Science & Technology


Unique organic molecule discovered forming in deep space gas cloud

© Agence France-Presse/ NASA
​A new kind of organic molecule has been discovered in a giant gas cloud in interstellar space, indicating that more complex molecules - the very core building blocks of life - can potentially form outside of the Earth and even be widespread in space.

The analysis of a star-forming gas cloud some 27,000 light years away from Earth, published in the journal Science, detected an iso-propyl cyanide molecule with a unique structure that is common in life-forming molecules, such as amino acids.

While finding a simple organic chemical in space is nothing new, a carbon-bearing molecule with a branched structure has been discovered for the first time, indicating that biologically crucial molecules can form not only on Earth, but in deep space too.

"This detection suggests that branched carbon-chain molecules may be generally abundant in the ISM [interstellar medium]," the study's abstract reads.

The scientists - Dr Arnaud Belloche of the Max Planck Institute for Radioastronomy and his colleagues - found the molecule in a gas cloud called Sagittarius B2 - the "star factory" near the center of the Milky Way where many new stars are formed.

© Reuters/ESA/Hubble & NASA
The team used the 12 telescopes of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), in Chile, to make its observations.

"Amino acids on Earth are the building blocks of proteins, and proteins are very important for life as we know it. The question in the background is: is there life somewhere else in the galaxy?" Belloche told the BBC.

"Our goal is to search for new complex organic molecules in the interstellar medium," he said.

And the evidence suggests their presence could actually be widespread.

Bash bug 'Shellshock' threatens millions of computer systems worldwide

© Reuters / Kacper Pempel
A vulnerability has been discovered within the widely used Bash software included on Linux and Mac operating systems, raising concerns about an exploit that some experts say stands to be more damaging than the Heartbleed bug identified earlier this year.

Researchers revealed on Wednesday this week that a bug has been spotted in Bash - a command-line shell developed in the 1980s and common to Linux and Unix systems - the likes of which may allow attackers to target computers and, if successful, run malicious codes that could let them take control of entire servers pertaining to potentially millions of machines.

But while the so-called Heartbleed bug found in April allowed hackers to spy on vulnerable systems due to a previously undiscovered flaw in the open-source encryption software called OpenSSL, security experts say already that the Bash exploit - being referred to as "Shellshock" - is more severe because exploiting it could allow attackers to seize systems that are vulnerable by running unauthorized code that, in a worst case scenario, gives them full privileges on the plundered machine.

"The method of exploiting this issue is also far simpler," Dan Guido, the chief executive of a cybersecurity firm Trail of Bits, told Reuters on Wednesday this week of the differences. "You can just cut and paste a line of code and get good results."

After discovery of Shellshock was identified by researcher Stephane Schazelas on Wednesday, the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team, or US-CERT, acknowledged the severity of the issue by releasing a statement warning that "exploitation of this vulnerability may allow a remote attacker to execute arbitrary code on an affected system."

No single 'missing link' found in dinosaur-to-bird evolution process

© Thinkstock
While paleontologists previously believed that the 150-million-year-old Archaeopteryx, the earliest known bird, marked a massive evolutionary leap forward, research conducted over the past 20 years indicates that the avian characteristics had started showing up in dinosaurs far earlier.
The early stages of the process through which birds evolved from dinosaurs was slow and gradual, and there was no single "missing link" separating the two different types of creatures, according to research published in Thursday's edition of the journal Current Biology.

Lead author Dr. Stephen Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and his colleagues analyzed the anatomical make-up of more than 850 body features in 150 extinct species in order to map the evolutionary journey from meat-eating dinosaurs to ancient birds. Based on the fossil records, they found that the emergence of birds took place bit-by-bit over the course of 150 million years.

"There was no moment in time when a dinosaur became a bird, and there is no single missing link between them," Dr. Brusatte said in a statement. "What we think of as the classic bird skeleton was pieced together gradually over tens of millions of years. Once it came together fully, it unlocked great evolutionary potential that allowed birds to evolve at a super-charged rate."

