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Environment on Edge

Industrial Soot Brought the End of Europe's Little Ice Age of the 1860s

September 5th 2013

Coal soot shrank the Alpine glaciers in mid-19th-century Europe, according to new findings that show how black carbon alone—even without warmer temperatures—can affect ice and snow cover.

The research, which involved a University of Michigan atmospheric scientist, provides insights into when the so-called Little Ice Age ended and why European glaciers began to retreat decades before global temperatures rose.

The Little Ice Age was a relatively recent few-hundred-year period of long, severe winters across much of the planet. Glaciers encroached on mountain villages and rivers and harbors froze over. Shorter, unpredictable growing seasons led to scattered famines. Scientists have interpreted temperature records to show that it ended sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century. But European glacier records tell a different story. Read more ..

Archaeological Edge

New Evidence May Show Location of King Solomon's Mines of Ancient Israel

September 5th 2013

Click to select Image

An archaeological excavation led by Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef of Tel Aviv University may prove that copper mines in Israel thought to have been exploited by the ancient Egyptians in the 13th century BCE actually originated three centuries later, during the reign of the biblical King Solomon. Materials unearthed at the new site in the Timna Valley in Israel's Aravah Desert was subjected to radiocarbon dating and effectively overturned the archaeological consensus of the last several decades. Research, and materials found in the area, suggest the mines were operated by the Edomites, a semi-nomadic tribal confederation that according to the Bible warred constantly with Israel.

"The mines are definitely from the period of King Solomon," said Dr. Ben-Yosef. "They may help us understand the local society, which would have been invisible to us otherwise." Timna Valley was an ancient copper production district with thousands of mines and dozens of smelting sites. In February 2013, Dr. Ben-Yosef led researchers and students to excavate a previously untouched site in the valley, known as the Slaves' Hill. The area contains is a massive smelting camp where there are remains of hundreds of furnaces and layers of copper slag, the waste created during the smelting process. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Electronics Advance Moves Closer to a World Beyond Silicon

September 4th 2013

computer board

 Researchers in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University have made a significant advance in the function of metal-insulator-metal, or MIM diodes, a technology premised on the assumption that the speed of electrons moving through silicon is simply too slow.

For the extraordinary speed envisioned in some future electronics applications, these innovative diodes solve problems that would not be possible with silicon-based materials as a limiting factor.

The new diodes consist of a “sandwich” of two metals, with two insulators in between, to form “MIIM” devices. This allows an electron not so much to move through materials as to tunnel through insulators and appear almost instantaneously on the other side. It’s a fundamentally different approach to electronics.

The newest findings, published in Applied Physics Letters, have shown that the addition of a second insulator can enable “step tunneling,” a situation in which an electron may tunnel through only one of the insulators instead of both. This in turn allows precise control of diode asymmetry, non-linearity, and rectification at lower voltages. Read more ..

The Evolutionary Edge

Scientists Question Certain Assumptions about Evolution

September 3rd 2013

Click to select Image

Charles Darwin referred to the origin of species as "that mystery of mysteries," and even today, more than 150 years later, evolutionary biologists cannot fully explain how new animals and plants arise. For decades, nearly all research in the field has been based on the assumption that the main cause of the emergence of new species, a process called speciation, is the formation of barriers to reproduction between populations.

Those barriers can be geographic—such as a new mountain, river or glacier that physically separates two populations of animals or plants—or they can be genetic differences that prevent incompatible individuals from producing fertile offspring. A textbook example of the latter is the mule; horses and donkeys can mate, but their offspring are sterile.

But now a University of Michigan biologist and a colleague are questioning the long-held assumption that genetic reproductive barriers, also known as reproductive isolation, are a driving force behind speciation. Their study was published online publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Read more ..

Healthy Edge

Milk is Strengthening Economy and Health in Malawi

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Milk has a reputation for strengthening bones. In Malawi, the growing dairy industry is strengthening the livelihoods of small dairy farmers and the health of the country’s inhabitants. In an effort to double the capacity of Malawi’s dairy value chain, Michigan State University researchers led by Dr. Puliyur MohanKumar, professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, are applying successful outcomes from a similar MSU partnership project that helped transform India’s dairy industry. India, now the world’s top milk producer, shares similar environmental and cultural traits with Malawi.

With colleagues from Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Malawi and Tamil Nadu University in India, the MSU team is working with dairy farmers to improve all aspects of the dairy chain—from cow nutrition, reproduction, and genetics to milk production, processing, and marketing. A new breed of dairy cow has been introduced, and technologies, education, and training are empowering farmers in Malawi to take ownership of the industry. Read more ..

