Science & Technology


A thought experiment: What if we broke the internet?

© Chloe Cushman for the Guardian
Spying and cyber theft are not freak phenomena; they're unavoidable consequences of online access as it now exists.
What will life be like after the internet? Thanks to the mass surveillance undertaken by the National Security Agency and the general creepiness of companies like Google and Facebook, I've found myself considering this question. I mean, nothing lasts forever, right?

There's a broad tech backlash going on right now; I wonder just how deep the disillusionment runs. I get the feeling that there are folks out there who would relish putting the internet behind us sooner rather than later. Imagine that: even the internet could be a thing of the past one day. What would that be like? No Facebook. No Google. No government nerds looking through your webcam.

But could we become more secure without abandoning the internet? What if there's a third way? One that doesn't involve either passive resignation to being exploited or a Luddite smash-the-looms fantasy. What if we began to develop and encourage the adoption of machines and a network that are actually secure - through which neither thieves, corporations, nor the NSA could track us - and what if these could be configured by us, to really do what we want them to do? To stop the spying, stealing and monitoring, but to allow other things to continue.

What would that look like?

A problem: maybe the internet wasn't built to be secure

Astronomers 'disappointed' after discovering rings around Asteroid Chariklo

© Nick Risinger/L. Calçada/ESO
This artist's impression shows how the rings might look from close to the surface of Chariklo. They are 1,000 times closer than the moon is to Earth, but are each just a few kilometres wide.
Rings have been discovered around an asteroid for the first time to the dismay of astronomers who didn't think asteroids could have rings.

The asteroid Chariklo, which is also considered a minor planet, appears to be encircled by two narrow rings, reported an international team of scientists in a paper published online Wednesday in the journal Nature.

"We weren't looking for a ring and didn't think small bodies like Chariklo had them at all," said Felipe Braga-Ribas of the Observatório Nacional/MCTI in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, lead author of the report, in a statement.

"So the discovery - and the amazing amount of detail we saw in the system - came as a complete surprise!"

Chariklo is the largest of the Centaurs, a group of asteroids orbiting between Saturn and Uranus. Its diameter is about 250 kilometres. In comparison, Lake Ontario is 310 kilometres long and Prince Edward Island is 224 kilometres long.

Comment: The astronomers are disappointed because it's another nail in the coffin of their theories about how the Universe works.

SOTT Talk Radio: The Electric Universe - An interview with Wallace Thornhill


New dwarf planet hints at giant world far beyond Pluto

Dwarf planet
© Scott S. Sheppard, Carnegie Institution for Science
Three images, showing dwarf planet 2012 VP113 in red, then green, then blue, were combined to reveal its path across the night sky.
A surprise monster may be lurking in our solar system. A newly discovered dwarf planet has grabbed the crown as the most distant known object in our solar system - and its orbit hints at a giant, unseen rocky world, 10 times the mass of Earth and orbiting far beyond Pluto.

The dwarf planet, for now dubbed 2012 VP113 because it was spotted in images taken in November 2012 - is an interesting discovery in itself. Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington DC and his colleagues found that it is a lump of rock and ice 450 kilometres wide and lies at 80 astronomical units from the sun at its closest approach (1 AU is Earth's distance from the sun).

That's twice as far as the most famous dwarf planet, Pluto, which is 2340 kilometres wide and also beats the previous record holder, a 1000-kilometre-wide planetoid called Sedna, discovered in 2003, with a closest approach of 76 AU out.

Objects orbiting this far from the sun, in the "inner Oort cloud", are useful to probe the early solar system. That's because they lie too far away to be perturbed by the gas planets, but too close to the sun to be affected by the gravity of other stars in our galaxy - so their orbits and behaviour are thought to be almost unchanged since they first formed. "Once we find more objects in this region, we'll be able to start to strongly constrain the possible formation scenarios," says Sheppard.

Press conference in Brazil to announce discovery in outer Solar System

La Silla Observatory
ESO's La Silla Observatory.
An international team of astronomers, led by Felipe Braga-Ribas (Observatório Nacional/MCTI, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), has used telescopes at seven locations in South America, including the 1.54-metre Danish and TRAPPIST telescopes at ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile, to make a surprise discovery in the outer Solar System.

