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Sun, 04 Dec 2016
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Bizarro Earth

Double tectonic shifts may have teamed in New Zealand's recent earthquake

The powerful earthquake that struck New Zealand was unusual in that a big event on one fault may have immediately triggered a big event on a second fault, experts said on Monday.

An earthquake of magnitude 7.8 pummeled central New Zealand at 12.02 a.m., killing at least two people, damaging roads and buildings and setting off hundreds of strong aftershocks.

"When an earthquake occurs you are changing the stress field immediately, and if there was one fault that was pretty close to breaking, the energy from an earthquake can just tip it over the edge so that may have been what happened today," Adam Pascale, head of Australia's Seismology Research Centre, told Reuters.

New Zealand's GNS Science agency principal scientist Kelvin Barrowman told Radio New Zealand: "It seems like the earthquake was more like two earthquakes, but very closely spaced in time."

What remains unknown, and disconcerting, is whether the high number of aftershocks were just that, or "foreshocks" preceding another large quake.

Comment: Large earthquakes can trigger aftershocks on separate faults within moments causing greater damage


German scientists measure smallest fragment of time

© Benoit Tessier / Reuters
The team measured an event at 850 zeptoseconds

News has never happened so fast: Now scientists have now measured the smallest fragment of time ever observed. A zeptosecond (one trillionth of a billionth of a second) was used to measure an electron escaping its atom for the first time.

A team from the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany, were studying Albert Einstein's photoelectric effect when they made the quicker than lightning-fast discovery, New Scientist reports.

Firing ultraviolet laser pulses at a helium atom they excited its electrons. A near-infrared laser pulse was also fired at the atom, detecting an escaping electron as soon as it left the atom.


Will tonight's supermoon affect human behavior?

Do not be alarmed if you find yourself struggling to fall asleep tonight, for there could be a perfectly scientific reason for your insomnia. Hovering outside your window will be the biggest and brightest moon the planet has seen since January 1948 - a scientific phenomenon that takes place only when a full moon coincides with the moon being the closest it gets to us on its orbit.

Clouds permitting, the "supermoon" will look around 14 per cent larger and 30 per cent brighter than the average full moon. It will be the closest the moon has been to Earth for more than 60 years, and the closest it will come until November 2034.

So what does it mean? According to astrologers a supermoon is simply an intensified new moon or full moon - a time to focus on new beginnings. But when a supermoon is involved these new starts can take on an even more dramatic tone. Some even see them as omens of impending disaster, or a warning of something momentous coming towards us.

Aside from mythical meanings and unfounded alarmist proclamations, any full moon - never mind a supermoon as big as this - has long been seen as having the ability to trigger emotional reactions and extreme behaviour.

And while it may be easy to scoff, these theories have been given added credence in recent years by claims that there is a spike in admissions to hospitals when the moon is full, and by police forces reporting a rise in crime.


Like a bat out of hell: Brazilian free-tailed bat is the fastest animal on Earth at 100 mph

© Wikimedia Commons
Frio Cave is home to a whopping 10 Million Mexican (or Brazilian) Free-tailed bats
The mighty cheetah has been clocked at 75 mph — the speediest runner on the planet.

Perhaps you know that the fastest animal in the sea, the sailfish, cruises through the water at 68 mph.

In the sky, the peregrine falcon reigns supreme. Wings folded as the bird plummets through the air, it reaches 220 mph to divebomb unsuspecting prey with the advantage of gravity.

Next to those more familiar speed freaks, the Brazilian free-tailed bat flew under the radar.

They are little yet voracious animals, known to gobble up moths, beetles and other insects by the hundreds each night.

They fly in clusters of several million, their colonies forming the largest collection of warm-bodied animals around.

As for their flying speeds, it was thought to be a respectable but not record-setting 59 mph.

The truth is faster — a lot faster, according to new research led by ecologists at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

The bats were documented flapping, level to the ground, at a whopping 100 mph.


World's tallest tropical tree discovered in Borneo, Malaysia

© Robin Martin, Carnegie Institution for Science
This is the world's tallest tropical tree
The world's tallest tropical tree has been discovered at the heart of the Malaysian Island of Borneo, in the state of Sabah. This record-breaking specimen towers 94.1m (nearly 309ft) and its canopy reaches a diameter of 40.3m (132ft).

