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The Prehistoric Edge

The Ups and Downs of Biodiversity after Mass Extinctions

December 21st 2012

Amazon jungle dreamy

The climate after the largest mass extinction so far 252 million years ago was cool, later very warm and then cool again. Thanks to the cooler temperatures, the diversity of marine fauna ballooned, as paleontologists from the University of Zurich have reconstructed. The warmer climate, coupled with a high CO2 level in the atmosphere, initially gave rise to new, short-lived species. In the longer term, however, this climate change had an adverse effect on biodiversi-ty and caused species to become extinct.

Until now, it was always assumed that it took flora and fauna a long time to recover from the vast mass extinction at the end of the Permian geological period 252 million years ago. According to the scientific consensus, complex ecological communities only began to reappear in the Middle Triassic, so 247 million years ago. Now, how-ever, a Swiss team headed by paleontologist Hugo Bucher from the University of Zurich reveals that marine animal groups such as ammonoids and conodonts (micro-fossils) already peaked three or four million years earlier, namely still during the Ear-ly Triassic. Read more ..


Edge of Space

An Exploding Star Goes Missing

December 20th 2012

cluster of pink stars

A new study published by University of Chicago researchers challenges the notion that the force of an exploding star forced the formation of the solar system. In this study, published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, authors Haolan Tang and Nicolas Dauphas found the radioactive isotope iron 60 — the telltale sign of an exploding star—low in abundance and well mixed in solar system material. As cosmochemists, they look for remnants of stellar explosions in meteorites to help determine the conditions under which the solar system formed.

Some remnants are radioactive isotopes: unstable, energetic atoms that decay over time. Scientists in the past decade have found high amounts of the radioactive isotope iron 60 in early solar system materials. "If you have iron 60 in high abundance in the solar system, that's a 'smoking gun'—evidence for the presence of a supernova," said Dauphas, professor in geophysical sciences. Read more ..


The Environment Edge

Mapping the Great Lakes Reveals Environmental Challenges

December 19th 2012

Ocean scene

A comprehensive map three years in the making is telling the story of humans' impact on the Great Lakes, identifying how "environmental stressors" stretching from Minnesota to Ontario are shaping the future of an ecosystem that contains 20 percent of the world's fresh water. In an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a group led by researchers at the University of Michigan reports on an expansive and detailed effort to map and cross-compare environmental stresses and the ecological services provided by the five lakes.

Their efforts have produced the most comprehensive map to date of Great Lakes' stressors, and also the first map to explicitly account for all major types of stressors on the lakes in a quantitative way. "Despite clear societal dependence on the Great Lakes, their condition continues to be degraded by numerous environmental stressors," said David Allan, the project's lead researcher and a professor of aquatic sciences at the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Commercial Space Travel Makes a Giant Leap for Mankind

December 19th 2012

Space X launch 2012

With NASA's retired shuttles mothballed in museums, 2012 saw a new kind of spacecraft blaze its own path toward the International Space Station. In May, the Dragon space capsule — developed, owned and operated by California-based SpaceX — was launched from atop a Falcon-9 rocket, becoming the first private craft to dock with the ISS.

A feat achieved by only a few governments, the docking, says SpaceX chief Elon Musk, signaled more than a mere technological breakthrough. "This was a crucial step," Musk said of the unmanned mission that was completed in conjunction with NASA. "It makes the things in the future, and the ultimate path toward humanity becoming a multi-planet species, much, much more likely." Designed to carry cargo or crew, the Dragon capsule is slated for a manned test within three years. Read more ..


The Edge of Nature

When You Cut Down a Tree in the Woods, do the Animals Hear it?

December 18th 2012

Autumn leaves forest

A new tool developed by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and its partners is being used by scientists and land managers to model how noise travels through landscapes and affects species and ecosystems— a major factor in land and wildlife management decisions such as where to locate new roads or recreational trails.

The tool, SPreAD-GIS, uses spatial data layers to predict how sound spreads from a source through the surrounding landscape and how it is affected by such factors as vegetation, terrain, weather conditions, and background sound levels. By determining how sound propagates, potential impacts to wildlife can be forecasted. Such impacts can include reducing habitat quality, altering the geographic distribution of species, disrupting animal communication, and causing stress. Read more ..


The Edge of Anthropology

Study of Modern Primates' Interbreeding Gives Clues to Ancient Humans

December 17th 2012

Neanderthal child mannequin

Did different species of early humans interbreed and produce offspring of mixed ancestry?

Recent genetic studies suggest that Neanderthals may have bred with anatomically modern humans tens of thousands of years ago in the Middle East, contributing to the modern human gene pool. But the findings are not universally accepted, and the fossil record has not helped to clarify the role of interbreeding, which is also known as hybridization.

