Science & Technology


Where are we in the universe? Most detailed map yet

Lanikea map
© Nature Video, based on Tully et al 2014
A new study in Nature finds that the Milky Way is part of a broader supercluster of 100,000 galaxies known as Laniakea.
We know that the Earth and the solar system are located in the Milky Way galaxy. But how, exactly, does the Milky Way fit in among the billions of other galaxies in the known universe?

In a fascinating 2014 study for Nature, a team of scientists mapped thousands of galaxies in our immediate vicinity, and discovered that the Milky Way is part of a jaw-droppingly massive "supercluster" of galaxies that they named Laniakea.

Quantum equation predicts universe has no beginning

WMAP Image
This is an artist's concept of the metric expansion of space, where space (including hypothetical non-observable portions of the universe) is represented at each time by the circular sections. Note on the left the dramatic expansion (not to scale) occurring in the inflationary epoch, and at the center the expansion acceleration. The scheme is decorated with WMAP images on the left and with the representation of stars at the appropriate level of development.
The universe may have existed forever, according to a new model that applies quantum correction terms to complement Einstein's theory of general relativity. The model may also account for dark matter and dark energy, resolving multiple problems at once.

The widely accepted age of the universe, as estimated by general relativity, is 13.8 billion years. In the beginning, everything in existence is thought to have occupied a single infinitely dense point, or singularity. Only after this point began to expand in a "Big Bang" did the universe officially begin.

Although the Big Bang singularity arises directly and unavoidably from the mathematics of general relativity, some scientists see it as problematic because the math can explain only what happened immediately after—not at or before—the singularity.

"The Big Bang singularity is the most serious problem of general relativity because the laws of physics appear to break down there," Ahmed Farag Ali at Benha University and the Zewail City of Science and Technology, both in Egypt, told

Ali and coauthor Saurya Das at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, have shown in a paper published in Physics Letters B that the Big Bang singularity can be resolved by their new model in which the universe has no beginning and no end.
Blue Planet

Surprising 'inner core' of Earth's inner core

inner inner core anisotropy
© Lachina Publishing Services
The earth’s inner core has an inner core of its own, with crystals aligned in a different direction.
Thanks to a novel application of earthquake-reading technology, a research team at the University of Illinois and colleagues at Nanjing University in China have found that the Earth's inner core has an inner core of its own, which has surprising properties that could reveal information about our planet.

Humanoid robots to staff new Japanese hotel

Robots Actroids
© Huis Ten Bosch
Henn-na Hotel Robots Actroids.
In Walt Disney World's Carousel of Progress, a scene is presented where a robot bell boy is helping a lady out of her futuristic car. While the robots at Nagasaki's high tech Henn-na hotel will not be driving around on one wheel, the hotel will be primarily staffed by robots.

In a world where nearly every movie and novel to feature robotic AI ends with mankind being nearly wiped out, the idea of staying at a hotel with robotic attendants would give most people pause. The world in which the new Henn-na hotel will open is in the Huis Ten Bosch theme park in Nagasaki, Japan. The park is modeled after a Dutch town, complete with actual-sized copies of old Dutch buildings to bring the experience of The Netherlands to Japan. The high tech robotic staff will create an interesting juxtaposition against such a historic backdrop.

The official press release for the hotel touts the usage of robots, or "actroids," as the Washington Post calls them, saying they will handle some of the most visible services at the hotel, including greeting guests, carrying luggage, cleaning rooms, and checking you in and out of your rooms. The hotel will open with 10 robotic staff members but Hideo Sawada, president of theme park Huis Ten Bosch, stated the following.
Eye 1

Shhh! Your t.v. may be eavesdropping

samsung smart tv
© samsung
Too smart?
Samsung's Smart TV may be a little too smart for its own good.

Tucked into the privacy policy of the South Korean electronics behemoth's Smart TV are a few paragraphs that may send chills down the spine of some consumers. According to the document, the unit's voice recognition protocols can "capture voice commands and associated texts so that [Samsung] can provide you with Voice Recognition features and evaluate and improve the features."

The boilerplate language - which granted few people read in its entirety - sounds fairly anodyne. That is, until the company adds this warning: "Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of Voice Recognition."

Comment: Is the supposed convenience of smart technology worth the loss of privacy?


Dwarf planet Ceres now showing 'multiple' mysterious white spots

Animation of Ceres
Animation of photos of the asteroid Ceres taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on Feb. 4, 2015 at a distance of about 90,000 miles (145,000 kilometers).
NASA's Dawn spacecraft has acquired its latest and closest-yet snapshot of the mysterious dwarf planet world Ceres. These latest images, taken on Feb. 4, from a distance of about 90,000 miles (145,000 km) clearly show craters - including a couple with central peaks - and a clearer though still ambiguous view of that wild white spot that has so many of us scratching our heads as to its nature.

Get ready to scratch some more. The mystery spot has plenty of company.

Take a look at some still images I grabbed from the video which NASA made available today. In several of the photos, the white spot clearly looks like a depression, possibly an impact site. In others, it appears more like a rise or mountaintop. But perhaps the most amazing thing is that there appear to be not one but many white dabs and splashes on Ceres' 590-mile-wide globe. I've toned the images to bring out more details:

white spot on Ceres
Here the spot appears more like a depression. Frost? Ice?

Comment: On January 13th, only one white spot was visible from NASA's Dawn spacecraft. Could these latest images of multiple 'white spots' on Ceres be an indication of increasing electrical discharges?

See also: Is Ceres turning into a comet? Solar systems biggest asteroid is spewing jets


Mind over matter? Prototype lets humans upload their mind into mechanized 'heads'

© Screenshot from YouTube user Bloomberg Business
An Artificial Intelligence pioneer is embracing the controversial idea of uploading the memories, thoughts and feelings of a living person into a computer to create a Mind Clone or "second self." The prototype for this new self is called 'Bina-48'.

Entrepreneur Martine Rothblatt has created a new robotic head that she hopes, one day in the future, humans will be able to upload their minds into. Bina-48 is named after Rothblatt's real-life wife, Bina Aspen, and serves as a proof-of-concept for the futuristic idea. The robot version is designed to carry on a conversation, with scientists hoping that these mind clones could give human owners a sort of artificial afterlife.

"I believe Mind Clones will be humanity's biggest invention. The market opportunity is limitless," Rothblatt told Bloomberg News. "Ultimately - just like we all want a smart phone, we all want a social media account - we are all going to want a Mind Clone. It will make everything in our life more useful, more valuable. It will give us twice as much time to do everything."

Crazy underwater video shows a camouflaged octopus 'decloak' before your eyes

octopus, camoflauge
© Jonathan Gordon/Youtube
A screen capture at the moment of truth reveals the hidden cephalopod
Diver Jonathan Gordon caught the stunning moment an octopus appeared seemingly out of nowhere. "I had literally no idea he was there until I was about a metre away," he writes about the moment this video was taken. Gordon writes that he was snorkeling in the Caribbean and dove to inspect the shell the octopus was apparently under, when the little guy decided to pop out and say hello, changing his colors rapidly.

Various cephalopods - including cuttlefish - can rapidly and dramatically change the color of their skin to blend in with surroundings.They have "thousands of color-changing cells called chromatophores just below the surface of the skin," according to the Smithsonian.

"A complex array of nerves and muscles controls whether the sac is expanded or contracted and, when the sac expands, the color is more visible. Besides chromatophores, some cephalopods also have iridophores and leucophores. Iridophores have stacks of reflecting plates that create iridescent greens, blues, silvers and golds, while leucophores mirror back the colors of the environment, making the animal less conspicuous."

New technique fights aging: Artificially lengthened telomeres?

© Reuters/Harrison McClary
The high vulnerability of cultured adult stem cells has posed a big problem for microbiological research. But a new technique, developed by Stanford scientists, can extend the life of cultured cells and offer clues to solving diseases and prolonging life.

The technique can quickly increase the length of human telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes. As a result, the treated cells behave as if they are much younger and multiply with abandon in the laboratory dish - rather than stagnating and dying. Normally, telomeres shorten with each cell division, and this is the reason a cell eventually dies.

Winning: The FCC's chairman just announced strong, controversial network neutrality rules

FCC, Tom Wheeler
© Mark Wilson/Getty Images
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler
  1. Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, just announced new regulations that will provide strong protections for network neutrality.
  2. The proposal makes use of a controversial legal maneuver called reclassification, which opens the door to regulating internet access as a public utility.
  3. Most Republicans oppose reclassification, and they're working on legislation that would establish limited network neutrality rules without reclassifying.
  4. The FCC is scheduled to vote on the proposal on February 26.
The politics of network neutrality have shifted dramatically

Wheeler has now chosen a legal strategy that he saw as too radical just nine months ago. His original network neutrality proposal, which he released last May, tried to protect network neutrality, the idea that all internet content should be treated equally, without treating internet access as a public utility. Critics argued that these rules were too weak, leaving a big loophole that would allow broadband providers to engage in exactly the kind of discriminatory behavior that network neutrality rules are supposed to prevent.

Network neutrality advocates wanted to regulate broadband providers as public utilities, a step known to insiders as "reclassification." They mounted a successful lobbying campaign, submitting millions of comments to the agency urging a stronger stance. They gained an important ally in November when President Barack Obama endorsed reclassification.

The growing momentum for reclassification spooked Congressional Republicans and their allies in the telecom industry. They worry that reclassification could open the internet up to intrusive regulation in the future. In January, two key Republican leaders announced plans to draft legislation that would protect network neutrality but take reclassification off the table. But so far that proposal has gotten a cold reception from Democrats, who believe they can get what they want on the issue without GOP help.