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Earth on Edge

Looking for Interplanetary Defense Work?

March 14th 2012

asteroid 2011 ag5
Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech/NEOPO

It was a shock to read on Discover Magazine’s Bad Astronomy last week that an asteroid 450 feet across, lurking just now on the other side of the sun, stands a (remote) chance of smacking us—or someone else on Earth—in about 29 years. Scientists presently judge the probability to be around 1 in 625, which sounds substantially more threatening than the usual estimate of a one in 5,000 chance that a major asteroid will hit Earth in the next century.

The asteroid that created Arizona’s Barringer Meteor Crater was about 150 feet across, and hit at about 28,600 mph. The crater is 2.4 miles in circumference and more than 550 feet deep.

More will be known next year, after new calculations, and everything hinges on the asteroid—named 2011 AG5—passing through what astronomers are calling a space “keyhole” that could bend its orbit toward Earth sometime in 2023. So there will be some time to prepare. But frankly, there’s an opportunity for some defense industry contracts right now, and it’s not hard to pick out a front-runner.

With uncanny foresight, some scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory prepared a video that was uploaded to YouTube in the middle of last month extolling how their newest Cray supercomputer can model the impact of an “energy source” on an asteroid. Robert P. Weaver, identified only as an R&D scientist at the New Mexico lab, narrates how the shock wave from a one-megaton-sized explosion—he never mentions the “n” word, for the nuclear weapons at the heart of the lab’s work—would blast a much larger asteroid into smaller bits of rock.


Health on Edge

Body Clocks May Hold Key to Treatment of Bipolar Disorder

March 14th 2012

sleeping person

Scientists have gained insight into why lithium salts are effective at treating bipolar disorder in what could lead to more targeted therapies with fewer side-effects.

Bipolar disorder is characterised by alternating states of elevated mood, or mania, and depression. It affects between 1 percent and 3 percent of the general population. The extreme “mood swings” in bipolar disorder have been strongly associated with disruptions in circadian rhythms—the 24-hourly rhythms controlled by our body clocks that govern our day and night activity.

For the last 60 years, lithium salt (lithium chloride) has been the mainstay treatment for bipolar disorder, but little research has been carried out to find out whether and how lithium impacts on the brain and peripheral body clockwork.

“Our study has shown a new and potent effect of lithium in increasing the amplitude, or strength, of the clock rhythms, revealing a novel link between the classic mood-stabiliser, bipolar disorder, and body clocks,” said lead researcher Dr Qing-Jun Meng, in the University of University of Manchester's Faculty of Life Sciences. Read more ..

Edge of Space

Why Do We See the Man in the Moon?

March 13th 2012

full moon
credit: Lick Observatory

There’s something poetic about gazing up at the night sky, seeing the familiar face of the “Man in the Moon” who faithfully accompanies us through life. The Moon rotates synchronously, i.e., it takes the same amount of time to spin around its own axis as it does to revolve around Earth. This is what causes the Moon to “lock eyes” with Earth, resulting in one of its hemispheres constantly facing us. But is there a reason why this particular half of the Moon locked with Earth, or is it pure coincidence that it doesn’t “turn its back” on us?

Through careful analysis and simulations, Prof. Oded Aharonson of the Weizmann Institute of Science’s Center for Planetary Science, Prof. Peter Goldreich of the California Institute of Technology, and Prof. Re’em Sari of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have shown that it is not coincidence, but the Moon’s geophysical properties that determine its orientation. Their findings were recently published in Icarus.

The near side of the Moon is low-lying and covered by craters filled with dense, dark, volcanic material, the pattern of which creates the “Man in the Moon” image. In contrast, the far side is predominately made up of higher mountainous regions. “Intuitively, we might actually have expected the far side to be facing us as the high mountains, as opposed to the low craters, would have brought the Moon closer to Earth, putting the system in a lower energy state,” says Prof. Aharonson. Nature usually prefers lower energy states, so why isn’t this the case? Read more ..

The Edge of Health

More Trans Fat Consumption Linked to Greater Aggression

March 13th 2012

Clenched Fists

Might the "Twinkie defense" have a scientific foundation after all? Researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine have shown – by each of a range of measures, in men and women of all ages, in Caucasians and minorities – that consumption of dietary trans fatty acids (dTFAs) is associated with irritability and aggression. The study of nearly 1,000 men and women provides the first evidence linking dTFAs with adverse behaviors that impacted others, ranging from impatience to overt aggression.

The research, led by Beatrice Golomb, MD, PhD, associate professor in the UC San Diego Department of Medicine, has been published online by PLoS ONE.Dietary trans fatty acids are primarily products of hydrogenation, which makes unsaturated oils solid at room temperature. They are present at high levels in margarines, shortenings and prepared foods. Adverse health effects of dTFAs have been identified in lipid levels, metabolic function, insulin resistance, oxidation, inflammation, and cardiac health. The UC San Diego team used baseline dietary information and behavioral assessments of 945 adult men and women to analyze the relationship between dTFAs and aggression or irritability. The survey measured such factors as a life history of aggression, conflict tactics and self-rated impatience and irritability, as well as an "overt aggression" scale that tallies recent aggressive behaviors. Analyses were adjusted for sex, age, education, and use of alcohol or tobacco products.   Read more ..

