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

                            

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Picasso stolen from Paris museum recovered in US

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Authorities seized a priceless Picasso painting stolen from a French museum when someone tried to smuggle it into the US, shipping it in a package that labelled it as a cheap $37 Christmas gift to avoid detection.

Painted by the legendary artist in 1911, “La Coiffeuse” — or “The Hairdresser” in English — the cubist work was reported pilfered from a Paris museum storage room in 2001 and had been missing until it suddenly turned up at the Port of Newark in December in suspicious packaging, Brooklyn federal prosecutors announced Thursday. The oil-on-canvas piece was initially bequeathed to the National Museums of France in 1966 by its former head, George Salles, and placed in the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris.

“La Coiffeuse” was last publicly exhibited in Germany as a loan to the Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung before it was returned to France and placed in a storage area of the famed Centre George Pompidou. It was valued at $2.5 million in 2001, but is believed to be worth much more now. Via  New York Post.

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Teleportation

Teleportation is usually been found only in science fiction books and movies. Now, thanks to the special properties of quantum entangled particles, it also takes place in the laboratory. We cannot yet teleport physical objects, but we can teleport the information encoded onto quantum particles. Doing so also allows us to send the information in a secure way, which can be used to protect it from eavesdroppers.

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Google’s new AI has already learnt how to crush us at 49 games

This is the first step towards true artificial intelligence.

Without being given any rules or prior information, a simple computer has learnt how to play 49 classic Atari games in just two weeks – and it’s learnt to play them pretty damn well. But what’s most impressive is that the Google-built algorithm it uses wasn’t even built specifically to play games, just to learn from its own experience.

What does that mean, other than the fact computers can now beat us at Space Invaders and Breakout, as well as Chess, Texas hold’em poker and solving Rubik’s Cubes? It turns out we now have the early stages of a general learning algorithm that could help robots and computers to become experts at any task we throw at them, and that’s a pretty huge deal.

“This is the first time that anyone has built a single general learning system that can learn directly from experience to master a wide range of challenging tasks,” Demis Hassabis, one of the lead researchers, told William Herkewitz from Popular Mechanics. Hassabis was one of the co-founders of DeepMind Technologies, the company that started making the algorithm and was bought out by Google last year for a reported US$400 million.

Publishing today in Nature, the team explains how the deep learning algorithm, which is called Deep Q-Network, or DQN, was able to master games such as Boxing, Space Invaders and Stargunner without any background information. This includes details such as what “bad guys” to look out for, and how to use the controls. It only had access to the score and the pixels on the screen in order to work out how to become an expert player. By playing the games over and over and over again, and learning from its mistakes, the algorithm learn first how to play the game properly, and then, within a fortnight, how to win. Via Google’s new AI has already learnt how to crush us at 49 games

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UK will be plunged into darkness next month in biggest blackout since 1999

SE2015Mar20TThe UK will be plunged into darkness next month in the biggest solar eclipse for 15 years. The moon will cover the sun, blocking out its light, on the morning of March 20. Nearly 90 per cent of the sun’s rays will be blocked in parts of Europe – with some of Scotland seeing 94 per cent darkness.

The blackout will begin in the UK at 8.45am and the maximum eclipse, when the moon is nearest the middle of the sun, will be at 9.31am. The blackout will come to an end at 10.41am.  The August 1999 event was the first total eclipse since 1990 and the first seen in the UK since 1927. Edited from Mirror Online.

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Two-dad babies could soon be a reality

For the first time, scientists have shown that it’s possible for two people of the same sex to create a baby, without the need for outside egg or sperm donation. The most obvious benefits would be for homosexual couples who want to have a child together, but the method could also help couples who have been affected by infertility.

The team, from Cambridge University in the UK and Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, built on previous work where baby mice were successfully raised from mouse skin cells that had been converted into what’s known as primordial germ cells – the precursors of egg and sperm cells. It was a real struggle to replicate the process using human biological matter, but now they’ve finally managed to create new human primordial germ cells using skin cells from five human donors and stem cell lines from five human embryos.