This unexpected result raises several unanswered questions and is expected to provoke much debate. A press conference will be held in Brazil to present the new results and allow opportunities for questions.

Note that all information regarding these findings is under strict embargo until 19:00 CET (15:00 BRT) on Wednesday 26 March 2014.

When: The conference will be held on 26 March 2014 at 14:30 local time (BRT) and will take place in Portuguese with a summary in English.

Who: The conference presenters are:
  • Felipe Braga-Ribas, Observatório Nacional/MCTI, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  • Bruno Sicardy, LESIA, Observatoire de Paris, CNRS, Paris, France
  • Prof. Roberto Martins, Observatório Nacional/MCTI, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  • Prof. Julio Camargo, Observatório Nacional/MCTI, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Where: The event takes place in Observatório Nacional, Auditório do Grupo de Pesquisas em Astronomia (GPA), in the GPA/LINEA Building in Rua General José Cristino, 77, Bairro de São Cristovão, Rio de Janeiro - RJ, 20921-400, Brazil.

New storms on Jupiter

We told you this was going to be a good season to observe Jupiter, and astrophotographers in the northern hemisphere have been making the most of this time of opposition where Jupiter has been riding high in the sky. What we didn't know was that there was going to be a familiar face staring back at us.

A combination of three storms has been noted throughout this Jupiter observing season for its resemblance to Mickey Mouse's face (at least in outline), and astrophotographer Damian Peach has captured some great images of these storms, along with the iconic Great Red Spot, its little brother Oval BA and other turbulence. Damian has also put together a stunning movie (below) showing about three hours of rotation of the king of the planets.

Damian explained the Mickey Mouse storms are two anticyclones (high pressure regions) that form the ears while a longer elongated cyclone (low pressure) forms the face.

Human nose can detect 1 trillion odours

The human nose can distinguish at least 1 trillion different odours, a resolution orders of magnitude beyond the previous estimate of just 10,000 scents, researchers report today in Science1.
© Richard Green/Commercial/Alamy
The human nose has roughly 400 types of scent receptors that can detect at least 1 trillion different odours.
Scientists who study smell have suspected a higher number for some time, but few studies have attempted to explore the limits of the human nose's sensory capacity. "It has just been sitting there for somebody to do," says study co-author Andreas Keller, an olfactory researcher at the Rockefeller University in New York.
Black Magic

Human-animal hybrids could wreck havoc on society, yet laws are not keeping pace with scientific creations

human-animal hybrid embyo
© caustic/cc-by
Scientists worldwide are creating bizarre human-animal hybrids that could wreak havoc on society. In the past ten years alone, unforgettable advances in the field of genetic modifications have left researchers and on-lookers stunned.

Nowadays, it is possible for a couple of university-age students to concoct new life forms in the comfort of their own basement. Regrettably so, laws have not been able to keep up with the pace at which scientists have been toying around with their creations.

In turn, the entities being created are not at all illegal but by all means could pose a risk to society by and large. There is no telling what may happen if these life forms are allowed to mate. Still, eagerness can be seen in the eyes and minds of scientists on a global level just waiting to unleash their next creation to the world, that all seemed liked fantasy just a short time ago.

To give a concrete example, scientists have made mice with an artificial human chromosome "in every cell of their bodies". Such an act is being praised as a "breakthrough" which may lead to different cures for a wide scope of disease. As reported by, University of Wisconsin researchers have had much success by transferring cells from human embryos into the brains of mice. These very cells began to grow, and in time made the mice more intelligent.

Cosmologists cast doubt on inflation evidence

BICEP Findings
© Universe Today
Some physicists still have questions on the true origin of the BICEP2 findings…
It was just a week ago that the news blew through the scientific world like a storm: researchers from the BICEP2 project at the South Pole Telescope had detected unambiguous evidence of primordial gravitational waves in the cosmic microwave background, the residual rippling of space and time created by the sudden inflation of the Universe less than a billionth of a billionth of a second after the Big Bang.

With whispers of Nobel nominations quickly rising in the science news wings, the team's findings were hailed as the best direct evidence yet of cosmic inflation, possibly even supporting the existence of a multitude of other universes besides our own.

