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Edge of Astronomy

Astronomers Find Three Smallest Planets Outside Solar System

January 12th 2012

Astronomy - kepler
Kepler 22b

A team of astronomers led by scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has discovered the three smallest confirmed planets ever detected outside our solar system. The three planets, which all orbit a single star, are smaller than Earth and appear to be rocky with a solid surface. Until now, astronomers have found at most only four other rocky planets, also called terrestrial planets, around other stars.

The trio of new planets is too close to the central star to be in its habitable zone—the region around a star where the temperature is mild enough for liquid water, and possibly life, to exist. But the planets are the first rocky ones to be found orbiting a type of dim, small star called a red dwarf, the most common kind in the Milky Way. Their existence suggests that the galaxy could be teeming with similarly rocky planets—and that there's a good chance that many are in the habitable zone. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Hubble Breaks New Ground with Discovery of Distant Exploding Star

January 12th 2012

Science - supernova

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has looked deep into the distant universe and detected the feeble glow of a star that exploded more than 9 billion years ago. The sighting is the first finding of an ambitious survey that will help astronomers place better constraints on the nature of dark energy, the mysterious repulsive force that is causing the universe to fly apart ever faster.

Images taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope reveal the emergence of an exploding star, called a supernova. Nicknamed SN Primo, the exploding star belongs to a special class called Type Ia supernovae, which are distance markers used for studying dark energy and the expansion rate of the universe. "For decades, astronomers have harnessed the power of Hubble to unravel the mysteries of the universe," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "This new observation builds upon the revolutionary research using Hubble that won astronomers the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, while bringing us a step closer to understanding the nature of dark energy which drives the cosmic acceleration." As an astronaut, Grunsfeld visited Hubble three times, performing a total of eight spacewalks to service and upgrade the observatory. Read more ..

The Medical Edge

Viral Load a Major Factor Affecting Risk of Sexually Transmitting HIV

January 12th 2012

Health/Medicine - HIV/AIDS

The level of HIV-1 in the blood of an HIV-infected partner is the single most important factor influencing risk of sexual transmission to an uninfected partner, according to a multinational study of heterosexual couples in sub-Saharan Africa. The study, published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, calculated the risk of HIV-1 transmission per act of sexual intercourse and found the average rate of infection to be about 1 per 900 coital acts. The findings also confirmed that condoms are highly protective and reduce HIV infectivity by 78 percent.

James P. Hughes, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Washington and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in Seattle; the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa; the University of Nairobi and Kenyatta National Hospital, in Kenya; and the Rwanda-Zambia HIV Research Group conducted a study that included 3,297 HIV-discordant couples (where one person is HIV-infected, and the other is not) in eastern and southern Africa who were enrolled in a randomized trial of acyclovir suppressive therapy. The couples had frequent follow-up to measure plasma HIV-1 RNA in the infected partner and genetic testing to link the transmitted virus to the index HIV-infected partner, to prevent inclusion of infections acquired from other possible partners. HIV acquisition was not affected by the acyclovir therapy. Read more ..

Ultrabooks: Strategic vision or just a Passing Phase?

January 11th 2012

Computer Topics - dell ultrabook

Intel Corp.'s new form factor for notebook PCs, the Ultrabook, is the talk of the Las Vegas town at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), wowing conference attendees with MacBook Air-alikes from a plethora of PC vendors. While some see Intel's initiative as largely cosmetic, however, others see the move as a strategic vision promising to become much more than just a pretty face for PC. The market for notebooks has, over the past couple of years, started to stagnate somewhat, as tablets and smartphones rise to ever higher computing heights, bringing more performance and lower power to form factors designed to fit in people's pockets.

The humble notebook PC hasn't seen much in the way of major innovation lately, as mobile devices grab all the headlines and touch screen their way into people's hearts. That does not, however, necessarily mean the time for PCs has passed.  Indeed, even as the buzz around mobile grows, people still struggle to transform their shiny new handhelds into true productivity devices, and this is where the PC still has room to shine—as a predominant platform for both business users and consumers. Read more ..

Edge on Innovation

Samsung and other Asian Giants Closing the Gap with U.S. Companies in Race for Patents

January 11th 2012

China Topics - chinese scientist

IBM maintained its lead in winning U.S. utility patents in 2011, but Samsung is closing in and other Asian tech giants are on the rise, gaining on U.S. companies. IBM ranked first for the nineteenth consecutive year among the top 50 companies on the annual list compiled by IFI Claims Patent Services, a division of Fairview Research (Madison, Conn.). IBM won a record 6,180 utility patents, up nearly five percent from 2010. 

