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Thu, 19 Oct 2017
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Science & Technology

Microscope 1

Scientists suggest a synthetic crystal can mimic learning and forgetting

© Dr Morley Read / Flickr
Plasmodium stage of a slime mold.
You don't need a brain to learn. Slime molds, for example, solve mazes and navigate obstacles-all without a single neuron. Information about their environment is somehow stored across their bodies. (Scientists are still a bit hazy on how this works.)

But what about something that isn't even alive? A new paper suggests that samarium nickelate oxide (SNO, for short), a synthetic crystal, can mimic learning.

SNO's ability comes from its environmental sensitivity. When it makes contact with hydrogen gas, it steals electrons from the hydrogen and its electric resistivity increases. "It basically changes the electrical resistance of the material by many orders of magnitude-and this happens even at room temperature," said Shriram Ramanathan, a professor of material science at Purdue University and co-author on the study. "It's a really remarkable effect."

Successive exposure, however, produces diminishing returns-SNO becomes "habituated" to the hydrogen and its resistivity increases more slowly. "You might take that behavior for granted," Ramanathan said. "[But] habituation is considered to be a very fundamental survival skill for organisms." For example, dogs can become habituated to loud car engines. At first, they might be threatening, so the dogs expend energy barking. But after long enough, they generally stop. (This way, the dogs conserve energy and attention for real threats, like mailmen.)

Bizarro Earth

Study reveals world's tropical forests are now carbon emission source

© AFP/Getty Images
The study measured the impact of disturbance and degradation – the thinning of tree density and the culling of biodiversity below an apparently protected canopy.
The world's tropical forests are so degraded they have become a source rather than a sink of carbon emissions, according to a new study that highlights the urgent need to protect and restore the Amazon and similar regions.

Researchers found that forest areas in South America, Africa and Asia - which have until recently played a key role in absorbing greenhouse gases - are now releasing 425 teragrams of carbon annually, which is more than all the traffic in the United States.

This is a far greater loss than previously thought and carries extra force because the data emerges from the most detailed examination of the topic ever undertaken. The authors say their findings - published in the journal Science on Thursday - should galvanise policymakers to take remedial action.

"This shows that we can't just sit back. The forest is not doing what we thought it was doing," said Alessandro Baccini, who is one of the leader authors of the research team from Woods Hole Research Center and Boston University. "As always, trees are removing carbon from the atmosphere, but the volume of the forest is no longer enough to compensate for the losses. The region is not a sink any more."

Comment: Ocean cycles, not humans, are responsible for climate change

Gold Seal

Nobel prize in physics: Discovery of gravitational waves


£825,000 prize awarded to Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne for their work on Ligo experiment which was able to detect ripples in the fabric of spacetime

Three American physicists have won the Nobel prize in physics for the first observations of gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of spacetime that were anticipated by Albert Einstein a century ago.

Rainer Weiss has been awarded one half of the 9m Swedish kronor (£825,000) prize, announced by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm on Tuesday. Kip Thorne and Barry Barish will share the other half of the prize.

All three scientists have played leading roles in the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or Ligo, experiment, which in 2015 made the first historic observation of gravitational waves triggered by the violent merger of two black holes a billion light years away. Prof Olga Botner, a member of the Nobel committee for physics, described this as "a discovery that shook the world".

The Ligo detections finally confirmed Einstein's century-old prediction that during cataclysmic events the fabric of spacetime itself can be stretched and squeezed, sending gravitational tremors out across the universe like ripples on a pond.

The direct detection of gravitational waves also opens a new vista on the "dark" side of the cosmos, to times and places from which no optical light escapes. This includes just fractions of a second after the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago, when scientists believe gravitational waves left a permanent imprint on the cosmos that may still be perceptible today.


When galaxies collide: Hard to spot supermassive black hole 'couples' found by NASA

Several pairs of supermassive black holes have been detected by NASA observatories in a rare find that scientists say could shed light on how the phenomena produce the strongest gravitational wave signals in the universe.

The 'couples' form when two galaxies collide and merge with each other, forcing their supermassive black holes close together.

Five black hole 'couples' were identified by astronomers using a combination of data from a number of telescopes, including NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Wide-Field Infrared Sky Explorer Survey (WISE) and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS).


Spacewalk 360: RT releases first-ever panoramic video of two Russian cosmonauts in outer space (VIDEO)

RT has released the first-ever 360-degree footage shot by man in outer space, putting viewers in the shoes of two Russian cosmonauts launching nanosatellites from outside the International Space Station (ISS).

The video, which shows out-of-this-world views of Planet Earth, is the first time that the so-called extravehicular activity (EVA) has been filmed in 360. The immersive new format previously helped viewers explore the ISS modules as part of the Space 360 project.

Cosmonauts Sergey Ryazansky and Fedor Yurchikhin captured the breathtaking scenery while doing their 7.5-hour spacewalk in August, which included maintenance tasks and the launch of five miniature satellites.

Red Flag

Security researchers discover hackers can easily take control of "smart" sex toys

© Alexey Malgavko / Sputnik
Security researchers have discovered a vulnerability in smart sex toys, including those made in the US, that allows hackers to easily take control of the devices from the street.

Walking through the streets of Berlin, Alex Lomas, a researcher from security group Pen Test Partners, said he was "genuinely surprised" to see an adult sex toy pop up on his phone.

Using a technique Lomas dubbed "screwdriving" - a play on "wardriving," a term hackers use for locating Wi-Fi networks while driving - Lomas showed how hackers could "fairly accurately" locate a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)-enabled sex toy using triangulation.

"We went hunting...and found some devices in an exploitable state...in people," Lomas wrote in a blog.