Healthy Edge

Brain Inflammation Linked to Parkinson's Disease

September 2nd 2013

Reversing inflammation in the fluid surrounding the brain’s cortex may provide a solution to the complex riddle of Parkinson’s, according to researchers who have found a link between pro-inflammatory biomarkers and the severity of symptoms such as fatigue, depression and anxiety in patients with the chronic disease.

Lena Brundin of Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine was part of a research team that measured inflammatory markers found in cerebrospinal fluid samples of Parkinson’s patients and members of a control group.

“The degree of neuroinflammation was significantly associated with more severe depression, fatigue, and cognitive impairment even after controlling for factors such as age, gender and disease duration,” said Brundin, an associate professor in the college and a researcher with the Van Andel Institute.

“By investigating associations between inflammatory markers and non-motor symptoms we hope to gain further insight into this area, which in turn could lead to new treatment options.”

The results of the study were published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. Inflammation in the brain long has been suspected to be involved in the development of Parkinson’s disease, specifically in non-motor symptoms such as depression, fatigue and cognitive impairment. Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

Disabling Protein Cripples Cancer Cells

September 2nd 2013

Cat Scan

Scientists have successfully crippled aggressive cancer cells by disabling a single protein known as an ether lipid, part of a family of fatty molecules that includes cholesterol. Researchers hope to develop drugs that can be used alongside chemotherapy to treat some malignant cancers.

Ether lipids are highly elevated in aggressive cancer cells, and by disabling the enzyme responsible for their production researchers have been able to disable malignant cancer cells.

Ether lipids are normally found in cell membranes. So it makes sense that their levels are high in aggressive tumors, because tumors need the nourishing fatty molecule to divide and grow at an accelerated rate. 

Researchers at the University of California Berkeley, led by Daniel Nomura, converted skin cells into aggressive tumor cells in culture and then disabled an enzyme, called AGPS, that’s critical to the formation of ether lipids. They also injected mice with both cancerous skin cells and aggressive breast cancer cells, and the rodents quickly developed tumors.  Read more ..

The Edge of Health

Learning How The Brain Takes Out Its Trash May Help Decode Neurological Diseases

September 1st 2013

Baby Boomer

Imagine that garbage haulers don't exist. Slowly, the trash accumulates in our offices, our homes, it clogs the streets and damages our cars, causes illness and renders normal life impossible.

Garbage in the brain, in the form of dead cells, must also be removed before it accumulates, because it can cause both rare and common neurological diseases, such as Parkinson's. Now, University of Michigan researchers are a leap closer to decoding the critical process of how the brain clears dead cells, said Haoxing Xu, associate professor in the U-M Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology.

A new U-M study identified two critical components of this cell clearing process: an essential calcium channel protein, TRPML1, that helps the so-called garbage collecting cells, called microphages or microglia, to clear out the dead cells; and alipid molecule, which helps activate TRPML1 and the process that allows the microphages to remove these dead cells. Read more ..

The Edge of Nature

Feather Forensics Prevent Aviation Accidents

August 31st 2013


Minutes after U.S. Airways flight 1549 took off from New York’s La Guardia Airport in 2009, pilot Chesley Sullenberger radioed the control tower:  "This is cactus 15-49, hit birds, lost thrust in both engines returning back towards La Guardia.”

Sullenberger had few options and made an emergency landing in the Hudson River. The passengers and crew were evacuated safely. The plane had hit a flock of Canada geese.

“The Canada goose is a beautiful bird. I love birds, but there is a place for birds and there’s a place not for birds and you do not want birds around the airfield, especially large-bodied birds,” said Carla Dove, director of the Bird Identification Lab at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

It was Dove who identified the birds that brought down Flight 1549.  As director of the Bird Identification Lab, she manages a reference collection of 620,000 bird specimens housed in floor to ceiling cabinets on the sixth floor of the museum. “[The collection] is about 150 years old," Dove said. "We probably have about 85 percent of the diversity of birds of the world represented here. So there are 10,000 species. We have about 8,500 in our collection.” Read more ..

The Edge of Space

More Than 150,000 Earthlings Line Up For One-Way Ticket To Mars

August 30th 2013

Mars Rover

Five months ago, the MarsOne foundation began its search for the four people it says will become the first human settlers on Mars. Now, with one day remaining before the deadline, more than 150,000 people from around the world have applied.

Many have even posted online video applications, making passionate -- and sometimes playful -- arguments for why they're the best choice. "I would like to go to Mars because I'm a Martian myself," says Filipp, a 44-year-old Russian with a tattooed chest, who poignantly dabs at his eyes with a tissue as he talks about his professed home planet. "You'll need a local dude to help you out."

