Science & Technology


Giant mystery ring of galaxies should not exist

© L. Balazs
An image of the distribution of GRBs on the sky at a distance of 7 billion light years, centred on the newly discovered ring. The positions of the GRBs are marked by blue dots and the Milky Way is indicated for reference, running from left to right across the image.
Astronomers are constantly uncovering the "most distant," "most massive" or "most energetic" objects in our universe, but today, researchers have announced the discovery of a truly monstrous structure consisting of a ring of galaxies around 5 billion light-years across.

The galactic ring, which was revealed by 9 gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), is located 7 billion light-years away and spans an area of the sky more than 70 times the diameter of a full moon.

GRBs are thought to be detonated when a massive star reaches the end of its life. As the star implodes after running out of fuel, a black hole is formed and vast quantities of energy are blasted in collimated beams. Should Earth be aligned with these beams, an incredibly luminous signal can be observed and these beacons can be used to precisely gauge the distance to the GRB and the location of the galaxy that hosts it.

The GRBs are all cataloged in the Gamma Ray Burst Online Index, which precisely records each GRB distance and location, like pins on a cosmic map.

Astronomers believe these GRBs (and therefore the galaxies they inhabit) are somehow associated as all 9 are located at a similar distance from Earth. According to its discoverers, there's a 1 in 20,000 probability of the GRBs being in this distribution by chance — in other words, they are very likely associated with the same structure, a structure that, according to cosmological models, should not exist.


Radioactive decay rates vary with the Sun's rotation, solar activity, and distance between Earth and Sun

Radioactive decay rates, thought to be unique physical constants and counted on in such fields as medicine and anthropology, may be more variable than once thought.

A team of scientists from Purdue and Stanford universities has found that the decay of radioactive isotopes fluctuates in synch with the rotation of the sun's core.

The fluctuations appear to be very small but could lead to predictive tools for solar flares and may have an impact on medical radiation treatments.

Fireball 4

Tracking a mysterious group of asteroid outcasts

High above the plane of our solar system, near the asteroid-rich abyss between Mars and Jupiter, scientists have found a unique family of space rocks. These interplanetary oddballs are the Euphrosyne (pronounced you-FROH-seh-nee) asteroids, and by any measure they have been distant, dark and mysterious — until now.

Distributed at the outer edge of the asteroid belt, the Euphrosynes have an unusual orbital path that juts well above the ecliptic, the equator of the solar system. The asteroid after which they are named, Euphrosyne — for an ancient Greek goddess of mirth — is about 156 miles (260 kilometers) across and is one of the 10 largest asteroids in the main belt. Current-day Euphrosyne is thought to be a remnant of a massive collision about 700 million years ago that formed the family of smaller asteroids bearing its name. Scientists think this event was one of the last great collisions in the solar system.
© Space
The asteroid Euphrosyne glides across a field of background stars in this time-lapse view from NASA's WISE spacecraft.
A new study conducted by scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, used the agency's orbiting Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) telescope to look at these unusual asteroids to learn more about Near Earth Objects, or NEOs, and their potential threat to Earth.

NEOs are bodies whose orbits around the sun approach the orbit of Earth; this population is short-lived on astronomical timescales and is fed by other reservoirs of bodies in our solar system. As they orbit the sun, NEOs can occasionally have close approaches to Earth. For this reason alone — the safety of our home planet — the study of such objects is important.


China to build hybrid fusion-fission reactor by 2030: But expert says tech not yet possible

© Peter Parks / AFP
Joint Sino-French Taishan Nuclear Power Station being built outside Taishan City in Guandong province
China is going to build its first hybrid fusion-fission reactor by 2030, according to local media reports. The reactor is expected to recycle nuclear waste making energy production more environmentally friendly.

The ambitious plan is in the works at the top secret Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics in Sichuan, where China develops its nuclear weapons, China Daily Mail reports. The plans were announced in a study published in the Science and Technology Daily, an official newspaper of the Ministry of Science and Technology.

