First chance to take a picture of the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy

Thanks to Phil Krause for sending us this article.

Get ready to peek into the unknown this week as we get our first chance to take a picture of the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy. The image from the Event Horizon Telescope could teach us how black holes work and even how the largest and smallest forces in the universe fit together.
The telescope is a global network of eight radio observatories in Spain, the US and Antarctica. Combining their observations will effectively create a powerful ‘virtual telescope’ almost the size of Earth.
If the weather is clear between now and next Friday, each will be turned on simultaneously and point at Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way, and measure radio waves coming from its direction.
The telescopes will capture sharper and more detailed data than we’ve ever had from Sagittarius A*, as well as the larger black hole at the centre of nearby galaxy M87.
With the telescopes generating two petabytes of data per night — enough to store the genomes of two billion people — astronomers hope to take the first image of the event horizon around a black hole, and the bright matter hurtling around it.
Professor Heino Falcke at Radboud University in the Netherlands, who is part of the international collaboration, said: ‘Event horizons have been part of the mythology of science, but they will become real, in a way. Seeing is believing.’
The images may not be ready until next year, but simulations have given the team an idea of what they should see. Even light is bent in the intense gravity around a black hole. The side of the black hole rotating towards Earth should feature a bright crescent of light warped around its edge, while the side rotating away will be dimmer.
Once they study that ‘banana’ of light, researchers hope it will clear up some of the mysteries of black holes. One is how some generate enormous jets of particles that shoot from their centres at near the speed of light and where that energy comes from.
As other telescopes are added, observations will become more precise, and should give an insight into the workings of our universe.
These include how Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which covers gravity and the behaviour of very large objects, meshes with quantum mechanics, whose realm is the very small. ‘Something new will happen, and I think that new thing will happen at the event horizon,’ Prof Falcke predicts.
Dr Stefan Gillessen at the Max Planck Institute for Physics in Munich said: ‘You might see things that you’ve never even thought of.’ Source – Unknown

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Is consciousness just an illusion?

The cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett believes our brains are machines, made of billions of tiny “robots” – our neurons, or brain cells. Is the human mind really that special?

In an infamous memo written in 1965, the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus stated that humans would always beat computers at chess because machines lacked intuition. Daniel Dennett disagreed.

A few years later, Dreyfus rather embarrassingly found himself in checkmate against a computer.

And in May 1997 the IBM computer, Deep Blue defeated the world chess champion Garry Kasparov.

Many who were unhappy with this result then claimed that chess was a boringly logical game. Computers didn’t need intuition to win. The goalposts shifted.

Daniel Dennett has always believed our minds are machines. For him the question is not can computers be human? But are humans really that clever?

In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s The Life Scientific, Dennett says there’s nothing special about intuition. “Intuition is simply knowing something without knowing how you got there”.

Dennett blames the philosopher Rene Descartes for permanently polluting our thinking about how we think about the human mind.

Descartes couldn’t imagine how a machine could be capable of thinking, feeling and imagining. Such talents must be God-given. He was writing in the 17th century, when machines were made of levers and pulleys not CPUs and RAM, so perhaps we can forgive him.

Robots made of robots

Our brains are made of a hundred billion neurons. If you were to count all the neurons in your brain at a rate of one a second, it would take more than 3,000 years.

Our minds are made of molecular machines, otherwise known as brain cells. And if you find this depressing then you lack imagination, says Dennett.

“Do you know the power of a machine made of a trillion moving parts?”, he asks. “We’re not just are robots”, he says. “We’re robots, made of robots, made of robots”.

Our brain cells are robots that respond to chemical signals. The motor proteins they create are robots. And so it goes on.

Like a phone screen

Consciousness is real. Of course it is. We experience it every day. But for Daniel Dennett, consciousness is no more real than the screen on your laptop or your phone.

The geeks who make electronic devices call what we see on our screens the “user illusion”. It’s a bit patronising, perhaps, but they’ve got a point.

Pressing icons on our phones makes us feel in control. We feel in charge of the hardware inside. But what we do with our fingers on our phones is a rather pathetic contribution to the sum total of phone activity. And, of course, it tells us absolutely nothing about how they work.

Human consciousness is the same, says Dennett. “It’s the brain’s ‘user illusion’ of itself,” he says.

It feels real and important to us but it just isn’t a very big deal.

“The brain doesn’t have to understand how the brain works”. Source BBC

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How to Learn Faster with the Feynman Technique

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The introduction to this series of twelve essays, in Part A, explained that this is a personal record of a number of places associated with the life of Jane Austen, but it is in no way a gazeteer. The opening essay described her birthplace in the small village of Steventon, Hampshire.


