Science & Technology


Revolution in technology: Drag images from display screens, manipulate mid-air and plunge your fingers into the screen

© Ghost
Exciting new technologies, which allow users to change the shape of displays with their hands, promise to revolutionise the way we interact with smartphones, laptops and computers. Imagine pulling objects and data out of the screen and playing with these in mid-air.

Today we live in a world of flat-screen displays we use all day - whether it's the computer in the office, a smartphone on the train home, the TV or iPad on the couch in the evening. The world we live in is not flat, though; it's made of hills and valleys, people and objects. Imagine if we could use our fingertips to manipulate the display and drag features out of it into our 3D world.

Such a vision led to the launch in January 2013 of GHOST (Generic, Highly-Organic Shape-Changing Interfaces), an EU-supported research project designed to tap humans' ability to reason about and manipulate physical objects through the interfaces of computers and mobile devices.


Four mysterious spots detected on Pluto

© NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
A row of four mysterious dark spots has been discovered on the frozen surface of the distant world of Pluto by the NASA's New Horizons spacecraft.

Scientists are at a loss to explain the intriguing spots which are remarkably consistent in both their even spacing along the dwarf planet's equator, and their shape and size.

Each spot appears to be circular and about 480 kilometres in diameter.

"It's a real puzzle-we don't know what the spots are, and we can't wait to find out," says New Horizons principal investigator Dr Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado.

"Also puzzling is the longstanding and dramatic difference in the colours and appearance of Pluto compared to its darker and greyer moon, Charon."

The strange spots were detected in new images of Pluto and its largest moon Charon, taken by New Horizons on June 25 and 27, 2015.


Scientists find high-precision atomic clocks useful to monitor volcanoes, improve prediction of eruptions

An international team led by scientists from the University of Zurich finds that high-precision atomic clocks can be used to monitor volcanoes and potentially improve predictions of future eruptions. In addition, a ground-based network of atomic clocks could monitor the reaction of the Earth's crust to solid Earth tides.

Atomic clocks measure time with unbelievable accuracy. The best atomic clocks are so precise that they would lose less than one second over a period of 10 billion years. However, they are generally only used in laboratories. Science and industry have yet to take full advantage of their unprecedented ability to measure time. An international team including Dr. Ruxandra Bondarescu, Andreas Schärer and Prof. Philippe Jetzer from the Institute of Physics from the University of Zurich discusses potential applications for atomic clocks.

Their analysis shows that the slow down of time predicted by general relativity can be measured by local clocks and used to monitor volcanoes. General relativity states that clocks positioned at different distances from a massive body like the Earth have different tick rates. The closer a clock is to a massive object, the slower it ticks. In a similar manner, subterranean objects influence the tick rate of local clocks that are located above the Earth's surface. New lava filling a magma chamber beneath a volcano makes a clock located above that volcano tick more slowly than a clock that is located further away. Volcanoes are currently monitored using GPS receivers. The resulting data often has to be integrated over a period of several years before an estimate of the volume of new magma can be made. A network of local, highly precise atomic clocks may provide the same information within a few hours. This would make it possible to monitor processes inside volcanoes more closely and to make better predictions for future volcanic eruptions.

Arrow Down

Corrupt research: Millions in federal grants wasted as researcher falsified HIV vaccine results

© Reuters / Eddie Keogh
Dong-Pyou Han, a 58-year-old former Iowa State University researcher, was sentenced to prison for almost five years for faking the results of an HIV vaccine experiment - the "success" of which led to millions of dollars in government grants.

Han, 58, spent millions of dollars in federal grants to fund years of work on his research, which was considered groundbreaking at the time. Other researchers at Iowa State scrutinized and called into question his apparently miraculous findings related to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Han eventually admitted to mixing human antibodies into rabbit blood to make his vaccine appear more effective in test animals, forcing him to resign his university position in 2013

Comment: Unfortunately, this type of fraudulent research may be all too common. Dr. Richard Horton, the current editor-in-chief of the Lancet recently published a statement declaring that much of published research is in fact unreliable at best, if not completely false.
"The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness."

Cell Phone

How modern technology can negatively impact human memory skills

© Reuters / Zoran Milich
A lot of people prefer to store information in their mobile phones instead of keeping it in their heads, a new study from Kaspersky Lab reports; thus the loss or breakdown of a mobile phone can be a disaster for modern people.

While mobile phones and other devices are increasingly essential in our lives and often the main place we store all our information and manage our daily schedules, Kaspesky lab has published a study attempting to uncover how modern technologies affect human memory skills.

Kaspersky lab surveyed 6,000 users aged 16 and older in eight European countries. The results showed that 49 percent of UK respondents do not remember their parents' telephone numbers, 57 percent haven't memorized the number for their place of work, 71 percent of parents can't dial their children off the top of their head, and 87 percent don't know the number of their children's schools by heart. On the other hand, 47 percent can recite the phone numbers they had when they were between age 10 and 15, likely before devices had such large memories.


Researchers discover aging histones are constantly replaced in brain cells throughout life

© The Journal of Cell Biology
For decades, researchers in the genetics field have theorized that the protein spools around which DNA is wound, histones, remain constant in the brain, never changing after development in the womb. Now, researchers from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai have discovered that histones are steadily replaced in brain cells throughout life - a process which helps to switch genes on and off. This histone replacement, known as turnover, enables our genetic machinery to adapt to our environment by prompting gene expression, the conversion of genes into the proteins that comprise cellular structures and carry signals in the brain.

This new concept, described in a study led by researchers in the Department of Pharmacology and Systems Therapeutics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and at the Laboratory of Chromatin Biology and Epigenetics, The Rockefeller University, was published today in the journal Neuron.