The experimental research platform will be built by 2020 while the whole system could be launched by 2030, said Huang Hongwen, the deputy project manager, China Daily Mail reported Saturday. Researchers believe that hybrid reactors will generate twice as much electricity as modern reactors. These reactors are also believed to be safer as they can be immediately stopped by cutting the external power supply.

Today reactors use only fission technology which means dividing atoms in half while future fusion-fission technology will merge two atoms in one. The core of the new hybrid reactor will be a fusion reactor which will be powered by a 60 trillion amperes fission reactor.

Comment: See also:


Singapore recognized as global leader in water technology

Solar driven desalination at Marina Barrage, Singapore
Fifty years ago Singapore had to ration water, and its smelly rivers were devoid of fish and choked with waste from shipbuilding, pig farms and toilets that emptied directly into streams.

But it's a very different story today. The world's most densely populated country now collects rainwater from two-thirds of its land, recycles wastewater and is even developing technology that mimics human kidneys to desalinate seawater.

"In about a lifetime, we have transformed Singapore," said George Madhavan, an engineer who has worked for the national PUB water agency for 30 years and is now communications director.

"It's not rocket science - it is more political will ... The key success factor is really government - the leadership to pull different agencies together to come up with a plan ..."

As governments around the world wrestle with water crises from droughts to floods, many are looking to the tiny Asian city-state of Singapore for solutions.

Comment: " As governments around the world wrestle with water crises from droughts to floods, many are looking to the tiny Asian city-state of Singapore for solutions."


Stunning images taken by Philae lander reveal what comet 67P looks like from just 30ft away

Close-up: The new images shed new light on the icy comet's surface. This image, taken from just 30ft (nine metres) away, allows you to see images that are just an inch across in unprecedented detail.
The European Space Agency has released spectacular images from the perspective of the Philae lander, as it completed its daring descent to comet 67P.

The images document the probe's fall, and could even reveal where it finally took up residence after a bumpy landing last November.

Researchers believe there is even evidence that the comet-lander dropped into a hole about its own size just three feet (0.9 metres) away from a towering cliff.


It's past time to start questioning our trust in peer-reviewed research

© Kirk Durston
The primary way scientific discoveries and advances are disseminated is through peer-reviewed papers published in scientific journals. For researchers, the first step is to submit a paper to a journal. Those that survive preliminary filtering by the editor are sent out to be reviewed by qualified scientists in the field. On the basis of the reviewers' recommendations, a paper is accepted or rejected. Only a fraction of papers submitted for publication make it through this peer-review process and are published.

One would hope that such a process would justify a high level of confidence in scientific publications, but recent findings suggest that our faith in peer-reviewed publications in mainstream journals of science may be on somewhat shaky ground.

The journal Nature, for example, in a paper calling for increased standards in pre-clinical research, revealed that out of 53 papers presenting "landmark" published findings in the field of haematology and oncology, only six could be confirmed by subsequent laboratory teams. For the 89 percent of papers that failed to have their results reproduced, it was found that blind control group analyses was inadequate or data had been selected to support the hypothesis and other data set aside.

Worse still, some of the papers that could not be experimentally reproduced launched "an entire field, with hundreds of secondary publications that expanded on elements of the original observation, but did not actually seek to confirm or falsify its fundamental basis."

Hundreds of other peer-reviewed, published science papers based on faulty initial papers!

Comment: Good advice. Peer reviewed research is latched onto as if it were the new scripture, showing just how ingrained a dogmatic, almost religious mindset is, even among self-professed atheists. As with everything else, there is good and bad research, and critical thinking is needed no matter how seemingly 'obvious' the consensus view may seem. In fact, the consensus is completely wrong more often than not.


