Science & Technology

Blue Planet

China's "Supercave" is the world's biggest cave chamber

© Carsten Peter, National Geographic
The photographer’s lights illuminate the green-hued Getu He river in the Miao Room—considered the world’s second largest cave chamber by area.
China's immense Miao Room cavern, hidden beneath rolling hills and reachable only by an underground stream, is the world's biggest cave chamber, an international mapping team reported on Sunday. (Related: "China's Supercave.")

A laser-mapping expedition funded by the National Geographic Society reported the new measurement at the United Kingdom's national caving conference in Leek this weekend.

Richard "Roo" Walters, a British co-leader of the 2013 international caving expedition conducted under the auspices of China's Institute of Karst Geology in Guilin, reported that the Miao Room Chamber measures some 380.7 million cubic feet (10.78 million cubic meters) in volume. (See: "Empire of Rock" in National Geographic Magazine.)

Mantis shrimp eyes help scientists develop 'cancer-seeing' phone camera

© AFP Photo / Alex Ogle
Mantis shrimp.
The brilliant natural design of the Mantis shrimp's eyes allows the colorful crustacean to see cancer within our bodies. Now, scientists in Australia have reproduced the critters amazing ability in a camera that might one day be put in your smartphone.

Researchers from the University of Queensland in Australia announced the discovery earlier this week, which could revolutionize the way we detect one of the top global killers.

The mantis shrimp has one of the most elaborate visual systems ever discovered. Researchers at the university found that the shrimp's compound eyes are perfectly designed to detect polarized light, which reflects differently off of different types of tissues, including those of the cancerous or healthy variety.

"We see color with hues and shades, and objects that contrast - a red apple in a green tree for example - but our research is revealing a number of animals that use polarized light to detect and discriminate between objects," Professor Justin Marshall, from the Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Queensland, said in a press release.

The shrimp's amazingly complex eye has provided a perfect template for scientists to develop their own technology.

"Nature has coming up with elegant and efficient design principles, so we are combining the mantis shrimp's millions of years of evolution - nature's engineering - with our relatively few years of work with the technology."
Black Magic

Monsanto GMO wheat contaminates field at Montana State University

© El Ciudadano
Monsanto's experimental genetically modified wheat has been discovered growing in the second US field in Montana, about a year after the discovery of the company's unapproved crop growing in Oregon disrupted US wheat exports.

The plants were discovered at a test site at Montana State University, where back in 2000-2003 Monsanto was conducting field trials of its wheat, genetically modified to tolerate Roundup herbicide.

Although the government believes the wheat never reached market, it has still opened an investigation into finding the rogue plants at a site that was not supposed to host any tests after 2003, USDA's Department of Agriculture's Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service announced on Friday.

"We've now opened an investigation into this regulatory compliance issue," said Bernadette Juarez, director of investigative and enforcement services for APHIS, adding however that "there are no safety issues with this wheat."

The last such discovery in Oregon led to several international customers postponing US wheat deliveries, but this time exports should not be affected, US officials believe. "We remain confident that the wheat exports will continue without disruption," Juarez said.

US industry leaders also hope that exports should not be hurt by the discovery of GMO wheat in Montana.

"We are in the process now of informing our international wheat buyers," Alan Tracy, president of US Wheat Associates, said in a statement. "We do not expect any disruption in sales."

Comment: Monsanto is unlikely to face any disciplinary action due to corruption and collusion between it and the U.S. government:

Monsanto: History of Contamination and Cover-up
Monsanto took over regulatory bodies all over the world to lobby GMO
The real story behind the 'Monsanto Protection Act'

Eye 2

Tracks of tears on eye's corneal surface could hold key to cyber security

Tears can expose our most private emotions but could they also secure our most private information online?

Stephen Mason, an Australian optometrist, has discovered a new way to use scans of people's tears as passwords which he calls "the world's first one-time biometric pin".

He has focused on the cornea, rather than the iris, which is the norm in most optical scanners, because cyber criminals cannot copy the unique way tears change our eyes.

