Science & Technology


Scientists discover smallest lifeforms in existence

Scientists have taken the first ever extensive microscopy images of ultra-small bacteria, which are so far thought to be the smallest life forms in existence.

The bacteria have an average volume of 0.009 cubic microns (a micron is one millionth of a meter), 150,000 of which could be placed on the tip of a human hair.

Ultra-small bacteria's presence has been under debate for some twenty years, but until now they lacked a comprehensive electron microscopy and DNA-based description.

The research was carried out by a group of scientists from the US Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley, and was published in the February 27 edition of the journal Nature Communications.

"These newly described ultra-small bacteria are an example of a subset of the microbial life on earth that we know almost nothing about," said the co-corresponding author of the research, Jill Banfield, a senior faculty scientist in the earth sciences division of Berkeley Lab.

Comment: This discovery makes one wonder - are there other planets that house these ultra-small organisms? There might not be such a slim chance of life on other planets as we are led to believe.


New research validates chronic fatigue sufferers

In new report, committee recommends name change to help erase the stigma associated with debilitating disease

© Jae S. Lee / The Tennessean
Esther Siebert, who has chronic fatigue syndrome, moved to Nashville from California a year ago. She still travels back to California for treatment, having no luck finding an internist locally who can help.
Esther Siebert, 67, has been living with a draining and debilitating disease for nearly 30 years, one that is only just recently being widely recognized as something real. Most commonly called chronic fatigue syndrome, it is a disease many doctors have been unable to diagnose, while many sufferers have been made to feel it was all in their head.

Siebert, who moved to Nashville from California a year ago, was lucky that her condition was recognized very early on by an understanding doctor. That isn't always the case.

Comment: The Stigma of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Hits Teens, Too


Space-walking astronaut tweets photos that reveal the breathtaking size of the space station

Astronaut Terry Virts
Two U.S. astronauts whipped through a third spacewalk outside the International Space Station on Sunday to rig parking spots for new U.S. space taxis.

Station commander Barry "Butch" Wilmore and flight engineer Terry Virts expected to spend about seven hours installing antennas, cables and navigation aides on the station's exterior truss. Instead, the astronauts, who were making their third spacewalk in eight days, were back inside the space station in 5.5 hours.

The purpose of the outings was to prepare berthing slips for spaceships being developed by Boeing and Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX.

Wilmore and Virts floated outside the Quest airlock shortly after 7 a.m., a NASA Television broadcast showed. Their job was to install more than 400 feet (122 meters) of cables, a pair of antennas and reflectors that the new spaceships will use to navigate toward and dock with the station, a $100 billion laboratory that flies about 260 miles (418 km) above Earth.


The dark side of the Internet of Things

© Welleman
Can you imagine a world where your home, your vehicles, your appliances and every single electronic device that you own is constantly connected to the Internet? This is not some grand vision that is being planned for some day in the future. This is something that is being systematically implemented right now. In 2015, we already have "smart homes", vehicles that talk to one another, refrigerators that are connected to the Internet, and televisions that spy on us. Our world is becoming increasingly interconnected, and that opens up some wonderful possibilities. But there is also a downside. What if we rapidly reach a point where one must be connected to the Internet in order to function in society? Will there come a day when we can't even do basic things such as buy, sell, get a job or open a bank account without it? And what about the potential for government abuse? Could an "Internet of Things" create a dystopian nightmare where everyone and everything will be constantly monitored and tracked by the government? That is something to think about.

Today, the Internet has become such an integral part of our lives that it is hard to remember how we ever survived without it. And with each passing year, the number of devices connected to the Internet continues to grow at an exponential rate. If you have never heard of the "Internet of Things" before, here is a little bit about it from Wikipedia...

Comment: What will you do when you can no longer buy or sell without submitting to biometric identification?


What is the fourth phase of water?

University of Washington Bioengineering Professor Gerald Pollack answers this question, and intrigues us to consider the implications of this finding. Not all water is H2O, a radical departure from what you may have learned from textbooks.

Dr. Gerald Pollack, University of Washington professor of bioengineering, has developed a theory of water that has been called revolutionary. He has spent the past decade convincing worldwide audiences that water is not actually a liquid.

Dr. Pollack received his PhD in biomedical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania in 1968. He then joined the University of Washington faculty and is now professor of bioengineering. For years, Dr. Pollack had researched muscles and how they contract. It struck him as odd that the most common ideas about muscle contraction did not involve water, despite the fact muscle tissue consists of 99 percent water molecules.

Water Research happens at Pollack Laboratories, which states, "Our orientation is rather fundamental -- we are oriented toward uncovering some of nature's most deeply held secrets, although applications interest us as well."

Uncovering nature's secrets involving water is what Dr. Pollack, his staff and students do best.

In his 2001 book, Cells, Gels and the Engines of Life, Dr. Pollack explains how the cell functions. Research suggests that much of the cell biology may be governed by a single unifying mechanism - the phase transition. Water is absolutely central to every function of the cell - whether it's muscle contraction, cells dividing, or nerves conducting, etc.

This extraordinary book challenges many of the concepts that have been accepted in contemporary cell biology. The underlying premise of this book is that a cell's cytoplasm is gel-like rather than an ordinary aqueous solution.


Cluster of stars found forming at edge of Milky Way

If alien life existed on the planets orbiting these stars, they would have views of a portion, or all, of the galactic disk.
A cluster of stars forming at the edge of our very own Milky Way galaxy has been discovered by a team of Brazilian astronomers using data collected from the NASA Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), the US space agency announced on Friday.

These stars live on the edge

"A stellar nursery in what seems to be the middle of nowhere is quite surprising," said Peter Eisenhardt, the project scientist for the WISE mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena. "But surprises turn up when you look everywhere, as the WISE survey did."

The team of astronomers responsible for the discovery, led by Denilso Camargo of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre, have published their findings in a recent issue of the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The Milky Way has a barred spiral shape, with arms of stars, dust and gas emerging from a central bar, the researchers explained. When it is viewed from the side, the galaxy appears to be relatively flat, with the majority of the material in a disk and in the central area.

Stars form within dense clumps of gas in what are known as giant molecular clouds (GMCs). These GMCs are primarily located in the inner part of the galactic disk, and with many clumps within each of these clouds, the majority of stars are born together in clusters.


So long transistor, hello memristor: How this could revolutionize electronics

In 1971, a physicist conceptualized the existence of a fourth fundamental element in the electronic circuit, besides the three that were already in use at the time.

His name was Leon Chua and he believed -- for reasons of symmetry -- that an extra component could one day be constructed to join the resistor, the capacitor and the inductor.

He called it "memristor", a portmanteau of the words memory and resistor.

It took 37 years for our engineering abilities to catch up with that idea: the first memristor was built by Hewlett Packard in 2008.

And today, many researchers believe it could spark a revolution in computing.


Dark energy camera takes accidental gigantic, magnificent picture of Comet Lovejoy

© Fermilab’s Marty Murphy, Nikolay Kuropatkin, Huan Lin and Brian Yanny.
Comet 2014 Q2 (Lovejoy), on December 27, 2014, as seen by the Dark Energy Survey.
Oops! In a happy accident, Comet Lovejoy just happened to be in the field of view of the 570-megapixel Dark Energy Camera, the world's most powerful digital camera. One member of the observing team said it was a "shock" to see Comet Lovejoy pop up on the display in the control room.

"It reminds us that before we can look out beyond our Galaxy to the far reaches of the Universe, we need to watch out for celestial objects that are much closer to home!" wrote the team on the Dark Energy Detectives blog.

On December 27, 2014, while the Dark Energy Survey was scanning the southern sky, C2014 Q2 entered the camera's view. Each of the rectangular shapes above represents one of the 62 individual fields of the camera.

Comment: The icy snowball comet theory is really a hypothesis which is completely outdated:


Gone with the wind: Wind-powered freighters

© Lade AS
To make ships more eco-efficient, engineers have been working with alternative fuels. A Norwegian engineer is currently pursuing a new approach: With VindskipTM, he has designed a cargo ship that is powered by wind and gas. Software developed by Fraunhofer researchers will ensure an optimum use of the available wind energy at any time.

International shipping is transporting 90 percent of all goods on earth. Running on heavy fuel oil freighters contribute to pollution. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) wants to reduce the environmental impact of ocean liners. One of the measures: Starting from 2020, ships will only be allowed to use fuel containing maximum 0.1 percent sulfur in their fuel in certain areas. However, the higher-quality fuel with less sulfur is more expensive than the heavy fuel oil which is currently used. Shipping companies are thus facing a major challenge in reducing their fuel costs while complying with the emission guidelines.

A new way of reducing fuel consumption, emissions and bunker expenses is being pursued by the Norwegian engineer Terje Lade, managing director of the company Lade AS: With VindskipTM he has designed a type of ship that does not use heavy fuel oil but utilizes wind for propulsion. The highlight: The hull of the freighter serves as a wing sail. On the high seas, VindskipTM will benefit from free-blowing wind making it very energy efficient. For low-wind passages, in order to maneuver the ship on the open sea while also maintaining a constant speed, it is equipped with an environmentally friendly and cost-effective propulsion machinery running on liquefied natural gas (LNG). With the combination of wind and liquefied natural gas as an alternative fuel to heavy fuel oil, the fuel consumption is estimated to be only 60 percent of a reference ship on average. Carbon dioxide emissions are reduced by 80 percent, according to calculations by the Norwegian company.


Astronomers discover extremely elusive 'intermediate-mass' black hole

© X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/M.Mezcua et al & NASA/CXC/INAF/A.Wolter et al; Optical: NASA/STScI and DSS; Inset: Radio: EVN/VLBI
This is a composite image of the galaxy NGC 2276, with X-rays from Chandra (pink) and optical data (red, green, and blue). The inset zooms into just NGC 2276-3c, an intermediate-mass black hole and reveals its emission in radio waves, including a jet produced by the black hole that appears to be snuffing out star formation.
Astronomers have detected a black hole embedded in the spiral arm of a galaxy 100 million light-years from Earth — but this isn't any old black hole, it belongs to an extremely elusive class that may be the 'missing link' in black hole evolution.

Using observational data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) Network, which detects radio waves from energetic sources in the cosmos, the researchers, led by Mar Mezcua of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, were able to also deduce that this particular 'intermediate-mass black hole' (IMBH) is creating a 'dead zone' inside its host galaxy, NGC 2276.

"In paleontology, the discovery of certain fossils can help scientists fill in the evolutionary gaps between different dinosaurs," said Mezcua. "We do the same thing in astronomy, but we often have to 'dig' up our discoveries in galaxies that are millions of light years away."

Black holes are known to come in two main classes: stellar-mass black holes, which are spawned by supernovae and are around 5-30 times the mass of the sun, and supermassive black holes, which occupy the cores of most galaxies and have solar masses of millions to billions. But to understand how black holes grow, there must be some black holes that have masses between the stellar and the supermassive. After all, logic dictates that if all black holes start small and grow over time, there must be some intermediate mass black holes out there with girths that range between a few hundred to a few hundred thousand solar masses.