Science & Technology


Menopausal killer whales hold key to family's survival

© David Ellifrit Center for Whale Research
Killer whale family: a menopausal mother and son.
Old female killer whales use their ecological wisdom to help their families through tough times, a new study has found.

The research by Dr Lauren Brent from the University of Exeter's Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour and colleagues from both the United Kingdom and United States, also sheds new light on the role of menopause in human populations.

"Biologically-speaking, menopause is bizarre," Dr Brent explains, adding that most animals die around the same time they stop reproducing.

"Killer whales (Orcinus orca) are one of just three species - alongside humans and short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) - where females continue to live for many years after giving birth to their last baby. Female killer whales stop reproducing in their 30s-40s, but can survive into their 90s."

Males, however, rarely live beyond 50.

It was believed that the benefit of menopause to both human and killer whale mothers lies in spreading their genes, which they do by helping their relatives survive and reproduce. But just how older females help their relatives was a mystery.

"One idea is that wisdom accumulates with age and that old females store vital information about the environment, which they share with their relatives to help them during environmental hardships," Brent says.

The researchers analysed more than 750 hours of video footage of resident killer whale family groups, whose relatedness and family history have been studied since 1976 in the coastal waters of British Columbia and Washington. In resident killer whales, family groups don't disperse, although males leave temporarily to breed with females from other populations.

They found that females who are past the age of last reproduction are more likely to lead their families as they travel around foraging grounds, compared with adult males, especially in years when Chinook salmon, their main food resource, is in short supply.

Males in the population were more likely to follow the experienced females than females. This supports other research showing that sons in a family group have a higher probability of dying following the death of their post-reproductively aged mother - and therefore have more to gain from her wisdom.

"These findings suggest that menopausal females may boost the survival of their relatives through the transfer of ecological knowledge, which may help explain why female killer whales continue to live long after they have stopped reproducing," Brent says.

The study was published today in Current Biology.


Snowflakes aren't like we think, 3D images reveal

© Credit: Calle Fallgatter
Using a two-camera system, the researchers can capture images in stereo. Even without special tools, if you look at the center of the image and unfocus your eyes, the two images merge into one, creating the illusion of a three dimensional ice crystal.
You've heard that no two snowflakes are alike, but it gets even more complicated: The two sides of the same snowflake aren't even alike. Now, researchers using a cutting-edge 3D camera are able to use these imperfections to update estimates of road slickness and other storm impacts, improving winter weather warnings in real time and saving lives.

VIDEO: In the late 1800's, Wilson Bentley and Gustav Hellmann began photographing snowflakes. However each of their photos revealed entirely different representations of snowflakes. How could nature present two different forms of snowflakes? Today, University of Utah engineer Cale Fallgatter and atmospheric scientist Tim Garrett are helping to solve that mystery with the use of a new camera system that photographs free-falling snowflakes.
The popular myth that snowflakes are symmetrical originated with Wilson Bentley in 1885. Only 20 years old, Bentley came up with the idea to connect a microscope and a camera to photograph the ice crystals of snowflakes. Those photos showed symmetrical snowflakes, but the technique was imprecise.

Comment: A snowflake revelation! Fluffy or sticky...we gotta know!

Fireball 2

Telescope observed rapid changes in a Comet Lovejoy's plasma tail

Figure 1:This GIF animation shows changes in the global structure of Comet Lovejoy's (C/2013 R1) plasma tail. There are three, 2-minute exposures taken in the I-band. The image is aligned so that the nucleus of the comet is at the same position and the tail lies vertically. The time stamp at the bottom right shows the start time of each exposure in Hawai'i time on the morning of December 4, 2013. Bright parts of the sky are shown as black, and dark parts are shown as white, allowing astronomers to see details in the object more clearly. The white tilted grid is a gap between CCD detectors. In the image, the tail narrows with time, especially downstream of the nucleus (which is at the bottom of the image). Moreover, two clumps were detected forming formed at about 0.3 million kilometers from the nucleus. They drifted toward downstream about 20 - 25 kilometers per second (Figure 2).
Images from a December 2013 observation of the comet C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy) reveal clear details about rapidly changing activity in that comet's plasma tail. To get this image, astronomers used Subaru Telescope's wide-field prime-focus Suprime-Cam to zero in on 0.8 million kilometers of the comet's plasma tail, which resulted in gaining precious knowledge regarding the extreme activity in that tail as the comet neared the Sun. Their results are reported this week in a paper in the March 2015 edition of the Astronomical Journal.

