Science & Technology


Real life Transformer introduced at Tokyo expo

The J-deite Quarter
© Screen Capture
If you are a Transformer fan who dreams of someday owning your own transforming robot, Project J-deite will soon make your dream a reality.

The project, which is a collaborative effort between Japan's Brave Robotics, Asratec and Takara Tommy, is the brain child of Kenji Ishida, founder of Brave Robotics.

Ishida's passion for robotics began at the age of 14 and by the time he was 21, he had built his first bi-pedal walking robot. Now, he and his team have developed the J-deite Quarter, a humanoid bi-pedal robot made out of 3D-printed parts.

Introduced last week at the Digital Content Expo in Tokyo, attendees and the media got a glimpse of what J-deite Quarter can do.

The transforming robot stands 1.3 meters (4.3 feet) tall and can walk at a rate of 1 kilometer per hour (0.62 mph). reports it takes J-deite Quarter approximately 30 seconds to transform from a walking robot to car mode. Once in car mode, it can travel up to ten kilometers per hour (6.2 mph).

Space station dodging 'space junk' - yet again!

The International Space Station has to sidestep a piece of junk on the same day that a Virginia company is sending fresh supplies.

NASA says debris from an old, wrecked Russian satellite was due to come dangerously close to the orbiting lab Monday afternoon - a gap of just two-tenths of a mile. To keep the station and its six inhabitants safe, the station was going to maneuver well out of harm's way.

Mission Control says the move won't affect Monday evening's planned launch of a commercial supply ship.

Orbital Sciences Corp.'s unmanned Cygnus capsule holds 5,000 pounds of cargo, including mini research satellites. Liftoff is scheduled for 6:45 p.m. (2245 GMT) from Wallops Island, Virginia.

The launch, coming a half-hour after sunset, should be visible along much of the Eastern Seaboard.

Comment: If this really is "debris from an old, wrecked Russian satellite", perhaps we ought to ask the following question. Why have more satellites been crashing to Earth since 2011?

Could it be because they're being knocked out of orbit by incoming meteors and comet fragments?

See: Satellite debris or UFO Unidentified metal sphere falls from the sky in Brazil

and Space station dodges space junk again


How the air we breathe was created by Earth's tectonic plates

© Simon Redfern
Volcanism, driven by plate tectonics, built Earth’s atmosphere to make a habitable planet.
How is it that Earth developed an atmosphere that made the development of life possible? A study published in the journal Nature Geoscience links the origins of Earth's nitrogen-rich atmosphere to the same tectonic forces that drive mountain-building and volcanism on our planet. It goes some way to explaining why, compared to our nearest neighbours, Venus and Mars, Earth's air is richer in nitrogen.

The chemistry of the air we breathe is, at least partly, the result of billions of years of photosynthesis. Plant life has transformed our world from one cloaked in a carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere - as seen on Mars or Venus - to one with significant oxygen. About a fifth of the air is made up of oxygen, and almost all the rest is nitrogen. But the origins of the relatively high nitrogen content of Earth's air have been something of a mystery.

Geoscientists Sami Mikhail and Dimitri Sverjensky of the Carnegie Institution of Washington have calculated what nitrogen is expected to do when it is cycled through the rocks of the deep Earth by the churning cycle of plate tectonics. Active volcanoes not only shower volcanic rock and superheated ash as they erupt molten rock into the air, they also vent huge amounts of gas from Earth's depths. The latest eruptions in Iceland, for example, have been noted for the amounts of sulphurous fumes that they have emitted.

Alongside sulphur, steam and carbon dioxide, volcanoes next to active tectonic plate boundaries pump massive quantities of nitrogen into the air. Mikhail and Sverjensky explain this through the chemistry of what goes on beneath those volcanic roots.

Astronomers capture first ever data of an exploding fireball from a nova star

Researchers reveal the nova was about 14,800 light years from the sun, meaning the explosion witnessed in August last year happened 15,000 years ago

© David A Hardy
An artist’s impression of a star system responsible for a nova.
A team of astronomers have captured the first images of a thermonuclear fireball from a nova star, allowing them to track the explosion as it expanded.

