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Sat, 27 Aug 2016
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Science & Technology

Bizarro Earth

Australia's east coast once lined by super-volcanoes more powerful than any documented in human history

© Milo Barham, University of Western Australia
Well travelled: these zircon crystals took a 2300-kilometre trip
A blast from the past? The east coast of Australia was once lined by volcanoes that were so explosive they could shoot sand-sized particles 2300 kilometres - ­­all the way across to the west coast.

The volcanic activity occurred 100 million years ago, at a time when New Zealand began tearing away from Australia's eastern edge.

Until recently, the only evidence of the scale of these eruptions were the 20-kilometre-wide dormant craters and the solidified lava flows left behind.

But now, Milo Barham at Curtin University in Western Australia and his colleagues have found that these eastern Australian volcanoes flung material to the other side of the country.


Greenland shark may live more than 400 years, smashing longevity record

© WaterFrame/Alamy Stock
Greenland sharks grow a centimeter a year but live for centuries.
Imagine having to wait a century to have sex. Such is the life of the Greenland shark—a 5-meter-long predator that may live more than 400 years, according to a new study, making it the longest lived vertebrate by at least a century. So it should come as no surprise that the females are not ready to reproduce until after they hit their 156th birthday.

The longevity of these sharks is "astonishing," says Michael Oellermann, a cold-water physiologist at Loligo Systems in Viborg, Denmark, who was not involved with the work. That's particularly true because oceans are quite dangerous places, he notes, where predators, food scarcity, and disease can strike at any time.

Greenland sharks (Somniosus microcephalus) had been rumored to be long-lived. In the 1930s, a fisheries biologist in Greenland tagged more than 400, only to discover that the sharks grow only about 1 centimeter a year—a sure sign that they're in it for the long haul given how large they get. Yet scientists had been unable to figure out just how many years the sharks last.


Tree-rings could reset key dates across the ancient world

© Wikimedia Commons
Trees which grew during intense radiation bursts in the past have 'time-markers' in their tree-rings that could help archaeologists date events from thousands of years ago

Oxford University researchers say that trees which grew during intense radiation bursts in the past have 'time-markers' in their tree-rings that could help archaeologists date events from thousands of years ago. In a new paper, the authors explain how harvesting such data could revolutionise the study of ancient civilisations such as the Egyptian and Mayan worlds.

Until now scholars have had only vague evidence for dating when events happened during the earliest periods of civilisation, with estimates being within hundreds of years.

However, the unusually high levels of the radioactive isotope carbon-14 found in tree-rings laid down during the radiation bursts could help reliably pinpoint dates.

The distinct spikes act as time-markers like secret clocks contained in timber, papyri, baskets made from living plants or other organic materials, says the paper published in the Royal Society Journal Proceedings A.

Scholars believe that intense solar storms caused major bursts of radiation to strike the Earth in 775 and 994AD, which resulted in distinct spikes in the concentration of radiocarbon in trees growing at that time. The events are precisely datable because the tree-rings belong to archives in which the growth year of each tree-ring is exactly known. In the new research, the authors outline how they could detect similar spikes elsewhere within the thousands of years of available tree-ring material from across the world. They say even a handful of these time-markers could allow them to piece together a reliable dating framework for important civilisations.


Microsoft joins forces with Israel so Army can use HoloLens on the virtual battlefield

© AFP 2016/ Freek van den Bergh
The Israeli Army has bought two HoloLens virtual reality headsets from Microsoft for the use of battlefield commanders, to help give them the edge against the enemy.

Major Rotem Bashi, the Israeli Army's commander of programming at its C2 Systems Department, said there are numerous practical applications for so-called augmented reality during war.

The technology has been thrust into the spotlight this summer, with the advent of the viral hit sensation Pokemon Go, which layers virtual Pokemon characters on top of real environments seen through the player's phone camera.


China launches first quantum communications satellite - theoretically hack-proof

© CCTV America / YouTube
The world's first quantum communications satellite has been launched into orbit aboard a Long March-2D rocket. The main task of the Chinese satellite is to potentially secure communications in an age of cyberattacks and global electronic surveillance.

The 600+kg Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS) satellite took off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Gobi Desert at 1:40am local time on a two-year mission on Tuesday.

Nicknamed 'Micius', in honor of the 5th century BC Chinese philosopher and scientist, QUESS will be positioned at sun-synchronous orbit, some 600km (373 miles) above the Earth at an angle of 97.79 degrees, allowing it circle our planet once every 90 minutes.

