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The Edge of Space

IBEX Finds that Expected Solar System Boundary Isn’t There

May 13th 2012

IBEX in high Earth orbit
Artist's conception of IBEX in high Earth orbit (credit: NASA GSFC)

For the last few decades, space scientists have generally accepted that the bubble of gas and magnetic fields generated by the sun—known as the heliosphere—moves through space, creating three distinct boundary layers that culminate in an outermost bow shock. This shock is similar to the sonic boom created ahead of a supersonic jet. Earth itself certainly has one of these bow shocks on the sunward side of its magnetic environment, as do most other planets and many stars. A collection of new data from NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX), however, now indicate that the sun does not have a bow shock.

For a paper appearing in Science Express, scientists compiled data from IBEX, NASA’s twin Voyager spacecraft, and computer models to show that the heliosphere just isn’t moving fast enough to create a bow shock in the tenuous and highly magnetized region in our local part of the galaxy.

“IBEX gives a global view. It shows the whole of this region,” says Eric Christian, the mission scientist for IBEX at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. and who was formerly the program scientist for Voyager. “At the same time the Voyager spacecraft are actually there, in situ, measuring its environment at two locations. The combination of IBEX and Voyager gives you great science and now the new IBEX results strongly indicate that there is no bow shock.” Read more ..

The Health Edge

Novel Approach to Stimulate Immune Cells

May 13th 2012


Researchers at Rutgers University have uncovered a new way to stimulate activity of immune cell opiate receptors, leading to efficient tumor cell clearance. Sarkar, professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences and his research team have been able to take a new pharmacological approach to activate the immune cells to prevent cancer growth through stimulation of the opiate receptors found on immune cells.

This research, funded by the National Institutes of Health-National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholosm. It describes two structurally different but functionally similar opioid receptors, Mu- and Delta-opioid receptors. These receptors form protein complexes as either two structurally similar receptors as a homodimer—formed by two identical molecules—or two structurally dissimilar protein complexes as a heterodimer—formed by ethanol inducement—in immune cells. The team pharmacologically fooled these two structurally different but functionally similar opioid receptors to form more homodimers so that opioid peptide increases the immune cells’ ability to kill tumor cells. Read more ..

The Environmental Edge

Groundwater Pumping Leads to Sea Level Rise, Cancels Out Effect of Dams

May 12th 2012

Stormy Seas

As people pump groundwater for irrigation, drinking water, and industrial uses, the water doesn’t just seep back into the ground — it also evaporates into the atmosphere, or runs off into rivers and canals, eventually emptying into the world’s oceans. This water adds up, and a new study calculates that by 2050, groundwater pumping will cause a global sea level rise of about 0.8 millimeters per year.

“Other than ice on land, the excessive groundwater extractions are fast becoming the most important terrestrial water contribution to sea level rise,” said Yoshihide Wada, with Utrecht University in the Netherlands and lead author of the study. In the coming decades, he noted, groundwater contributions to sea level rise are expected to become as significant as those of melting glaciers and ice caps outside of Greenland and the Antarctic. Between around 1970 and 1990, sea level rise caused by groundwater pumping was cancelled out as people built dams, trapping water in reservoirs so the water wouldn’t empty into the sea, Wada said. His research shows that starting in the 1990s, that changed as populations started pumping more groundwater and building fewer dams. Read more ..

The Robotic Edge

UK Opens Europe's Largest Robotics Laboratory

May 12th 2012

Click to select Image

The Bristol Robotics Lab is a partnership between UWE Bristol (University of the West of England) and the University of Bristol. It is home to 70 academics and businesses who are leading current thinking in 'nouvelle' and service robotics, intelligent autonomous systems and bio-engineering. Over £1.65 million has been spent on the new facilities which cover 2,400 sqm, with over 300 metres of specialised laboratory space and two Flying Arenas.

"This is probably the largest robotics lab in Europe," said Libor Kral, Head of Unit Cognitive Systems for Interaction Robotics at the European Commission. Robotics is a key element for Eruipe, he says. "In the current framework we have over 100 projectsa and E500m for robotics enabling technology and this is the largest no-military funding project in the world for robotics." The next set of European Framework projects will concentrate more on industrial led developments and new efforts to attract industrial partners, he said. Read more ..

Nature Edge

Michigan Builds Spawning Rock Reefs to Preserve Native Fish Species

May 11th 2012

Sturgeon - Great Lakes
Great Lakes sturgeon and spawning reef

The construction of rock reefs in Great Lakes waterways are expected to aid in the survival of fish. The rock reefs are designed to assist several native species that are considered threatened or endangered in Michigan, including lake sturgeon, mooneye, the northern madtom catfish and the river redhorse sucker. Walleye, a popular sport fish, and commercially important lake whitefish should also benefit, according to a release from the University of Michigan.

The new reefs will be constructed in the Middle Channel of the St. Clair River delta, not far from Detroit and near an existing lake sturgeon spawning site. The $1.1 million St. Clair project is a follow-up to rock reefs built on the Detroit River in 2004 and 2008.

"We've been working together on these reefs for more than 10 years now, and over the course of time we've really figured out what kinds of physical characteristics the fish are attracted to," said project leader Jennifer Read, acting director of Michigan Sea Grant, a cooperative program of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. Michigan Sea Grant is a Center of Excellence at the U-M School of Natural Resources and Environment. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Vesta by Dawn

May 11th 2012

Dawn observing Vesta
Artist's Conception of Dawn spacecraft observing Vesta
(credit: NASA JPL; Caltech)

When UCLA’s Christopher T. Russell looks at the images of the protoplanet Vesta produced by NASA’s Dawn mission, he talks about beauty as much as he talks about science. “Vesta looks like a little planet. It has a beautiful surface, much more varied and diverse than we expected,” said Russell, a professor in UCLA’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences and the Dawn mission’s principal investigator. “We knew Vesta’s surface had some variation in color, but we did not expect the diversity that we see or the clarity of the colors and textures, or their distinct boundaries. We didn’t find gold on Vesta, but it is still a gold mine.”

