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Wed, 24 Aug 2016
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Rare minerals from Siberian mine are unlike anything found in nature

© Igor Huskić, Friščić Research Group, McGill University
Individual crystals of synthetic zhemchuzhnikovite, prepared by Igor Huskić, McGill University.
One of the hottest new materials is a class of porous solids known as metal-organic frameworks, or MOFs. These man-made materials were introduced in the 1990s, and researchers around the world are working on ways to use them as molecular sponges for applications such as hydrogen storage, carbon sequestration, or photovoltaics.

Now, a surprising discovery by scientists in Canada and Russia reveals that MOFs also exist in nature—albeit in the form of rare minerals found so far only in Siberian coal mines.

The finding, published in the journal Science Advances, "completely changes the normal view of these highly popular materials as solely artificial, 'designer' solids," says senior author Tomislav Friščić, an associate professor of chemistry at McGill University in Montreal. "This raises the possibility that there might be other, more abundant, MOF minerals out there."

The twisting path to the discovery began six years ago, when Friščić came across a mention of the minerals stepanovite and zhemchuzhnikovite in a Canadian mineralogy journal. The crystal structure of the minerals, found in Russia between the 1940s and 1960s, hadn't been fully determined. But the Russian mineralogists who discovered them had analyzed their chemical composition and the basic parameters of their structures, using a technique known as X-ray powder diffraction. To Friščić, those parameters hinted that the minerals could be structurally similar to a type of man-made MOF.


'Alien megastructure' star only gets more mysterious

© NASA, JPL-Caltech
Last fall, a little-known star called KIC 8462852 became our planetary obsession when astronomers said that its erratic flickering could be the result of an alien megastructure. Further observation of Tabby's Star yielded no signs of aliens, but the sudden dips in luminosity continue to defy explanation. Now, things just got a bit weirder.

In an unpublished paper posted today to arXiv, Caltech astronomer Ben Montet and Joshua Simon of the Carnegie Institute describe the results of a new photometric analysis of Tabby's Star, which was first flagged in the Kepler Space Telescope's database by citizen science astronomers.

By carefully examining all the full-frame images collected during Kepler's observational campaign, Montet and Simon discovered something astonishing: Not only did the star's light output occasionally dip by up to 20 percent, its total stellar flux diminished continuously over the course of four years.

For the first 1000 days of Kepler's campaign, Tabby's Star decreased in luminosity by approximately 0.34 percent per year. For the next 200 days, the star dimmed more rapidly, its total stellar flux dropping by 2 percent before leveling off. Overall, Tabby's Star faded roughly 3 percent during the four years that Kepler stared at it—an absolutely enormous, inexplicable amount. The astronomers looked at 500 other stars in the vicinity, and saw nothing else like it.

"The part that really surprised me was just how rapid and non-linear it was," Montet told Gizmodo. "We spent a long time trying to convince ourselves this wasn't real. We just weren't able to."

Cloud Lightning

'Fossilized' lightning bolts are showing just how powerful storms can be

© John Fowler
It turns out there's a strange parallel between meteorite strikes and lightning (besides terrifying things coming out of the sky): both phenomena can, under the right conditions, create glass.

That's what drew Matthew Pasek, a geoscientist at the University of Southern Florida, to study fulgurites.

"Fulgurite" is the technical term for the hollow rod of glass that lightning can create when it strikes sand.

They're surprisingly common; across the planet, lightning strikes about 45 times per second and creates about 10 fulgurites from those strikes.

In the process of studying fulgurites, Pasek found a new way to calculate how much energy a bolt of lightning carries. The width of the hollow tube, he learned, is correlated with the strength of the lightning bolt.

2 + 2 = 4

Saved by the whale! Humpbacks play hero when orcas attack

© Robert L. Pitman
A humpback whale protects a Weddell seal from an attacking killer whale.
The photo is extraordinary. In waters near the Antarctic peninsula, an enormous humpback whale floats on its back, cradling a Weddell seal on its chest and elevating it above the ocean surface. Only moments earlier, the seal was perilously close to becoming dinner for a group of hungry killer whales.

Biologist Robert Pitman snapped the image while on a research expedition in 2009 — but it wasn't the first time he had observed this unusual protective behavior.

Cell Phone

Iris scanning makes its way to the smartphone

© Chris Ratcliff/Bloomberg
The ability to unlock electronic devices using eye-recognition technology, a feature that has been mostly confined to government agencies, is starting to reach the consumer market. On Tuesday Samsung unveiled the latest example: Its new smartphone, which scans users' irises so they can unlock it with a glance.

"It's a logical next step beyond fingerprint scanning," said Geoff Blaber of CCS Insight, a market analysis firm. And Samsung's move to include iris scanning in its upcoming Galaxy Note7 phone could open the door to put the biometric security technology in the hands of more people.

Samsung introduced the Samsung Galaxy Note7, its latest large screen phone, on Tuesday. It will go on sale in the U.S. on Aug. 19, with advance orders starting Wednesday. The 5.7-inch, high-definition screen phone-tablet, or phablet, is Samsung's latest competitor to similarly sized iPhones from chief rival Apple, which broke ground with fingerprint sensors in 2013 with the introduction of iTouch ID.

During a recent demonstration in San Francisco for The Chronicle, Samsung executive Justin Denison held the phone about arms length at eye level and unlocked it almost instantly.

