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Mon, 18 Feb 2019
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Science & Technology


Salt-free drinkable water comes at a cost

desalination plant spain
© Andrés Nieto Porras/ Wikimedia Commons
A desalination plant in Spain.
Around the arid world, some 16,000 desalination plants are now purifying seawater and brackish aquifers, producing 95 million cubic metres of fresh, salt-free drinkable water daily. This is almost half the daily flow over Niagara Falls.

But there is a potentially-polluting price to pay: for every litre of fresh water, the same desalination plants produce around 1.5 litres of toxic brine. That adds up to enough in the course of a year to cover the whole of the US state of Florida to a depth of more than 30 cms.

A new study urges nations to explore better solutions - and new ways to exploit the minerals in the wastewater and support efforts to advance the declared UN sustainable development goal of reliable, safe water on tap for everybody in the world.


Chaos in the body tunes up your immune system

Immune system

Chaos in bodily regulation can optimize our immune system according to a recent discovery made by researchers at the University of Copenhagen's Niels Bohr Institute. The discovery may prove to be of great significance for avoiding serious diseases such as cancer and diabetes.

PhD Mathias Heltberg and Professor Mogens Høgh Jensen
© University of Copenhagen
PhD Mathias Heltberg and Professor Mogens Høgh Jensen.
Wide gaps exist in our understanding of how the immune system works and how we might avoid diseases such as cancer and diabetes. Now, two researchers at the University of Copenhagen's Niels Bohr Institute have made a discovery that could prove to be an important piece of the puzzle. PhD Mathias Heltberg and Professor Mogens Høgh Jensen have found an entirely new mechanism in the way that bodily cells regulate themselves - through chaos.

The researchers investigated how a particular protein produced within cells, NF-kB, stimulates genes. Among other things, this particular protein is vital for maintaining the body's immune defense system and thereby, the body's ability to combat disease. The concentration of NF-kB fluctuates over time, and these swings impact the genes and subsequently, the condition of cells.

The researchers demonstrated that chaotic swings in the concentration of the protein - what in mathematics is known as chaotic dynamics - can increase the activation of a number of genes that are otherwise not activated. In other words, when in a chaotic state, the NF-kB protein is most effective at activating genes and optimally "tuning" the immune system.

"The results can have a tremendous impact on our understanding of how the immune system functions and how the incidence of some of the most serious illnesses, including diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer's, might be avoided. For example, we know that cancer is related to a failure of signaling within the body. So, to avoid cancer, it is imperative to have the right dynamic at work in cells," says Mogens Høgh Jensen, a professor in biocomplexity at the University of Copenhagen's Niels Bohr Institute.


New scale for electronegativity rewrites the chemistry textbook

Electronegativity  periodic table
© Martin Rahm/Chalmers University of Technology
Electronegativity redefined: A new scale for electronegativity covers the first 96 elements, a marked increase on previous versions. Credit:
Electronegativity is one of the most well-known models for explaining why chemical reactions occur. Now, Martin Rahm from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, has redefined the concept with a new, more comprehensive scale. His work, undertaken with colleagues including a Nobel Prize-winner, has been published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

The theory of electronegativity is used to describe how strongly different atoms attract electrons. By using electronegativity scales, one can predict the approximate charge distribution in different molecules and materials, without needing to resort to complex quantum mechanical calculations or spectroscopic studies. This is vital for understanding all kinds of materials, as well as for designing new ones. Used daily by chemists and materials researchers all over the world, the concept originates from Swedish chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius' research in the 19th century and is widely taught at high-school level.

Now, Martin Rahm, Assistant Professor in Physical Chemistry at Chalmers University of Technology, has developed a brand-new scale of electronegativity.

Comment: See also:


Electromagnetic stars


A composite image of SGR 1900+14 from the Spitzer Space Telescope. Blue represents 8-micron infrared light, green is 16-micron light and red is 24-micron light.

What are magnetars?

As conventional understanding suggests, neutron stars are created when massive stars collapse at the end of their life cycles. Gravity in those stars is said to be is so intense that they cannot resist the collapse, so electrons are squeezed into the nuclei that make up their structures. As astrophysicists state, those collapsed stars can become less than 100 kilometers in diameter, but can weigh 10^12 kilograms per milliliter. As they contract, angular momentum increases, resulting in rapid rotation. If a particular star is large enough, it can become a "magnetar".

Magnetars are usually identified as "X-ray pulsars" or "soft gamma repeaters". As conventional theories argue, they can reach magnetic field strengths measuring over 10^15 Gauss. Earth's magnetic field is about one-half Gauss, so these "magnetic pulsars" are surprisingly powerful.

Comment: See also:


Russia's Academy of Sciences begins work on countering 'hazards' from outer space

hazards from space
© AFP 2018/ HO/NASA
According to the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), researchers have so far detected around 18,000 hazardous objects in space, 99 percent of which are asteroids.

The presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences agreed upon developing a national program to research the issues and methods of countering hazards from space, such as asteroids, comets and space debris, Scientific Director of the Academy's Astronomy Institute, Boris Shustov, told Sputnik on Thursday.