There are six new papers about Vesta, named for the ancient Roman goddess of the hearth, in the May 11 edition of Science, and Russell is a co-author on all of them.

Dawn has been orbiting Vesta and collecting data on the protoplanet’s surface since July 2011. Vesta, which is in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, is currently some 321 million miles from Earth. Russell and his scientific team expected to find one large crater on Vesta, but they were surprised to find two, with the larger one—about 344 miles across—essentially on top of the smaller. Read more ..

The Race for Alt Fuel

Secrets of the First Practical Artificial Leaf

May 11th 2012

Artificial Leaf

A detailed description of development of the first practical artificial leaf—a milestone in the drive for sustainable energy that mimics the process, photosynthesis, that green plants use to convert water and sunlight into energy—appears in the ACS journal Accounts of Chemical Research. The article notes that unlike earlier devices, which used costly ingredients, the new device is made from inexpensive materials and employs low-cost engineering and manufacturing processes.

Daniel G. Nocera points out that the artificial leaf responds to the vision of a famous Italian chemist who, in 1912, predicted that scientists one day would uncover the “guarded secret of plants.” The most important of those, Nocera says, is the process that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen.

The artificial leaf has a sunlight collector sandwiched between two films that generate oxygen and hydrogen gas. When dropped into a jar of water in the sunlight, it bubbles away, releasing hydrogen that can be used in fuel cells to make electricity. These self-contained units hold promise for making fuel for electricity in remote places and the developing world, but designs demonstrated thus far rely on metals like platinum and manufacturing processes that make them cost-prohibitive. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Massive Black Holes Disrupt Star Formation Process

May 10th 2012

Massive black hole disrupting star formation
Artist's Conception: Massive black hole disrupts star formation
(credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt)

Astronomers, using the ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory, have shown that the number of stars that form during the early lives of galaxies may be influenced by the massive black holes at their hearts. This helps explain the link between the size of the central bulges of galaxies and the mass of their central black holes.

All large galaxies have a massive black hole at their centre, each millions of times the mass of a single star. For over a decade, scientists have been puzzled as to why the masses of the black holes are linked to the size of the round central bulges at the hearts of galaxies. The suspicion has long been that the answer lies in the early lives of the galaxies, when the stars in the bulge were forming. To study this phase, astronomers need to look at very distant galaxies, so far away that we see them as they were billions of years ago.

Although the black holes themselves cannot be seen, the material closest to them can get incredibly hot, emitting large amounts of light over a very wide range of wavelengths, from radio waves to x-rays. The light from this super-heated material can be trillions of times as bright as the Sun, with brighter emissions indicating a more massive black hole. There are also strong flows of material (winds and jets) expelled from the region around the black hole. Read more ..

The Way We Are

Resolving the Origin of the Domesticated Horse

May 10th 2012

Asian wild horse, Equus ferus przewalskii
Asian wild horse, closest living relative of original domesticated horses
(credit: Chintogtokh)

New research indicates that domestic horses originated in the steppes of modern-day Ukraine, southwest Russia and west Kazakhstan, mixing with local wild stocks as they spread throughout Europe and Asia. The research was published recently in PNAS.

For several decades, scientists puzzled over the origin of domesticated horses. Based on archaeological evidence, it had long been thought that horse domestication originated in the western part of the Eurasian Steppe (Ukraine, southwest Russia and west Kazakhstan); however, a single origin in a geographically restricted area appeared at odds with the large number of female lineages in the domestic horse gene pool, commonly thought to reflect multiple domestication events across a wide geographic area.

In order to solve the perplexing history of the domestic horse, scientists from the University of Cambridge used a genetic database of more than 300 horses sampled from across the Eurasian Steppe to run a number of different modelling scenarios.

Their research shows that the extinct wild ancestor of domestic horses, Equus ferus, expanded out of East Asia approximately 160,000 years ago. They were also able to demonstrate that Equus ferus was domesticated in the western Eurasian Steppe, and that herds were repeatedly restocked with wild horses as they spread across Eurasia. Read more ..

The Environmental Edge

Climate Change is Drying up the Great Southwest

May 10th 2012

Arid Desert

Jonathan Overpeck, professor of Atmospheric Sciences and Geosciences at the University of Arizona, brought a friendly smile, informative graphics and a warning about drought in the Southwest to Sandia’s Climate Change and National Security Speaker Series.

Addressing “Climate Change and the Aridification of the North American Southwest and Beyond,” Overpeck placed water-glass graphic images at key water-storage locations in the Southwest to show how full the reservoirs are. Many glasses are more than half-empty, he said, and computer simulations predict the situation will worsen.

Overpeck has authored more than 150 published papers in climate and environmental sciences. He was coordinating lead author for the Nobel Prize-winning U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (fourth assessment).

In an effort to shed light on the wide spectrum of thought regarding the causes and extent of changes in Earth’s climate, Sandia National Laboratories has invited experts from a wide variety of perspectives to present their views in the Climate Change and National Security Speaker Series.