Team of researchers from National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, Stony Brook University (The State University of New York) and Tsuru University reported highly resolved find details of this comet captured in B-band in 2013 (Subaru Telescope's Image Captures the Intricacy of Comet Lovejoy's Tail). They used I-band filter which includes H2O+ line emissions and the V-band filter which includes CO+ and H2O+ line emissions. During the observations, the comet exhibited very rapid changes in its tail in the course of only 20 minutes (Figure 1). Such extreme short-term changes are the result of the comet's interactions with the solar wind, which consists of charged particles constantly sweeping out from the Sun. The reason for the rapidity of these changes is not well understood.

Dr. Jin Koda, the principal investigator of these nights, says "My research is on galaxies and cosmology, so I rarely observe comets. But Lovejoy was up in the sky after my targets were gone on our observing nights, and we started taking images for educational and outreach purposes. The single image from the previous night revealed such delicate details along the tail it inspired us further to take a series of images on the following night. As we analyzed the images, we realized that the tail was displaying rapid motion in a matter of only a few minutes! It was just incredible!"

Comment: Mainstream science still clings to its original conceptions about comets, despite increasing evidence coming in from Rosetta (see comment above) and other sources that indicate comets and other such bodies are 'electrical' in nature.

Electric Comet Theory: The Enduring - Yet Downplayed - Mysteries of Comets

The True Origins of Electric Comet Theory

Electric Universe: Where Do Asteroids Come From?


Scientists discover smallest lifeforms in existence

Scientists have taken the first ever extensive microscopy images of ultra-small bacteria, which are so far thought to be the smallest life forms in existence.

The bacteria have an average volume of 0.009 cubic microns (a micron is one millionth of a meter), 150,000 of which could be placed on the tip of a human hair.

Ultra-small bacteria's presence has been under debate for some twenty years, but until now they lacked a comprehensive electron microscopy and DNA-based description.

The research was carried out by a group of scientists from the US Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley, and was published in the February 27 edition of the journal Nature Communications.

"These newly described ultra-small bacteria are an example of a subset of the microbial life on earth that we know almost nothing about," said the co-corresponding author of the research, Jill Banfield, a senior faculty scientist in the earth sciences division of Berkeley Lab.

Comment: This discovery makes one wonder - are there other planets that house these ultra-small organisms? There might not be such a slim chance of life on other planets as we are led to believe.


New research validates chronic fatigue sufferers

In new report, committee recommends name change to help erase the stigma associated with debilitating disease

© Jae S. Lee / The Tennessean
Esther Siebert, who has chronic fatigue syndrome, moved to Nashville from California a year ago. She still travels back to California for treatment, having no luck finding an internist locally who can help.
Esther Siebert, 67, has been living with a draining and debilitating disease for nearly 30 years, one that is only just recently being widely recognized as something real. Most commonly called chronic fatigue syndrome, it is a disease many doctors have been unable to diagnose, while many sufferers have been made to feel it was all in their head.

Siebert, who moved to Nashville from California a year ago, was lucky that her condition was recognized very early on by an understanding doctor. That isn't always the case.

Comment: The Stigma of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Hits Teens, Too


Space-walking astronaut tweets photos that reveal the breathtaking size of the space station

Astronaut Terry Virts
Two U.S. astronauts whipped through a third spacewalk outside the International Space Station on Sunday to rig parking spots for new U.S. space taxis.

Station commander Barry "Butch" Wilmore and flight engineer Terry Virts expected to spend about seven hours installing antennas, cables and navigation aides on the station's exterior truss. Instead, the astronauts, who were making their third spacewalk in eight days, were back inside the space station in 5.5 hours.

The purpose of the outings was to prepare berthing slips for spaceships being developed by Boeing and Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX.

Wilmore and Virts floated outside the Quest airlock shortly after 7 a.m., a NASA Television broadcast showed. Their job was to install more than 400 feet (122 meters) of cables, a pair of antennas and reflectors that the new spaceships will use to navigate toward and dock with the station, a $100 billion laboratory that flies about 260 miles (418 km) above Earth.


