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Edge of Space

New Images of Pencil Nebula Revealed By Astronomers

September 13th 2012


The Pencil Nebula is pictured in a new image from European Southern Observatory's La Silla Observatory in Chile. This peculiar cloud of glowing gas is part of a huge ring of wreckage left over after a supernova explosion that took place about 11 000 years ago. This detailed view was produced by the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope.

Despite the tranquil and apparently unchanging beauty of a starry night, the Universe is far from being a quiet place. Stars are being born and dying in an endless cycle, and sometimes the death of a star can create a vista of unequalled beauty as material is blasted out into space to form strange structures in the sky.

This new image from the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile shows the Pencil Nebula against a rich starry background. This oddly shaped cloud, which is also known as NGC 2736, is a small part of a supernova remnant in the southern constellation of Vela (The Sails). These glowing filaments were created by the violent death of a star that took place about 11 000 years ago. The brightest part resembles a pencil; hence the name, but the whole structure looks rather more like a traditional witch's broom. Read more ..

The Nano Edge

Mercury in Water, Fish Detected with Nanotechnology

September 12th 2012

Nano Mercury Detector

When mercury is dumped into rivers and lakes, the toxic heavy metal can end up in the fish we eat and the water we drink. To help protect consumers from the diseases and conditions associated with mercury, researchers at Northwestern University in collaboration with colleagues at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, have developed a nanoparticle system that is sensitive enough to detect even the smallest levels of heavy metals in our water and fish.

“The system currently being used to test for mercury and its very toxic derivative, methyl mercury, is a time-intensive process that costs millions of dollars and can only detect quantities at already toxic levels,” said Bartosz Grzybowski, lead author of the study. “Ours can detect very small amounts, over million times smaller than the state-of-the-art current methods. This is important because if you drink polluted water with low levels of mercury every day, it could add up and possibly lead to diseases later on. With this system consumers would one day have the ability to test their home tap water for toxic metals.” Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Cloud Storage Subscribers Reach Half-Billion Level

September 10th 2012

CG cloud

A total of 500 million personal cloud storage subscriptions are expected this year, up from less than 300 million in 2011, according to insights from the IHS iSuppli Mobile and Wireless Communications Service at information and analytics provider IHS.

The subscriptions are expected to jump to 625 million next year, a solid increase of 25 percent, with uninterrupted double-digit growth anticipated to follow until at least 2017. During that year, subscriptions to cloud storage are projected to hit 1.3 billion, as presented in the figure attached.
“In an environment where mobile devices like smartphones and media tablets handle broadband data on a near-ceaseless basis, businesses are realizing the importance of cloud services in allowing consumers to manage, store and sync content across their devices,” said Jagdish Rebello, Ph.D., director for consumer & communications at IHS. Read more ..

The Edge of Climate Change

Glacial Thinning Has Sharply Accelerated at Major South American Icefields

September 10th 2012

Glacier calving

For the past four decades, scientists have monitored the ebbs and flows of the icefields in the southernmost stretch of South America’s vast Andes Mountains, detecting an overall loss of ice as the climate warms. A new study, however, finds that the rate of glacier thinning has increased by about half over the last dozen years in the Southern Patagonian Icefield, compared to the 30 years prior to 2000.

“Patagonia is kind of a poster child for rapidly changing glacier systems,” said Michael Willis, lead author of the study and a research associate at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “We are characterizing a region that is supplying water to sea level at a big rate, compared to its size.” The Southern Patagonian Icefield together with its smaller northern neighbor, the Northern Patagonian Icefield, are the largest icefields in the southern hemisphere—excluding Antarctica. The new study shows that the icefields are losing ice faster since the turn of the century and contributing more to sea level rise than ever before.

Earlier studies determined that between the 1970s and 2000, both icefields, which feed into surrounding oceans as they melt, together raised global sea levels by an average of .042 millimeters each year. Willis and his colleagues found that since 2001, that number increased to 0.067 mm of sea level rise on average per year—about two percent of total annual sea level rise since 1998. Read more ..

The Edge of Music

Fungus Treatment Makes New Violins Sound Like a Stradivarius

September 9th 2012


A good violin depends not only on the expertise of the violin maker, but also on the quality of the wood that is used. The Swiss wood researcher Professor Francis W. M. R. Schwarze (Empa, Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, St. Gallen, Switzerland) has succeeded in modifying the wood for a violin through treatment with special fungi. This treatment alters the acoustic properties of the instrument, making it sound indistinguishably similar to a Stradivarius.

In his dinner talk at the 1st ECRC "Franz-Volhard" Symposium of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) and Charité - Universitätsmedizin in Berlin-Buch, Schwarze reported on his research and gave a preview of what his wood treatment method could mean, particularly for young violinists. Read more ..

The Edge of Physics

Understanding Ultra-Cold Atoms

September 9th 2012


Every day we observe systems thermalizing: Ice cubes in a pot of hot water will melt and will never remain stable. The molecules of the ice and the molecules of the water will reach thermal equilibrium, ending up at the same temperature. Well-ordered ice crystals turn into a disordered liquid. Experiments at the Vienna Center for Quantum Science and Technology (VCQ) at the Vienna University of Technology have shown that in the quantum world the transition to thermal equilibrium is more interesting and more complicated than assumed so far.