Overpeck recounted unprecedented heat waves that included a growing number of days above 110 degrees in Phoenix and the 840-square-mile Wallow Fire last May, the biggest wildfire ever in New Mexico and Arizona. He pointed to major floods that, by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates, have caused $53 billion in damages. He also mentioned a record tornado season and an unusually wet and destructive tropical storm. “The temperature record for March 2012 (8.6 degrees above the 20th century average for that month) was big news,” he said. Read more ..

The Way We Are

New Insights into the How of Molecular Handedness

May 9th 2012

Achiral Triangles, Chiral Superstructures
Achiral triangles that have formed chiral super-structures
(credit: Thomas G. Mason and Kun Zhao)

The overwhelming majority of proteins and other functional molecules in our bodies display a striking molecular characteristic: They can exist in two distinct forms that are mirror images of each other, like your right hand and left hand. Surprisingly, each of our bodies prefers only one of these molecular forms.

This mirror-image phenomenon—known as chirality or “handedness”—has captured the imagination of a UCLA research group led by Thomas G. Mason, a professor of chemistry and physics and a member of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA. Mason has been exploring how and why chirality arises, and his newest findings on the physical origins of the phenomenon were published May 1 in the journal Nature Communications. “Objects like our hands are chiral, while objects like regular triangles are achiral, meaning they don’t have a handedness to them,” said Mason, the senior author of the study. “Achiral objects can be easily superimposed on top of one another.”

Why many of the important functional molecules in our bodies almost always occur in just one chiral form when they could potentially exist in either is a mystery that has confounded researchers for years. “Our bodies contain important molecules like proteins that overwhelmingly have one type of chirality,” Mason said. “The other chiral form is essentially not found. I find that fascinating. We asked, ‘Could this biological preference of a particular chirality possibly have a physical origin?’” Read more ..

The Edge of Space

VISTA Views a Vast Ball of Stars

May 9th 2012

M55 in Sagittarius via VISTA
VISTA IR image of M55 in Sagitarius
(credit: ESO; J. Emerson; VISTA; Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit)

Globular clusters are held together in a tight spherical shape by gravity. In Messier 55, the stars certainly keep close company: approximately one hundred thousand stars are packed within a sphere with a diameter of only about 100 light years (about 25 times the distance between the Sun and the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri).

About 160 globular clusters have been spotted circling our galaxy, the Milky Way, mostly toward its bulging centre. The two latest discoveries, made using VISTA, were recently announced by ESO. The largest galaxies can have thousands of these rich collections of stars in orbit around them.

Observations of globular clusters' stars reveal that they originated around the same time—more than 10 billion years ago—and from the same cloud of gas. As this formative period was just a few billion years after the Big Bang, nearly all of the gas on hand was the simplest, lightest and most common in the cosmos: hydrogen, along with some helium and much smaller amounts of heavier chemical elements such as oxygen and nitrogen. Being made mostly from hydrogen distinguishes globular cluster residents from stars born in later eras, like our Sun, that are infused with heavier elements created in earlier generations of stars. The Sun lit up some 4.6 billion years ago, making it only about half as old as the elderly stars in most globular clusters. The chemical makeup of the cloud from which the Sun formed is reflected in the abundances of elements found throughout the Solar System—in asteroids, in the planets, and in our own bodies. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

TDRS-4 Mission Complete; Spacecraft Retired From Active Service

May 8th 2012

View of Venus

The Tracking and Data Relay Satellite 4 (TDRS-4) recently completed almost 23 years of operations support and successfully completed end-of-mission de-orbit and decommissioning activities. TDRS-4's operational life span was well beyond its original 10-year design.

Launched on March 13, 1989, from onboard Space Shuttle Discovery, TDRS-4 operated in geosynchronous (GEO) altitude at more than 22,000 miles above the Atlantic Ocean region. As part of the spacecraft's end-of-mission activities, its orbit was raised above the congested geosynchronous orbit.

TDRS-4 was forced to retire after the loss of one of three Nickel-Cadmium (24 cell) batteries and the reduction in storage capacity for the two remaining batteries that power the satellite. Retirement for the satellite consisted of excess fuel depletion, disconnecting batteries, and powering down the Radio Frequency Transmitters and receivers so that the satellite is completely and permanently passive. This ensures the satellite will never interfere with other satellites from the radio frequency perspective. Read more ..

The Education Edge

Roller Coaster Offers Unique Physics Lesson

May 8th 2012

Roller Coaster

Hundreds of teenagers push past security guards and police at the Six Flags America amusement park in Maryland, and make a dash for the roller coasters.They are here for the one day a year the amusement park is closed to the general public, while the roller coasters and other thrill rides become tools in a unique learning experience. It's called Physics Day and to complete their assignments, the students are required to ride.

“My teaching philosophy for physics is that they need to see it, touch it, do it,” says teacher Sonia Faletti. “You don’t learn physics by listening. ”Faletti teaches physics at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, Virginia. She is here with her honors students. Today, they get to experience what they studied in class. Faletti uses amusement park videos throughout the year. Her students have done the math problems and diagrams, explaining the physics behind the rides. Today they carry instruments to help them do their own calculations.

One is called an accelerometer, which measures the force of gravity on the roller coaster. Another is a protractor to measure centripetal force on the circle rides. An instrument, worn securely in a vest, records and displays data gathered during the thrill rides.
A more sophisticated device, worn securely in a vest, records and displays graphs on a computer tablet. “You can get the ups and downs of the ride from the barometer readings,” Faletti says. “You can correlate the 'Okay, I felt heavy here. That was the dip.' Or 'I felt weightless at this point, I was going over the hill.'” Read more ..

