Science & Technology


Researchers use wave theories to understand flocks of birds

© AP
A massive flock of birds flies over Geumgang Lake in Gunsan, South Korea
An international team of researchers studying starling flock sizes in Rome has found that flocks of different sizes behave differently due to wave properties similar to fluids. In their paper published in Physical Review Letters, the researchers describe how they created 3D models based on the starlings and what was revealed by doing so.

The starlings flying around the skies over Rome have become the stuff of legend—thanks to tourism and movies—flocks of thousands or even tens of thousands of the birds form undulating patterns that at times appear to be a single organism moving in unpredictable wave patterns. Prior research has found that the birds alter the distance between themselves and others around them based on distance awareness—the result is a flock that moves in ways similar to sound waves. In this new effort, the researchers wanted to better understand flying direction in the flock—what causes it to come about and in what ways does it occur? To find out, they created a 3D model using datasets from real starling flocks, allowing for creating flocks of any size. Suspecting that directional flying might be related to flock size, the researches created different sized flocks that fell into three main categories: large, intermediate and small.

Comment: Also see: Human sheep: Study reveals flock mentality, how 5% can influence the crowd


Researchers explore the roles of water and temperature in the complex energy landscape of proteins

© Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO)
Water is an incredibly important component of any biological system and understanding its role is crucial when you are analysing biological activity at the macromolecular level, according to Bragg Institute Instrument Scientist, Kathleen Wood.

"We've been using nuclear techniques and other methods to clarify the role of water hydration in activating proteins," said Wood.

Proteins are important because they are large, complex molecules that have many crucial roles in the body. They are studied extensively in the life sciences because of their importance in health. Proteins can be folded into a complex three dimensional structure or exist without a single well-defined structure in their native state (intrinsically disordered).

Comment: Also see: Your DNA is a song: Scientists use music to code proteins


Boeing space taxi: Commercial human spaceflight to the ISS by 2017

© Boeing /
Boeing CST-100 crew capsule flying to the International Space Station as part of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability agreement with NASA in this artists concept.
NASA ordered the first ever commercial human spaceflight mission from Boeing. NASA's Commercial Crew Program (CCP) office gave the first commercial crew rotation mission award to the Boeing Company to launch its CST-100 astronaut crew capsule to the ISS by late 2017, so long as the company satisfactorily meets all of NASA's human spaceflight certification milestones.

Thus begins the history making new era of commercial human spaceflight. "This occasion will go in the books of Boeing's nearly 100 years of aerospace and more than 50 years of space flight history," said John Elbon, vice president and general manager of Boeing's Space Exploration division, in a statement. "We look forward to ushering in a new era in human space exploration."

Boeing was awarded a $4.2 Billion contract in September 2014 by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to complete development and manufacture of the CST-100 'space taxi' under the agency's Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program and NASA's Launch America initiative.

Comment: Atlas V (401) rocket configuration, powered by the Russian RD-180 engine:

© Spaceflight101


Mystery moon swirls caused by blasts of comet gas?

© NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University
This NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter observation shows the vast swirls of Reiner Gamma in the Oceanus Procellarum region of the moon, to the west of the crater Reiner. Scientists have long pondered the origin of these swirl patters and others like them and new computer simulations point to cometary impacts being a possible cause.
Strange bright swirls have long been known to exist on the moon's surface and their origin is steeped in mystery. Often stretching thousands of miles across the lunar landscape, scientists have tried to make connections with the elegant curved shapes with the moon's interior magnetism or interactions between moon dirt and the solar wind, but these explanations have fallen short.

Now, inspired by the Apollo moon landings and armed with a powerful computer model, researchers at Brown University think they have an alternative answer for these swirly patterns.

Over the past 100 million years, many small comets impacted the moon's pockmarked surface. Along with the icy nuclei that carved craters into the moon rock, the gaseous comet atmospheres — known as a comet's coma — would have also blasted into the moon's uppermost layer of regolith, possibly leaving the swirly imprint.

"We think this makes a pretty strong case that the swirls represent remnants of cometary collisions," said planetary geoscientist Peter Schultz, at Brown University.

Eye 1

China's biometric ATMs have world-wide implications

© occupy corporatism
In what has become a common refrain in all security circles, the elimination of privacy is a necessary tool needed to provide a solution.

China is invoking the threat of financial fraud to usher in a new system of facial recognition ATMs that not only will link to an "identity database" but also will scan cash for counterfeit currency.
The facial recognition ATM won't let people withdraw cash unless their face is matched with their IDs. The ATM machine has a camera installed on it which does the task by comparing people's face with their photo which is stored in its database.
According to reports the machine allows currency exchanges. It also records the serial number of every note deposited by clients to identify fake bank notes. (emphasis added)
Perhaps it would seem appropriate that China would take first place in implementing a centralized ID database with a link to financial transactions, but the development of biometric IDs for transacting business and monitoring movements is a global initiative a long time in the making.


Which animal kills the most people?

© Marsel Van Oosten
A lion attack in South Africa has raised alarm, but the world's deadliest animal is considerably smaller

The death of an American tourist in a horrific lion attack in South Africa on Monday was a stark reminder of the dangers that can be posed by wildlife.

But while terrifying, attacks by lions on humans are quite rare. Fewer than 100 people are killed by lions each year.

