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The Forest of Friendship

We often imagine that unregulated competition produces optimal outcomes, behaviours, efficiencies, but trees and baggage carousels are two examples where the stable solution is worse for everyone than another strategy. This I find surprising and interesting – that evolution doesn’t come to the best solution, it comes to the most stable one.

The Forest of Friendship was a concept I first came across in Richard Dawkin’s book “The Greatest Show on Earth.” One point I’d like to clarify is that being taller comes with a cost – having a longer trunk requires costly expenditure of energy. However, in a forest of uniformly short trees, being a little taller conveys an advantage. That is until all the other trees catch up, at which time the extra height no longer provides a benefit. So over time as the whole forest rises up the conditions are getting worse for each tree, but they are powerless to stop the evolutionary arms race.

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The Rubens Vase

Since antiquity, the civilisations around the Mediterranean prized cups, vases and plates carved out of agate as ornamental objects. The Rubens vase is a Byzantine piece carved from a single chunk of chalcedony dating from the decadence of the Roman Empire around 400 CE. The quality suggests it was made in the imperial workshop for the emperor’s household. It has moved around alot since its creation.

It was probably looted by crusaders during the fourth crusade in 1204, when they ‘mistook’ their fellow Christians in the richest city in the western world for enemies and ruthlessly sacked it on their way to carve out fiefs in the Holy Land, an act of barbarity well attested in Eastern histories of the crusades. This marked the true cultural end of both Ancient Greece and the Western Roman empire, and so weakened Byzantium that they paved the way for the conquest of the Turks over the next couple of centuries.

Its European provenance is filled with famous names, such as the Anjou dukes and Charles 5 of France. The Flemish painter Rubens purchased it in 1619, after which it disappeared from view until the 19th century when a hallmark on the gold rim from the French department of Ain was indented. The piece measures 18.6 x 18.5 x 12 cm)= and is now in the Walters Museum. Via EarthStory

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NASA Cassini images may reveal birth of a Saturn moon

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has documented the formation of a small icy object within the rings of Saturn that may be a new moon, and may also provide clues to the formation of the planet’s known moons.

Images taken with Cassini’s narrow angle camera on April 15, 2013, show disturbances at the very edge of Saturn’s A ring—the outermost of the planet’s large, bright rings. One of these disturbances is an arc about 20 percent brighter than its surroundings, 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) long and 6 miles (10 kilometers) wide. Scientists also found unusual protuberances in the usually smooth profile at the ring’s edge. Scientists believe the arc and protuberances are caused by the gravitational effects of a nearby object. Details of the observations were published online today by the journal Icarus.

The object is not expected to grow any larger, and may even be falling apart. But the process of its formation and outward movement aids in our understanding of how Saturn’s icy moons, including the cloud-wrapped Titan and ocean-holding Enceladus, may have formed in more massive rings long ago. It also provides insight into how Earth and other planets in our solar system may have formed and migrated away from our star, the sun. Via NASA Cassini images may reveal birth of a Saturn moon.

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First exo-moon candidate discovered

Astronomers have detected what may be the first orphaned planet orbited by a moon floating in deep space. The discovery, reported in the Astrophysical Journal, has major implications for understanding the dynamics of orphaned planets, according to one of the study’s authors, Dr Ian Bond of New Zealand’s Massey University.

“We find lots of binary systems, and that’s always exciting, but this was special because it might be the first free-floating planet with a moon orbiting it,” says Bond.

The system, named MOA-2011-BLG-262, was discovered using a technique called gravitational microlensing, a process first predicted by Albert Einstein in which the mass of a foreground object acts as a lens to bend light from a more distant background object. Usually, the object acting as the lens passes in front of the background object, causing an increase and then decrease in the light coming from the background source. However, Bond and colleagues detected variations in the amplification and subsequent dip in the lensed light, caused by something orbiting the body acting as the lens.

“What is clear is that it’s some sort of binary system, so it’s one body orbiting another,” says Bond.

In this system, the ratio of the larger body to its smaller companion is 2000:1, meaning it’s either a small star circled by a planet about 18 times the mass of Earth, or a planet more massive than Jupiter orbited by a sub-Earth-sized moon. Via First exo-moon candidate discovered

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Germ Plasm Theory

August_WeismannThe term germ plasm was first used by the German biologist August Weismann (1834–1914). His germ plasm theory states that multicellular organisms consist of germ cells that contain and transmit heritable information, and somatic cells which carry out ordinary bodily functions. In the germ plasm theory, inheritance in a multicellular organism only takes place by means of the germ cells: the gametes, such as egg cells and sperm cells. Other cells of the body do not function as agents of heredity. The effect is one-way: germ cells produce somatic cells, and more germ cells; the germ cells are not affected by anything the somatic cells learn or any ability the body acquires during its life. Genetic information cannot pass from soma to germ plasm and on to the next generation. This is referred to as the Weismann barrier. This idea, if true, rules out the inheritance of acquired characteristics as proposed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.

The part of Weismann’s theory which proved most vulnerable was his notion that the germ plasm (effectively, genes) were successively reduced during division of somatic cells. As modern genetics developed, it became clear that this idea was quite wrong. Cases such as Dolly (the famous cloned ewe) which, via somatic cell nuclear transfer, proved that adult cells retain a complete set of information – as opposed to Weismann’s increasingly determined gradual loss of genetic information – putting this aspect of Weismann’s theory to rest.

The idea was to some extent anticipated in an 1865 article by Francis Galton, published in Macmillan’s Magazine, which set out a weak version of the concept. In 1889 Weismann wrote to acknowledge that “You have exposed in your paper an idea which is in one essential point nearly allied to the main idea contained in my theory of the continuity of germ-plasm” Edited from Germ plasm

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Does germ plasm accelerate evolution?

Scientists at The University of Nottingham have published research in the journal Science that challenges a long held belief about the way certain species of vertebrates evolved.

Dr Matt Loose and Dr Andrew Johnson who are experts in genetics and cell development in the School of Life Sciences carried out the research, funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC). It suggests that genes evolve more rapidly in species containing germ plasm. The results came about as they put to the test a novel theory that early developmental events dramatically alter the vertebrate body plan and the way evolution proceeds.

The original theory was proposed by Dr Johnson over 10 years ago. His view is that the relationship between the germ line (hereditary germ cells that create sperm and eggs) and the soma (cells which form the body of an organism) also impacts on species diversity. He argues that once a species evolves a substance called germ plasm, germ cells are independent of other cells, so constraints on somatic development are liberated and this enhances a species’ ability to evolve. As a result, he says, vertebrates such as frogs, fruit flies and birds, which look unlike their ancestors, came about, and remarkably they evolved much faster than their ancestors did. Via Does germ plasm accelerate evolution?

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These Two Planes Really Are Flying Like This

It’s called a Calypso Pass. That’s when two jets fly in a mirror image pattern like this, often only inches apart. A few weeks ago, two U.S. Air Force Thunderbird F-16 Fighting Falcons did just that.

The Thunderbirds performed for a huge crowd on March 23, at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, and the Calypso Pass was just one of their moves. Via io9

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Chemists achieve molecular first

Chemists from Trinity College Dublin have achieved a long-pursued molecular first by interlocking three molecules through a single point. Developing interlocked molecules is one of the greatest challenges facing researchers, and the Trinity chemists’ achievement represents the first time three molecules have been linked in a non-linear ‘chain-like’ form.

Interlocked molecules have major applications in nanoscience, as they can be used as molecular shuttles and switches, and because they can function as molecular motors, mimicking the action of many biological systems.

Molecules that are interlocked together are unique in that they are not connected by any chemical bonds, which give other compounds their individual, defined structures following chemical reactions. Instead, the interlocked molecules typically exist as rings that together form a chain, like the pattern seen on the front cover of the iconic Book of Kells. Via Chemists achieve molecular first.

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Trapping photons: a model for containing light

Quantum particles can be divided into two types: fermions and bosons. When cooled down to near-absolute zero temperatures, bosons can condense together into a collective state of matter called a Bose-Einstein condensate where they occupy the same quantum state (e.g. same place and velocity simultaneously). This state of matter allows us to observe remarkable phenomena such as superconductivity – the ability to conduct electric energy with zero resistance. One of the greatest challenges in physics has been to realistically create a Bose-Einstein condensate using photons, which could have significant applications in laser technology. Publishing in Physical Review A, a PhD student at EPFL has developed a realistic theoretical model for condensing photons in three-dimensional cavities.

