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Thu, 01 Sep 2016
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Science & Technology


Solar eclipse to be observable over much of Africa

© Larry Koehn/ShadowandSubstance
Sky watchers in more than 50 African countries are about to witness a solar eclipse. On Thursday, Sept.1st, the Moon will pass in front of the sun, covering as much as 97% of the solar disk. Click here to view an animated eclipse map created by Larry Koehn of ShadowandSubstance.com.

This is not a total eclipse, but rather an annular one, in which maximum coverage leaves a thin strip of sun shining around the lunar limb. The narrow path of annularity snakes across Gabon, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Madagascar. For as much as three minutes, people in those countries can see the "ring of fire":


Blood flow to the brain may have driven evolution of human intelligence

© South Australian Museum.
Skull casts from human evolution. Left to right: Australopithecus afarensis, Homo habilis, Homo ergaster, Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis
A University of Adelaide-led project has overturned the theory that the evolution of human intelligence was simply related to the size of the brain—but rather linked more closely to the supply of blood to the brain.

The international collaboration between Australia and South Africa showed that the human brain evolved to become not only larger, but more energetically costly and blood thirsty than previously believed.

The research team calculated how blood flowing to the brain of human ancestors changed over time, using the size of two holes at the base of the skull that allow arteries to pass to the brain. The findings, published in the Royal Society Open Science journal, allowed the researchers to track the increase in human intelligence across evolutionary time.

"Brain size has increased about 350% over human evolution, but we found that blood flow to the brain increased an amazing 600%," says project leader Professor Emeritus Roger Seymour, from the University of Adelaide. "We believe this is possibly related to the brain's need to satisfy increasingly energetic connections between nerve cells that allowed the evolution of complex thinking and learning.

"To allow our brain to be so intelligent, it must be constantly fed oxygen and nutrients from the blood.

Comment: Humans became the large-brained, large-bodied animals we are today because of natural selection to increase brain size

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Scientists grow liver that can replicate natural functions of human liver

© Reuters
American scientists have grown a liver which can manage the closest ever set of processes to that of a real human one. The lab-grown organ has the potential to be a "game-changer" for patients suffering from liver diseases, they said.

Scientists at a The Saban Research Institute of the Children's Hospital Los Angeles created the liver with the help of both people and mice, the study published in the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine on Tuesday said.

Using stem and progenitor cells obtained from human and mouse livers the researchers generated the so-called liver organoid units (LOU) which were later implanted into mice. The LOU then developed into a liver with bile ducts, blood vessels, hepatocytes (liver cells involved in bile production) and other cells required for it to function. What is more, the tissue-developed organ produced albumin - the same protein a human liver generates.

The tissue-engineered liver did not fully resemble a human one as there were differences in cellular structure, scientists noted.


Astronomers discover asteroid twice the size of Chelyabinsk bolide... a few hours before it narrowly missed Earth

© Getty
On Saturday, astronomers discovered a new asteroid, just a few hours before it almost hit us.

The asteroid is called 2016 QA2, and it missed the Earth by less than a quarter of the distance to the moon. That puts it about three times as far away from Earth as our farthest satellites. And we never saw it coming.

So how did 2016 QA2 sneak up on us like that? For this particular asteroid, the answer seems to be that it has a very peculiar orbit. It's highly elliptical, which means it can usually be found hanging out by either Mars or Venus, but rarely ends up near Earth.

But another, more worrying reason is that there aren't a lot of people looking for potentially dangerous asteroids. While Congress has tasked NASA with finding 90 percent of asteroids 450 feet or larger by 2020, the agency is nowhere close to that goal. Funding for asteroid detection is very low, and most telescopes that could detect asteroids of this size won't come online for a few more years.

Comment: So, the technology is lagging, the funding is lacking, and the politicians are too busy feathering their nests.

Comment: Our other report about this estimates that this object was at least twice the size of the Chelyabinsk asteroid.


Alternating between sleeping and studying boosts memory

Grabbing a little sleep between study sessions might make it easier to recall what you studied, and to re-learn what you've forgotten, even 6 months later, according to new findings.

Psychological scientist Stephanie Mazza, of the University of Lyon, explains:
"Our results suggest that interleaving sleep between practice sessions leads to a twofold advantage, reducing the time spent relearning and ensuring a much better long-term retention than practice alone. Previous research suggested that sleeping after learning is definitely a good strategy, but now we show that sleeping between two learning sessions greatly improves such a strategy."
While studies have shown that both repeated practice and sleep can help improve memory, there is little research investigating how repetition and sleep influence memory when they are combined. Mazza and colleagues hypothesized that sleeping in between study sessions might make the relearning process more efficient, reducing the effort needed to commit information to memory.

Comment: See also:


Cosmic rays reaching Earth increased 13% since 2015

© Earth to Sky Calculus
Researchers have long known that solar activity and cosmic rays have a yin-yang relationship. As solar activity declines, cosmic rays intensify. Lately, solar activity has been very low indeed. Are cosmic rays responding? The answer is "yes." Spaceweather.com and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus have been using helium balloons to monitor cosmic rays in the stratosphere over California. Their latest data show an increase of almost 13% since 2015.

Cosmic rays, which are accelerated toward Earth by distant supernova explosions and other violent events, are an important form of space weather. They can seed clouds, trigger lightning, and penetrate commercial airplanes. Furthermore, there are studies ( #1, #2, #3, #4) linking cosmic rays with cardiac arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death in the general population.

