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The Geological Edge

Plate Tectonics on Mars?

August 12th 2012

Valles Marineris
Valles Marineris (Viking orbiter photomosaic
credit USGS/NASA Viking Project)

For years, many scientists had thought that plate tectonics existed nowhere in our solar system but on Earth. Now, a UCLA scientist has discovered that the geological phenomenon, which involves the movement of huge crustal plates beneath a planet’s surface, also exists on Mars.

“Mars is at a primitive stage of plate tectonics. It gives us a glimpse of how the early Earth may have looked and may help us understand how plate tectonics began on Earth,” said An Yin, a UCLA professor of Earth and space sciences and the sole author of the new research.

Yin made the discovery during his analysis of satellite images from NASA’s THEMIS spacecraft and from the HIRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. He analyzed about 100 satellite images—and approximately a dozen were revealing of plate tectonics. Yin has conducted geologic research in the Himalayas and Tibet, where two of the Earth’s seven major plates divide. “When I studied the satellite images from Mars, many of the features looked very much like fault systems I have seen in the Himalayas and Tibet, and in California as well, including the geomorphology,” said Yin, a planetary geologist. Read more ..


The Digital Edge

Nearly One Phone in Five To Have Facial Recognition Capability by End of 2012

August 10th 2012

Eyeball Surveillance

By the end of 2012, almost 20% of annual smartphone shipments will include facial recognition capabilities, according to new data from ABI Research. In five years' time, shipments of smartphones and tablets with the technology will increase to 665 million annually. Currently, only Google’s Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean mobile operating systems support the technology in significant volumes. The Samsung Galaxy SIII is one of the most notable smartphones to feature this technology. Over the next two to three years, many more operating systems and mobile OEMs will incorporate the technology.

Facial recognition has been on the technology radar for some time. It was developed in the 1960s by three scientists: Woody Bledsoe, Helen Chan Wolf, and Charles Bisson. Historically, the major challenge for the technology in mobile devices has been incorporating an accurate enough sensor (camera) and a powerful enough processor to undertake the complex algorithms while limiting power consumption. Thanks to major technology advancements, this has changed, notes ABI Research. “Facial recognition technology has improved drastically over the last 10 years and accuracy is almost always above 90%,” says ABI Research senior analyst Josh Flood. “That said, lighting conditions and facial expressions can sometimes cause problems with the recognition. However, the improvements in camera resolution and processing power utilized by mobile devices has helped greatly.” Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Shredded Star Broadcasts its Own “Cry”

August 9th 2012

Swift J1544+57 (black hole)
Artist’s conception of Swift J1644+57 (credit: NASA GSFC)

Last year, astronomers discovered a quiescent black hole in a distant galaxy that erupted after shredding and consuming a passing star. Now researchers have identified a distinctive X-ray signal observed in the days following the outburst that comes from matter on the verge of falling into the black hole. This tell-tale signal, called a quasi-periodic oscillation (QPO), is a characteristic feature of the accretion disks that often surround the most compact objects in the universe—white dwarf stars, neutron stars and black holes. QPOs have been seen in many stellar-mass black holes, and there is tantalizing evidence for them in a few black holes that may have middleweight masses between 100 and 100,000 times the sun’s.

Until the new finding, QPOs had been detected around only one supermassive black hole—the type containing millions of solar masses and located at the centers of galaxies. That object is the Seyfert-type galaxy REJ 1034+396, which at a distance of 576 million light-years lies relatively nearby. Read more ..


The Biology Edge

How The Cell Swallows

August 9th 2012

Scientists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany, have combined the power of two kinds of microscope to produce a 3-dimensional movie of how cells “swallow” nutrients and other molecules by engulfing them. The study, published in Cell, is the first to follow changes in the shape of the cell’s membrane and track proteins thought to influence those changes. It also provides ample data to investigate this essential process further.

This “swallowing,” called endocytosis, is involved in a variety of crucial tasks. It is used by brain cells relaying information to each other, for instance, and is also hijacked by many viruses, which use it to invade their host’s cells. When a cell is about to swallow some molecules, a dent appears in the cell’s membrane, and gradually expands inwards, pinching off to form a little pouch, or vesicle, that transports molecules into the cell. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

A Blue Whirlpool in The River

August 8th 2012

NGC 1187 in Eridanus via VLT
Spiral galaxy NCG 1187 in Eridanus (credit: ESO)

The galaxy NGC 1187, discovered is seen almost face-on, which gives us a good view of its spiral structure. About half a dozen prominent spiral arms can be seen, each containing large amounts of gas and dust. The bluish features in the spiral arms indicate the presence of young stars born out of clouds of interstellar gas. Looking towards the central regions, we see the bulge of the galaxy glowing yellow. This part of the galaxy is mostly made up of old stars, gas, and dust. In the case of NGC 1187, rather than a round bulge, there is a subtle central bar structure. Such bar features are thought to act as mechanisms that channel gas from the spiral arms to the centre, enhancing star formation there.