Grey Alien

Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

© The Independent, UK
The author said extra-terrestrials that resemble human beings should have evolved on some of the many Earth-like planets that have been discovered.
They are often portrayed on screen as little green men with elongated limbs and saucer-like eyes.

From E.T to the X-Files, aliens from outer space have captured our imagination for decades.Yet a new book from a leading evolutionary biologist argues that if they exist and we ever encountered them, they would look very similar to us.

Professor Simon Conway Morris said extra-terrestrials that resemble human beings should have evolved on at least some of the many Earth-like planets that have been discovered by astronomers.

In his new book published on 2 July, The Runes of Evolution, the University of Cambridge academic builds on the principle of convergent evolution - that different species will independently evolve similar features, with the comparison of the camera eye of an octopus and a human eye a favourite example - and argues it will not just took place on Earth.

"An area of biology which is becoming popular, perhaps too popular, that the possibility evolution is becoming much more predictable than people thought," he told The Independent. "The book is really trying to persuade the world that evolutionary convergence is completely ubiquitous. Wherever you look you see it.

"The theme is to try and drive the reader, gently of course, into the possibility that the things which we regard as most important, ie cognitive sophistication, large brains, intelligence, tool making, are also convergent. Therefore, in principle, other Earth-like planets should very much end up with the same sort of arrangement."

Professor Conway Morris, a Fellow at St John's College, said it follows that plant and animal life on other planets able to support life would also look similar to Earth's.


Chandra captures x-ray echoes pinpointing distant neutron star, Circinus X-1

© Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison/S.Heinz et al; Optical: DSS
Rings from a neutron star.
Astronomers using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory have discovered the largest and brightest set of rings from X-ray light echoes ever observed. These extraordinary rings, produced by an intense flare from a neutron star, provide astronomers a rare chance to determine how far across the Milky Way galaxy the star is from Earth.

The rings appear as circles around Circinus X-1, a double star system in the plane of our galaxy containing a neutron star, the dense remnant of a massive star pulverized in a supernova explosion. The neutron star is in orbit with another massive star, and is shrouded by thick clouds of interstellar gas and dust. Circinus X-1 is also the source of a surprisingly powerful jet of high-energy particles.

"It's really hard to get accurate distance measurements in astronomy and we only have a handful of methods," said Sebastian Heinz of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, who led the study. "But just as bats use sonar to triangulate their location, we can use the X-rays from Circinus X-1 to figure out exactly where it is."

The light echo shows that Circinus X-1 is located about 30,700 light years from Earth, and settles the difference in results published in prior studies. The detection and characterization of the rings required the unique capabilities of Chandra -- the ability to detect fine details combined with sensitivity to faint signals.

Fast Facts for Circinus X-1:
Credit - X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison/S.Heinz et al; Optical: DSS
Release Date - June 23, 2015
Scale - Image is 34 arcmin across (about 300 light years)
Category - Neutron Stars/X-ray BinariesCoordinates (J2000) - RA 15h 20m 41.00s | Dec -51° 10' 00
Constellation - Circinus Observation Date - 9 pointings between Apr 2005 and Apr 2011
Observation Time - 50 hours (2 days 2 hours).
Obs. ID - 15801, 16578
Instrument - ACIS
References - Heinz, S. et al, 2015, ApJ accepted, arXiv:1506.06142Color Code - X-ray (Red, Green, Blue); Optical (Gold)


Plants react to the sound of being eaten alive

© Diana Meister/iStockphoto

That's the sound of a caterpillar chewing on a leaf. But the real surprise is what happens next: the plant reacts to the noise by churning out chemicals that repel predators.

The discovery was made in 2014, by researchers Heidi Appel and Rex Cocroft from the University of Missouri.

It's been known for a while that sounds can affect the way plants germinate, and the expression of some of their genes, says Appel. "But just why plants were sensitive to airborne sound was a mystery".

Self-preservation is as good an evolutionary strategy as you get, so the pair set out to test whether plants were able to respond to the miniscule vibrations caused by having their leaves chewed.


Super-muscly pigs created by genetic tweak

Gene-altered double-muscled pigs.
Belgian Blue cattle are hulking animals that provide unusually large amounts of prized, lean cuts of beef, the result of decades of selective breeding. Now, a team of scientists from South Korea and China says that it has created the porcine equivalent using a much faster method.

These 'double-muscled' pigs are made by disrupting, or editing, a single gene — a change that is much less dramatic than those made in conventional genetic modification, in which genes from one species are transplanted into another. As a result, their creators
"Schwarzenegger Cow"
hope that regulators will take a lenient stance towards the pigs — and that the breed could be among the first genetically engineered animals to be approved for human consumption.

Jin-Soo Kim, a molecular biologist at Seoul National University who is leading the work, argues that his gene edits merely speed up a process that could, at least in principle, occur through a more natural route. "We could do this through breeding," he says, "but then it would take decades."

Comment: "This little piggie went to market, this little piggie went to gene-editing..." Well, there goes the bacon. There have been reports that double-muscled cattle have serious welfare problems with parturition (birthing), calf mortality, joint stiffness, cardiac problems, etc. Mixing these poor manipulated creatures with normal stock may become the meat-version of the Monsanto nightmare. A typical genetic change takes a long time to spread through a population, but a gene drive allows a mutation, made by CRISPR on one chromosome, to copy itself to its partner in EVERY generation, so that nearly all offspring will inherit the change, speeding through a population exponentially faster than normal.

When will we consider the ramifications before we consider the profit? Whether it is using an enzyme to create gene change, or a cheap thrill like CRISPR, so far, there are no regulations nor guidelines, not in the USA nor around the world. In fact, it has been noted that "there is a mentality that as long as it works, we don't have to understand how or why it works." The tracking, the missteps...? the glitches...? Pandora's box. What, we worry?