“We have succeeded in the first and most important step of this process, which is to show we can make these very early human stem cells in a dish,” lead researcher and professor of physiology and reproduction at Cambridge, Azim Surani, told Lois Rogers at The Sunday Times. “We have also discovered that one of the things that happens in these germ cells is that epigenetic mutations, the cell mistakes that occur with age, are wiped out. That means the cell is regenerated and reset, so while the rest of the cells in the body have aged and contain genetic mistakes, these ones don’t. We can’t say no mutations are passed on, but mostly it doesn’t happen.” Via Two-dad babies could soon be a reality.

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The Black Death was probably caused by gerbils, not rats

For the past 800 years, we’ve all blamed dirty, flea-infested rats for spreading the bubonic plague throughout Europe. But now a new study has revealed that these rodents may not have been to blame at all. In fact, according to climate evidence from the time, it was probably gerbils – cute, innocent looking gerbils – that spread the Black Death. I know, we were as shocked as you are. But in a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the University of Oslo in Norway looked back at climate data from the 14th century and found that it just wouldn’t have made sense for rats to have started the outbreak.

“For this, you would need warm summers, with not too much precipitation,” Nils Christian Stenseth, an author of the study, told Rebecca Morelle from the BBC. “We have looked at the broad spectrum of climatic indices, and there is no relationship between the appearance of plague and the weather.” But curiously, there is a link between the climate in Asia and the spread of the Black Death, as well as the following plague outbreaks that recurred between the end of the 14th century and the 1800s – a period known as the “second plague pandemic”. To work this out, the researchers analysed 7,711 historical plague outbreaks, and compared them to historical climate data from 15 tree-ring records. What they found was that European plague outbreaks always followed a warm summer in central Asia that came after a wet spring.

Those conditions are pretty terrible for black rats, the researchers concluded, but for cute little Asian gerbils, it’s ideal. They now believe that after these climate conditions, gerbils and their fleas, which were carrying the Yersinia pestis plague bacteria, hitched a ride to Europe with travellers along the Silk Road. And, like clockwork, a few years later, death and panic spread across the continent. The discovery not only clears black rats for the original Black Death outbreak, but also the second plague pandemic, which resulted in the deaths of more than 100 million people across Europe up until the 1800s. Via The Black Death was probably caused by gerbils, not rats

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A new sungrazing comet may brighten in the evening sky

A newly-discovered comet may soon become bright enough to see from a sky near you. Originally dubbed SOHO-2875, it was spotted in photos taken by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) earlier this week. Astronomer Karl Battams, who maintains the Sungrazer Project website, originally thought this little comet would dissipate after its close brush with the Sun. To his surprise, it outperformed expectations and may survive long enough to see in the evening sky.

Most sungrazing comets discovered by SOHO are members of the Kreutz family, a group of icy fragments left over from the breakup of a single much larger comet centuries ago. We know they’re all family by their similar orbits. The newcomer, SOHO’s 2,875th comet discovery, is a “non-group” comet or one that’s unrelated to the Kreutz family or any other comet club for that matter. According to Battams these mavericks appear several times a year. As of today (Feb. 24) its official name is C/2015 D1 (SOHO).

What’s unusual about #2,875 is how bright it is. At least for now, it appears to have survived the Sun’s heat and gravitational tides and is turning around to the east headed for the evening sky. Before it left SOHO’s field of view on Feb. 21, the comet was still around magnitude +4-4.5. No one can say for sure whether it has what it takes to hang on, so don’t get your hopes up just yet. Battams and others carefully calculated the comet’s changing position in the SOHO images and sent the data off to the Minor Planet Center, which today published an orbit. Via A new sungrazing comet may brighten in the evening sky.

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Our Curiosity

The Curiosity Mars Rover is one of the most complex machines ever built, a fully equipped analytical laboratory rolling around on the surface of another planet. “Our Curiosity” celebrates the mission’s exploratory spirit and scientific prowess with narration from Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Felicia Day, and an original score from Austin Wintory.

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This Australian prefab home generates more energy than it uses

What’s being called the world’s first carbon-positive prefabricated house has been unveiled in Melbourne, Australia, and we really want one. Created by Australian manufacturing company ArchiBlox, the prefab homes can be ordered, built and delivered, ready to move in within 12 to 28 weeks. The aim is to provide a simple, affordable and stylish way to help people greatly reduce their carbon footprint.