That is, if they really do indicate what they appear to. Some theorists are advising that we "put the champagne back in the fridge"... at least for now.

Theoretical physicists and cosmologists James Dent, Lawrence Krauss, and Harsh Mathur have submitted a brief paper (arXiv:1403.5166 [astro-ph.CO]) stating that, while groundbreaking, the BICEP2 Collaboration findings have yet to rule out all possible non-inflation sources of the observed B-mode polarization patterns and the "surprisingly large value of r, the ratio of power in tensor modes to scalar density perturbations."
"However, while there is little doubt that inflation at the Grand Unified Scale is the best motivated source of such primordial waves, it is important to demonstrate that other possible sources cannot account for the current BICEP2 data before definitely claiming Inflation has been proved. "

- Dent, Krauss, and Mathur (arXiv:1403.5166 [astro-ph.CO])
Inflation may very well be the cause - and Dent and company state right off the bat that "there is little doubt that inflation at the Grand Unified Scale is the best motivated source of such primordial waves" - but there's also a possibility, however remote, that some other, later cosmic event is responsible for at least some if not all of the BICEP2 measurements. (Hence the name of the paper: "Killing the Straw Man: Does BICEP Prove Inflation?")
Cloud Lightning

Stunning lightning above mideast seen from space

© NASA Earth Observatory
This image of lightning over Kuwait was taken by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station on Dec. 12, 2013.
This stunning image of a lightning strike over Kuwait was captured last December by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and released today (March 24) by NASA's Earth Observatory. The ISS recently installed a new instrument to help study the physics and composition of such bolts in detail on a daily basis.

Lightning bolts flash across Earth's atmosphere as often as 50 times per second, which adds up to about 4.3 million times a day and 1.5 billion times a year, NASA officials wrote in an image description. Some of those strikes emit gamma radiation - a type of radiation more commonly associated with exploding stars and nuclear fusion - in bursts known as terrestrial gamma-ray flashes (TGFs). The scientists will use the new lightning imagery and data from the ISS to try to understand what triggers lightning during storms in general, and what causes these rarer bursts of TGFs. [Electric Earth: Stunning Images of Lightning]

"The fact that TGFs exist at all is amazing," Doug Rowland, a space physicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center involved in this new lighting research, said in a statement. "The electron and gamma-ray energies in TGFs are usually the domain of nuclear explosions, solar flares, and supernovas. What a surprise to find them shooting out of the cold upper atmosphere of our own planet."

Comment: Cyclones, Earthquakes, Volcanoes And Other Electrical Phenomena:
These bolts of positive lightning are quite literally "bolts from space". The combination of sprites and positive lightning form a massive dielectric breakdown in the atmosphere, passing electrical energy from the ionosphere to the ground. With this comprehension, the "electrostatic induction hypothesis" is simply absurd.


Thank viruses for your skin and bone

© Medic Image/Getty
NEXT time you have a cold, rather than cursing, maybe you should thank the virus for making your skin. Genes borrowed from viruses seem to give cells the ability to grow into tissues and organs, and even reproduce sexually. Without these genes, animals could not have evolved beyond simple blobs of cells.

Our cells often need to fuse with other cells, making big cells with multiple nuclei. They do this with the help of proteins on their outer surfaces that stick the cell's walls together and then break them open, so the insides can mix. This mixing is essential for the production of most organs - such as muscles, skin and bone - and even for reproduction, when eggs and sperm fuse. For instance, fused cells form barriers in the placenta that prevent harmful chemicals crossing into the fetus, and internal tubes like blood vessels are also made of fused cells.

Comment: There's a lot going for the argument that viruses are the precursors for evolutionary leaps in the human makeup, but notably hand in hand with extinction events such as plagues. Earth is regularly visited by cometary offspring, which have been shown to be able to carry and deposit viruses into our ecosystem, despite the temperatures involved with space travel and atmospheric burnout. Taking into account that we find ourselves in times of a rise in cometary activity, it would be a good idea to make preparations so that we are protected towards the looming pathogenic threats; ditching the carb based diet and getting those ketones working. See:
New Light on the Black Death: The Viral and Cosmic Connection
On Viral "Junk" DNA, a DNA Enhancing Ketogenic Diet, and Cometary Kicks
The Ketogenic Diet - An Overview