Around the outside of the galaxy many much fainter and more distant galaxies can also be seen. Some even shine right through the disc of NGC 1187 itself. Their mostly reddish hues contrast with the pale blue star clusters of the much closer object. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Vaporizing the (Super-)Earth

August 8th 2012

Sunrise on CoRoT-71b
Artist’s conception of sunrise on CoRoT-71b (credit: ESO/L. Calçada)

In science fiction, evil overlords and hostile aliens often threaten to vaporize the Earth. At the beginning of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the officiously bureaucratic aliens called Vogons, authors of the third-worst poetry in the universe, actually follow through on the threat, destroying the Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass.

“We scientists are not content just to talk about vaporizing the Earth,” says Bruce Fegley, professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, tongue firmly in cheek. “We want to understand exactly what it would be like if it happened.”

And in fact Fegley, PhD, and his colleagues Katharina Lodders, PhD, a research professor of earth and planetary sciences who is currently on assignment at the National Science Foundation, and Laura Schaefer, currently a graduate student at Harvard University, have vaporized the Earth—if only by simulation, that is mathematically and inside a computer. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Supernova Candidate Found?

August 8th 2012

Artist’s conception a white dwarf and companion
Artist’s conception a white dwarf and companion
(credit: Casey Reed/NASA/CXC)

Type Ia supernovae are violent stellar explosions. Observations of their brightness are used to determine distances in the universe and have shown scientists that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. But there is still too little known about the specifics of the processes by which these supernovae form. New research led by Carnegie’s Stella Kafka identifies a star, prior to explosion, which will possibly become a type Ia supernova. The work will be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The widely accepted theory is that type Ia supernovae are thermonuclear explosions of a white dwarf star that’s part of a binary system—two stars that are physically close and orbit around a common center of mass. This white dwarf has mass gradually donated to it by its companion. When the white dwarf mass eventually reaches 1.4 times the sun, it explodes to produce a type Ia supernova. The crucial questions are: What is the nature of the donor star and how does this white dwarf increase its mass. Also, how would that process affect the properties of the explosion? Read more ..


Earth on Edge

New Instrument for Van Allen Belt Study

August 7th 2012

RBSPs deploy solar panels

NJIT Distinguished Research Professor and former Bell Labs scientist Louis J. Lanzerotti, will see his 50-year quest to better understand space weather and Earth’s Van Allen Radiation Belts rocket, once again, into space on Aug. 23, 2012. This is when NASA’s twin Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP) begin their mission to study the extremes of space weather. Lanzerotti, today one of the most respected and valued scientists behind space exploration, was the principal investigator to build one of five instruments aboard each of the two spacecraft that comprise the RBSP mission.

The mission is part of NASA’s Living With a Star program, which is managed by Goddard Space Flight Center. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) manages the mission and has built and will operate the two RBSP spacecraft for NASA. RBSP begins its exploration with a predawn August 23 launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket. Each RBSP spacecraft weighs about 660 kilograms (1,455 pounds) and carries an identical set of five instrument suites that will enable scientists to unlock the mysteries of the radiation belts surrounding Earth. Read more ..


The Agriculture Edge

Researchers Demonstrate Control of Devastating Cassava Virus in Africa

August 7th 2012

Cassava

An international research collaboration recently demonstrated progress in protecting cassava against cassava brown streak disease (CBSD), a serious virus disease, in a confined field trial in Uganda using an RNA interference technology.  The field trial was planted in November 2010 following approval by the National Biosafety Committee of Uganda.  The plants were harvested in November 2011. These results point researchers in the right direction as they develop virus-resistant cassava varieties preferred by farmers in Eastern Africa.  

In Sub-Saharan Africa, more than 250 million people derive at least 25 percent of their daily calorie intake from the starchy cassava tuberous roots.  In the East African countries of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Rwanda, Burundi and Malawi, 63 percent of households also sell cassava products to earn income for their families.  It is estimated that in the next 15 years, cassava will constitute the second most important source of income for more than 125 million people in East Africa. Read more ..


The Nano Edge

Biodegradable Transistors from Proteins

August 7th 2012

Red blood cells
Red blood cells (credit: A. Egelberg)

Blood, milk, and mucus proteins could soon replace silicon to produce transistors, which amplify electrical signals and are the basis of most modern technology. One of the most important benefits of this discovery is that these transistors will be biodegradable. A team of researchers including students Elad Mentovich and Netta Hendler of TAU’s Department of Chemistry and The Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, with supervisor Shachar Richter and in collaboration with Prof. Michael Gozin and his student Bogdan Belgorodsky, have brought together biology and chemistry to create self- assembling protein-based transistors.

Each organic protein has unique properties and when mixed together can create a complete circuit with electronic and optical capabilities with great flexibility in terms of conductivity, memory storage, and fluorescence. Blood proteins can absorb oxygen, allowing researchers to add different chemicals to adjust the properties of the semiconductor in order to create specific technological properties. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Fingering the Culprit that Polluted the Solar System

August 6th 2012

Gamma Ray Burst

For decades it has been thought that a shock wave from a supernova explosion triggered the formation of our Solar System. According to this theory, the shock wave also injected material from the exploding star into a cloud of dust and gas, and the newly polluted cloud collapsed to form the Sun and its surrounding planets. New work from Carnegie's Alan Boss and Sandra Keiser provides the first fully three-dimensional (3-D) models for how this process could have happened. Their work will be published by The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Traces of the supernova's pollution can be found in meteorites in the form of short-lived radioactive isotopes, or SLRIs. SLRIs—versions of elements with the same number of protons, but a different number of neutrons—found in primitive meteorites decay on time scales of millions of years and turn into different, so-called daughter, elements. A million years may sound like a long time, but it is actually considered short when compared to other radioactive isotopes studied by geochemists and cosmochemists, which have half-lives measured in billions of years.
Read more ..