In June 2016, a team of scientists had already announced they had found the tallest tropical tree on our planet. The specimen they had recorded - a yellow meranti - reached a height of 89.5m, and was also found in Malaysia. This record was not destined to last long however.

On 10 November 2016, Gregory Asner of the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University announced that not only had he found the more impressive, 94.1m tall, tropical tree but he had also identified 49 trees with a greater height than the yellow meranti discovered five months ago - all exceed the 90m mark.


Physicists are 'afraid' of mathematics

© Kings College London
Physicists avoid highly mathematical work despite being trained in advanced mathematics, new research suggests.

The study, published in the New Journal of Physics, shows that physicists pay less attention to theories that are crammed with mathematical details. This suggests there are real and widespread barriers to communicating mathematical work, and that this is not because of poor training in mathematical skills, or because there is a social stigma about doing well in mathematics.

Dr Tim Fawcett and Dr Andrew Higginson, from the University of Exeter, found, using statistical analysis of the number of citations to 2000 articles in a leading physics journal, that articles are less likely to be referenced by other physicists if they have lots of mathematical equations on each page.

Dr Higginson said: "We have already showed that biologists are put off by equations but we were surprised by these findings, as physicists are generally skilled in mathematics.

"This is an important issue because it shows there could be a disconnection between mathematical theory and experimental work. This presents a potentially enormous barrier to all kinds of scientific progress."

The research findings suggest improving the training of science graduates won't help, because physics students already receive extensive maths training before they graduate. Instead, the researchers think the solution lies in clearer communication of highly technical work, such as taking the time to describe what the equations mean.

Dr Fawcett said: "Physicists need to think more carefully about how they present the mathematical details of their work, to explain the theory in a way that their colleagues can quickly understand. It takes time to scrutinise the details of a technical article—even for the most distinguished physics professors—so with many competing demands on their time scientists may be choosing to skip over articles that take too much effort to digest."

"Ideally, the impact of scientific work should be determined by its scientific value, rather than by the presentational style," said Dr Higginson.

"Unfortunately, it seems valuable papers may be ignored if they are not made accessible. As we have said before: all scientists who care about the dialogue between theory and experiment should take this issue seriously, rather than claiming it does not exist."

Journal reference: New Journal of Physics


Researchers find mysterious 'cosmic whistles' rival supernovae in their explosive power

Penn State University astronomers have discovered that the mysterious "cosmic whistles" known as fast radio bursts can pack a serious punch, in some cases releasing a billion times more energy in gamma-rays than they do in radio waves and rivaling the stellar cataclysms known as supernovae in their explosive power. The discovery, the first-ever finding of non-radio emission from any fast radio burst, drastically raises the stakes for models of fast radio bursts and is expected to further energize efforts by astronomers to chase down and identify long-lived counterparts to fast radio bursts using X-ray, optical, and radio telescopes.

Fast radio bursts, which astronomers refer to as FRBs, were first discovered in 2007, and in the years since radio astronomers have detected a few dozen of these events. Although they last mere milliseconds at any single frequency, their great distances from Earth—and large quantities of intervening plasma—delay their arrival at lower frequencies, spreading the signal out over a second or more and yielding a distinctive downward-swooping "whistle" across the typical radio receiver band.

"This discovery revolutionizes our picture of FRBs, some of which apparently manifest as both a whistle and a bang," said coauthor Derek Fox, a Penn State professor of astronomy and astrophysics. The radio whistle can be detected by ground-based radio telescopes, while the gamma-ray bang can be picked up by high-energy satellites like NASA's Swift mission. "Rate and distance estimates for FRBs suggest that, whatever they are, they are a relatively common phenomenon, occurring somewhere in the universe more than 2,000 times a day."

Monkey Wrench

Genetically engineered cashmere sweater? Scientists in China have used CRISPR to make a modified goat that produces more of the fine wool

The extra-fluffy, genetically-altered cashmere goats at 6 months old
Cashmere is not merely goat hair.

