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Sat, 21 Jan 2017
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Science & Technology


Who needs men? Female shark reproduces without males after years alone

© Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark/Getty
Who needs men? A female shark separated from her long-term mate has developed the ability to have babies on her own.

Leonie the zebra shark (Stegostoma fasciatum) met her male partner at an aquarium in Townsville, Australia, in 1999. They had more than two dozen offspring together before he was moved to another tank in 2012.

From then on, Leonie did not have any male contact. But in early 2016, she had three baby sharks.

Intrigued, Christine Dudgeon at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, and her colleagues began fishing for answers.

Comment: See also: Female termites found to clone themselves via asexual reproduction


Researchers find rare lymphocytes in meninges surrounding brain

© Sachin Gadani, UVA School of Medicine
Researchers found “type 2 innate lymphocytes” – already known to occur in the gut, lungs and skin – in membranes surrounding the brain, near where previously unknown vessels connect the brain and immune system.
The University of Virginia School of Medicine researchers have discovered a rare and powerful type of immune cell in the meninges around the brain, suggesting the cells may play a critical but previously unappreciated role in battling Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, meningitis and other neurological diseases, in addition to supporting our healthy mental functioning. By harnessing the cells' power, doctors may be able to develop new treatments for neurological diseases, traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injuries - even migraines.

Further, the researchers suspect the cells may be the missing link connecting the brain and the microbiota in our guts, a relationship already shown important in the development of Parkinson's disease.

Unexpected Presence

The cells, known as "type 2 innate lymphocytes," previously have been found in the gut, lungs and skin - the body's barriers to disease. Their discovery in the meninges, the membranes surrounding the brain, comes as a surprise.

They were found as UVA researcher Jonathan Kipnis explored the implications of his lab's game-changing discovery last year that the brain and the immune system are directly connected via vessels long thought not to exist.

Comment: See also: Missing link found between brain, immune system -- with major disease implications


High-tech military lasers could heat the Earth's atmosphere and create a giant surveillance lens in the sky

One thing that can safely be said about the military-industrial complex is that they are never short of ideas. Often outlandish and costly ideas, but they do offer up a continuous stream of mind-melting possibilities. Case in point: heating the Earth's atmosphere with lasers to create a "giant magnifying glass" for enhanced surveillance.

One of the more recent military trends is the development (and imminent implementation) of lasers and electronic warfare. The concept has appeared in new proposals for drones and anti-drones that utilize the electromagnetic spectrum for "death ray" weapons like the Falcon Shield and the High Energy Laser system.

Now, scientists at BAE Systems, one of the largest defense contractors in the world, is looking to combine the use of lasers and advanced optics to literally manipulate the atmosphere into becoming both a surveillance device and a "deflector shield" to protect against the laser weapons of the future. The system is called Laser Developed Atmospheric Lens (LDAL).


Giant 'wave' traversed Venus in December 2015 - Largest-ever observed in solar system

© Planet-C
The Japanese probe Akatsuki has observed a massive gravity wave in the atmosphere of Venus. This is not the first time such a wave was observed on the Solar System's second planet, but it is the largest ever recorded, stretching just over 6,000 miles from end to end. Its features also suggest that the dynamics of Venus' atmosphere are more complex than previously thought.

An atmospheric gravity wave is a ripple in the density of a planet's atmosphere, according to the European Space Agency. (This isn't a gravitational wave, which is a ripple in space-time.) We have these waves in Earth's atmosphere, too; they interfere with weather and cause turbulence. Scientists have observed atmospheric gravity waves on Venus before: the European Space Agency's Venus Express spotted several before the end of its mission in 2014. Since its initial observations, Akatsuki has spotted several smaller structures with its infrared cameras in April and May 2016.

Akatsuki spotted this particular gravity wave, described in a paper published today in Nature Geoscience, when the probe arrived at the planet on December 7th, 2015. The spacecraft then lost sight of it on December 12th, 2015, because of a change in Akatsuki's orbit. When the probe returned to a position to observe the bow-shaped structure on January 15th, 2016, the bright wave had vanished.

Comment: They don't actually know that it's a gravity wave, contrary to the certitude in the above article. From the New York Times:
In a paper published Monday by the journal Nature Geoscience, scientists working on the mission describe their observations in detail and suggest it was a "gravity wave" — a disturbance in the winds caused by the underlying topography that propagated upward.

The bow-shape arc appeared above Aphrodite Terra, a highland region about the size of Africa that rises up to three miles from the surface. Scientists working on data from the European Space Agency's Venus Express reported finding a similar disturbance in the atmosphere.

