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

                            

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Featured Artworks – An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump – Joseph Wright

An_Experiment_on_a_Bird_in_an_Air_Pump_by_Joseph_Wright_of_Derby,_1768

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump is a 1768 oil-on-canvas painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, one of a number of candlelit scenes that Wright painted during the 1760s. The painting departed from convention of the time by depicting a scientific subject in the reverential manner formerly reserved for scenes of historical or religious significance. Wright was intimately involved in depicting the Industrial Revolution and the scientific advances of the Enlightenment, but while his paintings were recognised as something out of the ordinary by his contemporaries, his provincial status and choice of subjects meant the style was never widely imitated. The picture has been owned by the National Gallery, London since 1863 and is still regarded as a masterpiece of British art.

The painting depicts a natural philosopher, a forerunner of the modern scientist, recreating one of Robert Boyle‘s air pump experiments, in which a bird is deprived of air, before a varied group of onlookers. The group exhibits a variety of reactions, but for most of the audience scientific curiosity overcomes concern for the bird. The central figure looks out of the picture as if inviting the viewer’s participation in the outcome.

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Why Physicists Love Super Balls – the coefficient of restitution

Super Balls are toys beloved by children because of their extraordinary ability to bounce. Physicists love them for exactly the same reason. Drop a baseball on the floor and it will hardly bounce at all. Drop a Super Ball from shoulder height, and it will bounce back 92 percent of the way to the drop-off point. Super Balls also are just as bouncy vertically as they are horizontally, and they spin oddly. “Physicists love it because it has interesting physical properties,” said Rod Cross, retired professor of physics at the University of Sydney in Australia, whose latest paper on Super Balls appears in the American Journal of Physics. His research also demonstrated the odd way all balls roll.

The Super Ball was invented and patented in 1964 by chemist Norman Stingley. The ball is made of a synthetic material he called Zectron, using a polymer polybutadiene and other materials, a form of artificial rubber. It was sold to toy stores by the Wham-O company and was, for a while in the 60s, a great fad. Almost 50 years later, it is still sold by Wham-O and it is possible to imagine that many of those sales go to physicists and physics students.

A Google Scholar search of “Super ball” returned 460,000 entries, including scientific papers, poster presentations, dissertations, and books. Bouncing Super Balls has become a standard physics demonstration, Cross said, and the papers are crammed with formulas, charts, and drawings. What entrances scientists is how well the balls bounce, an ability described in jargon as the coefficient of restitution, which depends on the elasticity of the surface. The Super Ball is almost perfectly elastic in both the horizontal and vertical directions. The Super Ball has an almost perfect coefficient of restitution and does things other balls do not. Edited from: Why Physicists Love Super Balls

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Heatherwick’s Rolling Bridge

The Rolling Bridge was designed by the award-winning Heatherwick Studio, working with structural engineers SKM Anthony Hunts. Installed in August 2004, the Rolling Bridge spans an inlet of the Grand Union Canal, towards the head of Paddington Basin.

The Rolling Bridge at first appears inconspicuous; a simple steel and timber footbridge. To allow access for a boat to be moored in its inlet however, it slowly curls up until its two ends meet, forming an octagonal sculpture that stands on one side of the canal towpath.

The twelve metre bridge is made from eight triangular segments, which fold towards each other. The master unit hidden underground powers hydraulic rams within the bridge parapets, which fold the handrail. This is what enables the bridge to curl.

The Rolling Bridge was constructed at Littlehampton Welding in Sussex, and arrived at Paddington by canal. Since its official opening in September 2004 it has won a Structural Steel Award and an Emerging Architecture Award.

Every Wednesday and Friday at midday, and on Saturdays at 2pm, the team at Merchant Square delight visitors and people who live and work in Paddington by demonstrating the Rolling Bridge in action.

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Loki the Space Volcano

Imaging a volcano on Jupiter’s moon Io – from the surface of the Earth.

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Quarter of skin cells ‘on road to cancer’

More than a quarter of a middle-aged person’s skin may have already made the first steps towards cancer, a study suggests. Analysis of samples from 55- to 73-year-olds found more than 100 DNA mutations linked to cancer in every 1 sq cm (0.1 sq in) of skin. The team, at the Sanger Institute, near Cambridge, said the results were “surprising”. Experts said prevention was the best defence against damage from the sun.

Skin cancer is one of the most common cancers. Ultraviolet-radiation from sunlight bombards our skin and transforms it from healthy to cancerous tissue. Seeds of cancer Many of the mutations that culminate in skin cancer are already known, but the team wanted to know when they first started to appear.