The Learning Edge

Proteopedia Turns New York City Students into Scientists

March 13th 2012

The students in Allison Granberry’s class at Hostos-Lincoln Academy, a South Bronx public school serving children in grades 6 to 12, are as excited about proteins and other biological macromolecules as most kids their age are about playing basketball or updating their social status.

The passion of these newly minted scientists is due to the enthusiasm of Ms. Granberry, as well as Prof. Joel L. Sussman of the Department of Structural Biology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. In a Rockefeller University after–school outreach program called SMART (Students Modeling A Research Topic) Team—a nationwide project conceived by Dr. Timothy Herman, Director of the Center for Biomolecular Modeling at the Milwaukee School of Engineering—Ms. Granberry and her students work with Prof. Sussman’s website Proteopedia.

Developed in 2007 by Prof. Sussman, together with Dr. Jaime Prilusky and Eran Hodis at the Israel Structural Proteomics Center at the Weizmann Institute, Proteopedia is a web resource and encyclopedia where protein and nucleic acid structures are presented in an intuitive manner, with interactive 3D images appearing alongside explanatory text about the structure.

Proteopedia allows registered users—1,500 to date—to easily add their own structural annotations. The site’s users include scientists browsing the 3D images; researchers presenting their newly solved structures; and educators from high school to graduate school teaching structural biology by assigning site–related projects. In 2010, Proteopedia was selected by thousands of online readers and a panel of judges as the “Best Website” winner of The Scientist magazine’s inaugural Labby Awards, which were created to honor “the best Web–based multimedia by labs.” Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Personal Cloud Replaces PCs as the Center of Our Digital Lives

March 13th 2012

CG cloud

The reign of the personal computer as the sole corporate access device is coming to a close, and by 2014, the personal cloud will replace the personal computer at the center of users' digital lives, according to research from Gartner.

Gartner analysts said the personal cloud will begin a new era that will provide users with a new level of flexibility with the devices they use for daily activities, while leveraging the strengths of each device, ultimately enabling new levels of user satisfaction and productivity. However, it will require enterprises to fundamentally rethink how they deliver applications and services to users.

"Major trends in client computing have shifted the market away from a focus on personal computers to a broader device perspective that includes smartphones, tablets and other consumer devices," said Steve Kleynhans, research vice president at Gartner. "Emerging cloud services will become the glue that connects the web of devices that users choose to access during the different aspects of their daily life." Read more ..

The Animal Edge

Orientation of Desert Ants: Every Cue Counts

March 11th 2012

red bull ant
credit: QuartI

Desert ants have adapted to a life in a barren environment which only provides very few landmarks for orientation. Apart from visual cues and odors the ants use the polarized sunlight as a compass and count their steps in order to return safely to their home after searching for food. In experiments with ants of the genus Cataglyphis in their natural habitats in Tunisia and Turkey, behavioral scientists of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany, have now discovered that ants can also use magnetic and vibrational landmarks in order to find their way back to their nest—a small hole in the desert ground. In addition, carbon dioxide produced by their nestmates' breathing also helps homing ants to pinpoint their nest entrance. Hence, the ants' navigational skills prove enormously adaptable to their inhospitable environment.  Read more ..

The Race for Bio-Detergents

Environmentally-Friendly Cleaning and Washing

March 11th 2012

Research and Development Chemistry

More and more everyday products are based on renewable resources, with household cleaners now containing active cleaning substances (surfactants) made from plant oils and sugar. These fat and dirt removers are especially environmentally friendly and effective when produced using biotechnology, with the aid of fungi and bacteria.

Detergents are everywhere – in washing powders, dishwashing liquids, household cleaners, skin creams, shower gels, and shampoos. It is the detergent that loosens dirt and fat, makes hair-washing products foam up and allows creams to be absorbed quickly. Up until now, most detergents are manufactured from crude oil – a fossil fuel of which there is only a limited supply. In their search for alternatives, producers are turning increasingly to detergents made from sustainable resources, albeit that these surfactants are usually chemically produced. The problem is that the substances produced via such chemical processes are only suitable for a small number of applications, since they display only limited structural diversity – which is to say that their molecular structure is not very complex. Now researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology IGB are taking a different approach: they are manufacturing surfactants using biotechnological methods, with the assistance of fungi and bacteria. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Magnetic Moon

March 11th 2012

full moon

In the nearly five decades since the first lunar surveys were conducted as part of NASA's Apollo program, scientists have advanced a number of increasingly complex theories to explain the vast swaths of highly magnetic material that had been found in the some parts of the Moon's crust.

But now a team of researchers from Harvard, MIT and the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris, have proposed a surprisingly simple explanation for the unusual findings – the magnetic anomalies are remnants of a massive asteroid collision. As described in a paper published March 9 in Science, the researchers believe an asteroid slammed into the moon approximately 4 billion years ago, leaving behind an enormous crater and iron-rich, highly magnetic rock.