Now a University of Michigan-led study of interbreeding between two species of modern-day howler monkeys in Mexico is shedding light on why it's so difficult to confirm instances of hybridization among primates—including early humans—by relying on fossil remains. The study, published online Dec. 7 in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, is based on analyses of genetic and morphological data collected from live-captured monkeys over the past decade. Morphology is the branch of biology that deals with the form and structure of animals and plants. Read more ..


The Edge of Climate Change

Bleak Future for Mammals as Climate Change Advances

December 16th 2012

Asian wild horse, Equus ferus przewalskii

Mammals could be at a greater risk of extinction due to predicted increases in extreme weather conditions, states a paper published today by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). Scientists have mapped out land mammal populations, and overlapped this with information of where droughts and cyclones are most likely to occur. This allowed them to identify species at high risk of exposure to extreme weather. The paper, published this week in the journal Conservation Letters, describes the results of assessing almost six thousand species of land mammals in this way.

Lead author of the paper, ZSL's Eric Ameca y Juárez says: "Approximately a third of the species assessed have at least a quarter of their range exposed to cyclones, droughts or a combination of both. If these species are found to be highly susceptible to these conditions, it will lead to a substantial increase in the number of mammals classified as threatened by the IUCN under the category 'climate change and severe weather'."

In particular, primates - already among the most endangered mammals in the world - are highlighted as being especially at risk. Over 90 per cent of black howler monkey (Alouatta pigra) and Yucatan spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi yucatanensis) known habitats have been damaged by cyclones in the past, and studies have documented ways they are able to adapt to the detrimental effects of these natural disasters. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Cassini Sees Nile-Like River on Saturn’s Moon Titan

December 14th 2012

River delta on Titan from Cassini
River delta on Titan (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI)

The international Cassini space probe, which has been observing Saturn and its moons since 2004, has sent detailed new images of a remarkable, Nile-like river valley on Saturn’s moon Titan. The river stretches more than 400 kilometers from its ‘headwaters’ and flows into a large sea.

It is the first time astronomers have seen a river system this large and in such high resolution anywhere beyond Earth. Scientists believe the Titan river is filled with liquid because it appears in the high-resolution radar image to be dark along its entire length, indicating a smooth surface.

The river meanders at several points. But Jani Radebaugh, a Cassini radar team associate at Brigham Young University in the United States, believes the overall straightness of the river valley suggests it follows at least one major fault line, as do several other large rivers seen running into the same Titan sea.

“Such faults—fractures in Titan’s bedrock—may not imply plate tectonics, like on Earth,” said Radebaugh, &ldqo;but [they] still lead to the opening of basins and perhaps to the formation of the giant seas themselves.”

Titan is the only other world astronomers know of that has stable liquid on its surface. But instead of the water that drives Earth's hydrocycle, Titan’s rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans are filled with liquid hydrocarbons such as ethane and methane. Cassini first confirmed the presence of liquid ethane in a lake called Ontario Lacus, in Titan’s southern hemisphere, during its 2008 flyby of the Saturnian moon.

“Titan is the only place we’ve found besides Earth that has a liquid in continuous movement on its surface,” said Steve Wall, the radar deputy team lead, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “This picture gives us a snapshot of a world in motion. Rain falls, and rivers move that rain to lakes and seas, where evaporation starts the cycle all over again. On Earth, the liquid is water; on Titan, it’s methane; but on both it affects most everything that happens.” Read more ..


The Water's Edge

Reefs Resilient to Ocean Acidity Say Australian Researchers

December 14th 2012

Ocean scene

New Australian research shows coral reefs are more resistant to ocean acidification than first thought.  Scientists have been concerned that coral is vulnerable when carbon levels in the atmosphere rise, along with the acidity of the ocean.  But an Australian National University study on the Great Barrier Reef suggests otherwise. Amid the threat to reefs from the effects of climate change, pollution and overfishing, Australian researchers have found some rare good news.

A team at the Australia National University in Canberra has been investigating coralline algae, which are plants that act like a glue to bind coral.  One useful analogy is that the algae are the cement, while the coral are the bricks that comprise a reef system. A new study has found that dolomite, a carbonate mineral, helps to protect reefs from rising ocean acidity, which is caused by the absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Read more ..


The Edge of the Universe

Hubble Reveals Primitive Galaxies Near Cosmic Dawn

December 14th 2012

Hubble XDF image, Sep 2012

Astronomers have used NASA's Earth orbiting Hubble Space Telescope to reveal primitive galaxies -- vast clusters of stars -- that are more than 13 billion years old. One of them might be the oldest ever observed.

Here on Earth, when researchers study the dawn of civilization, they often rely on findings from archeological digs.  Astronomers describe a different kind of dig when they study the dawn of the cosmos. A team of scientists used NASA's Hubble Space Telescope for a cosmic "dig" of sorts, peering even deeper into the universe, looking, in effect, even further back in time.  They discovered seven previously unseen galaxies that formed more than 13 billion years ago, not that long in cosmic time, after the birth of the universe.

Hubble's new images show a dense scattering of bright specks, slashes and swirls of reds, yellows and violets against the backdrop of black space. "These are baby pictures of the universe," John Grunsfeld of NASA's Science Mission Directorate told reporters during a NASA teleconference Wednesday.  "It's back to the fundamental origin story.  We're always wondering, 'Where did we come from and where are we going?' And Hubble is providing answers to both those questions." Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Vega: The Star by Which All Others are Measured

December 13th 2012

Red Giant engulfs one of its planets

Vega, a star astronomers have used as a touchstone to measure other stars' brightness for thousands of years, may be more than 200 million years older than previously thought. That's according to new findings from the University of Michigan. The researchers estimated Vega's age by precisely measuring its spin speed with a tool called the Michigan Infrared Combiner, developed by John Monnier, associate professor of astronomy in U-M's College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

MIRC collects the light gathered by six telescopes to make it appear to be coming through one that's 100 times larger than the Hubble Space Telescope. It's installed at the Georgia State Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy Array located on Mt. Wilson, California. The tool boosts resolution so astronomers can zoom in, relatively speaking, to observe the shape and surface characteristics of stars that would otherwise look like mere points even through the most powerful telescopes. By tracking stars' surface characteristics, scientists can calculate how fast they rotate and deduce their inner workings. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

X-Ray Vision Can Reveal the Moment of Birth of Violent Supernovae

December 11th 2012

Tycho Type 1a Supernova Remnant
Tycho Type 1a Supernova Remnant (credit: NASA et al)

A team of astronomers led by the University of Leicester has uncovered new evidence that suggests that X-ray detectors in space could be the first to witness new supernovae that signal the death of massive stars. Astronomers have measured an excess of X-ray radiation in the first few minutes of collapsing massive stars, which may be the signature of the supernova shock wave first escaping from the star.

The findings have come as a surprise to Dr Rhaana Starling, of the University of Leicester Department of Physics and Astronomy whose research is published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, published by Oxford University Press.

Dr Starling said: “The most massive stars can be tens to a hundred times larger than the Sun. When one of these giants runs out of hydrogen gas it collapses catastrophically and explodes as a supernova, blowing off its outer layers which enrich the Universe. But this is no ordinary supernova; in the explosion narrowly confined streams of material are forced out of the poles of the star at almost the speed of light. These so-called relativistic jets give rise to brief flashes of energetic gamma-radiation called gamma-ray bursts, which are picked up by monitoring instruments in Space, that in turn alert astronomers.” Read more ..


The Transportation Edge

Self-Driving Cars: Science Fiction Future Is Near

December 10th 2012

Automated driving Mercedes Benz

People in several American states may be surprised to see cars on city streets without a driver. Experimental driverless vehicles now are legal in Florida, Nevada and California. They are pointing the way to a future that is not that far down the road.

The high-tech company Google has a fleet of self-driving cars, which had logged 480,000 kilometers by August. Major auto manufacturers in the United States and Europe also are working on the technology for autonomous vehicles. Volvo is among the companies doing road tests and says it plans to sell driverless cars by 2020.

In September, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill to allow autonomous vehicles on the roads of his state. “Today we're looking at science fiction becoming tomorrow's reality, the driverless car.”

The technology for these cars includes cameras, radar and motion sensors. The systems have been improved through competitions sponsored by the U.S. government agency DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Engineer Richard Mason of the Rand Corporation helped design driverless vehicles for DARPA challenge races between 2004 and 2007. Read more ..


The Way We Are

Paradox of Aging--The Older we Get, the Better we Feel

December 10th 2012

walking-cane

Presently, there are about 40 million Americans over the age of 65, with the fastest-growing segment of the population over 80 years old. Traditionally, aging has been viewed as a period of progressive decline in physical, cognitive and psychosocial functioning, and aging is viewed by many as the "number one public health problem" facing Americans today.

But this negative view of aging contrasts with results of a comprehensive study of 1,006 older adults in San Diego by researchers from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and Stanford University. Results of the Successful Aging Evaluation (SAGE) study – comprising a 25-minute phone interview, followed by a comprehensive mail-in survey – will be published in the December 7 online issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

"While there is a growing public health interest in understanding and promoting successful aging, until now little published research has combined measures of physical health with cognitive and psychological assessments, in a large and randomly selected sample," said principal investigator Dilip V. Jeste, MD, Estelle and Edgar Levi Chair in Aging, Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences, and director of UC San Diego's Stein Institute for Research on Aging, and the current President of the American Psychiatric Association (which was not involved in this study).

