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Beaker

Science's unshakable 'truths'? Five insights challenging the status quo

If you thought dying of loneliness was just an old wives' tale, or that genetic inheritance is fixed - think again. Michael Brooks on science's most unexpected findings

1. Lifestyle can change genes

methyl groups
© Science Photo Library
Methyl groups, which affect our genes, often come from what we eat. Photograph:
We have come to think that if something is "in our genes", it is our inevitable destiny. However, this is a gross oversimplification. We have each inherited a particular set of genes, but the outcome of that inheritance is not fixed. Our environment, diet and circumstance flood our bodies with molecules that switch the genes on or off. The result can make a huge difference to our destiny - and that of our descendants.

One example of these "epigenetic" changes occurs when a bundle of carbon and hydrogen atoms known as a methyl group attaches itself to the DNA and changes the way its instructions are carried out. The degree of the effect depends on the exact shapes into which the DNA in cells is coiled; sometimes certain genes become more or less exposed to external influences. But it can have major effects: the effect of methyl groups on DNA can make the difference between a foetus being healthy or stillborn.

Methyl groups often come from what we eat. Lack of food seems to have an epigenetic effect, too. A study of Dutch women starved by the Nazis during the second world war - the British actress Audrey Hepburn was among them - has found elevated levels of schizophrenia, breast cancer and heart disease. The data suggest that the alterations to which genes are turned on or off survive at least two generations: the one that suffered in the womb during the famine, and their children.

They may go much further. A 2011 study published by researchers at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, demonstrated epigenetic mutations that lasted for at least 30 generations in plants. So far, we haven't proved such long-term changes in humans but there are hints that epigenetics cascades through the generations.

A 2001 study traced the long-term effects of nutrition - and malnutrition. Controlling for socioeconomic factors, a boy approaching puberty who overate at the beginning of the last century generally reduced his grandson's life expectancy by a whopping 32 years. Other studies show that if boys start smoking before the age of 11 their sons will be significantly more overweight by age nine than their peers with fathers who only took up smoking later. The only way this can happen is if the act of smoking tobacco triggers some epigenetic change in the way DNA is activated in their sperm.


Standard biological thinking says that the body strips away molecules such as a methyl group from sperm and eggs so that they are "reset" to their default state. However, a study published by Cambridge researchers last year showed that approximately 1% of the changes get through the erasure process unscathed. What you eat, what your mother ate, the age when your grandfather started smoking, the amount of pollution in your neighbourhood - these factors have all been linked to epigenetic changes that get passed down through the generations. Armed with this new insight, we can take far more control of our health - and the health of future generations.
Laptop

Is Linux leaving Microsoft in the technological dust?

© John Vetterli, CC BY
Linux is already at your party
Linux, the most widely used open source operating system in the world, has scored a major publicity coup in the revelation that it is used on 94% of the world's top 500 supercomputers.

Every operating system has technical issues and Linux has not been faultless. But some key technological milestones have been passed in recent years that have made it possible for Linux to quietly assert dominance in the fight for popularity and custom.

Apart from the fact that it is free and has been since its creation in 1991 by Linus Torvalds, Linux has many technological advantages that mean other operating systems just can't beat it.

Millions of people all over the world use Microsoft operating systems but how many describe themselves as enthusiasts? Linux users are often really passionate about the open source cause and this is boosting uptake. They argue that it is more secure than main rivals Apple and Microsoft, with technical features that win hands down. The fact that the most powerful and expensive computers in the world are using it is potentially the best reference you could want.
2 + 2 = 4

Physicist suggests speed of light might be slower than thought

Supernova 1987a
© ESA/Hubble & NASA
SN 1987A through the Hubble Space Telescope.
Experimental observations from Supernova 1987a showed that the first neutrinos arrived approximately 7.7 h before the first photons.
Physicist James Franson of the University of Maryland has captured the attention of the physics community by posting an article to the peer-reviewed New Journal of Physics in which he claims to have found evidence that suggests the speed of light as described by the theory of general relativity, is actually slower than has been thought.

The theory of general relativity suggests that light travels at a constant speed of 299,792,458 meters per second in a vacuum. It's the c in Einstein's famous equation after all, and virtually everything measured in the cosmos is based on it - in short, it's pretty important. But, what if it's wrong?


Comment: In fact, general relativity predicts that the velocity of light would be reduced by a gravitational potential, the author proposes a correction by using a first approximation effect of a gravitational field in the framework of the quantum electrodynamics theory. Light velocity is constant in the theory of special relativity where no interaction fields are involved.


Comment: Space is not empty, and while the author tries to introduce a gravitational field to quantum electrodynamics equations, it could be argued that the presence of charged matter along with electromagnetic fields across large distances in space may indeed be more straightforward source of light velocity slowing and spectral shifts (notably red shifts). Only time will tell if theoretical physicists will pursue the matter further.

Fireball 5

New kind of meteorite found

Meteor Shower
© argus/Shutterstock
Illustration of a meteor shower.
For 50 years, scientists have wondered what annihilated the ancestor of L-chondrites, the roof-smashing, head-bonking meteorites that frequently pummel Earth.