The Edge of Space

NASA’s Curiosity Lands Safely on Mars after “Seven Minutes of Terror”

August 6th 2012

Curiosty MSL at work
Curiosity at work (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA, the U.S. space agency, says that its Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) has made a successful landing on the red planet.

There will be several weeks of testing before NASA turns Curiosity loose to roam about the Martian surface, looking for signs that the planet once might have had conditions suitable to support life. But first the scientists and engineers at the Joint Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles did a little celebrating.

NASA described Curiosity’s plunge through the Martian atmosphere as “seven minutes of terror,” but the landing, which engineers said was the most complex ever attempted, proceeded flawlessly. Moments after touchdown the craft sent a picture back to Earth, showing one of its six wheels on the planet’s surface. The first pictures from the craft were received back on Earth almost immediately after confirmation of the landing Monday at about 5:30a.m. UTC. Read more ..


The Agriculture Edge

New Technology Eliminates Plant Toxins

August 5th 2012

Corn field

Plants produce toxins to defend themselves against potential enemies, from herbivorous pests to diseases. Oilseed rape plants produce glucosinolates to serve this purpose. However, due to the content of glucosinolates, farmers can only use limited quantities of the protein-rich rapeseed for pig and chicken feed. Now, a team of researchers from the University of Copenhagen has developed a method to hinder unwanted toxins from entering the edible parts of the plant.

"We have developed an entirely new technology that we call 'transport engineering'. It can be used to eliminate unwanted substances from the edible parts of crops," says Professor Barbara Ann Halkier, head of the Center of Excellence for Dynamic Molecular Interactions (DynaMo) at the University of Copenhagen's Faculty of Science.

The oilseed rape plant is but one example of a crop whose use will be greatly enhanced thanks to the new technology. Unlike the healthy glucosinolates found in broccoli, oilseed rape additionally produces a glucosinolate that is harmful to most animals when consumed in larger amounts. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

NASA Plans to Launch Astronauts

August 4th 2012

Astronaut Hall of Fame

NASA has announced new agreements with U.S. companies to develop spacecraft so that astronauts once again can launch from the United States. The U.S. has not had that capability since it retired its space shuttle fleet last year. Now it looks like the launches could happen by the end of 2017.

NASA officials say U.S. reliance on Russia to carry American astronauts to the International Space Station could be over by the end of 2017. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden held a news conference Friday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"Today we're announcing another critical step toward launching our astronauts from U.S. soil on space systems built by American companies," said Bolden. "We've selected three companies to develop crew transportation capabilities as a fully integrated system and keep us on track to end the outsourcing of our human spaceflight program." Read more ..


The Digital Edge

Cloud Computing to Boost Global Memory IC market

August 3rd 2012

CG cloud

Despite suffering from significant oversupply problems, the global memory integrated circuits (IC) market will be driven on by data centers and the advent of cloud computing, expects a new report by international business analysts GBI Research. According to the company's latest report, the increased adoption of cloud computing services among various enterprises and customers is leading to the design and development of memory ICs suitable for shared servers and storage devices.

In-memory cloud computing offers large amounts of memory storage through a new storage tier, and is currently in high demand, with applications such as Apple’s iCloud leading the way. Continuing developments will increase the market of memory ICs, which will in turn help cloud computing infrastructure and data centers to deal with issues related to storage and reliability. The main challenge of such cloud computing infrastructure services is to maintain high system performance at low infrastructure costs, even when data size grows continuously. Advances in flash memory, specifically NAND flash, are of key importance as higher density types enable more applications per server. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

NASA’s Curiosity Set for Mars Landing

August 1st 2012

Curiosity Rover at work
Mars Rover

The U.S. space agency is preparing for its newest Mars rover, Curiosity, to touch down on the Red Planet on August 6. The rover’s entry and descent will be nerve-wracking for NASA engineers, compounded by a 14-minute delay as the rover’s signals travel to Earth from Mars. If successful, Curiosity will be the sixth NASA spacecraft to land on the Red Planet.

Curiosity is the centerpiece of the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft, launched in November aboard an Atlas V rocket. It’s traveled some 560 million kilometers toward its destination.

Curiosity is a “Mars scientist’s dream machine,” said Deputy Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada ahead of its launch. “This rover is not only the most technically capable rover ever sent to another planet, but it’s actually the most capable scientific explorer we’ve ever sent out,” he said. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

The Brightest Stars Don’t Live Alone

August 1st 2012

Vampire star and victim
Artist’s Conception of a Vampire Star and its Victim
(credit: ESO/L. Calçada/S.E. de Mink)

The Universe is a diverse place, and many stars are quite unlike the Sun. An international team has used the VLT to study what are known as O-type stars, which have very high temperature, mass, and brightness. These stars have short and violent lives and play a key role in the evolution of galaxies. They are also linked to extreme phenomena such as “vampire stars”, where a smaller companion star sucks matter off the surface of its larger neighbour, and gamma-ray bursts. Most stars are classified according to their spectral type, or colour. This in turn is related to the stars’ mass and surface temperature. From bluest (and hence hottest and highest mass) to reddest (and hence coolest and lowest mass), the most common classification sequence is O, B, A, F, G, K and M. Our sun is a G-type.