Samsung came in second with 4,894, up eight percent, and is set to continue narrowing the gap. For the past two years, the Korean giant has filed more U.S. patent applications than IBM, submitting more than 5,600 published applications in 2011, compared to less than 5,000 for IBM. Canon rose 11 percent to take third place on the list, pushing Microsoft--the only other U.S. company in the top ten--from third to sixth place with 2,821. Cisco, HP, Intel and Oracle all saw fewer patent grants than in 2010. Japan dominated the list with six of the top ten companies and 19 of the top 50. The U.S. had 17 companies in the top 50. Korea had five, Germany three, Taiwan had one and none came from China. "Global companies, and especially Asian ones, are collecting U.S patents at a dizzying pace, and now Asian firms hold eight of the top 10 slots in the 2011 ranking," said Mike Baycroft, chief executive of IFI Claims, speaking in a press statement.  Read more ..

Edge on Computing

LectureTools start-up Makes a Splash at Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas

January 11th 2012

Computer Topics - Lecture tools
Rich Boys, Zach Wick and Bret Squire, with LectureTools

A University of Michigan educational technology that aims to make large lecture classes feel smaller and more interactive is on display this week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. LectureTools is a Web-based student response, note-taking and inquiry system that turns potentially distracting cell phones and laptops into learning aids (many of its components work via text messaging as well). Visitors to the show will get a preview of the company's next platform."We'll give a sneak peak at the forthcoming LectureTools iPad application for students and demonstrate how instructors can use their iPad or tabletPC to present lectures wirelessly in class using LectureTools," said Perry Samson, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences at the Annn Arbor-based institution and the developer of LectureTools. 

The developers say this will be the first "end-to-end learning platform" available for the iPad at a time when more and more universities are beginning to experiment with iPad-in-the-classroom initiatives. The technology is one of about 25 that the National Science Foundation sponsored to participate in the Consumer Electronic Show's new Eureka Park TechZone for startups. Read more ..

The Medical Edge

University of Utah, Google Seek Answers for Autism

January 10th 2012

Health/Medicine - Autism

These days, we hear a lot about the disorder of autism, but researchers at the University of Utah have created a program that helps kids with autism focus on building their skills and utilizing an aptitude for visual-spatial thinking, computers and other electronic media. One of the program participants is 12-year-old Christopher Charles, who was diagnosed with what's now known as high-functioning autism when he was 18 months old. His parents started him in therapies early on, but hadn't found something that seemed to hold Christopher's interest or accommodate his behaviors. Chris has participated for the past year and a half in workshops at the University of Utah to teach 3D modeling software by Google called SketchUp. Cheryl Wright, associate professor of family and consumer studies, coordinated the workshops in partnership with Google's Project Spectrum, an initiative to teach job skills to kids with autism. Steve Gross, a certified SketchUp instructor and designer for Universal Creative theme parks, leads the workshops.

Wright and her team soon found far greater benefits to these workshops than acquiring a skill set for potential employment, however. The sessions facilitated social engagement among the students and their peers, parents, siblings and even grandparents. They have published a study about these findings in the December issue of Family & Consumer Sciences Research Journal. The study focuses on the effects of the workshops on individual students involved as well as on multiple generations within their families—an uncommon opportunity in the research on social interactions of people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Read more ..

The Nano Edge

A 3-Dimensional View of 1-Dimensional Nanostructures

January 9th 2012

Science - Gallium Nitride
Gallium Nitride

Just 100 nanometers in diameter, nanowires are often considered one-dimensional. But researchers at Northwestern University have recently reported that individual gallium nitride nanowires show strong piezoelectricity – a type of charge-generation caused by mechanical stress – in three dimensions.

The findings, led by Horacio Espinosa, James N. and Nancy J. Farley Professor in Manufacturing and Entrepreneurship at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, were published online Dec. 22 in Nano Letters.

Gallium nitride (GaN) is among the most technologically relevant semiconducting materials and is ubiquitous today in optoelectronic elements such as blue lasers (hence the blue-ray disc) and light-emitting-diodes (LEDs). More recently, nanogenerators based on GaN nanowires were demonstrated capable of converting mechanical energy (such as biomechanical motion) to electrical energy.

“Although nanowires are one-dimensional nanostructures, some properties – such as piezoelectricity, the linear form of electro-mechanical coupling – are three-dimensional in nature,” Espinosa said. “We thought these nanowires should show piezoelectricity in 3D, and aimed at obtaining all the piezoelectric constants for individual nanowires, similar to the bulk material.” Read more ..

Edge of Genetics

TGen Researchers Map Potential Genetic Origins, Pathways of Lung Cancer in Nonsmokers

January 9th 2012

Health/Medicine - Small Cell Lung Cancer

Researchers at the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) have begun to identify mutations and cellular pathway changes that lead to lung cancer in never-smokers — a first step in developing potential therapeutic targets. "This is the starting point. We certainly have a lot of pathways and gene expression alterations that we're going to be very interested in confirming and looking at in larger cohorts of patients," said Dr. Timothy G. Whitsett, Senior Postdoctoral Fellow in TGen's Cancer and Cell Biology Division.

Whitsett presented the findings today at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) and International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer (IASLC) Joint Conference on Molecular Origins of Lung Cancer: Biology, Therapy and Personalized Medicine, held Jan. 8-11, 2012, at the San Diego Marriott Marina & Hotel. "This is a very important subset of patients with lung cancer, and our research looks to identify pathways and genes that are potentially driving this cancer," said Dr. Whitsett, who works under Dr. Nhan Tran, head of TGen's CNS Tumor Research Lab. The title of the abstract Dr. Whitsett presented is Identification of key tumorigenic pathways in never-smoker lung adenocarcinoma patients using massively parallel DNA and RNA sequencing. Read more ..