The SAGE study included adults between the ages of 50 and 99 years, with a mean age of just over 77 years. In addition to measures which assessed rates of chronic disease and disability, the survey looked at more subjective criteria such as social engagement and participants' self-assessment of their overall health. Read more ..


The Edge of Nature

Growing Plants Without Gravity

December 9th 2012

RBSPs deploy solar panels

It is well known that plant growth patterns are influenced by a variety of stimuli, gravity being one amongst many. On Earth plant roots exhibit characteristic behaviours called 'waving' and 'skewing', which were thought to be gravity-dependent events. However, Arabidopsis plants grown on the International Space Station (ISS) have proved this theory wrong, according to a study published in BioMed Central's open access journal BMC Plant Biology: root 'waving' and 'skewing' occur in spaceflight plants independently of gravity.

In plant roots, 'waving' consists of a series of regular, undulating changes in the direction of root tips during growth. It is thought to be associated with perception and avoidance of obstacles, and is dependent on gravity sensing and responsiveness. 'Skewing' is the slanted progression of roots growing along a near-vertical surface. It is thought to be a deviation of the roots from the direction of gravity and also subject to similar mechanisms that affect waving. Even though the precise basis of these growth patterns is not well understood, gravity is considered to be a major player in these processes. Read more ..


The Race for Solar

Silver Nanocubes Make Super Light Absorbs

December 7th 2012

Nanocubes

Microscopic metallic cubes could unleash the enormous potential of metamaterials to absorb light, leading to more efficient and cost-effective large-area absorbers for sensors or solar cells, Duke University researchers have found.

Metamaterials are man-made materials that have properties often absent in natural materials. They are constructed to provide exquisite control over the properties of waves, such as light. Creating these materials for visible light is still a technological challenge that has traditionally been achieved by lithography, in which metallic patterns are etched onto an inert material, much like an ink-jet printer. As effective as lithography has been in creating such structures, it does have a limitation – it is very expensive and thus difficult to scale up to the large surface areas required for many applications. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Astronaut, Cosmonaut Plan for a Year in Orbit

December 6th 2012

Orion and International Space Station

Think of where you were and what you were doing six months ago. Now think about where you were and what you were doing 12 months ago.

Veteran NASA astronaut Scott Kelly said that might give you a better idea of what is in store for him and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko. They are the two space travelers selected for a one-year stay aboard the International Space Station - more than twice as long as the usual mission. "People have referred to this as a long-duration ISS mission, and I want to clear something up: that six months is a long-duration mission. Six months is a very long time," Kelly emphasized. "If you think back to what you were doing six months ago, you know, it might be hard for you to remember."

Year in Orbit
The planned 12-month mission will be the longest ever aboard the ISS. This joint U.S.-Russian mission is being developed as the space agencies explore plans for longer manned flights into deep space. Kelly and Russia's Kornienko are no strangers to space - they each have logged about six months in orbit. The two men have trained together in the past and both say they are looking forward to their partnership.  Read more ..


The Prehistoric Edge

Scientists Find Oldest Dinosaur - or Closest Relative Yet

December 5th 2012

Nyasasaurus Parringtoni

Researchers have discovered what may be the earliest dinosaur, a creature the size of a Labrador retriever, but with a five foot-long tail, that walked the Earth about 10 million years before more familiar dinosaurs like the small, swift-footed Eoraptor and Herrerasaurus.

The findings mean that the dinosaur lineage appeared 10 million to 15 million years earlier than fossils previously showed, originating in the Middle Triassic rather than in the Late Triassic period. Nyasasaurus parringtoni was up to 10 feet long, weighed perhaps 135 pounds. “If the newly named Nyasasaurus parringtoni is not the earliest dinosaur, then it is the closest relative found so far,” according to Sterling Nesbitt. Read more ..


The Toxic Edge

Carbon Dioxide, Nitrous Oxide Levels in California May be Nearly Three Times Higher Than Thought

December 5th 2012

California smog

Using a new method for estimating greenhouse gases that combines atmospheric measurements with model predictions, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) researchers have found that the level of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas, in California may be 2.5 to 3 times greater than the current inventory. At that level, total N2O emissions—which are believed to come primarily from nitrogen fertilizers used in agricultural production—would account for about 8 percent of California’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The findings were recently published in a paper titled “Seasonal variations in N2O emissions from central California” in Geophysical Research Letters. Earlier this year, using the same methodology, the researchers found that levels of methane, another potent greenhouse gas, in California may be up to 1.8 times greater than previous estimates. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Search for Life Suggests Solar Systems More Habitable than Ours

December 4th 2012

Solar System Birth

Scattered around the Milky Way are stars that resemble our own sun—but a new study is finding that any planets orbiting those stars may very well be hotter and more dynamic than Earth. That’s because the interiors of any terrestrial planets in these systems are likely warmer than Earth—up to 25 percent warmer, which would make them more geologically active and more likely to retain enough liquid water to support life, at least in its microbial form. The preliminary finding comes from geologists and astronomers at Ohio State University who have teamed up to search for alien life in a new way.

They studied eight “solar twins” of our sun—stars that very closely match the sun in size, age, and overall composition—in order to measure the amounts of radioactive elements they contain. Those stars came from a dataset recorded by the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher spectrometer at the European Southern Observatory in Chile. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Astronauts Criticize US Space Program

December 3rd 2012

Astronaut Hall of Fame

NASA Astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt explored the surface of the moon during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, the last time anyone has left earth's orbit or set foot on the moon.  During a 40th anniversary celebration of Apollo 17 in Chicago, the astronauts said they had expected their mission would  start a path toward space travel, not become a history lesson.

Retired Astronaut Eugene Cernan is one of just twelve men who walked on the moon.  He currently holds the distinction of being the last man there. "It is tremendously disappointing that I am here 40 years later and still hold that title or have that yoke on my shoulders," said Cernan.

Cernan, along with fellow Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, celebrated the 40th anniversary of the December 1972 mission with fellow astronaut Jim Lovell at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

UCLA Researchers: Evidence for Water and Ice and Organic Material on Mercury

December 2nd 2012

Mercury

Planetary scientists have identified water ice and unusually dark deposits within permanently shadowed areas at Mercury's north pole. Using data collected by NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft, a team from UCLA crafted the first accurate thermal model of the solar system's innermost planet, successfully pinpointing the extremely cold regions where ice has been found on or below the surface. The researchers say the newly discovered black deposits are a thin crust of residual organic material brought to the planet over the past several million years through impacts by water-rich asteroids and comets.

Understanding how water ice has been preserved on Mercury and where it came from may help scientists determine the conditions necessary for sustaining life on other planets. This research sheds light on the long-standing issue of ice on Mercury. Several independent lines of evidence now reveal that the sun-scorched planet has extensive water ice deposits at its poles. In the early 1990s, scientists were surprised to find that areas near Mercury's poles were unusually bright when observed with radar from Earth, a potential indication that ice might be present. UCLA's David Paige has studied the poles of planetary bodies in the solar system, from Mercury to Pluto. Read more ..


The Toxic Edge

Is There A Better way to Make Chemicals?

December 2nd 2012

Toxic Waste barrels

Bulk solvents, widely used in the chemical industry, pose a serious threat to human health and the environment. As a result, there is growing interest in avoiding their use by relying on "mechanochemistry" – an energy-efficient alternative that uses high-frequency milling to drive reactions. Because milling involves the intense impact of steel balls in rapidly moving jars, however, the underlying chemistry is difficult to observe.

Now, for the first time, scientists have studied a milling reaction in real time, using highly penetrating X-rays to observe the surprisingly rapid transformations as the mill mixed, ground, and transformed simple ingredients into a complex product. This research, reported Dec. 2 in Nature Chemistry, promises to advance scientists' understanding of processes central to the pharmaceutical, metallurgical, cement and mineral industries – and could open new opportunities in "green chemistry" and environmentally friendly chemical synthesis. Read more ..


The Cyber Edge

Preventing a 'Cyber Pearl Harbor'

December 2nd 2012

Cyber warriors

Cyber attacks that have long caused major work disruption and theft of private information are becoming more sophisticated with prolonged attacks perpetrated by organized groups. In September 2012, Bank of America, Citibank, the New York Stock Exchange, and other financial institutions were targets of attacks for more than five weeks. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta warned that the United States was facing the possibility of a "cyber-Pearl Harbor" and was increasingly vulnerable to foreign computer hackers who could disrupt the government, utility, transportation, and financial networks.

Key to protecting online operations is a high degree of "cyber security awareness," according to human factors/ergonomics researchers Varun Dutt, Young-Suk Ahn, and Cleotilde Gonzalez. They developed a computer model that presented 500 simulated cyber attack scenarios to gauge simulated network security analysts' ability to detect attacks characterized as either "impatient" (the threat occurs early in the attack) or "patient" (the threat comes later in the attack and is not detected promptly). Their model was able to predict the detection rates of security analysts by varying the analysts' degree of experience and risk tolerance as well as an attacker's strategy (impatient or patient attack). Read more ..


The Prehistoric Edge

Model Sheds Ligtht on the Chemistry that Sparked the Origin of Life

December 1st 2012

KY ash spill

The question of how life began on a molecular level has been a longstanding problem in science. However, recent mathematical research sheds light on a possible mechanism by which life may have gotten a foothold in the chemical soup that existed on the early Earth.

Researchers have proposed several competing theories for how life on Earth could have gotten its start, even before the first genes or living cells came to be. Despite differences between various proposed scenarios, one theme they all have in common is a network of molecules that have the ability to work together to jumpstart and speed up their own replication — two necessary ingredients for life. However, many researchers find it hard to imagine how such a molecular network could have formed spontaneously — with no precursors —from the chemical environment of early Earth.

"Some say it's equivalent to a tornado blowing through a junkyard and assembling the random pieces of metal and plastic into a Boeing 747," said co-author Wim Hordijk, a visiting scientist at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, North Carolina, and a participant in an astrobiology meeting held there last year. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

New Radio Telescope Could Save World Billions

November 30th 2012

Solar Flare

A small pocket of Western Australia’s remote outback is set to become the eye on the sky and could potentially save the world billions of dollars. The Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) radio telescope, unveiled today, Friday 30 November, will give the world a dramatically improved view of the Sun and provide early warning to prevent damage to communication satellites, electric power grids and GPS navigation systems. 

The $51 million low-frequency radio telescope will be able to detect and monitor massive solar storms, such as the one that cut power to six million people in Canada in 1989 during the last peak in solar activity. In 2011, experts warned that a major solar storm could result in damage to integral power supplies and communication networks of up to US$2 trillion - the equivalent of a global Hurricane Katrina.

Read more ..

The Edge of Climate Change

International Study Provides More Solid Measure of Melting in Polar Ice Sheets

November 30th 2012

Glaciers

The planet's two largest ice sheets have been losing ice faster during the past decade, causing widespread confusion and concern. A new international study provides a firmer read on the state of continental ice sheets and how much they are contributing to sea-level rise. Dozens of climate scientists have reconciled their measurements of ice sheet changes in Antarctica and Greenland over the past two decades. The results, roughly halve the uncertainty and discard some conflicting observations.

"We are just beginning an observational record for ice," said co-author Ian Joughin. "This creates a new long-term data set that will increase in importance as new measurements are made." The paper examined three methods that had been used by separate groups and established common places and times, allowing researchers to discard some outlying observations and showing that the results agree to within the uncertainties of the methods. Read more ..


The Edge of Climate Change

Shrubs Lend an Insight Into a Glacier's Past

November 27th 2012

Glacier-Svalbard

The stems of shrubs have given researchers a window into a glacier's past, potentially allowing them to more accurately assess how they're set to change in the future.

Their findings show how a glacier's history of melting can be extended way past the instrumental record. Much like the rings on a tree stump indicate how old it is, measuring the width of rings on the stem of a shrub can give a good indication of how well it has grown year on year. Under extreme environmental conditions, such as those close to a glacier, a shrub's growth relies heavily on summer temperatures, meaning the ring-width of a shrub can be used a proxy for glacial melting, which also relies heavily on summer temperatures.

Lead author of the study, Allan Buras, said: "In warm summers, shrubs grow more compared to cold summers. In contrast, a glacier's summer mass balance is more negative in warm summers, meaning there is more melting compared to cold summers.  Read more ..


The Edge of the Universe

Super-Jupiter Sized Exoplanet Discovered

November 26th 2012

Exoplanet candidate UCF-1.01

Astrophysicists at the University of Toronto and other institutions across the United States, Europe and Asia have discovered a 'super-Jupiter' around the massive star Kappa Andromedae. The object, which could represent the first new observed exoplanet system in almost four years, has a mass at least 13 times that of Jupiter and an orbit somewhat larger than Neptune's.

The host star around which the planet orbits has a mass 2.5 times that of the Sun, making it the highest mass star to ever host a directly observed planet. The star can be seen with the naked eye in the constellation Andromeda at a distance of about 170 light years.

"Our team identified a faint object located very close to Kappa Andromedae in January that looks much like other young, massive directly imaged planets but does not look like a star," said Thayne Currie. "It's likely a directly imaged planet." The researchers made the discovery based on an infrared imaging search carried out as part of the Strategic Explorations of Exoplanets and Disks with Subaru (SEEDS) program using the Subaru telescope located in Hawaii. Read more ..


The Toxic Edge

Flower Power Can Purge Poisoned Soils and Produce Platinum

November 24th 2012

Ohio wildflower prairie

A consortium of researchers led by WMG at the University of Warwick are to embark on a £3 million research programme called “Cleaning Land for Wealth” (CL4W), that will use a common class of flower to restore poisoned soils while at the same time producing perfectly sized and shaped nano sized platinum and arsenic nanoparticles for use in catalytic convertors, cancer treatments and a range of other applications.

A “Sandpit” exercise organised by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) allowed researchers from WMG (Warwick Manufacturing group) at the University of Warwick, Newcastle University, The University of Birmingham, Cranfield University and the University of Edinburgh to come together and share technologies and skills to come up with an innovative multidisciplinary research project that could help solve major technological and environmental challenges. Read more ..


The Edge of Mars

Melt Water on Mars Could Sustain Life

November 24th 2012

Valles Marineris

Near surface water has shaped the landscape of Mars. Areas of the planet's northern and southern hemispheres have alternately thawed and frozen in recent geologic history and comprise striking similarities to the landscape of Svalbard. This suggests that water has played a more extensive role than previously envisioned, and that environments capable of sustaining life could exist, according to new research from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Mars is a changing planet, and in recent geological time repeated freeze and thaw cycles has played a greater role than expected in terms of shaping the landscape. In an attempt to be able to make more reliable interpretations of the landscapes on Mars, researchers have developed new models for analysing images from the planet. The process of analysing satellite images from Mars has been combined with similar studies of an arctic environment in Svalbard. Despite the fact that Svalbard is considerably warmer than Mars, the arctic landscape shows a number of striking similarities to certain parts of Mars. Read more ..


The Medical Edge

Blind Patient Reads Words Stimulated Directly Into Retina

November 23rd 2012

Retina impanted electrodes

For the very first time researchers have streamed braille patterns directly into a blind patient's retina, allowing him to read four-letter words accurately and quickly with an ocular neuroprosthetic device. The device, the Argus II, has been implanted in over 50 patients, many of who can now see color, movement and objects. It uses a small camera mounted on a pair of glasses, a portable processor to translate the signal from the camera into electrical stimulation, and a microchip with electrodes implanted directly on the retina. The study was authored by researchers at Second Sight, the company who developed the device, and has been published in Frontiers in Neuroprosthetics on the 22nd of November.

"In this clinical test with a single blind patient, we bypassed the camera that is the usual input for the implant and directly stimulated the retina. Instead of feeling the braille on the tips of his fingers, the patient could see the patterns we projected and then read individual letters in less than a second with up to 89 percent accuracy," explains researcher Thomas Lauritzen, lead author of the paper. Read more ..


The Digital Edge

Israel, Hamas Fight Gaza Conflict Online

November 23rd 2012

Twitter War - Hamas -Israel

Israel and Hamas are fighting in the Gaza Strip, but the conflict is also being fought in an unusual venue – online. Both sides are trying to win the public relations battle by getting their version of what’s happening out on social media.

Israel announced the start of military operations against Hamas not in a televised speech or a press release, but on Twitter, where Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Spokesman Avital Leibovitch tweeted:

Avital Leibovich

@AvitalLeibovich
#Breaking : the #IDF started an operation against terror organizations in #Gaza due to the ongoing attacks against #Israeli civilians
14 Nov 12 ReplyRetweetFavorite


The IDF’s official Twitter account followed with a similar announcement.  A formal press release reached news organizations several minutes to an hour later. Read more ..


The Edge of the Universe

Astronomers Pin Down Origins of “Mile Markers” for Expansion of Universe

November 22nd 2012

NCG 6604 and environs

A study using a unique new instrument on the world’s largest optical telescope has revealed the likely origins of especially bright supernovae that astronomers use as easy-to-spot “mile markers” to measure the expansion and acceleration of the universe.

In a paper to appear in the Astrophysical Journal, researchers describe observations of recent supernova 2011fe that they captured with the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) using a tool created at Ohio State University: the Multi-Object Double Spectrograph (MODS).

MODS measures the frequencies and intensities of light shining from a star. Stars shine at different frequencies depending on the chemical elements they are made of; a star like the sun, which is made mostly of hydrogen, shines at different frequencies than a star that is made mostly of helium. So astronomers can use spectra to determine what a particular star is made of.

Based on the frequencies of light emanating from supernova 2011fe, this type of supernova – known as Type Ia – is most likely caused by the interaction between a pair of dead stars known as white dwarfs, the astronomers concluded. One white dwarf orbits the other and sheds material onto it, until the other white dwarf becomes unstable and explodes, shining billions of times brighter than the sun. Read more ..


Operation Pillar of Defense

The ABC's of the Iron Dome

November 22nd 2012

Iron Dome

Over the eight days of Operation Pillar of Defense, the Iron Dome system intercepted more than 420 rockets fired from the Gaza Strip. The system is the result of tireless work over many years, and the results speak for themselves.

The core team that led the Iron Dome development was comprised entirely of graduates of the Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa. In an interview published on the Technion website,  some of Iron Dome's developers spoke about their work.

"Credit for the system’s success is shared by the hundreds of engineers, technicians, and managers who took part in its development; but the people sitting here with me are definitely the key players,” said a team member identified only as H., a 1975 Technion graduate. “The development of Iron Dome transformed our lives, dictating a hectic work week and some weekends," H. said. "I never got home before 11 p.m., and of course I didn’t take a single day off for three whole years. But I don’t regret a single moment.” Read more ..


The Digital Edge

Engineers Pave the Way towards 3D Printing of Personal Electronics

November 21st 2012

3 D Printing

Engineers pave the way towards 3D printing of personal electronics Scientists are developing new materials which could one day allow people to print out custom-designed personal electronics such as games controllers which perfectly fit their hand shape.

