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Sun, 28 May 2017
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Science & Technology


Steven Hawking says humanity has 100, not 1,000, years to find new planet to live on

© NASA / Reuters
Renowned theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking has again called on humanity to redouble its efforts to colonize other worlds before the Earth becomes uninhabitable. This time, however, the deadline is even tighter.

Speaking to The Royal Society in London ahead of the Starmus IV festival to be held this June in Trondheim, Norway, Hawking reiterated his desire for humanity to unite with the singular purpose of becoming a multi-planetary species.


Tabby's star is dimming again

© Ars Technica
Image of the star KIC 8462852 at infrared (left) and ultraviolet (right) wavelengths.
For the last few years, a distant star in the constellation Cygnus, known officially as KIC 8462852 and unofficially as Tabby's star or the WTF star, has intrigued astronomers due to its irregular but significant dimming. Astronomers have struggled to find a natural explanation for why the star dims so much, 20 percent, before returning to its regular brightness.

These observations have led to various hypotheses, including the exotic notion of some kind of alien megastructure passing between the star and Earth-based telescopes. Now the enigmatic star has been observed to be dropping in flux again, and astronomers have put out a call for telescopes around the world to measure light coming from the system.

As of Friday morning, it appeared that the light curve coming from the star had only just begun to dip, offering observatories a chance to observe most of dimming cycle.


A radical approach for the age of superbugs: Don't fight infections, learn to live with them

© Sandy Huffaker
Janelle Ayres argues for a radically new approach to treating infection: Don't fight it. Help the body tolerate it.
As her father lay dying of sepsis, Janelle Ayres spent nine agonizing days at his bedside. When he didn't beat the virulent bloodstream infection, she grieved. And then she got frustrated. She knew there had to be a better way to help patients like her dad.

In fact, she was working on one in her lab.

Ayres, a hard-charging physiologist who has unapologetically decorated her lab with bright touches of hot pink, is intent on upending our most fundamental understanding of how the human body fights disease.

Scientists have focused for decades on the how the immune system battles pathogens. Ayres believes other elements of our physiology are at least as important — so she's hunting for the beneficial bacteria that seem to help some patients maintain a healthy appetite and repair damaged tissue even during bouts of serious disease.

If she can find them — and she's already begun to do so — she believes she can develop drugs that will boost those qualities in patients who lack them and help keep people alive through battles with sepsis, malaria, cholera, and a host of other diseases.


China makes 'flammable ice': Believed to be the best replacement for natural gas and oil

Chinese miners have managed to extract 'combustible ice' from the seafloor of the South China Sea, according to the Ministry of Land and Resources. The successful collection of the frozen fuel was "a major breakthrough that may lead to a global energy revolution," said China's Minister of Land and Resources, Jiang Daming. 'Flammable Ice' is methane hydrates with molecules of methane gas trapped in a lattice of ice crystals. It can exist only in conditions of very low temperatures and high pressure. One cubic meter of combustible ice is equal to 164 cubic meters of natural gas, according to the US Energy Information Agency.

"It looks like ice crystals, but if you zoom into a molecular level, you see the methane molecules are caged in by the water molecules," said Associate Professor Praveen Linga from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the National University of Singapore, as quoted by BBC. In spite of the low temperature, the hydrates are easily flammable, as the gas encased in the ice catches fire once you bring it to a flame. The discovery is China's first success in the mining of flammable ice following almost twenty years of research and exploration, according to the ministry.

Comment: Seven years ago BP hit a technical obstacle in the form of methane hydrates, or flammable ice, when they were trying to lower a giant containment dome to trap oil from a blown-out Gulf of Mexico oil well on the sea floor.

See also:


High altitude nuclear weapons testing impacted space weather

© Wikimedia Commons
“Ivy Mike” atmospheric nuclear test, taken in November 1952.
The overdrawn game of nuclear chicken between the USSR and the United States—now known as the Cold War—lasted about 45 years. While neither superpower ever deployed nukes on each others' soil, high-altitude bomb testing caused a kerfuffle in Earth's atmosphere. Though the conflict has (thankfully) long since ended, newly declassified information suggests it might have impacted space weather in ways we never anticipated.

According to a new paper published in Space Science Reviews, the high altitude nuclear testing conducted by both the USSR and United States created "artificial radiation belts" near Earth. Our planet is naturally surrounded by Van Allen radiation belts—zones of highly-charged particles. But the energy from nuclear explosions created hot, electrically charged regions within the atmosphere that induced geomagnetic disturbances, and even produced radiation belts of its own. As you can probably guess, the results were not so great—according to the study's authors, this resulted in "major damages to several satellites" that orbited Earth at a fairly low altitude.