Edge on Environment

'Flume Room' Mimics Freshwater Streams to Understand Environmental Change

January 9th 2012

Science - UM flume room
U-M flume room. Photo: Austin Thomason

More than 3,000 gallons of Huron River water were trucked to the University of Michigan campus recently to create 150 mini-Hurons that are used to study how environmental changes affect freshwater habitats like rivers and streams. The artificial streams are called flumes, and U-M's new $1 million "Flume Room" is in the basement of the Dana Building, home to the School of Natural Resources and Environment. The U-M flume lab is the largest facility of its kind in North America, and possibly the world.

"We're taking little pieces of the Huron River – the water, the rocks, the bacteria, the algae, the insects and other small invertebrates that inhabit the stream – and we're placing them into these 150 small flumes. We try to mimic all the river conditions we possibly can," said Bradley Cardinale, an assistant professor at the School of Natural Resources and Environment and principal investigator of the flume project. Running an experiment 150 times in 150 identical flumes provides what researchers call high replication, which enables them to precisely estimate how different environmental stresses – such as pollution, species invasions and extinctions, climate change and erosion – affect the river's health. See video here. Read more ..

Edge of Science

Light Makes Write for DNA Information-Storage Device

January 8th 2012

Science - DNA Strands

In an effort to make data storage more cost-effective, a group of researchers from National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany have created a DNA-based memory device that is "write-once-read-many-times" (WORM), and that uses ultraviolet (UV) light to make it possible to encode information. The device, described in a paper accepted to the AIP's Applied Physics Letters, consists of a thin film of salmon DNA that has been embedded with silver nanoparticles and then sandwiched between two electrodes.

Shining UV light on the system enables a light-triggered synthesis process that causes the silver atoms to cluster into nano-sized particles, and readies the system for data encoding. In some cases, using DNA may be less expensive to process into memory devices than using traditional, inorganic materials like silicon, the researchers say. Read more ..

Iran on Edge

Iran Announces New Restrictions For Internet Cafes

January 8th 2012

Iran - Iran Cyber Cafe

Iran's cyberpolice have issued new guidelines for Internet cafes that appear to be part of the Iranian establishment's efforts to tighten its control of the Internet.

According to the new rules, the personal information of citizens visiting cybercafes, such as their name, father's name, national ID number, and telephone number, will be registered. Cafe owners will be required to keep the personal and contact information of their clients and also a record of the websites and pages visited for six months.

Another new rule that has been announced requires cybercafe owners to install closed-circuit TV cameras and keep the video recordings for six months. The guidelines also say that installing circumvention tools that allow access to banned websites will be illegal at Internet cafes. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Mars Rover Spends Winter at "Greeley Haven"

January 7th 2012

Science - Water on Mars

NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity will spend the next few months during the coldest part of Martian winter at Greeley Haven, an outcrop of rock on Mars recently named informally to honor ASU Regents' Professor Ronald Greeley, a planetary geologist who died Oct. 27, 2011. Long passionate about exploring the solar system and Mars in particular, Greeley was involved with many missions to the Red Planet, including Mariners 6, 7, and 9, Viking, Mars Pathfinder, Mars Global Surveyor, and the two Mars Exploration Rovers. He was also a co-investigator for the camera system on the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter mission. Among his major research interests were wind erosion, dunes and dust devil activity, all of which can be found in abundance on Mars.

"We miss Ron's wisdom and guidance on the rover team," says Jim Bell, lead scientist for the Panoramic Camera (Pancam) on the rover. Bell, who came to ASU in early 2011, is a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "We hope that eventually the International Astronomical Union will name a crater or some other feature on Mars or some other solar system body for Ron," Bell says. "But that process typically takes years." In the meantime, he adds, "This small commemoration helps preserve the memory of Ron's contributions to planetary science within the community and beyond." Read more ..

The Edge of Physics

Researchers Create a Silicon Wire Four Atoms Wide, One Atom Tall

January 6th 2012

Science - nanowire

The smallest wires ever developed in silicon, just one atom tall and four atoms wide, have been shown by a team of researchers from the University of New South Wales, Melbourne University and Purdue University to have the same current-carrying capability as copper wires. Experiments and atom-by-atom supercomputer models of the wires have found that the wires maintain a low capacity for resistance despite being more than 20 times thinner than conventional copper wires in microprocessors.

