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Emergence: The remarkable simplicity of complexity

© Credit: Feliciano Guimarães/Flickr, CC BY
Patterns of emergence are all around us.
From the fractal patterns of snowflakes to cellular lifeforms, our universe is full of complex phenomena - but how does this complexity arise?

"Emergence" describes the ability of individual components of a large system to work together to give rise to dramatic and diverse behaviour.

Recent work by Enkeleida Lushi and colleagues from Brown University showed how bacteria in a drop of water spontaneously form a bi-directional vortex, with the bacteria near the centre of the droplet circulating in the opposite direction to those near the edge. Since the bacteria do not consciously decide to create the bi-directional vortex, such behaviour is said to be "emergent".

Unlike music from an orchestra led by the conductor, emergent behaviour arises spontaneously due to (often simple) interactions of the constituent parts with each other and the surrounding environment. Here, there is no "leader" deciding on the behaviour of the system.

© Credit: Christopher Porter/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND
Magnify

Safer than silver: New antibacterial material made with algae


A close-up of the antibacterial fibre created by the KTH scientists. In this 2x2cm swatch of fabric are nearly 200,000 threads running in the same direction.
Consumers concerned about safety of silver ions in antibacterial and odor-free clothing will soon have a proven safe alternative thanks to ultra-thin thread and a substance found naturally in red algae.

The use of silver ions for antibacterial textiles has been a matter of hot debate worldwide. Sweden's national agency for chemical inspection is one authority which has ruled silver a health risk, citing possible damage to human genetic material, reproduction and embryonic development.

Mikael Hedenqvist, professor of polymer materials at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, says he and his colleagues, assistant professor Richard Olsson and doctoral student Rickard Andersson, have produced new antibacterial fibres that combine bio-compatible plastics with the antimicrobial compound, lanosol, which is commonly found in seaweeds of the family Rhodophyta, or red algae.

"The substance is a good alternative to particle-based antibacterials for clothing, as well as compresses or bandages," Hedenqvist says.

Using a process called electrospinning, they have succeeded in creating an ultra-thin thread, which means fabrics can have more contact between the antibacterial fibre and the surrounding area.

"Electrospinning produces quite thin thread, with a thickness on the order of one-hundreth of a human hair," Hedenqvist says. The result is more effective clean-up of bacteria.
Bug

Survival of the fittest group in spiders

Anelosimus studiosus spider
© Judy Gallagher
Tiny spiders may have a huge story to tell about evolution. UVM biologist Charles Goodnight helped University of Pittsburgh scientist Jonathan Pruitt unravel the tale. And from these spiders’ tangled webs, the researchers have uncovered the first-ever field-based evidence for a biological mechanism called “group selection.” Evolutionary theorists have been debating its existence and power for decades. Now Pruitt and Goodnight have observed it in the wild — as they report in the journal 'Nature.'
Along rivers in Tennessee and Georgia, scientists have been studying brownish-orange spiders, called Anelosimus studiosus, that make cobwebby nests "anywhere from the size of a golf ball to the size of a Volkswagen Beetle," researcher Jonathan Pruitt says. The individual spiders are only the size of a pencil eraser, but they form organized groups that can catch prey ranging from fruit flies to small vertebrates. "We have found carcasses of rats and birds inside their colonies," Pruitt says. Unlike most spiders, which are solitary, these social spiders work together in groups.

Now new research shows that they evolve together in groups, too.

Say "group selection" among some groups of evolutionary biologists and you won't be invited back to the party. But JonathanPruitt, at the University of Pittsburgh, and Charles Goodnight, at the University of Vermont, have been studying generations of these Anelosimus spiders - and have gathered the first-ever experimental evidence that group selection can fundamentally shape collective traits in wild populations.

Their results are presented in the Oct. 1 online edition of the journal Nature.

"Biologists have never shown an adaptation in nature which is clearly attributable to group selection," Goodnight said. "Our paper is that demonstration."
Info

Deep, hidden trench discovered beneath Antarctic glacier

Antarctica Trench
© Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets
Radar that can penetrate ice helped researchers make this 3D map of a newly discovered trench beneath a glacier in Antarctica.
Ice-penetrating radar has uncovered a previously unknown ice-covered trench, and other detailed terrain, in the bedrock hidden beneath two massive, bluish glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica.