No, no. Most hair on a goat—even a so-called cashmere goat—is coarse and thick, unsuitable for the neck of lady. Cashmere comes from a second undercoat that goats grow only in the winter, where the hairs are fine and soft and downy. But even goats specially bred to produce cashmere grow pitifully little—about half a pound per goat. Hence, your very expensive cashmere sweater.

In China, the world's top producer of cashmere, scientists have been trying to breed more productive cashmere goats. They've now used CRISPR, the genetic editing technique, to disrupt a single gene in cashmere goats. The change made hair in their undercoats even longer and more numerous—but not, crucially, any thicker. The genetic tweak boosts yield by about three ounces.


Unified Theory of Evolution: Darwin's theory that natural selection drives evolution is incomplete without input from evolution's anti-hero: Lamarck

© Pesticidewise
Environmental chemicals seem to trigger epigenetic effects in our DNA
The unifying theme for much of modern biology is based on Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, the process of natural selection by which nature selects the fittest, best-adapted organisms to reproduce, multiply and survive. The process is also called adaptation, and traits most likely to help an individual survive are considered adaptive. As organisms change and new variants thrive, species emerge and evolve. In the 1850s, when Darwin described this engine of natural selection, the underlying molecular mechanisms were unknown. But over the past century, advances in genetics and molecular biology have outlined a modern, neo-Darwinian theory of how evolution works: DNA sequences randomly mutate, and organisms with the specific sequences best adapted to the environment multiply and prevail. Those are the species that dominate a niche, until the environment changes and the engine of evolution fires up again.

But this explanation for evolution turns out to be incomplete, suggesting that other molecular mechanisms also play a role in how species evolve. One problem with Darwin's theory is that, while species do evolve more adaptive traits (called phenotypes by biologists), the rate of random DNA sequence mutation turns out to be too slow to explain many of the changes observed. Scientists, well-aware of the issue, have proposed a variety of genetic mechanisms to compensate: genetic drift, in which small groups of individuals undergo dramatic genetic change; or epistasis, in which one set of genes suppress another, to name just two.

Yet even with such mechanisms in play, genetic mutation rates for complex organisms such as humans are dramatically lower than the frequency of change for a host of traits, from adjustments in metabolism to resistance to disease. The rapid emergence of trait variety is difficult to explain just through classic genetics and neo-Darwinian theory. To quote the prominent evolutionary biologist Jonathan B L Bard, who was paraphrasing T S Eliot: 'Between the phenotype and genotype falls the shadow.'

And the problems with Darwin's theory extend out of evolutionary science into other areas of biology and biomedicine. For instance, if genetic inheritance determines our traits, then why do identical twins with the same genes generally have different types of diseases? And why do just a low percentage (often less than 1 per cent) of those with many specific diseases share a common genetic mutation? If the rate of mutation is random and steady, then why have many diseases increased more than 10-fold in frequency in only a couple decades? How is it that hundreds of environmental contaminants can alter disease onset, but not DNA sequences? In evolution and biomedicine, the rates of phenotypic trait divergence is far more rapid than the rate of genetic variation and mutation - but why?


Southern hemisphere recovered quicker from devastating asteroid strike

© Pic about Space
Researchers from the US and Argentina have analysed fossilised leaves and presented a new theory as to why the southern hemisphere recovered faster following the asteroid strike that killed the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

Ecosystems in North America took 9 million years to recover from the asteroid, whilst in South America, insect life bounced back only after about 4 million years. This is the conclusion of the join US-Argentine research team that has published the results of its study in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Previous evidence had suggested that the asteroid strike - which killed all non-avian dinosaurs and a large number of other species - had a less severe impact on the southern hemisphere and one theory had argued that this was because it provided a sort of refuge for species. However, this new research points to a different explanation, being that ecosystems recovered much more quickly than in the north.

'This extinction is very important - it is one of the major extinctions in the history of the Earth,' commented lead researcher Michael Donovan of Pennsylvania State University. 'The biodiversity patterns we see today, where things are living, may be related to what survived - so it is important to learn about what was happening around the world at this time.'