For engineers this discovery could provide a roadmap to future nanoscale computational devices where atomic sizes are at the end of Moore's law. The theory shows that a single dense row of phosphorus atoms embedded in silicon will be the ultimate limit of downscaling. For computer scientists, it places donor-atom based silicon quantum computing closer to realization. And for physicists, the results show that Ohm's Law, which demonstrates the relationship between electrical current, resistance and voltage, continues to apply all the way down to an atomic-scale wire. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Phone Charging Using Harvested Solar Energy

January 6th 2012

Technology - Phone

Nokia has completed a research project on phone charging using harvested solar energy. So can the sun be relied on to charge your phone? Nokia is searching for improved energy efficiency and more sustainable alternatives for mobile phone users. The solar energy project was designed to assess the viability and ease of solar charging for mobile phones. The idea was also to look at the possibilities for phone charging in conditions where it's not possible to plug in to recharge the phone, or where the electricity supply is uncertain.

Nokia began with developing a prototype phone for the project featuring a solar charging panel integrated in the back cover for harvesting solar energy. The phone was tested last summer by a team of five people in a range of different environments. Two of the phones were tested up north at the Arctic Circle, one in southern Sweden and one in Kenya, and the fifth member of the test team was sailing in the Baltic Sea. Read more ..

The Medical Edge

New Synthetic Molecules Treat Autoimmune Disease in Mice

January 3rd 2012

Science - MMP-9 (enzyme)
MMP9 enzyme

A team of Weizmann Institute scientists has turned the tables on an autoimmune disease. In such diseases, including Crohn’s and rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s tissues. But the scientists managed to trick the immune systems of mice into targeting one of the body’s players in autoimmune processes, an enzyme known as MMP9. The results of their research appear in Nature Medicine.

Prof. Irit Sagi of the Department of Biological Regulation and her research group have spent years looking for ways to home in on and block members of the matrix metalloproteinase (MMP) enzyme family. These proteins cut through such support materials in our bodies as collagen, which makes them crucial for cellular mobilization, proliferation, and wound healing, among other things. But when some members of the family, especially MMP9, get out of control, they can aid and abet autoimmune disease and cancer metastasis. Blocking these proteins might lead to effective treatments for a number of diseases. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

3D TV Gaining Momentum in Western Europe and China, Declining in North America

January 3rd 2012

Technology - 3D tv

Consumer behavior and TV set maker strategies are resulting in widely diverging TV product ranges across the world. While the industry is truly global, regional differences are increasing. For 3D, the most enthusiastic regions are Western Europe and China, while the mix of 3D in North America actually declined in the third quarter of 2011, according a fourth quarter report by NPD DisplaySearch.

”We were surprised to find that 3D appears to be a far more popular feature in China than North America, and the penetration rate was two times higher in the last quarter,” said Paul Gray, Director of TV Electronics Research. “Our report also indicates that North American and Japanese 3D penetration is lower than the Middle East.”

The report finds that North American consumers favor large, inexpensive TV sets with fewer features, unlike other regions. Chinese consumers are enthusiastic about richly-featured sets with 3D, LED backlighting and smart TV capabilities. Read more ..

The Edge of Health

Virgin Olive Oil & Fish Fatty Acids Help Prevent Acute Pancreatitis

January 2nd 2012

Health/Medicine - olive-oil

Oleic acid and hydroxytyrosol –present in a particularly high concentration in virgin olive oil– and n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids –found in fish– affect the cellular mechanisms involved in the development of acute pancreatitis, a disease of oxidative-inflammatory etiology. Therefore, oleic acid and hydroxytyrosol can be considered potential functional ingredients, as they may prevent or mitigate this disease.

Such was the conclusion drawn in a study conducted by a research group at the University of Granada Physiology Department, where the researchers examined the role of the Mediterranean diet ingredients in the prevention and mitigation of cell damage.

An In Vitro Experimental Model

These scientists developed an in vitro experimental model that allows scientist to evaluate how changes in the membrane fatty acid composition in vivo –caused by a change in the type of fat ingested– affect the ability of cells to respond to induced oxidative-inflammatory damage with cerulein (acute pancreatitis). Read more ..

The Edge of Health

Elderly Can be as Fast as Young in Some Brain Tasks, Study Shows

December 30th 2011

Social Topics - walking-cane

Both children and the elderly have slower response times when they have to make quick decisions in some settings. But recent research suggests that much of that slower response is a conscious choice to emphasize accuracy over speed. In fact, healthy older people can be trained to respond faster in some decision-making tasks without hurting their accuracy – meaning their cognitive skills in this area aren’t so different from younger adults. “Many people think that it is just natural for older people’s brains to slow down as they age, but we’re finding that isn’t always true,” said Roger Ratcliff, professor of psychology at Ohio State University and co-author of the studies. “At least in some situations, 70-year-olds may have response times similar to those of 25-year olds.”

Ratcliff and his colleagues have been studying cognitive processes and aging in their lab for about a decade.  In a new study published online this month in the journal Child Development, they extended their work to children. Ratcliff said their results in children are what most scientists would have expected: very young children have slower response times and poorer accuracy compared to adults, and these improve as the children mature. But the more interesting finding is that older adults don’t necessarily have slower brain processing than younger people, said Gail McKoon, professor of psychology at Ohio State and co-author of the studies. “Older people don’t want to make any errors at all, and that causes them to slow down.  We found that it is difficult to get them out of the habit, but they can with practice,” McKoon said. Read more ..

Inside the Brain

Human Brain's Connective Cells Are Much More Than Glue

December 29th 2011

Science - glia cells

Glia cells, named for the Greek word for "glue," hold the brain's neurons together and protect the cells that determine our thoughts and behaviors, but scientists have long puzzled over their prominence in the activities of the brain dedicated to learning and memory. Now Tel Aviv University researchers say that glia cells are central to the brain's plasticity — how the brain adapts, learns, and stores information.

According to Ph.D. student Maurizio De Pittà of TAU's Schools of Physics and Astronomy and Electrical Engineering, glia cells do much more than hold the brain together. A mechanism within the glia cells also sorts information for learning purposes, De Pittà says. "Glia cells are like the brain's supervisors. By regulating the synapses, they control the transfer of information between neurons, affecting how the brain processes information and learns."

De Pittà's research, led by his TAU supervisor Prof. Eshel Ben-Jacob, along with Vladislav Volman of The Salk Institute and the University of California at San Diego and Hugues Berry of the Université de Lyon in France, has developed the first computer model that incorporates the influence of glia cells on synaptic information transfer. Detailed in the journal PLoS Computational Biology, the model can also be implemented in technologies based on brain networks such as microchips and computer software, Prof. Ben-Jacob says, and aid in research on brain disorders such as Alzheimer's disease and epilepsy. Read more ..

The Medical Edge

Test-tube Testes Offer Possible Breakthrough for Infertile Men

December 28th 2011

Health/Medicine - Mahmoud Huleihel
Professor Mahmoud Huleihel, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

Sperm banks may have solved the problem of male infertility for some couples, but not for those men who want to see their grandmother’s smile or father’s eyes in their future offspring.

Environmental pollution, testicular warming, and even radiation treatments can radically alter the course of a man’s fertility—to the point where not even a single viable sperm can be used in the in vitro fertilization (IVF) process, where a woman’s egg is joined with sperm in the lab to make a fertilized egg and implanted in the uterus.

Now, scientists at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev have created an artificial testis that promises to be a breakthrough in male infertility. In this Petri dish experiment, the researchers cultured a live sperm from mice, using the germ cells of a man’s sperm—the proto-cells that create sperm. Results were published recently in the Asian Journal of Andrology. Read more ..

The Edge of Physics

"God Particle" Higgs Boson Mystery Could Be Solved Soon

December 28th 2011

Science - cern-atlas nov 2006
ATLAS experiment under construction at CERN

A definitive answer on whether or not the so-called “God Particle” exists could come in 2012, according to a scientist involved in solving the mystery.

The search for the subatomic particle called the Higgs boson went into overdrive in 2008, when the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), in Switzerland, switched on its Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Results of two CERN experiments, known as ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC ApparatuS) and CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid), were announced recently at a seminar Rumor was that the Higgs boson had finally been found. Instead, the teams revealed they’d found tantalizing hints of where the Higgs boson may be found, if it exists at all.

Dr. Pierre Savard, associate professor of physics at the University of Toronto, is currently involved in the ATLAS experiments to track down the elusive particle. He says that before each experimental team revealed its findings, neither knew the other’s results. Read more ..

Edge on Atomic Science

Egg Carton of Laser Light Traps Atoms and Advances Computing and Imaging

December 28th 2011

Science - Rydberg atom trap

In an egg carton of laser light, University of Michigan physicists can trap giant Rydberg atoms with up to 90 percent efficiency, an achievement that could advance quantum computing and terahertz imaging, among other applications.

Highly excited Rydberg atoms can be 1,000 times larger than their ground state counterparts. Nearly ionized, they cling to faraway electrons almost beyond their reach. Trapping them efficiently is an important step in realizing their potential, the researchers say.

Here's how they did it:

"Our optical lattice is made from a pair of counter-propagating laser beams and forms a series of wells that can trap the atoms, similar to how an egg carton holds eggs," said Georg Raithel, a U-M physics professor and co-author of a paper on the work published in the current edition of Physical Review Letters. Other co-authors are physics doctoral student Sarah Anderson and recent doctoral graduate Kelly Younge. The paper is titled "Trapping Rydberg atoms in an optical lattice." Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Astronomers Discover Rare Galaxy at Dawn of Time

December 26th 2011

Science - Young Galaxy NASA

Astronomers, including the University of California, Riverside's Bahram Mobasher and his graduate student Hooshang Nayyeri, have discovered that one of the most distant galaxies known is churning out stars at a shockingly high rate. The researchers made the discovery using NASA's Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes. The blob-shaped galaxy, called GN-108036, is the brightest galaxy found to date at such great distances.

The galaxy, which was discovered and confirmed using ground-based telescopes, is 12.9 billion light-years away. Data from Spitzer and Hubble were used to measure the galaxy's high star production rate, equivalent to about 100 suns per year. For reference, our Milky Way galaxy is about five times larger and 100 times more massive than GN-108036, but makes roughly 30 times fewer stars per year. Read more ..