While there is evidence that the Moon once generated its own magnetic field, there is little to suggest it was strong enough to account for the anomalies seen in earlier surveys, Sarah Stewart-Mukhopadhyay, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Natural Sciences, and one of three co-authors of the paper, said. To explain the findings, then, researchers turned to a number of elaborate scenarios. Read more ..

Edge on Paleontology

Feathered Dinosaur Fossils Yield New Behavior Clues

March 11th 2012

Art courtesy of Jason Brougham/University of Texas

Paleontologists say winged dinosaurs with glossy feathers likely used their flashy plumage to attract a mate in the same way as their modern descendants—birds. Researchers from the U.S. National Science Foundation teamed up with experts from China’s Beijing Museum of Natural History to study a newly-discovered dinosaur fossil they say is the earliest known record of iridescent color in feathers.

The fossil is that of a four-winged, pigeon-sized dinosaur called a Microraptor that lived about 120 million years ago during the height of the Cretaceous period. The bird-like dinosaur’s long, narrow tail was adorned with a pair of “streamer feathers.” After comparing the detailed pattern and color of dinosaur feathers to those of modern birds, the scientists believe the Microraptor’s plumage was an iridescent black, with the same glossy sheen as the feathers of a modern crow. Read more ..

Edge of Life Sciences

Meteorites Reveal Another Way to Make Life's Components

March 10th 2012

meteorite antarctica

Creating some of life's building blocks in space may be a bit like making a sandwich – you can make them cold or hot, according to new NASA research.

This evidence that there is more than one way to make crucial components of life increases the likelihood that life emerged elsewhere in the Universe, according to the research team, and gives support to the theory that a "kit" of ready-made parts created in space and delivered to Earth by impacts from meteorites and comets assisted the origin of life. In the study, scientists with the Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., analyzed samples from fourteen carbon-rich meteorites with minerals that indicated they had experienced high temperatures – in some cases, over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. They found amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins, used by life to speed up chemical reactions and build structures like hair, skin, and nails. Read more ..

Edge of Space

Massive Solar Storm Has Little Effect on Earth

March 9th 2012

Solar flare Mar 2012

A massive solar storm initially expected to create havoc for everything from mobile phones to airline flights has reached Earth with little effect, but experts say that could still change.

The storm appeared to spare satellite and power systems as it shook the Earth’s magnetic field Thursday, with no reports of GPS or power disruptions. A scientist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Joseph Kunches, said the storm struck in a direction that causes the fewest problems—but that orientation could change as the storm continues.

The storm started with a pair of solar flares Tuesday, and continued with two coronal mass ejections (CMEs). A large CME can contain a billion tons of matter that can be accelerated to several million miles per hour in a spectacular explosion. Solar material streams out through the interplanetary medium. CMEs are sometimes associated with flares but can occur independently. Read more ..

Earth on Edge

Listening to the March 2011 Earthquake

March 8th 2012

Minato Japan after Quake

Last year’s 9.0-magnitude earthquake centered at Tohoku-Oki, Japan, was the fourth largest since 1900. However, because of thousands of seismometers in the region and Japan’s willingness to share their measurements with the rest of the world, the Tohoku-Oki quake is the best-recorded earthquake of all-time.

This plethora of information is allowing scientists to share their findings in unique ways. Zhigang Peng, associate professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, has converted the earthquake’s seismic waves into audio files. The results allow experts and general audiences to “hear” what the quake sounded like as it moved through the earth and around the globe. Read more ..

The Edge of Transistor

Biodegradable Transistors - Made from Us

IC Layout

Silicon, a semi-conducting element, is the basis of most modern technology, including cellular phones and computers. But according to Tel Aviv University researchers, this material is quickly becoming outdated in an industry producing ever-smaller products that are less harmful to the environment.

Now, a team including Ph.D. students Elad Mentovich and Netta Hendler of TAU's Department of Chemistry and The Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, with supervisor Dr. Shachar Richter and in collaboration with Prof. Michael Gozin and his Ph.D. student Bogdan Belgorodsky, has brought together cutting-edge techniques from multiple fields of science to create protein-based transistors — semi-conductors used to power electronic devices — from organic materials found in the human body. They could become the basis of a new generation of nano-sized technologies that are both flexible and biodegradable. Read more ..

The Sea World

Hot Meets Cold at New Deep-Sea Ecosystem: "Hydrothermal Seep"

March 7th 2012


Decades ago, marine scientists made a startling discovery in the deep sea. They found environments known as hydrothermal vents, where hot water surges from the seafloor and life thrives without sunlight.

Then they found equally unique, sunless habitats in cold areas where methane rises from seeps on the ocean bottom. Could vents and seeps co-exist in the deep, happily living side-by-side? No one thought so. Until now.

That's exactly what researchers uncovered during a submersible expedition off Costa Rica. They've coined a new term to describe the ecosystem: a hydrothermal seep. Read more ..