Others, like 28-year-old Morteza, speak wistfully of freedoms unavailable here on Earth. "As an Iranian engineer, I guess I can have a better, more influential life on Mars while I'm boycotted from doing anything on Earth," he says. Viktoria, 20, a Belarusian science buff with a penchant for chess and fencing, says the chance to go to Mars is a privilege -- "a chance to better understand human psychology, the body, and its limits. An opportunity to learn about a new world, and teach its wonders to others." Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

Combating Concussions

August 28th 2013

MRI Machine

In the United States there are millions of sports related concussions each year, but many go undiagnosed because for some athletes, the fear of being benched trumps the fear of permanent brain damage, and there is no objective test available to accurately diagnose concussions on the sidelines. Researchers at San Diego State University have set out to change that.

A team led by Daniel Goble, an exercise and nutritional sciences professor at SDSU, have developed software and an inexpensive balance board that can measure balance with 99 percent accuracy on the field and in the clinic. They are testing the device on SDSU's rugby team, with the hope of soon making it available worldwide to athletes of all ages and levels. Balance tests are a primary method used to detect concussion. The current means of scoring these tests relies on the skill of athletic trainers to visually determine whether or not a concussion has occurred. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

'Super-Giant' Telescope Mirrors Cast In Arizona

August 27th 2013

giant telescope

Scientists working at the University of Arizona’s Seward Observatory Mirror Lab have begun casting the third of seven mirrors for the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) now under construction in Chile.

The GMT, when complete, will be one of the next class of super-giant earth-based telescopes that scientists say promise to revolutionize our view and understanding of the universe.

According to those associated with the project, the GMT will have a resolution 10 times greater than the Hubble Space Telescope.

Like the first two mirrors that have already been made for the giant telescope, the third mirror it is being cast inside a special rotating furnace located in a lab beneath the University of Arizona football field. The Seward Observatory Mirror Lab is said to be the only facility in the world where mirrors of the size to be used in the GMT can be made.

To prepare the mirror for casting, twenty tons of E6 borosilicate glass chunks were carefully placed into a special mold set inside of the furnace. The Lab’s furnace was started up on August 19, at 1400 UTC, with a rotating speed of 4.9 revolutions per minute.  It reached a high temperature of 1,165 C at 1649 UTC on Saturday. Read more ..

The Toxic Edge

Ocean Fish Acquire More Mercury at Depth

August 25th 2013

Tuna haul

Mercury—a common industrial toxin—is carried through the atmosphere before settling on the ocean and entering the marine food web.

Now, exciting new research from the University of Michigan and the University of Hawai'i at Manoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) combines biogeochemistry and direct marine ecology observations to show how the global mercury cycle is colliding with ocean fish—and the human seafood supply—at different depths in the water.

Mercury accumulation in the ocean fish we eat tends to take place at deeper depths, scientists found, in part because of photochemical reactions that break down organic mercury in well-lit surface waters. More of this accessible organic mercury is also being generated in deeper waters. Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

Limited HIV Therapy Beneficial for Infants Immediately After Diagnosis

August 24th 2013

Nigerian baby with cap

Researchers have found that giving antiviral therapy for a limited time to HIV-infected babies soon after diagnosis prevents damage to their immune systems and delays the need for long-term drug therapy.

The South African study, which enrolled 377 HIV-positive infants between six and 12 weeks of age, divided the babies into three groups. Beginning at age seven weeks, one group received antiviral drugs, or ART, and stopped close to their first birthday. The second group of infants receiving ART stopped around the age of two.

Both groups were compared to a third group of young children who were not treated with ART until they began showing symptoms of HIV infection, such as a failure to develop, or when the levels of their immune system CD4 cells became too low.

Mark Cotton, a pediatrician at Stellenbosch University near Cape Town and a study co-author, said in a Skype interview that infants given the shorter, intermediate course of ART - until age one - did not need to restart therapy for about eight months. Those who were on the longer treatment course until age 2 did not need to resume ART for almost a year-and-a-half after temporarily discontinuing therapy. Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

A Portable Device for Common Kidney Tests

August 23rd 2013

Docs and Tech

A lightweight and field-portable device invented at UCLA that conducts kidney tests and transmits data through a smartphone attachment may significantly reduce the need for frequent office visits by people with diabetes and others with chronic kidney ailments.

The smartphone-based device was developed in the research lab of Aydogan Ozcan. Weighing about one-third of a pound, the gadget can determine levels of albumin in the patient's urine and transmit the results within seconds. Albumin is a protein in blood that is a sign of danger when found in urine.

Ozcan's lab also developed the opto-mechanical phone attachment, disposable test tubes, Android app and software to transmit the data. The research was published this month by the peer-reviewed journal Lab on a Chip.

"Albumin testing is frequently done to assess kidney damage, especially for diabetes patients," Ozcan said. "This device provides an extremely convenient platform for chronic patients at home or in remote locations where cell phones work." Read more ..