“These stars are absolute behemoths,” says Hugues Sana (University of Amsterdam, Netherlands), the lead author of the study. “They have 15 or more times the mass of our Sun and can be up to a million times brighter. These stars are so hot that they shine with a brilliant blue-white light and have surface temperatures over 30,000° Celsius.” Read more ..


The Edge of Health

Locally Produced Proteins Reveal Importance

July 30th 2012

Brain Light

Several years ago, Prof. Michael Fainzilber and his group in the Biological Chemistry Department made a surprising discovery: Proteins thought to exist only near the cell nucleus could also be found in the far-off regions of the body’s longest cells—peripheral nerve cells that extend processes called axons, reaching up to a meter in length in adult humans.

These proteins, known as importins, have a well-studied role in the vicinity of the nucleus: They shuttle various molecules through the protective nuclear membrane. Fainzilber and his group showed that when a nerve cell is injured somewhere along its length, importins in the long axons hook into a sort of “railcar” mechanism, which then transports the “Help!” message from the injury site all the way to the nucleus.

These findings raised an intriguing question: How did importins get to the axons in the first place? Initial evidence suggested that one critical importin, called importin beta1, is produced locally upon injury near the site where it is needed. The problem was that years of scientific thinking on the subject indicated that proteins do not get manufactured in the axons, as investigations had turned up few of the cellular protein factories known as ribosomes there. Read more ..


The Digital Edge

California's 'Silicon Beach' Draws Tech Start-Ups

July 28th 2012

Beech

California's Silicon Valley, near San Francisco, is world famous as a haven for technology companies, including giants like Google and Facebook. Many young entrepreneurs are bypassing Silicon Valley, though, to start their companies in an area called Silicon Beach.

On the west side of Los Angeles, people from around the world come for the beach, year-round sunshine and warm weather. This also is where Gregg Spiridellis and his brother operate the online comedy and e-card company, JibJab. 

“We are two blocks from the beach. It’s 72 degrees [i.e., about 22 degrees Celsius] and sunny every single day,” said Spiridellis.

Tech companies crop up
Spiridellis moved his company 10 years ago from New York to the beach in Los Angeles, after the dot.com crash almost wiped out his company. The move gave new life to his business. “When we first moved out to L.A., there was no technology community. We did not move to Los Angeles for technology in 2002; we moved to artists for creative talent,” he said. Read more ..


The Medical Edge

Judging DNA by Its Cover

July 27th 2012

Human embryonic stem cells
Human embryonic stem cells (credit: PLoS Biology)

Stem cells hold great promise for the medicine of the future, but they can also be a cause of disease. When these self-renewing, unspecialized cells fail to differentiate into diverse cell types, they can start dividing uncontrollably, leading to cancer. Several decades ago, Weizmann Institute scientists were among the first to demonstrate the link between cancer and the faulty differentiation of stem cells. Now a new Weizmann Institute-led study, published in Molecular Cell, reveals a potential molecular mechanism behind this link.

The scientists managed to uncover the details of a step in the process of DNA “repackaging” that takes place during embryonic stem cell differentiation. It turns out that for the cells to differentiate properly, certain pieces of the packaging of their DNA must be labeled by a molecular tag called ubiquitin. Such tagging is required for turning on a group of particularly long genes, which enable the stem cell to differentiate.

The researchers identified two switches: An enzyme called RNF20 enhances the tagging, whereas a second enzyme, USP44, does the opposite, shutting it down. Read more ..


The Edge of Medicine

Chemical Makes Blind Mice See; Compound Holds Promise For Treating Humans

July 25th 2012

Mouse in Beaker

A team of University of California, Berkeley, scientists in collaboration with researchers at the University of Munich and University of Washington in Seattle has discovered a chemical that temporarily restores some vision to blind mice, and is working on an improved compound that may someday allow people with degenerative blindness to see again.

The approach could eventually help those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that is the most common inherited form of blindness, as well as age-related macular degeneration, the most common cause of acquired blindness in the developed world. In both diseases, the light sensitive cells in the retina — the rods and cones — die, leaving the eye without functional photoreceptors.

The chemical, called AAQ, acts by making the remaining, normally "blind" cells in the retina sensitive to light, said lead researcher Richard Kramer, UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology. AAQ is a photoswitch that binds to protein ion channels on the surface of retinal cells. When switched on by light, AAQ alters the flow of ions through the channels and activates these neurons much the way rods and cones are activated by light.

"This is similar to the way local anesthetics work: they embed themselves in ion channels and stick around for a long time, so that you stay numb for a long time," Kramer said. "Our molecule is different in that it's light sensitive, so you can turn it on and off and turn on or off neural activity."