The authors of the new paper said that numerical simulations provided preliminary support for the idea, but that they still could not explain how the gravity wave forms and propagates in the lower atmosphere. Or why the prominent smile was seen in December 2015 and not since.

In October 2014, Comet Siding-Spring passed so close to Mars that it caused that planet's atmosphere to glow.

Also, sometime between 2012 and 2014, Mars acquired 400+ fresh meteor craters.

Back in March/April 2012, 'clouds' were spotted on Mars for the first time (in what 'should have been' an 'impossibility').

We don't know how this all connects, but we suggest that these events (and more besides) all indicate significant changes taking place at a solar system-wide level.


Military spy laser concept aims to transform Earth's atmosphere into a giant magnifying glass to snoop on enemies

© BAE Systems
BAE Systems is working on a new type of directed energy laser and lens system, which could allow the military to spy on enemy activity, as well as form a 'deflector shield' to protect aircraft from enemy attacks
The idea of a laser that can turn Earth's atmosphere into a giant magnifying glass may sound like science fiction.

But engineers say that this could be a reality within the next 50 years.

BAE Systems has come up with a concept for a laser that creates structures in the Earth's atmosphere with similar properties to lenses.

This could help it spy on enemies as well as act as form a 'deflector shield' to protect aircraft from enemy attacks.


George Will: "Academia may now be beyond satire"

Note to readers: This Sunday column by George Will appeared in my local newspaper this week, and I thought it relevant to repeat the headline and excerpts of it here, because what Will discusses is relevant to the fractured state of climate science. Peer review has turned into "pal review" due to the small population of qualified researchers in climate, and many of the same lessons taught by an exercise in taunting the peer review process in 1996 are germane to the publication of climate science today, where there seems to be an air of "anything goes as long as it goes with our thinking". On the opposite side, we have garbage papers accepted by people who transposed their names to get past what they feared would be gatekeeping.

Publishing a paper in a peer reviewed journal is by no means a guarantee of accuracy. Just look what happened to Eric Steig with his much ballyhooed front cover paper espousing warming in Antarctica in the world's most prestigious journal Nature, in 2009. Climate skeptics soon discovered that the warming in Antarctica was nothing more than a mathematical artifact of some shonky Mannian-style methodology (Michael Mann was a co-author), due to familiar problems Mann had with his hockey-stick methods, and the paper was quite rightly trounced by a rebuttal paper. But, it took a huge amount of work, ten months of peer-review, and the headlines that original flawed paper received still reverberate today.

Comment: Going back to 2007, and all but forgotten:

New Peer-Reviewed Study Finds 'Global Warming is naturally caused and shows no human influence'

For a different take on the issue of climate and other aspects of our world, have a read from Pierre Lescaudron (Author) and Laura Knight-Jadczyk (Contributor) book: Earth Changes and the Human Cosmic Connection: The Secret History of the World.

As for George Will, the Pulitzer Prize columnist (a little removed from the discussion of peer review), you can get a sense of where he is coming from with his college commencement speech, which was never heard on campus:

The speech every 2015 college grad needs to hear


The Search for DNA - On Mars

Astrobiologist alumna Alexandra Pontefract, PhD'13 (Geology), knows finding DNA on the Red Planet will be no easy feat. But it is possible. What's more, if DNA is found, it's not far-fetched to think it would be proof of shared ancestry between Earth and Mars.

"There is a really good argument for the fact that if there was life on Mars, it would have shared ancestry with Earth. That's because back towards the origins of the solar system, between 4.1 and 3.8 billion years ago, Earth and Mars had formed, and there is evidence they were both habitable at that point in time," said Pontefract.

"At the time, there was something going on called the Late Heavy Bombardment, and meant the inner solar system was being hit with lots and lots of meteorites. There was a big exchange of rocks between Mars and Earth. There have been studies that have shown biology can survive being ejected from a planet and survive in space. We know it's possible; it's really amazing."


SpaceX successfully lands Falcon 9 rocket after carrying 10 iridium satellites into orbit

© Gene Blevins / Reuters
SpaceX Falcon rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, U.S., January 14, 2017
SpaceX has successfully landed its Falcon 9 rocket after delivering a payload of millions of dollars worth of satellites into orbit, less than four months after a similar mission was scuppered by a fiery explosion.

Consistently sending hardware into orbit is one of the chief goals of Elon Musk's SpaceX, but Saturday's launch was the first delivery mission since August 30 when things went pear-shaped.