(i) Steventon and
Manydown Park

Jane Austen’s early life in Steventon was relatively simple, with country walks and visits from relatives to create a certain amount of variety. As she grew older, she became part of the wider social network of her extended family. As a young girl, with her sisters, she often attended the monthly Basingstoke Assemblies, social occasions with music and dancing.

Afterwards, the Austen girls would stay overnight at Manydown Park (2), a grander building than the Steventon Rectory. It was the home of the Wither family for some 400 years and later the Bigg family. It is of interest to Austen scholars, because Jane received a proposal of marriage from Harris Bigg-Wither, in 1802, when she was twenty-seven. She hesitated for some time, and finally turned him down. He was the only boy in the family, and would have inherited Manydown Park in due course, and Jane would have become mistress of a fine house. However, childbearing and domestic duties would have left her little time for writing, and that may have influenced her decision.

There seems to be a blight on some buildings associated with Jane Austen, because Manydown Park, despite its charm, has also been demolished, although it managed to survive until as late as 1965. Maggie Lane, (Ref A) outlines Jane Austen’s enthusiasm for the county of Kent, and the great houses, some of which, happily survive to the present day.

“After Hampshire, the county best known and best loved by Jane Austen was Kent. It was the home of all her paternal forebears, and of some of the wealthiest of her relations. ‘Kent is the only place for happiness: everybody is rich there’, she once humorously wrote, and over a period of twenty-five years, from a series of comfortable country houses and great parks, each with ‘its beauties and its prospects’, she received a vision of England that was gracious, mellow, affluent, well-ordered, and very lovely.” (Ref A)

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An Unexpected New Lung Function Has Been Found – They Make Blood

Researchers have discovered that the lungs play a far more complex role in mammalian bodies than we thought, with new evidence revealing that they don’t just facilitate respiration – they also play a key role in blood production.

In experiments involving mice, the team found that they produce more than 10 million platelets (tiny blood cells) per hour, equating to the majority of platelets in the animals’ circulation. This goes against the decades-long assumption that bone marrow produces all of our blood components.

Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco also discovered a previously unknown pool of blood stem cells that makes this happen inside the lung tissue – cells that were incorrectly assumed to mainly reside in bone marrow.

“This finding definitely suggests a more sophisticated view of the lungs – that they’re not just for respiration, but also a key partner in formation of crucial aspects of the blood,” says one of the researchers, Mark R. Looney.

“What we’ve observed here in mice strongly suggests the lung may play a key role in blood formation in humans as well.”

While the lungs have been known to produce a limited amount of platelets – platelet-forming cells called megakaryocytes have been identified in the lungs before – scientists have long assumed that most of the cells responsible for blood production are kept inside the bone marrow.

Here, a process called haematopoiesis was thought to churn out oxygen-laden red blood cells, infection-fighting  white blood cells, and platelets – blood components required for the clotting that halts bleeding.

But scientists have now watched megakaryocytes functioning from within the lung tissue to produce not a few, but most of the body’s platelets. Source

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Cell Division Time lapse

If you’ve ever wondered what cell division actually looks like, this incredible time-lapse by francischeefilms on YouTube gives you the best view we’ve ever seen, showing a real-life tadpole egg dividing from four cells into several million in the space of just 20 seconds.

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Human Y and X chromosomes

The Y chromosome has the least amount of genes in all the human genome. With a 30% difference between humans and chimpanzees, the Y chromosome is one of the fastest evolving parts of the human genome. To date, over 200 Y-linked genes have been identified. All Y-linked genes are expressed and (apart from duplicated genes) hemizygous (present on only one chromosome) except in the cases of aneuploidy such as XYY syndrome or XXYY syndrome. Source – DailyAnatomy

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It could only take 28 years to travel 2.54 million light years!

While it takes light approximately 2.54 million years to traverse the gulf of space between Earth and, for instance, the Andromeda Galaxy, it would take a much shorter amount of time from the point of view of a traveler at close to the speed of light due to the effects of time dilation; the time experienced by the traveler depending both on velocity (anything less than the speed of light) and distance traveled (length contraction). Intergalactic travel for humans is therefore possible, in theory, from the point of view of the traveller.

Accelerating to speeds closer to the speed of light with a relativistic rocket would allow the on-ship travel time to be drastically lower, but would require very large amounts of energy. A way to do this is space travel using constant acceleration. Traveling to the Andromeda Galaxy, 2 million light years away, would take 28 years on-ship time with a constant acceleration of 1g and a deceleration of 1g after reaching half way, to be able to stop.

