Science & Technology


Computer science: Mass extinctions can accelerate evolution

©, Credit: Joel Lehman
At the start of the simulation, a biped robot controlled by a computationally evolved brain stands upright on a 16 meter by 16 meter surface. The simulation proceeds until the robot falls or until 15 seconds have elapsed.
A computer science team at The University of Texas at Austin has found that robots evolve more quickly and efficiently after a virtual mass extinction modeled after real-life disasters such as the one that killed off the dinosaurs. Beyond its implications for artificial intelligence, the research supports the idea that mass extinctions actually speed up evolution by unleashing new creativity in adaptations.

Computer scientists Risto Miikkulainen and Joel Lehman co-authored the study published today in the journal PLOS One, which describes how simulations of mass extinctions promote novel features and abilities in surviving lineages.

"Focused destruction can lead to surprising outcomes," said Miikkulainen, a professor of computer science at UT Austin. "Sometimes you have to develop something that seems objectively worse in order to develop the tools you need to get better."

In biology, mass extinctions are known for being highly destructive, erasing a lot of genetic material from the tree of life. But some evolutionary biologists hypothesize that extinction events actually accelerate evolution by promoting those lineages that are the most evolvable, meaning ones that can quickly create useful new features and abilities.

Comment: We are seeing many species exiting the planet at this juncture in the evolution of our planet. This research suggests that not all life will become extinct; that what remains may experience a comparable and parallel acceleration in evolution befitting its future on Earth. If this is the sixth extinction, there will undoubtedly be a seventh and...


Supernovae found in 'wrong place at wrong time'

© NASA, ESA, and P. Jeffries and A. Feild (STScI)
This illustration offers a plausible scenario for how vagabond stars exploded as supernovae outside the cozy confines of galaxies. Panel 1: A pair of black holes comes together during a galaxy merger, dragging with them up to a million stars each. Panel 2: A double-star system wanders too close to the two black holes. Panel 3: The black holes then gravitationally catapult the stars out of the galaxy. At the same time, the stars are brought closer together. Panel 4: After getting booted out of the galaxy, the binary stars move even closer together as orbital energy is carried away from the duo in the form of gravitational waves. Panel 5: Eventually, the stars get close enough that one of them is ripped apart by tidal forces. Panel 6: As material from the dead star is quickly dumped onto the surviving star, a supernova occurs.
Several exploding stars have been found outside the cozy confines of galaxies, where most stars reside. These wayward supernovae are also weird because they exploded billions of years before their predicted detonations. Using archived observations from several telescopes, astronomers have developed a theory for where these doomed stars come from and how they arrived at their current homes. A new analysis of 13 supernovae -- including archived data from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope -- is helping astronomers explain how some young stars exploded sooner than expected, hurling them to a lonely place far from their host galaxies.

It's a complicated mystery of double-star systems, merging galaxies, and twin black holes that began in 2000 when the first such supernova was discovered, according to study leader Ryan Foley, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "This story has taken lots of twists and turns, and I was surprised every step of the way," he said. "We knew these stars had to be far from the source of their explosion as supernovae and wanted to find out how they arrived at their current homes."

Comment: When two black holes collide, it depends on the amount of hot gas surrounding each black hole. As they start to interact, this gas exerts a frictional force on the black holes, slowing down their spin rate. As the distance between them lessens, they begin emitting gravitational waves which continues to extract energy from the system. This causes them to continue coming together and eventually merge. The merger generates gravity waves detectable across space.

Blue Planet

Blue-green algae blooms increasingly threaten drinking water worldwide

© Oregon State University
Toxic Microcystis algae grow in a large bloom in the Copco Reservoir on the Klamath River, posing health risks to people, pets and wildlife.
A report concludes that blooms of toxic cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, are a poorly monitored and underappreciated risk to recreational and drinking water quality in the United States, and may increasingly pose a global health threat.

Several factors are contributing to the concern. Temperatures and carbon dioxide levels have risen, many rivers have been dammed worldwide, and wastewater nutrients or agricultural fertilizers in various situations can cause problems in rivers, lakes and reservoirs.

No testing for cyanobacteria is mandated by state or federal drinking water regulators, according to scientists from Oregon State University, nor is reporting required of disease outbreaks associated with algal blooms. But changes in climate and land use, and even increasing toxicity of the bacteria themselves, may force greater attention to this issue in the future, the researchers said.


Corrupt science: How BigPharma stacks the deck to show their products work

© Tom Varco
Mark Zimmerman, M.D., a clinical researcher at Rhode Island Hospital, and his team analyzed the criteria used in antidepressant efficacy studies (AETs) and learned that the inclusion/exclusion criteria for AETs have narrowed over the past five years so that the most patients are excluded. The research was published today in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

"The inclusion/exclusion criteria for AETs have narrowed over the past five years, thereby suggesting that AETs may be even less generalizable than they were previously," said Zimmerman, director of outpatient psychiatry and the partial hospital program at Rhode Island Hospital and director of the Rhode Island Methods to Improve Diagnostic Assessment and Services (MIDAS) project, a study that integrated researchers' assessment tools and procedures into a hospital-affiliated outpatient practice.

Comment: Independent studies have shown that there is little to no benefit from these medications and the side effects are substantial. But the profit potential is staggering, so the pharmaceutical industry routinely manages the data to prove their efficacy or simply refuses to publish when the results are not favorable to the drug or other product being tested.