The Environment on Edge

Statistical Tool Predicts Arsenic Risk in Chinese Wells

August 22nd 2013

Child drinking water

About 140 million people around the world drink water contaminated with unsafe-levels of arsenic. The element is found naturally in rocks and soil, but exposure to it presents a major public health problem, especially in regions where untreated groundwater is the only reliable source of drinking water. Scientists have deployed a new statistical tool that can help predict the greatest risk of contamination.

Luis Rodriguez-Lado led the team that designed the method.  The soil scientist from University of Santiago de Compostela says the model was tested in China, where in 1994 the Chinese government declared arsenic poisoning an endemic disease.

Officials responded with an initiative to test all wells in the country.  Rodriguez-Lado says the effort is so massive that it could take decades to complete.  He says his model can help speed that up, while it complements traditional testing methods.

“Our model provides a quick overview of the areas potentially at risk," he said. "So it can be used to optimize the screening efforts at full scale and prioritize the analysis of the areas potentially at high risk, saving money and time." That model, described in the journal Science, identifies Chinese arsenic hot spots based on factors thought to be predictors of high levels of the chemical element, like soil moisture, salinity and topography.  Read more ..

The Digital Edge

ZMap Can Scan the Entire Internet in Just Forty-Five Minutes

August 21st 2013

Computers multiple

Three computer science researchers at the University of Michigan have released ZMap, a new open-source tool that can perform a scan of the entire public IPv4 address space on the Internet in less than 45 minutes. For researchers probing the entire public address space, existing tools have required painstaking and time-consuming configuration, as well as either months of data collection or the use of large clusters of computers. ZMap changes that by running on a single computer and producing results over 1000 times faster.

The researchers, Zakir Durumeric, Eric Wustrow, and Prof. J. Alex Halderman, have hopes that ZMap will spark network-based inquiry, enabling a multitude of studies where previously just a few carefully-crafted investigations could be made. Only a handful of Internet-wide scans have been reported in the research literature, but the ZMap team performed more than 200 scans themselves over the course of the last year while developing and experimenting with their new tool. Read more ..

The Robotic Edge

Robot With Human-Like Hands Could Tackle Dangerous Situations

August 20th 2013

Robots (Star Wars)

Robo Sally is a remotely controlled humanoid robot that may one day help law enforcement officials and emergency technicians defuse bombs, patrol large spaces and do guard duty. It was designed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory [APL], outside Washington, D.C.

The robot is a versatile moving platform with a humanoid attachment that looks like a modern day centaur. It can turn in tight spaces, climb over small obstacles, closely examine objects and even manipulate them with human-like hands.

But Robo Sally was not initially designed for sentry duties. Mike McLoughlin, the principal investigator for APL's Prosthetics Program, said, "The purpose of that program is to develop prosthetic arms that have all the capability of your natural arms, and you do all the complex motions that we can do with the natural arm - with the robot. We had this idea if we did this for prosthetics for humans, we could also put these on robotic platforms and enable the robots to go out into dangerous situations.”

It was a complex task. McLoughlin said the device not only had to have many small motors to mimic the flexibility of the human hand, it needed human-like strength. The thumb was especially difficult because it allows the hand to grasp objects. And everything had to fit into a space about the size of a hand. Read more ..

The Edge of Healthcare

Doctors Prevent Blindness With 'Revolutionary' Phone App

August 19th 2013


Since January hundreds of Kenyans have undergone eye tests, not in a clinic with a doctor, but on their own doorstep, using a smart-phone application.  The app uses a camera to scan the lens of the eye for cataracts, and its developers say it could save millions of people from blindness.

Dr. Andrew Bastawrous from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine developed the new application along with a small team. He is currently in Nakuru, Kenya, where he is testing the technology, and told VOA that it appears to be working.

“They are absolutely loving it.  They are all asking to have a go and have their vision tested.  So it is certainly very user friendly,” said Bastawrous. So far about 2,000 Kenyans have been given eye tests.  The developers estimate about 10 percent of those had cataracts and needed treatment.

Stewart Jordan is an independent application designer who helped develop the app called PEEK, or Portable Eye Examination Kit.  He says the kit includes a clip-on camera, which works with the app to check glasses prescription, diagnose cataracts or examine the back of the eye for diseases, from glaucoma to diabetes. In just a few seconds, he said, you can take a clear image of the back of the eye.  Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Cosmic Turbulences Result in Star and Black Hole Formation

August 18th 2013

Massive black hole disrupting star formation

Just how stars and black holes in the Universe are able to form from rotating matter is one of the big questions of astrophysics. What we do know is that magnetic fields figure prominently into the picture. However, our current understanding is that they only work if matter is electrically well conductive -- but in rotating discs this isn't always the case. Now, a new publication by Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf physicists in the scientific journal Physical Review Letters shows how magnetic fields can also cause turbulences within "dead zones," thus making an important contribution to our current understanding of just how compact objects form in the cosmos.

