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Fri, 24 Mar 2017
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Port Canaveral: Mysterious equipment on SpaceX drone ship

© Florida Today
Stephen Marr had his suspicions when he photographed a mysterious piece of equipment atop SpaceX's drone ship at Port Canaveral on Monday. "I knew there was something different there," Marr, 34, said.

So he did what any lover of space and social media would do: He posted it online. Reddit users quickly propelled Marr's clear, high-resolution photo to the top of the website's SpaceX community and so began discussion that the object was likely a highly anticipated robot that would interact with Falcon 9 first stages.

© Florida Today
Which of these does not belong!
"Optimus Prime," as some have nicknamed it, could one day secure first stages after they land on SpaceX's autonomous spaceport drone ships. Like previous upgrades, it could cut down on costs, number of required personnel and turnaround time between launches. It could also improve safety. "Optimus Prime" refers to a character from Transformers.

Ricky Lim, senior director of launch operations for SpaceX, told FLORIDA TODAY the device is "in the testing phase" and is a "future capability" that SpaceX plans to introduce as soon as it passes the test regimen. "I don't think it's very far away" from being used, Lim said. "But it's new."

SpaceX did not comment when asked about its functionality and features.


Supersonic plasma jets discovered in Earth's atmosphere

© University of Calgary/ESA
Birkeland currents.
Information from ESA's magnetic field Swarm mission has led to the discovery of supersonic plasma jets high up in our atmosphere that can push temperatures up to almost 10 000°C.

Presenting these findings at this week's Swarm Science Meeting in Canada, scientists from the University of Calgary explained how they used measurements from the trio of Swarm satellites to build on what was known about vast sheets of electric current in the upper atmosphere.

The theory that there are huge electric currents, powered by solar wind and guided through the ionosphere by Earth's magnetic field, was postulated more than a century ago by Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland.

It wasn't until the 1970s, after the advent of satellites, however, that these 'Birkeland currents' were confirmed by direct measurements in space.

These currents carry up to 1 TW of electric power to the upper atmosphere - about 30 times the energy consumed in New York during a heatwave.

They are also responsible for 'aurora arcs', the familiar, slow-moving green curtains of light that can extend from horizon to horizon.

While much is known about these current systems, recent observations by Swarm have revealed that they are associated with large electrical fields.

Comment: The Electric Universe paradigm, plasma physics and much more, are explained in the book Earth Changes and the Human Cosmic Connection by Pierre Lescaudron and Laura Knight-Jadczyk.

Cow Skull

Sting operation reveals science's insane fake news problem

© Wikimedia Commons
If someone applied to a top position at a company, you'd hope a hiring manager would at least Google the applicant to ensure they're qualified. A group of researchers sent phony resumes to 360 scientific journals for an applicant whose Polish name translated to "Dr. Fraud." And 48 journals happily appointed the fake doctor to their editorial board.

This sting operation was the first systematic analysis on editorial roles in science publishing, adding concrete evidence to a problem past stings have shed light on. There are a whole lot of "predatory" scientific journals out there, journals that take advantage of scientists' need to produce articles by publishing anything for a fee, without checking to make sure the paper is actually new research, worth publishing, and not completely inaccurate. But the problem is more than a juiced-up email scam (despite some probably-predatory journals looking essentially the same), and highlights many issues in today's scientific publishing industry. Those issues can result in important science not being published in real journals, or worse, bad, un-vetted science being published, scientists bolstering their resumes with crap, and an eroding public trust in science as an institution.

Comment: It seems that in the effort to make scientific research more open and accessible in response to the narrow and highly politicized world of 'legit' journals, we are now seeing a lack of rigor and business model for that undercuts the value of open source science journalling.

See also:


Scientists develop graphene 'electronic skin' that can feel

© University of Glasgow/Handout via Reuters
Ravinder Dahiya of the University of Glasgow’s School of Engineering poses with the prosthetic hand developed by his team at Glasgow University, Scotland, Britain March 11, 2017.
Scientists have found a way to power an experimental kind of electronic skin using solar energy in a further step towards the development of prosthetic limbs or robots with a sense of touch.

Teams around the world are working to develop flexible versions of synthetic skin that can feel by mimicking the different kinds of sensory receptors found in human skin.

Powering such systems is a challenge, but now researchers at the University of Glasgow's School of Engineering have developed a way to use graphene, an ultra-thin form of carbon, to generate electricity via solar power.

Graphene, which is just one atom thick, is strong, highly flexible, electrically conductive and transparent, making it ideal for gathering the sun's energy to generate power, the scientists said on Thursday.

Smart prosthetic hands, in particular, can already reproduce many mechanical properties of human limbs and giving them a skin-like sense of touch would make them even more useful for amputees.

2 + 2 = 4

Surprising new role for lungs: Making blood

Cells in mouse lungs produce most blood platelets and can replenish blood-making cells in bone marrow, study shows

© Credit: Image courtesy of University of California - San Francisco
Release of platelets in the lung vasculature.
Using video microscopy in the living mouse lung, UC San Francisco scientists have revealed that the lungs play a previously unrecognized role in blood production. As reported online March 22, 2017 in Nature, the researchers found that the lungs produced more than half of the platelets -- blood components required for the clotting that stanches bleeding -- in the mouse circulation. In another surprise finding, the scientists also identified a previously unknown pool of blood stem cells capable of restoring blood production when the stem cells of the bone marrow, previously thought to be the principal site of blood production, are depleted.

"This finding definitely suggests a more sophisticated view of the lungs -- that they're not just for respiration but also a key partner in formation of crucial aspects of the blood," said pulmonologist Mark R. Looney, MD, a professor of medicine and of laboratory medicine at UCSF and the new paper's senior author. "What we've observed here in mice strongly suggests the lung may play a key role in blood formation in humans as well."


Study identifies brain cells involved in Pavlovian response

Same neurons malfunction in Parkinson's, Huntington's and Tourette syndrome

© Sergey Nivens / Fotolia
A study has traced the Pavlovian response to a small cluster of brain cells -- the same neurons that go awry during Huntington's disease, Parkinson's disease and Tourette's syndrome.
In his famous experiment, Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov rang a bell each time he fed his dogs. Soon, the dogs began drooling in anticipation when they heard the bell, even before food appeared.

Now, a UCLA study has traced the Pavlovian response to a small cluster of brain cells -- the same neurons that go awry during Huntington's disease, Parkinson's disease and Tourette's syndrome. Published March 22 in the journal Neuron, the research could one day help neuroscientists find new approaches to diagnosing and treating these disorders.

Post-It Note

US Navy test fires futuristic railgun

© usnavyresearch / YouTube
The US Navy has revealed a video of the first commissioning tests of a railgun, a futuristic weapon that many people hope could shift the balance of power in naval warfare away from aircraft carriers and back to surface warships.

The Navy has been pursuing the railgun for years, but the project has been hamstrung by the sheer amount of power required to make it work, measured in megajoules of electricity.

UK-based BAE Systems appears to have made an operational railgun, however, and test fired it at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia in November 2016. A short video of that test was made public by the Office of Naval Research on Tuesday.


Predatory bacteria as a new 'living' antibiotic

A predatory bacterium attached to its prey.
Antibiotic resistance is one of medicine's most pressing problems. Now, a team from Korea is tackling this in a unique way: using bacteria to fight bacteria.

Before the discovery of penicillin in 1928, millions of lives were lost to relatively simple microbial infections. Since then, antibiotics have transformed modern medicine. The World Health Organization estimates that, on average, antibiotics add 20 years to each person's life. However, the overuse of antibiotics has put pressure on bacteria to evolve resistance against these drugs, leading to the emergence of untreatable superbugs.

