Science & Technology


Virus that 'makes humans more stupid' discovered

Stupid Virus
© The Independent, UK
A virus has been discovered that affects cognitive abilities in healthy people.
A virus that infects human brains and makes us more stupid has been discovered, according to scientists in the US.

The algae virus, never before observed in healthy people, was found to affect cognitive functions including visual processing and spatial awareness.

Scientists at Johns Hopkins Medical School and the University of Nebraska stumbled upon the discovery when they were undertaking an unrelated study into throat microbes.

Surprisingly, the researchers found DNA in the throats of healthy individuals that matched the DNA of a virus known to infect green algae.

Dr Robert Yolken, a virologist who led the original study, said: "This is a striking example showing that the 'innocuous' microorganisms we carry can affect behaviour and cognition.

Creepy cockroaches could be used for search and rescue

© Thinkstock
Researchers from North Carolina State University (NCSU) have found a way to turn cockroaches into cyborgs and have them assist in search and rescue operations after major disasters.

By wearing special backpacks, the "biobots" can detect and locate sound, as well as differentiating between important and unimportant sounds.

The scientists came up with two innovations, both of which involve electronic backpacks which are equipped with microphones.

One has a single microphone that can capture relatively high-resolution sound from any direction which can then be wirelessly transmitted to first responders.

The other involves an array of three-directional microphones which can detect the direction of the sound. The team also developed algorithms that can analyze sound from the microphone array to focus the source and steer the biobot in the right direction.

The microphone array system worked successfully in laboratory testing, as shown in a video below.

Rosetta mission: Europe set to make space history with comet landing

Rosetta's lander Philae

Photo released by the European Space Agency shows an artist impression of Rosetta's lander Philae (back view) on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko
One of the biggest gambles in space history comes to a climax on Wednesday when Europe attempts to make the first-ever landing on a comet.

Speeding towards the Sun at 65,000 kilometres (40,600 miles) per hour, a lab called Philae will detach from its mothership Rosetta, heading for a deep-space rendezvous laden with risk.

The 100-kilogram (220-pound) probe will seek out a minuscule landing site on the treacherous surface of an object darker than coal, half a billion kilometres (300 million miles) from home.

"It's not going to be an easy business," was the understated prediction of Philippe Gaudon of France's National Centre for Space (CNES) as the mission prepared to enter countdown mode.

The stakes facing Rosetta managers in Darmstadt, Germany are daunting as the 1.3-billion-euro ($1.61-billion) project reaches a peak.

Two decades of work have been poured into what could be a crowning moment in space exploration.

Comment: A 'crowning moment' or perhaps a big disappointment? As Wallace Thornhill states in the video below: "The greatest danger to the Rosetta mission may come from not understanding the electrical nature of comets."

Comment: Wallace Thornhill comments on the Rosetta mission:

Arrow Down

Google wants to store your genome

Genome Storage
Google is approaching hospitals and universities with a new pitch. Have genomes? Store them with us.

The search giant's first product for the DNA age is Google Genomics, a cloud computing service that it launched last March but went mostly unnoticed amid a barrage of high profile R&D announcements from Google, like one late last month about a far-fetched plan to battle cancer with nanoparticles (see "Can Google Use Nanoparticles to Search for Cancer?").

Google Genomics could prove more significant than any of these moonshots. Connecting and comparing genomes by the thousands, and soon by the millions, is what's going to propel medical discoveries for the next decade.

The question of who will store the data is already a point of growing competition between Amazon, Google, IBM, and Microsoft.

Google began work on Google Genomics 18 months ago, meeting with scientists and building an interface, or API, that lets them move DNA data into its server farms and do experiments there using the same database technology that indexes the Web and tracks billions of Internet users.

"We saw biologists moving from studying one genome at a time to studying millions," says David Glazer, the software engineer who led the effort and was previously head of platform engineering for Google+, the social network. "The opportunity is how to apply breakthroughs in data technology to help with this transition."

Some scientists scoff that genome data remains too complex for Google to help with. But others see a big shift coming. When Atul Butte, a bioinformatics expert at Stanford heard Google present its plans this year, he remarked that he now understood "how travel agents felt when they saw Expedia."
Fireball 4

Warning for Earth: Comet Siding Spring's near-brush with Mars triggered 'mind blowing' meteor shower

Comet Siding Spring's close flyby of Mars last month dumped several tons of primordial dust into the thin martian atmosphere, likely creating a brief but spectacular meteor shower with thousands of shooting stars per hour had any astronauts been there to see it, scientists said Friday.

The comet dust also posed a much more serious threat than expected to an international fleet of spacecraft in orbit around the red planet and roving about its surface. While engineers did not think the comet posed a major hazard, the orbiters were maneuvered to put them on the far side of Mars during close approach. Just in case.

As it turned out, that was a smart decision.

"After observing the effects on Mars and how the comet dust slammed into the upper atmosphere, it makes me very happy that we decided to put our spacecraft on the other side of Mars at the peak of the dust tail passage and out of harm's way," Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA headquarters, told reporters during a teleconference. "I really believe that hiding them like that really saved them, and it gave us a fabulous opportunity to make these observations."

Comment: If NASA et al had been paying even the slightest attention to what is happening here on Earth, rather than guess-timating with their fancy gadgets what might have happened on Mars, they'd realize they have plenty of real-life exploding comet fragments and comet dust to analyze right here at home.

Check out the astonishing afterglow caused by this exploding meteor over Recife, Brazil last month:

Meteor fireball sets the sky on fire over Recife, Brazil


Singing hermit thrush uses harmony like humans

© Matt MacGillivray
Hermit thrush.
The song of the hermit thrush, a common North American songbird, share characteristics found in much human music - the harmonic series.

Researchers from the University of Vienna, the Cornish College of the Arts, USA, and the Philipps University of Marburg, Germany, have been able to demonstrate note selection from the harmonic series in a non-human animal.

The study is published in the scientific journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

Cell Phone

Trekkies rejoice: Star Trek communicators are finally here

© OnBeep
Much like old-school Star Trek communicators are often credited for being the inspiration of the smartphone, the devices used by Captain Picard and his crew on Star Trek: The Next Generation have apparently given rise to a new wearable communication gadget developed by San Francisco startup OnBeep.

The device is known as Onyx ($99), and links up to a smartphone via Bluetooth, according to Dan Seifert of The Verge. At about 2.5 inches in diameter, this hockey puck-shaped device can clip to a bag or an article of clothing, and works anywhere with Wi-Fi or cellular data service.

Featuring a button in the middle to start conversation, the Onyx also has a volume rocker, a power switch and a mute function. The conversation button is surrounded by an LED ring that changes color based on your availability - blue for available, green for talking and yellow for muted. And, as SlashGear's Chris Burns noted, it can connect to an Android or iOS app to track other Onyx owners and launch discussions that can be heard by all members of a group.

Seifert, who was able to give the device a test-drive, said it was similar to using a walkie-talkie, except without range limits, static and the occasional interference experienced with those old-school devices. He noted that the audio quality was "quite good," that is used a low latency codec to minimize bandwidth, and that it was lightweight enough to be "clipped to a belt or shirt pocket" without being uncomfortable of impeding movement - something the company spent months perfecting.

Mystery sea of stars? Rocket experiment finds surprising cosmic light

© NASA/JPL-Caltech
This artist's concept shows a view of a number of galaxies sitting in huge halos of stars. The stars are too distant to be seen individually and instead are seen as a diffuse glow, colored yellow in this illustration. The CIBER rocket experiment detected this diffuse infrared background glow in the sky -- and, to the astronomers’ surprise, found that the glow between galaxies equals the total amount of infrared light coming from known galaxies.
Using an experiment carried into space on a NASA suborbital rocket, astronomers at Caltech and their colleagues have detected a diffuse cosmic glow that appears to represent more light than that produced by known galaxies in the universe.

The researchers, including Caltech Professor of Physics Jamie Bock and Caltech Senior Postdoctoral Fellow Michael Zemcov, say that the best explanation is that the cosmic light -- described in a paper published November 7 in the journal Science -- originates from stars that were stripped away from their parent galaxies and flung out into space as those galaxies collided and merged with other galaxies.

The discovery suggests that many such previously undetected stars permeate what had been thought to be dark spaces between galaxies, forming an interconnected sea of stars. "Measuring such large fluctuations surprised us, but we carried out many tests to show the results are reliable," says Zemcov, who led the study.

Although they cannot be seen individually, "the total light produced by these stray stars is about equal to the background light we get from counting up individual galaxies," says Bock, also a senior research scientist at JPL. Bock is the principal investigator of the rocket project, called the Cosmic Infrared Background Experiment, or CIBER, which originated at Caltech and flew on four rocket flights from 2009 through 2013.

Man uses internet telepathy to control another's hand

© Mary Levin, University of Washington
Darby Losey (left) imagines firing a cannon in a computer game. His thoughts are sent over the Web to the brain of Jose Ceballos, whose hand hits a touchpad to fire the cannon.
I can't read your mind. But I might be able to control. Mawhahahahaha

In a study they published this week in PLOS ONE, researchers at the University of Washington detail how they were able to transmit the brain signals from one person to another and, within a split second, control the hand of the second person.

The researchers think that so-called Internet telepathy could lead to "brain tutoring," in which knowledge is transferred from the brain of a teacher to the brain of a student.

"Imagine someone who's a brilliant scientist but not a brilliant teacher. Complex knowledge is hard to explain - we're limited by language," Chantel Prat, an assistant professor of psychology at UW said in a press release.

Prat co-authored the study along with Andrea Stocco, a research assistant professor of psychology at UW's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.
Fireball 3

Rare mineral discovered in ancient meteorite impact crater

© Landsat
Manicouagan crater
A rare mineral known from just three massive meteorite impacts has now turned up in a Wisconsin crater.

Researchers discovered the mineral, called reidite, at the Rock Elm impact structure in western Wisconsin. Reidite is a dense form of zircon, one of the hardiest minerals on Earth.

This is the oldest reidite ever found,, said Aaron Cavosie, a geochemist at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez. The Rock Elm meteorite crater is 450 million to 470 million years old, he said.