The Way We Are

The Internet’s Archive

May 8th 2012

grateful dead at barton hall poster

May 8, 1977. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University’s barn-like Barton field house, specifically. On that particular Sunday evening, for the princely sum of $7.50—$6.50 for students—you could buy one general admission ticket (assuming you could find any for sale) to hear a performance by the Grateful Dead.

For the Dead it was just another gig on an unending tour; the Ithaca stop was sandwiched between New Haven’s Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum and Buffalo’s War Memorial Coliseum. Fairly to form, the band played 20 songs that night, starting with “New Minglewood Blues” and wrapping with the classic “One More Saturday Night.” Along the way they hit a number of fan favorites like “Fire on the Mountain,” “Not Fade Away” and “Morning Dew.”

At the time, May 8th was just another performance by the Dead, an enduring American band that had long attracted its own rolling culture of scruffy fans, hippies, dope-smokers, and assorted others who followed the band from show to show. But for true “Deadheads,” it’s much, much more than that. For Deadhead Nation, May 8 is forever known simply as “Barton Hall.”

35 years later, the Dead’s spring 1977 tour is now the stuff of legend, with the Barton Hall show the most celebrated performance of the band’s career. “I started hearing from other Deadheads that the Barton show was famous,” Brad Krakow tells the Cornell Chronicle. One of the lucky attendees that night, Krakow characterized the Dead’s performance as “tight, no mistakes and inspired. It is funny now when friends ask if that is ‘The’ Barton Hall when visiting. It is an icon.”

But don’t take Krakow’s word for it. Download the entire concert and decide for yourself. In fact, why not download every concert the Grateful Dead ever played to compare and contrast? Go ahead—you can do it all for free, and without any copyright worries, thanks to a website called The Internet Archive. Read more ..

Edge of Computing

New Sensing Technique Makes for Smarter SmartPhones

May 8th 2012

Touche system

Imagine having a doorknob that knows whether it should lock or unlock itself, based on how a user grips it; or a smartphone that silences itself if its user puts a finger to his or her lips; or a chair which automatically adjusts the lighting in a room by sensing whether the user is leaning forward or reclining in the chair.

These and other applications could soon be possible with a new sensing technique developed by a collaborative research team of Disney Research, Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.

The Touché system uses something its developers call Swept Frequency Capacitive Sensing (SFCS), a more advanced form of capacitive touch-sensing technology, which is currently used in the touchscreens of most smartphones.

But, unlike today’s touchscreens which only sense electrical signals at one frequency, Touché’s SFCS technology can monitor signals across a broad range of signals, which would make it possible for the object to not only sense the touch itself, but also to recognize a wide range of complex motions and configurations of the person touching it. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Bandwidth Caps Create Uncertainty, Risky Decisions

May 8th 2012

Hand on Mouse

Recently, many U.S. Internet service providers have fallen in line with their international counterparts in capping monthly residential broadband usage. A new study by a Georgia Tech researcher, conducted during an internship at Microsoft Research, shows such pricing models trigger uneasy user experiences that could be mitigated by better tools for monitoring data usage through their home networks.

Home users, the study found, typically manage their capped broadband access against three uncertainties—invisible balances, mysterious processes, and multiple users—and these uncertainties have predictable impacts on household Internet use and can force difficult choices on users. Given the undeniable trend in both Internet norms (such as cloud-based applications) and home-entertainment delivery toward greater broadband requirements, the study seeks to create awareness and empathy among designers and researchers about the experience of Internet use under bandwidth caps.

Marshini Chetty, a postdoctoral researcher in Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing, interviewed 12 households in South Africa, a country in which broadband caps were universal until February 2010. Typically, the caps set by South African ISPs are severe, with some plans only offering 1 GB of data per month. At the time of the study, the caps ranged up to 9GB of data, far lower than the 150GB-250GB caps set by U.S. providers. Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

New Type of Cell With a Key Role in Treatment-Resistant Asthma

May 7th 2012

Childhood asthma

For most people with asthma, a couple of puffs from an inhaler filled with steroids makes breathing easy. But if their lungs become resistant to the calming effect of that medicine, they live in fear of severe asthma attacks that could send them to the hospital – or worse.

Now, new research from the University of Michigan Health System may help explain what's going on in the lungs of these steroid-resistant individuals. The findings could aid the development of new treatment options, and of better ways to identify people at risk of becoming steroid-resistant.

The U-M scientists have discovered a new type of cell in mice that appears to be crucial to causing asthma symptoms - even in the presence of steroid. The research, published in Nature Medicine, also showed that people with asthma have a very similar cell type in their blood at higher levels than people without the condition. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Mini-Projector for Smartphones

May 7th 2012

Mobile phone foto app

Researchers at the German research institution Fraunhofer IOF have developed an array of hundreds of microprojectors that can be used to project images from smartphones and similar small devices. The array enables the design of slim LED projection systems which nevertheless offer bright images even on curved screens.

With smartphones increasingly displacing desktop and laptop computers, they also increasingly are used for presentations. However, image details are often hard to make out – the display is simply too small. A new LED projector could help: You position the smartphone in a small cradle on a coffee table, for instance, and it projects the image onto the table top: crisp, bright and DIN A4 size. If a user wants to zoom in on a portion of the picture, they can swipe the projection with their finger the same way they would swipe a display screen – the projected image can be controlled using the same principle as the display itself.

