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Wed, 26 Jun 2019
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Earth hit by highest energy photons ever recorded from the Crab Nebula

Crab Nebula
The Tibetan Plateau is a vast elevated plain almost five kilometers above sea level, sometimes called the Roof of the World. It is bordered to the south by the world's highest mountain range and to the north by desert lands. It is one of the most isolated places on Earth.

But the extreme altitude makes it a useful place for scientists. In 1990, they built an observatory here to study the showers of subatomic particles that rain down from the upper atmosphere whenever it is hit by a high-energy cosmic ray. This work is better done at high altitude because there is less atmosphere to absorb the particles.

Since then, the so-called Tibet Air Shower Array has recorded vast numbers of high-energy cosmic rays, particles accelerated to huge energies by astrophysical phenomena such as supernovas, active galactic nuclei, and mysterious as-yet-unidentified sources.

But the array also picks up air showers caused by a different source-high-energy photons. These mysterious photons are also created by astrophysical phenomena such as the interaction between high-energy particles and the cosmic microwave background. Consequently, they can provide a unique insight into these processes and the environments in which they occur.

Comet 2

ESA puts comet mission on fast track

Montezuma observing a comet.
© DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/Getty Images
A sixteenth century illustration showing Montezuma observing a comet. The European Space Agency has a different plan.
Scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA) are working on a new "fast" mission to make the first flyby of a pristine comet - meaning one that has never before passed close to the sun.

Since the first comet mission, all the way back in 1978, numerous space agencies have made more than a dozen comet flybys, including one rendezvous and landing.

But never before has a mission attempted to visit a comet on its first plunge toward the sun, when its never-before-heated surface is almost unchanged from when it formed at the dawn of the solar system, some 4.5 billion years ago.

The recently approved mission, called Comet Interceptor, will also be unique in what it does as it nears its target.

Rather than simply flying by, it will split into four parts, each of which will whizz past the comet on a slightly different trajectory.

Three of these will be tiny instrument packages, which will view the comet from different angles. This will allow scientists back on Earth to create detailed 3D models not only of its surface, but of the gas, dust, and plasma surrounding it.

The fourth will be the mother ship, which will collect data from the smaller probes and relay it back to Earth.

"It's a novel concept," says Fabio Favata, head of the Strategy, Planning, and Coordination Office in ESA's Directorate of Science.

Details of the mission have yet to be determined, but the use of the word "fast" in its description doesn't mean it will be traveling at warp speed.


Google's Chrome web browser "has become spy software"

chrome vs firefox
Google's Chrome is essentially spy software according to Washington Post tech columnist Geoffrey Fowler, who spent a week analyzing the popular browser and concluded that it "looks a lot like surveillance software."

Fowler has since switched to Mozilla's Firefox because of its default privacy settings, and says that it was easier than one might imagine.
My tests of Chrome vs. Firefox unearthed a personal data caper of absurd proportions. In a week of Web surfing on my desktop, I discovered 11,189 requests for tracker "cookies" that Chrome would have ushered right onto my computer but were automatically blocked by Firefox. These little files are the hooks that data firms, including Google itself, use to follow what websites you visit so they can build profiles of your interests, income and personality.

Chrome welcomed trackers even at websites you would think would be private. I watched Aetna and the Federal Student Aid website set cookies for Facebook and Google. They surreptitiously told the data giants every time I pulled up the insurance and loan service's log-in pages.

And that's not the half of it.

Look in the upper right corner of your Chrome browser. See a picture or a name in the circle? If so, you're logged in to the browser, and Google might be tapping into your Web activity to target ads. Don't recall signing in? I didn't, either. Chrome recently started doing that automatically when you use Gmail. -Washington Post

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China builds world's fastest supercomputer without US chips

chinese supercomputer
China on Monday revealed its latest supercomputer, a monolithic system with 10.65 million compute cores built entirely with Chinese microprocessors. This follows a U.S. government decision last year to deny China access to Intel's fastest microprocessors.

There is no U.S.-made system that comes close to the performance of China's new system, the Sunway TaihuLight. Its theoretical peak performance is 124.5 petaflops, according to the latest biannual release today of the world's Top500 supercomputers. It is the first system to exceed 100 petaflops. A petaflop equals one thousand trillion (one quadrillion) sustained floating-point operations per second.