The researchers analysed excess skin that had been removed from the eyelids of four patients. They then drilled down deeply into the skin’s DNA to discover the very first steps being taken on the journey to cancer. Dr Peter Campbell, the head of cancer genetics at Sanger, told the BBC News website: “The most surprising thing is just the scale, that a quarter to a third of cells had these cancerous mutations is way higher than we’d expect, but these cells are functioning normally.” However, it would take multiple mutations – nobody is sure exactly how many – to culminate in a tumour. Source: Quarter of skin cells ‘on road to cancer’

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Shoe Store Fluoroscope

A history of the little known shoe store X-Ray machines called Fluoroscopes that were used to show your feet inside your shoes. A big hit for a short time since the designers ignored the radiation they were releasing. Oops!

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Flickering candle flame contains ‘millions of tiny diamonds that are created and disappear’

Thanks to Phil Krause for suggesting this post

As if a candlelit dinner wasn’t romantic enough. Scientists have shown that a flickering flame is studded with millions of tiny diamonds. Roughly 1.5million of the twinkling gems are created every second. Sadly, for those whose eyes are lighting up the thought of making a fortune, the jewels are so small that up to 300,000 would fit on the head of a pin. And they disappear in the blink of an eye. But if scientists come up with a way of harnessing the technology, people could use little more than a candle and a match to ‘grow’ diamonds from scratch.

As well as costing a fraction of the price of ‘real’ diamonds, they would be an ethically sound alternative to the blood diamonds mined in African war zones. An alternative source of diamonds would also be a boon to industry, which uses the fantastically hard stones in everything from saw blades to prosthetic hips. The idea comes from a St Andrews University scientist challenged to find out just what is inside a flame.

Wuzong Zhou, a professor of chemistry, said: ‘A colleague from another university said to me: “Of course, no one knows what a candle flame is actually made of.” ‘I told him I believed science could explain everything eventually, so I decided to find out.’ The professor invented a filter that allowed him to successfully extract particles from the centre of the flame, where temperatures top 1,400C, and then examined them.’ To his surprise, he discovered that the carbon in the candle wax had formed all four types of pure carbon, including diamonds and graphite, or pencil lead. Source: Flickering candle flame contains ‘millions of tiny diamonds that are created and disappear’

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Scientists identify a gene to switch the sex of a mosquito

Scientists have identified a gene within the Aedes aegypti mosquito that can be used to switch their sex, transforming disease-carrying females into benign males. The finding could result in new population control strategies, increasing the ratio of males, and helping to curb deadly diseases such as chikungunya, dengue and yellow fever, all of which are transmitted by the A. aegypti mosquito.

When it comes to mosquito-borne diseases, females are the villains. While males feed on flower nectar, females feast on humans, sucking our blood in order to gather essential nutrients, which they need to produce eggs. If there were a way to limit the number of females, conventional thinking follows that disease transmission rates would decline.

Now, researchers from Virginia Tech in the US have identified and isolated the sex determining gene – which they call Nix – and have used it to change the sex-organs of female mosquitoes. “Nix provides us with exciting opportunities to harness mosquito sex in the fight against infectious diseases because maleness is the ultimate disease-refractory trait,” one of the team, biochemist Zhijian Jake Tu, said in a press release. Source: Scientists identify a gene to switch the sex of a mosquito

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Oldest stone tools pre-date earliest humans

The world’s oldest stone tools have been discovered, scientists report. They were unearthed from the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya, and date to 3.3 million years ago. They are 700,000 years older than any tools found before, even pre-dating the earliest humans in the Homo genus. The find, reported in Nature, suggests that more ancient species, such as Australopithecus afarensis or Kenyanthropus platyops, may have been more sophisticated than was thought. “They are significantly earlier than anything that has been found previously,” said Dr Nick Taylor, from the National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS) in France and the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. “It’s really quite astonishing to think what separates the previous oldest site and this site is 700,000 years of time. It’s monumental.”

The first tools from the site, which is called Lomekwi 3, were discovered in 2011. They were spotted after researchers took a wrong turn as they walked through the hot, dry Kenyan landscape. By the end of 2012, a total of 149 tools had been found, and another field trip in 2014 has unearthed more still. They include sharp flakes of stone, sheared off from larger rocks, which were most likely used for cutting. Hammers and anvils were also excavated, some of which were huge in size.