NASA discovers 'smallest supermassive' black hole

© / NASA
Optical image of the RGG118 galaxy (center) and the X-ray image from Chandra (inset).
Just 50,000 times the mass of the Sun, a new supermassive singularity discovered by NASA is a tiny thing by cosmic standards. Scientists hope studying the black hole will help them learn more about the origins of the universe.

Using the orbiting Chandra X-ray observatory and the 6.5 meter Clay Telescope in Chile, astronomers found the black hole at the center of a dwarf disk galaxy, called RGG 118, some 340 million light years from Earth. The X-rays were produced by the hot gas swirling around the black hole.

"When gas rotates around a black hole, the motion causes the frequency of the light it emits to spread in a characteristic way. The width of this spread is related to the speed of rotation, which in turn is related to the mass of the black hole. By measuring the spread, we found that the black hole in RGG 118 weighs just 50,000 times the mass of the Sun, the smallest supermassive black hole yet reported!" wrote Vivienne Baldassare of the University of Michigan, lead author on the paper about the small supermassive black holes.


Mystery Deepens: Matter and antimatter are mirror images

© N. Kuroda
A newly reported experiment involving matter and antimatter was carried out in CERN's Antiproton Decelerator.
Matter and antimatter appear to be perfect mirror images of each other as far as anyone can see, scientists have discovered with unprecedented precision, foiling hope of solving the mystery as to why there is far more matter than antimatter in the universe.

Everyday matter is made up of protons, neutrons or electrons. These particles have counterparts known as antiparticles — antiprotons, antineutrons and positrons, respectively — that have the same mass but the opposite electric charge. (Although neutrons and antineutrons are both neutrally charged, they are each made of particles known as quarks that possess fractional electrical charges, and the charges of these quarks are equal and opposite to one another in neutrons and antineutrons.)

The known universe is composed of everyday matter. The profound mystery is, why the universe is not made up of equal parts antimatter, since the Big Bang that is thought to have created the universe 13.7 billion years ago produced equal amounts of both. And if matter and antimatter appear to be mirror images of each other in every respect save their electrical charge, there might not be much any of either type of matter left — matter and antimatter annihilate when they encounter each other.


New technology being developed to create energy from living plants

A Dutch start-up has developed a way to use living plants as a continuous source of clean energy - the system works best in wetlands or watery fields like rice paddies.
Here's another development worthy of applause: A Dutch start-up has developed a way to use living plants as a continuous source of clean energy - all that is needed is a light source, carbon dioxide, water, and a field or patch of plants.

The company is called Plant-e, and it is showing the world how easy it can be to bring electricity to isolated regions currently without power.

As shared in the video below, the system works best in wetlands or watery fields like rice paddies. Also, it doesn't matter if the water is brackish or polluted. This means that areas unsuitable for growing crops could be repurposed as a power source.


New system of lymphatic vessels discovered in the brain

Vessels discovered in the brain that were thought not to exist — could revolutionise study of neurological diseases like Alzheimer's.

The brain is directly connected to the immune system by vessels previously thought not to exist, new research reports.The finding means the textbooks will have to be rewritten.Discovery of the vessels may also revolutionise the study of neurological diseases like Alzheimer's and autism.

Professor Jonathan Kipnis, who led the research, was initially sceptical about the results:
"I really did not believe there are structures in the body that we are not aware of.I thought the body was mapped.I thought that these discoveries ended somewhere around the middle of the last century.But apparently they have not."
The vessels are located in the meninges — the membrane that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. The vessels run near major blood vessels, which partly explains why they have been so difficult to find.

The left-hand image below shows the old map of the lymphatic system and the updated version is on the right.
© University of Virginia Health System

Comet 2

Electric Universe: Comet 67P emits flash of light ahead of perihelion

In the approach to perihelion over the past few weeks, Rosetta has been witnessing growing activity from Comet 67P/Churyumov - Gerasimenko, with one dramatic outburst event proving so powerful that it even pushed away the incoming solar wind.

The comet reaches perihelion on Thursday, the moment in its 6.5-year orbit when it is closest to the Sun. In recent months, the increasing solar energy has been warming the comet's frozen ices, turning them to gas, which pours out into space, dragging dust along with it.

The period around perihelion is scientifically very important, as the intensity of the sunlight increases and parts of the comet previously cast in years of darkness are flooded with sunlight.

Although the comet's general activity is expected to peak in the weeks following perihelion, much as the hottest days of summer usually come after the longest days, sudden and unpredictable outbursts can occur at any time - as already seen earlier in the mission.

Comet 2

New Comet: C/2015 P3 (SWAN)

CBET nr. 4136, issued on 2015, August 11, announces the discovery of a comet (magnitude ~11) by M. Mattiazzo on low-resolution public website hydrogen Lyman-alpha images obtained during Aug. 3 and 4 with the Solar Wind Anisotropies (SWAN) camera on the Solar and Heliospheric Observer (SOHO) spacecraft. The new comet has been designated C/2015 P3 (SWAN).

We performed follow-up measurements of this object, while it was still on the neocp. Stacking of 13 unfiltered exposures, 15-sec each, obtained remotely on 2015, August 10.4 from Q62 (iTelescope network - Siding Spring) through a 0.50-m f/6.8 astrograph + CCD + f/4.5 focal reducer, shows that this object is a comet: sharp central condensation surrounded by bright coma about 1 arcmin in diameter.

Our confirmation image (click on it for a bigger version)
© Remanzacco Observatory
M.P.E.C. 2015-P25 assigns the following very preliminary parabolic orbital elements to comet C/2015 P3: 2015 July 27.26; e= 1.0; Peri. = 131.81; q = 0.71; Incl.= 59.32