Can photons condense? - A long-standing question in physics has been whether or not photons – the particles that make up light – can be condensed. The main obstacle is that photons actually have no mass, which is a key requirement for a Bose-Einstein condensate. A proposed solution is to use an optical cavity, which can confine light between two parallel reflective sides, which makes photons behave as if they have mass. However, the straight sides of the cavity allowed light to “leak” out and escape. Continue reading

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Soon We May Be Mass Producing Human Blood

Researchers in the UK have developed a technique to culture universal type-O blood from stem cells. It’s the first time scientists have manufactured blood to the appropriate quality and safety standards for transfusion into a human being. It’s a breakthrough that could eventually end blood shortages in emergencies.

Marc Turner is the principal researcher in this £5 million (USD $8.37 million ) project, one that’s funded by the Wellcome Trust. He recently told The Telegraph about how he made red blood cells fit for clinical transfusion.

During the process, red blood cells are cultured from induced pluripotent stems cells. These are cells that have been extracted from humans and then “rewound” into stem cells. Biochemical conditions similar to what happens inside the human body facilitate the conversion of these undifferentiated cells into viable red blood cells — the rare universal blood type O. Because the blood can be produced with the required quality, clinical trials are set to begin. Via Soon We May Be Mass Producing Human Blood.

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Particle Fever – Official Trailer

Imagine being able to watch as Edison turned on the first light bulb, or as Franklin received his first jolt of electricity.

For the first time, a film gives audiences a front row seat to a significant and inspiring scientific breakthrough as it happens. Particle Fever follows six brilliant scientists during the launch of the Large Hadron Collider, marking the start-up of the biggest and most expensive experiment in the history of the planet, pushing the edge of human innovation.

As they seek to unravel the mysteries of the universe, 10,000 scientists from over 100 countries joined forces in pursuit of a single goal: to recreate conditions that existed just moments after the Big Bang and find the Higgs boson, potentially explaining the origin of all matter. But our heroes confront an even bigger challenge: have we reached our limit in understanding why we exist?

Directed by Mark Levinson, a physicist turned filmmaker, from the inspiration and initiative of producer David Kaplan and masterfully edited by Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The English Patient), Particle Fever is a celebration of discovery, revealing the very human stories behind this epic machine. Via Particle Fever Official Trailer 1 (2014)

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Why did physicians ‘bleed’ their patients?

Bloodletting in 1860, one of only three known photographs of the procedure.

Bloodletting in 1860, one of only three known photographs of the procedure.

As bizarre as this seems, it was perfectly logical according to the prevailing principles of Western medicine. The treatment was observed in the ancient cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia, and advanced in the Roman Empire through the writings of Greek physician Galen. He supported Hippocrates’ theory that illness was caused by an imbalance of the body’s four humours – black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm. Blood was the dominant humour, and relieving any excess supply was essential to the healing process.

Bloodletting charts – such as 15th-century ‘Zodiac Man’ – indicated the best place for draining blood according to the patient’s astrological sign and specific complaint. Scientific inquiries of the 1600s presented challenges to the humoural theory – not least the discovery that the blood circulated the body, rather than being produced by the liver – but had little impact on medical practice. Bleeding, it was argued, was nevertheless beneficial in reducing inflammation.

Methods did vary over time – many practitioners simply opened a vein (in many cases there was little need for a doctor; the local ‘barber surgeon’ was happy to oblige). In the 1800s it became popular to use scarificators (small mechanisms making numerous incisions in the skin) or apply blood-sucking leeches. Only in the later Victorian era did bloodletting as a universal cure begin to be discredited, and it fell from fashion in the face of new medical discoveries.Edited from Why did physicians ‘bleed’ their patients?

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Who is the Greatest Formula 1 Driver – Ever?

f1 drivers

Who is the greatest of the formula 1 drivers ever? BBC Sport has examined all the data from every race between 1950 and 2013 to see if the numbers can provide an answer. While statistics cannot tell the whole story they provide a fascinating insight into driver performance across the decades. Five-time world champion Juan Manuel Fangio comes out on top in three of the four categories, but there are also surprise findings, such as Lewis Hamilton being 10th on the list of most points per grand prix start.

For the first three tables, the current points system – 25, 18, 15, 10, 8, 6, 4, 3, 2, 1 – has been applied to every season. Only drivers with at least 20 grand prix starts have been included. Here’s the top 10 in each category. I think you are going to have to make up your own minds up, but I going for Fangio – Deskarati


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Map of Australia found on Mars!