Comment: And so much more. In fact, cosmic rays may effectively modulate all life on Earth.

Why are cosmic rays intensifying? The main reason is the sun. Solar storm clouds such as coronal mass ejections (CMEs) sweep aside cosmic rays when they pass by Earth. During Solar Maximum, CMEs are abundant and cosmic rays are held at bay. Now, however, the solar cycle is swinging toward Solar Minimum, allowing cosmic rays to return. Another reason could be the weakening of Earth's magnetic field, which helps protect us from deep-space radiation.

There's a new section of our website where you can monitor cosmic rays in the atmosphere. From here, scroll down a few inches to find the latest measurements, the date of the next balloon flight, and more information about the data and sensors.

Comment: Cosmic rays were already at a 'space age high' in 2009. And astronomers were stunned to observe cosmic rays jump 10% in just one month last year.


Scientists find evidence dogs understand what you're saying

© Borbala Ferenczy/MR Research Center via AP
Scientists have found evidence to support what many dog owners have long believed: man's best friend really does understand some of what we're saying.

Researchers in Hungary scanned the brains of dogs as they were listening to their trainer speaking to determine which parts of the brain they were using.

They found that dogs processed words with the left hemisphere, while intonation was processed with the right hemisphere — just like humans.

What's more, the dogs only registered that they were being praised if the words and intonation were positive; meaningless words spoken in an encouraging voice, or meaningful words in a neutral tone, didn't have the same effect.


'Strong spike in radio signals' traced to sunlike star sparks SETI interest

SETI researchers say an intriguing radio spike was detected last year by the RATAN-600 radio telescope.
SETI researchers are buzzing about a strong spike in radio signals that seemed to come from the direction of a sunlike star in the constellation Hercules, known as HD 164595.

The signal conceivably fits the profile for an intentional transmission from an extraterrestrial source - but it could also be a case of earthly radio interference, or a microlensing event in which the star's gravitational field focused stray signals coming from much farther away.

In any case, the blip is interesting enough to merit discussion by those who specialize in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI - including Centauri Dreams' Paul Gilster, who brought the case into the public eye this weekend.

At least two SETI research groups are aiming to track HD 164595 tonight. The SETI Institute is using the Allen Telescope Array in northern California, while METI International is looking to the Boquete Optical SETI Observatory in Panama.

Gilster reports that the signal spike was detected more than a year ago, on May 15, 2015, by the RATAN-600 radio telescope in Zelenchukskaya. That facility is in the Russian republic of Karachay-Cherkessia, not far from the Georgian border.

The apparent source of the signal, HD 164595, is interesting for a couple of reasons: It's a sunlike star, about 95 light-years away from Earth, and it's already known to have at least one "warm Neptune" planet called HD 164595 b. "There could, of course, be other planets still undetected in this system," Gilster says.

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The Array of Things: Chicago installs sensors to monitor air quality, traffic, and pedestrian movements

© Rob Mitchum/Urban Center for Computation and Data
Nick Stodony, a Chicago Department of Transportation lineman, on Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016, installs one of the first two modular sensor boxes that are part of Chicago's Array of Things project. The city, in partnership with the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory, will install 500 sensor boxes throughout the city that will provide real-time data to the public about air quality and traffic on a block-by-block basis.
The Windy City has begun installing what sounds and looks a whole lot like a Fitbit that can measure the vitals of a bustling metropolis.

Chicago, which partnered on the project with researchers at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory and several corporations, last week installed the first two of 500 modular sensor boxes. The devices will eventually allow the city and public to instantly get block-by-block data on air quality, noise levels, as well as vehicular and pedestrian traffic.

The project — dubbed the Array of Things and described by Chicago officials as a "fitness tracker for the city" — is a first-of-its-kind effort in the nation. Plans are in the works to replicate the project in the coming years in more than a dozen other cities, including Atlanta, Chattanooga, and Seattle. The Chicago project was funded with the help of a $3.1 million National Science Foundation grant.


Study: Solar activity has a direct impact on Earth's cloud cover

© Technical University of Denmark
A team of scientists from the National Space Institute at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU Space) and the Racah Institute of Physics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has linked large solar eruptions to changes in Earth's cloud cover in a study based on over 25 years of satellite observations.

The solar eruptions are known to shield Earth's atmosphere from cosmic rays. However the new study, published in Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics, shows that the global cloud cover is simultaneously reduced, supporting the idea that cosmic rays are important for cloud formation. The eruptions cause a reduction in cloud fraction of about 2 percent corresponding to roughly a billion tonnes of liquid water disappearing from the atmosphere.

Since clouds are known to affect global temperatures on longer timescales, the present investigation represents an important step in the understanding of clouds and climate variability.

"Earth is under constant bombardment by particles from space called galactic cosmic rays. Violent eruptions at the Sun's surface can blow these cosmic rays away from Earth for about a week. Our study has shown that when the cosmic rays are reduced in this way there is a corresponding reduction in Earth's cloud cover. Since clouds are an important factor in controlling the temperature on Earth our results may have implications for climate change", explains lead author on the study Jacob Svensmark of DTU.

Comment: Related articles include: The impact of the Sun's reduced activity on our planet is discussed, with many other important factors pertaining to climate change, in Pierre Lescaudron's book, Earth Changes and the Human-Cosmic Connection.