The one-bedroom prototype features edible garden walls, rooftop solar panels, a sunroom and rainwater recycling. It’s estimated that over its lifespan, the Archi+ Carbon Positive House will generate more energy than it took to build, and will offer the same environmental benefit as planting 6,095 native Australian trees.

“Archi+ Carbon Positive Houses will make significant contributions within society by addressing the increasing levels of carbon emissions and the high levels of embodied energy that come with the construction of a standard home,” the company told Dezeen. Despite the compact layout, which you can see in the floor plan, the wood and big, open windows manage to make the home seem pretty spacious and light-filled. Via This Australian prefab home generates more energy than it uses

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Space Oddity

Thanks to Phil Krause for suggesting this for Deskarati

A revised version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, recorded by Commander Chris Hadfield on board the International Space Station.

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Internet of things starter kit unveiled by ARM and IBM

A “starter kit” designed to spur on the invention of internet-connected gadgets has been announced as part of a tie-up between two leading tech firms. Chip designer ARM and cloud services giant IBM say it can take just five minutes to unbox the equipment and start sending readings to online apps. They suggest this will make it easier to test smart home, smart city and other “internet of things” prototypes. One expert said small start-ups would be among those that could benefit.

The IoT Starter Kit consists of two parts:

  • a pre-configured microcontroller development board – featuring one of ARM’s Cortex-M4 processors and a small amount of built-in memory – which is designed to be dedicated to a single task
  • a sensor expansion board, containing a thermometer to measure temperature, an accelerator to measure motion, two potentiometers – kinds of rotating dimmer knobs, a buzzer, a small joystick, an LED light that can show three different colours, and a rectangle black-and-white LCD display

These two components fit together and can be attached to the net via an ethernet cable and to other computer equipment via a USB link. This provides a way to take readings about the kit’s surrounding environment and the state of physical objects it is attached to. Instructions contained in the box guide the owner to visit an IBM website. If the owner enters the device’s credentials on this site they can see the data it is recording in real-time. In addition they can access a variety of tools created by IBM and other firms to analyse the information and/or funnel it through online programs that in turn control other internet-connected equipment. Continue reading

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10 Things You Didn’t Know About Albert Einstein

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Did dark matter kill the dinosaurs?

Every so often, the fossil record shows, ecological disasters wipe large numbers of species off the face of Earth. These mass extinctions occur roughly every 26 million to 30 million years—about the same interval at which our solar system passes through the plane of the Milky Way. Putting two and two together, some researchers have proposed that clouds of dust and gas in the galactic plane might disrupt the orbits of far-flung comets and trigger planet-smacking collisions. A new study suggests an additional culprit may lie behind those times of woe: dark matter.

Some of Earth’s past mass extinctions have been caused by the impacts of extraterrestrial objects, such as the asteroid that struck near Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula and wiped out the dinosaurs about 66 million years ago. Others have occurred during extended periods of geological disruption that include region-smothering volcanic eruptions. Both kinds of catastrophes seem to occur on a cycle of about 30 million years, notes Michael Rampino, a geoscientist at New York University in New York City. “It’s always been a mystery as to how extraterrestrial impacts could cause these long-lived geological effects,” he says. But invisible dark matter, he proposes, could trigger both extraterrestrial impacts and geological upheavals in one fell swoop.

Scientists still don’t know what dark matter is, but its gravitational pull on other objects in space shows that there’s a lot of it out there. Researchers estimate that in the plane of the galaxy, each square light-year contains about one solar mass of dark matter. Like the clouds of dust and gas that astronomers can see, clouds of dark matter may be perturbing the orbits of distant comets, causing them to fall into the inner solar system where they can strike Earth. Via Did dark matter kill the dinosaurs?

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Neanderthals interbred for longer with East Asian humans

Almost all of the remains of Neanderthals have been found in southern Europe and western Asia. They were not thought to have gone much further east than the Altai Mountains in central Asia, on the borders of what are now Russia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. But the new findings have raised the prospect that Neanderthals lived in the east of the continent and may have clung on there for longer than their European relatives, who died out around 30,000 years ago – we have just yet to find the archaeological evidence.