Oz on Mars

NASA’s curiosity rover, whilst exploring a part of Mars called ‘The Kimberley’ after the Western Australian region, actually found a map of the country. What a coincidence!!!! It was reported over on the Discovery Channel – Deskarati

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Biodegradable diapers made out of jellyfish


Thanks to climate change jellyfish populations have exploded in recent years. Jellyfish blooms can cause real problems, for example, last year a cluster of jellyfish shut down a nuclear reactor in Sweden, and in 2006 jellyfish clogged a US nuclear plant’s cooling water intake. But Cine’al Ltd, an Israeli nanotechnology start-up, has come up with a solution.

Researchers at Tel Aviv University discovered that jellyfish can absorb high volumes of liquid without deteriorating. So they broke down jellyfish flesh, added nanoparticles and created a material called Hydromash, which can be used as absorbent material in diapers, tampons and medical sponges.

Products made with Hydromash degrade in 30 days and apparently suck up twice as much as regular products. Carl Engelking wrote in his blog for Discover magazine: Via Biodegradable diapers made out of jellyfish

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Power arm band for wearables harvests body heat

A group of Korean researchers have turned their focus on supplying a reliable, efficient power source for wearables. Professor Byung Jin Cho of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) and his team, recognizing that supplying power that is stable and reliable is critical to the successful commercialization of wearables, have come up with a wearable power band that made technology news this week. The team noted that a flexible thermoelectric (TE) power generator would be the way to go to realize a wearable self-powered mobile device. They developed a wearable band-shaped item that produces electricity from the heat of the human body, The device size is 10 cm x 10 cm. Wearable electronics must be light, flexible, and equipped with a power source, which could be a portable, long-lasting battery or no battery at all but a generator, according to a KAIST release on Thursday, providing details about their work. Via Power arm band for wearables harvests body heat.

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Wade’s Rules

Kenneth Wade recently passed away. Here Martyn Poliakoff and Debbie Kays discuss his time as a student in Nottingham and his famous (in some chemistry circles) Wade’s Rules.

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How cells keep from bursting

cell swellingCells have a relief valve that keeps them from swelling so much that they burst. For the past 30 years, scientists have been trying to  pinpoint the molecule that controlled the valve. Now, a team says they have found the protein and gene, called SWELL1, which helps prevent cells from popping.

The result, which appears April 10 in Cell, could help scientists’ understanding of immune deficiency, stroke and diabetes, the team suggests. Via How cells keep from popping

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The LHC has found a new form of matter called a tetraquark

Not content with perhaps the biggest scientific discovery of the decade, scientists at the Large Hadron Collide continue to search for new particles—and now they’ve found one that seems to be an entirely new form of matter.

A series of experiments at the LHC have confirmed that a new particle called Z(4430) actually exists, and it’s the best evidence to date of a new form of matter called a tetraquark. Quarks are the subatomic particles that, combined, form all matter. In pairs they form mesons; in triplets, protons and neutrons. Tetraquarks are a hypothesized combination of four of the little things—and Z(4430) was, if it existed, thought to be an example. Thing was, nobody knew for sure—until now—that it existed or not.

Its sighting at the LHC changes things. Researchers from CERN have found as many as 4000 of the particles, which means that those who think tetraquarks do exist are pretty excited. There remains some work to be done to understand once and for all if Z(4430) is with 100 percent certainty a tetraquark, and even then exactly what that means for us. But in the meantime, it’s nice to know that the LHC isn’t resting on its laurels. Via The LHC Has Found a New Particle Unlike Any Other Form of Matter.

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Starting Subduction

This is part of the mid-Atlantic Ridge where it comes ashore in Iceland – one of the most easily visible examples of Plate Tectonics on the modern Earth. Plate Tectonics is one of the dominant features of the modern Earth’s surface, but there must have been a point in geologic history when it started.

The early Earth was covered in lava, a “magma ocean”, too hot for plates to exist. Cooling of that magma ocean explains much of Earth’s structure, but it is surprisingly difficult to explain how plate tectonics started. Other planets, like Venus and Mars, don’t show plate tectonics, so why it started on Earth is an open question.

A new paper just published in Nature led by Dr. Bercovici from Yale proposes that subduction started about a billion years after the Earth formed, caused when parts of Earth’s crust started sinking. He performed a series of models of conditions on the early earth, including processes like minerals being broken down to smaller pieces when they’re stretched and minerals growing larger when they’re heated.

In the models, a small blob of material denser than the crust will start to sink. As that blob flows, it damages the rocks around it, weakening those rocks. As time goes on, those weak zones continue to allow the rocks to flow, eventually nucleating a full subduction zone once the rocks get cold enough. Via Facebook.

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