The gaping features were revealed in the first, highly detailed 3D maps of the frozen bedrock - the land under Greenland's Jakobshavn Glacier and Antarctica's Byrd Glacier - which may help researchers predict how glaciers, ice sheets and sea levels may change in the future.

"Without bed topography, you cannot build a decent ice-sheet model," lead researcher Prasad Gogineni, director of the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS) at the University of Kansas, said in a statement.
Bug

Nature collides with James Bond: Newly discovered ant species hides in plain sight

James Bond Ants
© Dr. Scott Powell
Left: Crematogaster ampla; Right: Cephalotes specularis.
Researchers plan and plot every considerable aspect of their work, but sometimes it's something unexpected and seemingly insignificant that leads to the real discovery. That was the case for Scott Powell, assistant professor of biology at the George Washington University.

While conducting field research on turtle ants in the savannah region of Brazil, Dr. Powell noticed something peculiar: a species of ant infiltrating the region of a host ant, Crematogaster ampla. The C. ampla is known for its hyper-aggressiveness, but did not attack the invading species, which was Dr. Powell's first clue that something was amiss. The invading ant species acted very similarly to C. ampla but looked slightly different.

"I did a true double-take when I first saw this new species," said Dr. Powell. "As I turned away, after seeing what appeared to be large numbers of host foragers, it registered that a couple of the ants I had just laid eyes on were not quite like the others. Turning back around, I managed to re-find the few peculiar ants in the masses of host ants, and everything followed from there."
Key

Crypto Wars 2.0: New privacy battle looms after moves by Apple, Google


A new battle is brewing over privacy for mobile devices, after moves by Google and Apple to toughen the encryption of their mobile devices sparked complaints from law enforcement
A new battle is brewing over privacy for mobile devices, after moves by Google and Apple to toughen the encryption of their mobile devices sparked complaints from law enforcement.

The issue is part of a long-running debate over whether tech gadgets should have privacy-protecting encryption which makes it difficult for law enforcement to access in time-sensitive investigations.

FBI director James Comey reignited the issue last week, criticizing Apple and Google for new measures that keep smartphones locked down - without even the company holding the keys to unlock the data.

"What concerns me about this is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to place themselves beyond the law," the FBI chief said, warning that law enforcement may be denied timely access, even with a warrant, in cases ranging from child kidnapping to terrorism.

Former FBI criminal division chief Ronald Hosko made a similar point in an opinion piece in the Washington Post, citing a case in which the agency used smartphone data to solve a brutal kidnapping just in time to save the life of the victim.

"Most investigations don't rely solely on information from one source, even a smartphone," he said. "But without each and every important piece of the investigative puzzle, criminals and those who plan acts destructive to our national security may walk free."
Galaxy

Swift mission observes 'superflare' from a mini star

stellar flare
© Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/S. Wiessinger
DG CVn, a binary consisting of two red dwarf stars shown here in an artist's rendering, unleashed a series of powerful flares seen by NASA's Swift. At its peak, the initial flare was brighter in X-rays than the combined light from both stars at all wavelengths under typical conditions.
On April 23, NASA's Swift satellite detected the strongest, hottest, and longest-lasting sequence of stellar flares ever seen from a nearby red dwarf star. The initial blast from this record-setting series of explosions was as much as 10,000 times more powerful than the largest solar flare ever recorded.

"We used to think major flaring episodes from red dwarfs lasted no more than a day, but Swift detected at least seven powerful eruptions over a period of about two weeks," said Stephen Drake, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who gave a presentation on the "superflare" at the August meeting of the American Astronomical Society's High Energy Astrophysics Division. "This was a very complex event."

At its peak, the flare reached temperatures of 360 million degrees Fahrenheit (200 million Celsius), more than 12 times hotter than the center of the sun.