In the first stage of Saturday's mission to and from low orbit, the Falcon 9 successfully carried a payload of 10 Iridium satellites into space from Vandenberg Air Base, California.

The reusable rocket then made a safe landing to the Pacific Ocean droneship, 'Just Read the Instructions.'


Plant sense: Perceiving the world without eyes, ears or brains

© Igor Stevanovic/Alamy
What do these sunflowers "know"? (
Plants perceive the world without eyes, ears or brains. Understanding how can teach us a lot about them, and potentially a lot about us as well

Plants, according to Jack C Schultz, "are just very slow animals".

This is not a misunderstanding of basic biology. Schultz is a professor in the Division of Plant Sciences at the University of Missouri in Columbia, and has spent four decades investigating the interactions between plants and insects. He knows his stuff.

Instead, he is making a point about common perceptions of our leafy cousins, which he feels are too often dismissed as part of the furniture. Plants fight for territory, seek out food, evade predators and trap prey. They are as alive as any animal, and - like animals - they exhibit behaviour.

"To see this, you just need to make a fast movie of a growing plant - then it will behave like an animal," enthuses Olivier Hamant, a plant scientist at the University of Lyon, France. Indeed, a time-lapse camera reveals the alien world of plant behaviour in all its glory, as anyone who has seen the famous woodland sequence from David Attenborough's Life series can attest.

Comment: Read more about plants' surprising complexity:

Snowflake Cold

Physicists able to 'squeeze' light to cool microscopic drum below quantum limit

© Teufel/NIST
NIST researchers applied a special form of microwave light to cool a microscopic aluminum drum to an energy level below the generally accepted limit, to just one fifth of a single quantum of energy. The drum, which is 20 micrometers in diameter and 100 nanometers thick, beat 10 million times per second while its range of motion fell to nearly zero.
Physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have cooled a mechanical object to a temperature lower than previously thought possible, below the so-called "quantum limit."

The new NIST theory and experiments, described in the Jan. 12, 2017, issue of Nature, showed that a microscopic mechanical drum -- a vibrating aluminum membrane -- could be cooled to less than one-fifth of a single quantum, or packet of energy, lower than ordinarily predicted by quantum physics. The new technique theoretically could be used to cool objects to absolute zero, the temperature at which matter is devoid of nearly all energy and motion, NIST scientists said.

"The colder you can get the drum, the better it is for any application," said NIST physicist John Teufel, who led the experiment. "Sensors would become more sensitive. You can store information longer. If you were using it in a quantum computer, then you would compute without distortion, and you would actually get the answer you want."

"The results were a complete surprise to experts in the field," Teufel's group leader and co-author José Aumentado said. "It's a very elegant experiment that will certainly have a lot of impact."

The drum, 20 micrometers in diameter and 100 nanometers thick, is embedded in a superconducting circuit designed so that the drum motion influences the microwaves bouncing inside a hollow enclosure known as an electromagnetic cavity. Microwaves are a form of electromagnetic radiation, so they are in effect a form of invisible light, with a longer wavelength and lower frequency than visible light.

The microwave light inside the cavity changes its frequency as needed to match the frequency at which the cavity naturally resonates, or vibrates. This is the cavity's natural "tone," analogous to the musical pitch that a water-filled glass will sound when its rim is rubbed with a finger or its side is struck with a spoon.

NIST scientists previously cooled the quantum drum to its lowest-energy "ground state," or one-third of one quantum. They used a technique called sideband cooling, which involves applying a microwave tone to the circuit at a frequency below the cavity's resonance. This tone drives electrical charge in the circuit to make the drum beat. The drumbeats generate light particles, or photons, which naturally match the higher resonance frequency of the cavity. These photons leak out of the cavity as it fills up. Each departing photon takes with it one mechanical unit of energy -- one phonon -- from the drum's motion. This is the same idea as laser cooling of individual atoms, first demonstrated at NIST in 1978 and now widely used in applications such atomic clocks.

The latest NIST experiment adds a novel twist -- the use of "squeezed light" to drive the drum circuit. Squeezing is a quantum mechanical concept in which noise, or unwanted fluctuations, is moved from a useful property of the light to another aspect that doesn't affect the experiment. These quantum fluctuations limit the lowest temperatures that can be reached with conventional cooling techniques. The NIST team used a special circuit to generate microwave photons that were purified or stripped of intensity fluctuations, which reduced inadvertent heating of the drum.

Comment: See also: Physicists Squeeze Light To Quantum Limit