The special thing about the LED projector: the entire image displayed is crisp and clear – even if projected at a very flat angle with the beams striking the table surface at a diagonal. Usually, this would distort the picture and make it blurry in places. The researchers who developed the projector, at the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering IOF in Jena, were able to solve this problem, though: "Our projector consists of hundreds of tiny microprojectors in an array, each of which generates a complete image," explains Marcel Sieler, a scientist at IOF. "This technology, known as 'array projection,' is modeled on nature – on the compound eye found in some insects – and with it for the first time we can create very thin and bright LED projection systems with tremendous imaging properties." Read more ..

The Medical Edge

Multiple Thought Channels May Help Brain Avoid Traffic Jams

May 7th 2012

traffic jam

Brain networks may avoid traffic jams at their busiest intersections by communicating on different frequencies, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, the University Medical Center at Hamburg-Eppendorf and the University of Tübingen have learned.

“Many neurological and psychiatric conditions are likely to involve problems with signaling in brain networks,” says co-author Maurizio Corbetta, MD, the Norman J. Stupp Professor of Neurology at Washington University. “Examining the temporal structure of brain activity from this perspective may be especially helpful in understanding psychiatric conditions like depression and schizophrenia, where structural markers are scarce.”

Scientists usually study brain networks — areas of the brain that regularly work together — using magnetic resonance imaging, which tracks blood flow. They assume that an increase in blood flow to part of the brain indicates increased activity in the brain cells of that region. Read more ..

The Medical Edge

Robot Reveals the Inner Workings of Brain Cells

May 6th 2012

Invisible Brain

New method offers automated way to record electrical activity inside neurons in the living brain. Researchers at MIT and the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a way to automate a process called whole-cell patch clamping, which involves bringing a tiny hollow glass pipette in contact the nuron cell membrane, then opening up a small pore in the membrane to record the electrical activity within the cell.

Gaining access to the inner workings of a neuron in the living brain offers a wealth of useful information: its patterns of electrical activity, its shape, even a profile of which genes are turned on at a given moment. However, achieving this entry is such a painstaking task that it is considered an art form; it is so difficult to learn that only a small number of labs in the world practice it.

But that could soon change: Researchers at MIT and the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a way to automate the process of finding and recording information from neurons in the living brain. The researchers have shown that a robotic arm guided by a cell-detecting computer algorithm can identify and record from neurons in the living mouse brain with better accuracy and speed than a human experimenter. The new automated process eliminates the need for months of training and provides long-sought information about living cells' activities. Using this technique, scientists could classify the thousands of different types of cells in the brain, map how they connect to each other, and figure out how diseased cells differ from normal cells. Read more ..

The Space Edge of Space

Climatic Effects of a Solar Minimum

May 6th 2012

the sun

A grand solar minimum and the climate response recorded for the first time in the same climate archive highlights the need for a more differentiated approach to solar radiation An abrupt cooling in Europe together with an increase in humidity and particularly in windiness coincided with a sustained reduction in solar activity 2800 years ago. Scientists from the German Research Centre for Geosciences GFZ in collaboration with Swedish and Dutch colleagues provide evidence for a direct solar-climate linkage on centennial timescales. Using the most modern methodological approach, they analysed sediments from Lake Meerfelder Maar, a maar lake in the Eifel/Germany, to determine annual variations in climate proxies and solar activity.

The study reports the climatic change that occurred at the beginning of the pre-Roman Iron Age and demonstrates that especially the so-called Grand Minima of solar activity can affect climate conditions in western Europe through changes in regional atmospheric circulation pattern. Around 2800 years ago, one of these Grand Solar Minima, the Homeric Minimum, caused a distinct climatic change in less than a decade in Western Europe. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Thanks for the Memory: More Room for Data in 'Phase-Change' Material

May 6th 2012

IC Layout

A team led by Johns Hopkins engineers has discovered some previously unknown properties of a common memory material, paving the way for development of new forms of memory drives, movie discs and computer systems that retain data more quickly, last longer and allow far more capacity than current data storage media.

The work was reported April 16 in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The research focused on an inexpensive phase-change memory alloy composed of germanium, antimony and tellurium, called GST for short. The material is already used in rewritable optical media, including CD-RW and DVD-RW discs. But by using diamond-tipped tools to apply pressure to the materials, the Johns Hopkins-led team uncovered new electrical resistance characteristics that could make GST even more useful to the computer and electronics industries. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Hubble to Use Moon as Mirror to See Venus Transit

May 4th 2012

View of Venus

The mottled landscape showing the impact crater Tycho is among the most violent-looking places on our moon. Astronomers didn't aim NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to study Tycho, however. The image was taken in preparation to observe the transit of Venus across the sun's face on June 5-6. Hubble cannot look at the sun directly, so astronomers are planning to point the telescope at the Earth's moon, using it as a mirror to capture reflected sunlight and isolate the small fraction of the light that passes through Venus's atmosphere. Imprinted on that small amount of light are the fingerprints of the planet's atmospheric makeup.

These observations will mimic a technique that is already being used to sample the atmospheres of giant planets outside our solar system passing in front of their stars. In the case of the Venus transit observations, astronomers already know the chemical makeup of Venus's atmosphere, and that it does not show signs of life on the planet. But the Venus transit will be used to test whether this technique will have a chance of detecting the very faint fingerprints of an Earth-like planet, even one that might be habitable for life, outside our solar system that similarly transits its own star. , Venus is an excellent proxy because it is similar in size and mass to our planet. Read more ..

The Edge of Environment

Ungreen Facts about e-Reading Devices

May 4th 2012


It’s estimated that the environmental impact of a single “eReader” (Kindle, iPad…) equals that of 100 books.

