Science & Technology


NASA's 'Curiosity' discovers more evidence for lakes, and possibly life, on Mars

© Handout/AFP/Getty Images
Artist's depiction shows water in Gale Crater on Mars
Billions of years ago, a lake once filled the 96-mile- (154-km) wide crater being explored by NASA's Mars rover Curiosity, bolstering evidence that the planet most like Earth in the solar system was suitable for microbial life, scientists said on Monday.

The new findings combine more than two years of data collected by the rover since its sky-crane landing inside Gale Crater in August 2012.

Scientists discovered stacks of rocks containing water-deposited sediments inclined toward the crater's center, which now sports a three-mile (5 km) mound called Mount Sharp. That would mean that Mount Sharp didn't exist during a period of time roughly 3.5 billion years ago when the crater was filled with water, Curiosity researchers told reporters during a conference call.

Comment: Evidence of water was also discovered a year ago: And "unambiguous evidence for a shoreline" was discovered in 2009:


Dominant ravens sabotage others' relationships

If we're lucky, this is behavior we haven't seen since high school. The coolest individuals can't stand to see others gaining social status, so they cut down any peers who are starting to elevate themselves. Ravens have to live with this behavior all the time. When the top-dog birds see others building new relationships, they attack these birds or put themselves in the middle. They may as well be spreading rumors or defacing each other's lockers.

Wild ravens living in Austria were the ones to reveal this behavior to scientists. The ravens, a group of about 300 birds in the Austrian Alps, have discovered that a local zoo is a convenient source of food. So the wild birds hang around the captive animals year-round (they especially like the wild boar enclosure) and steal their provisions. Because of this, they're used to seeing humans nearby.

For years, scientists have been capturing these birds, marking them with colored leg bands, and studying their social behavior. Now University of Vienna cognitive biologist Jorg Massen and his coauthors asked whether the most dominant birds might be sabotaging those lower down in the group.

Animal Magnetism: How the magnetic field influences animal navigation

© Revwarheart.
The migration of the monarch butterfly seems like it’s magic, but it’s actually guided by the magnetic field.
Sometimes, ecology is quite visible. When an owl catches a mouse, we see that connection very clearly. When a river floods, we see how water shapes a landscape.

Ecology can also be less visible. The soil is a good example of this: There is so much life in that brown material beneath our feet, but since we live on top of it, soil life can be difficult for us to visualize.

Sometimes, ecology is invisible.

What forces guide monarch butterflies as they migrate to a place they've never seen? When animals interact with the Earth's magnetic field, these invisible influences play a big role in animals' behavior.

Is intelligent design the answer? Laying out the evolutionary logic

Monday we published a paper in the journal BIO-Complexity that demonstrates that enzymes can't evolve genuinely new functions by unguided means. We argue that design by a very sophisticated intelligent agent is the best explanation for their origin. I want to take some time to lay out our argument against evolution and for intelligent design. It's important, because it reveals the logical fallacy in most evolutionary thinking.

Comment: You can read Gauger's response to Larry Moran's rebuttal here. It's amazing the lengths that neo-Darwinists will go to avoid the obvious: that their theories are woefully incomplete, violate common sense, and are founded on unfounded and unverifiable speculations. But the alternative is just too frightening: that intelligence might be somehow a fundamental aspect of reality. That's not even to say 'God' has to enter the equation (as Thomas Nagel argues). But it seems that even the possibility of such a theistic explanation is enough to give materialists the willies. Perhaps underneath that hard, rational exterior, they're just really closet God-fearers, terrified that such a cosmic superpower might exist and smite them with his holy wrath for being so obtuse.


DIY satellites: The tiny space satellite that you can build and launch yourself

Tom Walkinshaw
© Murdo Macleod/the Observer
Tom Walkinshaw with a PocketQube frame.
Most of the thousand or so operational satellites in orbit are multi-million-dollar machines that provide major industries with scientific research, global positioning or military espionage. Twenty-five-year-old Tom Walkinshaw, however, hopes to prove that satellites are not the preserve of leviathan space agencies, and that, for a comparatively small sum ($20,000), the workaday enthusiast can build and launch a fully functioning satellite of their own. One year old next January, his company PocketQube Shop provides the basic materials for doing this, most importantly the PocketQube structure itself - a tiny, 5cm³ casing made from aerospace-grade aluminium - which houses each satellite's components.

"We want to remove as many barriers as we can for people who want to build satellites," says Walkinshaw, and the PocketQube structure is the key to this endeavour. Invented in America, it is smaller than its predecessor the Cubesat, a 10cm³ design which was formerly the best hope for those seeking a budget satellite. Walkinshaw's was the first company to recognise the PocketQube's potential and begin manufacturing it, and it also supplies a number of other components, with a view to becoming a centralised hub catering to all satellite-builders' needs. "We're going to produce a PocketQube kit with a structure, radio and on-board computer," pledges Walkinshaw, "and we just won a £63,000 from Scottish Enterprise to develop a combined powerboard and battery."

Comment: Currently there are 4 PocketQubes in orbit.
PocketQubes ran a successful Kickstarter campaign late last year, but it was only seeking £3,000 ($5,000) - this is a DIY endeavor. Now that the PocketQubes Shop is open online, you can go and pick up the satellite enclosure that fits your needs and install your hardware. As for getting it into orbit, the PocketQubes folks can give you a little direction.

There are rockets going up all the time with various commercial payloads, and there's sometimes a little extra space for sale. The company will help PocketQube builders get in contact with aerospace firms selling launch capabilities so their micro-satellites can get into orbit on the cheap. The price estimates provided for a PocketQube are based on industry averages, so it will probably vary based on who's flying the rocket.

The company hopes that more organizations will be able to get into space with these low-cost modules. Four PocketQubes have been launched into orbit so far. Most unpowered PocketQubes will fall out of orbit eventually, but one of the early projects has built-in plasma thrusters.


New technique invented to spray solar cells on flexible surfaces

spray on solar cells
© Uniersity of Toronto
Pretty soon, powering your tablet could be as simple as wrapping it in cling wrap.

That's Illan Kramer's hope. Kramer and colleagues have just invented a new way to spray solar cells onto flexible surfaces using miniscule light-sensitive materials known as colloidal quantum dots (CQDs) - a major step toward making spray-on solar cells easy and cheap to manufacture.

"My dream is that one day you'll have two technicians with Ghostbusters backpacks come to your house and spray your roof," says Kramer, a post-doctoral fellow with The Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the University of Toronto and IBM Canada's Research and Development Centre.

Solar-sensitive CQDs printed onto a flexible film could be used to coat all kinds of weirdly shaped surfaces, from patio furniture to an airplane's wing. A surface the size of your car's roof wrapped with CQD-coated film would produce enough energy to power three 100-Watt light bulbs - or 24 compact fluorescents.

Comment: The technology of solar power has been expanding to make it more affordable, practical, and useful in more widespread applications - much to the chagrin of older energy companies who must now compete with solar.

Engineer reimagines solar energy with stick-on panels

'Starry Night' solar powered bike path unveiled in the The Netherlands


Cosmic rays: Growing peril for astronauts?

© NASA/Bill Ingalls
NASA's successful test flight of Orion on Dec. 5th heralds a renewed capability to send astronauts into deep space. A paper just published in the journal Space Weather, however, points out a growing peril to future deep space explorers: cosmic rays.

The title of the article, penned by Nathan Schwadron of the University of New Hampshire and colleagues from seven other institutions, asks the provocative question, "Does the worsening galactic cosmic ray environment preclude manned deep space exploration?" Using data from a cosmic ray telescope on board NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, they conclude that while increasing fluxes of cosmic rays "are not a show stopper for long duration missions (e.g., to the Moon, an asteroid, or Mars), galactic cosmic radiation remains a significant and worsening factor that limits mission durations." This figure from their paper shows the number of days a 30 year old astronaut can spend in interplanetary space before they reach their career limit in radiation exposure:

According to the plot, in the year 2014, a 30 year old male flying in a spaceship with 10 g/cm2 of aluminum shielding could spend approximately 700 days in deep space before they reach their radiation dose limit. The same astronaut in the early 1990s could have spent 1000 days in space.

Comment: There are many things we don't know about our universe. Unprecedented changes in our own solar system is something we really need to pay attention to and try to understand.

A fascinating book called Earth Changes and the Human-Cosmic Connection is a good way to become familiar with some of these topics.

Evil Rays

Electric eels can remotely control the bodily movements of their prey

© Kenneth Catania
Electric eel (Electrophorus electricus)
Electric eels are badass. Not only can they produce an incapacitating 600-volt zap -- five times that of a U.S. wall socket -- they can also remotely control their prey through water. The predatory eels create a variety of electric discharges that range from lower-voltage ones sent out as environmental sensors to high-voltage strikes that allow them to hijack the nerves of their prey -- immobilizing the muscles and preventing escape. They can even send out short pulses that force the prey to give up their location. The findings were published in Science this week.

To understand the mechanism of the eel's shocking strike, Vanderbilt University's Kenneth Catania conducted a series of experiments in large aquariums equipped with various detectors. When placed in tanks with delectable fish and worms, the scale-less Amazonian Electrophorus electricus releases pulses of electricity that appear to stun the prey and freeze them in place. Using a high-speed video system, he observed that an eel begins an attack with a high-frequency volley of high-voltage pulses up to 15 milliseconds before striking. In just three milliseconds, the fish are completely paralyzed. They regain mobility after a short period, and they could swim away if the eel doesn't get to them first.

Study shows environmental contamination from BigPharma drugs significantly impacts plant growth

© University of Exeter
Lettuce roots are affected by Ibuprofen
The drugs we release into the environment are likely to have a significant impact on plant growth, a new study has revealed.

By assessing the impacts of a range of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, researchers at the University of Exeter Medical School and Plymouth University have shown that the growth of edible crops can be affected by these chemicals - even at the very low concentrations found in the environment.

Published in the Journal of Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety, the research focused its analysis on lettuce and radish plants and tested the effects of several commonly prescribed drugs, including diclofenac and ibuprofen. These drugs are among the most common and widely used group of pharmaceuticals, with more than 30 million prescribed across the world every day.

Comment: With the global rise in pharmaceutical consumption, recent studies have revealed pharmaceutical residues in a wide range of ecosystems and organisms. In 2002, federal scientists discovered that pharmaceutical drugs are being dumped into the sewer systems and potentially finding their ways back into the drinking water. Ultimately they find their way into the soils, thereby contaminating the food supply. We are unwittingly changing the natural evolution of our ecosystem, with perhaps devastating consequences


New Physics theory of life formation?

Jeremy England, a 31-year-old physicist at MIT, thinks he has found the underlying physics driving the origin and evolution of life.
© Katherine Taylor for Quanta Magazine

Comment: The following is a "new" scientific theory that's only marginally less stupid than all preceding theories of the same kind. Maybe that's proof of evolution, maybe not.

Why does life exist?

Comment: SPOILER ALERT!!! Don't want to read all the way down? Here's the quick answer: To dissipate energy, or heat. Yup. That's it. All this for just that. It's kind of like saying people drink water to urinate.

Popular hypotheses credit a primordial soup, a bolt of lightning and a colossal stroke of luck. But if a provocative new theory is correct, luck may have little to do with it. Instead, according to the physicist proposing the idea, the origin and subsequent evolution of life follow from the fundamental laws of nature and "should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill."

From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat. Jeremy England, a 31-year-old assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has derived a mathematical formula that he believes explains this capacity. The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life.