Science & Technology


Solar Flares Aren't What They Seemed - Really?

© NASA/University of Colorado/Tom Woods
A common classification of flare magnitude is based on the peak intensity of the X-ray as measured for more than 30 years by the NOAA GOES satellites. The X-ray flare classification includes a letter, either A, B, C, M, or X, and a number from 1 to 9. The letter represents a factor of 10 change in the X-ray intensity; the number is the intensity within the flare class.
When British amateur astronomers Richard Carrington and Richard Hodgson independently saw a brightening of a small region of the Sun about 150 years ago, in 1859, they saw a very powerful event now called a solar flare. Since American astronomer George Ellery Hale discovered about 100 years ago that sunspots are regions of strong magnetism on the Sun, astronomers have linked magnetic storms on Earth to sunspots and to the solar-activity cycle. For roughly the last 50 years, solar flares have been categorized and detected by the x-rays they give off. The current classification of flares goes, in increasing power at their peak, A, B, C, M, X.

Last Wednesday, scientists reported that they haven't been noticing most of the solar flares' energy. In a NASA Press Conference, held simultaneously with the release of a paper online in The Astrophysical Journal, they reported on new results based on observations with NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Since its launch on February 11, 2010, SDO has detected over a couple of hundred solar flares with its extreme-ultraviolet measuring instrument and with its cameras that take images also in that part of the spectrum beyond the violet, the ultraviolet. (Far into the ultraviolet is known as the extreme ultraviolet.) Several analyses have now shown that at least a group of the most powerful flares, which are detected in x-rays by satellites such as the GOES (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite) series of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, give off more energy about 90 minutes later than the x-ray peak than occurred in that first detected peak. This hitherto undetected second peak may not be quite as powerful at its maximum as the first peak but covers a somewhat longer time, rising to its peak and falling more slowly than the x-ray peak. It can thus contain more energy than the first peak.


New Emotion Detector Can See When We're Lying

© Surgical Planning Laboratory
Our faces betray a range of emotions; the thermal sensor even detects changes in blood vessels
A sophisticated new camera system can detect lies just by watching our faces as we talk, experts say.

The computerised system uses a simple video camera, a high-resolution thermal imaging sensor and a suite of algorithms.

Researchers say the system could be a powerful aid to security services.

It successfully discriminates between truth and lies in about two-thirds of cases, said lead researcher Professor Hassan Ugail from Bradford University.

The system, developed by a team from the universities of Bradford and Aberystwyth in conjunction with the UK Border Agency, was unveiled today at the British Science Festival in Bradford.

Comment: As effective as this 'emotion detector' may turn out to be, there is one group that will continue to spread lies without fear of detection.


Bad Spelling Opens Up Security Loophole

© Reuters
A missing dot might mean messages end up in the hands of cyber thieves.
A missing dot in an email address might mean messages end up in the hands of cyber thieves, researchers have found.

By creating web domains that contained commonly mistyped names, the investigators received emails that would otherwise not be delivered.

Over six months they grabbed 20GB of data made up of 120,000 wrongly sent messages.

Some of the intercepted correspondence contained user names, passwords, and details of corporate networks.

About 30% of the top 500 companies in the US were vulnerable to this security shortcoming according to researchers Peter Kim and Garret Gee of the Godai Group.


Gravity wave detector gets more sensitive

Getting rid of quantum noise

One characteristic of quantum physics is being used to defeat another, with the aim of making more sensitive gravity wave detectors, in an international project with contributions from the University of Western Australia, the Australian National University, and the GEO600 Gravitational Wave Observatory in Germany.

A problem with trying to detect gravity waves is that they're very, very weak, and there's lots of sources of noise to spoil the experiment. One of those noise sources turns out to be the strangeness of the quantum world.


Near-Death Experiences Explained by Science

© VinnyPrime / Stock.xchng
A vision of a light at the end of a dark tunnel is sometimes reported by people who have near-death experiences, but studies suggest the sight may be the result of oxygen deprivation.

Near-death experiences are often thought of as mystical phenomena, but research is now revealing scientific explanations for virtually all of their common features. The details of what happens in near-death experiences are now known widely - a sense of being dead, a feeling that one's "soul" has left the body, a voyage toward a bright light, and a departure to another reality where love and bliss are all-encompassing.

Approximately 3 percent of the U.S. population says they have had a near-death experience, according to a Gallup poll. Near-death experiences are reported across cultures, with written records of them dating back to ancient Greece. Not all of these experiences actually coincide with brushes with death - one study of 58 patients who recounted near-death experiences found 30 were not actually in danger of dying, although most of them thought they were.

Recently, a host of studies has revealed potential underpinnings for all the elements of such experiences. "Many of the phenomena associated with near-death experiences can be biologically explained," says neuroscientist Dean Mobbs, at the University of Cambridge's Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit. Mobbs and Caroline Watt at the University of Edinburgh detailed this research online August 17 in Trends in Cognitive Sciences.


Neanderthal-Human Sex Rarely Produced Kids, Study Suggests

© Mauro Cutrona
While humans may have interbred with Neanderthals long ago, the pairing probably only rarely produced offspring.

We may have interbred with Neanderthals in the past, but only rarely was that sex successful in producing offspring, scientists now suggest.

Any such dalliances might either have been scarce or only rarely produced offspring, or both, researchers explained.

Recent analyses of Neanderthal genes revealed that many of us have this extinct lineage within our ancestry. Estimates suggest that Neanderthal DNA makes up 1 to 4 percent of modern Eurasian genomes.

To learn more, scientists designed a computer model that estimated how much Neanderthal ancestry would be present in modern humans based on different levels of interbreeding, simulating potential interactions after our ancestors expanded into Neanderthal territory from Africa starting about 50,000 years ago. They next applied this model on the level of Neanderthal DNA seen in modern French and Chinese groups.

Based on this data and model, the researchers discovered the interbreeding success rate was probably less than 2 percent in most scenarios. Assuming that both lineages interacted for about 10,000 years, this means successful interbreeding would have, on average, happened just once every 23 to 50 years, they calculated.


Canadian Ozone Network Faces Axe

© R. Simmon / NASA
Arctic ozone levels hit a record low this year (blue area, right), compared with a relative high (red) in 2010.

A key source of information about the health of the ozone layer above the Arctic looks set to be choked off.

In a year that saw the first genuine 'ozone hole' appear in the Northern Hemisphere, atmospheric scientists say they are shocked to learn that Environment Canada, the country's environment agency, has decided to drastically reduce its ozone science and monitoring programme.

Its network of monitoring stations provides about one-third of the Arctic's ozone measurements and this year contributed key data showing unprecedented depletion of stratospheric ozone over the Arctic. With regular in situ measurements going back to 1966, Canada also holds the longest-running record of atmospheric ozone levels in the world - an archive that is also threatened.

The Canadian observation network comprises 17 stations - from London, Ontario, in the south to Alert in the high Arctic - which use several techniques to measure ozone (see 'The ozone network'). But atmospheric scientists and research institutes around the world, including Canada, Britain, Switzerland and Germany, have been told, informally, that the network will be shut down as early as this coming winter. This will be the end of in situ ozone measurements, including those made by balloons launched at least once a week from 11 of the stations. "This is devastating for the whole field," says Tom Duck, who conducts atmospheric research at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.


Astronomers Find 50 New Exoplanets: Richest Haul of Planets So Far Includes 16 New Super-Earths

© ESO/M. Kornmesser
This artist's impression shows the planet orbiting the Sun-like star HD 85512 in the southern constellation of Vela (The Sail). This planet is one of sixteen super-Earths discovered by the HARPS instrument on the 3.6-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory. This planet is about 3.6 times as massive as the Earth and lies at the edge of the habitable zone around the star, where liquid water, and perhaps even life, could potentially exist.

The HARPS spectrograph on the 3.6-metre telescope at ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile is the world's most successful planet finder [1]. The HARPS team, led by Michel Mayor (University of Geneva, Switzerland), have announced the discovery of more than 50 new exoplanets orbiting nearby stars, including sixteen super-Earths [2]. This is the largest number of such planets ever announced at one time [3]. The new findings are being presented at a conference on Extreme Solar Systems where 350 exoplanet experts are meeting in Wyoming, USA.

"The harvest of discoveries from HARPS has exceeded all expectations and includes an exceptionally rich population of super-Earths and Neptune-type planets hosted by stars very similar to our Sun. And even better -- the new results show that the pace of discovery is accelerating," says Mayor.

In the eight years since it started surveying stars like the Sun using the radial velocity technique HARPS has been used to discover more than 150 new planets. About two thirds of all the known exoplanets with masses less than that of Neptune [4] were discovered by HARPS. These exceptional results are the fruit of several hundred nights of HARPS observations [5].

Working with HARPS observations of 376 Sun-like stars, astronomers have now also much improved the estimate of how likely it is that a star like the Sun is host to low-mass planets (as opposed to gaseous giants). They find that about 40% of such stars have at least one planet less massive than Saturn. The majority of exoplanets of Neptune mass or less appear to be in systems with multiple planets.

With upgrades to both hardware and software systems in progress, HARPS is being pushed to the next level of stability and sensitivity to search for rocky planets that could support life. Ten nearby stars similar to the Sun were selected for a new survey. These stars had already been observed by HARPS and are known to be suitable for extremely precise radial velocity measurements. After two years of work, the team of astronomers has discovered five new planets with masses less than five times that of Earth.


'SpongeBob' Cartoon Can Cloud Kids' Concentration

© Live Science

Mom and Dad warned that television would rot your brain, and a new study suggests it's true - at least from certain frenetic-style cartoons.

Kids who watched just nine minutes of the fast-paced children's cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants did worse afterward at tasks requiring focus and self-control than did kids who watched a slow-paced cartoon and kids who entertained themselves by coloring.

The study was small, and scientists weren't sure how long the brain-drain effect persists. But the research highlights the importance not just of how much TV a child watches, but of what kind, said Dimitri Christakis of the Seattle Children's Research Institute at the University of Washington. Christakis was not involved in the study, but penned an accompanying editorial appearing today (Sept. 12) in the journal Pediatrics.

"It's not ... all television that creates deficits in attention," Christakis told LiveScience. "It's the pacing of the program, what we call the 'formal features,' that actually matter."


The Computer That Predicts The Future

© Paramount/Everett/Rex Features
Not even Captain Kirk can save us from Nautilus.
Nautilus foresaw the Arab Spring and the whereabouts of Bin Laden (sort of). What happens next is anyone's guess

Hey, wouldn't it be great if we had a supercomputer that could predict the future? By "we", incidentally, I mean "we" as in "the human race", not "we" as in "myself and you - you specifically". You might be Josef Fritzl for all I know. I don't want to find myself sharing a supercomputer desktop with Fritzl. Every time I went to open a window, he'd nail it shut.

That's a massive digression for an opening paragraph, so let's pretend it didn't happen and start again, after I click my fingers. Since you won't be able to hear me click my fingers, I'll substitute a pound sign for the noise itself. Ready? 3 ... 2 ... 1 ... £!