The scanner can recognise a person because each cornea has a unique map. But if a criminal was to steal and try to use the data from the last time someone logged in, the machine would find it invalid because it expects the data to change slightly each time.

"The corneal surface is wet with tears so our own data changes from moment to moment," he said. "Each data set I capture from any eye has these really tiny variations."

The hope is that the technology could be included on smartphones, from where it could be used to verify payments and access services such as email or sensitive corporate documents online. It could also be embedded in ATMs or doors to access confidential areas.

From intimate photos snatched and released online from celebrities' Apple iCloud accounts to an attack on Home Depot, the largest known security breach of a retailer, the rise in cyber crime has experts searching for better ways to verify people's identities.

Scientists discover new brain wave that reveals past thoughts and memories

© unknown
An alarming new study (posted in full below) illustrates how fast neuroscience is developing in its attempt to uncover every aspect of the human brain. A specific brain wave called P300 has been identified by researchers as a marker that essentially encodes what we observe as we go about our daily activities. Based on this specific brain wave marker, researchers are able to conduct a Concealed Information Test. In fact, the test is already being used in Japan and Israel. Researchers are hoping that new data they have published will demonstrate that the test is reliable enough to meet the higher standard of U.S. courtrooms.

The massive influx of money into Obama's BRAIN project, as well as similar research sponsored by the European Union , now exceeds $2 billion combined. Research continues full-steam ahead despite indications that human brain study is outpacing ethical parameters. Some scientists within the European arm of the project have recently threatened a boycott due to mismanagement and misuse along similar lines to what you will read below.

In our age of loosened constitutional standards and basic human rights that has permitted all innocent communications and movements to be tracked, traced and databased, any technology that aims to uncover our most mundane daily activities and thoughts must be heavily scrutinized for potential abuse. Moreover, I have highlighted some of the language in this press release that clearly demonstrates how this could move far beyond the courtroom and easily provide a new level of pervasive surveillance.

Comment: See also: A top neuroscientist warns that human cyborgs are a terrible idea
Neurological research has gotten much more attention at the federal level in recent years, especially after President Obama announced his BRAIN Initiative, a plan based on the Human Genome Project that aims to map the function of every neuron in the human brain over the next decade or so. Much of Obama's plan focuses on researching diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, but once we better understand how the brain works, we may be able to use that research to for transhuman tinkering like mind transfers, screwing with memories, and that kind of thing.

Fireball 5

Rosetta update: Dirty snowball is "dry like hell"

The European Space Agency's Rosetta Mission to the comet 67/P may be rewriting everything astronomers thought they knew about the nature of comets. The latest high-resolution images of the comet nucleus have astonished scientists around the world, revealing a remarkably jagged, pitted, black as coal surface. It is nothing like the so-called dirty snowball or fluffy ice ball that mainstream astronomers have long envisioned. Most astonishingly, scientists have reported they have not found a single trace of water ice on the comet surface. It is, in the words of mission scientist Holger Sierks, "dry like hell."

Unique organic molecule discovered forming in deep space gas cloud

© Agence France-Presse/ NASA
​A new kind of organic molecule has been discovered in a giant gas cloud in interstellar space, indicating that more complex molecules - the very core building blocks of life - can potentially form outside of the Earth and even be widespread in space.

The analysis of a star-forming gas cloud some 27,000 light years away from Earth, published in the journal Science, detected an iso-propyl cyanide molecule with a unique structure that is common in life-forming molecules, such as amino acids.

While finding a simple organic chemical in space is nothing new, a carbon-bearing molecule with a branched structure has been discovered for the first time, indicating that biologically crucial molecules can form not only on Earth, but in deep space too.

"This detection suggests that branched carbon-chain molecules may be generally abundant in the ISM [interstellar medium]," the study's abstract reads.

The scientists - Dr Arnaud Belloche of the Max Planck Institute for Radioastronomy and his colleagues - found the molecule in a gas cloud called Sagittarius B2 - the "star factory" near the center of the Milky Way where many new stars are formed.

© Reuters/ESA/Hubble & NASA
The team used the 12 telescopes of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), in Chile, to make its observations.

"Amino acids on Earth are the building blocks of proteins, and proteins are very important for life as we know it. The question in the background is: is there life somewhere else in the galaxy?" Belloche told the BBC.

"Our goal is to search for new complex organic molecules in the interstellar medium," he said.

And the evidence suggests their presence could actually be widespread.

Bash bug 'Shellshock' threatens millions of computer systems worldwide

© Reuters / Kacper Pempel
A vulnerability has been discovered within the widely used Bash software included on Linux and Mac operating systems, raising concerns about an exploit that some experts say stands to be more damaging than the Heartbleed bug identified earlier this year.

Researchers revealed on Wednesday this week that a bug has been spotted in Bash - a command-line shell developed in the 1980s and common to Linux and Unix systems - the likes of which may allow attackers to target computers and, if successful, run malicious codes that could let them take control of entire servers pertaining to potentially millions of machines.

But while the so-called Heartbleed bug found in April allowed hackers to spy on vulnerable systems due to a previously undiscovered flaw in the open-source encryption software called OpenSSL, security experts say already that the Bash exploit - being referred to as "Shellshock" - is more severe because exploiting it could allow attackers to seize systems that are vulnerable by running unauthorized code that, in a worst case scenario, gives them full privileges on the plundered machine.

"The method of exploiting this issue is also far simpler," Dan Guido, the chief executive of a cybersecurity firm Trail of Bits, told Reuters on Wednesday this week of the differences. "You can just cut and paste a line of code and get good results."

After discovery of Shellshock was identified by researcher Stephane Schazelas on Wednesday, the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team, or US-CERT, acknowledged the severity of the issue by releasing a statement warning that "exploitation of this vulnerability may allow a remote attacker to execute arbitrary code on an affected system."

No single 'missing link' found in dinosaur-to-bird evolution process

© Thinkstock
While paleontologists previously believed that the 150-million-year-old Archaeopteryx, the earliest known bird, marked a massive evolutionary leap forward, research conducted over the past 20 years indicates that the avian characteristics had started showing up in dinosaurs far earlier.
The early stages of the process through which birds evolved from dinosaurs was slow and gradual, and there was no single "missing link" separating the two different types of creatures, according to research published in Thursday's edition of the journal Current Biology.

Lead author Dr. Stephen Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and his colleagues analyzed the anatomical make-up of more than 850 body features in 150 extinct species in order to map the evolutionary journey from meat-eating dinosaurs to ancient birds. Based on the fossil records, they found that the emergence of birds took place bit-by-bit over the course of 150 million years.

"There was no moment in time when a dinosaur became a bird, and there is no single missing link between them," Dr. Brusatte said in a statement. "What we think of as the classic bird skeleton was pieced together gradually over tens of millions of years. Once it came together fully, it unlocked great evolutionary potential that allowed birds to evolve at a super-charged rate."

"Our study adds to a growing number of works that approach this problem from different angles, but all seem to confirm that the origin of birds was a truly special event in Earth history," added Dr. Graeme Lloyd, a lecturer at the University of Oxford. "It is particularly cool that it is evidence from the fossil record that shows how an oddball offshoot of the dinosaurs paved the way for the spectacular variety of bird species we see today."
Magic Wand

Alien origin: Water on Earth predates Sun, meaning our life originated elsewhere

© Reuters / Marcos Brindicci
Science relies on signs of water to tell a story of how a celestial body or its region came to be. Now it appears our own solar system holds water older than itself, which could have dramatic consequences for our search for alien life.

To explain this new theory, a previously long-held conception of star formation needs to be examined.

Each star is forged from materials found in its own interstellar molecular cloud.

It also surrounds it with a protoplanetary disk, or a solar nebula - a belt from which its planets are born. Previous research was uncertain whether the ice in this disk comes from open space or is formed in a chemical reaction by the star's own processes after the previous building blocks of water are evaporated.

That uncertainty is now gone and we can say that our own life is not the result of activity created within the protoplanetary disk at all.