Whether the motivation is to truly improve environmental performance, or simply garner positive press, seems every business is jumping on the low carbon bandwagon. Nowhere is exempt from the pressure to green up, not even the beleaguered (and beloved) book industry.

Three years ago, a group called the Book Industry Environmental Council (BIEC) set environmental targets for the American book business, aiming to reduce its baseline carbon footprint by 20 percent in 2020 and by 80% in 2050. The plan was hatched during the infancy of eBooks: Kindle had been around just over a year.

BIEC goals seem attainable. Technological advances slashed the volume of in-house printing. Editors move towards a paperless workflow. Publishers began to reassess traditional processes of creating, transporting, and storing books. The resultant enviro-friendly efficiencies could be replicated worldwide. Read more ..

The Edge of Health

NOAA Discovers Way to Detect Low-Level Exposure to Seafood Toxin in Marine Animals

May 4th 2012

Research and Development Chemistry

NOAA scientists and their colleagues have discovered a biological marker in the blood of laboratory zebrafish and marine mammals that shows when they have been repeatedly exposed to low levels of domoic acid, which is potentially toxic at high levels.

While little is known about how low-level exposure to domoic acid affects marine animals or humans, high-level exposure through eating contaminated seafood can be toxic, and can lead to amnesic shellfish poisoning, with symptoms such as seizures, short-term memory loss and, in rare cases, death. Domoic acid is produced by particular species of marine algae and accumulates in marine animals such as clams and mussels.

The findings are reported in a study published in Public Library of Science journal (PLoS ONE), a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Up until now, the absence of a marker for such chronic exposure has been a barrier to accurately assessing possible effects to humans. "This study paves the way for creating reliable blood tests for low-level domoic acid exposure, which could help scientists assess the effects of chronic exposure to both wildlife and people who eat seafood," said Kathi Lefebvre, Ph.D., a NOAA fisheries biologist and the lead author of the study. "We don't know yet if the same antibody response we found in the laboratory in zebrafish and naturally exposed California sea lions also occurs in humans. Our next step is to team up with human-health experts to answer that question." Read more ..

The Edge of Music

'Game-powered Machine Learning' opens Door to Google for Music

May 4th 2012


Can a computer be taught to automatically label every song on the Internet using sets of examples provided by unpaid music fans? University of California, San Diego engineers have found that the answer is yes, and the results are as accurate as using paid music experts to provide the examples, saving considerable time and money.  In results published in the April 24 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers report that their solution, called “game-powered machine learning,” would enable music lovers to search every song on the web well beyond popular hits, with a simple text search using key words like “funky” or “spooky electronica.”
Searching for specific multimedia content, including music, is a challenge because of the need to use text to search images, video and audio. The researchers, led by Gert Lanckriet, a professor of electrical engineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, hope to create a text-based multimedia search engine that will make it far easier to access the explosion of multimedia content online. That’s because humans working round the clock labeling songs with descriptive text could never keep up with the volume of content being uploaded to the Internet. For example, YouTube users upload 60 hours of video content per minute, according to the company. Read more ..

The Edge of Agriculture

Farming by GPS Saves Money, Environment

May 3rd 2012

wheat fields

As spring planting goes into high gear in the United States, farmers are going high-tech in order to use less fertilizer, save money and protect the environment. Satellite-based GPS navigation systems are becoming standard on modern farm equipment, helping farmers get the most from their fields.

On a weedy patch of land an hour and half from Washington, D.C., farmer Brad Eustace is tilling razor-straight lines with a GPS-guided tractor. With the computer in control, he barely has to steer. “You can do a straight line a whole lot easier,” he says. The GPS computer receives signals from earth-orbiting satellites to keep track of where his tractor is and where it has gone. Hoses deliver precise amounts of fertilizer right into the grooves that the tiller cuts. Virginia farmer Brad Eustace uses a GPS-guided tractor to til his fields. That process prepares the field for when farmer Jimmy Messick comes back days, or even weeks later, with a GPS-guided corn planter… "The seed goes right on top of this row. This tilled row," Messick says. "The corn planter will come back, and it will be putting the seeds exactly on top of these tilled strips that the machine previously has put the fertilizer in.” Placing seed and fertilizer together with centimeter precision means fewer loads of fertilizer go on the fields. “You’re able to use less," Messick says. "Of course, you’re saving money. And you get the same performance out of the crop.” Read more ..

The Health Edge

Biosynthetic Compound Prevents Progression of Alzheimer's Disease in Mice

May 3rd 2012


Mount Sinai School of Medicine researchers have succeeded in developing a biosynthetic polyphenol that improves cognitive function in mice with Alzheimer's disease (AD). The findings, published in a recent issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, provide insight in determining the feasibility of biosynthetic polyphenols as a possible therapy for AD in humans, a progressive neurodegenerative disease for which there is currently no cure.

Polyphenols, which occur naturally in grapes, fruits, and vegetables, have been shown to prevent the cognitive decline associated with AD in a mouse model, but the molecules are very complex and are extensively metabolized in the body. This is the first study to determine which specific subfraction of these molecules penetrates the animal brain, and demonstrate that a drug compound similar to polyphenols can exert similar bioactivities.