“The very largest one we have weighs 15kg, which is massive,” Dr Taylor told BBC News.” On this piece, it doesn’t show the signs of actually having been flaked to produce other artefacts… rather, it was probably used as an anvil. “It probably rested in the soil and the other cobbles brought to the site, which were intended to be smashed apart to make tools, were struck against this large anvil.” Source: Oldest stone tools pre-date earliest humans

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Jibo: The World’s First Social Robot for the Home

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Real Time Red Blood Cell Cycle

Blood Cell Cycle

An animation of a typical human red blood cell cycle in the circulatory system. This animation occurs at real time (20 seconds of cycle) and shows the red blood cell deform as it enters capillaries, as well as changing color as it alternates in states of oxygenation along the circulatory system. Via Wiki

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Why do candles re-light?

As you can see above, you can blow out a candle and then light it again without ever touching the wick, simply by holding a flame to the smoke trail – just like magic. But what’s actually going on here? And the results are pretty beautiful:

Actually, the smoke contains vaporised bits of wax that haven’t fully burnt as yet. And so when you hold a flame to that smoke trail, the fire can burn its way down to relight the candle, igniting little particles of wax as it goes

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Solar cells that work on cloudy days just hit a record-breaking 22.1% efficiency

There’s been plenty of good news about solar power lately – not only are governments around the world using it more and more, we’re now able to harvest the Sun’s energy more cheaply and efficiently than ever before. But there’s still one big problem: traditional solar cells simply don’t work that well unless they’re in direct, bright sunlight. To rectify this, researchers have been working on creating structures called black silicon solar cells, which absorb way more light and are useful even on overcast days. But they’ve never been efficient enough to be real players in the solar race – up until now, that is.

A team of European researchers has just announced that they’ve set a new record by creating black silicon solar cells that can convert 22.1 percent of the Sun’s light into electricity – an increase of almost four percent on their previous record. While this doesn’t compare to the record of 40 percent efficiency in traditional silicon solar cells, it shows that black silicon solar cells are now real contenders that could help greatly reduce the cost of solar power in the future. Even more impressively, the team compared their new black silicon solar cells with traditional solar cells of the same efficiency, and showed that their cells increased daily energy production by 3 percent, thanks to their ability to suck up light even when the Sun was low in the sky. Source: Solar cells that work on cloudy days just hit a record-breaking 22.1% efficiency

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Happy Birthday Max

max

It’s the birthday of Max Perutz, who was born in 1914 in Vienna. Perutz studied chemistry at the University of Vienna. For his PhD he went to the University of Cambridge, where he became one of pioneers in the application of x-ray crystallography to molecular biology. In 1937 he began studying the structure of the blood-transporting protein hemoglobin. The project, which took him 22 years to complete, earned him a share of the 1962 Nobel chemistry prize with his Cambridge colleague John Kendrew. That same year his graduate student, Francis Crick, was awarded the Nobel medicine prize with James Watson for their determination of the physical and chemical structure of DNA. Source: Facebook

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Nature vs. nurture results in a draw, according to twins meta-study

Jims TwinOne of the great tussles of science – whether our health is governed by nature or nurture – has been settled, and it is effectively a draw.

University of Queensland researcher Dr Beben Benyamin from the Queensland Brain Institute collaborated with researchers at VU University of Amsterdam to review almost every twin study across the world from the past 50 years, involving more than 14.5 million twin pairs. The findings, published in Nature Genetics, reveal on average the variation for human traits and diseases is 49 per cent genetic, and 51 per cent due to environmental factors and/or measurement errors.

“There has still been conjecture over how much variation is caused by genetics and how much is caused by environmental factors—what people call nature versus nurture,” Dr Benyamin said. “We wanted to resolve that by revisiting almost all the genetic twin studies conducted over the past 50 years, and comparing all of them together,” he said. Although the contribution of genetic and environmental factors was balanced for most of the traits studied, the research showed there could be significant differences in individual traits. For example, risk for bipolar disorder was about 70 per cent due to genetics and 30 per cent due to environmental factors.

“When visiting the nature versus nurture debate, there is overwhelming evidence that both genetic and environmental factors can influence traits and diseases,” Dr Benyamin said. “What is comforting is that, on average, about 50 per cent of individual differences are genetic and 50 per cent are environmental. The findings show that we need to look at ourselves outside of a view of nature versus nurture, and instead look at it as nature and nurture.” In 69 per cent of cases, the study also revealed that individual traits were the product of the cumulative effect of genetic differences. “This means that there are good reasons to study the biology of human traits, and that the combined effect of many genes on a trait is simply the sum of the effect of each individual gene,” Dr Benyamin said. “This finding has implications for choosing the best strategy to find genes affecting disease.” Edited from: Nature vs. nurture results in a draw, according to twins meta-study. Image – Deskarati

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The truth about poo: we’re doing it wrong

In my large Italian family, I grew up with the subject of poo, bottoms and constipation readily – and far too frequently – discussed at the dinner table. I’d be about to raise a raviolo to my mouth, only to hear how someone’s piles had popped, just that morning. This doesn’t mean I’m anal (sorry) about the subject. It’s fascinating away from the lunch table. Late last year, I read that we are pooing all wrong: we should be squatting, not sitting, on a toilet bowl. Then a book called Charming Bowels by Giulia Enders caused something of a storm in its native Germany and I got fully immersed in the subject. Enders is studying in Frankfurt for her medical doctorate in microbiology. She is utterly, charmingly obsessed with the gut, gut bacteria and poo. She writes and talks about her subject matter with such child-like enthusiasm, it’s infectious. And, yes, we have been pooing all wrong.

Enders tells me about various studies that show that we do it more efficiently if we squat. This is because the closure mechanism of the gut is not designed to “open the hatch completely” when we’re sitting down or standing up: it’s like a kinked hose. Squatting is far more natural and puts less pressure on our bottoms. She says: “1.2 billion people around the world who squat have almost no incidence of diverticulosis and fewer problems with piles. We in the west, on the other hand, squeeze our gut tissue until it comes out of our bottoms.” Lovely. But not to worry. Although you can climb on your toilet seat and squat (“It might be fun!”), we can iron out the kink by sitting with our feet on a little stool and leaning forward. The book even has a helpful drawing by Enders’ sister. Source: The truth about poo: we’re doing it wrong

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Meet the man whose blood may hold the secret to curing HIV

Kai Brothers has been living with HIV for the past 30 years, having contracted the disease at 19 years-old in San Francisco. Had a blood bank not asked him to come in for a test, he wouldn’t have even known he was sick, let alone HIV positive, because oddly enough, he never developed any symptoms. He recalls thinking: “I’m defying the odds here. There must be something my body is able to do that is keeping me healthy.” At his friend’s suggestion in 1999, Brothers went to see leading AIDS researcher, Jay Levy, at the University of California, who had discovered the HIV virus in 1983.

It turns out that Brothers’s body was actually keeping the virus in check – specifically, his white blood cells were secreting an unidentified protein that somehow controls the most damanging aspects of the virus. Levy suspects that being able to reproduce the effects of this protein could revolutionise HIV treatment. “We know what the protein does: It blocks the virus from replicating,” Levy told Daniel A. Gross at Nautilus Magazine. “It maintains the virus in a silent state, in some people forever. Eventually the infected cells will die. So you could imagine that if you could keep this virus under control for 20, 30 years, you might have a spontaneous cure.” Source: ScienceAlert

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Spanish researchers are developing bladeless wind turbines

A Spanish company called Vortex Bladeless has come up with bladeless wind turbine technology that seeks to provide more energy for less, and address the criticisms aimed at traditional wind farms – particularly where wildlife is concerned. With blades that spin at speeds of more than 320 km/h (200 miles/hour), wind turbines haven’t been the best news for the birds that live around them.

While for the most part, the damage is fairly minimal, one wind farm in particular, Altamont Pass in California, US, has drawn the ire of local residents because of the 1,300 birds of prey – including eagles, falcons, hawks – that are killed each year as they try to migrate through it. And keeping all those heavy blades spinning that fast indefinitely? Well, it’s no easy task, and certainly not cheap, energy-wise. According to Vortex Bladeless, just by ditching the blades – and all moving parts, in fact – they will save around 40 percent of the energy cost of regular wind turbines, largely by cutting down on maintenance costs. “Since the Vortex doesn’t have moving parts or gears, it should last longer and it won’t require periodic lubrication,” Dante D’Orazio from The Verge reports. “The simpler design also means that manufacturing costs are about half that of a traditional wind turbine.” D’Orazio adds that the bladeless turbines are estimated to harvest approximately 30 percent less energy, but because they’re basically just sticks now, you can cram a whole lot more of them into the space of a regular wind turbine. Plus these things are completely silent, so no one can claim instances of wind turbine syndrome, where the sub-sonic noise generated by traditional wind turbines is blamed for everything from headaches and dizziness to sleepiness and depression.

So how do they work, exactly? Just like traditional wind turbines, the bladeless variety still needs to capture kinetic energy and convert it to electricity, but instead of using a blade, it uses a phenomenon known as vorticity, which produces a series of spinning vortices in the surrounding air. The team at Vortex Bladeless designed their 2.7-metre-high ‘cones’ specifically so that these vortices would accumulate simultaneously all the way up their length. Liz Stinson explains at Wired: “In its current prototype, the elongated cone is made from a composite of fibreglass and carbon fibre, which allows the mast to vibrate as much as possible (an increase in mass reduces natural frequency). At the base of the cone are two rings of repelling magnets, which act as a sort of nonelectrical motor. When the cone oscillates one way, the repelling magnets pull it in the other direction, like a slight nudge to boost the mast’s movement regardless of wind speed.” The kinetic energy that’s generated from all this movement is then converted into useable electricity using an electrical generator called an alternator. Source: Spanish researchers are developing bladeless wind turbines

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Scientists have found a way to switch on a dormant gene in human red blood cells

Scientists from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia have used a world-first technique to change a single letter of DNA in human red blood cells, triggering them to produce more oxygen-carrying haemoglobin. The technique could lead to new treatments for sickle cell anaemia and other life-threatening blood disorders. And the best part is, it does it by activating a naturally occurring gene that’s normally dormant after birth.

“An exciting new age of genome editing is beginning, now that single genes within our vast genome can be precisely cut and repaired,” study leader and Dean of Science at UNSW, Merlin Crossley, said in a press statement. “Our laboratory study provides a proof of concept that changing just one letter of DNA in a gene could alleviate the symptoms of sickle cell anaemia and thalassaemia – inherited diseases in which people have damaged haemoglobin.”  The research was done in the lab, but because the researchers simply switched on a genetic variation that already exits in nature, Crossley explains that the approach should, in theory, be effective and safe to use in humans. “However, more research is needed before it can be tested in people as a possible cure for serious blood diseases,” he added.

Haemoglobin is the vital protein found in red blood cells that picks up oxygen from our lungs and transports it around the body. Throughout our lives we produce two different kinds: foetal haemoglobin – which is able to quickly suck up oxygen from our mothers’ blood – and adult haemoglobin. But the problem is that mutations in adult haemoglobin are extremely common, with around five percent of the world’s population carrying a mutant gene. Carrying just one of these isn’t so bad, but if someone inherits mutant haemoglobin genes from both their parents, it can severely damage haemoglobin production and cause life-threatening conditions, such as sickle cell anaemia and thalassaemia. However, a small group of these people also inherit a third mutation in their foetal haemoglobin, which results in it being produced after birth, and as a result, their symptoms are greatly reduced. “This good mutation keeps their foetal haemoglobin gene switched on for the whole of their lives, and reduces their symptoms significantly,” said Crossley. Source: Scientists have found a way to switch on a dormant gene in human red blood cells

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Here’s a simple, science-backed tactic for getting better sleep

While we spend a lot of our lives sleeping – a third of it, give or take – it doesn’t mean that we’re exactly good at getting rest.

A bunch of factors contribute to quality of sleep, from exercise to muscle tension to before-bed routines. And according to a 2014 study, an even more essential part of your day predicts your rest at night – sunlight. Lead author and University of Illinois architecture professor Mohamed Boubekri tracked the sleep and behaviour of 49 office workers, 22 of whom worked in environments with lots of windows and 27 in windowless spaces. And in a result that will want you to park your desk next to the nearest window, Boubreki’s team found that people who worked in environments where they could be exposed to some sunlight not only got better quality of sleep, but more sleep. “Workers in workplaces with windows not only had significantly more light exposure during work hours but also slept an average of 46 minutes more per night during the workweek than workers in workplaces without windows,” Boubekri and his colleagues wrote.

The takeaway? The study was far too small to draw any firm conclusions, but as Kristin Wong notes at Lifehacker, the results suggest that giving yourself more light during the day is associated with better rest at night. The finding also squares with our understanding of how internal clocks work. Sunlight suppresses the production of melatonin, the hormone your body releases that makes you feel sleepy. That’s why you want exposure to lots of light during the day, but not at night. Other research has pointed to a similar theme. Psychiatrists with patients who have Seasonal Affective Disorder – where moods tend toward depression as the days get shorter in the fall and winter – recommend taking walks early in the day in order to enable better rest at night. And a 2004 study of newborns found that those exposed to more light during the day slept more soundly at night. Source: Here’s a simple, science-backed tactic for getting better sleep

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