Edge of Space

Explosive Weather on Venus

March 7th 2012

View of Venus
Venus Explorer examines Venus (credit: ESA)

In the grand scheme of the solar system, Venus and Earth are almost the same distance from the sun. Yet the planets differ dramatically: Venus is some 100 times hotter than Earth and its days more than 200 times longer. The atmosphere on Venus is so thick that the longest any spacecraft has survived on its surface before being crushed is a little over two hours. There’s another difference, too: Earth has a magnetic field and Venus does not—a crucial distinction when assessing the effects of the sun on each planet.

As the solar wind rushes outward from the sun at nearly a million miles per hour, it is stopped about 44,000 miles away from Earth when it collides with the giant magnetic envelope that surrounds the planet called the magnetosphere. Most of the solar wind flows around the magnetosphere, but in certain circumstances it can enter the magnetosphere to create a variety of dynamic space weather effects on Earth. Venus has no such protective shield, but it is still an immovable rock surrounded by an atmosphere that disrupts and interacts with the solar wind, causing interesting space weather effects. Read more ..

The Edge of Spectroscopy

LAMIS – A Green Chemistry Alternative for Remote-Controlled Laser Spectroscopy

March 6th 2012


At some point this year, after NASA’s rover Curiosity has landed on Mars, a laser will fire a beam of infrared light at a rock or soil sample. This will “ablate” or vaporize a microgram-sized piece of the target, generating a plume of ionized gas or plasma, which will be analyzed by spectrometers to identify the target’s constituent elements. Future Mars rovers, however, will be able to do even more. Researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), in collaboration with Applied Spectra, Inc., have developed an advanced version of this laser technology that can also analyze a target’s constituent isotopes. This expanded capability will enable future rovers for the first time to precisely date the geological age of Martian samples.

Rick Russo, a scientist with Berkeley Lab’s Environmental Energy Technologies Division and a pioneer in laser ablation spectroscopy, led the development of LAMIS – for Laser Ablation Molecular Isotopic Spectrometry. As with the earlier Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS) technology being used on rover Curiosity, the basic premise is to use the energy of a high-powered laser beam focused to a tiny spot on the surface of a sample to create a plasma plume for analysis. Read more ..

The Edge of Astronomy

Oxygen Detected in Atmosphere of Saturn’s Moon Dione

March 6th 2012

Blue Planet

Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists and an international research team have announced discovery of molecular oxygen ions (O2+) in the upper-most atmosphere of Dione, one of the 62 known moons orbiting the ringed planet. The research appeared recently in Geophysical Research Letters and was made possible via instruments aboard NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which was launched in 1997.

Dione, discovered in 1684 by astronomer Giovanni Cassini (after whom the spacecraft was named), orbits Saturn at roughly the same distance as our own moon orbits Earth. The tiny moon is a mere 700 miles wide and appears to be a thick, pockmarked layer of water ice surrounding a smaller rock core. As it orbits Saturn every 2.7 days, Dione is bombarded by charged particles (ions) emanating from Saturn’s very strong magnetosphere. These ions slam into the surface of Dione, displacing molecular oxygen ions into Dione’s thin atmosphere through a process called sputtering. Read more ..

Humanity on Edge

Ethics of the Singularity

March 6th 2012

NGC 1097 Spiral Galaxy
NGC 1079 (credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech, SINGS Team (SSC))

What Is the Singularity? If we manage to create a general artificial intelligence (AI)—an AI with intellectual capabilities similar to our own—this may well launch a Technological Singularity.

The possibility of a Technological Singularity is a key issue for the future of the AI community and of human society. If the Singularity occurs, it is very likely that the main social and technological problems facing us will then be eliminated, for better or worse. The first possibility excites Singularity enthusiasts; the second excites Hollywood directors and other pessimists. As AI researchers, we would like to be enthusiasts; here we review our prospects for remaining enthusiastic. Read more ..

The Edge of Hate

Facebook and its Refusal to Confront Holocaust Denial and Anti-Semitism

March 6th 2012

Russian computer user

On Tuesday, March 6, 2012, President Shimon Peres will visit Facebook, a company which refuses to recognize Holocaust denial as a form of incitement to hatred. While there, he will launch two Facebook pages for the President of Israel and meet with Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg.

See the Peres Facebook event live

Dare he raise the issue of Holocaust denial? Facebook’s position on Holocaust denial is arbitrary and confused. It does not regard Holocaust denial as hateful in its own right, but recognizes many of the comments posted in denial groups, such as calls for a new genocide of the Jews, as hateful.

Facebook defends its current policy by arguing it regularly shuts down Holocaust denial groups because of these comments. The anti-Semitic groups, however, persist. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Personal Tracking to be the Next Billion Dollar GPS Market

March 5th 2012

gps devices

GPS personal tracking devices and applications are forecast to grow with a CAGR of 40%, with both markets breaking $1 billion in 2017 according to ABI Research. Senior analyst Patrick Connolly says, “The hardware market remained below 100,000 units in 2011. However, it is forecast to reach 2.5 million units in 2017, with significant growth in elderly, health, and lone worker markets. Dedicated devices can offer significant benefits, with insurance and liability increasingly encouraging the use of approved equipment.”