Professor Joshua Akey, a geneticist at the University of Washington who led one of two new studies, said: ‘The history of admixture between modern humans and Neanderthals is most likely more complex than previously thought.’ The research was conducted by two separate teams working at the University of Washington and the University of California, Los Angeles. Professor Akey and his colleague Benjamin Vernot analysed distinctive patterns in the DNA of 379 modern Europeans and 286 modern East Asians from China and Japan. Using computer models they attempted to simulate how the mixtures of Neanderthal DNA seen in the European and East Asian genomes could have occurred They concluded that one theory – that modern Europeans interbred more with populations from Africa to water down the Neanderthal DNA they carried – was unlikely. Instead they found it was more likely that ancestors of the East Asian populations had bred with Neanderthals more than once.

Mr Vernot said: ‘One thing that complicates these analyses is the fact that humans have been constantly migrating throughout their history – this makes it hard to say exactly where interactions with Neanderthals occurred. ‘It’s possible, for example, that all of the interbreeding with Neanderthals occurred in the Middle East, before the ancestors of modern non-Africans spread out across Eurasia. ‘In the model from the paper, the ancestors of all non-Africans interbred with Neanderthals, and then split up into multiple groups that would later become Europeans, East Asians. ‘Shortly after they split up, the ancestors of East Asians interbred with Neanderthals just a little bit more. ‘The important thing is that we show that we didn’t just meet Neanderthals once in our history – it looks like we met them multiple times. ‘But as we are able to look at individuals from more and more populations, we’ll hopefully get a better idea of where our ancestors have been, and where they may have interacted with Neanderthals.’ Via Neanderthals interbred for longer with East Asian humans

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Why was the Black Prince called ‘Black’?

He was named after his birthplace. The sobriquet ‘Black Prince’ does not appear in written records until the 16th century, nearly two centuries after his death, though as a nickname it may date back to his lifetime.

The origin of the term is just as obscure as the date it was first used. It may stem from Edward’s habit, when jousting, of putting aside his royal coat of arms in favour of a black ‘shield for peace’ decorated with three white ostrich feathers.

Some historians believe he also wore black armour, while others have suggested that the name may have been derived from the French habit of referring to a particularly brutal commander as a ‘black boar’.

In truth, we do not know for certain. Via The excellent ‘History Revealed’ Website

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Why do humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes?

Chromosome 2 painting in a human cell, right, and an orang-utan cell, left (which has 24 chromosomes like a chimp). Stefan Müller, Department Biologie II der Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München.

Why do humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes? Why not 13? Or 27? Well, it would take a while to trace the history of each of our chromosomes. But the tale of how we got down to 23 pairs from the 24 of the common ancestor we share with chimpanzees, our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, is pretty straightforward – and pretty cool.

A few million years ago after the final evolutionary split between man and chimp, two chromosomes fused. In humans, two chromosomes came together end to end, creating our chromosome 2.

The fusion of two chromosomes wasn’t particularly unusual – throughout evolution chromosomes have been breaking apart and joining together in new combinations. Many of our chromosomes can be shown to be rearranged versions of chromosomes found in other animals.

Scientists can “paint” chromosomes using fluorescent probes that detect specific DNA sequences. When they paint the DNA of a human cell with probes that detect human chromosome 2 sequences, they see one pair, as expected. But if the same probes are used in a chimp cell, two pairs of chromosomes light up, showing us chromosomes 2’s parents. Edited from How’d We Get 23?.

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DNA screening kit given the go-ahead by US regulator

A Californian start-up will be allowed to advertise a mail order DNA test that screens for a rare genetic condition, after a U-turn by the US regulator. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), said the 23andMe product would “provide people with information about possible mutations in their genes that could be passed on to their children”. It had previously banned similar tests. The 23andMe kit screens for Bloom syndrome, an inherited disease that is most common among Ashkenazi Jews. It can detect whether a healthy person is a carrier of the genetic variant that causes the disorder, and therefore at risk of passing it on to their offspring.

In a statement, the FDA also said it would provide the “least burdensome regulatory path” for future projects from 23andMe and similar companies. “In many circumstances it is not necessary for consumers to go through a licensed practitioner to have direct access to their personal genetic information,” the regulator added. The decision contrasts with the FDA’s stance in 2013, when it ordered 23andMe to “immediately discontinue” selling its saliva collection tests after failing to provide information to back its marketing claims.

