The red and blue sections of this map each contain 5% of the world’s population

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NASA’s New Horizons team finds haze, flowing ice on Pluto

Flowing ice and a surprising extended haze are among the newest discoveries from NASA’s New Horizons mission, which reveal distant Pluto to be an icy world of wonders.

“We knew that a mission to Pluto would bring some surprises, and now—10 days after closest approach—we can say that our expectation has been more than surpassed,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. “With flowing ices, exotic surface chemistry, mountain ranges, and vast haze, Pluto is showing a diversity of planetary geology that is truly thrilling.”

Just seven hours after closest approach, New Horizons aimed its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) back at Pluto, capturing sunlight streaming through the atmosphere and revealing hazes as high as 80 miles (130 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface. A preliminary analysis of the image shows two distinct layers of haze—one about 50 miles (80 kilometers) above the surface and the other at an altitude of about 30 miles (50 kilometers).

“My jaw was on the ground when I saw this first image of an alien atmosphere in the Kuiper Belt,” said Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. “It reminds us that exploration brings us more than just incredible discoveries—it brings incredible beauty.” Studying Pluto’s atmosphere provides clues as to what’s happening below. “The hazes detected in this image are a key element in creating the complex hydrocarbon compounds that give Pluto’s surface its reddish hue,” said Michael Summers, New Horizons co-investigator at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.  Source: NASA’s New Horizons team finds haze, flowing ice on Pluto

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Why do mitochondria retain their own genome?

It sounds like science fiction to suggest that every cell in the human body is occupied by a tiny genome-equipped organelle, with which we exist in symbiosis. But in actuality, eukaryotic life is dependent on mitochondria, which provide energy to the cell in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Over millennia, the genomes of mitochondria evolved under selection for minimal gene content, but researchers have been unable to determine why some but not all mitochondrial genes have been transferred to the nuclear genome.

An international collaborative of researchers formed an interesting hypothesis regarding this phenomenon: The mitochondrial genome encodes hydrophobic membrane proteins which, if encoded in the nucleus, would be filtered by the signal recognition particle (SRP) and misdirected into the endoplasmic reticulum. The researchers conducted a study exploring their hypothesis and have published their results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In order to predict if a protein would be targeted by SRP, the researchers calculated the free insertion energy of transmembrane proteins, which, if scored zero or less, were considered to be hydrophobic. Higher scores were rated marginally hydrophobic. If a transmembrane protein domain (TMD) scored hydrophobic and the length of its tail was longer than 120 amino acids, the researchers predicted it would be arrested by SRP and directed into the endoplasmic reticulum. They expressed such proteins in cellular cytoplasm and were able to determine that they were, in fact, arrested by the SRP and directed to the endoplasmic reticulum. Further, the researchers observed that the mistargeting of these hydrophobic proteins into the soluble medium of the endoplasmic reticulum resulted in the formation of aberrant honeycomb structures similar to those observed during viral infections. “We conclude that genes for hydrophobic membrane proteins of more than 120 amino acids are likely retained in distinct organelle genomes to ensure a correct localization of these proteins and avoid transport to the endoplasmic reticulum,” the authors write.

Thus, the researchers conclude, the selection against mistargeting hydrophobic proteins into the endoplasmic reticulum posed at least one major selective constraint on the retention of the mitochondrial genome. They bolster this finding by comparing it to similar membrane dynamics in the chloroplasts of plants. Source: Why do mitochondria retain their own genome?

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‘Earth 2.0′ found in Nasa Kepler telescope haul

A haul of planets from Nasa’s Kepler telescope includes a world sharing many characteristics with Earth.Kepler-452b orbits at a very similar distance from its star, though its radius is 60% larger. Mission scientists said they believed it was the most Earth-like planet yet. Such worlds are of interest to astronomers because they might be small and cool enough to host liquid water on their surface – and might therefore be hospitable to life.

Nasa’s science chief John Grunsfeld called the new world the “closest so far” to Earth. And John Jenkins, Kepler data analysis lead at Nasa’s Ames Research Center in California, added: “It’s a real privilege to deliver this news to you today. There’s a new kid on the block that’s just moved in next door.”

The new world joins other exoplanets such as Kepler-186f that are similar in many ways to Earth. Determining which is most Earth-like depends on the properties one considers. Kepler-186f, announced in 2014, is smaller than the new planet, but orbits a red dwarf star that is significantly cooler than our own. Kepler-452b, however, orbits a parent star which belongs to the same class as the Sun: it is just 4% more massive and 10% brighter. Kepler-452b takes 385 days to complete a full circuit of this star, so its orbital period is 5% longer than Earth’s. The mass of Kepler-452b cannot be measured yet, so astronomers have to rely on models to estimate a range of possible masses, with the most likely being five times that of Earth. If it is rocky, the world would likely still have active volcanism and its gravity would be roughly twice that on our own planet.