"The newly-launched satellite marks a transition in China's role - from a follower in classic information technology (IT) development to one of the leaders guiding future IT achievements," said Pan Jianwei, chief scientist of QUESS project with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), as quoted by Xinhua.

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New study finds generosity is linked to specific part of brain

© Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters
While it may seem that generosity comes straight from the heart, a new study suggests otherwise. The research found that a person's desire to be good to others is down to their brain's wiring.

Scientists from Oxford University and University College London (UCL) used an MRI machine to locate the part of the brain that is responsible for making some people more generous than others.

Thirty-one participants with an average age of 23 were scanned by the machine. During that process, the participants then used a computer game that linked different symbols to cash prizes that either went to the player or to one of the study's other participants, according to New Scientist.

The researchers found that while people easily learn to make choices to benefit other people, they learn to benefit themselves even faster.

But when people were in the mindset to help other people, the scientists found that one specific part of the brain - the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex - was activated.

However, that region of the brain wasn't equally active in each person. Instead, empathetic people were found to have more activity.

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NASA building 'deep space habitats' near the moon

© Boeing / NASA
Concept image of Boeing's prototype habitation module.
It's not quite the Star Trek Enterprise but NASA has revealed it's developing "deep space habitats," which will house astronauts in outer space in the future.

The space agency's NextSTEP-2 program, which has a budget of around $65 million, aims to both advance the commercial development of space while also allowing for the further exploration of deep space.

The hope is for the habitats to support missions in the area of space near the moon, which will be the testing ground for trips to Mars.


US physicists say possible 5th force of nature discovered

Scientists are ecstatic over the fact that they may have just discovered the fifth fundamental force of nature. The possible discovery of a previously-unknown subatomic particle looks set to finally bring the elusive dark matter into the mix.

The discovery centers on a new type of boson that possesses characteristics previously unseen in particles. Furthermore, its existence casts doubt upon whether the known 'sector' of matter and particles exists alongside a 'dark' sector - both interacting with each other via another, unseen force.

"If true, it's revolutionary," said Jonathan Feng, professor of physics & astronomy at the University of California, Irvine, in a press release.

"For decades, we've known of four fundamental forces: gravitation, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. If confirmed by further experiments, this discovery of a possible fifth force would completely change our understanding of the universe, with consequences for the unification of forces and dark matter."


Shift workers may be more prone to infections

© Craddock Tony/Getty Images
The time of day we are exposed to a virus may affect how we respond to it and how sick we become, a new study by scientists at the University of Cambridge has found.

The research could explain why shift workers appear more prone to infections and chronic disease than regular daytime workers.

"The time of day of infection can have a major influence on how susceptible we are to the disease, or at least on the viral replication, meaning that infection at the wrong time of day could cause a much more severe acute infection," said Akhilesh Reddy, senior author of the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"This is consistent with recent studies which have shown that the time of day that the influenza vaccine is administered can influence how effectively it works."

Circadian rhythms - our body clocks - control many of our bodily functions including our immune systems and the release of hormones.

That means that resources available to cope with a viral infection vary during the course of a day.

To test the impact of this on the progression of infection, the researchers put a group of mice in a controlled environment where they lived 12 hours in daylight and 12 hours in the dark.

They then infected the mice with the herpes virus at different times of the day, measuring levels of virus infection and spread.


13 out of 15 dogs agree: Luvvies are better than treats

© Gregory Berns
When training dogs, a pat on the head may be more effective than a treat. A new study suggests that most dogs respond more positively to praise than to food. Researchers scanned (pictured) the brains of 15 dogs of various breeds while presenting objects paired with rewards. For example, after the scientists showed the canines a toy car, their owners would praise them. In other tests, the researchers gave the dogs a toy horse and a piece of hot dog. The scans revealed that when praised, 13 of the dogs showed equal or greater levels of brain activity in the region that controls decision-making and signals rewards than when they received food, the scientists will report in an upcoming issue of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

In a follow-up test, the team set up a Y-shaped maze with the dogs' owners on one side and a bowl of treats on the other. Although most of the canines preferred to go the direction of their owner for a belly rub, the dogs that showed a greater reaction to food in the scanner consistently chose food in the maze. The scientists suggest using brain scans to determine preference could be used to improve the way service jobs are assigned to working dogs. Therapy jobs with close human contact might better suit dogs that have a higher preference for praise, whereas dogs that don't could succeed in more independent roles like search and rescue, where receiving a treat after a job well done would keep them motivated. At the very least, the study supports how important social interaction is to dogs—and provides a healthier alternative to treats, too.