When Johannes Kepler first proposed his laws of planetary motion in the early days of the 17th century, he could not have foreseen the central role cosmic magnetic fields would play in planetary system formation. Today, we know that in the absence of magnetic fields, mass would not be able to concentrate in compact bodies like stars and black holes. One prominent example is our solar system, which formed 4.6 billion years ago through the collapse of a gigantic cloud of gas, whose gravitational pull concentrated particles in its center, culminating in the formation of a large disc. "These accretion discs are extremely stable from a hydrodynamic perspective as according to Kepler's laws of planetary motion angular momentum increases from the center towards the periphery," explains HZDR's own Dr. Frank Stefani. "In order to explain the growth rates of stars and black holes, there has to exist a mechanism, which acts to destabilize the rotating disc and which at the same time ensures mass is transported towards the center and angular momentum towards the periphery." Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Mars Society Calls for Students Worldwide to Compete

August 17th 2013

Red Planet

The U.S.-based Mars Society called on university students around the world to help advance plans for a manned mission to the planet during the 16th Annual International Mars Society Convention in the U.S. state of Colorado.

It has been about six months since the non-profit Inspiration Mars Foundation, founded by space tourist and multi-millionaire Dennis Tito, proposed launching a manned mission toward Mars in five years. The plan calls for one man and one woman to fly within 160 kilometers of Mars and return to Earth.   

While the crew is slated to be American, the process of getting to Mars is an international endeavor. The president of the Mars Society, Robert Zubrin, announced a competition that calls on teams of students around the world to design a two-person Mars flyby mission that could be launched in 2018. Read more ..

The Edge of Nature

Fungicide for Plants May Hurt Honeybees

August 16th 2013

European honeybee and flower

A widely used chemical used to fight plant disease is hurting honeybees in an unexpected way, according to new research, and may be contributing to the widespread loss of honeybees that pollinate many fruits, vegetables, nuts and other crops.

Die out
Honeybee hives in the United States and elsewhere are dying and researchers are trying to understand why.

“The number of colonies that die every winter has been one in three," said Dennis VanEngelsdorp at the University of Maryland. "So on average 30 percent of the colonies have died every winter over the last six winters. And that’s an astronomical number.”

VanEngelsdorp's research team examined the pollen that honeybees carried to their hives, and found that it was contaminated with high doses of 35 different pesticides. They also found that eating certain fungicides made bees more susceptible to infection by Nosema, a deadly microbe. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Hubble Explores the Orgins of Modern Galaxies

August 15th 2013

Gravitational Arc from Distant Galaxy Cluster

The Hubble Sequence classifies galaxies according to their morphology and star-forming activity, organising them into a cosmic zoo of spiral, elliptical, and irregular shapes with whirling arms, fuzzy haloes and bright central bulges. Two main types of galaxy are identified in this sequence: elliptical and spiral, with a third type, lenticular, settling somewhere between the two.

This accurately describes what we see in the region of space around us, but how does galaxy morphology change as we look further back in time, to when the Universe was very young?

"This is a key question: when and over what timescale did the Hubble Sequence form?" says BoMee Lee of the University of Massachusetts, USA, lead author of a new paper exploring the sequence. "To do this you need to peer at distant galaxies and compare them to their closer relatives, to see if they too can be described in the same way." The astronomers used Hubble to look 11 billion years back in time to when the Universe was very young, exploring the anatomy of distant galaxies. Read more ..

The Edge of Transportation

Hyperloop Proposed as Fifth Mode of Transport

August 14th 2013

Univ Michigan concept vehicle

Inventor Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors, SpaceX and PayPal, is proposing what he’s calling a fifth mode of transportation after planes, trains, cars and boats.

In a release posted today on the Tesla Motors website, Elon calls the Hyperloop idea a “safer, faster, lower cost, more convenient, immune to weather, sustainable self-powering and resistant to earthquakes” mode of transport compared to the high-speed rail link that has been approved to run between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The solar-powered Hyperloop as conceived, would be a tube structure that would shoot pods filled with passengers through the tubes at speeds approaching 1,000 kilometers per hour. He wrote that the system could be “some enlarged version of the old pneumatic tubes used to send mail and packages within and between buildings. You could, in principle, use very powerful fans to push air at high speed through a tube and propel people sized pods all the way from LA [Los Angeles] to San Francisco.“ Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

New Discoveries in the Transmission of Viruses Between Animals and Humans

August 12th 2013

Research and Development Chemistry

Outbreaks such as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS) have afflicted people around the world, yet many people think these trends are on the decline. Quite the opposite is true.

The efforts to combat this epidemic are being spearheaded by a team of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) scientists. Led by Monica Borucki of LLNL's Biosciences and Biotechnology Division, the Lab researchers have made promising new discoveries that provide insight into the emergence of inter-species transmittable viruses.