The new world is included in a haul of 500 new possible planets sighted by the Kepler space telescope around distant stars. Twelve of the new candidates are less than twice Earth’s diameter, orbiting in the so-called habitable zone around their star. Edited from: ‘Earth 2.0′ found in Nasa Kepler telescope haul

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Scientists have developed an eye drop that can dissolve cataracts

Researchers in the US have developed a new drug that can be delivered directly into the eye via an eye dropper to shrink down and dissolve cataracts – the leading cause of blindness in humans. While the effects have yet to be tested on humans, the team from the University of California, San Diego hopes to replicate the findings in clinical trials and offer an alternative to the only treatment that’s currently available to cataract patients – painful and often prohibitively expensive surgery….

…The new drug is based on a naturally-occurring steroid called lanosterol. The idea to test the effectiveness of lanosterol on cataracts came to the researchers when they became aware of two children in China who had inherited a congenital form of cataract, which had never affected their parents. The researchers discovered that these siblings shared a mutation that stopped the production of lanosterol, which their parents lacked.

So if the parents were producing lanosterol and didn’t get cataracts, but their children weren’t producing lanosterol and did get cataracts, the researchers proposed that the steroid might halt the defective crystallin proteins from clumping together and forming cataracts in the non-congenital form of the disease.

They tested their lanosterol-based eye drops in three types of experiments. They worked with human retinas in the lab and saw a decrease in cataract size. They then tested the effects on rabbits, and according to Hanae Armitage at Science Mag, after six days, all but two of their 13 patients had gone from having severe cataracts to mild cataracts or no cataracts at all. Finally, they tested the eye drops on dogs with naturally occurring cataracts. Just like the human retinas in the lab and the rabbits, the dogs responded positively to the drug, with severe cataracts shrinking away to nothing, or almost nothing. Edited from: Scientists have developed an eye drop that can dissolve cataracts

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Scientists have finally discovered massless particles, and they could revolutionise electronics

After 85 years of searching, researchers have confirmed the existence of a massless particle called the Weyl fermion for the first time ever. With the unique ability to behave as both matter and anti-matter inside a crystal, this strange particle can create electrons that have no mass.

The discovery is huge, not just because we finally have proof that these elusive particles exist, but because it paves the way for far more efficient electronics, and new types of quantum computing. “Weyl fermions could be used to solve the traffic jams that you get with electrons in electronics – they can move in a much more efficient, ordered way than electrons,” lead researcher and physicist M. Zahid Hasan from Princeton University in the US told Anthony Cuthbertson over at IBTimes. “They could lead to a new type of electronics we call ‘Weyltronics’.”

So what exactly is a Weyl fermion? Although we’re often taught in high school science that the Universe is made up of atoms, from a particle physics point of view, everything is actually made up of fermions and bosons. Put very simply, fermions are the building blocks that make up all matter, such as electrons, and bosons are the things that carry force, such as photons.

Electrons are the backbone of today’s electronics, and while they carry charge pretty well, they also have the tendency to bounce into each other and scatter, losing energy and producing heat. But back in 1929, a German physicist called Hermann Weyl theorised that a massless fermion must exist, that could carry charge far more efficiently than regular electrons. And now the team at Princeton has shown that they do indeed exist. In fact, they’ve shown that in a test medium, Weyl electrons can carry charge at least 1,000 times faster than electrons in ordinary semiconductors, and twice as fast as inside wonder-material graphene. Source: Scientists have finally discovered massless particles, and they could revolutionise electronics

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IceCube

Thanks to Phil Krause for suggesting this post.

IceCube is a particle detector at the South Pole that records the interactions of a nearly massless subatomic particle called the neutrino. IceCube searches for neutrinos from the most violent astrophysical sources: events like exploding stars, gamma-ray bursts, and cataclysmic phenomena involving black holes and neutron stars. The IceCube telescope is a powerful tool to search for dark matter and could reveal the physical processes associated with the enigmatic origin of the highest energy particles in nature. In addition, exploring the background of neutrinos produced in the atmosphere, IceCube studies the neutrinos themselves; their energies far exceed those produced by accelerator beams. IceCube is the world’s largest neutrino detector, encompassing a cubic kilometer of ice.

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The Mystery of Acupuncture Partly Explained In Rat Study

acupuncture

A biological mechanism explaining part of the mystery of acupuncture has been pinpointed by scientists studying rats. The research showed that applying electroacupuncture to an especially powerful acupuncture point known as stomach meridian point 36 (St36) affected a complex interaction between hormones known as the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis. In stressed rats exposed to unpleasant cold stimulation, HPA activity was reduced.

The findings provide the strongest evidence yet that the ancient Chinese therapy has more than a placebo effect when used to treat chronic stress, it is claimed. “Some antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs exert their therapeutic effects on these same mechanisms,” said lead investigator Dr Ladan Eshkevari, from Georgetown University medical center in Washington DC. Edited from: The Mystery of Acupuncture Partly Explained In Rat Studyt

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This Adorable Sea Slug Eats So Much Algae It Can Photosynthesize

It’s a sheep! It’s a cow! No, it’s Costasiella kuroshimae (or ‘Leaf Sheep’ for short). This adorable little sea slug, whose beady eyes and cute feelers make it look like a cartoon sheep, feeds on algae – just like the real thing!

What’s fascinating about the tiny ‘leaf sheep,’ which can grow up to 5mm in length and can be found near Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines, is that they are one of the only animals in the world that can perform photosynthesis (the others all belong to the sacoglossa sea slug clade). When they eat algae, they suck out the chloroplasts and incorporate them into their own bodies in a process called kleptoplasty. This process, which otherwise can only be performed by single-celled organisms, essentially makes them solar-powered slugs! Source: Sea Sheep? This Adorable Sea Slug Eats So Much Algae It Can Photosynthesize

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University of Essex in world’s deepest ‘space’ pool plan

A university is in “exploratory discussions” to build the world’s deepest swimming pool for spaceflight and human endurance research. The proposed 50m (164ft) deep pool at the University of Essex would be far deeper than NASA’s own 12m (40ft) deep training pool in Houston. If it goes ahead, the project is expected to cost £40m.

The pool would simulate the microgravity of outer space and deep sea environments. The university’s development partner Blue Abyss said the pool could be used, for human spaceflight research programmes, environmental monitoring ,training in advanced commercial diving techniques, marine and human physiology research and aerospace development. The world’s current deepest pool is the Y-40 diving pool in Montegrotto Terme, Italy, which is 42m (137ft) deep. Source: BBC News

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Heart Muscle Cell

Heart Cell

Coloured scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of a cardiac myocyte. Cardiac muscle is a specialised type of striated muscle found in the heart. It is the constant contraction of cells like this that pump blood around the body with each beat of the heart. This cell has been grown in a cell culture. We may not immediately think of our heart as a collection of individual cells. But it is the complex interaction of numerous cell types that give the heart its ability to pump blood. Some cells form heart connective tissue, other cells grow into heart valves. And muscle cells give the heart its ability to beat and pump blood throughout the body.

A single cell beats when a complex series of gates – called ion channels – open and close in an organized manner. Cell physiologists can measure how these ion channels work using a technique called the patch clamp.

As long as the beating cells do not touch one another, their beats are independent – some are faster, some are slower. But after two or three days, the myocytes form interconnected sheets of cells that beat in unison. Pores (gap junctions) open between adjacent touching cells, making their cytoplasms interconnected. It is these gap junctions that ensure that the connected cells work as one. If the cells of the adult don’t beat in unison, heart arrythmias can occur. Electronic pacemakers may sometimes be used in a patient whose heart doesn’t beat in rhythm.

Magnification x600, by Thomas Deerinck. Source: Daily Anatomy

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Featured Artworks – A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – Georges Seurat

A_Sunday_on_La_Grande_Jatte,_Georges_Seurat

Georges Pierre Seurat was a French Post-Impressionist painter and draughtsman. He is noted for his innovative use of drawing media and for devising a technique of painting known as pointillism. Our featured artwork  A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–1886) was Seurat’s most famous painting and altered the direction of modern art by initiating Neo-impressionism. It is one of the icons of 19th century painting. Learn more about Georges Seurat here. – Deskarati

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A Brief History of Everything

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The Alwas-Killar Road bus route

The Alwas-Killar Road bus route in India’s remote Pangi Valley was declared open six years ago, but could well be one of the most dangerous, and certainly terrifying bus rides ever – as this video shows.

As a busload of scared travellers traverse the rocky mountainsides at an altitude of 14,500 feet, one of them records the experience as he keeps up a running commentary and shrieks of terror and nervous laughter are heard in the background.

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