A research group led by Giulio Maria Pasinetti, MD, PhD, Saunders Family Professor and Chair in Neurology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, has been exploring the application of specific grape-derived polyphenols for the treatment of AD. Previously, this group found that certain grape-seeds extracts, comprised of a complex mixture of naturally occurring polyphenols, were capable of lessening cognitive deterioration and reducing brain neuropathology in an animal model of AD, but they did not know how to manipulate the natural extract into a pharmaceutical compound that could be used by the brain. "My team, along with many members of the scientific community, did not know how we could harness the efficacy of naturally occurring polyphenols in food for treatment of Alzheimer's disease," Dr. Pasinetti said. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Black Hole Caught Red-Handed in Stellar Homicide

May 3rd 2012

black hole flare

Astronomers have gathered the most direct evidence yet of a supermassive black hole shredding a star that wandered too close. NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer, a space-based observatory, and the Pan-STARRS1 telescope on the summit of Haleakala in Hawaii were among the first to help identify the stellar remains. This is a single frame of computer simulation showing a star being shredded by the gravity of a massive black hole.

Some of the stellar debris falls into the black hole and some of it is ejected into space at high speeds. The areas in white are regions of highest density, with progressively redder colors corresponding to lower-density regions. The blue dot pinpoints the black hole's location. The elapsed time corresponds to the amount of time it takes for a sun-like star to be ripped apart by a black hole a million times more massive than the sun. Supermassive black holes, weighing millions to billions times more than the sun, lurk in the centers of most galaxies. These hefty monsters lie quietly until an unsuspecting victim, such as a star, wanders close enough to get ripped apart by their powerful gravitational clutches. Read more ..

Chemistry Edge

Like a Canary in a Coal Mine, New Gas Sensors Detect Explosives and Cancer Too

May 3rd 2012

UMich gas sensors
University of Michigan professor Xudong Fan and gas sensor system

Portable gas sensors can allow you to search for explosives, diagnose medical conditions through a patient's breath, and decide whether it's safe to stay in a mine. These devices do all this by identifying and measuring airborne chemicals, and a new, more sensitive, smart model is under development at the University of Michigan. The smart sensor could detect chemical weapon vapors or indicators of disease better than the current design. It also consumes less power, crucial for stretching battery life down a mineshaft or in isolated clinics.

In the gold standard method of gas detection, chemicals are separated before they are measured, said Xudong "Sherman" Fan, a professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. "In a vapor mixture, it's very difficult to tell chemicals apart," he said.

The main advance of the sensor under development by Fan and his colleagues at U-M and the University of Missouri, Columbia, is a better approach to divvying up the chemicals. The researchers have demonstrated their concept on a table-top set-up, and they hope to produce a hand-held device in the future. Read more ..

The Weather Edge

Rapid Decline in US Earth Observation Capabilities

May 2nd 2012

Dead Zone Gulf of Mexico

A new National Research Council report says that budget shortfalls, cost-estimate growth, launch failures, and changes in mission design and scope have left U.S. earth observation systems in a more precarious position than they were five years ago. The report cautions that the nation's earth observing system is beginning a rapid decline in capability, as long-running missions end and key new missions are delayed, lost, or cancelled.

"The projected loss of observing capability will have profound consequences on science and society, from weather forecasting to responding to natural hazards," said Dennis Hartmann, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle, and chair of the committee that wrote the report. "Our ability to measure and understand changes in Earth's climate and life support systems will also degrade."

The report comes five years after the Research Council published "Earth Science and Applications From Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond," a decadal survey that generated consensus recommendations from the earth and environmental science and applications community for a renewed program of earth observations. Read more ..

Climate Edge

The Impact of Climate Change on Plants Underestimated by Experiments

May 2nd 2012

Budding maple leaves

As the climate has warmed, many plants are starting to grow leaves and bloom flowers earlier. A new study published in the journal, Nature, suggests that most field experiments may underestimate the degree to which the timing of leafing and flowering changes with global warming.

Understanding how plants are responding to climate change will help develop more accurate indicators of spring, forecast the onset of allergy season or the chances of western wildfires, manage wildlife and invasive plants, and help inform habitat restoration plans.

In this new study, scientists evaluated the sensitivity of plants to changes in temperature using two sources: experimental plots versus historical observations from natural sites.

The experiments analyzed in this study were conducted by artificially inducing warming in small study plots, and then measuring plant responses. The historical observations entailed long-term monitoring of multiple species at natural ecological research sites without any manipulation. The date of leafing and flowering was synthesized for dozens of warming experiments and monitoring sites across the Northern Hemisphere. Read more ..

The Edge of Medicine

Nanotechnology That May Enhance Medication Delivery and Improve MRI Performance

May 2nd 2012

MRI Machine

Researchers at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital have shown a new category of "green" nanoparticles comprised of a non-toxic, protein-based nanotechnology that can non-invasively cross the blood brain barrier and is capable of transporting various types of drugs. In an article Gordana Vitaliano, MD, director of the Brain Imaging NaNoTechnology Group at the McLean Hospital Imaging Center, reported that clathrin, a ubiquitous protein found in human, animal, plant, bacteria, and fungi cells, can be modified for use as a nanoparticle for in-vivo studies.

"Clathrin has never been modified for use in vivo and offers many new and interesting possibilities for delivering drugs and medical imaging agents into the brain", said Vitaliano. Clathrin is the body's primary delivery vehicle responsible for delivering many different types of molecules into cells. Vitaliano therefore believed that the protein's naturally potent transport capabilities might be put to practical medical use for drug delivery and medical imaging. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Cassini Finds Phoebe Has Planet-Like Qualities

May 1st 2012

Phoebe from Cassini
Phoebe from Cassini (credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA)

Data from NASA’s Cassini mission reveal Saturn’s moon Phoebe has more planet-like qualities than previously thought.