Between an ordered initial state and a statistically mixed final state, a so-called "quasi-stationary intermediate state" can emerge. This intermediate state already exhibits some equilibrium like properties, but some of the distinct order of the initial state remains visible for a remarkably long time.

This phenomenon is called "pre-thermalization". Pre-thermalization is predicted to play a major role in many different non-equilibrium processes in quantum physics. It could, for example, help us to understand the state of the early universe.

Ultracold Atom Clouds

"In our experiments we start with a one-dimensional quantum gas of ultracold atoms, a so-called Bose-Einstein condensate, which is then rapidly split into two using an atomchip", Professor Jörg Schmiedmayer (Vienna University of Technology) explains. When the two parts of the condensate are immediately rejoined, they create an ordered matter-wave interference pattern. "The shape of this interference pattern shows us that the two clouds have not yet forgotten that they originally came from the same atom cloud", says Jörg Schmiedmayer. Read more ..

The Edge of Sport

Technology Key to London Paralympians

September 8th 2012

Wheelchair athletes

The spotlight at the Paralympic Games in London has not been on the athletes alone but also on the remarkable technology that helps them compete.  In London, engineers, volunteering for a charity called Remap, are developing Olympic technology right in their own backyard.

In the garage of his home just outside London, David Sheffield is working on the prototype for a wheelchair suitable for Paralympic athletes.  Working with him is former engineer Doug Watt. They are among some 1,000 people who volunteer for the charity Remap, designing technology that helps disabled people.  They do it in their own garages, for free, and usually using their own materials. The wheelchair they are working on now is designed to fit shot put thrower Shaun Sewell.  It is also adjustable and will be used as a template for future athletes, as David Sheffield explains. Read more ..

The Edge of Nature

Bright Life on the Ocean Bed: Predators May Even Color Code Food

September 7th 2012

Undersea Life

Sinking through the inky ocean, it would seem that there is little light at depth: but you'd be wrong. "In the mesopelagic realm [200 m] bioluminescence [light produced by animals] is very common", says Sönke Johnsen from Duke University, USA, explaining that many creatures are capable of producing light, yet rarely do so. But how much light do the inhabitants of the ocean floor (benthos) generate? Explaining that some bioluminescence is generated when organisms collide, Johnsen says, "In the benthos you have a current moving over complicated ground with all the things in the water banging into it, so one idea was that there would be a fair amount of bioluminescence."

Few people have visited this remote and inhospitable habitat. Intrigued by the animals that dwell there and the possibility that bioluminescent bacteria coating the ocean floor might glow faintly, long time collaborators Tamara Frank, Sonke Johnsen, Steven Haddock, Edith Widder and Charles Messing teamed up to find out just how much light is produced by seabed residents. Read more ..

The Genetic Edge

Human Genome is Twice as Big as Thought

September 7th 2012

Nanodiamond and human blood

The GENCODE Consortium expects the human genome has twice as many genes than previously thought, many of which might have a role in cellular control and could be important in human disease. This remarkable discovery comes from the GENCODE Consortium, which has done a painstaking and skilled review of available data on gene activity.

Among their discoveries, the team describe more than 10,000 novel genes, identify genes that have 'died' and others that are being resurrected. The GENCODE Consortium reference gene catalogue has been one of the underpinnings of the larger ENCODE Project and will be essential for the full understanding of the role of our genes in disease.

The GENCODE Consortium is part of the ENCODE Project that, today, publishes 30 research papers describing findings from their nearly decade-long effort to describe comprehensively all the active regions of our human genome. ENCODE was launched in 2003 after the completion of the Human Genome Project, and brought together an international group of scientists tasked with identifying and describing all functional regions of the human genome sequence. Read more ..

The Health Edge

Global Warming May Bring Increased Transmission of Bird Flu

September 7th 2012

Ruddy turnstone by Dendroica cerulea
Ruddy turnstone.                                 Credit: Dendroica cerulea - Flickr

Rising sea levels, melting glaciers, more intense rainstorms and more frequent heat waves are among the planetary woes that may come to mind when climate change is mentioned. Now, two University of Michigan researchers say an increased risk of avian influenza transmission in wild birds can be added to the list.

Population ecologists Pejman Rohani and Victoria Brown used a mathematical model to explore the consequences of altered interactions between an important species of migratory shorebird and horseshoe crabs at Delaware Bay as a result of climate change. They found that climate change could upset the carefully choreographed interactions between ruddy turnstone shorebirds and the horseshoe crabs that provide the bulk of their food during the birds' annual stopover at Delaware Bay, a major estuary of the Delaware River bordered by New Jersey to the north and Delaware to the south.