The $99 test had offered users a readout of their genetic code, including a detailed analysis of their health risks. However, despite giving the Bloom syndrome kit a green light, the FDA cautioned that “no test is perfect” and suggested that the kit should only be used by those likely to carry a relevant gene. Informative labelling and information on how to follow up with a medical professional must be provided by 23andMe, the FDA said. Edited from BBC News

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The masses of black holes are more predictable than we thought

At first glance across the Universe, the masses of black holes in small galaxies seem to be pretty random compared to those in larger galaxies. But now Swinburne University of Technology scientists have shown that it’s possible to predict the masses of even the most random black holes.

Generally the theory goes that in large galaxies, the central black hole is closely related to the mass of the spherical distribution of stars at the centre of the galaxy, known as the galaxy’s ‘bulge’. Their ratio of mass is around half a percent. But galaxies with small bulges seem to contain black holes that are much smaller than this 0.5 percent ratio, and are thought to be unrelated to their galaxy’s bulge-size. This was the case in our own Milky Way galaxy, where the mass of our black hole seems to be ten times too low compared to some of its counterparts. But in previous work, a Swinburne astronomer, Alister Graham, identified a relationship between black holes and galaxies with small bulges – it wasn’t random at all, instead it followed an astronomical rule.

“The formula is quadratic, in that the black hole mass quadruples every time the bulge mass doubles,” said Graham in a press release. “Therefore, if the bulge mass increases 10 times, the black hole mass increases 100 times. Or vice versa, if the bulge mass is 10 times smaller, then the black hole mass will be 100 times smaller.” Graham has now studied more than 100 galaxies, containing black holes four to 40 times less massive than in his previous work, and has shown that they also follow this rule. The results have been published in the Astrophysical Journal. “It turns out that there is yet more order in our Universe than previously appreciated,” said Graham. “This is exciting not just because it provides further insight into the mechanics of black hole formation, but because of the predictions it allows us to make.” Via ScienceAlert.

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For the first time, spacecraft catch solar shockwave in the act

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Oct. 8, 2013, an explosion on the sun’s surface sent a supersonic blast wave of solar wind out into space. This shockwave tore past Mercury and Venus, blitzing by the moon before streaming toward Earth. The shockwave struck a massive blow to the Earth’s magnetic field, setting off a magnetized sound pulse around the planet. NASA’s Van Allen Probes, twin spacecraft orbiting within the radiation belts deep inside the Earth’s magnetic field, captured the effects of the solar shockwave just before and after it struck.

Now scientists at MIT’s Haystack Observatory, the University of Colorado, and elsewhere have analyzed the probes’ data, and observed a sudden and dramatic effect in the shockwave’s aftermath: The resulting magnetosonic pulse, lasting just 60 seconds, reverberated through the Earth’s radiation belts, accelerating certain particles to ultrahigh energies.

“These are very lightweight particles, but they are ultrarelativistic, killer electrons — electrons that can go right through a satellite,” says John Foster, associate director of MIT’s Haystack Observatory. “These particles are accelerated, and their number goes up by a factor of 10, in just one minute. We were able to see this entire process taking place, and it’s exciting: We see something that, in terms of the radiation belt, is really quick.”

The findings represent the first time the effects of a solar shockwave on Earth’s radiation belts have been observed in detail from beginning to end. Foster and his colleagues have published their results in the Journal of Geophysical Research. Via ScienceDaily.

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Baby “Geep” is a Rare Cross Between a Sheep and Goat

Separately, a baby sheep and a baby goat are adorable creatures. But what about when the little one is a cross between a sheep and pygmy goat? The result is even cuter. Butterfly, a “geep,” is the incredibly rare offspring of these two species. Born on July 27 of this year, the newborn is among only a handful of geeps in the world.

Butterfly is currently growing and thriving at My Petting Zoo, a mobile petting zoo based out of Cave Creek, Arizona. She gets her face from her goat father, Michael, and a longer tail thanks to her sheep mother, Momma. This combination also results in Butterfly’s striking and beautifully unusual coloring; the all-white head and feet are met with a black spotted body.

According to Priscilla Motola, the owner of My Petting Zoo, she was caught off guard by Butterfly’s arrival. This wasn’t necessarily due to the unique breed, but because Motola didn’t even know Momma was pregnant. The birth was a complete surprise, as was the cross-species romance. But since then, this geep has stolen the hearts of people around the world. Via Adorable Baby “Geep”

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