The "superflare" came from one of the stars in a close binary system known as DG Canum Venaticorum, or DG CVn for short, located about 60 light-years away. Both stars are dim red dwarfs with masses and sizes about one-third of our sun's. They orbit each other at about three times Earth's average distance from the sun, which is too close for Swift to determine which star erupted.
Comet 2

Follow-up of splitting event in Comet C/2011 J2

Comet C/2011 J2
© Remanzacco Observatory
CBET 3979, issued on 2014 September 19, announced that observations of comet C/2011 J2 (LINEAR) (by F. Manzini, V. Oldani, A. Dan and R. Behrend) on Aug. 27.95, 28.85, and 30.91 UT led to the detection of a second, fainter, nuclear condensation (from now on Component B) located 0".8 east and 7".5 north of the main, brighter nuclear condensation (component A).

For more info about comet C/2011 J2 please see our May 2011 post on this blog by clicking here.

Whilst working on a long term morphology study on comet C/2012 K1 with N. Samarasinha and B. Mueller using the 2-meter Liverpool Telescope, we were alerted of the fragmentation event in comet C/2011 J2 and so diverted the telescope to this comet for a few days.
Light Saber

Smart cities should be sharing and cooperative rather than solely technology focused

City Development
When mayors and developers focus on technology rather than people, smart quickly becomes stupid

These days every city claims to be a "smart" city, or is becoming one, with heavy investments in modern information and computing technology to attract businesses and make the city competitive.

But when mayors and developers focus on technology rather than people, smart quickly becomes stupid, threatening to exacerbate inequality and undermine the social cooperation essential to successful cities. After researching leading cities around the world, we've concluded that truly smart cities will be those that deploy modern technology in building a new urban commons to support communal sharing.

Comment: If our society was not ruled by a group of psychopaths, the natural creative and cooperative abilities of humans would be able to progress to the point where cities could develop in ways that would facilitate society's general health and well-being. Until the problem of psychopathy is understood by more people and steps are taken to counteract their influence, things will continue to deteriorate, and nature will take balancing steps.

Bulb

Five ways the superintelligence revolution could happen

cognitive brain
© io9.com
The Cognitive Brain
Biological brains are unlikely to be the final stage of intelligence. Machines already have superhuman strength, speed and stamina - and one day they will have superhuman intelligence. The only reasons this may not occur is if we develop some other dangerous technology first that destroys us, or otherwise fall victim to some existential risk.

But assuming that scientific and technological progress continues, human-level machine intelligence is very likely to be developed. And shortly thereafter, superintelligence.

Predicting how long it will take to develop such intelligent machines is difficult. Contrary to what some reviewers of my book seem to believe, I don't have any strong opinion about that matter. (It is as though the only two possible views somebody might hold about the future of artificial intelligence are "machines are stupid and will never live up to the hype!" and "machines are much further advanced than you imagined and true AI is just around the corner!").

A survey of leading researchers in AI suggests that there is a 50% probability that human-level machine intelligence will have been attained by 2050 (defined here as "one that can carry out most human professions at least as well as a typical human"). This doesn't seem entirely crazy. But one should place a lot of uncertainty on both sides of this: it could happen much sooner or very much later.

Exactly how we will get there is also still shrouded in mystery. There are several paths of development that should get there eventually, but we don't know which of them will get there first.

Comment: What is the ultimate reason to have superintelligent machines? To monitor and constrain the evil tendencies of humans? Counterbalance emotion-driven thinking? To figure out the secrets of the universe prematurely to our ability to understand them? Just because we can? Humans are essentially machines, given our intrinsic COG-nitive functioning and behaviors. Few of us have mastered the controls. Even fewer have gone beyond. We are already a "programmed species" receiving input from propaganda, cointelpro, marketing messages, fear mongering, historical rewrites, manipulation of belief systems - individually and as a population. Question is how much more mechanistic will we become all on our own? With military and governmental mind programs, alteration and subjugation of learned topics, mass hysteria induced by false flag operations, social programming - and the list goes on - how much of the original human prototype is left untampered? Is this intelligent progress? In a world of burgeoning population, it might seem to a neocon that a reduction to a few million humans and a few million superintelligent machines would be the ultimate advantage, by-in-large relegating the future of humankind to a death spiral as supermachines self-adapt and the era of man is self-phased out.

P.S.: And then there is the theory that the material world didn't create consciousness but consciousness created the material world. Perhaps there already is a supermind watching us attempt to play with blocks and recreate the wheel.

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