Because the chemical eventually wears off, it may offer a safer alternative to other experimental approaches for restoring sight, such as gene or stem cell therapies, which permanently change the retina. It is also less invasive than implanting light-sensitive chips in the eye. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Two Solar System Puzzles Solved

July 25th 2012

North America sat image

Comets and asteroids preserve the building blocks of our Solar System and should help explain its origin. But there are unsolved puzzles. For example, how did icy comets obtain particles that formed at high temperatures, and how did these refractory particles acquire rims with different compositions? Carnegie's theoretical astrophysicist Alan Boss and cosmochemist Conel Alexander are the first to model the trajectories of such particles in the unstable disk of gas and dust that formed the Solar System. They found that these refractory particles could have been processed in the hot inner disk, and then traveled out to the frigid outer regions to end up in icy comets. Their meandering trips back and forth could help explain the different compositions of their rims. The research is published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

The young Sun is thought to have experienced a series of outbursts caused by the rapid infall of disk gas onto the Sun. The leading mechanism for explaining such outbursts is a phase of disk instability. The researchers modeled the trajectories of several hundred centimeter-sized melilite mineral particles during a phase of disk instability. These particles are similar to calcium-aluminum-rich inclusions (or CAIs), the refractory particles often found in well-preserved meteorites, as well as the comet Wild 2. Read more ..


The Edge of Medicine

How the Fluid Between Cells Affects Tumors

July 25th 2012

t cells attack cancer

There are many factors that affect tumor invasion, the process where a tumor grows beyond the tissue where it first developed. While factors like genetics, tissue type and environmental exposure affect tumor metastasis and invasion, physical forces like fluid flow remain a poorly understood component of tumor invasion. A new video article in JoVE, the Journal of Visualized Experiments, describes a novel procedure that allows researchers to study and test the microenvironment of a growing tumor. The technique is valuable because it allows scientists to assay tumor invasion attributable to extracellular fluid flow in vitro and better understand the effects of such physical changes on a tumor. The study focuses specifically on a type of extracellular fluid called interstitial fluid, which flows between cells in a tissue. This procedure is a significant first step to develop an in vitro system that better mimics what happens within a growing tumor in the patient.

“Our goal is to understand how physical forces affect how tumor cells behave. By understanding factors influencing why a tumor does or does not spread, we will have a much better understanding of which therapies will affect the tumor,” said author Dr. Adrian Shieh of Drexel University. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Building a Middleweight Black Hole

July 25th 2012

Black hole pulling gas from nearby star
Artist’s conception of black hole pulling gas from a star
(credit: NASA E/PO, Sonoma State University, Aurore Simonnet)

A new model shows how an elusive type of black hole can be formed in the gas surrounding their supermassive counterparts. In research published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, scientists from the American Museum of Natural History, the City University of New York, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology, and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics propose that intermediate-mass black holes—light-swallowing celestial objects with masses ranging from hundreds to many thousands of times the mass of the Sun—can grow in the gas disks around supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies. The physical mechanism parallels the model astrophysicists use to describe the growth of giant planets in the gas disks surrounding stars.

“We know about small black holes, which tend to be close to us and have masses a few to 10 times that of our Sun, and we know about supermassive black holes, which are found in the centers of galaxies and have a mass that’s millions to billions of times the mass of the sun,” said coauthor Saavik Ford, who is a research associate in the Museum’s Department of Astrophysics as well as a professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), part of the City University of New York (CUNY), and a faculty member at CUNY’s Graduate Center. “But we have no evidence for the middle stage. Intermediate-mass black holes are much harder to find.” Read more ..


The Edge of Climate Change

Washington's Forests Will Lose Stored Carbon by Wildfires

July 24th 2012

Wildfire

Forests in the Pacific Northwest store more carbon than any other region in the United States, but our warming climate may undermine their storage potential.

A new study conducted by the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station and the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington has found that, by 2040, parts of Washington State could lose as much as a third of their carbon stores, as an increasing area of the state's forests is projected to be burned by wildfire. The study is the first to use statistical models and publicly available Forest Inventory and Analysis data to estimate the effects of a warming climate on carbon storage and fluxes on Washington's forests.

"When considering the use of forests to store carbon, it will be critical to consider the increasing risk of wildfire," said Crystal Raymond, a research biologist based at the station's Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Laboratory and lead author of the study. "Especially in the West, where climate-induced changes in fire are expected to be a key agent of change." Read more ..


The Edge of Archaeology

Feces Fossils Yield Insights into Ancients Diets

July 24th 2012

Coporolites

Scientists have long speculated that high diabetes rates among Native Americans may have roots in the evolutionary past. "Thrifty" genes that helped ancient hunter-gatherers store fat for survival during famine may contribute to diabetes in modern times of plenty.

But a new analysis of fossil feces from an Arizona cave suggests that the evolution of thrifty genes had little to do with famine and much more to do with the nature of the ancient feast. The research, reported in the August issue of Current Anthropology, shows that prehistoric hunter-gatherers in the Southwest lived on a diet remarkably high in fiber, low in fat, and consisting largely of foods with extremely low glycemic indices. That diet alone, the researchers say, could have been enough to fix fat-hoarding genes in place.