They discovered that the genetic diversity of a viral population within a host animal could allow a virus to adapt to certain conditions, which could help it reach a human host. This discovery advances the scientific understanding of how new viruses produced from animal reservoirs can infect people. An animal reservoir is an animal species that harbors an infectious agent, which then goes on to potentially infect humans or other species. Borucki's team is investigating viruses related to SARS and MERS, but not the actual viruses themselves. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Capture Signitures with Tiny LEDs Created with Piezo-Phototronic Effect

August 11th 2013


Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology want to put your signature up in lights – tiny lights, that is. Using thousands of nanometer-scale wires, the researchers have developed a sensor device that converts mechanical pressure – from a signature or a fingerprint – directly into light signals that can be captured and processed optically.

The sensor device could provide an artificial sense of touch, offering sensitivity comparable to that of the human skin. Beyond collecting signatures and fingerprints, the technique could also be used in biological imaging and micro-electromechanical (MEMS) systems. Ultimately, it could provide a new approach for human-machine interfaces.

"You can write with your pen and the sensor will optically detect what you write at high resolution and with a very fast response rate," said Zhong Lin Wang, Regents' professor and Hightower Chair in the School of Materials Science and Engineering at Georgia Tech. "This is a new principle for imaging force that uses parallel detection and avoids many of the complications of existing pressure sensors." Read more ..

The Tecnology Edge

Puri Water Bottle Makes Potable Drinking Water at Sea

August 10th 2013

Ocean scene

During my travels throughout the Middle East and North Africa, I dreamed of having a magical bottle that could purify water without the need for any gross tasting tablets, and here it is: Puri.

Submitted to the 2013 IDEA Design Awards, this water bottle designed by designed by Younsun Kim, Kangkyung Lee, Byungsoo Kim and Minji Kim can literally separate salt from sea water in order to produce safe drinking water – even when stranded in the middle of the ocean.

While most desalination technology is complicated or takes up more space than a small water bottle can hold, the design team behind Puri devised a new system that is so system we wonder why nobody came up with it before. But isn’t that the case with all great inventions? Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Is Europa Inhabitable?

August 8th 2013


Europa, the ice-covered moon of the planet Jupiter, may be able to support life. NASA has commissioned a team of expert scientists to consider the science goals for a landed spacecraft mission to the surface of Europa, and to investigate the composition and geology of its icy shell and the potential for life within its interior ocean. The NASA-appointed Science Definition Team outlines the main priorities of a future lander mission to Europa to study its potential habitability in an article in Astrobiology, a peer-reviewed journal from Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., publishers. The article is available free on the Astrobiology website.

The article "Science Potential from a Europa Lander" presents the three main objectives of a future mission designed to land a robotic spacecraft on the surface of Europa and to investigate its potential to support life. NASA's Science Definition Team has clearly identified three main priorities: investigate the composition and chemistry of Europa's ocean; characterize the thickness, uniformity, and dynamics of its icy shell; and study the moon's human-scale surface geology. In addition, the NASA-appointed team describes the types of studies and payload of instruments recommended to achieve these objectives. Read more ..

The Weapons Edge

Flying Robots Compete

August 7th 2013

Flying Robot

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to make a three-pound flying robot that takes off autonomously, enters a building through a window, avoids security lasers, navigates hallways, reads signs, enters the correct room, finds a specific flash drive, removes it from an inbox on a desk, replaces it with a decoy, and exits the building -- all in less than 10 minutes.

It seems like a scene from Mission Impossible, but those are the requirements for this year's International Aerial Robotics Competition. Indeed, the mission is almost impossible. "We came in first place last year as the only robot that both entered and exited the building, but we were not able to retrieve the flash drive," Johnathan Bendes, a University of Michigan computer science student leading one of the competing teams, told us. "This year, we have a retractable magnet that we hope will be able to retrieve the flash drive." Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Explosion Illuminates Invisible Galaxy in the Dark Ages

August 6th 2013

NGC 1097 Spiral Galaxy

More than 12 billion years ago a star exploded, ripping itself apart and blasting its remains outward in twin jets at nearly the speed of light. At its death it glowed so brightly that it outshone its entire galaxy by a million times. This brilliant flash traveled across space for 12.7 billion years to a planet that hadn't even existed at the time of the explosion - our Earth. By analyzing this light, astronomers learned about a galaxy that was otherwise too small, faint and far away for even the Hubble Space Telescope to see.

"This star lived at a very interesting time, the so-called dark ages just a billion years after the Big Bang," says lead author Ryan Chornock of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). "In a sense, we're forensic scientists investigating the death of a star and the life of a galaxy in the earliest phases of cosmic time," he adds. Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

Stem Cells From Urine May Treat Human Diseases

August 5th 2013

Research and Development Chemistry

Researchers have isolated stem cells from urine as the latest potential source of treatment for human diseases. Investigators say using urine to collect and cultivate these master cells is easy and involves minimal processing.

