Science & Technology
Fri, 17 Feb 2017 16:25 UTC
When your computer crashes and you get the dreaded blue screen or your smartphone freezes and you have to go through the time-consuming process of a reset, most likely you blame the manufacturer: Microsoft or Apple or Samsung. In many instances, however, these operational failures may be caused by the impact of electrically charged particles generated by cosmic rays that originate outside the solar system.
"This is a really big problem, but it is mostly invisible to the public," said Bharat Bhuva, professor of electrical engineering at Vanderbilt University, in a presentation on Friday, Feb. 17 at a session titled "Cloudy with a Chance of Solar Flares: Quantifying the Risk of Space Weather" at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.
When cosmic rays traveling at fractions of the speed of light strike the Earth's atmosphere they create cascades of secondary particles including energetic neutrons, muons, pions and alpha particles. Millions of these particles strike your body each second. Despite their numbers, this subatomic torrent is imperceptible and has no known harmful effects on living organisms. However, a fraction of these particles carry enough energy to interfere with the operation of microelectronic circuitry. When they interact with integrated circuits, they may alter individual bits of data stored in memory. This is called a single-event upset or SEU.
Since it is difficult to know when and where these particles will strike and they do not do any physical damage, the malfunctions they cause are very difficult to characterize. As a result, determining the prevalence of SEUs is not easy or straightforward. "When you have a single bit flip, it could have any number of causes. It could be a software bug or a hardware flaw, for example. The only way you can determine that it is a single-event upset is by eliminating all the other possible causes," Bhuva explained.
The spy in your living room: Samsung confirms smart TV's capture all nearby conversations and transmit to a third party
Thu, 09 Feb 2017 00:00 UTC
The company revealed that the voice activation feature on its smart TVs will capture all nearby conversations. The TV sets can share the information, including sensitive data, with Samsung as well as third-party services.
Fri, 17 Feb 2017 12:47 UTC
Harvard Geneticist Professor, George Church, briefed the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) about the progress his team has made in the past two years of trying to "de-extinct" the mammoth.
"Our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo," said Church. "Actually, it would be more like an elephant with a number of mammoth traits. We're not there yet, but it could happen in a couple of years."
Independent Science News
Mon, 06 Feb 2017 14:01 UTC
The mythologising of DNA
Highly respected scientists make very strong claims for the powers of DNA. In his autobiography, Nobel Laureate Kary Mullis called it "The King of molecules" and "The big one". Maybe he read DNA: The Secret of Life, a popular science book that calls DNA the molecule that "holds the key to the very nature of living things". Its author should know. He is Nobel Laureate, James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. Even institutions have strong opinions when it comes to DNA; the website of the US National Institutes of Health claims "Genes are at the center of everything that makes us human".
My edition of The Secret of Life features on its back cover Eric Lander. Lander is the celebrated brains behind modern human genetics. He is also the head of the Broad Institute at MIT. In his blurb, Lander endorses "The secret of life" trope. Just below him on the jacket is Professor of genetics Mary-Claire King. She writes: "This is the story of DNA and therefore the story of life, history, sex, money, drugs, and still-to-be-revealed secrets." According to Prof. King, DNA is life.
The Watson view of genetics dominates education too. The standard US high school biology textbook "Life", of which we own the 1997 edition, frames the entirety of biology around DNA, thereby giving it the biochemical status of life's centrepiece.
New Zealand Herald
Thu, 16 Feb 2017 20:55 UTC
In a new paper, a team of 11 geologists have proposed that a region of the Pacific Ocean east of Australia and containing New Zealand and New Caledonia, be considered a continent.
Geographically speaking, six continents are recognised: Africa, Antarctica, Australia, Eurasia, North America, and South America. Eurasia is the geographical landmass that includes Europe and Asia.
At 4.9 million square kilometres, Zealandia would be Earth's smallest continent.
It is also the "youngest, thinnest and most submerged" of the continents, as 94 per cent of the landmass is submerged, the geologists wrote.
In the paper, titled Zealandia: Earth's Hidden Continent, the geologists argue that Zealandia has all four attributes necessary to be considered a continent.
Thu, 16 Feb 2017 18:58 UTC
A Trojan asteroid orbits the sun 60 degrees ahead of or behind a planet. Jupiter and Neptune have numerous Trojans, many of which have been in place for billions of years. These primordial rocks hold information about the solar system's birth, and NASA has just announced plans to visit several of them in the 2020s and 2030s.
But Saturn and Uranus live in a rougher neighbourhood: the giant planets on either side of them yank Trojans away through their gravitational pull. So Saturn has no known Trojan, and Uranus had only one.
In July, though, astronomers reported a new asteroid, named 2014 YX49, that shares Uranus's orbital period of 84 years. Now computer simulations of the solar system by brothers Carlos and Raul de la Fuente Marcos at the Complutense University of Madrid, Spain, indicate the asteroid is a Uranus Trojan. The simulations show that the asteroid has maintained its position ahead of Uranus for thousands of years.
"It is bigger, probably twice as big as the first one," says Carlos. The new asteroid is brighter than the first, but its exact size depends on how much light its surface reflects. If it reflects half the sunlight striking it, it's 40 kilometres across; if it reflects 5 per cent, its diameter is 120 kilometres.
Thu, 16 Feb 2017 13:12 UTC
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) affects approximately 3.5 million Americans and is most likely to be identified by the age of four. However, a study published Wednesday in Nature, claims to have possibly discovered a formula to identify children with a high-risk for autism before they start to seriously lag in their social development.
ASD is a blanket term for a wide range of social impairments, from slightly to seriously disabling. As a result, children with autism often fall behind in developmental milestones related to social, communication and language skills.
The study claims that the brain scans revealed "hyperexpansions" of the brain surface in the first 12 months were a common feature in babies who would go on to develop ASD. The expansion was often followed by an increase in brain volume overgrowth that, according to the study, "was linked to the emergence and severity of autistic social deficits."
Comment: While early identification and treatment will no doubt be beneficial, the bigger question scientists continue to dance around are the reasons for the explosion of autism:
- "Tap Dancing" around vaccine issues
- Beyond Autism: Vaccines tied to multiple brain disorders
- What parents are not being told about Autism
Wed, 15 Feb 2017 00:00 UTC
Common sense suggests that most people prefer to deal with other people who are fair and in some cases, helpful. In this new effort, the researchers sought to learn if the same might be true of dogs and capuchin monkeys regarding human interactions. To that end, they set up three experiments designed to test how dogs and monkeys reacted to humans behaving rudely.
Wed, 15 Feb 2017 19:22 UTC
The Ventura-Pitas Point Fault runs under California from Ventura city through the Santa Barbara Channel and beneath Santa Barbara and Goleta. It also runs offshore, meaning it may be capable of generating tsunamis.
Since it was identified as a potentially dangerous fault in the late 1980s, there have been decades of debate about its exact location and its underground geometry. Initial theories assumed the fault was slightly dipping, or that it had two severe tilting sections with a flat section in between, similar to a staircase.
A new study published in Geophysical Research Letters states that the fault has the staircase-like geometry, meaning it is closer to the surface and would likely cause more damage during an earthquake than previously thought.
What could go wrong? U.S. National Academy of Sciences advocates use of gene editing tools to modify human DNA
Wed, 15 Feb 2017 00:00 UTC
In a report, the committee of scientists, entrepreneurs, ethicists and patient advocates said human genomes could in future be edited to replace faulty genetic information from a parent with a third person's healthy DNA. It stresses that the technique should only be used in the most serious cases, where no other options are available, and conducted under strict guidelines with stringent oversight.
Comment: God's red pencil? CRISPR and the myths of precise genome editing
For the benefit of those parts of the world where public acceptance of biotechnology is incomplete, a public relations blitz is at full tilt. It concerns an emerging set of methods for altering the DNA of living organisms. "Easy DNA Editing Will Remake the World. Buckle Up"; "We Have the Technology to Destroy All Zika Mosquitoes"; and "CRISPR: gene editing is just the beginning." (CRISPR is short for CRISPR/cas9, which is short for Clustered Regularly-Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats/CRISPR associated protein 9; Jinek et al., 2012. It is a combination of a guide RNA and a protein that can cut DNA.)
The hubris is alarming; but the more subtle element of the propaganda campaign is the biggest and most dangerous improbability of them all: that CRISPR and related technologies are "genome editing" (Fichtner et al., 2014). That is, they are capable of creating precise, accurate and specific alterations to DNA.
Why is this discussion of precision important? Because for the last seventy years all chemical and biological technologies, from genetic engineering to pesticides, have been built on a myth of precision and specificity. They have all been adopted under the pretense that they would function without side effects or unexpected complications. Yet the extraordinary disasters and repercussions of DDT, leaded paint, agent orange, atrazine, C8, asbestos, chlordane, PCBs, and so on, when all is said and done, have been stories of the steady unraveling of a founding myth of precision and specificity.