Science & Technology


Three rare celestial events in one day: Solar eclipse, Supermoon and Spring equinox

© Independent
As the eclipse plunges the UK and other places into darkness this Friday, two other rare if less spectacular celestial events will be taking place, too: a Supermoon and the Spring equinox.

A Supermoon, or perigee moon, happens when the full or new moon does its closest fly-by of the Earth, making it look bigger than it normally does. And the spring equinox refers to the time of the year when the day and night are of equal duration, mid-way between the longest and shortest days.

The solar eclipse refers to a phenomenon where the sun and moon line up, so that the latter obscures the former. And while it won't be affected by the two other events, it is rare that the three events happen even individually.


Most of the time, there are between three and six Supermoons a year. There is set to be six in 2015, two of which have already happened. The next will take place on March 20, the day of the eclipse, and the others will come in August, September and October.

Eclipses can only happen at new moon, when the moon appears is entirely in shadow. And the spectacular Supermoon images that are often spotted can only happen when the moon is full, since it can only be seen then.

As a result, only the last three Supermoons of this year will be visible — because the moon is new rather than full on March 20, it won't be seen. But it will be gliding past us closer than ever, and its shadow will be visible as it blocks out the sun on Friday morning.

Green Light

Artificial night time lighting has wide ranging affects on plants and insects

Artificial night time light from sources such as street lamps affects the growth and flowering of plants and even the number of insects that depend on those plants for food, a study published today confirms.

The research shows that light pollution can impact the natural environment in complex ways that may be hard to predict. Due to the global extent of artificial light at night, there are concerns that these ecological impacts may be widespread.

Researchers from the University of Exeter simulated the effects of street lighting on artificial grassland plots containing a community of invertebrates at night, exposing them to two different types of light treatment -- a 'white' light similar to newer commercial LED street lighting systems and an 'amber' light simulating the type of sodium street lamp still found in much of the UK.

The experiments investigated both top-down (driven by predators) and bottom-up (food or resource limited) effects of the lights on the population density of a species of pea aphid, and in the presence and absence of predators including ladybirds.

Comment: Now that we have the ability to keep lights burning around the clock, not only are humans becoming sleep deprived, but it appears this is having dire effects on our ecosystem in ways that science is only beginning to understand.


Bright nova in Sagittarius

Following the posting on the Central Bureau's Transient Object Confirmation Page about a possible bright Nova in Sgr (TOCP Designation: PNV J18365700-2855420) we performed some follow-up of this object remotely through a 0.61-m f/6.5 astrograph + CCD) of iTelescope network (MPC Code U69 - Auberry, California - USA).

On our images taken on March 16.5, 2015 we can confirm the presence of an optical counterpart with R-CCD magnitude 5.9 at coordinates:

R.A. = 18 36 56.85, Decl.= -28 55 40.0 (equinox 2000.0; UCAC-4 catalogue reference stars).

Our annotated confirmation image. Click on it for a bigger version.
© Remanzacco Observatory
An animation showing a comparison between our confirmation image and the archive POSS2/UKSTU plate (R Filter - 1996). Our image was obtained when the object was only about +15 degree on the horizon.

According to the Atel #7230 "an optical spectrum of PNV J18365700-2855420 (see CBAT TOCP) was obtained using the FRODOspec spectrograph on the Liverpool Telescope at 2015 March 16.27 UT. The spectrum shows strong Balmer series emission exhibiting P Cygni profiles with velocities of ~2800 km/s. Numerous Fe II emission lines (also with P Cygni profiles) are also seen, along with O I, Si II and Mg II features. This confirms that PNV J18365700-2855420 is a bright classical nova of the Fe II spectral type"


'Star Wars' like flying cars to hit skies by 2017

Slovak company AeroMobil has been developing a futuristic vision of real flying cars. Now, for the first time, its CEO put a proper timeline on the idea: the expensive toys are to hit the super-rich market by 2017, but quickly improve on specs and price.

The company itself has been around for five years, and past prototypes have existed, all getting ever closer to the technological requirements. This time around, at the Austin, Texas, annual South by Southwest (SXSW) conference on music, film and all things interactive, CEO Juraj Vaculik said he hopes to have a working model for "wealthy supercar buyers" in just two years, according to CBC News.

And that's not all. Next up, the flying cars will be auto-piloting you through city traffic - which is probably a lesser stretch of the imagination than the first news, given how self-driving technology has taken off recently.

Comment: Hopefully we will all be around to see this technology take off.
Here are some othe flying cars:


Chameleons' color-change secret revealed

The chameleon's uncanny ability to change color has long mystified people, but now the lizard's secret is out: Chameleons can rapidly change color by adjusting a layer of special cells nestled within their skin, a new study finds.

Unlike other animals that change color, such as the squid and octopus, chameleons do not modify their hues by accumulating or dispersing pigments within their skin cells, the researchers found. Instead, the lizards rely onstructural changes that affect how light reflects off their skin, the researchers said.

To investigate how the reptiles change color, researchers studied five adult male, four adult female and four juvenile panther chameleons (Furcifer pardalis), a type of lizard that lives in Madagascar. The scientists found that the chameleons had two superposed thick layers of iridophore cells — iridescent cells that have pigment and reflect light.

Comment: There are reportedly 180 species of chameleons, noted for stereoscopic vision, that live in a range of habitats from the rain forest to the desert.


Shape-shifting robot a step closer with development of unique gallium alloy

A metal alloy that powers its own movement and deforms to get through tight spots could let us to build a Terminator 2 style robot (minus homicidal tendencies)

Hasta la vista, baby. A real-life T-1000, the shape-shifting liquid-metal robot from Terminator 2, is a step closer, thanks to a self-powered liquid metal motor.

The device is surprisingly simple: just a drop of metal alloy made mostly of gallium - which is liquid at just under 30 °C - with some indium and tin mixed in. When placed in a solution of sodium hydroxide, or even brine, and kept in contact with a flake of aluminium for "fuel", it moves around for about an hour. It can travel in a straight line, run around the outside of a circular dish, or squeeze through complex shapes.

"The soft machine looks rather intelligent and [can] deform itself according to the space it voyages in, just like [the] Terminator does from the science-fiction film," says Jing Liu from Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. "These unusual behaviours perfectly resemble the living organisms in nature," he says, adding that they raise questions about the definition of life.

When they first saw the drop move, Liu and colleagues weren't sure how it was able to do so. Experiments revealed two mechanisms at play. Some of the thrust stems from a charge imbalance across the drop, which in turn creates a pressure differential between the front and the back that pushes it forward. The aluminium also reacts with the sodium hydroxide, releasing hydrogen bubbles which drive the drop even faster.


Free will? Same stimulus doesn't always produce same response, even in worms

Even worms have free will. If offered a delicious smell, for example, a roundworm will usually stop its wandering to investigate the source, but sometimes it won't.
Just as with humans, the same stimulus does not always provoke the same response, even from the same individual. New research at Rockefeller University, published online in Cell, offers a new neurological explanation for this variability, derived by studying a simple three-cell network within the roundworm brain.

"We found that the collective state of the three neurons at the exact moment an odor arrives determines the likelihood that the worm will move toward the smell. So, in essence, what the worm is thinking about at the time determines how it responds," says study author Cori Bargmann, Torsten N. Wiesel Professor, head of the Lulu and Anthony Wang Laboratory of Neural Circuits and Behavior. "It goes to show that nervous systems aren't passively waiting for signals from outside, they have their own internal patterns of activity that are as important as any external signal when it comes to generating a behavior."

The researchers went a step deeper to tease out the dynamics within the network. By changing the activity of the neurons individually and in combination, first author Andrew Gordus, a research associate in the lab, and his colleagues could pinpoint each neuron's role in generating variability in both brain activity and the behavior associated with it.

The human brain has 86 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses, or connections, among them. The brain of the microscopic roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans, by comparison, has 302 neurons and 7,000 synapses. So while the worm's brain cannot replicate the complexity of the human brain, scientists can use it to address tricky neurological questions that would be nearly impossible to broach in our own brains.


Another myth busted: No connection between hip width and efficient locomotion

Among the facts so widely assumed that they are rarely, if ever studied, is the notion that wider hips make women less efficient when they walk and run.

For decades, this assumed relationship has been used to explain why women don't have wider hips, which would make childbirth easier and less dangerous. The argument, known as the "obstetrical dilemma," suggests that for millions of years female humans and their bipedal ancestors have faced an evolutionary trade-off in which selection for wider hips for childbirth has been countered by selection for narrower hips for efficient locomotion.

A new study, however, shows that what was widely assumed to be fact is, in actuality, almost entirely incorrect.

A new study, conducted by researchers at Harvard in conjunction with colleagues at Boston University and Hunter College, found no connection between hip width and efficient locomotion, and suggests that scientists have long approached the problem in the wrong way. The study is described in a March 11 paper published in PLOS ONE.

"This idea, that pelvic width for birth and pelvic width for locomotion are connected, is deeply ingrained in this discipline," said Anna Warrener, first author of the study and a post-doctoral fellow working in the lab of Daniel Lieberman, the Edwin M. Lerner II Professor of Biological Sciences and Chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology. "Everyone thinks they know this is true...but it's wrong, and it's wrong for two reasons.First, the way we had modeled the forces involved didn't make sense. Second, we found that you can't predict, from the width of the pelvis, how much energy someone is using, so we've been looking at this biomechanical problem entirely wrong."

Comment: True science: "Good science is about taking a critical look at things we take for granted."

How true! Often dearly held "science" turns not to be as straight forward as claimed, and sometimes it is plainly wrong.


New bionic heart would work without beating

Scientists at the Texas Heart Institute claim that they are co-developing a bionic heart that can perfectly replicate the function of its biological counterpart, but without actually beating.

The researchers, who are working on the heart along with Houston-based private-sector medical research and engineering firm BiVACOR, told ABC News that the average human heart needs to beat 42 million times per year. An artificial heart that had all of the moving parts required to beat would wear out in a hurry, BiVACOR chief medical officer Dr. William Cohn said.

Like a soda can with magnets

The new bionic heart would only have one moving part and would transport blood through the body using magnets instead of pumping it, they explained. A prototype that has been used in large animals allows them to live for a month and even exercise on a treadmill for one month before they are culled to examine its impact on their brain and other organs.

"The device has performed in many respects better than any artificial heart anybody has come up with in the last 50 years," Cohn told ABC News, noting that he and his colleagues consider it the "first legitimate shot... for a permanent mechanical replacement for the failing human heart." He added that "kidney function, lung function, everything works beautifully throughout."

While the device, which is approximately half the size of a soda can, is implanted in a patient's chest, it has a battery-operated controller that remains outside his or her body, a recent Lubbock Online blog said. It features a spinning disk with fins suspended by a pair of magnetic fields that prevent it from touching anything, and rotates an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 times a minute.


The Milky Way galaxy may be more enormous than we ever imagined

How big is the Milky Way? Way bigger than we thought, it seems.

Surprising new research suggests that our home galaxy is about 50 percent bigger than previously thought, spanning some 150,000 light-years across rather than the 100,000 light-years that has been the generally accepted number.

We know quite a lot about the Milky Way, so how can it be that we're just now realizing that we were so wrong about its size? It turns out that what seemed to be concentric rings of stars surrounding our galaxy's bulging center are instead concentric ripples--and that means the galaxy doesn't end where we thought it did.

"If there are ripples, then it looks like the number of stars in the (presumed flat) disk drops off quickly, and then farther out where the disk ripples back up it looks like a detached ring of stars appears," Dr. Heidi Newberg, professor of physics, applied physics, and astronomy at Rensselaer Polytechnic University in Troy, NY, told The Huffington Post in an email. "We now understand that the galaxy didn't end; the disk is just going up and down--in and out of our view."
© Renssellaer polytechnic Institiute
Illustration showing the density of light in the Milky Way.