Unfortunately the amount of fuel required is so large it would make this impossible with today’s technology.

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Formula 1 Starts This Week – Go Go Go!

With Formula 1 starting next weekend I thought you might like a look at the changes to this years cars – Jim – Deskarati

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This year is the 200 anniversary of the death of the novelist, Jane Austen, (1775- 1817) and there will be many celebratory offerings on radio, television, and the printed media. I offer this appreciation for the readers of Deskarati, being uniquely unqualified to do so. When I visited Chawton Cottage (2) in Hampshire, where a number of the novels were written, I confessed, to the rather splendid lady custodian, that I had never actually read any of Jane Austen’s novels. “Don’t worry,” she said, “very few of the men who come here, have either.” The implication being that the men were acting as drivers for their mothers, grandmothers, wives, sisters, nieces or woman friends.

Despite not having read any of the novels, I have been familiar with the plots and characters since childhood. They were regularly serialised on BBC radio in the 1940s and 50s. By the time of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, most households in Britain had acquired television sets and this new viewing audience was introduced to Jane Austen by the televised serialisation of her novels, after the black and white era, so mainly in colour versions (4). Running parallel with this were the regular film versions (3), cut down, and telescoped to fit into 90 minutes of projection time.

Is this enough to enable me to write about Jane Austen’s novels? No, this series of twelve essays is about some of the places associated with Jane Austen, which, even today, give something of the flavour of her times in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. I have been fortunate to have a close friend, who is a great enthusiast for Jane Austen’s novels, and it has been a great pleasure, over many years, to have visited with her, many places associated with Jane’s life story.
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Neuroscientist Explains One Concept in 5 Levels of Difficulty

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Will circular runways ever take off?

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Visualising the genome: researchers create first 3D structures of active DNA

For the first time, scientists have been able to model the physical structure of mammalian genomes from individual cells, giving us a unique 3D perspective on how DNA packages itself inside our cells.

Through the new technique, scientists can see how the arrangement of cell chromosomes (DNA strands) are designed to keep some cells active or inactive at any one time.

“Knowing where all the genes and control elements are at a given moment will help us understand the molecular mechanisms that control and maintain their expression,” says one of the researchers, Ernest Laue from the University of Cambridge in the UK.

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Google’s new AI system unscrambles pixelated faces

On the left, 8×8 images; in the middle, the images generated by Google; and on the right, the original 32×32 faces. Photograph: Google

Google’s neural networks have achieved the dream of CSI viewers everywhere: the company has revealed a new AI system capable of “enhancing” an eight-pixel square image, increasing the resolution 16-fold and effectively restoring lost data.

The neural network could be used to increase the resolution of blurred or pixelated faces, in a way previously thought impossible; a similar system was demonstrated for enhancing images of bedrooms, again creating a 32×32 pixel image from an 8×8 one.

Google’s researchers describe the neural network as “hallucinating” the extra information. The system was trained by being shown innumerable images of faces, so that it learns typical facial features. A second portion of the system, meanwhile, focuses on comparing 8×8 pixel images with all the possible 32×32 pixel images they could be shrunken versions of.

The two networks working in harmony effectively redraw their best guess of what the original facial image would be. The system allows for a huge improvement over old-fashioned methods of up-sampling: where an older system might simply look at a block of red in the middle of a face, make it 16 times bigger and blur the edges, Google’s system is capable of recognising it is likely to be a pair of lips, and draw the image accordingly. Source – Gaurdian

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Scientists Need You to Solve This Chess Problem and Find the Key to Human Consciousness

… Sir Roger Penrose wants to figure out if we’ve been looking at consciousness the wrong way all this time. Our brains are so often compared to computers, but in his 1989 book, The Emperor’s New Mind, Sir Penrose argues that not even quantum computers – which we haven’t even built yet – could rival what’s in our heads.

A deeper understanding of the quantum weirdness of physics might be the only thing that could explain consciousness, he says, and while that’s a pretty controversial view, it’s not like we’ve got a whole lot to go on when it comes to the mysterious force that suddenly makes us self-aware. We’ve found quantum effects in photosynthesis and bird migration, Sir Penrose argues, so why not the human mind?

One way of narrowing down the variables in the search for human consciousness is to figure out what separates us from the greatest processors ever built – supercomputers.

If our minds can figure out a solution that even the most advanced problem-solving machines can’t, it could be the lead scientists need to figure out what makes us so unique. To that end, Sir Penrose has come up with this chess problem. You need to figure out how to legally get the white player to either draw with the black – or win:

chess-probPenrose Institute

As Sarah Knapton at The Telegraph explains, a computer will always assume the black player will win in this scenario, because seeing those three bishops will force it to perform a massive search of possible positions “that will rapidly expand to something that exceeds all the computational power on planet Earth”. But Sir Penrose says it should be “easy” for humans, given you know your chess rules back to front.