"At present, foreign countries, primarily the United States, have advanced in their development of systems for detection of space hazards. At the recent meeting of the RAS presidium, the academics voted to support the draft statement to begin the work on preparing the modern variant of the national program and a wider range of issues, including the whole range of space threats," Shustov said.

Comment: Russia has, to some extent, already begun the work of building defenses against asteroids and other space objects (however limited they may ultimately prove to be should Earth be struck by a likely barrage of neo's).


Researchers can now grow perfect blood vessels in a petri dish

artificial blood vessels
An illustration of vascular organoids, lab-made human blood vessels, based on original data.
The researchers also demonstrated that it is possible to grow functioning human blood vessels in another species.

A team of researchers has managed to grow "perfect" human blood vessels in a Petri dish and a non-human animal for the first time.

As detailed in a study published Tuesday in Nature, organoids - biomasses grown from stem cells that mimic human organs - were grown after researchers identified an important pathway that prevents changes to blood vessels, a major cause of death in diseases such as diabetes and Alzheimer's.

Arrow Up

Genes reveal clues about people's potential life expectancy

Longevity concept
© iQoncept / Fotolia
Longevity concept (stock illustration).
Scientists say they can predict whether a person can expect to live longer or die sooner than average, by looking at their DNA.

The team has analysed the combined effect of genetic variations that influence lifespan to produce a scoring system.

People who score in the top ten per cent of the population might expect to live up to five years longer than those who score in the lowest ten per cent, they say.

The findings also revealed fresh insights into diseases and the biological mechanisms involved in ageing, the researchers say.

Experts at the University of Edinburgh's Usher Institute looked at genetic data from more than half a million people alongside records of their parents' lifespan.

Comment: See also:


Pointless? CERN lays out plans for even bigger €21-billion super-collider

The proposed facility would become the most powerful collider ever built. Davide Castelvecchi Artistic impression of the Future Circular Collider.
CERN has unveiled its bold dream to build a new accelerator nearly four times as long as its 27-kilometer Large Hadron Collider - currently the world's largest - and up to six times more powerful.

The European particle physics laboratory, outside Geneva, Switzerland, outlined the plan in a technical report on 15 January.

The document offers several preliminary designs for a Future Circular Collider (FCC) - which would be the most powerful particle-smasher ever built - with different types of colliders ranging in cost from around €9 billion (US$10.2 billion) to €21 billion. It is the lab's opening bid in a priority-setting process over the next two years, called the European Strategy Update for Particle Physics, and it will affect the field's future well into the second half of the century.

"It's a huge leap, like planning a trip not to Mars, but to Uranus," says Gian Francesco Giudice, who heads CERN's theory department and represents CERN in the Physics Preparatory Group of the strategy exercise.

Comment: Just who funds these projects that cost billions?
CERN's 21 Member States each pay a contribution to the CERN budget (which totalled 1 240 million Swiss francs in 2013). In addition, special contributions are made to specific projects by the Host States and by non-Member States wishing to be involved in particular areas of research.
So it's the taxpayer. Perhaps taxpayers should be given a say into whether or not they want to go on funding another CERN project? Considering the current climate in Europe, what with deteriorating living standards, bubbling dissatisfaction with the establishment, the relatively few jobs that this would create and the absence of any constructive results CERN has produced, public backing would likely be vanishingly small:

Comet 2

Something only EU can explain: Asteroid 6478 Gault 'suddenly sprouts a comet-like tail'

Asteroid 6478 Gault
© Video capture of astronomer Damia Peach
Asteroid 6478 Gault
An asteroid discovered decades ago may have become a comet in recent months, according to telescope observations that spotted a tail accompanying the space rock.

The newly intriguing object is named Asteroid (6478) Gault, and observations from December and early January show it has developed a tail.

A notice sent to astronomers by the International Astronomical Union said that data from the observations is "consistent with the ejection of material or commencement of activity in early Nov. 2018."

British astronomer Alan Fitzsimmons noted on Twitter that the tail of dust extends over 400,000 km (249,000 miles).

Comment: It IS a 'comet' because the only difference between an asteroid and a comet is that the latter is glowing from electrical discharge. See also:


Scientists spot a strange quadruple star system 146 light years away

gas ring

Scientists with the ALMA telescope have spotted an unusual formation of gas and dust in a double star system 146 light-years away. (Artist's impression)
Scientists with the ALMA telescope have spotted an unusual formation of gas and dust in a double star system 146 light-years away.

The system isn't unique in that it contains two binary pairs, but in how its surrounding planet-forming disk is oriented.

Astronomers say the disk of the quadruple star system has been flipped in a way that's previously only existed in theory.

'Discs rich in gas and dust are seen around nearly all young stars, and we know that at least a third of the ones orbiting single stars form planets,' said Dr Grant M. Kennedy of the University of Warwick.

'Some of these planets end up being misaligned with the spin of the star, so we've been wondering whether a similar thing might be possible for circumbinary planets.