"Our study adds to a growing number of works that approach this problem from different angles, but all seem to confirm that the origin of birds was a truly special event in Earth history," added Dr. Graeme Lloyd, a lecturer at the University of Oxford. "It is particularly cool that it is evidence from the fossil record that shows how an oddball offshoot of the dinosaurs paved the way for the spectacular variety of bird species we see today."
Magic Wand

Alien origin: Water on Earth predates Sun, meaning our life originated elsewhere

© Reuters / Marcos Brindicci
Science relies on signs of water to tell a story of how a celestial body or its region came to be. Now it appears our own solar system holds water older than itself, which could have dramatic consequences for our search for alien life.

To explain this new theory, a previously long-held conception of star formation needs to be examined.

Each star is forged from materials found in its own interstellar molecular cloud.

It also surrounds it with a protoplanetary disk, or a solar nebula - a belt from which its planets are born. Previous research was uncertain whether the ice in this disk comes from open space or is formed in a chemical reaction by the star's own processes after the previous building blocks of water are evaporated.

That uncertainty is now gone and we can say that our own life is not the result of activity created within the protoplanetary disk at all.
Eye 2

Google mounting defenses to fight biggest wiretap case in U.S. history

google street view
© Getty
Data from two hard drives locked up in the San Francisco federal courthouse may make or break an effort to hold Google Inc. (GOOG) to account for what privacy advocates call an unprecedented corporate wiretapping case.

If 22 people who sued the company can pinpoint their personal data in a massive cache of communications that Google's Street View cars captured from private Wi-Fi networks, their lawyers may be able to seek billions of dollars of damages from the the world's largest search engine owner.

If they come up empty-handed, an outcome the company that pioneered search optimization is betting on, the case will join a stack of failed privacy lawsuits accusing Google, Apple Inc. (AAPL), Facebook Inc. (FB) and other technology companies of tracking, capturing or sharing personal information.

"You have to show that you were the victim," said Susan Freiwald, a law professor at University of San Francisco School of Law. "If they don't, then why should they get money?"

Scientist claims to mathematically prove there are no black holes

An American physicist claims she has mathematically refuted the existence of black holes in our universe. The new theory combines Steve Hawking's radiation theory with quantum theory's fundamental law that no information ever disappears from the universe.
spiral galaxy
© Reuters/NASA
One of the lowest mass supermassive black holes ever observed in the middle of a galaxy located in the middle of the spiral galaxy NGC 4178, is shown in this image from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey
Professor Laura Mersini-Houghton from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill maintains she managed to merge two seemingly contradicting theories, Einstein's theory of gravity and a fundamental law of quantum theory.

While Einstein's theory predicts the formation of black holes, the quantum theory law says that no information from the universe can ever disappear, in an attempt to resolve the so-called 'information law paradox.'

Until now modern science generally believed that a black hole forms from a massive star that collapses under its own gravity into a single spot in space the astronomers call a singularity, surrounded by the event horizon that neither light nor energy could escape from. Three decades ago renowned physicist Stephen Hawking proposed that black holes could emit radiation. Hawking's hypothesis, made in 1974, was based on quantum mechanics.

Mersini-Houghton agrees with Hawking on the radiation being given off by a collapsed star for a certain period of time, yet she also insists that by emitting radiation the star also loses too much of its mass right to the point when formation of a singularity - and a black hole - is impossible.

Brazil releases GM mosquitoes to combat dengue fever

genetically modified mosquitoes
© Alamy
Thousands of British made genetically engineered mosquitoes were released by Brazilian researchers in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday infected with bacteria that suppress dengue fever.

The hope is they will multiply, breed and become the majority of mosquitoes, thus reducing cases of the disease.

The British biotech firm Oxitec has altered the DNA of the Aedes aegypti mosquito to prevent it from spreading the potentially deadly virus.

Oxitec's new factory in the Brazilian city of Campinas, outside Sao Paulo, is the first in the world to launch production of genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes to target dengue.

The mosquitoes, which Oxitec has dubbed OX513A, have been bred to carry a sort of genetic self-destruct mechanism that causes their offspring to die before they reach sexual maturity, preventing them from reproducing.