Using proteins known as growth factors, researchers can manipulate stem cells - or master cells - to grow into any tissue in the body. Therapy using stem cells from a patient’s own body is desirable because it does not cause immune rejection, as can happen with tissues and organs from donors. 

Currently, most scientists use a complicated process to engineer regular skin and blood cells into specific cell types. That's because there are few pure sources of master cells - apart from human embryos, whose use is quite controversial.

Researchers are now finding small numbers of stem cells in urine. Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, said, “The advantage with urine is that you are getting approximately 2 liters of urine out every day. So you don’t have to keep going back and sticking the patient [with a needle] or doing biopsies on the patient.” Read more ..

The Mathematical Edge

Israeli Team Takes Medals in Math Olympiad

August 4th 2013


The team that represented Israel at the International Mathematical Olympiad in Santa Marta, Colombia, has won six medals—one gold, three silver, and two bronze, ranking 13th among 97 participating countries.

Team members are “graduates” of national Olympiads—the Joseph Gillis National Math Olympiad for high school and the Zuta Math Olympiad for junior high school students—held at the Davidson Institute of Science Education, the educational arm of the Weizmann Institute of Science. The team took part in a two-week training camp in early June, as well as training sessions held over the three months that preceded the competition. They were coached by Lev Radzivilovsky, together with Prof. Dmitry Novikov of the Weizmann Institute’s Department of Mathematics.

Omri Solan of the Rishonim High School in Herzliya was the gold medal winner, and he was ranked 5th out of 45 gold medal winners. Amotz Oppenheim of the Shevah Mofet High School in Tel Aviv, Nitzan Tur of the Alliance—Kol Israel Haverim High School in Haifa, and Tom Kalvari of the Kfar Hayarok High School were silver medalists. Yoav Kraus of the Ephraim Katzir High School in Holon Ofer Grossman received the bronze medals. Read more ..

Broken Government

Industry Muscle Targets Federal 'Report on Carcinogens'

August 1st 2013

asbestos hazard

In the 1980s, toxicologist James Huff was a bane of industry’s existence.

A blunt Philadelphian, Huff helped supervise animal tests here at the National Institute of Environment Health Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health. Mice and rats were dosed with chemicals, and Huff and his colleagues publicized the results when tumors sprouted. People needed to know about “blowout” carcinogens, Huff said. He didn’t care who was upset.

Now, three decades later, Huff cites industry’s growing and “perverse” influence on science. “They’re more clever, more sophisticated,” said Huff, 75, who retired this year but remains a guest researcher at NIEHS. “They spend a lot of time in Congress.”

Increasingly, industry is targeting Huff’s former employer and its parent, the Department of Health and Human Services — in particular, HHS’s Report on Carcinogens. Two lobby groups sued the agency after two widely used chemicals were listed in the report. In a victory for industry, lawmakers mandated additional, ongoing scientific reviews of the document. And, a trade association representing makers of fiber-reinforced plastics claimed credit for a congressional hearing last year that evolved into an open airing of industry grievances. Read more ..

The Ancient Edge

Ancient Halls of the Dead Found in Britain

July 31st 2013

Click to select Image

The remains of two large 6000-year-old halls, each buried within a prehistoric burial mound, have been discovered by archaeologists from The University of Manchester and Herefordshire Council -- in a UK first.

The sensational finds on Dorstone Hill, near Peterchurch in Herefordshire, were thought to be constructed between 4000 and 3600 BC.

Some of the burnt wood discovered at the site shows the character of the building's structure above ground level -- in another UK first. The buildings, probably used by entire communities, are of unknown size, but may have been of similar length to the Neolithic long barrows beneath which they were found – 70metres and 30m long. They were, say the team, deliberately burnt down after they were constructed and their remains incorporated into the two burial mounds. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Capturing Black Hole Spin Could Further Understanding of Galaxy Growth

July 29th 2013

Swift J1544+57 (black hole)

Astronomers have found a new way of measuring the spin in supermassive black holes, which could lead to better understanding about how they drive the growth of galaxies.

The scientists at Durham University, UK, observed a black hole - with mass 10 million times that of our Sun - at the centre of a spiral galaxy 500 million light years from Earth while it was feeding on the surrounding disc of material that fuels its growth and powers its activity.

By viewing optical, ultra-violet and soft x-rays generated by heat as the black hole fed, they were able to measure how far the disc was from the black hole.

This distance depends on black hole spin as a fast spinning black hole pulls the disc in closer to itself, the researchers said. Using the distance between the black hole and the disc, the scientists were able to estimate the spin of the black hole. The scientists said that understanding spin could lead to greater understanding of galaxy growth over billions of years. Read more ..