Black Cat 2

Cats make children stupid, study suggests

© Alamy
Cats could make children stupid, say researchers.
Researchers find parasite that grows in guts of cats is linked to reduced memory and reading skills in children.

Cats could be making children stupid, according to research that links a parasite carried by the animals with falling reading and memory aptitude in young people.

A study has found performance at school could be affected by Toxoplasma gondii, a single-celled organism that infects about a third of the world's population and hides in cells in the brain and muscles, often without producing symptoms.

Researchers found the parasite, which grows in the guts of cats and can be spread through contact with faeces, has been linked to reduced memory and reading skills in school-aged children.

Previous research had already linked the parasite to brain tumours in animals. There is also other evidence that Toxoplasma gondii has effects on the brain leading to changes in behaviour.

However, the latest study by scientists at the University of Iowa and Florida International University suggests Toxoplasma gondii could be having a greater impact than previously thought.

It suggests children who tested positive for the parasite had poorer reading and memory scores in cognitive test, but that vitamin E could help reduce the effects.

Fireball 5

New asteroid discovered - Amor Asteroid (2015 KQ154)

The MPEC 2015-K126 issued on May 28, 2015 announced the discovery of a new Amor-type asteroid officially designated 2015 KQ154. This asteroid (~ magnitude 16) was discovered by C. Jacques, E. Pimentel & J. Barros through a 0.28-m f/2.2 astrograph + CCD telescope of SONEAR Observatory (MPC code Y00), on images obtained on May 25.1, 2015.

According to the preliminay orbit, 2015 KQ154 is an Amor type asteroid. Amor asteroids are a group of Near-Earth objects with orbits similar to that of 1221 Amor (1.017 AU < q < 1.3 AU). They approach the orbit of Earth from beyond, but do not cross it. Most Amors do cross the orbit of Mars. Click on the image below to see the orbit types of the different groups of Near-Earth asteroids.
© Remanzacco Observatory
We performed some follow-up measurements of this object on 2015, May 28.4, remotely from the U69 MPC code (iTelescope network - Auberry California) through a 0.61-m f/6.5 astrograph + CCD. Here you can see an animation showing the fast movement of 2015 KQ154 on the the sky on May 28, 2015 (it was moving at 8.35 "/min). Each frame is a single 10-second exposure (East is up, North is to the right).

Congrats to SONEAR team for the discovery of 2015 KQ154, that is the thirteenth Near Earth Object discovered by their survey.


Giant sawfish have virgin births, rewrite biology textbooks

© Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC)
The toothy snout of a juvenile smalltooth sawfish in Florida's Charlotte Harbor estuarine system.
To the surprise of scientists, giant endangered fish with sawlike snouts in Florida are experiencing virgin births, reproducing without sex. This is the first solid evidence of such asexual reproduction in the wild for any animal with a backbone, scientists added.

Asexual reproduction is often seen among invertebrates — that is, animals without backbones. It happens rarely in vertebrates, but instances are increasingly being discovered — only observed to survive in captivity previously. For example, the Komodo dragon, the world's largest living lizard, has given birth via parthenogenesis, in which an unfertilized egg develops to maturity. Such virgin births have also been seen in sharks, in birds such as chickens and turkeys, and in snakes such as pit vipers and boa constrictors. Such virgin-born offspring are known as parthenogens.

Until now, evidence of parthenogenesis in vertebrates came nearly entirely from captive animals, usually surprising their keepers by giving birth despite the fact that they had not had any mates. Scientists had recently found two female snakes in the wild that were each pregnant with progeny that developed via parthenogenesis, but it was not known if these parthenogens would have survived. As such, it remained uncertain whether virgin births happened to any significant extent in nature.

Now scientists find that among smalltooth sawfish, progeny of virgin births do regularly live in the wild. These fish are critically endangered relatives of sharks. [Watch the 'Virgin Birth' Baby Sawfish (Video)]

"Vertebrate animals that we always thought were restricted to reproducing via sex in the wild actually have another option that does not involve sex," study co-author Demian Chapman, a marine biologist at Stony Brook University in New York, told Live Science. "Rare species, like those that are endangered or colonizing a new habitat, may be the ones that are doing it most often. Life finds a way."


First 3D movie of plasma tubes surrounding Earth

© CAASTRO/Mats Bjorkland
An artist impression of the tubular plasma structures.
Astronomers in Australia have detected the existence of tubular plasma structures in the inner layers of the magnetosphere surrounding Earth - and made a 3D movie of them.

Earth's magnetic field is filled with plasma created by the atmosphere being ionized by sunlight. The innermost layer of the magnetosphere is the ionosphere, and above that is the plasmasphere.

They are embedded with a variety of strangely shaped plasma structures including the tubes, as University of Sydney researchers and international colleagues have now proved. Leading the research was undergraduate student Cleo Loi.

"For over 60 years, scientists believed these structures existed but by imaging them for the first time, we've provided visual evidence that they are really there," said Ms. Loi of the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO) and School of Physics at the University of Sydney.

"The discovery of the structures is important because they cause unwanted signal distortions that could, as one example, affect our civilian and military satellite-based navigation systems. So we need to understand them," Ms. Loi added.

"We measured their position to be about 600 kilometers above the ground, in the upper ionosphere, and they appear to be continuing upwards into the plasmasphere. This is around where the neutral atmosphere ends, and we are transitioning to the plasma of outer space," she explained.