The nova was detected last year in the constellation Delphinus by the Chara Array infrared telescope in the US.

Researchers from 17 institutions around the world, including the University of Sydney and the Australian National University, analysed the resulting data.

It revealed with "unprecedented clarity" how the fireball evolves as the gas fuelling it expands and cools, Professor Peter Tuthill, a co-author on the study, said.

"We haven't had the ability to witness such exquisite magnification or high resolution of images until very recently, when we started building these powerful Array telescopes," Tuthill, from the University of Sydney's Institute for Astronomy, said.

How cells know which way to go

Two new studies shed light on how cells sense and respond to chemical trails

© Yulia Artemenko/Johns Hopkins Medicine
A lab-grown human leukemia cells move toward a pipette tip holding an attractive chemical.
Amoebas aren't the only cells that crawl: Movement is crucial to development, wound healing and immune response in animals, not to mention cancer metastasis. In two new studies from Johns Hopkins, researchers answer long-standing questions about how complex cells sense the chemical trails that show them where to go - and the role of cells' internal "skeleton" in responding to those cues.

In following these chemical trails, cells steer based on minute differences in concentrations of chemicals between one end of the cell and the other. "Cells can detect differences in concentration as low as 2 percent," says Peter Devreotes, Ph.D., director of the Department of Cell Biology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "They're also versatile, detecting small differences whether the background concentration is very high, very low or somewhere in between."

Working with Pablo Iglesias, Ph.D., a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Johns Hopkins, Devreotes' research group members Chuan-Hsiang Huang, Ph.D., a research associate, and postdoctoral fellow Ming Tang, Ph.D., devised a system for watching the response of a cellular control center that directs movement. They then subjected amoebas and human white blood cells to various gradients and analyzed what happened. "Detecting gradients turns out to be a two-step process," says Huang. "First, the cell tunes out the background noise, and the side of the cell that is getting less of the chemical signal just stops responding to it. Then, the control center inside the cell ramps up its response to the message it's getting from the other side of the cell and starts the cell moving toward that signal." The results appear on the Nature Communications website on Oct. 27.

New pathway found: Mutant cells fail to deliver new proteins to correct location

Proteins are the machinery that accomplishes almost every task in every cell in every living organism. The instructions for how to build each protein are written into a cell's DNA. But once the proteins are constructed, they must be shipped off to the proper place to perform their jobs. New work from a team of scientists led by Carnegie's Munevver Aksoy and Arthur Grossman, describes a potentially new pathway for targeting newly manufactured proteins to the correct location. Their work is published in The Plant Cell journal.

The team's discovery concerns a cellular organelle that has been called an acidocalcisome. It is a compartment that isolates potential harmful or disruptive compounds from the rest of the cell and is also involved in the turnover of cellular components (similar to the so-called lysosome in animals). They are rich in phosphate-containing molecules and the team noted that they build up to high levels when cells of the single-celled, green alga Chlamydomonas are deprived of sulfur. They discovered that acidocalcisomes are also, surprisingly, involved in targeting proteins out into the cell space between the cell's membrane and the cell wall.

Working with Chlamydomonas, the team, which also included Carnegie's Wirulda Pootakham, was examining the organism's responses to nutrient deficiency. They found that mutant cells lacking the ability to form these acidocalcisomes also lacked the ability to cope with sulfur and nitrogen deprivation adequately.

What appears to happen with these mutants is that the proteins that specialize in helping the cell survive a deficiency of sulfur or nitrogen don't get shipped out to the space between the membrane and cell wall where they are needed. Because of this, feedback is sent to stop construction of the proteins (and the messenger RNA that encodes those proteins) and the entire response to nutrient deficiency is derailed.

Elon Musk says 'With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon'

© Reuters
FILE 2014: Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, says artificial intelligence probably the biggest threat to human existence.
Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla and founder of SpaceX, said Friday that artificial intelligence is probably the biggest threat to humans.