Nearly one billion Android phones vulnerable to hacking via text message (workaround included)

Android is by far the most dominant smartphone operating system in the world, and it has just been found to be vulnerable to a serious smartphone security flaw which allows devices to be hacked by simply sending them a text message.

About 80 percent of smartphones worldwide run Android, and just about all of those have a major vulnerability in their software, according to experts at Zimperium, a cybersecurity company specializing in mobile devices.

What makes this problem a gaping security hole is that the victims don't even need to be tricked into downloading or opening a bad file - attackers only need to send them a text message for the malware to take hold.

The issue stems from the way Android processes incoming text messages. Media playback software utilized by Android, called Stagefright, processes media files, such as images or video, sent to your device before you even open the message. Hackers can hide malware in those files, getting Stagefright to automatically unleash them onto your phone, thus giving attackers unfettered access to copy and delete data or use the camera, microphone, and GPS to track your every move.

Comment: Stagefright: Everything you need to know about Google's Android megabug
Where does the name come from?

"Stagefright" is the name of the media library—a portion of Android's open source code—in which the bugs were found. It's obviously a great bug name, too.

No lie. What does that media library do?

Stagefright—the library, not the bug—helps phones unpack multimedia messages. It enables Android phones to interpret MMS content (multimedia message service content), which can contain videos, photos, audio, text, as opposed to, say, SMS content (short message service content), which can contain only 160 characters. The bugs are in that library.

"This happens even before the sound that you've received a message has even occurred," Joshua Drake, a security researcher with Zimperium, told NPR. "That's what makes it so dangerous. [It] could be absolutely silent. You may not even see anything."

Comment: This is a serious security flaw since it can act without intervention and without notification, so it's possible to be hacked without doing anything and without even knowing it. It sounds like many, if not most, Android phone users will not receive the security fix for this exploit, so it sounds like the best option may be to configure your phone to not open attachments in MMS messages by default, then remain vigilant and don't open MMS messages from unknown sources. You should be able to configure your messaging app to disable "Auto Retrieving" MMS messages in the settings area of your messaging app. More detailed instructions can be found here:

How to Protect Your Android Phone From the Stagefright Bug

Knowledge protects.


DARPA's N2 project: The science behind fear-mongering

© Wikimedia Commons
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funds a lot of weird stuff, and in recent years more and more of it has been about the brain.

Its signature work in this field is in brain-computer interfaces and goes back several decades to its Biocybernetics program, which sought to enable direct communication between humans and machines. In 2013, DARPA made headlines when it announced that it intended to spend more than $70 million over five years to take its research to the next level by developing an implant that could help restore function or memory in people with neuropsychiatric issues.

Less known is DARPA's Narrative Networks (or N2) project which aims to better understand how stories — or narratives — influence human behavior and to develop a set of tools that can help facilitate faster and better communication of information.

Comment: See also: Darpa Wants to Master the Science of Propaganda


Windows 10 spies on almost everything you do, unless you opt out

© AP Photo/Saurabh Das
Visitors experience Windows 10 during its launch, in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, July 29, 2015.
Microsoft's Windows 10 is spying on nearly everything its users do, and anyone who agreed to the operating system's new terms of service consented to the surveillance, whether knowingly or otherwise.

Included in Microsoft's new 12,000-word service agreement, which goes into effect August 1, is the following excerpt from the privacy policy:
"We will access, disclose and preserve personal data, including your content (such as the content of your emails, other private communications or files in private folders), when we have a good faith belief that doing so is necessary to."

And while Microsoft does allow Windows 10 users to opt out of all of the features that might be considered invasions of privacy, users are opted in by default. Rock, Paper, Shotgun explains the opt-out process step by step.

Windows 10 will sync settings and data by default with its servers. That includes browser history, favorites and currently open web pages, as well as saved app, website and mobile hotspot passwords and Wi-Fi network names and passwords.

Activate Cortana, Microsoft's personal virtual assistant, and you are also turning on a host of data sharing, as Microsoft's new privacy statement points out: