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MAVEN Mars spacecraft to begin orbit of Red Planet

A NASA spacecraft that aims to study the upper atmosphere of Mars and reveal how its climate changed over time is poised to begin orbiting the Red Planet on Sunday. After a 10-month journey, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) probe is making its final approach to Mars and will begin circling Earth’s neighbor after 9:30 pm Sunday (0130 GMT Monday). MAVEN’s findings are expected to help pave the way for a future visit by humans to the Red Planet, perhaps as early as 2030. MAVEN, an unmanned spacecraft, has traveled 442 million miles (711 million kilometers) since it launched late last year.

NASA television coverage of the orbital insertion begins at 9:30 pm (0130 GMT). The process will start with the brief firing of six small thruster engines to steady the spacecraft, NASA said. “The engines will ignite and burn for 33 minutes to slow the craft, allowing it to be pulled into an elliptical orbit with a period of 35 hours,” the US space agency said. Once MAVEN begins circling Mars, it will enter a six-week phase for tests. Then, it begins a one-year mission of studying the gases in Mars’ upper atmosphere and how it interacts with the sun and solar wind.

Much of MAVEN’s year-long mission will be spent circling the planet 3,730 miles above the surface. However, it will execute five deep dips to a distance of just 78 miles above the Martian landscape to get readings of the atmosphere at various levels.

“The MAVEN science mission focuses on answering questions about what happened to the water and carbon dioxide present in the Mars system several billion years ago,” said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator from Colorado University-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. “These are important questions for understanding the history of Mars, its climate and its potential to support at least microbial life.” Via MAVEN Mars spacecraft to begin orbit of Red Planet.

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Has Jack the Ripper been identified from DNA?

Thanks to Phil Krause for advising us of this interesting article

Scientists have greeted with skepticism (and in some cases derision) the claim that Jack the Ripper has been identified from DNA as an immigrant Polish barber named Aaron Kosminski. It was reassuring to see, for a change, that a good deal of the media coverage reflected that. Is it possible that defense attorneys on TV have taught people — including reporters — to look at claims for evidence more dispassionately?

Jack the Ripper, of course, is the near-mythical late-19th Century London serial killer, never firmly identified. He is believed to have brutally murdered and mutilated at least five women in 1888, perhaps as many as 11 all told. I say “he” because that seems most likely — the mutilation featured removing bits of a uterus and vagina — even though one of the many candidates endorsed by amateur detectives over the years was a woman. At the heart of the skepticism is provenance. When judging the worth of a piece of information, consider from whence it came. Continue reading

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Miracle of Life

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James Dewar

dewar       thermos

It’s the birthday of James Dewar, who was born in 1842 in Kincardine-on-Forth, Scotland. Dewar studied at the universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge. His research ranged over a wide range of topics in biology, chemistry and physics, but he is best known as a pioneer in low-temperature physics. He designed and built equipment that liquified and solidified gases, including hydrogen and oxygen, which had previously been considered permanently gaseous. Dewar also invented the vacuum flask – for use in determining the specific heat of palladium. He neglected to patent his invention, which was commercialized as a storage vessel for hot and cold drinks by two German glassblowers. They named the flask Thermos. Via Physicstoday

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Forgetting Helps You Remember

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Beautiful photograph of the aurora borealis

This beautiful photograph of the aurora borealis lighting up a glacial lagoon in Iceland has won James Woodend the top prize in the 2014 Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition. Via Facebook.

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When the Lava Hits the Water

The Jökulsá á Fjöllum glacial river drains to the north of the Vatnajökull icecap in central Iceland, to the east of the Holuhraun rift zone eruption. Lava from this eruption has been migrating to the northeast as a stream and has finally reached the river.

Lava + water is a volatile mixture. When lava hits water, it flashes to steam and expands, causing small explosions and sending superheated debris into the air. The lava is continuing to migrate east and eventually may divert or dam the flow of this river, setting up the possibility for flash flooding (and potentially altering the Skínandi waterfall about 5 km past this location). Via Facebook.

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Our brains can make decisions while we’re sleeping

Lightbulb-brainYour brain doesn’t shut down when you go to sleep, in fact, a recent study has shown that it remains quietly active, and can process information to help you make decisions, just like when you’re awake.

A new study led by senior research scientist Sid Kouider and PhD student Thomas Andrillon at the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Paris in France has investigated how active our brains are when we’re asleep, and the results could have implications for the Holy Grail of humanity’s quest to become ever-smarter – learning in our sleep.

Previous studies have shown that rather than switching off from our environment when we sleep, our brains ‘keep one eye open’, so they can catch important information that’s relevent to us. This means we’re more likely to wake up when we hear someone say our names, or when our alarms go off in the morning, than to the less-pressing sounds of an ally cat scratching around the bins outside, cars driving past, or the periodic chime of a cuckoo clock.

Kouider and Andrillon wanted to take this finding a step further and found that complex stimuli from our environment can not only be processed by our brains when we sleep, but can actually be used to make decisions. It’s just like what’s going on in your brain when you’re driving your car home every day – you have to process so much information all at once and very quickly in order to safely operate your vehicle, but you’re so used to it, you barely even notice it happening. The same concept appears to apply to our decision-making processes when we’re asleep. Via Our brains can make decisions while we’re sleeping.

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We love Diatoms

diatomsDiatoms are single-celled organisms found in oceans all over the world. There are estimated to be 100,000 species of these micron-sized creatures in existence, and they play a crucial role as one of the main food sources for marine organisms, including fish, molluscs and tunicates, such as sea squirts.

Once you get them under the microscope, the diatoms will reveal the incredible glass shells that contain their tiny bodies. During the Victorian era – the second half of the 19th century – scientists would pop them under their microscopes and lay them out in complex and beautiful arrangements, and UK-based biologist Klaus Kemp is one of the last remaining scientists on Earth to keep the practice alive.

Filmographer Matthew Killip made a documentary about Kemp, as the master of diatom art, and these stunning images were the result. More here Gallery: The otherworldly beauty of microscopic organisms.

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Turner v Constable

The most spectacular artistic rivalry in British history will be revived this month when blockbuster exhibitions by two of the nation’s most renowned painters pitch them into direct competition, just as they were in their lifetimes two centuries ago. The simultaneous shows unavoidably provoke the question asked ever since the artists were showing side by side in the Romantic age: who is the greatest British painter ever?

Is it Joseph Mallord William Turner, whose glowing, occasionally abstract, visions of sea and sky and the violent elements are celebrated at Tate Britain from 10 September? Or is it his contemporary John Constable, whose acute observations of the clouds, trees and changing light of his native Suffolk are examined at the V&A 10 days later?

Pedigree – Constable was the son of a well-to-do middle-class mill owner and Suffolk corn merchant, while Turner was a self-made success, born above a Covent Garden barber’s shop. And while Constable was well-dressed and renowned for his good looks, Turner was famously ugly, labelled “uncouth” by his contemporaries.

Love life – Constable was a respectable married man, while the promiscuous Turner was a outspoken critic of wedlock. “I hate all married men,” he was once reported to have said, apparently a dig at Constable.

Rivalry – While Constable publicly praised his rival, in private he criticised his work as being “just steam and light”. It didn’t seem to do much to dent Turner’s confidence. “I am the great lion of the day,” he proclaimed.

Admirers – Ruskin said Turner while being a “hating humbug of all sorts” was “the painter and poet of the day”. But Lucian Freud insisted Constable was the greater painter. “You can admire Turner enormously, but never be moved by him really,” he said. “For me, Constable is so much more moving than Turner because you feel, for him, it’s truth-telling.” Edited from Turner and Constable exhibitions revive Britain’s greatest art rivalry

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Spacesuits of the future may resemble a streamlined second skin

For future astronauts, the process of suiting up may go something like this: Instead of climbing into a conventional, bulky, gas-pressurized suit, an astronaut may don a lightweight, stretchy garment, lined with tiny, musclelike coils. She would then plug in to a spacecraft’s power supply, triggering the coils to contract and essentially shrink-wrap the garment around her body. The skintight, pressurized suit would not only support the astronaut, but would give her much more freedom to move during planetary exploration. To take the suit off, she would only have to apply modest force, returning the suit to its looser form.

Now MIT researchers are one step closer to engineering such an active, “second-skin” spacesuit: Dava Newman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems at MIT, and her colleagues have engineered active compression garments that incorporate small, springlike coils that contract in response to heat. The coils are made from a shape-memory alloy (SMA)—a type of material that “remembers” an engineered shape and, when bent or deformed, can spring back to this shape when heated. Via Spacesuits of the future may resemble a streamlined second skin.

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Where does desert sand come from?

Sand is a great traveller. Go to the seaside for the day and it’ll ride home on your shoes or sneak into your picnic sandwiches. You may wonder, as you shake sand from your bag on the beach: ‘where did all this sand come from and how long’s it been here?’

Dr Pieter Vermeesch and colleagues had the same question about the sand in the Namib Sand Sea – one of the world’s oldest and largest sand deserts. We know little about where sand in the Namib, or other large deserts, comes from. How long the sand has been blowing around the 34,000 km square desert was also a mystery, although we know southwest Africa has been dry for at least five million years.

Detailed map of Namibia

Detailed map of Namibia

The team tracked the sand’s origins back to sediments in South Africa’s Orange River using natural uranium 238 clocks. Uranium 238 – the most common type of natural uranium – turns into lead over billions of years. Older sand contains more lead. In an area containing sands of varying ages, zircon sand grains can be linked to their source by the amount of uranium and lead they contain. The next question was how long ago the sand left the Orange River bed and blew north into the Namib Sand Sea. The team again used natural clocks to retrace the sand’s path along the Namibian coastline. This time, they looked at radioactive beryllium (Be), aluminium (Al) and neon (Ne) in sands from quartz-containing rocks. Continue reading

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How The Sahara Desert Was Made

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Racing the tube on foot!

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Killer Chimps Reveal Why Violence Persists

Chimpanzees and humans share much in common, including cooperating to kill perceived rivals, and now a new study finds that this kind of lethal aggression — at least among chimps — is “normal” and sadly all too common. “Normal,” in this case, means that the behavior results from natural and evolved tendencies and does not, as some other researchers have suggested, emerge in response to human pressures, such as habitat loss.

The study, published in the journal Nature, sheds light on the evolutionary roots of lethal conflict among certain primates, including humans. An accompanying “News & Views” article in the same journal, for example, points out that in 2013 alone, there were 33 armed state-level conflicts around the world. Many of them have persisted for decades. Chimps are just as violent. “Most killings involve gang attacks,” Michael Wilson, who led the new study, told Discovery News. “When attacking adults, many attackers pile onto the victim. They pin the victim to the ground and hit, kick and bite the victim.”

“Attackers may cause massive trauma to internal organs, break bones, inflict numerous puncture wound from canine teeth, and bite or tear off fingernails genitalia, and even the throats of victims,” added Wilson, who is an associate professor of anthropology, ecology, evolution and behavior at the University of Minnesota. Male chimpanzees, he continued, also sometimes kill infants after attacking their mothers and snatching their babies away. They will then kill the infant by biting it to death or hitting it against the ground or trees. Via Killer Chimps Reveal Why Violence Persists

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IBM supercomputer Watson aims to help businesses

IBM’s supercomputer Watson is being made available to businesses to answer tricky questions such as: “Which deals are most likely to close?” The cognitive platform can understand questions posed in natural language and crunch vast amounts of data. Watson Analytics is the latest step in IBM’s $1bn (£610m) investment in the platform, which is already available for medical research. But one expert questioned whether it could live up to past successes.

Watson is a computer system capable of artificial intelligence. In 2011 it was tailored to answer questions on the quiz show Jeopardy and won. It had access to 200 million pages of content but was not connected to the internet. Since then IBM has worked to find more practical uses for the machine, such as helping to make decisions about cancer treatment at a US hospital. This latest move is part of an attempt to commercialise the platform.

“Watson Analytics is designed to help all businesspeople – from sales reps on the road to company CEOs – see patterns, pursue ideas and improve all types of decisions,” said IBM’s senior vice-president Bob Picciano.

The first version of Watson Analytics, ready in test form in November, will be available as a cloud-based service, with both free and premium services, which can analyse more complex datasets from a wider array of sources. Via IBM supercomputer Watson aims to help businesses.

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Forensic sleuths sketch Richard III’s brutal end

King Richard III likely perished at the hands of assailants who hacked away pieces of his scalp and rammed spikes or swords into his brain as the helmetless monarch knelt in the mud. So suggests a report, published Wednesday, that in dry forensic prose exposes the horrific demise of one of English history’s most controversial monarchs. It backs anecdotal evidence, made famous by Shakespeare, that Richard was unhorsed before he met his doom. Bringing together 21st-century science and sketchy knowledge of 15th-century history, the analysis provides a chilling tableau of the brutality of warfare in late mediaeval England.

Richard was killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field in Leicestershire, central England, on August 22, 1485. The monarch’s death was the culmination of a three-decade war for the throne, bringing the curtain down on the three-century dynasty of his Plantagenet clan, and ushering in the Tudors. “The most likely injuries to have caused the king’s death are the two to the inferior aspect (lower part) of the skull—a large sharp-force trauma possibly from a sword or staff weapon, such as a halberd or bill, and a penetrating injury from the tip of an edged weapon,” said Guy Rutty, a pathologist at the University of Leicester.

A halberd was a mediaeval battle axe with spiked point, and a bill was a hooked-tip blade on the end of a pole. Via Forensic sleuths sketch Richard III’s brutal end (Update).

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We all use magnetism to stick photos to the fridge, find the North with a compass, store data on a hard drive. Although magnetism has been known for centuries, now we understand that magnetic materials only exist thanks to quantum mechanics.

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Rosetta: Audacious comet landing site chosen

Scientists and engineers have spent weeks studying the 4km-wide “ice mountain” known as 67P, looking for a location they can place a small robot. They have chosen what they hope is a relatively smooth region on the smaller of the comet’s two lobes. But the team is under no illusions as to how difficult the task will be. Its surface terrain is marked by deep depressions and towering cliffs. Even the apparently flat surfaces contain potentially hazardous boulders and fractures. Avoiding all of these dangers will require a good slice of luck as well as careful planning.

Pre-mission analysis suggested the chances of a successful landing on a roughly spherical body were 70-75%. With 67P’s rubber duck shape, those odds have surely lengthened, but European Space Agency (Esa) project manager Fred Jansen is excited at the prospect of trying. “At the end of the day, you’ll only know when you land. Then it will have been either 100% or zero. That’s the way it is,” he told BBC News. The plan still is to make the landing attempt on 11 November.

The Rosetta probe will despatch its piggybacked Philae robot from a distance of about 10km to 67P. This spider-like device will then hope to engage the surface at “walking pace”, deploying screws and harpoons in an effort to lock itself down to an object that has very little gravitational attraction. Esa says it will be a one-shot opportunity. Edited from Rosetta: Audacious comet landing site chosen.

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