Climate change-caused disruptions to the well-timed interplay between the birds and crabs could lead to an increase in the avian influenza infection rate among ruddy turnstones and resident ducks of Delaware Bay, the researchers found. Because Delaware Bay is a crossroads for many bird species traveling between continents, an increase in the avian infection rate there could conceivably help spread novel subtypes of the influenza virus among North American wild bird populations, according to Rohani and Brown. Their findings were published in the journal Biology Letters. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Mars’s Dramatic Climate Variations are Driven by the Sun

September 6th 2012

Mars's north polar ice cap
Mars’s north polar ice cap
(credit: NASA/Caltech/JPL/E. DeJong/J. Craig/M. Stetson)

On Mars’s poles, there are ice caps of ice and dust with layers that reflect past climate variations on Mars. Researchers from the Niels Bohr Institute have related the layers in the ice cap on Mars’s north pole to variations in solar insolation on Mars, thus established the first dated climate history for Mars, where ice and dust accumulation has been driven by variations in insolation. The results are published in the scientific journal Icarus.

The ice caps on Mars’s poles are kilometres thick and composed of ice and dust. There are layers in the ice caps, which can be seen in cliffs and valley slopes and we have known about these layers for decades, since the first satellite images came back from Mars. The layers are believed to reflect past climate on Mars, in the same way that the Earth’s climate history can be read by analysing ice cores from the ice caps on Greenland and Antarctica.

Solar insolation on Mars has varied dramatically over time, mainly due to large variations in the tilt of Mars’s rotational axis (obliquity) and this led to dramatic climate variations on Mars. Read more ..

The Edge of the Universe

Sweet Building Blocks of Life Found Around Young Star

September 6th 2012

NCG 6604 and environs

Life is made up of a series of complex organic molecules, including sugars. A team of astronomers led by researchers from the Niels Bohr Institute, have now observed a simple sugar molecule in the gas surrounding a young star and this discovery proves that the building blocks of life were already present during planet formation. The results have been published in the scientific journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The star was observed with the new large international telescope, Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) in northern Chile. The ALMA telescopes are able to zoom in and study the details of newly formed stars and their rotating discs of dust and gas, which subsequently clumps together and forms planets. Among other things, the astronomers would like to investigate the gas for the presence of water vapour and examine the chemical composition for complex molecules.

"In the protoplanetary disc of gas and dust surrounding the young, newly formed star, we found glycolaldehyde molecules, which are a simple form of sugar. It is one of the building blocks in the process that leads to the formation of RNA and the first step in the direction of biology," explains astrophysicist Jes Jørgensen, Associate Professor at the Niels Bohr Institute and the Centre for Star and Planet Formation at the University of Copenhagen. Read more ..

The Edge of Nature

Tracking Fish through a Coral Reef Seascape

September 6th 2012

Coral reef and fish

Ocean scientists have long known that juvenile coral reef fishes use coastal seagrass and mangrove habitats as nurseries, later moving as adults onto coral reefs. But the fishes’ movements, and the connections between different tropical habitats, are much more complex than previously realized, according to a recent study. The findings have important implications for management and protection of coral reefs and other marine environments.

A number of studies have demonstrated a strong relationship between the presence of coastal wetlands and offshore fish abundance and fisheries yield, but it has proved difficult to develop quantitative assessment of habitat use by fish or their movement among different habitats. “The rationale for this study,”says Simon Thorrold, a biologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), “was to determine the relative importance of different nursery habitats to reef fishes that spend their adult lives on coral reefs but may spend at least part of their juvenile residency elsewhere.” Read more ..

Edge of the Universe

Seeing the Birth of the Universe in an Atom of Hydrogen

September 6th 2012

gaseous ring on star

Windows to the past, stars can unveil the history of our universe, currently estimated to be 14 billion years old. The farther away the star, the older it is — and the oldest stars are the most difficult to detect. Current telescopes can only see galaxies about 700 million years old, and only when the galaxy is unusually large or as the result of a big event like a stellar explosion.

Now, an international team of scientists led by researchers at Tel Aviv University have developed a method for detecting galaxies of stars that formed when the universe was in its infancy, during the first 180 million years of its existence. The method is able to observe stars that were previously believed too old to find, says Prof. Rennan Barkana of TAU's School of Physics and Astronomy.

Published in the journal Nature, the researchers' method uses radio telescopes to seek out radio waves emitted by hydrogen atoms, which were abundant in the early days of the universe. Emitting waves measuring about eight inches (21 centimeters) long, the atoms reflect the radiation of the stars, making their emission detectable by radio telescopes, explains Prof. Barkana. This development opens the way to learning more about the universe's oldest galaxies. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Birth of a Planet

September 4th 2012

Exoplanet candidate UCF-1.01

The Earth and the planets of our solar system are not alone in the universe. Over the past few decades, the hunt for extrasolar planets has yielded incredible discoveries, and now planetary researchers have a new tool—simulated models of how planets are born. Most planets form when a molecular cloud collapses into a young star. The leftover gas and dust form a disk around the star, and the particulates inside the disk begin to collide and coalesce over millions of years, forming larger and larger objects until a planet eventually takes shape.

Sally Dodson Robinson, astronomer, and her team of researchers at The University of Texas at Austin are modeling and simulating these protostellar disks. The simulations model important factors such as the turbulence and temperature of the disk, which affect how and where planets form. In a disk that is too turbulent, the particles move too fast and bounce off each other. Less turbulence means a greater chance for them to collide and stick together. Read more ..

The Edge of Nature

Human Impact Felt on Black Sea Long Before Industrial Era

September 4th 2012

Bblack Sea

When WHOI geologist Liviu Giosan first reconstructed the history of how the Danube River built its delta, he was presented with a puzzle.

In the delta’s early stages of development, the river deposited its sediment within a protected bay. As the delta expanded onto the Black Sea shelf in the late Holocene and was exposed to greater waves and currents, rather than seeing the decline in sediment storage that he expected, Giosan found the opposite. The delta continued to grow. In fact, it has tripled its storage rate.

If an increase in river runoff was responsible for the unusual rapid build up of sediment in the delta, says Giosan, the question is, “Was this extraordinary event in the Danube delta felt in the entire Black Sea basin? And if so, what caused it?” In answering those questions, Giosan and an international team of collaborators including environmental engineers, modelers, paleogeographers, and paleobiologists pieced together a unique history of the region that ultimately provides evidence for a transformative impact of humans on the Black Sea over hundreds, if not thousands of years. Read more ..

The Ancient Edge

Ancient Neanderthal Genome Discovery Sheds Light on Human Ancestry

September 3rd 2012

Neanderthal child mannequin

A new report describes the complete sequence of the Denisovan genome, shedding light on the relationships between these archaic humans, who were closely related to Neandertals, and modern humans.

The results will be published online by the journal Science, in the 30 August 2012 edition of ScienceExpress. Science is the flagship journal of AAAS, the nonprofit science society.

Fossil evidence of the Denisovans is scanty; the existence of this group only came to light in 2010 when DNA from a piece of a finger bone and two molars that were excavated at Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia was studied. Because they had only a tiny sample of material from the finger bone, Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and his research team developed a treatment that unzipped the DNA so that each of its two strands can be used to generate molecules for sequencing. This method allowed the team to generate an extremely thorough genome sequence (30X), similar in quality to what researchers can obtain for the modern human genome. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Challenging Theories on the Moon's Formation

September 3rd 2012

full moon

The Moon is believed to have formed from a collision, 4.5 billion years ago, between Earth and an impactor the size of Mars, known as "Theia." Over the past decades scientists have simulated this process and reproduced many of the properties of the Earth-Moon system; however, these simulations have also given rise to a problem known as the Lunar Paradox: the Moon appears to be made up of material that would not be expected if the current collision theory is correct. A recent study published in Icarus proposes a new perspective on the theory in answer to the paradox.

If current theories are to be believed, analyses of the various simulations of the Earth-Theia collision predict that the Moon is mostly made up of material from Theia. However, studying materials from both Earth and the Moon, shows remarkable similarities. In fact, elements found on the Moon show identical isotopic properties to those found on Earth. Given it is very unlikely that both Theia and Earth had identical isotopic compositions (as all other known solar system bodies, except the Moon, appear to be different) this paradox casts doubt over the dominant theory for the Moon formation. Moreover, for some elements, like Silicon, the isotopic composition is the result of internal processes, related to the size of the parent body. Given Theia was smaller than Earth, its Silicon isotope composition should have definitely been different from that of Earth's mantle. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Austrian Programmers Build Free Bridge to Internet

September 1st 2012

Russian computer user

A group of computer programmers and hackers in Austria is creating a low-cost way of spreading Internet access across communities. "FunkFeuer" which means "network fire" in German, uses everyday technology to create a wireless network, called a "mesh," that can transmit data from person to person, without involving companies or governments.

For most users, Internet access is a utility, like phone service and electricity. Customers pay a company to access the Web through phone service or cable TV lines. But FunkFeuer's equipment on Vienna rooftops is a different.

It provides wireless network access across large areas using the same open radio spectrum as WiFi. But unlike traditional WiFi, responsible for small wireless networks in homes and offices, the FunkFeuer mesh operates over much bigger distances. Read more ..

The Edge of Sleep

How Odors and Tones Affect Sleep

September 1st 2012

Is sleep learning possible? A new Weizmann Institute study appearing August 26 in Nature Neuroscience has found that if certain odors are presented after tones during sleep, people will start sniffing when they hear the tones alone – even when no odor is present – both during sleep and, later, when awake. In other words, people can learn new information while they sleep, and this can unconsciously modify their waking behavior.

Sleep-learning experiments are notoriously difficult to conduct. For one thing, the researchers must be sure that the subjects are actually asleep and stay that way during the “lessons.” The most rigorous trials of verbal sleep learning have failed to show any new knowledge taking root. While more and more research has demonstrated the importance of sleep for learning and memory consolidation, none had managed to show actual learning of new information taking place in an adult brain during sleep. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

A Surprisingly Large Superbubble Has Appeared

August 31st 2012

A Surprisingly Bright Superbubble

A composite image now shows a superbubble in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, located about 160,000 light years from Earth. Many new stars, some of them very massive, are forming in the star cluster NGC 1929, which is embedded in the nebula N44. The massive stars produce intense radiation, expel matter at high speeds, and race through their evolution to explode as supernovas. The winds and supernova shock waves carve out huge cavities called superbubbles in the surrounding gas. X-rays from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory (blue) show hot regions created by these winds and shocks, while infrared data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope (red) outline where the dust and cooler gas are found. The optical light from the 2.2m Max-Planck-ESO telescope (yellow) in Chile shows where ultraviolet radiation from hot, young stars is causing gas in the nebula to glow.

A long-running problem in high-energy astrophysics has been that some superbubbles in the LMC, including N44, give off a lot more X-rays than expected from models of their structure. A Chandra study published in 2011 showed that there are two extra sources of the bright X-ray emission: supernova shock waves striking the walls of the cavities, and hot material evaporating from the cavity walls. Read more ..

The Edge of Nature

Uncoiling the Cucumber's Enigma

August 31st 2012


Captivated by a strange coiling behavior in the grasping tendrils of the cucumber plant, researchers at Harvard University have characterized a new type of spring that is soft when pulled gently and stiff when pulled strongly. Instead of unwinding to a flat ribbon under stress, as an untwisted coil normally would, the cucumber's tendrils actually coil further. Understanding this counterintuitive behavior required a combination of head scratching, physical modeling, mathematical modeling, and cell biology—not to mention a large quantity of silicone. The result, published in the August 31 issue of Science, describes the mechanism by which coiling occurs in the cucumber plant and suggests a new type of bio-inspired twistless spring.

Led by principal investigator L. Mahadevan, Lola England de Valpine Professor of Applied Mathematics at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and Professor of Physics at Harvard, and a Core Faculty Member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, the researchers were motivated by simple curiosity about the natural world. Read more ..

The Nano Edge

New 2-D Molecule Could Yield Ultra-miniature Devices

August 31st 2012

taiwanese semiconductor plant

Researchers from the MIT have succeeded in making a variety of electronic components from molybdenum disulfide (MoS2), a 2D molecule that could yield ultra-miniature devices. A report on the production of complex electronic circuits from the new material was published online this month in the journal Nano Letters; the paper is authored by Han Wang and Lili Yu, graduate students in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS); Tomás Palacios, the Emmanuel E. Landsman Associate Professor of EECS; and others at MIT and elsewhere.

Palacios says he thinks graphene and MoS2 are just the beginning of a new realm of research on two-dimensional materials. "It's the most exciting time for electronics in the last 20 or 30 years," he says. "It's opening up the door to a completely new domain of electronic materials and devices." Read more ..

The Edge of Earth

Quake Map Prediction Methodology?

August 30th 2012

Port-au-Prince, Haiti earthquake damage

Some high profile researchers in the earth sciences are questioning several long-standing assumptions about predicting earthquakes. They contend it is time for a major reassessment on the methods used to forecast where and when killer earthquakes will strike.

Three recent major earthquakes: in Sichuan, China in 2008, in the Caribbean  nation of Haiti in 2010 and in northeastern Japan last year - have led to what some scientists acknowledge is an embarrassing failure. They did not foresee such intense tremors would cause widespread destruction and casualties in those specific locations.

Even in Japan, with state-of-the-art seismological and tsunami research and sophisticated hazard mapping, the size of the March 11 quake and the resulting tsunami were vastly underestimated. Earth sciences professor Seth Stein at Northwestern University in Chicago says that was a sobering day for his field. Read more ..

The Automotive Edge

Networked Cars Opening New Opportunities to Automotive Value Chain

August 29th 2012

Traffic Jam

The integration of information technologies into cars poses huge challenges to the automotive industry, a new study from industry consultancy Roland Berger finds. Like any challenge, this process however also offers new opportunities.

Already in the mean term, more or less all new vehicles will drive along with an always-con connection to the internet. The consultants from Roland Berger believe, that the connectivity trend for vehicles has just begun. In the years ahead, it will evolve into a core trend across the entire automotive industry.

Enablers of the connectivity trend are, according to the study, the availability of mobile broadband connections, in particular LTE, as well as cloud computing. On the non-technical side, governmental regulations such as the European eCall will foster automobile connectivity. Plus, the generation of digital natives increasingly wish to be connected, even during the time when they use the car as driver or passenger. "Probably the most powerful driver of in-car networking, however, is the fact that the data itself today has an intrinsic value," notes Wolfgang Bernhart, Partner at Roland Berger Strategy Consultants, who spearheaded the study in collaboration with Thomas Schlick, also Partner at the Munich-based strategy consultancy. Read more ..

The Edge of Climate Change

Cold European Winters and Solar Activity May Be Linked

August 28th 2012

Solar Flare

Scientists have long suspected that the Sun's 11-year cycle influences climate of certain regions on Earth. Yet records of average, seasonal temperatures do not date back far enough to confirm any patterns. Now, armed with a unique proxy, an international team of researchers show that unusually cold winters in Central Europe are related to low solar activity – when sunspot numbers are minimal. The freezing of Germany's largest river, the Rhine, is the key.

Although the Earth's surface overall continues to warm, the new analysis has revealed a correlation between periods of low activity of the Sun and of some cooling – on a limited, regional scale in Central Europe, along the Rhine.

"The advantage with studying the Rhine is because it's a very simple measurement," said Frank Sirocko lead author of a paper on the study and professor of Sedimentology and Paleoclimatology at the Institute of Geosciences of Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. "Freezing is special in that it's like an on-off mode. Either there is ice or there is no ice." Read more ..

The Edge of Nature

One Third Less Life Forms on Planet Earth

August 28th 2012

Hippo and baby

Previous estimates about the total mass of all life on our planet have to be reduced by about one third. This is the result of a study by a German-US science team published in the current online issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). According to previous estimates about one thousand billion tons of carbon are stored in living organisms, of which 30% in single-cell microbes in the ocean floor and 55 % reside in land plants. The science team around Dr. Jens Kallmeyer of the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences and University of Potsdam has now revised this number: Instead of 300 billion tons of carbon there are only about 4 billion tons stored in subseafloor microbes. This reduces the total amount of carbon stored in living organisms by about one third.

Previous estimates were based on drill cores that were taken close to shore or in very nutrient-rich areas. "About half of the world's ocean is extremely nutrient-poor. For the last 10 years it was already suspected that subseafloor biomass was overestimated" explains Dr. Jens Kallmeyer the motivation behind his study. "Unfortunately there were no data to prove it". Therefore Kallmeyer and his colleagues from the University of Potsdam and the University of Rhode Island, USA, collected sediment cores from areas that were far away from any coasts and islands. The six-year work showed that there were up to one hundred thousand times less cells in sediments from open-ocean areas, which are dubbed "deserts of the sea" due to their extreme nutrient depletion, than in coastal sediments. Read more ..

The Edge of Health

Mof Protein Enables Stem Cells to Become any Type of Cell in Human Body

August 26th 2012

stem cells

How do stem cells preserve their ability to become any type of cell in the body? And how do they “decide” to give up that magical state and start specializing?

If researchers could answer these questions, our ability to harness stem cells to treat disease could explode. Now, a University of Michigan Medical School team has published a key discovery that could help that goal become reality.

In the current issue of the journal Cell Stem Cell, researcher Yali Dou, Ph.D., and her team show the crucial role of a protein called Mof in preserving the ‘stem-ness’ of stem cells, and priming them to become specialized cells in mice. Their results show that Mof plays a key role in the “epigenetics” of stem cells -- that is, helping stem cells read and use their DNA. One of the key questions in stem cell research is what keeps stem cells in a kind of eternal youth, and then allows them to start “growing up” to be a specific type of tissue. Dou, an associate professor of pathology and biological chemistry, has studied Mof for several years, puzzling over the intricacies of its role in stem cell biology. Read more ..

The Edge of Health

Tap Water is not as Safe as We Think

August 26th 2012

tap water

Most of the bacteria that remain in drinking water when it gets to the tap can be traced to filters used in the water treatment process, rather than to the aquifers or rivers where it originated, University of Michigan researchers discovered.

Their study—a unique, broad-based look at Ann Arbor's water supply from source to tap—could open the door to more sustainable water treatment processes that use fewer chemicals and, as a result, produce lower levels of byproducts that may pose health risks. Eventually, the work could enable engineers to control the types of microbes in drinking water to improve human health like "live and active cultures" in yogurt, the researchers say.

The research, led by Lutgarde Raskin, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, is published online in Environmental Science & Technology and will appear in a forthcoming print edition. Over six months, the researchers sampled water at 20 points along its path from groundwater and Barton Pond sources to residents' faucets and several more places in the water treatment plant. They harvested bacteria from each sample and sequenced their DNA. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

First Evidence of Planet’s Destruction by Its Star

August 25th 2012

Red giant engulfs one of its planets
Artist’s conception of a red giant star engulfing one of its planets
(credit: NASA)

The first evidence of a planet’s destruction by its aging star has been discovered by an international team of astronomers. The evidence indicates that the missing planet was devoured as the star began expanding into a red giant—the stellar equivalent of advanced age for stars without enough mass to go supernova.

“A similar fate may await the inner planets in our solar system, when the Sun becomes a red giant and expands all the way out to Earth’s orbit some five-billion years from now,” said Alex Wolszczan, an Evan Pugh Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State, University, who is one of the members of the research team. Wolszczan also is the discoverer of the first planet ever found outside our solar system. The astronomers also discovered a massive planet in a surprisingly elliptical orbit around the same red-giant star, named BD+48 740, which is older than the Sun with a radius about eleven times bigger. Wolszczan and the team’s other members, Monika Adamow, Grzegorz Nowak, and Andrzej Niedzielski of Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun, Poland; and Eva Villaver of the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid in Spain, detected evidence of the missing planet’s destruction while they were using the Hobby-Eberly Telescope to study the aging star and to search for planets around it. The evidence includes the star’s peculiar chemical composition plus the highly unusual elliptical orbit of its surviving planet. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Supernovae of the Same Brightness—Cut from Vastly Fifferent Cosmic Cloth

August 25th 2012

Artist’s conception of the PTF 11kx system
(credit: Romano Corradi/Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias)

Type 1a supernovae—exploding stars—are ideal for measuring cosmic distance because they are bright enough to spot across the Universe and have relatively the same luminosity everywhere. Although astronomers have many theories about the kinds of star systems involved in these explosions (or progenitor systems), no one has ever directly observed one—until now.