The most important thing about Sunway TaihuLight may be its microprocessors. In the past, China has relied heavily on U.S. microprocessors in building its supercomputing capacity. The world's next fastest system, China's Tianhe-2, which has a peak performance of 54.9 petaflops, uses Intel Xeon processors.


Wearable, washable transistors coming soon

Wearable Transistor
© Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST)
Coming soon to a store near you? A washable, wearable transistor.
A newly invented fibrous organic transistor coated in a crystalline nanostructure looks set to revolutionise the rapidly growing field of wearable tech.

The transistor, which comprises a double-stranded assembly of electrode microfibres inside an organic semiconductor sheath, was designed by a team led by Soo Jin Kim from the Korea Institute of Science and Technology. It is described in the journal Advanced Materials.

According to the researchers, the transistor can be easily incorporated into textiles, and will behave identically to clothing fabric.

In experiments, the device continued to work without interruption not only after being repeated bent and twisted, but also after being immersed several times in a strong detergent solution.


New Engineering Textbook, 'Hacking the Cosmos', Argues for Intelligent Design

A new textbook by engineering professor Dominic Halsmer, Hacking the Cosmos: How Reverse Engineering Uncovers Organization, Ingenuity and the Care of a Maker, covers the scientific evidence for intelligent design in biology and cosmology for students taking college-level engineering, physics, or astronomy courses. Halsmer wrote an excellent peer-reviewed article in 2010, "The Coherence of an Engineered World," arguing that "the universe is so readily and profitably reverse-engineered as to make a compelling argument that it was engineered in the first place, apparently with humanity in mind" (Evolution News reviewed the article here). Now in his textbook, from Kendall Hunt Publishing, he expands his case for design from an engineer's perspective, focusing on what he calls "affordances."

Here's the Funny Thing

According to Halsmer, engineering involves "the creative use of resources and ingenuity to accomplish a purpose or solve a problem." It does so by creating affordances, which are "what an environment or object provides to an end user" (p. 52-53). The funny thing, Halsmer finds, is that nature is full of affordances, at both the atomic and molecular levels. These include:
  • atoms afford the existence of molecules
  • simple molecules like water and CO2 afford the existence of more complex molecules like lipids and proteins
  • complex molecules like proteins afford the existence of cells
And so on. Halsmer explains that these affordances are organized in a manner to produce an environment friendly to life:
The remarkable truth is that these tiny, nested Lego-like parts afford the complex processes necessary for life. And they do so in an amazing way, with incredible elegance and efficiency, when compared to the kind of affordances that human engineers are able to produce. (p. 72)
But affordances come in all sizes, Halsmer explains, not just microscopic ones. At the macroscopic level of the universe we see equally astonishing affordances. These include:
  • the fundamental forces and laws of nature afford the existence of stars
  • pressures and temperatures in stars afford the production of elements needed for life like carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen


NASA rover on Mars detects spike of methane gas, possible sign of living microbes

Mars Curiosity Rover
Mars Curiosity Rover
Mars, it appears, is belching a large amount of a gas that could be a sign of microbes living on the planet today.

In a measurement taken on Wednesday, NASA's Curiosity rover discovered startlingly high amounts of methane in the Martian air, a gas that on Earth is usually produced by living things. The data arrived back on Earth on Thursday, and by Friday, scientists working on the mission were excitedly discussing the news, which has not yet been announced by NASA.

"Given this surprising result, we've reorganized the weekend to run a follow-up experiment," Ashwin R. Vasavada, the project scientist for the mission, wrote to the science team in an email that was obtained by The Times.

The mission's controllers on Earth sent new instructions to the rover on Friday to follow up on the readings, bumping previously planned science work. The results of these observations are expected back on the ground on Monday.


Hemp houses could be greener, fire-resistant and built like Lego

It's sustainable, heat resistant, humidity-free - and carbon negative
hempcrete blocks
© Monty Kruger/CBC
The green nubs on these hempcrete blocks make them looks like giant Lego pieces, and that's how they fit together. The product is sustainable, carbon negative and a quicker build than using concrete, says Just BioFiber CEO Terry Radford.
The green nubs on these hempcrete blocks make them looks like giant Lego pieces, and that's how they fit together. The product is sustainable, carbon negative and a quicker build than using concrete, says Just BioFiber CEO Terry Radford. (Monty Kruger/CBC)7 comments

All in all, Terry Radford's new product - with apologies to Pink Floyd - looks to be anything but another brick in a wall.

That's because the president of Just BioFiber, based in Airdrie, Alta., believes it has come up with a hempcrete-based brick that is more than the equal of the usual homebuilding materials.


Astronomers see 'warm' glow of Uranus' rings

uranus rings
© Edward Molter and Imke de Pater
Composite image of Uranus's atmosphere and rings at radio wavelengths, taken with the ALMA array in December 2017. The image shows thermal emission, or heat, from the rings of Uranus for the first time, enabling scientists to determine their temperature: a frigid 77 Kelvin (-320 F). Dark bands in Uranus's atmosphere at these wavelengths show the presence of molecules that absorb radio waves, in particular hydrogen sulfide gas. Bright regions like the north polar spot (yellow spot at right, because Uranus is tipped on its side) contain very few of these molecules.
The rings of Uranus are invisible to all but the largest telescopes-they weren't even discovered until 1977-but they're surprisingly bright in new heat images of the planet taken by two large telescopes in the high deserts of Chile.

The thermal glow gives astronomers another window onto the rings, which have been seen only because they reflect a little light in the visible, or optical, range and in the near-infrared. The new images taken by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and the Very Large Telescope (VLT) allowed the team for the first time to measure the temperature of the rings: a cool 77 Kelvin, or 77 degrees above absolute zero-the boiling temperature of liquid nitrogen and equivalent to 320 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

The observations also confirm that Uranus's brightest and densest ring, called the epsilon ring, differs from the other known ring systems within our solar system, in particular the spectacularly beautiful rings of Saturn.

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1 million year old hyena fossils discovered in the Arctic

© Julius T. Csotonyi
Hyena fossils from the extinct genus Chasmaporthetes, seen here in an illustration, have been found in the Arctic for the first time. The discovery helps explain how animals that evolved in Eurasia made it into North America during the Pleistocene.
Two fossil teeth found in northwestern Canada confirm that hyenas once lived in the bleak and frigid conditions of the Arctic, possibly hunting and scavenging caribou and mammoth across the steppe-tundra about a million years ago.

Discovered on the banks of the Old Crow River in the 1970s, the newly described fossils are the most northerly evidence for hyenas yet found, researchers report today in the journal Open Quaternary. Until now, the northernmost hyena fossils in North America came from Kansas, about 2,500 miles south of the Yukon Territory finds.

The newfound fossils belong to animals in the extinct genus Chasmaporthetes, which lived between 800,000 and 1.4 million years ago. During this time, conditions in the Arctic may have been even harsher than they are today, with near permanent snow and ice throughout the year.

Comment: As Pierre Lescaudron writes in Of Flash Frozen Mammoths and Cosmic Catastrophes:
Mammoths remains are usually found piled up with other animals, like tiger, antelope, camel, horse, reindeer, giant beaver, giant ox, musk sheep, musk ox, donkey, badger, ibex, woolly rhinoceros, fox, giant bison, lynx, leopard, wolverine, hare, lion, elk, giant wolf, ground squirrel, cave hyena, bear, and many types of birds. Most of those animals could not survive the arctic climate. This is an extra indication that woolly mammoths were not polar creatures.

French prehistorian Henry Neuville conducted the most detailed study of mammoth skin and hair. At the end of his thorough analysis, he wrote the following:
"It appears to me impossible to find, in the anatomical examination of the skin and [hair], any argument in favor of adaptation to the cold."

- H. Neuville, On the Extinction of the Mammoth, Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution, 1919, p. 332.
Last, but not least, the mammoth's diet argues against the creature existing in a polar climate. How could the woolly mammoth sustain its vegetarian diet of hundreds of pounds of daily intake in an arctic region devoid of vegetation for most of the year? How could woolly mammoths find the gallons of water that they had to drink everyday?

To make things worse, the woolly mammoth lived during the ice age, when temperatures were colder than today. Mammoths could not have survived the harsh northern Siberia climate of today, even less so 13,000 years ago when the Siberian climate should have been significantly colder.

The evidence above strongly suggests that the woolly mammoth was not a polar creature but a temperate one. Consequently, at the beginning of the Younger Dryas, 13,000 years ago, Siberia was not an arctic region but a temperate one.
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