If you do decide to solve this riddle, and succeed, you need to email your work to In particular, the Penrose Institute researchers are interested in the thought process that led you to the solution – was it a sudden moment of genius, or the result of days of consternation? Source – ScienceAlert

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Genome Editing with CRISPR-Cas9

This animation depicts the CRISPR-Cas9 method for genome editing – a powerful new technology with many applications in biomedical research, including the potential to treat human genetic disease. Feng Zhang, a leader in the development of this technology, is a faculty member at MIT, an investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and a core member of the Broad Institute. Further information can be found on Prof. Zhang’s website at .

Images and footage courtesy of Sputnik Animation, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Justin Knight and pond5.

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As Moore’s law ends, brain-like computers begin

Professor Kwabena Boahen has written “A Neuromorph’s Prospectus” outlining how to build computers that directly mimic in silicon what the brain does in flesh and blood. Credit: L.A. Cicero

For five decades, Moore’s law held up pretty well: Roughly every two years, the number of transistors one could fit on a chip doubled, all while costs steadily declined. Today, however, transistors and other electronic components are so small they’re beginning to bump up against fundamental physical limits on their size. Moore’s law has reached its end, and it’s going to take something different to meet the need for computing that is ever faster, cheaper and more efficient.

As it happens, Kwabena Boahen, a professor of bioengineering and of electrical engineering, has a pretty good idea what that something more is: brain-like, or neuromorphic, computers that are vastly more efficient than the conventional digital computers we’ve grown accustomed to. This is not a vision of the future, Boahen said. As he lays out in the latest issue of Computing in Science and Engineering, the future is now.

“We’ve gotten to the point where we need to do something different,” said Boahen, who is also a member of Stanford Bio-X and the Stanford Neurosciences Institute. “Our lab’s three decades of experience has put us in a position where we can do something different, something competitive.”

It’s a moment Boahen has been working toward his entire adult life, and then some. He first got interested in computers as a teenager growing up in Ghana. But the more he learned, the more traditional computers looked like a giant, inelegant mess of memory chips and processors connected by weirdly complicated wiring.

Both the need for something new and the first ideas for what that would look like crystalized in the mid-1980s. Even then, Boahen said, some researchers could see the end of Moore’s law on the horizon. As transistors continued to shrink, they would bump up against fundamental physical limits on their size. Eventually, they’d get so small that only a single lane of electron traffic could get through under the best circumstances. What had once been electron superfreeways would soon be tiny mountain roads, and while that meant engineers could fit more components on a chip, those chips would become more and more unreliable.

At around the same time, Boahen and others came to understand that the brain had enormous computing power – orders of magnitude more than what people have built, even today – even though it used vastly less energy and remarkably unreliable components, neurons. More Here – TechExplore

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Thank you Neil Turock for the inspiration

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Unlucky for some?

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Neanderthals ‘self-medicated’ for pain

Neanderthals dosed themselves with painkillers and possibly penicillin, according to a study of their teeth. One sick Neanderthal chewed the bark of the poplar tree, which contains a chemical related to aspirin. He may also have been using penicillin, long before antibiotics were developed.

The evidence comes from ancient DNA found in the dental tartar of Neanderthals living about 40,000 years ago in central Europe. Microbes and food stuck to the teeth of the ancient hominins gives scientists a window into the past. By sequencing DNA preserved in dental tartar, international researchers have found out new details of the diet, lifestyle and health of our closest extinct relatives.

“Their behaviour and their diet looks a lot more sophisticated and a lot more like us in many ways,” said Prof Alan Cooper, director of the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA. “You know, we’ve got a guy self-medicating either because he’s got a dental abscess, which was bad, or a nasty gastrointestinal parasite, which was also bad, either way he wasn’t a happy guy. “And, here he is eating aspirin and we’re finding penicillin mould in him.”

The Neanderthal’s abscess left a trace on his jawbone. The intestinal parasite was identified through studying DNA in dental tartar. It appears the Neanderthals had a good knowledge of medicinal plants and how these might relieve the pain of toothache or stomach ache. They might also have used antibiotics, long before the medicines were developed in modern times.

“The use of antibiotics would be very surprising, as this is more than 40,000 years before we developed penicillin,” said Prof Cooper. “Certainly our findings contrast markedly with the rather simplistic view of our ancient relatives in popular imagination.” More here – BBC

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