Science & Technology


Scientists call for total ban on microbeads: 8 trillion wind up in aquatic habitats daily in U.S. alone

© 5Gyres, courtesy of Oregon State University
Scientists are calling for a total ban on microbeads -- the tiny plastic pieces used in soap, toothpaste and face wash for exfoliation -- after an analysis estimated that 8 trillion of the beads wind up in aquatic habitats every day in the U.S. alone.

That's enough to cover more than 300 tennis courts every day, according to a scientific opinion article published this month in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

"We're facing a plastic crisis and don't even know it," co-author Stephanie Green, a conservation research fellow at the College of Science at Oregon State University, said in a statement. Wastewater treatment plants, she said, simply weren't designed to handle microbeads, which she describes as "very durable."

Why are these beads such a big deal? It takes so long for plastic to break down that they stick around "virtually forever," according to the Wildlife Conservation Society's John F. Calvelli. The beads look like tasty snacks to fish, amphibians and other aquatic life, but due to some of the chemicals used to manufacture them, as well as the pollutants they absorb in the water, they are toxic to consume.

Comment: Microbeads are highly potent concentrators of toxins. Tiny marine creatures often mistake these particles for food, and when these creatures are eaten by other fish the chemicals then bio-magnify up the food chain. Top predators such as tuna and swordfish, which are consumed by humans, thus have high concentrations of these toxic microbeads.

Comet 2

Planetary detectives may have spotted massive cloud of comets orbiting distant star

A crowdsourced group of planetary detectives may have spotted a massive cloud of comets orbiting a distant star.

NASA's exoplanet-hunting Kepler space telescope spent four years carefully watching the same patch of sky, looking for any stars that dipped in brightness. These dips happen when an orbiting planet crosses in front of the star, and measuring their size and timing provides astronomers with data about the planet.

Most Kepler data is processed automatically by algorithms looking for repeating patterns, but a website called Planet Hunters lets citizen scientists inspect the data by eye in an effort to spot anything unusual.

Data from one star, known as KIC 8462852, was so strange that people started labelling it "bizarre" and "curious". Orbiting planets block their stars' light for a few hours or days at regular intervals that correspond to the duration of their orbit. But this star seemed to have two small dips in 2009, a large, weirdly asymmetric dip lasting a week in 2011 and a series of many dips during three months in 2013, some reducing the brightness of the star by as much as 20 per cent.


Australian student develops new ion space drive: Beats NASA's fuel efficiency record

Space engines might soon become far more resourceful: An Australian PhD student has claimed to have beaten NASA's fuel efficiency record and developed a new type of ion space drive that can use a variety of metals, even those found in space junk, as fuel.

University of Sydney doctoral candidate in Physics, Paddy Neumann, has developed a "new kind of ion space drive" that outperforms NASA's in fuel efficiency, according to student newspaper Honi Soit. While Neumann's technology is not that efficient in acceleration, it could potentially be used for the transportation of cargo over long distances in space.

The research, which is yet to be published in a peer-reviewed magazine, so far has been presented as a record breaking invention.

"The current record, held by NASA's HiPEP system, allows 9600 (+/- 200) seconds of specific impulse," the newspaper wrote. "However, results recorded by the Neumann Drive have been as high as 14,690 (+/- 2000), with even conservative results performing well above NASA's best."

NASA's variation of the ion thruster (High Power Electric Propulsion, or HiPEP) was ground-tested in 2003 and was intended to be used on a mission of Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, that was canceled in 2005.

Comment: See also:


Snowden talks alien encryption with Neil deGrasse Tyson

© Carlos Valdes Lora
Whistleblower Edward Snowden has some strong opinions on communications — even when those communications are coming from aliens.

The former NSA agent turned fugitive was an unexpected guest on famous astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson's StarTalk podcast on Sept. 18. And inevitably, the two got to talking about extraterrestrials.

Snowden became an infamous household name in 2013 when he leaked classified documents divulging the government's top secret mass surveillance program which involved collecting personal information on Americans via phone records without their knowledge.

When the news broke, the U.S. charged him with theft and espionage, and he's now living in Russia where he has asylum.

But Tyson scored an interview with him in New York City. How? Snowden rigged a robot that he can control from Russia, and rolled right into Tyson's office at the Hayden Planetarium in New York with his face displayed on the screen.

The conversation inevitably turned to encryption and cyber security, but here's where an astrophysicist differs from a journalist: Tyson's line of questioning quickly turned to how encryption relates to communication with ... aliens.

Comment: While Snowden's theory is interesting, it should be apparent, particularly to him, that our world's most advanced encryption is not utilized in order to protect society but rather to spy, intimidate and prey on it. If we take this further to advanced 'aliens' it may follow they have developed and perfected controlling measures in ways we cannot fathom.

People 2

UK scientists apply for license to modify human embryos

Genome Editing
UK scientists have applied for permission to genetically modify human embryos for the first time as part of research into the earliest stage of human development.

Stem cell scientists at the Francis Crick Institute in London have asked the government's fertility regulator for a license to perform controversial genome editing on human embryos. Researchers hope the experiments will help scientists to learn more about genes in the first few days of human fertilization.

Chinese researchers became the first researchers in the world to announce they had altered the DNA of human embryos in April. The news prompted a fresh debate over the ethics of cheap and simple new genetic techniques, dubbed genome editing, which enable scientists to modify human genes.