Environmental Edge

Christmas Cards and Gift Wrap in United Kingdom provide enough Energy for a Moon Trip

December 26th 2011

Europe Topics - British bus

If all the UK's discarded wrapping paper and Christmas cards were collected and fermented, they could make enough biofuel to run a double-decker bus to the moon and back more than 20 times, according to the researchers behind a new scientific study.

The study, by scientists at Imperial College London, demonstrates that industrial quantities of waste paper could be turned into high grade biofuel, to power motor vehicles, by fermenting the paper using microorganisms. The researchers hope that biofuels made from waste paper could ultimately provide one alternative to fossil fuels like diesel and petrol, in turn reducing the impact of fossil fuels on the environment.

According to some estimates 1.5 billion cards and 83 square kilometres of wrapping paper are thrown away by UK residents over the Christmas period. They currently go to landfill or are recycled in local schemes. This amount of paper could provide 5-12 million litres of biofuel, say the researchers, enough to run a bus for up to 18 million km. Read more ..

Edge on Health

HIV/AIDS Breakthrough of the Year shows Anti-Retroviral Drugs limit Transmission of Virus

December 25th 2011

Health/Medicine - HIV/AIDS

The journal Science has lauded an eye-opening HIV study, known as HPTN 052, as the most important scientific breakthrough of 2011. This clinical trial demonstrated that people infected with HIV are 96 percent less likely to transmit the virus to their partners if they take antiretroviral drugs (ARVs).

The findings end a long-standing debate over whether ARVs could provide a double benefit by treating the virus in individual patients while simultaneously cutting transmission rates. It's now clear that ARVs can provide treatment as well as prevention when it comes to HIV, researchers agree.

In addition to recognizing HPTN 052 as the 2011 Breakthrough of the Year, Science and its publisher, AAAS, the nonprofit science society, have identified nine other groundbreaking scientific accomplishments from the past year and compiled them into a top 10 list.

Myron Cohen from the University of North Carolina's School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, N.C. and an international team of colleagues kicked off the HPTN 052 study in 2007 by enrolling 1,763 heterosexual couples from nine different countries: Brazil, India, Thailand, the United States, Botswana, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Each participating couple included one partner with an HIV infection. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Astronomers Discover Deep-Fried Planets

December 25th 2011

Science - New Earth Sized Planets

Two Earth-sized planets have been discovered circling a dying star that has passed the red giant stage. Because of their close orbits, the planets must have been engulfed by their star while it swelled up to many times its original size.

This discovery, published in the science journal Nature, may shed new light on the destiny of stellar and planetary systems, including our solar system. When our sun nears the end of its life in about 5 billion years, it will swell up to what astronomers call a red giant, an inflated star that has used up most of its fuel. So large will the dying star grow that its fiery outer reaches will swallow the innermost planets of our solar system – Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. Researchers believed that this unimaginable inferno would make short work of any planet caught in it – until now.

This report describes the first discovery of two planets – or remnants thereof – that evidently not only survived being engulfed by their parent star, but also may have helped to strip the star of most of its fiery envelope in the process. The team was led by Stephane Charpinet, an astronomer at the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie, Université de Toulouse-CNRS, in France. "When our sun swells up to become a red giant, it will engulf the Earth," said Elizabeth 'Betsy' Green, an associate astronomer at the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory, who participated in the research. "If a tiny planet like the Earth spends 1 billion years in an environment like that, it will just evaporate. Only planets with masses very much larger than the Earth, like Jupiter or Saturn, could possibly survive." Read more ..

Edge of Space

Closest Supernova in 25 Years Yields New Insights into Its Formation

December 24th 2011

Science - ptf11kly supernova
Credit: D. Andrew Howell et al., LCOGT

Type 1a supernovae are such regular features of the Universe that astrophysicists use them to measure cosmic distances; however, we still don’t know exactly what makes these giant explosions occur. Now, scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science, as part of an international effort to study supernovae, are beginning to clear up the mystery of why certain stars explode in a brilliant display at the ends of their lives.

New research began last August, when the automatic telescopes at the Palomar Transient Factory (PTF) in California that search for signs of developing supernova spotted one just a half a day into the explosion process. Not only was this a very early observation, but the supernova (dubbed PTF 11kly) was in the Pinwheel Galaxy (M101), a mere 6.4 Megaparsecs away—the closest one in the last 25 years.

The scientists participating in PTF, including Drs. Eran Ofek and Avishay Gal-Yam of the Department of Particle Physics and Astrophysics, have recently published three new papers based on their initial observations and analysis, two of them appearing in Nature and one in The Astrophysical Journal. Read more ..

The Edge of Life

Scientists Find Microbes in Lava Tube Living in Conditions Like Those on Mars

December 24th 2011

Science - Lava flow at Krafla

A team of scientists from Oregon has collected microbes from ice within a lava tube in the Cascade Mountains and found that they thrive in cold, Mars-like conditions.