"What we're saying is we don't really need to look to feast or famine as a basis for thrifty genes," said Karl Reinhard, an archaeologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and one the study's authors. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Dark Energy and the Fate of the Universe

July 24th 2012

NGC 1097 Spiral Galaxy
Credit: Ann Feild, NASA/STScI

Dark energy makes up about 70 percent of the current content of the Universe and thus holds the ultimate fate of our Universe. Several possible scenarios are possible depending on the properties of dark energy; one is that the Universe will end in a so-called big rip.

This interesting topic was recently explored by five researchers from the University of Science and Technology of China, the Institute of Theoretical Physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Northeastern University, and Peking University. Their work, “Dark energy and fate of the Universe,” was published in Sci China-Phys Mech Astron.

For millennia, human beings have been pondering two ultimate questions: “Where do we come from?” and "Where are we going?” Over that time, these questions have spurred theological and philosophical debate. Thanks to the rapid development of modern cosmology in the past three decades, scientists nowadays have obtained some important clues to answer these questions. The standard “inflation plus hot big bang” framework has been developed to explain the origin of the Universe. However, to forecast the destiny of the Universe, researchers have realized that the nature of dark energy is key. Read more ..


The Way We Are

Why Sheep Flock: It’s Not for the Company

July 24th 2012

Sheep in GPS for flocking study
Sheep equipped with GPS for flocking study (credit: Andrew King et al)

Many animals spend time together in large groups not because they enjoy each other’s company, but rather because it lowers their own chances of being eaten should an uninvited guest arrive on the scene—or so the theory goes. Now, researchers who have strapped GPS-enabled backpacks to flocking sheep and a herding dog provide some of the first hard evidence that this “selfish herd theory” is true. The findings appear in the currennt issue of Current Biology, a Cell Press publication.

“We were able to track the movements of the sheep and the dog that pursued them on a second-by-second basis simultaneously,” said Andrew King of The Royal Veterinary College, University of London. “In each case, we found that the sheep exhibit a strong attraction towards the center of the flock as the dog approaches,” an effort to avoid the more dangerous fringe.

The selfish herd has long been a favorite explanation for grouping behavior, the researchers say. But tracking the concerted movements of many individual animals at once and predicting a predator’s attack is not easy to do. As a result, there had been little semblance of proof. Read more ..


The Geologic Edge

Fool’s Gold Key Player in Regulating Atmospheric Oxygen

July 24th 2012

Pyrite (fool's gold)
Pyrite (fool’s gold) sample (credit: PNJ)

As sulfur cycles through Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, and land, it undergoes chemical changes that are often coupled to changes in other such elements as carbon and oxygen. Although this affects the concentration of free oxygen, sulfur has traditionally been portrayed as a secondary factor in regulating atmospheric oxygen, with most of the heavy lifting done by carbon. However, new findings that appeared this week in Science suggest that sulfur’s role may have been underestimated.

Drs. Itay Halevy of the Weizmann Institute’s Environmental Science and Energy Research Department (Faculty of Chemistry), Shanan Peters of the University of Wisconsin and Woodward Fischer of the California Institute of Technology, were interested in better understanding the global sulfur cycle over the last 550 million years—roughly the period in which oxygen has been at its present atmospheric level of around 20 percent. They used a database developed and maintained by Peters at the University of Wisconsin, called Macrostrat, which contains detailed information on thousands of rock units in North America and beyond. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

River Networks on Titan Point to Puzzling Geologic History

July 23rd 2012

Rivers and lakes on Titan
Methane rivers and lakes on Titan via Cassini (credit: NASA/JPL/USGS)

For many years, Titan’s thick, methane- and nitrogen-rich atmosphere kept astronomers from seeing what lies beneath. Saturn’s largest moon appeared through telescopes as a hazy orange orb, in contrast to other heavily cratered moons in the solar system.

In 2004, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft—a probe that flies by Titan as it orbits Saturn—penetrated Titan’s haze, providing scientists with their first detailed images of the surface. Radar images revealed an icy terrain carved out over millions of years by rivers of liquid methane, similar to how rivers of water have etched into Earth’s rocky continents.

While images of Titan have revealed its present landscape, very little is known about its geologic past. Now researchers at MIT and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville have analyzed images of Titan’s river networks and determined that in some regions, rivers have created surprisingly little erosion. The researchers say there are two possible explanations: either erosion on Titan is extremely slow, or some other recent phenomena may have wiped out older riverbeds and landforms. A paper detailing the group’s findings will appear in the Journal of Geophysical Research–Planets. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Ancient Meteorites Give New Clues about the Early Solar System

July 23rd 2012

Johnstown meteorte showing diogenites
Johnstown meteorite showing diogenites (credit: Jon Taylor)

In order to understand Earth’s earliest history—its formation from Solar System material to the present-day layering of metal core and mantle, and crust—scientists look to meteorites. New research from a team including Carnegie’s Doug Rumble and Liping Qin focuses on one particularly old type of meteorite called diogenites. These samples were examined using an array of techniques, including precise analysis of certain elements for important clues to some of the Solar System’s earliest chemical processing. Their work is published in July in Nature Geoscience.

