Science & Technology

Evil Rays

Infrasound: "There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres"

As thunderous tones deepen, their power seemingly intensifies over frail barriers such as glass windows. Certain abrupt thunder peals often shatter windows into tiny fragments. In the apparent absence of thunderous tones we may observe the strong and continuous vibration of glass window panes during storms. A sudden eerie silence, and the window is shattered before our eyes.

Natural phenomena are prodigious generators of infrasound. The potent distal effects produced when natural explosions occur produce legendary effects. When Krakatoa exploded, windows were shattered hundreds of miles away by the infrasonic wave. Wind was not the causative agent of these occurrences, as no wind was felt or detected. Seismographic stations registered the blast, and barometers measured the shockwaves. The "ringing" of both earth and atmosphere continued for hours. It is believed that infrasound actually formed the upper pitch of this natural volcanic explosion, tones unmeasurably deep forming the actual "central harmonic" of the event. The island of Krakatoa was literally lifted into orbit in the fatal blast. Brilliant sunsets followed for many years thereafter, the sad memorial of all the souls who perished.

The power of explosives, in shattering and devastating property, lies in two zones. The first zone is that with which we are principally familiar; the actual blast site, where chemically released gases and metal fragments push back everything in their perimeter. The second less familiar zone extends very much further from the blast site than can be imagined. It is in the powerful sonic wave which expands outward that an equally destructive danger lies. Thick pressure walls of incredible momentum, interspaced with equally thick walls of reduced air pressure, travel far away from the blast site. The blast site is the small destructive zone by comparison. Few objects can survive this destructive tide.

Sea turtles utilise Earth's magnetic field to find home

© J. Roger Brothers
A loggerhead sea turtle nests at the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge in Melbourne Beach, Florida.
Female sea turtles, known to swim thousands of miles before returning to their birthplace to lay eggs, find their way home by relying on unique magnetic signatures along the coast, a new study finds.

For more than 50 years, scientists have been mystified by how sea turtles do this, said the study's lead researcher, J. Roger Brothers, a graduate student of biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"Our results provide evidence that turtles imprint on the unique magnetic field of their natal beach as hatchlings, and then use this information to return as adults," Brothers said in a statement.

Comment: See also: Seals may use 'natural GPS'


New species of sulphate breathing bug discovered deep under ocean crust

© USC Dornsife
Researchers lowered this robolab complete with drill through two miles of ocean and bored through several hundred feet of ocean sediment and into the rock where the aquifer flows.
Two miles below the surface of the ocean, researchers have discovered new microbes that 'breathe' sulfate.

The microbes, which have yet to be classified and named, exist in massive undersea aquifers - networks of channels in porous rock beneath the ocean where water continually churns, researchers say.

About one-third of the Earth's biomass is thought to exist in this largely uncharted environment.

Astronomers are predicting at least two more large planets in the Solar System

Unknown Planets
© NASA/JPL-Caltech
At least two unknown planets could exist in our solar system beyond Pluto.
Could there be another Pluto-like object out in the far reaches of the Solar System? How about two or more?

Earlier this week, we discussed a recent paper from planet-hunter Mike Brown, who said that while there aren't likely to be any bright, easy-to-find objects, there could be dark ones "lurking far away." Now, a group of astronomers from the UK and Spain maintain at least two planets must exist beyond Neptune and Pluto in order to explain the orbital behavior of objects that are even farther out, called extreme trans-Neptunian objects (ETNO).

Welcome to the machine: People conform to norm, even if it's a computer

© Art Of Pic
Often enough, it is human nature to conform. This tendency makes us follow the lead of computers, even if the machines give us the wrong advice. This is the finding of a study in Springer's journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review that investigates how people make judgment calls after playing role-playing video games. The research was led by Ulrich Weger of the University of Witten/Herdecke in Germany.

Real-life encounters and face-to-face contact with other people are on the decline in a world that is becoming increasingly computerized. Many routine tasks are delegated to virtual characters. People spend hours role-playing through virtual-reality video games by taking on the persona of a virtual character or avatar.

Such video games can even lead people to acquire and practice real-life skills and new viewpoints. Weger and his fellow researchers therefore explored how role-playing video gaming influences social behavior and decision-making. Participants in their study first played an immersive game for seven minutes as an avatar. Afterwards, they completed a job selection task in which they had the option of overriding incorrect choices made by a computer.