The phone's owner can also use the fingerprint scanner or a PIN code. The biometric technology will work with Samsung's mobile security platform, called Knox, that allows the owner to create a special folder for work documents or apps that a child or spouse can't access. "If you share the phone with a child or friend, you don't want them to get into everything," Denison said.

Comment: New Windows 10 comes complete with iris scans, facial recognition and fingerprint scanners


Princeton study reveals new breed of sophisticated online snooping

Stop "clearing your cookies."

The classic advice for the privacy-minded to protect themselves from internet trackers and targeted ads on websites doesn't work very well against the newest breed of sophisticated snoopers who are spying on you using everything from your iPhone's battery status level to the kinds of fonts installed on your browser, Princeton researchers say in a massive new analysis of 1 million web sites, the largest of its kind.

The "trackers" find out what kind of person you are, and then serve you targeted ads. If you visit those sites, data about you is gathered up and resold to other marketers. You read the news for free (sometimes) and someone gets paid to write it, and funny cat picture sites get their server costs covered.

But the trackers are also used to build profiles of consumers over which they have no control.

"Several features of the web...are being used or abused, depending on how one looks at it, by these tracking companies and various entities in the ad tech ecosystem," said study co-author Arvind Narayanan, an associate professor of computer science at Princeton. "They're being used in sneaky ways to track where users are going across the web."

The Princeton researchers scoured the internet's top sites and found signs of aggressive tracking. Two of the top sites each had over 81,000 trackers on them. Most of the tracking, however, was consolidated among a few giants. Google, Facebook, and Twitter were the only third-party trackers present on more than 10 percent of the sites.

Comment: See also:


Science behind the awe-inspiring microburst over Phoenix, Arizona

© Chopperguy Photographer Jerry Ferguson and Pilot Andrew Park
Spectacular and dangerous weather phenomenon, known as a microburst, spotted over Phoenix, Arizona, Monday, July 18
The North American summer monsoon is in full swing this month of July and proof of how active it has been in the past few days is a series of extreme weather events that have taken place in Arizona. Dust storms and heavy downpours accompanied by hail, very strong winds and lightning have slammed into Phoenix and Tucson affecting many residents across the region.

Monday, while covering the effects of these spectacular monsoon related thunderstorms for a local Phoenix television network, helicopter pilot Jerry Ferguson captured an instant of extreme atmospheric action in which a massive microburst was affecting the metro area.

Majestic from the distance, but very intense and damaging on the ground, this spectacle of nature seemed to last forever as described by local residents.

Comment: For related articles, see also:


The NIH plans to lift the ban on chimera research using human stem cells

© AP
A single cell is removed from a human embryo to be used in generating embryonic stem cells for scientific research.
The National Institutes of Health is planning to lift a moratorium on funding for research studying the effects of injecting animal embryos with human stem cells.

The agency last year issued a moratorium for such funding while it studied the issue further. But NPR is reporting the NIH plans to lift that reprieve and allow scientists to conduct so-called "Chimera" experiments under strict and closely monitored parameters.

"They want to take human stem cells and put them inside these animal embryos, in the hopes that the human stem cells, which can become any kind of cell or tissue in the body, will become integrated into the embryos and then develop into animals that have partially or even fully human parts in their bodies," said NPR health correspondent Rob Stein on Thursday.

Scientists say the experiment could lead to major medical breakthroughs that could save countless human lives, such as the ability to grow human organs that could be used to save the lives of patients in need of transplants.

Comment: More useless chimera research that led to zero health breakthroughs: For more on the pseudo scientific quackery of animal medical research in general listen to this episode of the Health and Wellness Show: The Health & Wellness Show: The Quackery and Cruelty of Animal Medical Research

Control Panel

Hacking your brain: Experts warn of growing threat from monitoring and controlling neural signals

Cyberthieves might be mining personal information from your brainwaves this very moment. Experts at the University of Washington reveal hackers are inserting images into dodgy apps and recording our brain's unintentional reaction using brain-computer interfaces
Cyberthieves might be mining personal information from your brainwaves at this very moment.

And although this may sound like a plot from a science fiction film, it is a growing concern among researchers who have demanded officials implement a privacy and security framework to block hackers from reading our neural signals.

Brain-computer Interfaces (BCIs) are widely used in the medical field and other industries, including marketing, gaming and entertainment. Although this technology was initially created to improve and enhance the quality of human lives, in the wrong hands it will wreak havoc on them.

Researchers at the University of Washington say that time is running out and officials need to employ a privacy and security framework to stop those who would use our own brains against us, reports Motherboard.

'There's actually very little time,' electrical engineer Howard Chizeck told Victoria Turk with Motherboard over Skype.

'If we don't address this quickly, it'll be too late.'


DARPA researching camera technology that can see around walls in 4 years

© Michaela Rehle / Reuters
If you're sick of having to move around corners to see what's behind them, you may have been born at the right time. DARPA, the US military's advanced research arm, says it will have developed a camera capable of seeing around corners in as little as four years.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is providing a $4.4 million grant to the Morgridge Institute for Research, an organization affiliated with the University of Madison-Wisconsin, to develop "non-line-of-sight imaging" camera technology, which can allow users to see around corners of solid objects.

The technology was first demonstrated by Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Andreas Velten in 2012. It works by sending a pulse of laser light into a room, causing the beam to hit a ceiling or wall, scattering and bouncing off surfaces and objects. Some of the scattered information makes it back to the sensor, allowing for a computer to construct an accurate picture of what the room looks like.