“We are also seeing the first signs of leading CE companies entering the market, such as Qualcomm, Apple (via PocketFinder), Garmin, Cobra, etc. and there will also be significant partnerships and acquisitions in this space as new entrants looks to add tracking to their portfolio,” adds Connolly. Other markets include family, personal items (e.g. luggage), and pet and offender tracking. There is an addressable market of over 120 million people across these markets alone, with over two million US elderly using non-GPS Personal Emergency Response Systems (PERS). However, awareness, battery life, economic conditions, and high subscription fees remain significant barriers. There is also a fear that smartphone applications will cannibalize the market. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Record-Breaking Fastest Stellar Winds are Clocked at 20 Million MPH

March 5th 2012

wind in space

The fastest wind ever discovered blowing off a disk around a stellar-mass black hole has been observed by a team of astronomers that includes a University of Michigan doctoral student. Using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, an orbiting telescope, they clocked the record-breaking super wind at about 20 million mph, or about 3 percent of the speed of light. This is nearly 10 times faster than astronomers had previously observed from a stellar-mass black hole.

"This is like the cosmic equivalent of winds from a category five hurricane," said Ashley King, a doctoral student in the Department of Astronomy and lead author of the study published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. "We weren't expecting to see such powerful winds from a black hole like this."

The result has important implications for understanding how this type of black hole behaves. Stellar-mass black holes are born when extremely massive stars collapse. They typically weigh between five and 10 times the mass of the sun. The stellar-mass black hole powering this super wind is known as IGR J17091-3624, or IGR J17091 for short. Located in the bulge of the Milky Way galaxy, about 28,000 light years away from Earth, it is a binary system in which a sun-like star orbits the black hole. Read more ..

Edge on Biology

Lineage Trees Reveal Cells’ Histories

March 4th 2012

mouse cell lineage tree
Cell lineage tree; oocytes (egg cells) red, bone marrow stem cells yellow

In recent years, a number of controversial claims have been made about the female mammal’s egg supply, including that it is renewed over her adult lifetime (as opposed to the conventional understanding that she is born with all of her eggs) and that the source of these eggs is stem cells that originate in the bone marrow. Now, researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science have disproved one of those claims and pointed in new directions toward resolving the other. The method, developed over several years in the lab of Prof. Ehud Shapiro of the Department of Biological Chemistry and Department of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics, creates a sort of family tree for cells by using mutations in specific genetic markers to determine which cells are most closely related and how far back they share a common parent cell. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Tech Boost Arms Citizens To Monitor Russian, Other Votes

March 4th 2012

Shadowy Computer User

Russia's parliamentary elections in December were characterized by the opposition and observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as seriously flawed. Few were surprised. But what did raise eyebrows was the response of tens of thousands of ordinary Russians who took to the streets to protest. Why did so many, in a country notorious for political apathy, react so differently to violations well-known from votes in the past? At least part of the answer appears to be how those violations were reported, and by whom. The Russian case, analysts say, is a prime example illustrating that technologically-advanced, citizen-driven election monitoring has potential for impact beyond that of more traditional electoral observation by the government and international bodies.

Researchers like Lisa Kammerud of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems in Washington also maintain that the pairing of citizens and new technology for election monitoring is probably here to stay, both in Russia and elsewhere. "The advent of the use of these new digital and personal technologies to monitor elections is definitely on the rise because the technology that's available now simply wasn't available before," she says. "And that's part of why this has definitely increased in the last few years. And there's no reason to think that it won't continue as more people have access to cell phones [and] personal devices that take videos and pictures." Read more ..

Edge on Paleontology

T-Rex’s Bite: Even Worse than We Thought

March 3rd 2012

T-Rex (AMNH)
credit: EQ Doc

When you hear the name Tyrannosaurus Rex, you probably think of a giant monster, the most fearsome dinosaur ever. With a mouth full of teeth that can easily rip flesh and crush bones, images of T-Rex can be quite frightening.

It turns out T-Rex’s bite was even more devastating than thought.

Scientists studying T-Rex’s toothy smile focus mostly on the huge and varying size of its teeth, but a Canadian paleontologist has gone beyond that.

After analyzing the teeth of the entire tyrannosaurid family of meat-eating dinosaurs, the University of Alberta’s Miriam Reichel found there is considerable variation in the serrated edges of the teeth. These variations, or keels, not only cut through flesh and bone, but also guided the food into its mouth. Read more ..

The Edge of Energy

Energy Squeeze

March 2nd 2012

Research and Development Chemistry

A polymer is a mesh of chains, which slowly break over time due to the pressure from ordinary wear and tear. When a polymer is squeezed, the pressure breaks chemical bonds and produces free radicals: ions with unpaired electrons, full of untapped energy. These molecules are responsible for aging, DNA damage and cancer in the human body.

In a new study, Northwestern University scientists turned to squeezed polymers and free radicals in a search for new energy sources. They found incredible promise but also some real problems. Their report is published by the journal Angewandte Chemie.

