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Fri, 29 Jul 2016
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Pi

Scientists on the verge of predicting children's scholastic aptitude using DNA

© Charles Platiau / Reuters
Think your kid isn't the brightest crayon in the box? Don't worry - one look at your child's DNA may soon help scientists predict whether he or she will have learning difficulties at school, so that you can take timely measures to avoid any problems.

Apparently, it's all in the genes. Research by scientists from King's College London has shown that a genetic score of some 20,000 DNA variants explains up to 10 percent of differences in educational achievements of 16-year-old students. The authors of the study stressed that DNA gives a far better prediction of a pupil's achievement than gender or grit - a trait measuring determination for attaining challenging goals.

"We are at a tipping point for predicting individuals' educational strengths and weaknesses from their DNA," Professor Robert Plomin, senior author of the study, said in the press-release.

Researchers studied the influence of genetic variants on results from GCSEs - a system of exams in England, Wales and Northern Ireland - in maths and English in 5,825 unrelated individuals aged 7, 12 and 16.

Bulb

New concentrating solar tower is worth its salt with 24/7 power

A California firm is converting sunlight to heat and storing it in molten salt so it can supply electricity when the wind is calm or the sun isn't shining

© SolarReserve
The 110-megawatt Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Facility in Nevada is the first utility-scale concentrating solar plant that can provide electricity whenever it's needed most, even after dark.
Deep in the Nevada desert, halfway between Las Vegas and Reno, a lone white tower stands 195 meters tall, gleaming like a beacon. It is surrounded by more than 10,000 billboard-size mirrors focusing the sun's rays on its tip. The Crescent Dunes "concentrating solar power" plant looks like some advanced communication device for aliens. But the facility's innovation lies in the fact that it can store electricity and make it available on demand any time—day or night.

Crescent Dunes, the flagship project of Santa Monica - based firm SolarReserve, has achieved what engineers and proponents of renewable energy have struggled with for decades: providing cheap, commercial-scale, non - fossil fuel electricity even when winds are calm or the sun is not shining. The facility is touted as being the first solar power plant that can store more than 10 hours of electricity, which translates into 1,100 megawatt-hours, enough to power 75,000 homes. "We can ramp up electricity generation for utilities based on the demand. We can turn on when they want us to turn on and we can turn off when they want us to turn off," SolarReserve CEO Kevin Smith says.

The trick is to have all those mirrors heat up a massive tank full of sodium and potassium nitrates that are pumped up to the top of the tower. There the molten salt can reach temperatures as high as 565 degrees Celsius. When electricity is needed, the hot salt is used to boil water and produce high-temperature, high-pressure steam, which turns turbines that generate electricity. The rest of the time, the molten salt can be stored in another insulated tank on the ground.

Comment: Related articles:


Laptop

Quantum computer accurately simulates hydrogen molecule, could revolutionize many industries


Google's 9-qubit universal quantum computer.
Google, in collaboration with researchers from Harvard, Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, UC Santa Barbara, Tufts University and University College London, announced that they have achieved the first completely scalable quantum simulation of a molecule. Quantum-level chemistry simulation is one of the first real-world uses for quantum computers, and it could revolutionize medicine research, materials research, and much more.

Classical computers aren't that good at simulating chemical reactions. For instance, accurately computing the energies of the propane molecule (C3H8) takes ten days with a classic computer design. Molecular systems use highly-entangled superposition states, which require exponentially more computing resources to represent them sufficiently with high precision.

If it takes up to ten days to represent a single molecule with high precision, then representing thousands (or millions) of molecules at the same time, and how they react with each other, becomes an almost impossible task with a classic computer architecture. It is also a highly inefficient process in terms of energy use. Chemical reactions seem to work at a quantum level, so quantum computers are ideal for trying to simulate them as efficiently and as accurately as possible.

Moon

Will the US and Russia go to the moon together?

American and Russian engineers are getting closer to a new plan for cooperating in space, one that would go beyond low Earth orbit and preserve the multinational alliance forged at the dawn of the International Space Station program in 1993. Organizations on both sides are quietly toying with the idea of going back to the moon together. That is, if politics don't get in the way.

With the ISS scheduled to make a controlled plunge into the ocean in 2024, the partners have been preparing to go their own ways. NASA, while funding companies like SpaceX to go to orbit, is developing the Orion spacecraft and the super-heavy rocket called Space Launch System (SLS) for manned missions into deep space and potentially as far as Mars. The European Space Agency (ESA) jumped on NASA's bandwagon few years ago, agreeing to contribute the service and propulsion module for the Orion. But the second-largest ISS contributor, Russia, has so far remained uncommitted to any joint venture beyond the station.

