Science & Technology


Part of Pluto's heart was 'Born Yesterday'

© NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
By counting craters across Pluto, scientists determined that some regions of the dwarf planet are as young as 10 million years old while others are nearly as old as the 4.5-billion-year-old solar system.
Pluto has a surprisingly youthful heart — the smooth, round region on the dwarf planet's surface is no more than 10 million years old, a blink of an eye in the 4.5-billion-year lifetime of the solar system.

The large,western lobe of the "heart" on Pluto's surface is also known as Sputnik Planum, and it is strikingly free of craters. This suggests that geologic processes recently smoothed the region over. Researchers with NASA's New Horizons mission said this is surprising, because such processes require an internal heat source, which is often lost in small bodies like Pluto.

"It's a huge finding that small planets can be active on a massive scale, billions of years after their creation," New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SWRI) in Colorado, said on Monday (Nov. 9) at the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in National Harbor, Maryland.

Top Secret

Over 5500 secrecy orders imposed by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but national security is given as the reason for keeping some inventions a secret.

Under the Invention Secrecy Act of 1951, the U.S. government can impose secrecy orders on patent applications if officials decide granting and publishing a patent would compromise national security.

Statistics collected by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office showed there were 95 new secrecy orders imposed last year, according to the watchdog group Federation of American Scientists (FAS). The government also rescinded 36 secrecy orders previously in place.

All told, 5,579 invention secrecy orders were in effect at the end of fiscal year 2015, up from 5,520 the year before, Steven Aftergood of FAS reported. The total was the highest number for secrecy orders in more than a decade.

Comment: The Right to No. Some of these could be from defense contractors with military application, but who knows?


Brain scans may help predict recovery from coma

© igoraul / Fotolia
Brain scans of people in a coma may help predict who will regain consciousness, according to a study. The study looked at connections between areas of the brain that play a role in regulating consciousness.
Brain scans of people in a coma may help predict who will regain consciousness, according to a study published in the November 11, 2015, online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. The study looked at connections between areas of the brain that play a role in regulating consciousness.

For the study, 27 people in a coma with severe brain injuries were compared to 14 healthy people of the same ages. All of the participants had functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans taken of their brains. For those in a coma, the scans were conducted after any sedative drugs were out of their systems. Three months after their injuries, four of the people with coma had recovered consciousness. The others remained in a minimally conscious state or a vegetative state at three months.

All of the comatose people had significant disruption in the connections between brain areas and the posterior cingulate cortex. These changes were the same whether the brain injury was due to trauma or to lack of oxygen, such as from cardiac arrest.


NASA's Cassini finds monstrous ice cloud in south polar region of Saturn's moon Titan

© NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
This 2012 close-up offers an early snapshot of the changes taking place at Titan's south pole. Cassini's camera spotted this impressive cloud hovering at an altitude of about 186 miles (300 kilometers). Cassini s thermal infrared instrument has now detected a massive ice cloud below it.
New observations made near the south pole of Titan by NASA's Cassini spacecraft add to the evidence that winter comes in like a lion on this moon of Saturn.

Scientists have detected a monstrous new cloud of frozen compounds in the moon's low- to mid-stratosphere -- a stable atmospheric region above the troposphere, or active weather layer.

Cassini's camera had already imaged an impressive cloud hovering over Titan's south pole at an altitude of about 186 miles (300 kilometers). However, that cloud, first seen in 2012, turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. A much more massive ice cloud system has now been found lower in the stratosphere, peaking at an altitude of about 124 miles (200 kilometers).

The new cloud was detected by Cassini's infrared instrument -- the Composite Infrared Spectrometer, or CIRS -- which obtains profiles of the atmosphere at invisible thermal wavelengths. The cloud has a low density, similar to Earth's fog but likely flat on top.

Eye 1

Your smart TV is tracking your viewing data and sharing it with advertisers

Since 9/11, American citizens have become relatively anesthetized to the growth of the surveillance state. However, the NSA's civil liberty transgressions sometimes obscure a reality that is becoming increasingly noxious: private industry is watching us just as voraciously as the government. Sometimes they use cameras, but it seems that more often, they are creating data-driven behavioral profiles of us based on everyday consumption in our own homes.

A troubling new report by ProPublica reveals that Vizio Smart TVs track what we view and report that information in a form that allows advertisers to then directly reach us on other devices. This is a bold new step past previous data collection by Samsung and LG Electronics.

The system is called "Smart Interactivity," and here's how it works: when you watch a Vizio Smart TV, the company assesses samples of what you're viewing to note the date, time, content, and channel of programming, as well as your IP address; Vizio partners with data brokers to link your IP address with your age, gender, income and interests; the new "enhanced data" is given to advertisers, who track all devices associated with that IP address.

Comment: See also: Smart TVs can spy on their owners


New theory might tell us how galactic magnetic fields form

© NASA | Flickr
Physicists at Princeton may have the answer to how magnetic fields form around stars and galaxies ... and it's totally counter-intuitive. Pictured here, charged particles spin along the sun's magnetic field lines, giving us this rare view of its magnetic loops.
Physicists have figured out why we're all so attracted to stars.

For the first time ever, physicists from Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (which they call PPPL, even though that's essentially just making a spitting noise) believe they have begun to understand how stars and galaxies form their magnetic fields.

We already know how planets get their magnetic fields. It starts with swirling plasma-like liquids at the planet's core. Those churning liquids conduct electricity and create an electric charge. However, until now, the origin of magnetic fields around stars and galaxies (which are by definition areas that share a large magnetic field) has been a mystery.



'New Horizons' photo shows psychedelic colors of Pluto

A newly-released photo of Pluto shows the dwarf planet like you've never seen it before - shining in a rainbow of vivid colors. Released by NASA, the 'Psychedelic Pluto' image is the latest in a series of photographs taken by the New Horizons spacecraft.

According to NASA, scientists created the image using a technique called principal component analysis, which highlights the "many subtle color differences between Pluto's distinct regions." The exaggerated colors make it easy for scientists to determine the varied texture and composition of Pluto's surface.

The original photo was taken by the Ralph/MVIC color camera on the New Horizons spacecraft during its historic flyby of the dwarf planet in mid-July. It was snapped from a range of 22,000 miles.

This is just the latest in a string of photos released from the flyby. Last month, an image was released showing the dwarf planet's crescent. Other photos released in October showed Pluto's tiniest moon, which measures just five miles across, and its largest moon, Charon.


NASA announces discovery of new pulsar in faraway galaxy

© NASA Goddard / YouTube
Space-watchers have a lot of news to digest after the discoveries of a new pulsar in a faraway galaxy. A Venus-like exoplanet was also spotted, a mere 39 light-years away, and a rocky dwarf planet in our own solar system.

NASA announced on Thursday that its Fermi space telescope has found a gamma-ray pulsar in another galaxy. Dubbed PSR J0540-6919, the rapidly spinning neutron star lies outside the Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a galaxy about 163,000 light-years away.

"It's now clear that a single pulsar... is responsible for roughly half of the gamma-ray brightness we originally thought came from the nebula," said Pierrick Martin, an astrophysicist at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Toulouse, France, and lead researcher on the project. "That is a genuine surprise."

Pulsars are neutron stars, left over from supernova explosions. The rapidly spinning magnetic field of the extremely dense star core sends out beams of radio waves, visible light, X-rays and gamma rays. J0540 spins just under 20 times per second, according to data obtained by the Fermi probe.


10x sharper than Hubble: Giant Magellan telescope being built in Chile's Atacama Desert

The most powerful ground-based telescope in the world is being built in Chile, enabling astronomers to take pictures of the deep space ten times sharper than those delivered by the Hubble Space Telescope.

The groundbreaking ceremony for the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) was held on a remote mountaintop in northern Chile on Wednesday with prominent scientists, top officials, and supporters from an international consortium of universities and research institutions in attendance. Chilean President Verónica Michelle Bachelet Jeria also took part in the ceremony, hosted by the 11-member consortium of the GMT.

The new astronomical facility, expected to begin its early stargazing in 2021, will be constructed on-site at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile's Atacama Desert, known for its clear, dark skies and outstanding astronomical image clarity.

The unique design of the $500-million optical marvel employs seven huge mirrors, each 8.4 meters (27.5 feet) wide, to make a single telescope with a resolving power of a telescope with a 24.5-meter primary mirror system and a collecting area equivalent to a 22-meter (72.2 ft) telescope -- about 368 square meters (3,961 square ft). "The Giant Magellan Telescope will revolutionize our view and understanding of the universe, and allow us to see and study objects whose light has been traveling for over 13 billion years to reach us.

Comment: Going "beyond" seeing.


Why science needs metaphysics: It doesn't make sense without it

Francis Bacon had no purpose.
Over the past couple of days I have been commenting on the modern debate about philosophy of the mind (see here and here). What follows are some thoughts on scientific versus philosophical discussions of the mind and other matters.

I was at a conference recently and was asked by friends who are quite sympathetic to the immaterial understanding of the mind if I could discuss some of the scientific evidence for it and not rely as heavily as I otherwise do on philosophical reasoning. It's an understandable request, and one that I hear often from allies and adversaries alike.

Indeed there is much scientific evidence that the mind cannot be explained adequately in material terms, especially if one understands matter according to modern mechanical philosophy. I have an aversion to the use of scientific arguments to bolster claims that are inherently logical and metaphysical. Such recourse to scientific, rather than logical and metaphysical, arguments are the mainstay of materialist arguments about the mind, about biology, and about many aspects of physics.

The difficulty with using raw scientific evidence, untethered from a valid metaphysical framework, is that it gives free reign to ideological bias. In that sense our metaphysical framework -- whether explicit or implicit -- is analogous to train tracks, where the trains are our scientific investigations, and the destination is the truth. Our scientific investigations are restricted to the tracks that the trains run on, and if we are to understand the truth of our science we must understand the tracks that constrain our work. If our metaphysical framework is materialistic, the destination of our inquiries will always be materialistic -- we can do no other.

Comment: Science cannot work without certain metaphysical principles, such as the existence and validity of reason and logic, and the existence of truth. These are what make one theory better or worse than another, e.g. more consistent with the facts and non-contradictory. Scientific theories need to measure up to some kind of non-physical standard. But if a scientific philosophy cannot allow for the existence of such a standard, it has no legs to stand on. Without good metaphysics, good science can't exist.