The Cyber Edge

Hacker Dies Days Before Scheduled Revelation on How to Remotely Kill Pacemaker Patients

July 28th 2013

Computers/Nerd Silhouette

Security researcher Barnaby Jack has passed away in San Francisco, only days before a scheduled appearance at a Las Vegas hacker conference where he intended to show how an ordinary pacemaker could be compromised in order to kill a man. Jack, who previously presented hacks involving ATMs and insulin pumps at the annual Black Hat conference in Vegas, was confirmed dead Friday morning by the San Francisco Medical Examiner’s office, Reuters reported. He passed away Thursday this week, but the office declined to offer any more details at this time.

Jack’s death came one week to the day before he was scheduled to detail one of his most recent exploits in a Black Hat talk called “Implantable Medical Devices: Hacking Humans.” Read more ..

The Edge of Space

NASA Unveils New Sun Images

July 26th 2013


NASA's new solar observatory is already giving scientists an unprecedented glimpse of the sun.  The U.S. space agency has released the first images from the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, known as IRIS, which was launched one month ago.

The images show an active, dynamic region.  NASA describes spots that quickly brighten and dim, and thread-like towers of energy that reveal major temperature differences in the sun's lower atmosphere.  The IRIS satellite looks at the little-understood, lowest layers of the sun's atmosphere. 

John Grunsfeld, of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, described the moment on July 17 when the solar observatory's telescope caught its first glimpse of the sun. "When the aperture door opened, it was truly a grand opening of a new era of solar physics," he told reporters.  

Grunsfeld described the sun's interface region as "a crucial link in that story of unraveling the mysteries of the sun."   Among those mysteries is just how the sun's upper atmosphere is so much hotter than its surface, even though it's farther from the sun's heat-generating core.  IRIS observes the way solar material gathers energy and heats up as it rises through the sun's lower atmosphere. Read more ..

The Solar System Edge

Solar System's Youth Gives Clues to Planet Search

July 24th 2013

Solar System Birth

Comets and meteorites contain clues to our solar system's earliest days. But some of the findings are puzzle pieces that don't seem to fit well together. A new set of theoretical models from Carnegie's Alan Boss shows how an outburst event in the Sun's formative years could explain some of this disparate evidence. His work could have implications for the hunt for habitable planets outside of our solar system. It is published by The Astrophysical Journal.

One way to study the solar system's formative period is to look for samples of small crystalline particles that were formed at high temperatures but now exist in icy comets. Another is to analyze the traces of isotopes—versions of elements with the same number of protons, but a different number of neutrons—found in primitive meteorites. These isotopes decay and turn into different, so-called daughter, elements. The initial abundances of these isotopes tell researchers where the isotopes may have come from, and can give clues as to how they traveled around the early solar system. Read more ..

The Edge Climate Change

New Theory Points To Areas At Risk Of Rapid Iceberg Disintegration

July 23rd 2013

Melting Arctic glacier by Angus Duncan

In events that could exacerbate sea level rise over the coming decades, stretches of ice on the coasts of Antarctica and Greenland are at risk of rapidly cracking apart and falling into the ocean, according to new iceberg calving simulations from the University of Michigan.

"If this starts to happen and we're right, we might be closer to the higher end of sea level rise estimates for the next 100 years," said Jeremy Bassis, assistant professor of atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences at the U-M College of Engineering, and first author of a paper on the new model published in the current issue of Nature Geoscience.

Iceberg calving, or the formation of icebergs, occurs when ice chunks break off larger shelves or glaciers and float away, eventually melting in warmer waters. Although iceberg calving accounts for roughly half of the mass lost from ice sheets, it isn't reflected in any models of how climate change affects the ice sheets and could lead to additional sea level rise, Bassis said. Read more ..

The Solar Edge

Major Solar Storm Could Be Heading for Earth

July 22nd 2013


With the sun nearing the peak of its 11-year cycle, scientists say a powerful solar storm may be headed our way, which could shut down electricity supply networks and disorient GPS and satellite systems.

The worst known geomagnetic solar storm hit Earth in 1859, observed and sketched by astronomer Richard Carrington. The Carrington event upset global telegraph communications. Surprised operators watched sparks fly from telegraph lines and set telegraph paper on fire.

While not nearly as powerful, other storms in history have cut power, knocked out telephone service, short-circuited satellites and caused radio blackouts. 

The Earth is overdue for another Carrington-like storm, according to a new report released by Lloyd’s of London, the world oldest insurance market.

Co-author Neil Smith says it could be even more devastating, given the worldwide dependence on electric power supply grids. “We are estimating that 20-40 million people might be without power from anywhere up to one, even two years," he said. "That has to do with the critical issue of replacement transformers. That number of people without power could result in an economic cost somewhere between $0.6 trillion to $2.6 trillion.” Read more ..

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