Now, researchers at South Korea's Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) aim to fight fire with fire by launching predatory bacteria capable of attacking other bacteria without harming human cells. "Bacteria eating bacteria. How cool is that?" asks Professor Robert Mitchell, the team leader. He and his colleagues are also developing a natural compound called violacein to tackle Staphylococcus, a group of around 30 different bacteria known to cause skin infections, pneumonia and blood poisoning. Some Staphylococcus bacteria such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) are resistant to antibiotics, making infections harder to treat.

Violacein is a so-called 'bisindole': a metabolite produced by bacteria from the condensation of two molecules of tryptophan (an essential amino acid used in many organisms to ensure normal functioning and avoid illness and death). This compound is vibrant purple in colour and of interest to researchers for its anticancer, antifungal and antiviral properties. Researchers have discovered that it can stop bacteria from reproducing, and even kill the multidrug resistant bacterium Staphylococcus aureus, when used in the right doses. It also works well in conjunction with other existing antibiotics.


Using GPS navigation switches off parts of the brain

© Reuters/Robin van Lonkhuysen/United Photos
A TomTom navigation device is seen in this photo illustration taken in Amsterdam, Netherlands, February 28, 2012.
If you have long feared that using a "satnav" navigation system to get to your destination is making you worse at finding the way alone, research now suggests you may be right.

Scientists studying what satnavs do to the brain have found that people using them effectively switch off parts of the brain that would otherwise be utilized to simulate different routes and boost navigational skills.

Publishing the findings in the journal Nature Communications on Tuesday, the researchers said that when volunteers in an experiment navigated manually, their hippocampus and prefrontal cortex brain regions had spikes of activity. But these were not seen when the volunteers simply followed satnav instructions.

"When we have technology telling us which way to go ... these parts of the brain simply don't respond to the street network," said Hugo Spiers of University College London's (UCL)department of experimental psychology.

"In that sense our brain has switched off its interest in the streets around us."

Comment: Other researchers agree:
When we stop trying to figure out routes for ourselves and instead rely solely on the turn-by-turn directions of our GPS, our ability to work out spatial maps seems to get worse. "One Japanese study," Stromberg wrote, "found that compared with people who were given paper maps and figured out routes for themselves, GPS users later drew maps with less detail and accuracy."

McKinlay frets that this could lead to problems. Lack of navigational skills is how a Belgian bus driver could take 50 tourists 800 miles in the wrong direction because he punched in the wrong address on his GPS device. It means that when our mapping devices stumble, we're completely powerless. "You see increasing stories about people going hiking with their smartphones as their only guide," he says. "Then their phone dies and they're incapable of navigating for themselves" and have to be rescued.


Researchers propose using sea urchin spines to heal broken bones

© American Chemical Society
Scientists have developed a bone grafting material made out of sea urchin spines.
More than 2 million procedures every year take place around the world to heal bone fractures and defects from trauma or disease, making bone the second most commonly transplanted tissue after blood. To help improve the outcomes of these surgeries, scientists have developed a new grafting material from sea urchin spines. They report their degradable bone scaffold, which they tested in animals, in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

Physicians have various approaches at hand to treat bone defects: Replacement material can come from a patient's own body, donated tissue, or a synthetic or naturally derived product. All of these methods, however, have limitations. For example, current bioceramics, such as hydroxyapatite, that have been used as scaffolds for bone repair tend to be weak and brittle, which can lead to pieces breaking off. These pieces can then move into adjacent soft tissue, causing inflammation. Recent studies have shown that biological materials, such as sea urchin spines, have promise as bone scaffolds because of their porosity and strength. Xing Zhang, Zheng Guo, Yue Zhu and colleagues wanted to test this idea in more detail.

Using a hydrothermal reaction, the researchers converted sea urchin spines to biodegradable magnesium-substituted tricalcium phosphate scaffolds while maintaining the spines' original interconnected, porous structure. Unlike hydroxyapatite, the scaffolds made from sea urchin spines could be cut and drilled to a specified shape and size. Testing on rabbits and beagles showed that bone cells and nutrients could flow through the pores and promote bone formation. Also, the scaffold degraded easily as it was replaced by the new growth. The researchers say their findings could inspire the design of new lightweight materials for repairing bones.