Science & Technology

Blue Planet

Could Earth's magnetic field flip within a human lifetime?

Biaggio Giaccio
© Paul Renne
Left to right, Biaggio Giaccio, Gianluca Sotilli, Courtney Sprain and Sebastien Nomade sitting next to an outcrop in the Sulmona basin of the Apennine Mountains that contains the Matuyama-Brunhes magnetic reversal. A layer of volcanic ash interbedded with the lake sediments can be seen above their heads. Sotilli and Sprain are pointing to the sediment layer in which the magnetic reversal occurred.
Imagine the world waking up one morning to discover that all compasses pointed south instead of north.

It's not as bizarre as it sounds. Earth's magnetic field has flipped - though not overnight - many times throughout the planet's history. Its dipole magnetic field, like that of a bar magnet, remains about the same intensity for thousands to millions of years, but for incompletely known reasons it occasionally weakens and, presumably over a few thousand years, reverses direction.

Now, a new study by a team of scientists from Italy, France, Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley, demonstrates that the last magnetic reversal 786,000 years ago actually happened very quickly, in less than 100 years - roughly a human lifetime.

"It's amazing how rapidly we see that reversal," said UC Berkeley graduate student Courtney Sprain. "The paleomagnetic data are very well done. This is one of the best records we have so far of what happens during a reversal and how quickly these reversals can happen."

Sprain and Paul Renne, director of the Berkeley Geochronology Center and a UC Berkeley professor-in- residence of earth and planetary science, are coauthors of the study, which will be published in the November issue of Geophysical Journal International and is now available online.

Siberia to continue to hold Russia's only stock of smallpox

© The Siberian Times
Vector is currently engaged in research into the critical worldwide threat from Ebola.
Strains of the deadly disease remain at the high security Vector Research Centre.

Only two stocks of eradicated smallpox remain in the world, in Koltsovo, near Novosibirsk, and in the American city of Atlanta.

The head of Vector, the Russian State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology, said today that there are no immediate plans to destroy the virus stocks.

'The collection remains as it was. No one is planning to destroy it', said Valery Mikheyev, as cited by RIA Novosti.

A final decision on the fate of the stocks is to be made by the World Health Organisation, which declared smallpox eradicated in 1980.

Passwords of 7M Dropbox accounts seized

dropbox hacked
The passwords of nearly 7 million Dropbox accounts have been seized through third-party services and 400 directly leaked on Pastebin, with promises of more leaks following bitcoin donations. Dropbox denies a hack.

The leaker described the 400 as a "first teaser...just to get things going" and followed with: "More Bitcoin = more accounts published on Pastebin. As more BTC is donated, More pastebin pastes will appear."

It remains unclear how the details were obtained; the hackers claim ownership of details from 6,937,081 different accounts - claims that cannot in any way be verified.

Dropbox, denies that a hack has taken place.

"Dropbox has not been hacked. These usernames and passwords were unfortunately stolen from other services and used in attempts to log in to Dropbox accounts," it said.

"We'd previously detected these attacks and the vast majority of the passwords posted have been expired for some time now. All other remaining passwords have expired as well."

Comment: Rather interesting in light of Snowden's recent comments saying that Dropbox and other such services are "hostile to privacy". He urged web users to abandon unencrypted communication and adjust privacy settings to prevent governments from spying on them in increasingly intrusive ways.

Snowden says, 'Get rid of DropBox' and avoid Facebook

Red Flag

Friends of the Earth petitions NRC to consider new alarming seismic data regarding Diablo Canyon relicensing

Diablo Canyon
Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant
Request Follows Dramatic Findings That Nuclear Reactors are Surrounded by Stronger and Inter-connected Earthquake Faults

Friends of the Earth has filed a petition to intervene in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission proceeding that would allow Pacific Gas & Electric's controversial Diablo Canyon nuclear reactors to run for an additional twenty years.

The new seismic data released in September by the utility reveals that the 1960s-era Diablo Canyon reactors are surrounded by larger, interconnected faults capable of producing earthquakes that far exceed the plant's licensed design. Friends of the Earth argues that the plant's ability to withstand such earthquakes should be considered in a public hearing on the seismic safety of the PG&E reactors before the license extension to operate Diablo Canyon into the mid-2040s can be decided.

"This new, alarming seismic data clearly shows that faults surrounding Diablo Canyon could produce earthquakes far more powerful than those for which the plant is designed - this is a recipe for disaster," said Damon Moglen of Friends of the Earth "It's now clear that Diablo Canyon could never get a license to be built at its current Central Coast site. The NRC must consider this seismic data as part of public licensing hearings."

Comment: Decrepit reactors (designed in the 1960s and built in the 1970s) on an array of active seismic faults in close proximity, what are the odds on nothing happening (especially in lieu of the Pac-Rim uptick of late)? Recent 3-D studies detecting three new faults, provide unprecedented scientific analysis of the seismic characteristics near Diablo Canyon. Faults include: Hosgri, San Simeon, Shoreline, Los Osos and San Luis Bay faults. Nearby is the dreaded San Andreas Fault - only 45 miles inland, and the Rinconada - 20 miles inland.

It has become increasingly clear that Diablo Canyon is surrounded by faults capable of creating ground motion beyond that for which the reactors and their components were tested and licensed. The Hosgri Fault, about 3 miles offshore, is capable of producing a major earthquake of magnitude 7.5. Upgraded information and studies on the faults near Diablo Canyon have revealed the percentages of more ground vibration and surface shaking that will occur during an earthquake: The Los Osos Fault - 50% more, San Luis Fault - 75% more, Shoreline Fault - 55% more. It has taken six years for PG&E to acknowledge the risks of the Shoreline Fault, first identified in 2008. While short segments can work together to produce stronger earthquakes as in the Fukushima disaster, there are factors that suggest the Shoreline Fault is one continuous segment, amplifying its potential by several magnitudes.

Hundreds of thousands of Californians live in the wake of this potential disaster, with approximately 500,000 persons living within a 50 mile radius of the plant. The persistent drought, now being experience in California, is potentially capable of setting off more earthquakes. Diablo Canyon is rated number one in the magnitude of potential (and preventable) devastation in the USA.

Here is a quick PBS special (run time 15 minutes) - informative and non-biased, illustrating the NRC and PG&E's long history of deceit about safety of Diablo Canyon:


Machine morality: Can we teach robots right from wrong?

© Siliconangle / Carolco Pictures
From performing surgery and flying planes to babysitting kids and driving cars, today's robots can do it all. With chatbots such as Eugene Goostman recently being hailed as "passing" the Turing test, it appears robots are becoming increasingly adept at posing as humans. While machines are becoming ever more integrated into human lives, the need to imbue them with a sense of morality becomes increasingly urgent. But can we really teach robots how to be good?

An innovative piece of research recently published in the Journal of Experimental & Theoretical Artificial Intelligence looks into the matter of machine morality, and questions whether it is "evil" for robots to masquerade as humans.

Drawing on Luciano Floridi's theories of Information Ethics and artificial evil, the team leading the research explore the ethical implications regarding the development of machines in disguise. 'Masquerading refers to a person in a given context being unable to tell whether the machine is human', explain the researchers - this is the very essence of the Turing Test. This type of deception increases "metaphysical entropy", meaning any corruption of entities and impoverishment of being; since this leads to a lack of good in the environment - or infosphere - it is regarded as the fundamental evil by Floridi. Following this premise, the team set out to ascertain where 'the locus of moral responsibility and moral accountability' lie in relationships with masquerading machines, and try to establish whether it is ethical to develop robots that can pass a Turing test.

Scientists: Dark matter half what we thought

© Credit: ESO/L. Calçada
Artist’s impression of the Milky Way and its dark matter halo (shown in blue, but in reality invisible).
A new measurement of dark matter in the Milky Way has revealed there is half as much of the mysterious substance as previously thought.

Australian astronomers used a method developed almost 100 years ago to discover that the weight of dark matter in our own galaxy is 800 000 000 000 (or 8 x 1011) times the mass of the Sun.

They probed the edge of the Milky Way, looking closely, for the first time, at the fringes of the galaxy about 5 million billion kilometres from Earth.

Astrophysicist Dr Prajwal Kafle, from The University of Western Australia node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, said we have known for a while that most of the Universe is hidden.

"Stars, dust, you and me, all the things that we see, only make up about 4 per cent of the entire Universe," he said.

"About 25 per cent is dark matter and the rest is dark energy."

New fragmentation event in C/2011 J2 (LINEAR)

Starting from 2014, Sept 26.9 we are constantly monitoring comet C/2011 J2 (LINEAR) and his fragment B through a 2.0-m f/10.0 Ritchey-Chretien + CCD (La Palma-Liverpool Telescope). The video below shows an animation we made using our recent obs of this comet. Time span is 9 days (from 1 Oct. to 9 Oct). The projected velocity of the fragment is of about 0.3 arcsec/day.

While performing follow-up of component B of comet C/2011 J2 on 2014, Oct 09.9 we detected a possible new diffuse fragment located in the very near proximity of main component A.

'Duck and hide' - Comet's near-hit of Mars may crash NASA spacecraft orbiting planet

© Reuters/NASA
Comet Siding Spring is expected to travel exceptionally close to Mars at 126,000 mph (202,000 kph) on October 19, according to NASA, which says it will strategically maneuver its craft orbiting the Red Planet away from the comet's impacts.

Siding Spring will come within 87,000 miles (139,500 km) of Mars, which is "less than half the distance between Earth and our moon and less than one-tenth the distance of any known comet flyby of Earth,"NASA said.

NASA holdings that are orbiting and roving around Mars will collect data on the comet and its effects on the planet's atmosphere.

Man receives first prosthetic arm connected to bone, nerves & muscle that manages complicated tasks with the mind

© Youtube screenshot
The world's first amputee to receive a prosthetic arm directly connected to his bone, nerves and muscles has managed to perform highly complicated tasks, all with the power of his mind, a recent study has revealed.

The 42-year-old patient, identified only as Magnus, lost his right arm over a decade back. He was originally fitted with a prosthesis that was controlled via electrodes placed over the skin.

In 2013, an osseointegrated (bone-anchored) prosthetic arm was fitted onto Magnus by researchers at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg. Results of the revolutionary surgery were recently outlined in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

"We have used osseointegration to create a long-term stable fusion between man and machine, where we have integrated them at different levels," said lead study author Max Ortiz Catalan, research scientist at Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden.

"The artificial arm is directly attached to the skeleton, thus providing mechanical stability. Then the human's biological control system, that is nerves and muscles, is also interfaced to the machine's control system via neuromuscular electrodes. This creates an intimate union between the body and the machine; between biology and mechatronics."

Electrically charged graphene gives DNA a stage to perform molecular gymnastics

© Photo courtesy Alek Aksimentiev
DNA interacts with charged graphene and contorts into sequence-specific shapes when the charge is changed.
When Illinois researchers set out to investigate a method to control how DNA moves through a tiny sequencing device, they did not know they were about to witness a display of molecular gymnastics.

Fast, accurate and affordable DNA sequencing is the first step toward personalized medicine. Threading a DNA molecule through a tiny hole, called a nanopore, in a sheet of graphene allows researchers to read the DNA sequence; however, they have limited control over how fast the DNA moves through the pore. In a new study published in the journal Nature Communications, University of Illinois physics professor Aleksei Aksimentiev and graduate student Manish Shankla applied an electric charge to the graphene sheet, hoping that the DNA would react to the charge in a way that would let them control its movement down to each individual link, or nucleotide, in the DNA chain.

"Ideally, you would want to step the DNA through the nanopore one nucleotide at a time," said Aksimentiev. "Take a measurement and then have another nucleotide in the sensing hole. That's the goal, and it hasn't been realized yet. We show that, to some degree, we can control the process by charging the graphene."