Science & Technology


Stunning images taken by Philae lander reveal what comet 67P looks like from just 30ft away

Close-up: The new images shed new light on the icy comet's surface. This image, taken from just 30ft (nine metres) away, allows you to see images that are just an inch across in unprecedented detail.
The European Space Agency has released spectacular images from the perspective of the Philae lander, as it completed its daring descent to comet 67P.

The images document the probe's fall, and could even reveal where it finally took up residence after a bumpy landing last November.

Researchers believe there is even evidence that the comet-lander dropped into a hole about its own size just three feet (0.9 metres) away from a towering cliff.


It's past time to start questioning our trust in peer-reviewed research

© Kirk Durston
The primary way scientific discoveries and advances are disseminated is through peer-reviewed papers published in scientific journals. For researchers, the first step is to submit a paper to a journal. Those that survive preliminary filtering by the editor are sent out to be reviewed by qualified scientists in the field. On the basis of the reviewers' recommendations, a paper is accepted or rejected. Only a fraction of papers submitted for publication make it through this peer-review process and are published.

One would hope that such a process would justify a high level of confidence in scientific publications, but recent findings suggest that our faith in peer-reviewed publications in mainstream journals of science may be on somewhat shaky ground.

The journal Nature, for example, in a paper calling for increased standards in pre-clinical research, revealed that out of 53 papers presenting "landmark" published findings in the field of haematology and oncology, only six could be confirmed by subsequent laboratory teams. For the 89 percent of papers that failed to have their results reproduced, it was found that blind control group analyses was inadequate or data had been selected to support the hypothesis and other data set aside.

Worse still, some of the papers that could not be experimentally reproduced launched "an entire field, with hundreds of secondary publications that expanded on elements of the original observation, but did not actually seek to confirm or falsify its fundamental basis."

Hundreds of other peer-reviewed, published science papers based on faulty initial papers!

Comment: Good advice. Peer reviewed research is latched onto as if it were the new scripture, showing just how ingrained a dogmatic, almost religious mindset is, even among self-professed atheists. As with everything else, there is good and bad research, and critical thinking is needed no matter how seemingly 'obvious' the consensus view may seem. In fact, the consensus is completely wrong more often than not.


Nearly one billion Android phones vulnerable to hacking via text message (workaround included)

Android is by far the most dominant smartphone operating system in the world, and it has just been found to be vulnerable to a serious smartphone security flaw which allows devices to be hacked by simply sending them a text message.

About 80 percent of smartphones worldwide run Android, and just about all of those have a major vulnerability in their software, according to experts at Zimperium, a cybersecurity company specializing in mobile devices.

What makes this problem a gaping security hole is that the victims don't even need to be tricked into downloading or opening a bad file - attackers only need to send them a text message for the malware to take hold.

The issue stems from the way Android processes incoming text messages. Media playback software utilized by Android, called Stagefright, processes media files, such as images or video, sent to your device before you even open the message. Hackers can hide malware in those files, getting Stagefright to automatically unleash them onto your phone, thus giving attackers unfettered access to copy and delete data or use the camera, microphone, and GPS to track your every move.

Comment: Stagefright: Everything you need to know about Google's Android megabug
Where does the name come from?

"Stagefright" is the name of the media library—a portion of Android's open source code—in which the bugs were found. It's obviously a great bug name, too.

No lie. What does that media library do?

Stagefright—the library, not the bug—helps phones unpack multimedia messages. It enables Android phones to interpret MMS content (multimedia message service content), which can contain videos, photos, audio, text, as opposed to, say, SMS content (short message service content), which can contain only 160 characters. The bugs are in that library.

"This happens even before the sound that you've received a message has even occurred," Joshua Drake, a security researcher with Zimperium, told NPR. "That's what makes it so dangerous. [It] could be absolutely silent. You may not even see anything."

Comment: This is a serious security flaw since it can act without intervention and without notification, so it's possible to be hacked without doing anything and without even knowing it. It sounds like many, if not most, Android phone users will not receive the security fix for this exploit, so it sounds like the best option may be to configure your phone to not open attachments in MMS messages by default, then remain vigilant and don't open MMS messages from unknown sources. You should be able to configure your messaging app to disable "Auto Retrieving" MMS messages in the settings area of your messaging app. More detailed instructions can be found here:

How to Protect Your Android Phone From the Stagefright Bug

Knowledge protects.


DARPA's N2 project: The science behind fear-mongering

© Wikimedia Commons
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funds a lot of weird stuff, and in recent years more and more of it has been about the brain.

Its signature work in this field is in brain-computer interfaces and goes back several decades to its Biocybernetics program, which sought to enable direct communication between humans and machines. In 2013, DARPA made headlines when it announced that it intended to spend more than $70 million over five years to take its research to the next level by developing an implant that could help restore function or memory in people with neuropsychiatric issues.

Less known is DARPA's Narrative Networks (or N2) project which aims to better understand how stories — or narratives — influence human behavior and to develop a set of tools that can help facilitate faster and better communication of information.

Comment: See also: Darpa Wants to Master the Science of Propaganda


Windows 10 spies on almost everything you do, unless you opt out

© AP Photo/Saurabh Das
Visitors experience Windows 10 during its launch, in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, July 29, 2015.
Microsoft's Windows 10 is spying on nearly everything its users do, and anyone who agreed to the operating system's new terms of service consented to the surveillance, whether knowingly or otherwise.

Included in Microsoft's new 12,000-word service agreement, which goes into effect August 1, is the following excerpt from the privacy policy:
"We will access, disclose and preserve personal data, including your content (such as the content of your emails, other private communications or files in private folders), when we have a good faith belief that doing so is necessary to."

And while Microsoft does allow Windows 10 users to opt out of all of the features that might be considered invasions of privacy, users are opted in by default. Rock, Paper, Shotgun explains the opt-out process step by step.

Windows 10 will sync settings and data by default with its servers. That includes browser history, favorites and currently open web pages, as well as saved app, website and mobile hotspot passwords and Wi-Fi network names and passwords.

Activate Cortana, Microsoft's personal virtual assistant, and you are also turning on a host of data sharing, as Microsoft's new privacy statement points out:


Crumb of mouse brain reconstruction in full detail

Digital reconstruction of mouse brain fragment.
Six years might seem like a long time to spend piecing together the structure of a scrap of tissue vastly smaller than a bead of sweat. But that is how long it has taken a team led by cell biologist Jeff Lichtman from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to digitally reconstruct a tiny cube of mouse brain tissue.

The resulting three-dimensional map is the first complete reconstruction of a piece of tissue in the mammalian neocortex, the most recently evolved region of the brain.

Covering just 1,500 cubic microns, it is still a far cry from reconstructing all 100 billion or so cells that make up the entire human brain. But Christof Koch, president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, Washington, notes that the various technologies involved will speed up "tremendously" over the next decade: "I would call this a very exciting promissory note," he says.

Comment: So who or what is the IARPA (Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity)? It operates under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence as a collaborator or facilitator of research for IC customers for operational application. (Interesting how many colleges and universities take the bait.)

Anyone care to speculate where the IARPA/MICrONS (Machine Intelligence from Cortical Networks) program is going with the tiny mouse 'build-a-brain' project? Try this:

Augmented Humans. A "sentient data" solution that will allow soldiers to transmit data to other soldiers and electronic systems without conscious thought through an implant, this idea of a "man-machine partnership" offers soldiers of the future a close, personal relationship with the Internet of Things. And, provide humans with superhero-like powers, precision targeting and an actual force field. (Bet you can't wait.)

Bizarro Earth

Oklahoma quakes increase in lock-step with fracking activity

Several earthquakes shook Oklahoma on Monday as the state experiences a sharp increase in the frequency of tremors linked to wastewater disposal from gas and oil drilling, including from fracking, state and federal officials said. Three of Monday's quakes measured above a magnitude 4.0, with a 4.5 earthquake centered just north of Crescent, roughly 45 miles (72 km) north of Oklahoma City, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) said. The largest tremor, logged a "significant earthquake" by the USGS, could be felt as far away as Wichita, Kansas, about 160 miles north, broadcaster KOTV reported. There were no reports of damage. The rate of earthquakes in Oklahoma has increased by about 50 percent since 2013, greatly increasing the chance for a damaging quake, according to the USGS.

Noticeable quakes - above magnitude 3.0 - now hit the state at a rate of two per day or more, compared with two or so per year prior to 2009. During the past seven days, Oklahoma has experienced about 40 earthquakes, according to the USGS. Scientists say the seismic activity is triggered by the injection of wastewater from booming oil and gas drilling operations into deep geological formations. The state's oil and gas regulator released a directive this month expanding "Areas of Interest," parts of the state that have been worst-hit by the quakes, and adding restrictions for 211 disposal wells. In March, the regulator - the Oklahoma Corporation Commission - also directed 347 wells to reduce their injection depths to above the Arbuckle formation. High-volume injections into the Arbuckle, the state's deepest formation, have the highest potential for seismic activity, according to the USGS. Twenty-one of Oklahoma's 77 counties are under the order, and oil and gas drilling operators have until Aug. 14 to comply with reducing injection depth.

Via Yahoo News

Comment: The fracking business has put huge regions of the US and other countries in danger, not only from creating geologic instability, but poisoning groundwater supplies.


Brown dwarf 18 light-years away observed to have auroral activity

© Chuck Carter and Gregg Hallinan, Caltech
Artist's conception of an aurora over the polar region of a brown dwarf.
For the first time, astronomers have detected an aurora erupting beyond the solar system, giving us a profound glimpse at the magnetism surrounding a brown dwarf, or "failed star."

Until now, the only aurorae astronomers have witnessed have been located on planets within our own star system. The sun produces a steady stream of electrically charged particles, called ions, that wash throughout the solar system as the solar wind and intermittent coronal mass ejections. These ions go on to interact with planetary magnetic fields and atmospheres to generate beautiful lightshows.

In the case of Earth, powerful geomagnetic storms can be triggered when the sun's magnetic field, loaded with ions, interacts with our global magnetosphere. Should this happen, ions from the sun are funneled into higher latitudes, which then interact with our atmosphere, generating Northern and Southern Lights — the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis, respectively.

Likewise, aurorae have been observed on Jupiter, Saturn and other planets in the solar system that possess a magnetic field and atmosphere.


Astronomers discover secret planetary system in Cassiopea, reminiscent of our own solar system

© JPL-Caltech / NASA
Hot, Rocky World This artist's rendition shows one possible appearance for the planet HD 219134b, the nearest rocky exoplanet found to date outside our solar system. The planet is 1.6 times the size of Earth, and whips around its star in just three days. Scientists predict that the scorching-hot planet -- known to be rocky through measurements of its mass and size -- would have a rocky, partially molten surface with geological activity, including possibly volcanoes.
Astronomers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) and members of the NCCR PlanetS have teased out a secret planetary system hiding in the arms of Cassiopea, just 21 light years away from us. The remarkable system, named HD219134, hosts one outer giant planet and three inner super-Earths, one of which transits in front of the star. The transiting super-Earth has a density similar to the Earth's. It is by far the closest transiting planet known today. It provides the ideal candidate for follow-up studies and a deeper understanding of planetary formation, internal composition, and atmospheres. The system is so close that astronomers already dream about taking pictures of the new "Stars."

HARPS-N, the northern twin sister of the famous planet hunter HARPS, designed and built by an international consortium led by researchers at the Geneva University and installed at the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo on the La Palma island, just unveiled an exceptional planetary system around HD219134. The star, a 5th magnitude K dwarf, slightly colder and less massive than our Sun, is so bright that we can follow her with a naked eye from dark skies, next to one leg of the W-shape Cassiopeia constellation, all year round in our boreal hemisphere. The cortege of planets is composed of three mostly rocky super-Earths and an outer giant planet, a configuration reminiscent of our own Solar System.

Comment: A curious development. See also:


Evolutionary war between microorganisms affecting human health, biologist says

© Cole Beeler
Bashey-Visser's research focuses on an insect-killing nematode in the genus Steinernema.
Health experts have warned for years that the overuse of antibiotics is creating "superbugs" able to resist drugs treating infection.

But now scientists at Indiana University and elsewhere are finding evidence that an invisible war between microorganisms may also be catching humans in the crossfire.

This conflict is discussed in a recent article from IU biologist Farrah Bashey-Visser in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

"Bacteria aren't just evolving to resist new drugs, they are also constantly evolving due to competition with other microorganisms," said Bashey-Visser, an assistant scientist in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Biology.

The result is that humans can be left trying to play catch-up.

The highly antibiotic-resistant bacteria MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, for example, has been shown to resist treatment in some cases due to competition with other microorganisms.

In the article, Bashey-Visser said a study recently conducted in Europe found a strain of MRSA became resistant to vancomycin after evolving within an infected host. A naturally occurring antibiotic reserved to fight the most serious infections, vancomycin was originally isolated by Eli Lilly and Co. in 1953 from soil collected by a missionary in Borneo.

The new mutant strain of MRSA in the overseas study overtook the original MRSA strain by producing a growth-inhibiting toxin. These toxins, called bacteriocins, are a common defense mechanism used by bacteria to compete against genetically similar microorganisms. However, in response to exposure to the bacteriocin, a third strain evolved resistance to the toxin and, coincidentally, to vancomycin.