UC Berkeley close to making invisibility cloak a reality

© Reuters/Xiang Zhang group/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory/Handout
Light reflects off the cloak (red arrows) as if it were reflecting off a flat mirror in this 3D illustration of a metasurface skin cloak made from an ultrathin layer of nanoantennas (gold blocks) covering an arbitrarily shaped object is shown in this handout image courtesy...
A cloak of invisibility may be common in science fiction but it is not so easy in the real world. New research suggests such a device may be moving closer to reality.

Scientists said on Thursday they have successfully tested an ultra-thin invisibility cloak made of microscopic rectangular gold blocks that, like skin, conform to the shape of an object and can render it undetectable with visible light.

The researchers said while their experiments involved cloaking a miniscule object they believe the technology could be made to conceal larger objects, with military and other possible applications.

The cloak, 80 nanometers in thickness, was wrapped around a three-dimensional object shaped with bumps and dents. The cloak's surface rerouted light waves scattered from the object to make it invisible to optical detection.

It may take five to 10 years to make the technology practical to use, according to Xiang Zhang, director of the Materials Sciences Division of the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Comment: If only the technology could be used to make certain politicians disappear, now that would be very useful!


'New Horizon' sends back stunning images of Pluto's atmosphere, giant ice mountains

The latest images from Pluto taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft show amazing new details about the dwarf planet's atmosphere, weather patterns and streams of frozen nitrogen. NASA is calling it "a scientific bonanza."

A stunning panoramic image of Pluto's crescent, backlit by the Sun shining through the world's hazy atmosphere, was taken just two months ago by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, and downloaded to Earth on September 13. It is the first spacecraft to fly by Pluto and record images of the intriguing icy dwarf planet.

"This image really makes you feel you are there, at Pluto, surveying the landscape for yourself," said Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and a principal investigator for New Horizons, in a NASA statement.

"But this image is also a scientific bonanza, revealing new details about Pluto's atmosphere, mountains, glaciers and plains."

Comment: "...and no one predicted it." It seems that's a common reaction to recent space missions, e.g., in regard to comets
(see also: Why didn't Comet ISON melt in the Sun? How NASA and Official Science got it all wrong (again)). But regardless, these images are just beautiful. As chaotic as our world is, the joy of new discovery offers some little respite.

See also: NASA probe New Horizons sends puzzling, unexpected photos from Pluto


Earth's pull is 'massaging' our moon

The Moon in front of Earth
Many scientists deny that factors external to the Earth can have a significant impact upon the Earth's climate yet there is considerable evidence that this indeed the case. Their instincts tell them that they must always look for internal factors, and internal factors alone, to explain the Earth's climate systems. Most will admit that Moon might have some influence upon the Earth's climate through the dissipation of its tidal forces in the Earth's oceans but beyond that they have little time for thinking outside the box.

It is now emerging that those who reject the idea that factors external to the Earth can have a significant influence upon the Earth's climate are increasingly at odds with the evidence.

One quirky way to show that this is the case is to reverse the argument around. This can be done by asking the question: Is there any evidence to show that the Earth can have a significant influence upon the Moon and nearby planets? If this is indeed the case then would it be so hard to imagine that it might possible for the reverse to happen (in specific cases). One piece of evidence that shows that the Earth can have a significant impact upon external astronomical bodies is the gravitational interaction between the Earth and Venus.

Every time the planet Venus passes between the Earth and Sun it presents the same face towards Earth. This happens because the slow retrograde rotation rate of the planet Venus (approximately 243 days) has allowed the Earth's gravity to nudge Venus's rotation period into a resonance lock with the Earth's orbital period.


FBI investigating the cutting of fiber optic cables in California, AT&T offers reward

© Danny Moloshok / Reuters
FBI agents in California are investigating the cutting of two AT&T fiber optic cables earlier this week - at least the 11th such attack in a year. The telecommunications company is offering a $250,000 reward for information.

The most recent attack - which took place in the town of Livermore, a San Francisco Bay Area suburb - involved the cutting of cables in two different manholes at about 10:30 p.m. local time on Monday, AT&T said in a statement.

Comment: The PTB may have a plan in place to control or instigate a collapse of the system and economy at the time of their choosing. A part of this plan could be pulling the plug via electrical and internal infrastructure disruptions, but first they would need to know their vulnerabilities and test out these weaknesses in preparation for a bigger event. These disruptions could even be blamed to any number of entities, such as China, Russia or ISIS. Preparing for collapse? FBI reveals 11 attacks against internet lines in California


'Living fossil' fish uses gills to breath but retains vestigial lung

The coelacanth, an elusive deep-sea dweller long thought extinct, had another item added Tuesday to an already-long list of unusual physical traits: an obsolete lung lurking in its abdomen.
© Agence France-Presse/Robert Michael
Coelacanths today use gills to extract oxygen from the water they live in, but millions of years ago, their ancestors probably breathed using a lung
Similar to the human appendix, the organ was likely rendered defunct by evolution, researchers noted in the journal Nature Communications.

Like all fish, today's coelacanths -- referred to as "living fossils" -- use gills to extract oxygen from the water they live in. But millions of years ago, coelacanth ancestors probably breathed using the lung, the team concluded.

"By the Mesozoic Era, adaptation of some coelacanths to deep marine water, an environment with very low variations of oxygen pressure, may have triggered the total loss of pulmonary respiration," co-author Paulo Brito of the Rio de Janeiro State University told AFP.

This could explain how it survived the extinction event 66 million years ago that wiped all non-avian dinosaurs and most other life from Earth -- and probably those coelacanths inhabiting shallow waters, he said. It would also account for "the marked reduction" of the lung into its shrivelled, present-day form, Brito said by email.