In the August 24 issue of Science, the multi-institutional Palomar Transient Factory (PTF) team presents the first-ever direct observations of a Type 1a supernova progenitor system. Astronomers have collected evidence indicating that the progenitor system of a Type 1a supernova, called PTF 11kx, contains a red giant star. They also show that the system previously underwent at least one much smaller nova eruption before it ended its life in a destructive supernova. The system is located 600 million light years away in the constellation Lynx.

By comparison, indirect observations of another Type 1a supernova progenitor system (called SN 2011fe, conducted by the PTF team last year) showed no evidence of a red giant star. Taken together, these observations unequivocally show that just because Type 1a supernovae look the same, that doesn’t mean they are all born the same way. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Magnetic Turbulence Trumps Collisions to Heat Solar Wind

August 25th 2012

Click to select Image
Solar Flares

New research led by University of Warwick physicist Dr Kareem Osman has provided significant insight into how the solar wind heats up when it should not. The solar wind rushes outwards from the raging inferno that is our Sun, but from then on the wind should only get cooler as it expands beyond our solar system since there are no particle collisions to dissipate energy. However, the solar wind is surprisingly hotter than it should be, which has puzzled scientists for decades. Two new research papers led by Dr Osman may have solved that puzzle.

Turbulence pervades the universe, being found in stars, stellar winds, accretion disks, galaxies, and even the material between galaxies. It also plays a critical role in the evolution of many laboratory plasmas, causing diminished confinement times in fusion devices. Therefore, understanding plasma turbulence is essential to the interpretation of a large body of laboratory, space, and astrophysical observations. The solar wind and near-Earth environment provide an excellent laboratory for the study of turbulence, and are the only in-situ accessible astrophysical plasmas. Read more ..

India on Edge

India Defends Itself Against Charges of Internet Censorship

August 25th 2012

Computer User India

In India, the government is defending itself against charges of Internet censorship after asking companies such as Facebook and Twitter to block hundreds of websites. India's efforts to regulate online content and pressure social media companies have attracted criticism.
Following threats to take action against Twitter, Indian officials say the micro-blogging site has agreed to talk to the government. But the government’s face-off with Twitter is far from over.

The government wants Twitter to remove 28 pages containing what it calls “objectionable content,” but officials say Twitter has cited technical difficulties in complying with the request. The government asked social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to block hundreds of websites and pages recently after doctored online images fueled rumors of revenge attacks by Muslims on migrants from the north east, prompting them to flee cities. Communication and Information Technology Minister Kapil Sibal refutes charges that the government is trying to censor social media. But he says its misuse has to be prevented.

The Edfe of Space

WiggleZ confirms the Big Picture of the Universe

August 24th 2012

GiggleZ View of Universe
GiggleZ View of the Universe

We know that stars group together to form galaxies, galaxies clump to make clusters and clusters gather to create structures known as superclusters. At what scale though, if at all, does this Russian doll-like structure stop? Scientists have been debating this very question for decades because clustering on large scales would be in conflict with our 'standard model' of cosmology. The current model is based on Einstein's equations assuming everything is smooth on the largest scales. If matter were instead clumpy on very large scales, then the entire model would need to be rethought.

Cosmologists agree that on 'small' scales (tens of millions of light years), matter in the Universe is highly clustered. So the 'standard model' can only hold true if the Universe transitions to an even distribution of matter (homogeneity) on larger scales, irrespective of the viewing direction. However, some scientists have recently argued that the entire Universe never becomes homogenous, and that it is clustered on all scales, much like one of Mandelbrot's famous 'fractals' (a snowflake is a good example of a fractal). If the Universe has properties similar to a fractal, our description of space and time is wrong, and our understanding of things like Dark Energy is deeply flawed. 


The Edge of Space

Penny-Sized Rocket Thruster May Soon Power The Smallest Satellites In Space

August 24th 2012

IBEX in high Earth orbit

A penny-sized rocket thruster may soon power the smallest satellites in space. The device, designed by Paulo Lozano, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, bears little resemblance to today’s bulky satellite engines, which are laden with valves, pipes and heavy propellant tanks. Instead, Lozano’s design is a flat, compact square — much like a computer chip — covered with 500 microscopic tips that, when stimulated with voltage, emit tiny beams of ions. Together, the array of spiky tips creates a small puff of charged particles that can help propel a shoebox-sized satellite forward. “They’re so small that you can put several [thrusters] on a vehicle,” Lozano says. He adds that a small satellite outfitted with several microthrusters could “not only move to change its orbit, but do other interesting things — like turn and roll.” Lozano and his group in MIT’s Space Propulsion Laboratory and Microsystems Technology Laboratory presented their new thruster array at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ recent Joint Propulsion Conference.

Cleaning up CubeSat clutter
Today, more than two dozen small satellites, called CubeSats, orbit Earth. Each is slightly bigger than a Rubik’s cube, and weighs less than three pounds. Their diminutive size classifies them as “nanosatellites,” in contrast with traditional Earth-monitoring behemoths. These petite satellites are cheap to assemble, and can be launched into space relatively easily: Since they weigh very little, a rocket can carry several CubeSats as secondary payload without needing extra fuel. Read more ..