Study suggests methane belches kept water flowing on ancient Mars

New research suggests outflows of methane could have warned Mars' atmosphere and melted water ice a few billion years ago, allowing lakes and rivers to flow through Martian craters.

By the end of the Hesperian period, all of the Red Planet's water should have been locked up in ice form. But 3.5-million-year-old lake beds, like those found within Gale Crater, suggest otherwise.

Frequent belches of methane could explain how a younger Mars maintained liquid water on its surface despite a cold, arid climate.

The evidence that water once flowed freely on Mars is overwhelming. Over the last decade, scientists have found signs that water moved across the surface of the Red Planet as recently as 3 billion years ago.

The problem is, scientists have also uncovered a large body of evidence suggesting Mars' climate was especially cold and dry some 3 billion years ago.

Planetary scientists have been fishing for a solution to the contradiction.

"It's a paradox, an unresolved paradox of Mars," Kevin Zahnle, a NASA scientist who was not involved in the research, told The Verge. "On the one hand, some people say that it looked warmish and wettish, at least occasionally. On another hand, nobody can figure out how it could have been warmish and wettish."

Comment: See also: Discovery that Mars' Gale Crater was once lake evidence of wet and warm climate

Comet 2

House-sized asteroid will come 'damn close' to Earth next week as it passes only 27,000 miles away

The asteroid the size of a house set to narrowly skim the Earth in October was spotted by scientists this summer for the first time in five years. ESA has tracked down the giant hunk of rock (circled) which is about 15 to 30 metres (49 to 98 feet) long
An asteroid estimated to be up to 100 feet wide is set for a close shave with Earth next week, when it will soar past at a distance of just 27,000 miles above the surface - or, as some scientists have put it, 'damn close.'

The space rock, dubbed asteroid 2012 TC4, is about 30-100 feet (10-30 meters) in size, and will fly by at just one-eighth of the distance between Earth and the moon on October 12.

It first flitted past our planet in October 2012 at about double the distance of its next expected pass, before disappearing.

But, after tracking it down last month, scientists now assure it will make a safe pass.


Is gravity an electrical phenomenon?

© Tn2 Magazine

The Google Earth software has turned out to be an excellent tool for observing the Earth's surface features though it cannot be considered the direct equivalent of an optical camera since much image processing is needed to produce the imagery we look at on our PC screens.

The latest issue of the New Concepts in Global Tectonics has been published and in the letters section Bruce Leybourne notes a linkage between gravity anomalies and lightning and earthquakes, and I suspect volcanic activity. But just how gravity could be linked to lightning seems problematical unless our understanding of gravity is faulty, and that gravity is instead some sort of electrical phenomena. Gravity being electrical is not a new idea and the in situ field data I collected from a drilling operation in 2009 supports the idea that it's electrical in nature. But first some assumptions.

Atomic nuclei can be considered as discrete entities surrounded by a cloud of electrons. The dual nature of the electron remains problematical and here I assume it to be a wave in an underlying substrate or aether. As well light, being essentially a transverse oscillation requires a physical medium through which to traverse, and having an aether allows this.

The observable universe is comprised of condensed matter (solids) and to an extent, liquids, gases and plasma. According to the plasma-universe model, 99.997% of the observable matter is in the plasma state, implying that 0.003% isn't and that solid matter is an even smaller proportion.

Newton's equations of motion and gravity apply only to solid matter since physically his equations can only describe solid objects. His equations cannot be applied to atomic scale phenomena nor to liquids or gases since matter in these states does not exist as discrete physical objects organised into atomic lattices or fixed structures.

This has not stopped science from extending his equations to uncondensed matter via the use of imaginals of point masses or centres-of-gravities. While quite adequate for the description of motion of solid bodies or objects, Newton's equations don't work too well, if at all, when fluid motion is being described, and the idea of magnetohydrodynamics was proposed last century by Hannes Alfven, with the warning issued during his Nobel Prize investiture that magnetic fields cannot be frozen electrical plasma; plasma is not a perfect electrical conductor, in other words.

As a first-pass, back of envelope guess, it is here assumed that plasma physics is applicable to describing the physical behavior of liquids (essentially viscous plasma), gases and of course plasma, while Newton's equations restricted to solids or condensed matter. So cyclonic structures in the Earth's atmosphere and oceans are due to the motion of electrically charged particles, rather than the gross physical behavior of liquids and gases in the conventional sense.

The biggest problem remaining in geology to this day remains the formation of the Earth's oceans. Continental drift, plate tectonics, earth expansion, wrench tectonics and surge tectonics all are attempts at explaining how the oceans formed. All of these theories rely on the assumption that the geomagnetic field is endogenous and that any changes in orientation of the palaeomagnetic fields is due to the crustal movement though today we now know that the geomagnetic field is quite mobile and changeable, but still within the constraints of an endogenous origin; this leads to trying to work out how the internal dynamo mechanism, (never modeled physically), achieves this. It remains a serious problem. It seems more useful to assume the geomagnetic field is produced externally.


Vision drawn to meaning, not what sticks out

Conventional thinking on visual attention is that our attention is automatically drawn to "salient" objects that stand out from the background. Researchers at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain mapped hundreds of images (examples far left) by eye tracking (center left), "meaning" (center right) and "salience" or outstanding features (far left). Statistical analysis shows that eyes are drawn to "meaningful" areas, not necessarily those that are most outstanding. Credit: John Henderson and Taylor Hayes, UC Davis

Our visual attention is drawn to parts of a scene that have meaning, rather than to those that are salient or "stick out," according to new research from the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis. The findings, published Sept. 25 in the journal Nature Human Behavior, overturn the widely-held model of visual attention.