The researchers demonstrated that radicals from compressed polymers generate significant amounts of energy that can be used to power chemical reactions in water. This energy has typically been unused but now can be harnessed when polymers are under stress in ordinary circumstances -- as in shoe soles, car tires or when compacting plastic bags. Read more ..

The Medical Edge

How Cells Brace Themselves for Starvation

March 2nd 2012

yeast cell membranes
Yeast cell membranes (credit: Masur)

Sugar, cholesterol, phosphates, zinc—a healthy body is amazingly good at keeping such vital nutrients at appropriate levels within its cells. From an engineering point of view, one all-purpose type of pump on the surface of a cell should suffice to keep these levels constant: When the concentration of a nutrient—for example, sugar—drops inside the cell, the pump mechanism could simply go into higher gear until the sugar levels are back to normal. Yet, strangely enough, such cells let in their nutrients using two types of pump: One is active in “good times,” when a particular nutrient is abundant in the cell’s environment; the other is a “bad-times” pump that springs into action only when the nutrient becomes scarce. Why does the cell need this dual mechanism?

A new Weizmann Institute study, reported in Science, might provide the answer. The research was conducted in the lab of Prof. Naama Barkai of the Department of Molecular Genetics by postdoctoral fellow Dr. Sagi Levy and graduate student Moshe Kafri, with lab technician Miri Carmi. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Computational Sprinting May Improve Mobile Device Applications and Cooling

March 2nd 2012

Smart phone

Computational sprinting is a groundbreaking new approach to smartphone power and cooling that could give users dramatic, brief bursts of computing capability to improve current applications and make new ones possible. Its developers at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan are pushing mobile chips beyond their sustainable operating limits, much like a sprinter who runs fast for a short distance. The researchers presented a paper on their concept at the International Symposium on High Performance Computer Architecture in New Orleans.

"Normally, these devices are designed for sustained performance, so that they can run full bore forever. We're proposing a computer system that can perform a giant surge of computation, but then gets tired and has time to rest," said Thomas Wenisch, study co-author and an assistant professor at the U-M Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. "We asked, 'What if we designed a chip to run at 16 times the sustainable rate, but only for half a second? Can we do it without burning out the chip?'" said one of the study's authors, Milo Martin, associate professor in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences at Penn's School of Engineering and Applied Science. "We did the calculations and simulations, and we find that it is indeed possible to engineer such a system."  Read more ..

Edge of Geology

A New Wrinkle in the Story of When Continents Collide

March 2nd 2012

Tibetan prayer flags
Tibetan prayer flags (Credit: Marin Clark)

Fifty million years ago, India slammed into Eurasia, a collision that gave rise to the tallest landforms on the planet, the Himalaya Mountains and the Tibetan Plateau. India and Eurasia continue to converge today, though at an ever-slowing pace. University of Michigan geomorphologist and geophysicist Marin Clark wanted to know when this motion will end and why. She conducted a study that led to surprising findings that could add a new wrinkle to the well-established theory of plate tectonics – the dominant, unifying theory of geology.

"The exciting thing here is that it's not easy to make progress in a field (plate tectonics) that's 50 years old and is the major tenet that we operate under," said Clark, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan. Read more ..

The Medical Edge

A Unique On/Off Switch for Hormone Production

March 1st 2012

Invisible Brain

When we sense a threat, the brain center responsible for responding goes into gear, setting off a chain of biochemical reactions that lead to the release of cortisol from our adrenal glands.

Dr. Gil Levkowitz and his team in the Department of Molecular Cell Biology have now revealed a new kind of “on/off” switch in the brain for regulating the production of a main biochemical signal from the brain that stimulates cortisol release in the body. This finding, which was recently published in Neuron, may be relevant to research into a number of stress-related neurological disorders.

This signal is corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH). CRH is manufactured and stored in special neurons in the hypothalamus. Within this small region of the brain, the danger is sensed, the information is processed, and the orders to go into stress-response mode are sent out. As soon as the CRH-containing neurons have depleted their supply of the hormone, they are already receiving the directive to produce more.

The research, which used zebrafish as a model, was spearheaded by Dr. Liat Amir-Zilberstein, together with Drs. Janna Blechman, Adriana Reuveny, and Natalia Borodovsky, as well as Maayan Tahor. The team found that a protein called Otp is involved in several stages of CRH production. In addition to directly activating the genes encoding CRH, Otp also regulates the production of two different receptors on the neurons’ surface for receiving and relaying CRH production signals—in effect, on and off switches. Read more ..

The Ancient Edge

The Tangled Web of Ancient Sex and Hybridization among Human Beings and Others

February 29th 2012

Neanderthal child mannequin
Re-creation of a Neanderthal child

New findings from an international team of researchers show that most Neanderthals in Europe died off around 50,000 years ago. The previously held view of a Europe populated by a stable Neanderthal population for hundreds of thousands of years up until modern humans arrived must therefore be revised. Neantherthals are defined as Homo sapiens neanderthalensis - a sub-species of Homo sapiens sapiens or modern human beings - or as a separate species of the genus Homo known as Homo neanderthalensis.