Radiation and high-energy particles from the Sun frequently interact with Earth's geomagnetic field, in the phenomenon known as space weather. When enough of these high energy particles rain down on the magnetosphere, it can severely damage communications satellites and even electrical power grids on the ground. But the radiation from nuclear blasts in the '60s is an extreme example of how humans can also fuck with our geomagnetic field, which is salient to understand but also terrifying.

Comet 2

Study of 3 billion-year-old minerals shows comets helped build Earth's atmosphere

© University of Manchester
Scientists have revealed that some of Earth's atmosphere may have been brought to the planet by comets billions of years ago.

The mystery of how the Earth's atmosphere was formed has long baffled scientists. Some researchers think comets might have originally brought some of the water, organic and atmospheric molecules to Earth that now make up its life.

Now a new study, published in Nature Communications, by researchers from The University of Manchester, UK, Centre de Recherches Pétrographiques et Géochimiques (CRPG) and Université de Lorraine (Nancy, France), has found evidence to back up the theory.

The scientists have been analysing tiny samples of ancient air trapped in water bubbles found in the mineral, quartz, which dates back more than three billion years. The team found that the air in the rocks is partly made up of an extremely rare form of the chemical element, xenon. It is known as U-Xe and what makes it so rare is that it isn't usually found on Earth. The component is not present in the Earth's mantle, nor is it found in meteorites.

Therefore, the team believe that the U-Xe must have been added to the Earth after a primordial atmosphere had developed. Simply put, comets are the best candidates for carrying the U-Xe to the planet.

Comment: Earth's Atmosphere May Be Extraterrestrial in Origin

Microscope 1

Scientists are 'tantalisingly close' to producing large quantities of blood from a patients own stem cells

Two papers published this week have revealed that scientists are "tantalisingly close" to being able to produce large quantities of blood cells from a patient's own stem cells.

This would revolutionise treatments for people who need frequent blood transfusions, as well as those with bone marrow disorders who struggle to find a match with a healthy donor.

"For many years, people have figured out parts of this recipe, but they've never quite gotten there," Mick Bhatia from McMaster University in Canada, who was not involved with either study, told Nature News.

"This is the first time researchers have checked all the boxes and made blood stem cells."

Stem cells are specially programmed cells whose job is to create all the other cells in the body.

Microscope 1

Skipping invasive surgery? Fractured pig bones healed using tiny bubbles & ultrasound

© Science Magazine / YouTube
A team of scientists has successfully repaired the broken bones of lab animals without invasive surgery, by using micro-bubbles and ultrasound to stimulate the growth of stem cells.

In a study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine on Wednesday, Maxim Bez and a team of Cedars Sinai-led scientists were able to facilitate the natural growth of stem cells to create more bone marrow in broken bones that cannot heal on their own, known as "nonunion fractures."

While certain bone injuries only require a few weeks in a cast to heal, more severe injuries can cause large gaps between the edges of a fracture that cannot be healed without invasive surgery or bone grafting.

Christmas Tree

New study suggests plants can hear

© nikkytok/Getty Images
Pseudoscientific claims that music helps plants grow have been made for decades, despite evidence that is shaky at best. Yet new research suggests some flora may be capable of sensing sounds, such as the gurgle of water through a pipe or the buzzing of insects.

Comment: It is ironic that the author denigrates research that shows music helps plants grow at the same time as quoting a study which "suggests" plants can sense sound, but which did not find causal links. Pot, kettle, black it seems.

In a recent study, Monica Gagliano, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Western Australia, and her colleagues placed pea seedlings in pots shaped like an upside-down Y. One arm of each pot was placed in either a tray of water or a coiled plastic tube through which water flowed; the other arm had only soil. The roots grew toward the arm of the pipe with the fluid, regardless of whether it was easily accessible or hidden inside the tubing. "They just knew the water was there, even if the only thing to detect was the sound of it flowing inside the pipe," Gagliano says.

Yet when the seedlings were given a choice between the water tube and some moistened soil, their roots favored the latter. Gagliano hypothesizes that these plants use sound waves to detect water at a distance but follow moisture gradients to home in on their target when it is closer.


Researchers create bio-sythetic ovaries with 3D printer

© CCO/Pixabay
While in its relative infancy, 3D printing has already revolutionized prosthesis, with scientists creating skin, ears and even bones. Now, researchers have made a landmark advance, creating ovaries from gelatine, allowing infertile mice to give birth to healthy offspring. It's hoped the application could one day restore fertility in sterile humans.

The Northwestern University researchers primed a 3D printer with a nozzle capable of firing gelatin, derived from a collagen naturally found in mammalian ovaries. The ovaries were built by printing various patterns of overlapping gelatin filaments on glass slides — each "scaffold" measured a mere 15 by 15 millimeters. The team then carefully inserted mouse follicles (spherical structures containing a growing egg surrounded by hormone-producing cells) into these "scaffolds." The scaffolds that were more tightly woven hosted a higher fraction of surviving follicles after 8 days, an effect the team attributed to the follicles having better physical support.