Scientists had their first close-up look at Phoebe when Cassini began exploring the Saturn system in 2004. Using data from multiple spacecraft instruments and a computer model of the moon’s chemistry, geophysics and geology, scientists found Phoebe was a so-called planetesimal, or remnant planetary building block. The findings appear in the April issue of the journal Icarus.

“Unlike primitive bodies such as comets, Phoebe appears to have actively evolved for a time before it stalled out,” said Julie Castillo-Rogez, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “Objects like Phoebe are thought to have condensed very quickly. Hence, they represent building blocks of planets. They give scientists clues about what conditions were like around the time of the birth of giant planets and their moons”

Cassini images suggest Phoebe originated in the far-off Kuiper Belt, the region of ancient, icy, rocky bodies beyond Neptune’s orbit. Data show Phoebe was spherical and hot early in its history, and has denser rock-rich material concentrated near its center. Its average density is about the same as Pluto, another object in the Kuiper Belt. Phoebe likely was captured by Saturn’s gravity when it somehow got close to the giant planet. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Are We Alone in the Universe?

May 1st 2012

Allen Telescope Array
Allen Radio Telescope Array (credit: SETI.org)

Many of us believe finding some form of life beyond our own planet is inevitable, and the recent discovery of Earth-like planets—in a region where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface—has renewed excitement about the possibility of eventually finding extra-terrestrial life.

However, two Princeton University researchers suggest those expectations may be more based in optimism rather than scientific fact.

Princeton’s Edwin Turner and David Spiegel wanted to separate fact from expectation. So they took what science currently knows about the existence, or likelihood of extra-terrestrial life, and performed a Bayesian analysis, which evaluates just how much of what is considered to be a scientific conclusion comes from actual hard scientific fact and what comes from assumptions made by the scientist involved. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

A 100-Gigabit Highway for Science

April 30th 2012

Columbia Supercomputer NASA Advanced Supercomputing Facility

Researchers take a 'test drive' on ANI testbed. Climate researchers are producing some of the fastest growing datasets in science. Five years ago, the amount of information generated for the Nobel Prize-winning United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report was 35 terabytes—equivalent to the amount of text in 35 million books, occupying a bookshelf 248 miles (399 km) long. By 2014, when the next IPCC report is published, experts predict that 2 petabytes of data will have been generated for it—that's a 580 percent increase in data production. Because thousands of researchers around the world contribute to the generation and analysis of this data, a reliable, high-speed network is needed to transport the torrent of information.

Fortunately, the Department of Energy's (DOE) ESnet (Energy Sciences Network) has laid the foundation for such a network—not just for climate research, but for all data-intensive science. "There is a data revolution occurring in science," says Greg Bell, acting director of ESnet, which is managed by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "Over the last decade, the amount of scientific data transferred over our network has increased at a rate of about 72 percent per year, and we see that trend potentially accelerating." Read more ..

The Edge of Science

Single Nanomaterial Yields Many Laser Colors

April 29th 2012

Laser burst

Red, green, and blue lasers have become small and cheap enough to find their way into products ranging from BluRay DVD players to fancy pens, but each color is made with different semiconductor materials and by elaborate crystal growth processes. A new prototype technology demonstrates all three of those colors coming from one material. That could open the door to making products, such as high-performance digital displays, that employ a variety of laser colors all at once.

“Today in order to create a laser display with arbitrary colors, from white to shades of pink or teal, you’d need these three separate material systems to come together in the form of three distinct lasers that in no way shape or form would have anything in common,” said Arto Nurmikko, professor of engineering at Brown University and senior author of a paper describing the innovation in the journal Nature Nanotechnology. “Now enter a class of materials called semiconductor quantum dots.” Read more ..

The Edge of Climate Change

Atmospheric Warming Altering Ocean Salinity

April 29th 2012

Ocean scene

The warming climate is altering the saltiness of the world's oceans, and the computer models scientists have been using to measure the effects are underestimating changes to the global water cycle, a group of Australian scientists have found.

The water cycle is the worldwide phenomenon of rainwater falling to the surface, evaporating back into the air and falling again as rain. The wetter parts of the world are getting wetter and the drier parts drier. The researchers know this because the saltier parts of the ocean are getting saltier and the fresher parts, fresher. Records showed that the saltier parts of the ocean increased salinity -- or their salt content -- by 4 percent in the 50 years between 1950 and 2000. If the climate warms by an additional 2 or 3 degrees, the researchers project that the water cycle will turn over more quickly, intensifying by almost 25 percent. Read more ..

The Medical Edge

Wristwatch Sized Heart Monitor in Development

April 29th 2012


Plessey is developing a heart rate monitor demonstration using its EPIC sensor technology, which is the same size as a wristwatch and does not require a chest strap or second sensor at the end of a cable. The reference design shows that simple and effective personal monitoring of electrocardiograph (ECG) signals can be as easy as taking a pulse measurement. The device straps to the wrist with a sensor electrode on the rear of the device in permanent contact with the wrist and the second electrode is on the front of the device. Touching this top electrode with a finger from the opposite hand enables the device to collect the heart signals.

"Our EPIC technology really makes heart monitoring so much simpler," explained Plessey's EPIC Programme Director, Dr Paul James. "Just two small contacts and no gels. This is ideal for the Sports and Fitness market where people want to measure more than just their heart rate when exercising for display either on the device or via a Bluetooth link to a mobile phone, tablet or PC. The data gathered is accurate enough that it can provide detailed ECG signals with the appropriate signal processing, including precise pulse rate and pulse rate variation. This opens up the possibility of estimating key aerobic performance parameters such as VO2max." Read more ..

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