The Oxford-based biotech firm found the perfect way to cut down on the world's malaria and dengue numbers - create and release genetically engineered mosquitoes which are sterile and unable to reproduce.

Comment: Comment: If the male mosquitoes are sterile and unable to reproduce, how do they pass the self-destruct gene onto their offspring? Illogic aside, only time will tell the results of this idiotic experiment. Don't mess with mother nature.

Solar Flares

Solar explosions inside a computer

solar flare
© Credit: Nasa/SDO
This solar flare was shot with one of the cameras on the NASA SDO satellite on 10 June 2014.
Strong solar flares can bring down communications and power grids on Earth. By demonstrating how these gigantic eruptions are caused, ETH physicists are laying the foundations for future predictions.

The shorter the interval between two explosions in the solar atmosphere, the more likely it is that the second flare will be stronger than the first one. ETH Professor Hans Jürgen Herrmann and his team have been able to demonstrate this, using model calculations. The amount of energy released in solar flares is truly enormous - in fact, it is millions of times greater than the energy produced in volcanic eruptions. Strong explosions cause a discharge of mass from the outer part of the solar atmosphere, the corona. If a coronal mass ejection hits the earth, it can cause a geomagnetic storm. Heavy storms can disrupt satellites, radio traffic and electrical plants. When in autumn 2003 one of the strongest solar eruptions in history was registered, there was a power failure in southern Sweden and air traffic had to be redirected as communications above the Polar Regions broke down.

ETH scientists have examined the processes that take place when explosions occur on the Sun's surface. They were able to accurately reconstruct the statistical size distribution and temporal succession of the solar flares with a computer model. "The agreement with measurements from satellites is striking", state the researchers in the scientific journal Nature Communications. Hans Herrmann, Professor at the Institute for Building Materials, reveals that the Sun was not actually his subject of focus at all. The theoretical physicist and expert in computer physics has developed a method to examine phenomena from a range of diverse fields. Similar patterns to those in solar flares can also be found in earthquakes, avalanches or the stock market.

India's maiden Mars mission successful

A Panoramic View of the Mars Orbiter Spacecraft Control Centre at ISRO during the Trans Mars Injection Manoeuvre
India's maiden mission to Mars, the Mangalyaan, or Mars Orbiter Mission successfully entered the red planet's orbit on Wednesday morning.

Scientists from the Indian Space and Research Organisation fired the spacecraft's main liquid engine to align it to Mars' orbit. India's space agency, ISRO has an annual budget of $1.1 billion, one-seventeenth of its US counterpart NASA's.

"We congratulate ISRO for its Mars arrival! @MarsOrbiter joins the missions studying the Red Planet," tweeted NASA on Wednesday. NASA's latest Mars mission cost $671 million.

India has now become the first country to succeed on its first Mars mission, with a record-low budget of $74 million, and also the first in Asia to reach Mars. Mangalyaan aims to explore Mars surface features, morphology, mineralogy and search for methane in the Martian atmosphere using indigenous scientific instruments.

Strange new type of brain cell discovered

New Type of Brain Cell
© Alexei V. Egorov, 2014
A neuron with an axon protruding directly from a dendrite rather than from the cell body. Signals to this dendrite are forwarded more effectively than signals to other dendrites on the cell.
The discovery of a new shape of brain cell has neuroscientists scratching their heads over what the function of these neurons might be.

Though neurons come in different shapes and sizes, the basic blueprint consists of a cell body, from which protrudes spindly appendages called dendrites and axons. Dendrites are branchlike structures that receive signals from other nerve cells and deliver them to the cell body. The neuron then processes the signals and zaps along information to the next cell via a long projection called the axon.

At least, that's how it normally works. The newly discovered cells have a different, and until now, unknown process. In these cells, the signals skip the cell body altogether, instead traveling along an axon that projects directly from one of the dendrites.

"We found that in more than half of the cells, the axon does not emerge from the cell body, but arises from a lower dendrite," study researcher Christian Thome, a neuroscientist at Heidelberg University and the Bernstein Center Heidelberg-Mannheim, said in a statement.