Science & Technology


We may already know how we will cure death - but should we?

© David Alvarado & Jason Sussberg
Aubrey de Grey is head of a Silicon Valley-based research team bent on reversing aging just in time for de Grey to live forever.
A pair of advocates - they do legitimate research too, but their ardor is so intense, it's hard to call them scientists - believe that they will, within their lifetimes, make ours the first generation of humans to live forever.

Their quest is elegantly laid out in The Immortalists, a new documentary making its way around the film festival circuit. The Immortalists follows the triumphs and tragedies of three years in the lives of William H. Andrews and Aubrey de Grey, two men who prove just as interesting as the work they're doing. The Immortalists is really a film about death, not life, which is what makes it so fascinating.

Here's the trailer:
Bizarro Earth

Underground explorers and the shocking dimensions of the world's deepest cave

Just how far down do you think the deepest caves on the planet go? As far down as the Washington Monument is tall? How about the Eiffel Tower?

A project dubbed "The Call of the Abyss" took explorers to the deepest cave on Earth, and they ventured down to a breathtaking depth of nearly 2,200 meters - around 1.3 miles.
© Anatolia Media Group
The depth of the cave, named "Krubera-Varonya," is fascinating, but the winding length of the entire cave system also boggles the mind. Located in the Arabika Massif, of the Western Caucasus in Abkhazia, Georgia, it extends for 13.432 kilometers, or roughly 8.3 miles.

Crows solve puzzles inspired by Aesop's Fables

In an experimental recreation of "The Crow and the Pitcher" from Aesop's Fables, scientists found that crows actually do have a sophisticated understanding of water displacement.
Crows are famously clever creatures - so much so that the birds' intelligence was recognized in ancient lore. In the story of "The Crow and the Pitcher" from Aesop's Fables, a thirsty crow drops stones into narrow jar to raise the low level of water inside so he can take a drink.

Now scientists have evidence to back up that tale. New Caledonian crows actually do understand how to make water displacement work to their advantage, experiments showed. The results suggest that the birds are, at least in some respects, as smart as first-graders, according to the study.

Researchers led by Sarah Jelbert at the University of Auckland in Australia presented six crows with tubes filled with water. Inside the tubes, a worm or chunk of meat on a cork was floating, just out of reach of the crow's beak.

In front of the tubes, the researchers arranged a bunch of heavy rubber erasers that would sink, and light polystyrene objects that would float. In other variations of the experiment, the birds were presented with hollow and solid cubes.

The crows figured out that they could drop the heavy objects and the solid cubes into the tubes in order to raise the water level and get their snack, the researchers reported March 26 in the journal PLOS ONE.

Study: Even a 'small' nuclear war would destroy the world

© Getty Images
Researchers say even a limited nuclear exchange would threaten all life on Earth
With an estimated 17,000 nuclear weapons in the world, we have the power to exterminate humanity many times over.

But it wouldn't take a full-scale nuclear war to make Earth uninhabitable, reports Live Science.

Even a relatively small regional nuclear war, like a conflict between India and Pakistan, could spark a global environmental catastrophe, says a new study.

"Most people would be surprised to know that even a very small regional nuclear war on the other side of the planet could disrupt global climate for at least a decade and wipe out the ozone layer for a decade," said lead author Michael Mills, an atmospheric scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado.

Researchers developed a computer model of the Earth's atmosphere and ran simulations to find out what would happen if there was a nuclear war with just a fraction of the world's arsenal.

Bioengineers create first 'designer chromosome'

designer chromosome
© Lucy Reading-Ikkanda
An artist's rendering of a new "designer chromosome" shows red and blue pins and white diamonds at the spots where scientists engineered changes to the original chromosome. Yellow sections show where material was deleted to make the synthetic version.
Scientists have managed to re-engineer a form of brewer's yeast in a way that could help with the development of new types of drugs.

Researchers have chopped, spliced and manipulated DNA to craft the first extensively modified "designer chromosome," a genetic structure carefully engineered to spur scientific discovery.

The work is being hailed as a bioengineering feat and an important step toward producing a complex organism -- in this case brewer's yeast -- with a custom-made synthetic genome, or genetic blueprint. The research paves the way for producing new medicines and even biofuels from life forms with artificial chromosomes.

Artificial chromosomes have been built before. But those were relatively faithful copies of natural chromosomes, the tiny thread-like structures made of tightly packed DNA that serve as the body's blueprints. By contrast, the new chromosome is a product of purposeful tinkering, but the yeast that carry it act like normal yeast.

Previous artificial chromosomes were "copy-and-paste, more or less. It was plagiarism with a few edit marks in it," says Adam Arkin of the University of California-Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who was not involved in the research. The new structure is "a serious redesign of a chromosome with lots of very clever ways of ... making it more engineerable and more understandable."

The result "is a tour-de-force in synthetic biology," Boston University's James Collins, another outside researcher, says via e-mail.

Mars-bound comet Siding Spring sprouts multiple jets

C/2013 A1
© NASA, ESA, and J.-Y. Li (Planetary Science Institute)
Left:Hubble Space Telescope picture of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring photographed March 11, 2014. At that time the comet was 353 million miles from Earth. Right: When the glow of the coma is subtracted through image processing, Hubble resolves what appear to be two jets of dust coming off the nucleus in opposite directions.
Comet Siding Spring, on its way to a close brush with Mars on October 19, has been kicking up a storm lately. New images from Hubble Space Telescope taken on March 11, when the comet was just this side of Jupiter, reveal multiple jets of gas and dust.
Cell Phone

Phone hacking drone let loose over London

Flying spy: A drone like this one could be used to hack smartphones
The device can access your data from two metres away and steal everything from passwords to location data

Drones, once just used by the armed forces, are now used for everything from delivering cold beer to fishermen to taking photographs of reindeer as the civilian market booms.

The Snoopy drone is the latest example and it presents a different kind of threat- to your personal data.

The device, which can hack into smartphones and steal users' information, shows how vulnerable phones are to hacking.

Sensepoint security, based in London, developed the hacking device which searches for mobiles which are trying to connect to a wifi network.

Phones remember previously used networks which the snoopy application exploits by tricking your phone into thinking it's a network you've used before.

NSA-proof internet platform created by MIT researchers

computer researchers
© REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Major online security and data hacks exposing sensitive user information have become commonplace in the digital age thanks to criminals and governments alike, but researchers at MIT think it's time to change that.

"Really, there's no trusting a server," MIT researcher Raluca Popa told MIT Technology Review while describing Mylar - a system capable of building Internet services that keep user data encrypted everywhere at all times, until safely being decrypted on a personal computer.

"You don't notice any difference, but your data gets encrypted using your password inside your browser before it goes to the server," Popa said. "If the government asks the company for your data, the server doesn't have the ability to give unencrypted data."

Mylar software works with the popular Internet building tool Meteor and runs inside of a browser to process and present information, as opposed to traditionally running through an outside server somewhere. It also lets users share data with other users by including an encryption key that can't be picked up by servers or potential third party communications monitors.

A thought experiment: What if we broke the internet?

© Chloe Cushman for the Guardian
Spying and cyber theft are not freak phenomena; they're unavoidable consequences of online access as it now exists.
What will life be like after the internet? Thanks to the mass surveillance undertaken by the National Security Agency and the general creepiness of companies like Google and Facebook, I've found myself considering this question. I mean, nothing lasts forever, right?

There's a broad tech backlash going on right now; I wonder just how deep the disillusionment runs. I get the feeling that there are folks out there who would relish putting the internet behind us sooner rather than later. Imagine that: even the internet could be a thing of the past one day. What would that be like? No Facebook. No Google. No government nerds looking through your webcam.

But could we become more secure without abandoning the internet? What if there's a third way? One that doesn't involve either passive resignation to being exploited or a Luddite smash-the-looms fantasy. What if we began to develop and encourage the adoption of machines and a network that are actually secure - through which neither thieves, corporations, nor the NSA could track us - and what if these could be configured by us, to really do what we want them to do? To stop the spying, stealing and monitoring, but to allow other things to continue.

What would that look like?

A problem: maybe the internet wasn't built to be secure

Astronomers 'disappointed' after discovering rings around Asteroid Chariklo

© Nick Risinger/L. Calçada/ESO
This artist's impression shows how the rings might look from close to the surface of Chariklo. They are 1,000 times closer than the moon is to Earth, but are each just a few kilometres wide.
Rings have been discovered around an asteroid for the first time to the dismay of astronomers who didn't think asteroids could have rings.

The asteroid Chariklo, which is also considered a minor planet, appears to be encircled by two narrow rings, reported an international team of scientists in a paper published online Wednesday in the journal Nature.

"We weren't looking for a ring and didn't think small bodies like Chariklo had them at all," said Felipe Braga-Ribas of the Observatório Nacional/MCTI in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, lead author of the report, in a statement.

"So the discovery - and the amazing amount of detail we saw in the system - came as a complete surprise!"

Chariklo is the largest of the Centaurs, a group of asteroids orbiting between Saturn and Uranus. Its diameter is about 250 kilometres. In comparison, Lake Ontario is 310 kilometres long and Prince Edward Island is 224 kilometres long.

Comment: The astronomers are disappointed because it's another nail in the coffin of their theories about how the Universe works.

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