Now, a new kind of meteorite discovered in a southern Sweden limestone quarry may finally solve the mystery, scientists report. The strange new rock may be the missing "other half" from one of the biggest interstellar collisions in a billion years.

"Something we didn't really know about before was flying around and crashed into the L-chondrites," said study co-author Gary Huss of the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

The space rock is a 470-million-year-old fossil meteorite first spotted three years ago by workers at Sweden's Thorsberg quarry, where stonecutters have an expert eye for extraterrestrial objects. Quarriers have plucked 101 fossil meteorites from the pit's ancient pink limestone in the last two decades. [Photos: New Kind of Meteorite Found in Sweden]

Researchers have nicknamed the new meteorite the "mysterious object" until its formal name is approved, said lead study author Birger Schmitz, of Lund University in Sweden and Chicago's Field Museum. It will likely be named for a nearby church, the Österplana, he said.
Sun

World's largest solar telescope, Big Bear Solar Observatory, captures unprecedented sunspot images

The Big Bear Solar Observatory (BBSO) in California, site of the largest solar telescope on the planet, has issued a mesmerizing video and photos in previously unseen detail of surprisingly active plasma in the sun's fine structures.

BBSO's New Solar Telescope (NST) possesses an unprecedented level of high resolution and enables the sharpest-ever photos of the visible corona of our star.

One of the sunspots captured by the NST is the size of the Earth, but such structures can be the size of Jupiter.

The temperature of the sun's surface is about 6,000 Kelvins, whereas sunspots are approximately 1,500 Kelvins colder; therefore they look dark against the blazing turbulent plasma.

Camera

New facial recognition technology used to diagnose genetic disorders

© Independent


New software will be able to track changes to patients’ features using thousands of photographs.
New technology could help doctors to diagnose rare genetic disorders through face-recognition software similar to that used in modern handheld cameras.

Between 30 and 40 per cent of genetic disorders - including Down's syndrome and the rare Angelman syndrome - involve some kind of change to the face or skull.

The new software is based on studies of thousands of pictures of previously diagnosed patients, and is able to "learn" what facial features to look for and which to ignore when suggesting a diagnosis.

It will also be able to group together patients with unknown disorders who have similar facial features and skull structures - potentially enabling doctors to identify new disorders, and the DNA variations that cause them.

The software has been developed at Oxford University, in a successful collaboration between medical researchers and the university's Department of Engineering Science.
Igloo

Ancient ocean currents may have changed pacing and intensity of ice ages

Ocean Currents
© Kim Martineau
Leo Pena (above) and colleagues analyzed fossil plankton shells to reconstruct ocean circulation over the last 1.2 million years.
For decades, climate scientists have tried to explain why ice-age cycles became longer and more intense about 900,000 years ago, switching from 41,000-year cycles to 100,000-year cycles. In a new study in the leading journal Science, researchers found that the deep ocean currents that move heat around the globe stalled or even stopped, possibly due to expanding ice cover in the north. The slowing currents increased carbon dioxide storage in the ocean, leaving less in the atmosphere, which kept temperatures cold and kicked the climate system into a new phase of colder but less frequent ice ages, they hypothesize.

"The oceans started storing more carbon dioxide for a longer period of time," said Leopoldo Pena, the study's lead author, a paleoceanographer at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. "Our evidence shows that the oceans played a major role in slowing the pace of ice ages and making them more severe."

The researchers reconstructed the past strength of earth's system of deep-ocean currents by sampling deep-sea sediments off the coast of South Africa, where powerful currents originating in the North Atlantic Ocean pass on their way to Antarctica. How vigorously those currents moved in the past can be inferred by how much North Atlantic water made it that far, as measured by isotope ratios of the element neodymium bearing the signature of North Atlantic seawater. Like a tape recorder, the shells of ancient plankton incorporate this seawater signal through time, allowing scientists to approximate when the currents grew stronger and weaker off South Africa.

They confirmed that over the last 1.2 million years, the conveyor-like currents strengthened during warm periods and weakened during ice ages, as previously thought. But they also discovered that at about 950,000 years ago, ocean circulation weakened significantly and stayed weak for 100,000 years; during that period the planet skipped an interglacial - the warm interval between ice-ages - and when the system recovered it entered a new phase of longer, 100,000-year ice age cycles. After this turning point, the deep ocean currents remain weak during ice ages, and the ice ages themselves become colder, they find.
2 + 2 = 4

Much larger solar corona than previously observed

solar corona stero
© NASA/STEREO
Scientists used these observations of the sun's atmosphere (the bright light of the sun itself is blocked by the black circle at the middle) from NASA's Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory on Aug. 5, 2007, to define the outer limits of the solar atmosphere, the corona.
Surrounding the sun is a vast atmosphere of solar particles, through which magnetic fields swarm, solar flares erupt, and gigantic columns of material rise, fall and jostle each other around. Now, using NASA's Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory, scientists have found that this atmosphere, called the corona, is even larger than thought, extending out some 5 million miles above the sun's surface -- the equivalent of 12 solar radii. This information has implications for NASA's upcoming Solar Probe Plus mission, due to launch in 2018 and go closer to the sun than any man-made technology ever has before.


Comment: According to the paper's abstract, "the Alfvén surface is at least 12 solar radii from the Sun over the polar coronal holes and 15 solar radii in the streamer belt, well beyond the distance planned for NASA's upcoming Solar Probe Plus mission."


These STEREO observations provide the first direct measurements of the inner boundary of the heliosphere -- the giant bubble sparsely filled with solar particles that surrounds the sun and all the planets. Combined with measurements from Voyager 1 of the outer boundary of the heliosphere, we have now defined the extent of this entire local bubble.
Network

Everything is broken on the Internet

wrecked ship
Once upon a time, a friend of mine accidentally took over thousands of computers. He had found a vulnerability in a piece of software and started playing with it. In the process, he figured out how to get total administration access over a network. He put it in a script, and ran it to see what would happen, then went to bed for about four hours. Next morning on the way to work he checked on it, and discovered he was now lord and master of about 50,000 computers. After nearly vomiting in fear he killed the whole thing and deleted all the files associated with it. In the end he said he threw the hard drive into a bonfire. I can't tell you who he is because he doesn't want to go to Federal prison, which is what could have happened if he'd told anyone that could do anything about the bug he'd found. Did that bug get fixed? Probably eventually, but not by my friend. This story isn't extraordinary at all. Spend much time in the hacker and security scene, you'll hear stories like this and worse.

It's hard to explain to regular people how much technology barely works, how much the infrastructure of our lives is held together by the IT equivalent of baling wire.

Computers, and computing, are broken.

Build it badly, and they will come.

For a bunch of us, especially those who had followed security and the warrantless wiretapping cases, the revelations weren't big surprises. We didn't know the specifics, but people who keep an eye on software knew computer technology was sick and broken. We've known for years that those who want to take advantage of that fact tend to circle like buzzards. The NSA wasn't, and isn't, the great predator of the internet, it's just the biggest scavenger around. It isn't doing so well because they are all powerful math wizards of doom.
The NSA is doing so well because software is bullshit.
Eight months before Snowden's first revelation I tweeted this:
It was my exasperated acknowledgement that looking for good software to count on has been a losing battle. Written by people with either no time or no money, most software gets shipped the moment it works well enough to let someone go home and see their family. What we get is mostly terrible.
old computer parts
Software is so bad because it's so complex, and because it's trying to talk to other programs on the same computer, or over connections to other computers. Even your computer is kind of more than one computer, boxes within boxes, and each one of those computers is full of little programs trying to coordinate their actions and talk to each other. Computers have gotten incredibly complex, while people have remained the same gray mud with pretensions of godhood.

Your average piece-of-shit Windows desktop is so complex that no one person on Earth really knows what all of it is doing, or how.
Fireball

NASA acknowledging Electric Universe?: New NASA model gives glimpse into the invisible world of electric asteroids

asteroid
© NASA
This is a concept image of an astronaut preparing to take samples from a captured asteroid. The sun is in the background; NASA wants to know more about electrical activity generated by the interaction of solar wind and radiation with asteroids.
Space may appear empty - a soundless vacuum, but it's not an absolute void. It flows with electric activity that is not visible to our eyes. NASA is developing plans to send humans to an asteroid, and wants to know more about the electrical environment explorers will encounter there.

A solar wind blown from the surface of the sun at about a million miles per hour flows around all solar system objects, forming swirling eddies and vortices in its wake. Magnetic fields carried by the solar wind warp, twist, and snap as they slam into the magnetic fields around other objects in our solar system, blasting particles to millions of miles per hour and sending electric currents surging in magnetic storms that, around Earth, can damage sensitive technology like satellites and power grids.

On airless objects like moons and asteroids, sunlight ejects negatively charged electrons from matter, giving sunlit areas a strong positive electric charge. The solar wind is an electrically conducting gas called plasma where matter has been torn apart into electrons, which are relatively light, and positively charged ions, which are thousands of times more massive. While areas in sunlight can charge positive, areas in shadow get a strong negative charge when electrons in the solar wind rush in ahead of heavier ions to fill voids created as the solar wind flows by.

The surface of Earth is shielded from the direct effects of this activity by our planet's magnetic field, but airless objects without strong repelling magnetic fields, like small asteroids, have no protection from electrical activity in space.

NASA-sponsored researchers funded by the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) (formerly the NASA Lunar Science Institute (NLSI)) have developed a new computer model that can predict and visualize the interaction between the solar wind, solar radiation, and the surface of asteroids in unprecedented detail.

"Our model is the first to provide detailed, two-dimensional views of the complex interaction between solar activity and small objects like asteroids, using an adaptive computational technique that makes these simulations highly efficient," said Michael Zimmerman, project lead at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

Comment: If you want to know more about electric nature of the universe and how humans interact with it, read this fascinating book Earth Changes and the Human Cosmic Connection: The Secret History of the World - Book 3

secret_history_3
© sott


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