Magnify

Scientists have just created a storage device the size of a postage stamp that could contain all the books ever written

© Gizmag
Illustration of the preferred magnetic orientation of an iron atom on a specially prepared copper surface. The ability of an atom to maintain its magnetic orientation can help determine that atom's suitability for storing data.
Scientists have fashioned the world's smallest hard disk, ushering a new era of data storage in which every book ever written could be contained on a gadget the size of a 20-cent piece. Dutch and Portuguese researchers say their "kilobyte atomic memory", revealed in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, could solve the storage problems posed by the generation of more than a billion gigabytes of new information every day.

The rewritable device stores the equivalent of a news story in a space one-thousandth the size of a needle tip. Pound for pound, it can hold around 1000 times as much information as current hard disks and flash drives.

"In theory, this storage density would allow all books ever created to be written on a single post stamp," said team leader Sander Otte of Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands.

The prototype, which is just 100 nanometres wide — roughly one-thousandth the width of a human hair — features a grid of movable chlorine atoms on a tiny sheet of copper. It needs just one atom to store a "bit", the basic information unit of computing. Eight bits grouped together form a byte, which can hold a single typed letter.

Blue Planet

San Andreas fault produces earthquakes in response to tidal forces

© U.S. Geological Survey
The San Andreas fault in California. Researchers have found that tidal forces play a role in the timing of small, deep earthquakes along the fault.
The gravitational tug between the sun and moon is not just a dance of high and low tides: It can also trigger a special kind of earthquake on the San Andreas fault.

This phenomenon has fascinated scientists for years. Like sea levels, the surface of the Earth also goes up and down with the tides, flexing the crust and stressing the faults inside. Further study found that during certain phases of the tidal cycle, small tremors deep underground - known as low-frequency earthquakes - were more likely to occur.

"It's kind of crazy, right? That the moon, when it's pulling in the same direction that the fault is slipping, causes the fault to slip more - and faster," said Nicholas van der Elst, a U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist and lead author of a new study on the subject published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "What it shows is that the fault is super weak - much weaker than we would expect - given that there's 20 miles of rock sitting on top of it."

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Key

Mercedes unveils self-driving city bus

© Daimler
Mercedes-Benz Future Bus with CityPilot.
Autonomy isn't just for cars; Mercedes-Benz has created a self-driving city bus, too.

Mercedes-Benz revealed its latest creation on Monday morning. Called the Future Bus, it's the first city bus that can drive autonomously.

Mercedes did more than just unveil the futuristic vehicle. It also sent it on a 12-mile route through the streets of Amsterdam.

The bus uses Mercedes' latest autonomous driving system called CityPilot. Like HighwayPilot, which allows the company's semi trucks to drive more safely and efficiently down freeways, CityPilot enables buses to drive partially autonomously in specially marked bus lanes up to 43 mph. All of this is achieved with a human driver onboard to monitor for safety.

Comment: First autopilot death: Tesla driver killed in crash with tractor-trailer


Info

Whales mourn their dead, just like humans

© Robin W. Baird
A mother orca carries her dead newborn. Several species of whales show signs of mourning.
Smart and often sociable, whales forge tight bonds with one another. Now it's clear that those bonds can be stronger than death itself.

More than six species of the marine mammals have been seen clinging to the body of a dead compatriot, probably a podmate or relative, scientists say in a new study.

The most likely explanation for the animals' refusal to let go of the corpses: grief.


"They are mourning," says study co-author Melissa Reggente, a biologist at the University of Milano-Bicocca in Italy. "They are in pain and stressed. They know something is wrong."

Scientists have found a growing number of species, from giraffes to chimps, that behave as if stricken with grief. Elephants, for example, return again and again to the body of a dead companion.

Such findings add to the debate about whether animals feel emotion—and, if they do, how such emotions should influence human treatment of other creatures.


Nebula

Are organisms quantum machines?

© Andrey Volodin/Alamy
If there's any subject that perfectly encapsulates the idea that science is hard to understand, it's quantum physics. Scientists tell us that the miniature denizens of the quantum realm behave in seemingly impossible ways: they can exist in two places at once, or disappear and reappear somewhere else instantly.

The one saving grace is that these truly bizarre quantum behaviours don't seem to have much of an impact on the macroscopic world as we know it, where "classical" physics rules the roost.

Or, at least, that's what scientists thought until a few years ago.

Smiley

Sun makes nervous face with hole in its head [VIDEO]

© NASA/SDO/AIA
The sun seems to be making a nervous face in this image, which was captured on July 14, 2016 by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft.
The sun has been making some anxious faces lately — but you'd be worried, too, if a huge hole had just opened up on your head.

The sun's apparent nervousness crops up in photos captured over the past few days by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO); you can see the gorgeous images compiled into a video here.

The sun's "eyes" are actually active regions, which serve as launch pads for solar flares and the eruptions of superheated solar plasma known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs). And the anxious, crinkly mouth is a coronal hole, a relatively cool and dark region where the sun's magnetic field lies open to interplanetary space.


Comment: The Sun has been behaving very strangely for a while now: