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Thu, 29 Sep 2016
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Human brain map gets a bold new update

The new Allen Brain Atlas combines neuroimaging and tissue staining to offer an unprecedented level of resolution

© Allen Institute for Brain Science
Most of us think little of hopping on Google Maps to look at everything from a bird's-eye view of an entire continent to an on-the-ground view of a specific street, all carefully labeled. Thanks to a digital atlas published this week, the same is now possible with the human brain.

Ed Lein and colleagues at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle have created a comprehensive, open-access digital atlas of the human brain, which was published this week in The Journal of Comparative Neurology.

"Essentially what we were trying to do is to create a new reference standard for a very fine anatomical structural map of the complete human brain," says Lein, the principal investigator on the project. "It may seem a little bit odd, but actually we are a bit lacking in types of basic reference materials for mapping the human brain that we have in other organisms like mouse or like monkey, and that is in large part because of the enormous size and complexity of the human brain."

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Toilet to tank: Toyota uses sewage sludge to power zero-emissions vehicles

© Reuters/Gary Cameron
Highest of tech; powered by human waste
Hydrogen fuel cell cars could help solve the global warming crisis, but nobody wants to buy them. Yoshikazu Tanaka, chief engineer of the Toyota Mirai, Toyota's hydrogen fuel cell car, calls it a "chicken or the egg" problem: no one wants to purchase hydrogen cars because there are no hydrogen fuel stations, and nobody wants to build hydrogen fuel stations because there are no hydrogen cars.

But Toyota thinks it may have found a solution. For unlimited clean energy, it's turning to one of the dirtiest places there is: the toilet.

In Fukuoka, Japan, the automaker is converting human waste into hydrogen to fuel the Mirai. The process is pretty simple. At a wastewater treatment plant, like the Fukuoka City Central Water Processing Plant, sewage is separated into liquid and solid waste. The solid waste, called sewage sludge, is exactly what it sounds like: a foul-smelling, brown lump. Most sewage sludge is thrown in landfills.


DARPA physicists reveal 'significant breakthrough' in quantum teleportation field

© Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters
Two separate teams of scientists funded by the Pentagon's research arm have revealed significant breakthroughs in the field of quantum teleportation which could have a major impact on cybersecurity and encryption.

Quantum teleportation is a process by which quantum information can be transmitted from one place to another, and scientists have long sought to prove it is possible.

Two separate DARPA-funded studies by physicists based in China and Calgary, Canada have now confirmed that not only is quantum teleportation a real phenomenon but they also demonstrated that it's a workable technology that could one day help build an unhackable quantum communication systems to span great distances.

However, the breakthrough doesn't mean that sci fi-style human teleportation is any closer as the photons aren't actually disappearing from one place and appearing in another.

Instead, it's the information that's being teleported through a phenomenon called 'quantum entanglement', which Albert Einstein called "spooky action at a distance".

Microscope 2

Microsoft using artificial intelligence to 'solve' cancer problem by reprogramming disease

© Microsoft
Microsoft researcher wants to program the body, the same way you can program a computer, to fight cancer.
Researchers are using algorithms and machine learning to tackle the disease

Microsoft is working towards fighting cancer using computer science such as machine learning and algorithms.

By treating cancer like an information processing system, Microsoft researchers are able to adapt tools typically used to model computational processes to model biological ones.

Ultimately, the company hopes to create molecular computers to program the body to fight cancer cells immediately after detection.

"We are trying to change the way research is done on a daily basis in biology," said Jasmin Fisher, a senior researcher who works in the programming principles and tools group in the Microsoft's research lab in Cambridge.

This is combined with a data-driven approach; putting machine learning at the core of Microsoft's attempts to try to tackle the disease. The company wants to take the biological data that is available and use analysis tools to better understand and treat the disease.

"I think it's a very natural thing for Microsoft to be looking at because we have tremendous expertise in computer science and what is going on in cancer is a computational problem," Chris Bishop, director of the Cambridge-based lab, told WIRED.

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Russian space agency Roscosmos announces start of moon landing simulations

© Pockocmoc
Russian scientists are using 1970s tech to discover how easy it would be for their cosmonauts to walk on the lunar surface.
Russian space agency Roscosmos and top spacecraft manufacturer RSC Energia have begun simulating a manned landing on the moon, using a unique gravity imitation platform.

The researchers used Selen, a unique platform simulating the moon's gravity, built by RSC Energia in the early 1970s. The experiments, performed by Mark Serov of Roscosmos' test flight department and Energia's cosmonaut instructor Alexander Kaleri, focused on the cosmonaut's ability to get in and out of the rover as well as walking on the lunar surface.

According to the official site of Roscosmos, experts from RSC Energia are also working on an upgraded spacesuit which would allow easier walking on the moon, as well as the ability to get up unaided should the wearer fall down.

Fireball 2

Hubble Telescope records Comet 332P/Ikeya-Murakami disintegration

© : NASA, ESA, D. Jewitt (UCLA)
This Hubble Space Telescope image, shows the slow migration of building-size fragments of Comet 332P/Ikeya-Murakami over a three-day period in January 2016. The pieces broke off of the main nucleus in late 2015 as the icy, ancient comet approached the sun in its orbit.
As a comet approaches the Sun, it heats up and begins to outgas, causing jets of gas and dust to erupt from its surface. These jets can sometimes act like tiny rocket engines, spinning up the comet's rotation and loosening chunks of material that drift off into space.

Over the span of three days in January 2016, the Hubble Space Telescope captured detailed images of just that scenario happening to Comet 332P/Ikeya-Murakami, or Comet 332P, located roughly 67 million miles from Earth.

The Hubble observations revealed 25 building-size blocks made of a mixture of ice and dust that broke off from the comet and are now are scattered along a 3,000-mile-long trail, larger than the width of the continental U.S. The icy chunks comprise about 4 percent of the parent comet and range in size from roughly 65 feet wide to 200 feet wide. They are drifting away from the comet and each other at a few miles per hour, about the walking speed of an adult. See animation here.

The Hubble observations also reveal that the comet is much smaller than previously thought, measuring only 1,600 feet across, about the length of five football fields.

According to a NASA statement, these observations provide insight into the volatile behavior of comets as they approach the sun, begin to vaporize, and unleash dynamical forces. Comet 332P was 150 million miles from the sun, slightly beyond the orbit of Mars, when Hubble spotted the breakup.


Mysterious 'Planet Nine' might have tilted our whole Solar System

© Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)
Big bully?

A jealous Planet Nine may have shoved its siblings for attention. If a massive ninth planet exists in our solar system, it might explain why the planets are out of line with the sun.

The eight major planets still circle the sun in the original plane of their birth. The sun rotates on its own axis, but surprisingly, that spin is tilted: the axis lies at an angle of 6 degrees relative to a line perpendicular to the plane of the planets.

There are a few theories to explain this jaunty slant, including the temporary tug of a passing star aeons ago, or interactions between the magnetic fields of the sun and the primordial dusty disc that formed the solar system. But it is hard to account for why the sun's spin is aligned the way it is relative to the planets.

Two teams of astronomers have just announced a new explanation: a hypothetical massive planet in the outer solar system could be interfering with all the other planets' orbits.


DNA from mysterious ancient fossil rewrites elephant family tree

© Jens Meyer/AP Photo
Artist Peter Luckner with a model of a straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus), for an exhibition in Braunsbedra, central Germany. This animal is thought to have roamed Germany's Geisel Valley some 200,000 years ago.
The genome of a mysterious ancient fossil has shaken up the elephant family tree.

Modern elephants are classified into three species: the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) and two African elephants — the forest-dwellers (Loxodonta cyclotis) and those that live in the savannah (Loxodonta africana). The division of the African elephants, originally considered a single species, was confirmed only in 2010.

Scientists had assumed from fossil evidence that an ancient predecessor called the straight-tusked elephant (Paleoloxodon antiquus), which lived in European forests until around 100,000 years ago, was a close relative of Asian elephants.

In fact, this ancient species is most closely related to African forest elephants, a genetic analysis now reveals. Even more surprising, living forest elephants in the Congo Basin are closer kin to the extinct species than they are to today's African savannah-dwellers. And, together with newly announced genomes from ancient mammoths, the analysis also reveals that many different elephant and mammoth species interbred in the past.

"It's mind blowing," says Tom Gilbert, an evolutionary geneticist at the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. The straight-tusked elephant is little-known even among experts, he says. "And the first thing we hear about it is: here's the genome."


Tiny under-skin implants replace keys, business info, medical data and eventually a lot more

© Henrik Andree, Telefónica Basecamp/Digiwell.com
Members of the so-called bodyhacker movement have been implanting RFID chips under their skin, programming them to perform various tasks.
Patrick Paumen doesn't have to worry about forgetting his keys and being locked out of his apartment. That is because he doesn't need a key anymore—he simply unlocks the door with a wave of his hand. The 32-year-old IT expert from the Dutch city of Heerlen is one of a growing number of people with electronic implants under their skin, mostly to use as keys or for identification.

Mr. Paumen has several such implants, or tags, embedded in the fatty tissue of his hands and his lower arm. He uses separate tags to unlock not only his apartment door, but also his office and the gate to a secure parking lot at work. Another stores information he would otherwise put on a business card—name and contact details—and yet another holds similar information for nonbusiness encounters.

The implants can be activated and scanned by readers that use radio frequency identification technology, or RFID. Those include ordinary smartphones and readers already installed in office buildings to allow entrance with a common ID card.

Mr. Paumen says the tiny devices simplify his life. When nearing the secure office parking lot, he says, "I just roll down the window, stick my arm out and let the reader at the gates scan the implant, which is just below my little finger. I don't have to worry about losing my access card."

Done in seconds

There is no comprehensive data on how many people have RFID implants in their bodies, but retailers estimate the total is 30,000 to 50,000 people globally. The fact that the tags can't be lost is one attraction. Another, users say, is that the tags don't operate under their own power but rather are activated when they're read by a scanner. That means they can never be rendered useless by a dead battery like smartphones.


Dolphins appear to be capable of constructing sentences

© Wikimedia Commons
Tursiops truncatus. Bottlenose dolphins are facing several significant threats in the Gulf region.
Dolphins are super-smart and they have a language. New research has probed the complexity of this language and concludes that dolphins not only communicate words with each other, but they are also capable of constructing sentences.

The research comes via the Russian Academy of Scientists from a study of Black Sea bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus.) Here a pair of dolphins were observed communicating with each other in a manner that was sophisticated, had a form of structure and is seen as akin to a sentence. Exactly what the dolphins were communicating to each other is uncertain.

Bottlenose dolphins are a common type of dolphin, living groups (or 'pods') typically of 10 - 30 members. These dolphins have a has a grey color, with the shade of grey varying among populations. Dolphins are remarkable in that they search for prey primarily using echolocation (a type of sonar).