The results indicate that most Neanderthals in Europe died off as early as 50,000 years ago. After that, a small group of Neanderthals re-colonised central and western Europe, where they survived for another 10,000 years before modern humans entered the area. Tribes of Homo sapiens sapiens emerged from Africa, passed through the Mideast and thence to Europe and Asia. Read more ..

After the Holocaust

IBM’s Role in the Holocaust—What the New Documents Reveal

February 28th 2012

IBM and the Holocaust Expanded Edition

Newly-released documents expose more explicitly the details of IBM’s pivotal role in the Holocaust—all six phases: identification, expulsion from society, confiscation, ghettoization, deportation, and even extermination. Moreover, the documents portray with crystal clarity the personal involvement and micro-management of IBM president Thomas J. Watson in the company’s co-planning and co-organizing of Hitler’s campaign to destroy the Jews.
                Buy IBM here.

IBM’s twelve-year alliance with the Third Reich was first revealed in my book IBM and the Holocaust, published simultaneously in 40 countries in February 2001. It was based on some 20,000 documents drawn from archives in seven countries. IBM never denied any of the information in the book; and despite thousands of media and communal requests, as well as published articles, the company has remained silent.

The new “expanded edition” contains 32 pages of never-before-published internal IBM correspondence, State Department and Justice Department memos, and concentration camp documents that graphically chronicle IBM’s actions and what they knew during the twelve-year Hitler regime. On the anniversary of the release of the original book, the new edition was released on February 26, 2012 at a special live global streaming event at Yeshiva University’s Furst Hall, sponsored by the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists together with a coalition of other groups.
Among the newly-released documents and archival materials are secret 1941 correspondence setting up the Dutch subsidiary of IBM to work in tandem with the Nazis, company President Thomas Watson's personal approval for the 1939 release of special IBM alphabetizing machines to help organize the rape of Poland and the deportation of Polish Jews, as well as the IBM Concentration Camp Codes including IBM’s code for death by Gas Chamber. Among the newly published photos of the punch cards is the one developed for the statistician who reported directly to Himmler and Eichmann.

The significance of the incriminating documents requires context. Read more ..

The Edge of Health

Study Shows Significant State-by-State Differences in Black, White Life Expectancy

February 26th 2012

Baby Boomer

A UCLA-led group of researchers tracing disparities in life expectancy between blacks and whites in the U.S. has found that white males live about seven years longer on average than African American men and that white women live more than five years longer than their black counterparts. But when comparing life expectancy on a state-by-state basis, the researchers made a surprising discovery: In those states in which the disparities were smallest, the differences often were not the result of African Americans living longer but of whites dying younger than the national average. And, interestingly, the area with the largest disparities wasn't a state at all but the nation's capital, Washington D.C.

"In health-disparities research, there is an assumption that large disparities are bad because vulnerable populations are not doing as well as they should, while areas with small disparities are doing a better job at health equity," said Dr. Nazleen Bharmal, the study's lead researcher and a clinical instructor in the division of general internal medicine and health services research at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "In our study, we show that the reason there are small disparities in life expectancy is because white populations are doing as poorly as black populations, and the goal in these states should be to raise health equity for all groups." The data on which the researchers relied included both health-related and non–health-related deaths, such as murder and accidents. The findings, however, still highlight the need to improve the health of the nation's African Americans, the researchers said. Read more ..

The Nano Edge

Scientists Can Now Create Single-Atom Transistors Repeatedly

February 26th 2012


The UNSW team used a scanning tunnelling microscope (STM) to see and manipulate atoms at the surface of the crystal inside an ultra-high vacuum chamber. Using a lithographic process, they patterned phosphorus atoms into functional devices on the crystal then covered them with a non-reactive layer of hydrogen.

Hydrogen atoms were removed selectively in precisely defined regions with the super-fine metal tip of the STM. A controlled chemical reaction then incorporated phosphorus atoms into the silicon surface.

Finally, the structure was encapsulated with a silicon layer and the device contacted electrically using an intricate system of alignment markers on the silicon chip to align metallic connects. Read more ..

The Race for Light

Light-Emitting Nanocrystal Diodes Go Ultraviolet

February 26th 2012


A multinational team of scientists has developed a process for creating glass-based, inorganic light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that produce light in the ultraviolet range. The work, reported this week in the online Nature Communications, is a step toward biomedical devices with active components made from nanostructured systems.

LEDs based on solution-processed inorganic nanocrystals have promise for use in environmental and biomedical diagnostics, because they are cheap to produce, robust, and chemically stable. But development has been hampered by the difficulty of achieving ultraviolet emission. In their paper, Los Alamos National Laboratory's Sergio Brovelli in collaboration with the research team lead by Alberto Paleari at the University of Milano-Bicocca in Italy describe a fabrication process that overcomes this problem and opens the way for integration in a variety of applications. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Using Body Heat to Recharge Cellphone, Laptop

February 26th 2012

Smart phone

Imagine being able to use your own body heat to recharge your phone or tablet. Scientists in North Carolina have recently developed a felt-like fabric that generates power by scavenging for so-called waste heat, such as body heat. Right now, many of the electronic devices we use every day, such as cellphones or laptop computers, get their power from batteries. But, as we also know, even the best batteries eventually run low on power and need to be recharged. What the Wake Forest University scientists have done is develop technology that takes your body heat, along with other waste heat, and convert it to electrical energy. Developed at the university’s Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials, the material is made up of carbon nanotubes, tiny tube-shaped materials made of carbon, which are held in flexible plastic fibers and made to feel like fabric. The researchers say the thermoelectric technology behind Power Felt uses differences in temperature, such as room temperature versus body temperature, to create an electrical charge. Professor David Carroll, director of the Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials, says that thermoelectric technology, until now, has been tied to expensive hard ceramic material which is difficult to produce. Read more ..