It was found that role-playing as the avatar in an immersive video game, compared to merely watching others play, makes people identify with a computer. They do so to such an extent that they actually start to conform to its decisions and follow its judgment -- sometimes even if it is downright wrong. This shows that people conform, even when opinions are voiced by nonhuman agents. This is especially prevalent in ambiguous cases.

Your blood type may put you at risk for heart disease

Blood Type
© Lightspring/Shutterstock
People whose blood type is A, B or AB have an increased risk of heart disease and shorter life spans than people who have type O blood, according to a new study.

But that doesn't mean people with blood types other than O should be overly concerned, because heart disease risk and life span are influenced by multiple factors, including exercise and overall health, experts said.

In the study, researchers followed about 50,000 middle-age and elderly people in northeastern Iran for an average of seven years. They found that people with non-O blood types were 9 percent more likely to die during the study for any health-related reason, and 15 percent more likely to die from cardiovascular disease, compared with people with blood type O.

"It was very interesting to me to find out that people with certain blood groups - non-O blood groups - have a higher risk of dying of certain diseases," said the study's lead investigator, Dr. Arash Etemadi, an epidemiologist at the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

The researchers also examined whether people's blood type may be linked with their risk of gastric cancer, which has a relatively high incidence rate among the people living in northeastern Iran. They found that people with non-O blood types had a 55 percent increased risk of gastric cancer compared with people with type O blood, according to the study, published online today (Jan. 14) in the journal BMC Medicine.

The association between blood type and people's disease risk and life span held even when the researchers accounted for other factors, including age, sex, smoking, socioeconomic status and ethnicity.

Previous studies have shown that people with non-O blood types may be at higher risk of certain cancers and cardiovascular disease, but it was less clear whether blood type is linked with life span, Etemadi told Live Science.

How well can information be stored over time?

Plot of the transmissivity
© Mancini, et al. CC-BY-3.0
Plot of the transmissivity, η, of information as it travels through spacetime, shown as a function of the momentum, k, with which the universe expands.

Information can never be stored perfectly. Whether on a CD, a hard disk drive, or a piece of papyrus, technological imperfections create noise that limits the preservation of information over time. But even if you had a perfect storage medium with zero imperfections, there would still be fundamental limits placed on information storage due to the laws of physics that govern the evolution of the universe ever since the Big Bang. But what exactly these fundamental limits are is still unclear.

In a new paper published in the New Journal of Physics, Stefano Mancini and Roberto Pierini at the University of Camerino and INFN in Italy, along with Mark M. Wilde at Louisiana State University, have investigated these fundamental limits to preserving information on a literally cosmic scale.

Specifically, they wanted to know how well a given amount of information can be preserved from the beginning to the end of time, with limitations only from physical laws and not technological imperfections in the specific storage medium.

"The motivation that has led us to consider this goal, though it may appear unrealistic, was the discovery of ultimate limitations in information processing," Mancini told "Above all, we want to try to understand if and how spacetime dynamics affects information storage."

Comment: For more on information theory and consciousness, and how they may apply to everyday life, read: Earth Changes and the Human-Cosmic Connection. Also:

A meta law to rule them all - can-information theory lead the way to a real theory of everything

SOTT Talk Radio Information theory or why your brain is not your mind

Fireball 5

Asteroid 2004 BL86 to sweep close on January 26

It'll be closer than any known asteroid this large until 2027. At its closest, telescopes and binoculars will show it moving rapidly in front of the stars.
Asteroid 2004 BL86
© NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA caption: This graphic depicts the passage of asteroid 2004 BL86, which will come no closer than about three times the distance from Earth to the moon on Jan. 26, 2015. Due to its orbit around the sun, the asteroid is currently only visible by astronomers with large telescopes who are located in the southern hemisphere. But by Jan. 26, the space rock’s changing position will make it visible to those in the northern hemisphere.
An asteroid, called 2004 BL86 by astronomers, will sweep safely past Earth on January 26, 2015. The flyby is notable because 2004 BL86 will be the closest of any known space rock this large until asteroid 1999 AN10 flies past Earth in 2027. This asteroid is estimated from its reflected brightness to be about 500 meters in diameter (about a third of a mile, or 0.5 km). At the time of its closest approach - January 26, 2015 at 16:20 UTC, or 10:20 a.m. CST - the asteroid will be approximately 745,000 miles (1.2 million kilometers) from Earth, or about three times the moon's distance.

