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Telescope

Standard model for planetary system formation in trouble?

proto-planetary disk
© NASA
Artist's concept of a protoplanetary disk
Not so long ago - as recently as the mid-1990s, in fact - there was a theory so beautiful that astronomers thought it simply had to be true.

They gave it a rather pedestrian name: the core-accretion theory. But its beauty lay in how it used just a few basic principles of physics and chemistry to account for every major feature of our Solar System. It explained why all the planets orbit the Sun in the same direction; why their orbits are almost perfectly circular and lie in or near the plane of the star's equator; why the four inner planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) are comparatively small, dense bodies made mostly of rock and iron; and why the four outer planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) are enormous, gaseous globes made mostly of hydrogen and helium. And because the same principles of physics and astronomy must apply throughout the Universe, it predicted that any system of 'exoplanets' around another star would look pretty much the same.

But in the mid-1990s, astronomers actually started finding those exoplanets - and they looked nothing like those in our Solar System. Gas giants the size of Jupiter whipped around their stars in tiny orbits, where core accretion said gas giants were impossible. Other exoplanets traced out wildly elliptical orbits. Some looped around their stars' poles. Planetary systems, it seemed, could take any shape that did not violate the laws of physics.
Bullseye

Hackers attack US and European energy firms with Stuxnet-like viruses

computer output
© Reuters / Kacper Pempel
Hackers are targeting energy companies in the US and Europe in an apparent case of industrial espionage, according to several security companies, which say the perpetrators seem to be based in Eastern Europe.

The group of hackers, known as 'Energetic Bear' or 'Dragonfly', are attacking hundreds of Western oil and gas companies, as well as energy investment firms, and infecting them with malware capable of disrupting power supplies.

Additional targets have included energy grid operators, major electricity generation firms, petroleum pipeline operators, and industrial energy equipment providers. The majority of the victims were located in the United States, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Turkey, and Poland, according to a Symantec report released on Monday.
Meteor

Mysterious 'bullet' asteroid may shed light on explosion of life on Earth

© Image from wikipedia.org
Researchers have discovered a fossilized space rock that stands out against anything seen before. It may advance the understanding of the asteroid clash that triggered off the diversity boom of life on early Earth.

Most of the meteorites that have fallen to Earth and were found during a 20-year study originate from a huge asteroid that collided with a smaller one - or even a comet - millions of years ago. But before the latest finding by Swedish scientists nothing was known about the mysterious "bullet" asteroid.

A study by a team of international researchers, prepared for print in the August edition of Earth and Planetary Science Letters journal, tells the story of the exploration of a meteorite found in Thorsberg limestone quarry, west of Stockholm, in southern Sweden.

While previous finds have become "quite boring,"according to Birger Schmitz, lead author of the study, who has led the chondrite cataloging, the most recent discovery is "a very, very strange and unusual find."
Info

Tibetans thrive at high altitudes thanks to Neanderthal cousin

Blood Sample Collection
© Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI-Shenzhen)
A researcher collects a blood sample from an ethnic Tibetan man participating in a DNA study looking into mutations that allow Tibetans to live at high altitudes.
Genetic mutations from an extinct human lineage help Tibetans and Sherpas live at high altitudes, researchers say.

The new findings add to growing evidence that interbreeding with other human lineages provided genetic variations that helped modern humans adapt as they spread across the world.

As modern humans migrated out of Africa, they had to adapt to many new environments. One noteworthy adaptation was of Tibetans adjusting to the thin air of the Tibetan plateau, which at about 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) in altitude has oxygen levels just 60 percent that of air at sea level. For instance, when at high altitudes, women who come from low altitudes usually have problems with childbirth, such as preeclampsia, which is potentially dangerous high blood pressure during pregnancy.

"Tibetans have a really good example of a human adaptation to a new environment," said study co-author Rasmus Nielsen, a population and evolutionary geneticist at the University of California, Berkeley.

Recent studies revealed how Tibetans adapted to high altitudes - a pattern of mutations in the gene EPAS1, which influences levels of hemoglobin, the protein in blood that carries oxygen around the body. Although most people experience a rise in hemoglobin levels at high altitudes, Tibetans only increase their hemoglobin levels a limited amount - too much hemoglobin in the blood can lead to a greater risk of heart disease.

To learn more about human evolution, Nielsen and his colleagues investigated how Tibetans might have developed their adaptation. Frustratingly, the research team's computer models could not at first explain how Tibetans evolved their pattern of EPAS1 mutations as quickly as they apparently did.
Butterfly

Hearing danger: Predator vibrations trigger plant chemical defenses

cabbage butterfly caterpillar
© Roger Meissen
This is a cabbage butterfly caterpillar feeding on an Arabidopsis plant where, on an adjacent leaf, a piece of reflective tape helps record vibrations.
As the cabbage butterfly caterpillar takes one crescent-shaped bite at a time from the edge of a leaf, it doesn't go unnoticed.

This tiny Arabidopsis mustard plant hears its predator loud and clear as chewing vibrations reverberate through leaves and stems, and it reacts with chemical defenses. Plants have long been known to detect sound, but why they have this ability has remained a mystery.

University of Missouri experiments mark the first time scientists have shown that a plant responds to an ecologically relevant sound in its environment.