The Edge of Health

Lasers Put to Use in Dental Offices: Lighten the Load & Increase Profitability

February 25th 2012

Black infant

Going to the dentist is never a picnic, and dentists understand how their patients feel. That's why they are constantly trying new technologies to make treatment less unpleasant. For instance, instead of subjecting patients to the dreaded drill, some 12 percent of dentists worldwide now use Erbium (Er):YAG lasers to shape teeth and gums for treatment. However, the wired optic fibers that deliver the laser beam are unwieldy and difficult to focus precisely. Syneron Dental Lasers of Yokneam, Israel, has developed the new LiteTouch dental laser, "an innovation that has played a pivotal role in transforming the way practitioners perform dental treatments today," according to company president Ira Prigat.

"It's wireless, too. The laser mechanism is included inside the hand piece that the dentist uses inside the patient's mouth, making it easier to manage -- no wires or connections needed. " Just as the mobile phone freed the world from wires, so has the LiteTouch freed dentists from traditional tools, as well as bulky optic fibers, making laser dentistry completely portable, claims Prigat. "The LiteTouch system is cost-effective and a step up toward a completely high-tech clinic." Read more ..

The Edge of Physics

Einstein May Be Right After All, Says CERN

February 25th 2012


Researchers say they have found a possible flaw in the setup of an experiment that appeared to show particles traveling faster than light. The result of the experiment was met with widespread skepticism by the scientific community when it was announced last September by the Geneva-based European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN. The speed of light was considered by physicist Albert Einstein to be the ultimate speed barrier. James Gillies said two potential issues have been identified that could have influenced the timing of the speed of neutrino particles during the Swiss-Italian experiment known as OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-Racking Apparatus experiment). Gillies explained that results of further measurements and tests will be announced later this year, but it looks increasingly likely that Einstein will be proven right after all.

Question: Scientist and layman alike were surprised and skeptical when CERN announced last September that neutrinos -- electrically-neutral particles -- had traveled the 730 kilometers from Geneva to Italy’s Gran Sasso 60 nanoseconds faster than light. If proven correct, the implications were enormous. Now we are being told that this ultra-sophisticated experiment may have gone slightly wrong. What’s the explanation?

James Gillies: First of all, we don't yet know whether there is an explanation, and we won't know that for sure until we repeat the measurements with [the] beam. But what the OPERA collaboration has seen is two possible effects in their operators that could affect their timing measurement. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Astrophysicists Unmask a Black Hole

February 24th 2012

Dark Matter image

A study of X-rays emitted a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away has unmasked a stellar mass black hole in Andromeda, a spiral galaxy about 2.6 million light-years from Earth.

Two Clemson University researchers joined an an international team of astronomers, including scientists at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, in publishing their findings in a pair of scientific journals this week.

Scientists had suspected the black hole was possible since late 2009 when an X-ray satellite observatory operated by the Max Planck Institute detected an unusual X-ray transient light source in Andromeda.

"The brightness suggested that these X-rays belonged to the class of ultraluminous X-ray sources, or ULXs," said Amanpreet Kaur, a Clemson graduate student in physics and lead author of the paper published in the Astronomy & Astrophysics Journal. "But ULXs are rare. There are none at all in the Milky Way where Earth is located, and this is the first to be confirmed in Andromeda. Proving it required detailed observations." Read more ..

The Race for Nano

Engineers Propose Nanogrids, Smarter Switches

February 24th 2012

IC Layout

A government researcher called for distributed nanogrids as an alternative to a central electric utility at a meeting of the Ethernet Alliance here. In a separate talk, a Google engineer proposed ways to lower power consumption for networking.

Bruce Nordman, an energy analyst at Lawrence Berkeley Lab, called for engineers to define a new class of nanogrids using standard Ethernet Category 5 cables. The small grids could take several forms including an individual hut in a poor village that uses a solar panel or car battery to supply energy through its home and perhaps to its neighbor.

“If we could have an infrastructure where people can safely deliver power and manage it, we could do a lot to increase people’s quality of life,” Nordman told a gathering of about 100 Ethernet Alliance members. “Why not let Ethernet be the way to deliver it,” he said.

“Just as some people went from having no phone to having a cellphone, they may go directly to having distributed nanogrids, bypassing our legacy expensive central grids,” he said. “I am not proposing getting rid of the central grid, I just think it could be less crucial,” he added. Read more ..

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