Science & Technology


Google search results will favor encrypted web sites

© Reuters / Mal Langsdon
Websites that are not encrypted will receive a lower ranking on Google's search engine, in a move designed to push site owners towards adopting technology that protects users' data against hackers.

The step is the latest in a series that Google has made to improve the security of the web - something it has focused on since Edward Snowden's National Security Agency (NSA) spying allegations broke last year, which detailed information about mass government surveillance by the US and some of its allies, including the UK.

All major websites use encryption when a person submits their login details, but some sites then downgrade to an unencrypted connection.

"We hope to see more websites using HTTPS in the future," Google said in a blog post.

Mystery of brain cell growth unraveled by scientists

In the developing brain, special proteins that act like molecular tugboats push or pull on growing nerve cells, or neurons, helping them navigate to their assigned places amidst the brain's wiring.

How a single protein can exert both a push and a pull force to nudge a neuron in the desired direction is a longstanding mystery that has now been solved by scientists from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and collaborators in Europe and China.

Jia-huai Wang, PhD, who led the work at Dana-Farber and Peking University in Beijing, is a corresponding author of a report published in the August 7 online edition of Neuron that explains how one guidance protein, netrin-1, can either attract or repel a brain cell to steer it along its course. Wang and co-authors at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Hamburg, Germany, used X-ray crystallography to reveal the three-dimensional atomic structure of netrin-1 as it bound to a docking molecule, called DCC, on the axon of a neuron. The axon is the long, thin extension of a neuron that connects to other neurons or to muscle cells.

As connections between neurons are established -- in the developing brain and throughout life -- axons grow out from a neuron and extend through the brain until they reach the neuron they are connecting to. To choose its path, a growing axon senses and reacts to different molecules it encounters along the way. One of these molecules, netrin-1, posed an interesting puzzle: an axon can be both attracted to and repelled from this cue. The axon's behavior is determined by two types of receptors on its tip: DCC drives attraction, while UNC5 in combination with DCC drives repulsion.

Solar System-wide 'climate change': Supersized storms erupt on Uranus

Uranus Storms_1
© Imke De Pater (UC Berkeley)/Keck ObservatoryTORY
Infrared image of a storm on Uranus acquired on Aug. 6, 2014 from Keck Observatory, Hawaii.
First off, you know it's pronounced "YOOR-ah-nus," right? Okay, good. Let's move on.

As hurricanes take aim at Hawaii, astronomers in Hawaii aimed their telescopes at storms raging on another planet: distant Uranus, the tilted ice giant orbiting the sun nearly 20 times farther away than Earth.

Wrapped in an atmosphere tinted pale blue by high-altitude methane, Uranus has occasionally been observed to develop large storms in its frigid windy skies. NASA's Voyager 2 saw a few small storm clouds spotting Uranus during its flyby in Jan. 1986, and more recently some large but short-lived storms were observed by Hubble and the W.M. Keck Observatory as the planet moved toward its equinox in 2007. Now, seven years after its equinox, swirling storms are once again blooming on Uranus - and Keck astronomers have caught them on camera.

It's not just one storm, either; several have appeared in infrared images of Uranus, including one enormous storm that's even bigger than a previously-observed giant that was nicknamed "Berg" because of its resemblance to an iceberg drifting through polar seas.

Recent study finds 1950-2009 Solar Grand Maximum was a unique event in 3,000 years

Sun said to be "bi-modal"

While many, including the IPCC, suggest the modern Grand Maximum of solar activity from 1950-2009 has nothing to do with the 0.4C global warming measured over that time frame, it does seem to be unique in the last three millennia.

from CO2 Science: A 3,000-Year Record of Solar Activity

What was done

According to Usoskin et al. (2014), the Sun "shows strong variability in its magnetic activity, from Grand minima to Grand maxima, but the nature of the variability is not fully understood, mostly because of the insufficient length of the directly observed solar activity records and of uncertainties related to long-term reconstructions." Now, however, in an attempt to overcome such uncertainties, in a Letter to the Editor published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, Usoskin et al. "present the first fully adjustment-free physical reconstruction of solar activity" covering the past 3,000 years, which record allowed them "to study different modes of solar activity at an unprecedented level of detail."
sunspot avarage

Reconstructed decadal average of sunspot numbers for the period 1150 BC-1950 AD (black line). The 95% confidence interval is shown by the gray shading and directly measured sunspot numbers are shown in red. The horizontal dashed lines demark the bounds of the three suggested modes (Grand Minimum, Regular, and Grand Maximum) as defined by Usoskin et al.

Comment: The influence of sun's maximums and minimums on Earth's climate is well defined and illustrated in the pioneering book, Earth Changes and The Human-Cosmic Connection.


Do quantum particles take the road most traveled?

© Credit: Murch Lab/WUSTL
The path that quantum particles are most likely to take is beginning to emerge in this image mapping thousands of quantum paths.
For the first time ever, physicists have mapped the path that particles are most likely to take when
moving from one quantum state to another.

In physics, a concept called the "path of least action" describes the trajectory that an object is most likely to follow, similar to the familiar concept of the "path of least resistance." For example, a tossed football follows a parabolic arc through the air instead of spinning off in crazy loops or zigzags. That's because a parabola path requires fewer "actions" than a looped or zigzag path.

However, physicists didn't know whether quantum particles, like electrons, neutrinos or photons, follow the same rule. Many of the classic rules of physics don't seem to apply to these tiny particles. Instead, they are governed by the weird rules of quantum mechanics that even Einstein called "spooky." [Wacky Physics: The Coolest Little Particles in Nature]

Comment: The role of the 'observer', quantum physics, superconductivity, information theory, Electric Universe theory and much more are discussed in Pierre Lescaudron and Laura Knight-Jadczyk's new book, Earth Changes and the Human-Cosmic Connection.


Newly identified vulnerability could potentially compromise commercial airliners

© Thinkstock
The satellite communications equipment of passenger jets can be hacked through their wireless internet and inflight entertainment systems, claims one prominent cybersecurity researcher who has promised to reveal the details of his work Thursday at the annual Black Hat hacking conference in Las Vegas, Nevada.

According to Reuters reporter Jim Finkle, IOActive consultant Ruben Santamarta plans to discuss vulnerabilities he has discovered in aerospace satellite communication systems - a presentation that "is expected to be one of the most widely watched at the conference" and "could prompt a review of aircraft security."

The 32-year-old Santamarta told Reuters he discovered the flaws in the communication systems by reverse engineering their firmware - in other words, decoding the software used to operate the equipment. Theoretically, hackers could use the onboard WiFi or inflight entertainment system to hack into its avionics equipment, allowing them to potentially disrupt the aircraft's navigation and safety systems.

The systems specifically mentioned in the study were created by Cobham, Harris, Hughes Network Systems, Iridium Communications and Japan Radio. While Santamarta told Fingle that the hacks have only been tested in controlled environments (such as IOActive's Madrid laboratory) and could be difficult to replicate under real world condition, he said that he decided to publicize his findings to encourage manufacturers to patch these security issues.

"Since the specific details of the exploit won't be announced until Santamarta's presentation later this week, we're left guessing until then just how big of an issue this actually is. The cause for concern is clear, though," said Adam Clark Estes of Gizmodo.

Horses talk with their ears and communicate with subtle body language

ears laid back
Red horse: snarl, ears laid back "Give me space"
Black horse: fear eye, backing up, head high, "Oops, sorry"
Forget neighing! Horses talk with their ears!

Horse whisperers take note: If you want to better understand your equine friends, then study their ears.

A study has revealed that just like humans, horses read each other's faces. But, unlike us, they gain important information by specifically examining the ears. It seems that when a horse is interested in something, it pricks up its ears and swivels them towards whatever has caught its attention. This movement is so important that, if its ears are covered up, another horse struggles to know what it is thinking.

angry horse
This horse is demonstrating angry behavior, feeling threatened with no place to run. "Back off!"
The finding comes from University of Sussex researchers who studied what makes one horse pay attention to another horse. They began by taking photos of a horse looking to one side at bucket of food. They then placed a picture on a post between two buckets of food, led another horse into the barn and watched which bucket it went to.

They almost always took their cue from the pictured animal and chose the bucket it seemed to be looking at. However, when the photo was manipulated, so that the horse's eyes were covered up, the results were no better than chance.

This suggests the horse's gaze conveys important information.

More surprisingly, covering up the ears had the same effect - meaning they are also key to communication. Researcher Jennifer Wathan (CORR), a PhD student, said: 'Our study is the first to examine a potential cue to attention that humans do not have: the ears.

Comment: If only it was that simple for humans!


Solar System-wide 'climate change': Jupiter's moon Io seeing increasing volcanic activity

© Katherine de Kleer/UC Berkeley/Gemini Observatory/AURA
Image of Io taken in the near-infrared at the Gemini North telescope on August 29. In addition to the extremely bright eruption on the upper right limb of the satellite, the lava lake Loki is visible in the middle of Io’s disk, as well as the fading eruption that was detected earlier in the month by de Pater on the southern (bottom) limb.
Jupiter's innermost moon, Io - with over 400 active volcanoes, extensive lava flows and floodplains of liquid rock - is by far the most geologically active body in the Solar System. But last August, Io truly came alive with volcanism.

Three massive volcanic eruptions led astronomers to speculate that these presumed rare outbursts were much more common than previously thought. Now, an image from the Gemini Observatory captures what is one of the brightest volcanoes ever seen in our Solar System.

"We typically expect one huge outburst every one or two years, and they're usually not this bright," said lead author Imke de Pater from the University of California, Berkeley, in a press release. In fact, only 13 large eruptions were observed between 1978 and 2006. "Here we had three extremely bright outbursts, which suggest that if we looked more frequently we might see many more of them on Io."
2 + 2 = 4

Blood test for suicide: Changes in one gene predict suicide risk

© Image credit: Chapendra
Genetic test predicts suicidality with 90% accuracy in people at severe risk.
Scientists at Johns Hopkins University say they have uncovered a chemical change in a single human gene which could lead to a simple blood test for suicide risk.

The gene, known as SKA2, is involved in the way the brain responds to stress hormones, according to the research published in The American Journal of Psychiatry (Guintivano et al., 2014).

Comet-chaser nearing it's prey after crossing billions of miles

© Credit: ESA/ATG Medialab
This artist's impression shows the Rosetta orbiter at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The image is not to scale.
After a decade-long quest spanning six billion kilometres (3.75 billion miles), a European probe will come face to face Wednesday with a comet, one of the Solar System's enigmatic wanderers.

The moment will mark a key phase of the most ambitious project ever undertaken by the European Space Agency (ESA) - a 1.3 billion euro ($1.76 billion) bid to get to know these timeless space rovers.

More than 400 million km from where it was launched in March 2004, the spacecraft Rosetta will finally meet up with its prey, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

To get there, Rosetta has had to make four flybys of Mars and Earth, using their gravitational force as a slingshot to build up speed, and then entering a 31-month hibernation as light from the distant Sun became too weak for its solar panels.

It was awakened in January.

After braking manoeuvres, the three-tonne craft should on Wednesday be about 100 km from the comet - a navigational feat that, if all goes well, will be followed by glittering scientific rewards.

"It's taken more than 10 years to get here," said Sylvain Lodiot, spacecraft operations manager.

"Now we have to learn how to dock with the comet, and stay with it for the months ahead."

Blazing across the sky as they loop around the Sun, comets have long been considered portents of wonderful or terrible events - the birth and death of kings, bountiful harvests or famines, floods or earthquakes.

Astrophysicists, though, see them rather differently.

Comets, they believe, are clusters of the oldest dust and ice in the Solar System - the rubble left from the formation of the planets 4.6 billion years ago.

These so-called dirty snowballs could be the key to understanding how the planets coalesced after the Sun flared into life, say some.

Indeed, one theory - the "pan-spermia" hypothesis - is that comets, by bombarding the fledgling Earth, helped kickstart life here by bringing water and organic molecules.

Until now, though, explorations of comets have been rare and mainly entailed flybys by probes on unrelated missions snatching pictures from thousands of kilometres away.

Exceptions were the US probe Stardust, which brought home dust snatched from a comet's wake, while Europe's Giotto ventured to within 200 km of a comet's surface.

On November 11, the plan is for Rosetta to inch to within a few kilometres of the comet to send down a 100-kilogramme (220-pound) refrigerator-sized robot laboratory, Philae.

Anchored to the surface, Philae will carry out experiments in cometary chemistry and texture for up to six months. After the lander expires, Rosetta will accompany "C-G" as it passes around the Sun and heads out towards the orbit of Jupiter.

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Comment: Mainstream science arguing that comets are "dirty snowballs" is incompatible with actual data. For more information on the winning Electric Universe theory, and how electrical discharges may determine 'asteroids' from 'comets'; and other related phenomena, read Pierre Lescaudron and Laura Knight-Jadczyk's new book, Earth Changes and the Human-Cosmic Connection.

"Comets pose a risk, albeit a very small one, to life on Earth". Really!

Read the following books by Laura Knight-Jadczyk:
The Secret History of the World and How to Get Out Alive
The Apocalypse: Comets, Asteroids and Cyclical Catastrophes
Comets and the Horns of Moses