"What is surprising and cool is that these plants only create defense responses to feeding vibrations and not to wind or other vibrations in the same frequency as the chewing caterpillar," said Heidi Appel, an investigator at MU's Bond Life Sciences Center and senior research scientist in the Division of Plant Sciences in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.

Appel partnered with Rex Cocroft, an MU animal communication expert who studies how plant-feeding insects produce and detect vibrations traveling through their host plants.

"It is an ideal collaboration, that grew out of conversations between two people working in different fields that turned out to have an important area of overlap," said Cocroft, a professor of Biological Sciences in MU's College of Arts and Science. "At one point we began to wonder whether plants might be able to monitor the mechanical vibrations produced by their herbivores."
Black Magic

Frankensoldiers: GM blood cells to protect tomorrow's soldiers from bioweapons?

GM soldiers
© AFP Photo / Jim Watson
First Frankenfoods and now Frankensoldiers. Genetic warfare is on the horizon.
Blood transfusions containing genetically engineered cells could be the future of countering germ warfare, according to new research sponsored by DARPA, which hopes modified blood cells could help neutralize biological toxins deployed against soldiers.

In their research, scientists from the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Massachusetts were supported by the US Defence Research Projects Agency - renowned for being the scientific funding branch of the US military. The researchers involved said that the US was very interested in deploying the discovery against any biological weapons threats.

"We wanted to create high-value red cells that do more than simply carry oxygen," says Whitehead Founding Member Harvey Lodish, in a statement published on the Whitehead Institute website. Lodish collaborated with Whitehead Member Hidde Ploegh in the project.

Comment: This is without a doubt also part of the drive to create ethnic specific weapons.

See:Ethnic specific weapons: The real story behind the murder of Dr David Kelly

Fireball 4

'Unique' meteorite likely came from long-dead asteroid

Meteorite_1
© Discovery News
A well-known meteorite that was the first to be tracked by ground-based cameras as it blasted through the Earths atmosphere and quickly recovered at its Australian fall site has been identified as a geological oddity.

The Bunburra Rockhole meteorite was recovered from the Nullarbor Plain in Western Australia in 2007 and, after recent isotopic tests, its basaltic composition started a cosmic forensics investigation that has led researchers to believe it originated from an asteroid that no longer exists.

"This (meteorite) has a particular composition - which makes us think that it comes from a different body that has not been sampled before," said geochronologist and geochemist Fred Jourdan, associate professor at Curtin University, Perth. Jourdan and his team's work has been accepted for publication in the journal Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta.
Bizarro Earth

88% of world's oceans covered by plastic garbage - report

© AFP/Mike Clarke
Entrepreneur and conservationist who lives in Hong Kong, displays rubbish on a beach on the south side of Hong Kong which has been left uncleaned.
At least 88 percent of the surface of the world's open oceans is polluted by plastic debris, says a new scientific report. The findings raise large concerns of the safety of marine life and how this ocean litter may affect food chains.

"Those little pieces of plastic, known as microplastics, can last hundreds of years and were detected in 88 percent of the ocean surface sampled during the Malaspina Expedition 2010," lead researcher and the author of the study Andres Cozar from the University of Cadiz, told AFP.

The results of the study "Plastic debris in the open ocean" are based on 3,070 total ocean samples collected around the world by Spain's Malaspina science expedition in 2010. They have been recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), an official journal of the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

The total amount of plastic in the open-ocean surface is estimated at between 7,000 and 35,000 tons, according to the report. This amount, though big, is lower than the scientists expected.
Display

When computers can think for themselves how will we know it's happening?

artificial intelligence
© Christopher Brown/Flickr (slate sculpture of Alan Turing by Stephen Kettle
Headlines recently exploded with news that a computer program called Eugene Goostman had become the first to pass the Turing test, a method devised by computing pioneer Alan Turing to objectively prove a computer can think.

The program fooled 33% of 30 judges into thinking it was a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy in a five-minute conversation. How impressive is the result? In a very brief encounter, judges interacted with a program that could be forgiven for not knowing much or speaking very eloquently - in the grand scheme, it's a fairly low bar.

Chat programs like Eugene Goostman have existed since the 1970s. Though they have advanced over the years, none yet represents the revolutionary step in AI implied by the Turing test. So, if the Eugene Goostman program isn't exemplary of a radical leap forward, what would constitute such a leap, and how will we know when it happens?

To explore that question, it's worth looking at what the Turing test actually is and what it's meant to measure.

In a 1950 paper, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," Alan Turing set out to discover how we might answer the question, "Can machines think?" Turing believed the answer would devolve into a semantic debate over the definitions of the words "machine" and "think." He suggested what he hoped was a more objective test to replace the question.
Laptop

US Intelligence agency trying to develop computers that think like humans

computer brain
© AFP Photo / Mauricio Lima
A little-known US intelligence research agency hopes to revolutionize the machine mind by finding firms capable of writing computer algorithms nearly identical to those implemented by the human brain.

The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), which operates under the Director of National Intelligence, will host a Proposers' Day conference for the Machine Intelligence from Cortical Networks (MICrONS) program on July 17, the agency said in a press release.

"The overall and specific goal of the MICrONS program is to create a new generation of machine learning algorithms derived from high-fidelity representations of cortical microcircuits to achieve human-like performance on complex information processing tasks," IARPA says.

In layman's terms, that means getting computers to operate and process information much like the human brain. For many information processing tasks, the brain employs algorithms - a step-by-step procedure for making calculations.
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