The Edge of Chemistry

Northwestern Scientists Create Chemical Brain

August 23rd 2012

Eyeball Surveillance

Northwestern University scientists have connected 250 years of organic chemical knowledge into one giant computer network -- a chemical Google on steroids. This "immortal chemist" will never retire and take away its knowledge but instead will continue to learn, grow and share.

A decade in the making, the software optimizes syntheses of drug molecules and other important compounds, combines long (and expensive) syntheses of compounds into shorter and more economical routes and identifies suspicious chemical recipes that could lead to chemical weapons.

"I realized that if we could link all the known chemical compounds and reactions between them into one giant network, we could create not only a new repository of chemical methods but an entirely new knowledge platform where each chemical reaction ever performed and each compound ever made would give rise to a collective 'chemical brain,'" said Bartosz A. Grzybowski, who led the work. "The brain then could be searched and analyzed with algorithms akin to those used in Google or telecom networks." Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Intense Bursts of Star Formation Drive Fierce Galactic Winds

August 23rd 2012


Fierce galactic winds powered by an intense burst of star formation may blow gas right out of massive galaxies, shutting down their ability to make new stars.

Sifting through images and data from three telescopes, a team of astronomers found 29 objects with outflowing winds measuring up to 2,500 kilometers per second, an order of magnitude faster than most observed galactic winds.

"They're nearly blowing themselves apart," said Aleksandar Diamond-Stanic, a fellow at the University of California's Southern California Center for Galaxy Evolution, who led the study. "Most galactic winds are more like fountains; the outflowing gas will fall back onto the galaxies. With the high-velocity winds we've observed the outflowing gas will escape the galaxy and never return." The galaxies they observed are a few billion light years away with outflowing winds of 500 to 2,500 kilometers per second. Initially they thought the winds might be coming from quasars, but a closer look revealed these winds emanate from entire galaxies. Young, bright and compact, these massive galaxies are in the midst of or just completing a period of star formation as intense as anyone has ever observed. Read more ..

The Race for Microbial Fuel

Teaching a Microbe to Make Fuel

August 22nd 2012

Test Tubes

A humble soil bacterium called Ralstonia eutropha has a natural tendency, whenever it is stressed, to stop growing and put all its energy into making complex carbon compounds. Now scientists at MIT have taught this microbe a new trick: They've tinkered with its genes to persuade it to make fuel — specifically, a kind of alcohol called isobutanol that can be directly substituted for, or blended with, gasoline.

Christopher Brigham, a research scientist in MIT's biology department who has been working to develop this bioengineered bacterium, is currently trying to get the organism to use a stream of carbon dioxide as its source of carbon, so that it could be used to make fuel out of emissions. Brigham is co-author of a paper on this research published this month in the journal Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology.

Brigham explains that in its natural state, when the microbe's source of essential nutrients (such as nitrate or phosphate) is restricted, "it will go into carbon-storage mode," essentially storing away food for later use when it senses that resources are limited. Read more ..

The Edge of Climate Change

Warming Causes More Extreme Shifts of the Southern Hemisphere's Largest Rain Band

August 21st 2012


Warming causes more extreme shifts of the Southern Hemisphere's largest rain band

South Pacific countries will experience more extreme floods and droughts, in response to increasing greenhouse gas emissions, according to a paper out today in the journal Nature.

The changes will result from the South Pacific rain band responding to greenhouse warming. The South Pacific rain band is largest and most persistent of the Southern Hemisphere spanning the Pacific from south of the Equator, south-eastward to French Polynesia. Occasionally, the rain band moves northwards towards the Equator by 1000 kilometres, inducing extreme climate events.

The international study, led by CSIRO oceanographer Dr Wenju Cai, focuses on how the frequency of such movement may change in the future. The study finds the frequency will almost double in the next 100 years, with a corresponding intensification of the rain band. Read more ..

Ancient Humans

Earliest Modern Human Fossil found in Southeast Asia

August 21st 2012

Lao skull

An ancient skull recovered from a cave in the Annamite Mountains in northern Laos is the oldest modern human fossil found in Southeast Asia, researchers report. The discovery pushes back the clock on modern human migration through the region by as much as 20,000 years and indicates that ancient wanderers out of Africa left the coast and inhabited diverse habitats much earlier than previously appreciated.

The team described its finding in a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The scientists, who found the skull in 2009, were likely the first to dig for ancient bones in Laos since the early 1900s, when a team found skulls and skeletons of several modern humans in another cave in the Annamite Mountains. Those fossils were about 16,000 years old, much younger than the newly found skull, which dates to between 46,000 and 63,000 years old.

"It's a particularly old modern human fossil and it's also a particularly old modern human for that region," said University of Illinois anthropologist Laura Shackelford, who led the study with anthropologist Fabrice Demeter, of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. "There are other modern human fossils in China or in Island Southeast Asia that may be around the same age but they either are not well dated or they do not show definitively modern human features. This skull is very well dated and shows very conclusive modern human features," she said. Read more ..

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