Musk, who addressed MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics department's Centennial Symposium for about an hour, mulled international oversight to "make sure we don't do something very foolish," The Washington Post reported.

He was not specific about any particular threat, but appeared to theorize out loud.

"With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon," he said. "In all those stories where there's the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it's like yeah he's sure he can control the demon. Didn't work out."

House-sized asteroid to give Earth a very close shave Monday

2104 UF56
© Unknown
Get ready for a very close encounter as a house-sized asteroid 2014 UF56 will pass between the Earth and the Moon on Monday. The 15 meter wide space rock will miss our planet at a distance of about 160,000 km (0.4 lunar distances) at 9:12 p.m. UTC. The asteroid was discovered Saturday and despite passing so close to Earth, few if any of us will see the flyby with our eyes in a telescope. At brightest, 2014 UF56 will only reach magnitude +16, as it zips from Scutum constellation through Capricornus.

The asteroid, back in 2012 visited Mars at a distance of about 8 mln km. It will again approach the Earth on Feb. 12, 2018. This will be a very distant fly-by, at about 64 lunar distances.

Comment: Last week, Comet Siding Spring flew by Mars and we are frequently hearing the news of asteroids and fireballs. Is there anything happening in the solar system that is contributing to this phenomenon?


World's largest snake species has 'virgin birth'

© The Independent, UK
A python named Thelma hatched six offspring - without contact with a male.
A 20-foot python from a zoo in America has given birth without the help of a mate.

Thelma, an 11-year-old reticulated python - the longest species of snake in the world - laid 61 eggs in the summer of 2012. This is despite having had no contact with a male in her four years at Louisville Zoo in Kentucky, USA.

After six months of extensive tests on the shed skins of the mother and her daughters, a study published in July this year in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society confirmed that Thelma was the sole parent, in the first recorded example of virgin birth in the species.

Bill McMahan, Curator of Ectotherms at Louisville Zoo, told National Geographic: "We didn't know what we were seeing. We had attributed it to stored sperm. I guess sometimes truth is stranger than fiction."

Dietary cocoa flavanols reverse age-related memory decline in mice

Dietary cocoa flavanols -- naturally occurring bioactives found in cocoa -- reversed age-related memory decline in healthy older adults, according to a study led by Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) scientists.

© Lab of Scott A. Small, M.D.
The brain area outlined in yellow is the hippocampus; the dentate gyrus is shown in green and the entorhinal cortex in purple. Previous work, including by the laboratory of senior author Scott A. Small, M.D., had shown that changes in a specific part of the brain's hippocampus -- the dentate gyrus -- are associated with normal age-related memory decline in humans and other mammals. The dentate gyrus is distinct from the entorhinal cortex, the hippocampal region affected in early-stage Alzheimer's disease.
The study, published today in the advance online issue of Nature Neuroscience, provides the first direct evidence that one component of age-related memory decline in humans is caused by changes in a specific region of the brain and that this form of memory decline can be improved by a dietary intervention.

As people age, they typically show some decline in cognitive abilities, including learning and remembering such things as the names of new acquaintances or where one parked the car or placed one's keys. This normal age-related memory decline starts in early adulthood but usually does not have any noticeable impact on quality of life until people reach their fifties or sixties. Age-related memory decline is different from the often-devastating memory impairment that occurs with Alzheimer's, in which a disease process damages and destroys neurons in various parts of the brain, including the memory circuits.

Previous work, including by the laboratory of senior author Scott A. Small, MD, had shown that changes in a specific part of the brain -- the dentate gyrus -- are associated with age-related memory decline. Until now, however, the evidence in humans showed only a correlational link, not a causal one. To see if the dentate gyrus is the source of age-related memory decline in humans, Dr. Small and his colleagues tested whether compounds called cocoa flavanols can improve the function of this brain region and improve memory. Flavanols extracted from cocoa beans had previously been found to improve neuronal connections in the dentate gyrus of mice.