At some point after terrestrial planets or large bodies accreted from surrounding Solar System material, they differentiated into a metallic core, asilicate mantle, and a crust. This involved a great deal of heating. The sources of this heat are the decay of short-lived radioisotopes; the energy conversion that occurs when dense metals are physically separated from lighter silicate; and the impact of large objects. Studies indicate that the Earth’s and Moon’s mantles may have formed more than 4.4 billion years ago, and Mars’s more than 4.5 billion years ago. Theoretically, when a planet or large body differentiates enough to form a core, certain elements including osmium, iridium, ruthenium, platinum, palladium, and rhenium—known as highly siderophile (iron-lovng) elements—are segregated into the core. Read more ..


The Water's Edge

'Caffeinated' Coastal Waters Discovered--Sewer Overflows, Septic Tanks Suspected

July 23rd 2012

Ocean

A new study finds elevated levels of caffeine at several sites in Pacific Ocean waters off the coast of Oregon—though not necessarily where researchers expected. This study is the first to look at caffeine pollution off the Oregon coast. It was developed and conducted by Portland State University master's student Zoe Rodriguez del Rey and her faculty adviser Elise Granek, assistant professor of Environmental Science and Management, in collaboration with Steve Sylvester of Washington State University, Vancouver. In spring 2010, Rodriguez del Rey and Granek collected and analyzed samples from 14 coastal locations and seven adjacent water bodies as far north as Astoria, Ore., and as far south as Brookings.

Locations were identified as potentially polluted if they were near wastewater treatment plants, large population centers or rivers and streams emptying into the ocean. The study found high caffeine levels near Carl Washburne State Park (Florence, Ore.) and Cape Lookout, two areas not near the potential pollution sources, yet low levels of caffeine near large population centers like Astoria/Warrenton and Coos Bay. Read more ..


The Digital Edge

Radiation Damage Big Problem in Microelectronics

July 22nd 2012

Computer chips

The amount of structural damage that radiation causes in electronic materials at the atomic level may be at least ten times greater than previously thought.

That is the surprising result of a new characterization method that uses a combination of lasers and acoustic waves to provide scientists with a capability tantamount to X-ray vision: It allows them to peer through solid materials to pinpoint the size and location of detects buried deep inside with unprecedented precision.

"The ability to accurately measure the defects in electronic materials becomes increasingly important as the size of microelectronic devices continues to shrink," Tolk explained. "When an individual transistor contains millions of atoms, it can absorb quite a bit of damage before it fails. But when a transistor contains a few thousand atoms, a single defect can cause it to stop working."

Previous methods used to study damage in electronic materials have been limited to looking at defects and deformations in the atomic lattice. The new method is the first that is capable of detecting disruption in the positions of the electrons that are attached to the atoms. This is particularly important because it is the behavior of the electrons that determine a material's electrical and optical properties. Read more ..


The Race for EVs

Tesla Predicts that Half of Cars Will Be Electric in 15 Years

July 22nd 2012

Tesla roadster

In the midst of the Tesla Model S rollout at the company's California manufacturing plant recently, Tesla CEO Elon Musk made a startling prediction: "In 20 years more than half of new cars manufactured will be fully electric," he said, according to a Reuters article. "I actually feel quite safe in that bet. That's a bet I will put money on."

That's a strong statement, but Musk apparently didn't think it was strong enough, so he quickly amended it. "It's probably going to be in the 12- to 15-year time frame," he added.

For those who closely follow the electric car business, that's a stunning prognostication, to put it kindly. Today, fully electric cars are few and their sales are poor. By 2020, Lux Research Inc. projects that "less than a percent" of new vehicles will be fully electric. Pike Research is slightly more charitable, saying they believe it could hit 1 percent. "If you look 10 years past 2020, is it going to gain another 49 percent?" asks Dave Hurst, senior analyst for Pike Research. "It's unlikely." Read more ..


The Geological Edge

X-rays Illuminate Origin of Volcanic Hotspots, Provide Evidence for Mantle Plume Hypothesis

July 21st 2012

Kīlauea eruption 1983
Kīlauea, 1983 (credit: J.D. Griggs, USGS)

Scientists have recreated the extreme conditions at the boundary between Earth’s core and its mantle, 2,900 km beneath the surface. Using the world’s most brilliant beam of X-rays, they probed speck-sized samples of rock at very high temperature and pressure to show for the first time that partially molten rock under these conditions is buoyant and should segregate towards the Earth’s surface. This observation is a strong evidence for the theory that volcanic hotspots like the Hawaiian Islands originate from mantle plumes generated at the Earth’s core-mantle boundary. The results were published in Nature on 19 July 2012.

The group of scientists was led by Denis Andrault from the Laboratoire Magmas et Volcans of University Blaise Pascal in Clermont, and included scientists from the CNRS in Clermont and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France. Most volcanoes are situated where continental plates are pushed or pulled against each other. Here, the continental crust is weakened, and the magma can break through to the surface. The Pacific “Ring of Fire,” for example, exhibits such plate movements, resulting in powerful earthquakes and numerous active volcanoes. Read more ..


Edge of Medicine

'Guided-Missles' Are Enlisted to Fight Cancer and other Diseases

July 21st 2012

cancer cell

“Monoclonal antibodies” may sound like a great name for a heavy-metal band, but actually they’re the basis of best-selling pharmaceuticals raking in about $50 billion dollars a year.

The two-year-old Israeli company Immune Pharmaceuticals is fast emerging as a leader in developing new ways to use these antibodies, which are found in drugs such as Herceptin for breast cancer, Remicade to treat autoimmune diseases and Erbitux for head, neck and colorectal cancer.

“We are building an Israel-based Center of Excellence for Monoclonal Antibody Drug Development with access to best-in-class novel technologies from world-class academic institutions including the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Weizmann Institute of Science,” says founder and CEO Daniel Teper. “We expect to initiate collaborative research programs with biotech and pharmaceutical companies later this year.” Read more ..


The Edge of Nature

Top 10 Ways Israel Fights Desertification

July 20th 2012

Arid Desert

This past year’s erratic and violent weather is only a small taste of what’s to come, climate scientists predict, as the impact of global warming starts to hit. Weather will become more unpredictable, flooding will become even fiercer, and droughts and famine more widespread as land increasingly gives over to desert.

With desert covering a large part of its surface, Israel has had to quickly develop solutions for its lack of arable land and potable water. Israeli research, innovation, achievements and education on this topic now span the globe in tackling problems common to all desert dwellers.

“We’ve done a lot of research on ecosystem response to drought because we have this problem on our doorstep,” says Prof. Pedro Berliner, director of Israel’s foremost research center for desert research, the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev Desert.

This article looks at Israel’s top 10 advances to combat desertification, putting special focus on the work done by researchers at the Blaustein Institute.

1. Looking to the ancients

They lived in the Land of Israel more than 2,000 years ago in the heart of the Negev Desert, yet found a way to survive and thrive. How did the Nabateans build a sustainable community that provided food, firewood and fodder for animals?

This is Prof. Pedro Berliner’s area of interest. He has developed a modern-day version of the Nabatean floodwater collection system, Runoff Agroforestry Systems, and travels the world teaching farmers in countries such as Kenya, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, India, and Mexico how to implement it. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Science and Art: Visualizing Solar Heating

July 20th 2012

One Sun Two Views
Two ways of visualizing data from solar observations
(credit: NASA SDO and NASA/N. Viall)

A crucial, and often under-appreciated, facet of science lies in deciding how to turn the raw numbers of data into useful, understandable information—often through graphs and images. Such visualization techniques are needed for everything from making a map of planetary orbits based on nightly measurements of where they are in the sky to colorizing normally invisible light such as X-rays to produce “images” of the sun.

More information, of course, requires more complex visualizations and occasionally such images are not just informative, but beautiful too.

Such is the case with a new technique created by Nicholeen Viall, a solar scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. She creates images of the sun reminiscent of Van Gogh, with broad strokes of bright color splashed across a yellow background. But it’s science, not art. The color of each pixel contains a wealth of information about the 12-hour history of cooling and heating at that particular spot on the sun. That heat history holds clues to the mechanisms that drive the temperature and movements of the sun’s atmosphere, or corona.

A crucial, and often underappreciated, facet of science lies in deciding how to turn the raw numbers of data into useful, understandable information—often through graphs and images. Such visualization techniques are needed for everything from making a map of planetary orbits based on nightly measurements of where they are in the sky to colorizing normally invisible light such as X-rays to produce “images” of the sun. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Newly Discovered Exoplanet Neighbor Smaller than Earth

July 18th 2012

Exoplanet candidate UCF-1.01
Artist’s conception of small, hot exoplanet candidate UCF-1.01
(credit: NASA)

The University of Central Florida has detected what could be its first planet, only two-thirds the size of Earth and located right around the corner, cosmically speaking, at a mere 33 light-years away. The exoplanet candidate, called UCF 1.01, is close to its star—so close it goes around the star in 1.4 days. The planet’s surface likely reaches temperatures of more than 1,000° Fahrenheit. The discoverers believe that it has no atmosphere, is only two-thirds the gravity of Earth, and that its surface may be volcanic or molten.

“We have found strong evidence for a very small, very hot, and very close-by planet with the help of the Spitzer Space Telescope,” said Kevin Stevenson, a recent PhD graduate from the UCF and lead author of the paper, which is scheduled to appear online in The Astrophysical Journal. “This discovery is a significant accomplishment for UCF.”

Stevenson and his colleagues were studying a hot-Neptune exoplanet, designated GJ 436b, already known to exist around the red dwarf star GJ 436, when data revealed clues that led them to suspect there could be at least one new planet in that system, perhaps two. Read more ..


The Digital Edge

France Considers Internet Tax

July 18th 2012

Frustrated computer user

The French government is considering ways to tax Internet based companies that contrive to sell products and services in France without paying much to the government there by way of taxes, according to an Agence France-Presse (AFP) report. Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon are being targeted the report quotes Yves Le Mouel, head of the French Telecommunications Federation (FFT), as saying. The GAFA quartet has annual sales of around five billion euros (about $6.1 billion) in France, the report said. It is an old question that first surfaced in the 1990s when the Internet first became popular and facilitated international sales. The idea of an internet tax was put to one side at that time because individual countries found it too difficult to address and were wary of the economic penalty of not developing as knowledge-based and Internet-enabled societies.

The French government has now launched a study due later this year that will again look at levies on Internet-based companies. Read more ..



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