The microbes tolerate temperatures near freezing and low levels of oxygen, and they can grow in the absence of organic food. Under these conditions their metabolism is driven by the oxidation of iron from olivine, a common volcanic mineral found in the rocks of the lava tube. These factors make the microbes capable of living in the subsurface of Mars and other planetary bodies, the scientists say.

The findings, supported by a grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), are detailed in the journal Astrobiology. “This microbe is from one of the most common genera of bacteria on Earth,” said Amy Smith, a doctoral student at Oregon State University and one of the authors of the study. “You can find its cousins in caves, on your skin, at the bottom of the ocean and just about anywhere. What is different, in this case, is its unique qualities that allow it to grow in Mars-like conditions.” Read more ..

The Race for Solar

Notre Dame Researchers Develop Paint-On Solar Cells

December 23rd 2011

Energy Topics - Solar Paint

Imagine if the next coat of paint you put on the outside of your home generates electricity from light—electricity that can be used to power the appliances and equipment on the inside.

A team of researchers at the University of Notre Dame have made a major advance toward this vision by creating an inexpensive "solar paint" that uses semiconducting nanoparticles to produce energy. "We want to do something transformative, to move beyond current silicon-based solar technology," says Prashant Kamat, John A. Zahm Professor of Science in Chemistry and Biochemistry and an investigator in Notre Dame's Center for Nano Science and Technology (NDnano), who leads the research. "By incorporating power-producing nanoparticles, called quantum dots, into a spreadable compound, we've made a one-coat solar paint that can be applied to any conductive surface without special equipment." Read more ..

The Noise Edge

Do You Hear What I Hear? Noise Exposure Surrounds Us

December 23rd 2011

Science - Sound little boy

Nine out of 10 city dwellers may have enough harmful noise exposure to risk hearing loss, and most of that exposure comes from leisure activities. Historically, loud workplaces were blamed for harmful noise levels.

But researchers at the University of Michigan found that noise from MP3 players and stereo use has eclipsed loud work environments, said Rick Neitzel, assistant professor in the U-M School of Public Health and the Risk Science Center. Robyn Gershon, a professor with the Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies, University of California, San Francisco is the principal investigator on the study. This proved true even though MP3 player and stereo listening were just a small fraction of each person's total annual noise exposure. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Fear No Supernova

December 21st 2011

Science - supernova

Given the incredible amounts of energy in a supernova explosion – as much as the sun creates during its entire lifetime – another erroneous doomsday theory is that such an explosion could happen in 2012 and harm life on Earth. However, given the vastness of space and the long times between supernovae, astronomers can say with certainty that there is no threatening star close enough to hurt Earth.

Astronomers estimate that, on average, about one or two supernovae explode each century in our galaxy. But for Earth's ozone layer to experience damage from a supernova, the blast must occur less than 50 light-years away. All of the nearby stars capable of going supernova are much farther than this. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Meteorite Shockwaves Trigger Dust Avalanches on Mars

December 21st 2011

Science - Mars-scape

Dust avalanches around impact craters on Mars appear to be the result of the shock wave preceding the actual impact, according to a study led by an undergraduate student at the UA.    

When a meteorite careens toward the dusty surface of the Red Planet, it kicks up dust and can cause avalanching even before the rock from outer space hits the ground, a research team led by an undergraduate student at the University of Arizona has discovered.

"We expected that some of the streaks of dust that we see on slopes are caused by seismic shaking during impact," said Kaylan Burleigh, who led the research project. "We were surprised to find that it rather looks like shockwaves in the air trigger the avalanches even before the impact." Read more ..

The Medical Edge

White Blood Cells Play Hide and Seek

December 20th 2011

Science - effector cell
Effector cell inserting appendages through endothelial cell membranes

The white blood cells that fight disease and help our bodies heal are directed to sites of infection or injury by “exit signs”—chemical signals that tell them where to pass through the blood vessel walls and into the underlying tissue. New research at the Weizmann Institute, which appeared in Nature Immunology online, shows how the cells lining blood vessel walls may act as “selectors” by hiding the signals where only certain “educated” white blood cells will find them.

In previous studies, Prof. Ronen Alon—incumbent of the Linda Jacobs Professorial Chair in Immune and Stem Cell Research—and his team in the Department of Immunology had found that near sites of inflammation, white blood cells rapidly crawl along the inner lining of the blood vessels with tens of tiny legs that grip the surface tightly, feeling for exit signs. Such signs consist of migration-promoting molecules called chemokines, which the cells lining the blood vessels—endothelial cells—display on their outer surfaces like flashing lights. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Improving Security in the Cloud

December 18th 2011

Science - cumulus clouds (credit: Michael Jastremski)
credit:  Michael Jastremski

Less and less of today’s computing is done on desktop computers; cloud computing, in which operations are carried out on a network of shared, remote servers, is expected to rise as the demand for computing power increases. This raises some crucial questions about security: Can we, for instance, perform computations on data stored in “the cloud” without letting anyone else see our information? Research carried out at the Weizmann Institute of Science and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is moving us closer to the ability to work on data while it is still encrypted, giving an encrypted result that can later be securely deciphered.

Attempting computation on sensitive data stored on shared servers leaves that data exposed in ways that traditional encryption techniques can’t protect. The main problem is that to manipulate the data, it has to be first decoded. “Until a few years ago, no one knew if the encryption needed for this sort of online security was even possible,” says Dr. Zvika Brakerski, who recently completed his PhD in the group of Prof. Shafrira (Shafi) Goldwasser of the Department of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics. Read more ..

The Environmental Edge

Novel Device Removes Heavy Metals From Water

December 17th 2011

Environment Topics - outflow pipe

Engineers at Brown University have developed a system that cleanly and efficiently removes trace heavy metals from water. In experiments, the researchers showed the system reduced cadmium, copper, and nickel concentrations, returning contaminated water to near or below federally acceptable standards. The technique is scalable and has viable commercial applications, especially in the environmental remediation and metal recovery fields. Results appear in the Chemical Engineering Journal.

An unfortunate consequence of many industrial and manufacturing practices, from textile factories to metalworking operations, is the release of heavy metals in waterways. Those metals can remain for decades, even centuries, in low but still dangerous concentrations. Read more ..

Medicine Edge

Scientists May Be Able to Double Efficacy of Radiation Therapy

December 16th 2011

Health/Medicine - bladder-radiation-therapy
Radiation Therapy

Scientists may have a way to double the efficacy and reduce the side effects of radiation therapy.

Georgia Health Sciences University scientists have devised a way to reduce lung cancer cells' ability to repair the lethal double-strand DNA breaks caused by radiation therapy.

"Radiation is a great therapy – the problem is the side effects," said Dr. William S. Dynan, biochemist and Associate Director of Research and Chief, Nanomedicine and Gene Regulation at the GHSU Institute of Molecular Medicine and Genetics. "We think this is a way to get the same amount of cancer cell death with less radiation or use the same amount and maybe cure a patient that could not be cured before." Read more ..

The Electrical Edge

Intelligent Plug Aims To Save Energy

December 16th 2011

Technology - eliminata

A new range of intelligent plugs that tailor electricity supply to appliance usage and can pay for themselves in a year has been launched by Cambridge-based Energy Reducing Products (ERP). The ELIMINATA range claims to take the guesswork out of energy saving by supplying power to office appliances only when it is needed.

ERP was founded by two entrepreneurs, John Halfpenny and Giles Hutchinson. Halfpenny said: “It’s inevitable that at the end of a long day the last person out of the office doesn’t always remember to go around checking that every appliance is switched off. In fact, many need to be left on for a little while longer: you may want to leave a printer to finish a job overnight, and the water cooler needs to regularly run its sanitisation features". Read more ..

The Robotic Edge

Creepy-Crawly Cyborgs are the Next First-Responders

December 15th 2011

Science - Cyborg insect
Photo credit: Erkan Aktakka

Research conducted at the University of Michigan College of Engineering may lead to the use of insects to monitor hazardous situations before sending in humans.

Professor Khalil Najafi, the chair of electrical and computer engineering, and doctoral student Erkan Aktakka are finding ways to harvest energy from insects, and take the utility of the miniature cyborgs to the next level.

"Through energy scavenging, we could potentially power cameras, microphones and other sensors and communications equipment that an insect could carry aboard a tiny backpack," Najafi said. "We could then send these 'bugged' bugs into dangerous or enclosed environments where we would not want humans to go."

The principal idea is to harvest the insect's biological energy from either its body heat or movements. The device converts the kinetic energy from wing movements of the insect into electricity, thus prolonging the battery life. The battery can be used to power small sensors implanted on the insect (such as a small camera, a microphone or a gas sensor) in order to gather vital information from hazardous environments.

The Medical Edge

New Technique Identifies Magnetized Cancer Cells and Simplifies Treatment

December 15th 2011

Science - Remy Elbiz UMichigan cancer cells
Remy Elbez in the U-Michigan physics laboratory

A technique that lets researchers monitor single cancer cells in real time as they float in liquid could help doctors study the breakaway tumor cells that cause metastasis. Metastasis is the process of the disease spreading through the body.

The approach, developed at the University of Michigan, could also pave the way for new types of targeted therapies that go beyond personalized medicine, researchers say.
Remy Elbez, a doctoral student in applied physics, takes a sample of a solution that contains magnetized cervical cancer cells. He will place several drops of the solution in a special magnetic field. Then, after placing the whole apparatus under a microscope, he can watch the cells spin on a screen and determine their shape and status from their rotation rates. This new technique could help doctors understand the process of cancer metastasis. Photo by Nicole Casal Moore"We're looking toward individualized treatment, not just to the person, but to the cell," said Remy Elbez, a doctoral student in applied physics. He is a co-author of a paper on the work published in PLoS ONE.
In recent years, researchers have come to understand that not all cells in a cancerous tumor share the same genetic code. This means some are more difficult to kill than others. And techniques that enable single-cell study are in demand. Approaches that process many cells at once aren't as useful for researchers who want to look, for example, at a small number of cells that a particular cancer drug left alive. Read more ..

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