The dark side of the Internet of Things

© Welleman
Can you imagine a world where your home, your vehicles, your appliances and every single electronic device that you own is constantly connected to the Internet? This is not some grand vision that is being planned for some day in the future. This is something that is being systematically implemented right now. In 2015, we already have "smart homes", vehicles that talk to one another, refrigerators that are connected to the Internet, and televisions that spy on us. Our world is becoming increasingly interconnected, and that opens up some wonderful possibilities. But there is also a downside. What if we rapidly reach a point where one must be connected to the Internet in order to function in society? Will there come a day when we can't even do basic things such as buy, sell, get a job or open a bank account without it? And what about the potential for government abuse? Could an "Internet of Things" create a dystopian nightmare where everyone and everything will be constantly monitored and tracked by the government? That is something to think about.

Today, the Internet has become such an integral part of our lives that it is hard to remember how we ever survived without it. And with each passing year, the number of devices connected to the Internet continues to grow at an exponential rate. If you have never heard of the "Internet of Things" before, here is a little bit about it from Wikipedia...

Comment: What will you do when you can no longer buy or sell without submitting to biometric identification?


What is the fourth phase of water?

University of Washington Bioengineering Professor Gerald Pollack answers this question, and intrigues us to consider the implications of this finding. Not all water is H2O, a radical departure from what you may have learned from textbooks.

Dr. Gerald Pollack, University of Washington professor of bioengineering, has developed a theory of water that has been called revolutionary. He has spent the past decade convincing worldwide audiences that water is not actually a liquid.

Dr. Pollack received his PhD in biomedical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania in 1968. He then joined the University of Washington faculty and is now professor of bioengineering. For years, Dr. Pollack had researched muscles and how they contract. It struck him as odd that the most common ideas about muscle contraction did not involve water, despite the fact muscle tissue consists of 99 percent water molecules.

Water Research happens at Pollack Laboratories, which states, "Our orientation is rather fundamental -- we are oriented toward uncovering some of nature's most deeply held secrets, although applications interest us as well."

Uncovering nature's secrets involving water is what Dr. Pollack, his staff and students do best.

In his 2001 book, Cells, Gels and the Engines of Life, Dr. Pollack explains how the cell functions. Research suggests that much of the cell biology may be governed by a single unifying mechanism - the phase transition. Water is absolutely central to every function of the cell - whether it's muscle contraction, cells dividing, or nerves conducting, etc.

This extraordinary book challenges many of the concepts that have been accepted in contemporary cell biology. The underlying premise of this book is that a cell's cytoplasm is gel-like rather than an ordinary aqueous solution.


Cluster of stars found forming at edge of Milky Way

If alien life existed on the planets orbiting these stars, they would have views of a portion, or all, of the galactic disk.
A cluster of stars forming at the edge of our very own Milky Way galaxy has been discovered by a team of Brazilian astronomers using data collected from the NASA Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), the US space agency announced on Friday.

These stars live on the edge

"A stellar nursery in what seems to be the middle of nowhere is quite surprising," said Peter Eisenhardt, the project scientist for the WISE mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena. "But surprises turn up when you look everywhere, as the WISE survey did."

The team of astronomers responsible for the discovery, led by Denilso Camargo of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre, have published their findings in a recent issue of the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The Milky Way has a barred spiral shape, with arms of stars, dust and gas emerging from a central bar, the researchers explained. When it is viewed from the side, the galaxy appears to be relatively flat, with the majority of the material in a disk and in the central area.

Stars form within dense clumps of gas in what are known as giant molecular clouds (GMCs). These GMCs are primarily located in the inner part of the galactic disk, and with many clumps within each of these clouds, the majority of stars are born together in clusters.


So long transistor, hello memristor: How this could revolutionize electronics

In 1971, a physicist conceptualized the existence of a fourth fundamental element in the electronic circuit, besides the three that were already in use at the time.

His name was Leon Chua and he believed -- for reasons of symmetry -- that an extra component could one day be constructed to join the resistor, the capacitor and the inductor.

He called it "memristor", a portmanteau of the words memory and resistor.

It took 37 years for our engineering abilities to catch up with that idea: the first memristor was built by Hewlett Packard in 2008.

And today, many researchers believe it could spark a revolution in computing.