The University of Warwick researchers have created a simple and inexpensive conductive plastic composite that can be used to produce electronic devices using the latest generation of low-cost 3D printers designed for use by hobbyists and even in the home.

The material, nicknamed 'carbomorph', enables users to lay down electronic tracks and sensors as part of a 3D printed structure – allowing the printer to create touch-sensitive areas for example, which can then be connected to a simple electronic circuit board.

So far the team has used the material to print objects with embedded flex sensors or with touch-sensitive buttons such as computer game controllers or a mug which can tell how full it is. The next step is to work on printing much more complex structures and electronic components including the wires and cables required to connect the devices to computers. Read more ..


The Edge of Health

Innovative Device Powers Pacemakers with Heart Beats

November 20th 2012

heart patient hospital doctor health

An experimental device converted energy from a beating heart to provide enough electricity to power a pacemaker in a study presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2012. The findings suggest that patients could power their pacemakers — eliminating the need for replacements when batteries are spent.

In a preliminary study, researchers at the University of Michigan Department of Aerospace Engineering and U-M’s C.S. Mott Childrens Hospital Congenital Heart Center tested an energy-harvesting device that uses piezoelectricity — electrical charge generated from motion. The approach is a promising technological solution for pacemakers, because they require only small amounts of power to operate, says M. Amin Karami, Ph.D., lead author of the study and research fellow in the Department of Aerospace Engineering. Read more ..


The Edge of Mars

Martian History: Finding a Common Denominator with Earth's

November 19th 2012

Valles Marineris

A team of scientists, including Carnegie's Conel Alexander and Jianhua Wang, studied the hydrogen in water from the Martian interior and found that Mars formed from similar building blocks to that of Earth, but that there were differences in the later evolution of the two planets. This implies that terrestrial planets, including Earth, have similar water sources--chondritic meteorites. However, unlike on Earth, Martian rocks that contain atmospheric volatiles such as water, do not get recycled into the planet's deep interior. Their work will be published in the December 1 issue of Earth and Planetary Science Letters. It is available online.

Much controversy surrounds the origin, abundance and history of water on Mars. The sculpted channels of the Martian southern hemisphere speak loudly of flowing water, but this terrain is ancient. Consequently, planetary scientists often describe early Mars as "warm and wet" and current Mars as "cold and dry." Read more ..


The Prehistoric Edge

Half-Million Year Old Spear Heads Identified

November 19th 2012

Ancient African spear heads

A University of Toronto-led team of anthropologists has found evidence that human ancestors used stone-tipped weapons for hunting 500,000 years ago – 200,000 years earlier than previously thought. "This changes the way we think about early human adaptations and capacities before the origin of our own species," says Jayne Wilkins, a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto and lead author of a new study in Science. "Although both Neandertals and humans used stone-tipped spears, this is the first evidence that the technology originated prior to or near the divergence of these two species," says Wilkins.

Attaching stone points to spears – known as 'hafting' – was an important advance in hunting weaponry for early humans. Hafted tools require more effort and foreplanning to manufacture, but a sharp stone point on the end of a spear can increase its killing power. Read more ..


The Edge of Health

New Electrode May Send Brain's Signals to Motivate Prosthetic Limbs

November 18th 2012

neurons brain

A thin, flexible electrode developed at the University of Michigan is 10 times smaller than the nearest competition and could make long-term measurements of neural activity practical at last. This kind of technology could eventually be used to send signals to prosthetic limbs, overcoming inflammation larger electrodes cause that damages both the brain and the electrodes.

The main problem that neurons have with electrodes is that they make terrible neighbors. In addition to being enormous compared to the neurons, they are stiff and tend to rub nearby cells the wrong way. The resident immune cells spot the foreigner and attack, inflaming the brain tissue and blocking communication between the electrode and the cells.

The new electrode developed by the teams of Daryl Kipke, a professor of biomedical engineering, Joerg Lahann, a professor of chemical engineering, and Nicholas Kotov, the Joseph B. and Florence V. Cejka Professor of Engineering, is unobtrusive and even friendly in comparison. It is a thread of highly conductive carbon fiber, coated in plastic to block out signals from other neurons. The conductive gel pad at the end cozies up to soft cell membranes, and that close connection means the signals from brain cells come in much clearer. "It's a huge step forward," Kotov said. "This electrode is about seven microns in diameter, or 0.007 millimeters, and its closest competitor is about 25 to 100 microns."

The gel even speaks the cell's language, he said. Electrical impulses travel through the brain by movements of ions, or atoms with electric charges, and the signals move through the gel in the same way. On the other side, the carbon fiber responds to the ions by moving electrons, effectively translating the brain's signal into the language of electronic devices. Read more ..



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