Don Yeomans, who on January 9 retired as manager of NASA's Near Earth Object Program Office after 16 years in the position, said:
Monday, January 26 will be the closest asteroid 2004 BL86 will get to Earth for at least the next 200 years. And while it poses no threat to Earth for the foreseeable future, it's a relatively close approach by a relatively large asteroid, so it provides us a unique opportunity to observe and learn more.
The asteroid is expected to be observable to amateur astronomers with small telescopes and strong binoculars beginning in the evening of January 26 and into the morning of January 27. Its peak brightness will be about magnitude 8.8, meaning it will not be bright enough to view with the unaided eye. The asteroid will be at its most visible over Europe, Africa, and North and South America. Australians and east Asians will have to look a few hours earlier, when the asteroid isn't as bright. The asteroid will be moving about four degrees every hour through the course of the night. That's fast, faster than the moon moves (about half a degree per hour). The asteroid will be whizzing past in front of the constellations Hydra, Cancer, and Leo.


Potentially dangerous asteroid to fly by Earth on January 26


Do viruses lurking in our genes make us smarter? Not really

© Mehmet Pinarci
"Our Viral Inheritance May Make Us Smarter" cries the headline of a news story reporting on a new research study from Lund University in Sweden. "Junk DNA' from million-year-old viruses actually plays vital role in human intelligence: study" claims another, about the same study. The headlines are provocative indeed, suggesting viral gene fragments that are embedded in our genome are linked to intelligence.

But is that what the study really claims? Not really, as it turns out.

Before we go into the study, let me cover a little bit of the background. Mammals and viruses share a long and storied complex genetic history together. As viruses infected mammals again and again over millions of years, they transferred many thousands of viral gene fragments into the genome. Research stemming from the human genome project showed that there are at least 100,000 known viral fragments that are part of the human genome which makes up more than 8 percent of our genetic material. While these sequences were initially thought to be non-functional remnants of infection, we now know that many viral genes and proteins have evolved to become part of normal cellular functions and even serve to regulate the expression of other genes.

The most common of these fragments are known as endogenous retroviruses because they are very similar to a class of viruses known as retroviruses. Retroviruses themselves derive their name because of their ability to RNA back into DNA inside a host cell, reversing the traditional transcription process of converting DNA to RNA and then protein. The reverse transcribed DNA is then integrated into the host genome with the help of a specific viral enzyme known as an integrase and while this helps the virus replicate in the host cell.

The Lund University study sheds light on how some endogenous retroviruses may play a key role in brain function. The research group led by biologist Johan Jakobsson looked at the role of a protein called TRIM28 which had been previously shown by other groups to hold back the expression of endogenous retroviral elements. In a previous study, the same group found that when the TRIM28 gene was deleted in neurons of mice, they showed behavioral changes, particularly a vulnerability to stress. So in this study, Prof Jakobsson and his team wondered whether deleting TRIM28 might have a role to play in how neurons function by affecting expression of endogenous retroviruses.

Comment: See:

On viral 'junk' DNA, a DNA-enhancing Ketogenic diet, and cometary kicks


One of the Milky Way's arms might encircle the entire galaxy

Milky Way
© NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt
Artist’s conception of the Milky Way galaxy as seen from far Galactic North.
Given that our Solar System sits inside the Milky Way Galaxy, getting a clear picture of what it looks like as a whole can be quite tricky. In fact, it was not until 1852 that astronomer Stephen Alexander first postulated that the galaxy was spiral in shape. And since that time, numerous discoveries have come along that have altered how we picture it.

For decades astronomers have thought the Milky Way consists of four arms - made up of stars and clouds of star-forming gas - that extend outwards in a spiral fashion. Then in 2008, data from the Spitzer Space Telescope seemed to indicate that our Milky Way has just two arms, but a larger central bar. But now, according to a team of astronomers from China, one of our galaxy's arms may stretch farther than previously thought, reaching all the way around the galaxy.

This arm is known as Scutum - Centaurus, which emanates from one end of the Milky Way bar, passes between us and Galactic Center, and extends to the other side of the galaxy. For many decades, it was believed that was where this arm terminated.