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Tue, 26 Jul 2016
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Science & Technology


Hair in book helps identify Copernicus's remains

Warsaw, Poland -- Researchers said Thursday they had identified the remains of Nicolaus Copernicus by comparing DNA from a skeleton and hair retrieved from one of the 16th-century astronomer's books.

The findings could put an end to centuries of speculation about the exact resting spot of Copernicus, a priest and astronomer whose theories identified the Sun, not the Earth, as the center of the solar system.

Polish archaeologist Jerzy Gassowski told a news conference that forensic facial reconstruction of the skull that his team found in 2005 buried in a Roman Catholic Cathedral in Frombork, Poland, bears striking resemblance to existing portraits of Copernicus.


Quantum computing spins closer

The promise of quantum computing is that it will dramatically outshine traditional computers in tackling certain key problems: searching large databases, factoring large numbers, creating uncrackable codes and simulating the atomic structure of materials.


Sniffing out a rumbling volcano

© RolexAwards/Marc Latzel
Geophysicist Andrew McGonigle on Vulcano Island, Italy with his prototype helicopter.
A radio-controlled helicopter could help predict when a volcano will blow its top.

A large toy helicopter could help to predict volcanic eruptions in time to safely evacuate the surrounding area, according to geophysicists who have just been awarded $100,000 to develop their idea.

When fresh, eruption-ready magma arrives deep in the heart of a volcano, it tends to release carbon dioxide. As the magma rises, it also pushes sulfur dioxide out of the volcano. Spotting changes in the ratio of these gases around a volcano should indicate whether it is about to blow - but although sulfur dioxide is routinely measured by vulcanologists, taking carbon dioxide measurements is a much bigger challenge.


Why the universe may be teeming with aliens

WANTED: Rocky planet outside of our solar system. Must not be too hot or too cold, but just the right temperature to support life.

It sounds like a simple enough wish list, but finding a planet that fulfils all of these criteria has kept astronomers busy for decades. Until recently, it meant finding a planet in the "Goldilocks zone" - orbiting its star at just the right distance to keep surface water liquid rather than being boiled off or frozen solid.

Now, though, it's becoming increasingly clear that the question of what makes a planet habitable is not as simple as finding it in just the right spot. Many other factors, including a planet's mass, atmosphere, composition and the way it orbits its nearest star, can all influence whether it can sustain liquid water, an essential ingredient for life as we know it. As astronomers explore newly discovered planets and create computer simulations of virtual worlds, they are discovering that water, and life, might exist on all manner of weird worlds where conditions are very different from those on Earth. And that means there could be vastly more habitable planets out there than we thought possible. "It's like science fiction, only better," says Raymond Pierrehumbert, a climate scientist at the University of Chicago, who studies planets inside and outside of our solar system.


Mysterious electrons may be sign of dark matter

© T Gregory Guzik
A balloon-borne experiment flying over Antarctica measured a surprisingly high number of energetic electrons streaming in from space.
Dark matter is proving less shadowy than its name suggests. Its signature may have been detected by a balloon-borne experiment that measured a surprisingly high number of energetic electrons streaming in from space.

High-energy electrons are found throughout space and are accelerated when stars explode in supernovae. But a balloon-borne detector flying over Antarctica called the Advanced Thin Ionization Calorimeter (ATIC) has detected 70 more high-energy electrons than the normal background level attributed to supernova blasts.

John Wefel of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, who led the collaboration, says there are two possible explanations.

The electrons could come from a nearby astrophysical object, such as a pulsar, that lies within 3000 light years from Earth. But the team has spent four years trying to fit the signal to such an object and has yet to find a good match.


Frozen hair gives up first mammoth genome

Tufts of frozen woolly mammoth hair have yielded a rough draft of its genome. It's the most successful attempt to sequence the DNA of an extinct ancient animal to date, and although we won't see resurrected mammoths grazing the tundra anytime soon, it could give us a peek into the reasons for their extinction.

Sequencing extinct organisms is tricky since DNA strands quickly degrade after death into short fragments that are difficult to piece back together. In porous tissue like bone, these fragments can also become flooded by DNA from bacteria and fungi growing on the decomposing body, making it hard to pick out the genetic material of interest.
© Peter Brooker/Rex Features
Mammoth hair protects DNA from the ravages of nature.

To solve this, Stephan Schuster from Pennsylvania State University and colleagues sequenced DNA from the hair of two frozen woolly mammoths, which died in Siberia roughly 20,000 and 60,000 years ago respectively.

Magic Wand

Sound Method to Levitate Droplets

When a researcher noticed that bass notes from his MP3 player were making drops of liquid bounce, it began the development of a new technique to levitate droplets, thus keeping them from contamination by surfaces.

In theory, scientists could learn a lot about our health by testing tiny amounts of bodily fluids - a drop of blood, a tear, a bead of sweat. But something this small is easily contaminated by other liquids or surfaces. So what are scientists doing? They're making liquids bounce, dance, and float lightly through the air. Researchers from Belgium's University of Liege published their findings November 18th in the New Journal of Physics.

Monkey Wrench

Mysterious rock carvings get a repair job in Australia

© James Brickwood
Lost heritage: staff at work on the restoration.
Some of Sydney Harbour's finest Aboriginal rock art is getting a forensic facelift.

The sandstone carvings, in bushland near Grotto Point at Clontarf, are unusual because they are thought to date from the years immediately before or during white settlement.

After more than a century as a local attraction, the carved images of a kangaroo, a sun fish and flying boomerangs were infested with lichen and partly covered with bracken and dirt.


'New' Penguin Species In New Zealand Found Using Ancient DNA From Fossils

Australian and New Zealand researchers have used ancient DNA from penguin fossils to make a startling discovery that may change the way we view species extinctions.

A team from the University of Adelaide, the University of Otago, and Canterbury Museum in New Zealand has identified a previously unknown penguin species while conducting research on New Zealand's endangered yellow-eyed penguin, one the world's rarest penguin species and the subject of an extensive conservation effort.
© Canterbury Museum
Mounted specimen of Yellow-eyed Penguin.

The Waitaha penguin became extinct after Polynesian settlement but before 1500 AD, creating an opportunity for the yellow-eyed penguin to subsequently colonise the New Zealand mainland from its base in the sub-Antarctic islands.

"Our findings demonstrate that yellow-eyed penguins on mainland New Zealand are not a declining remnant of a previous abundant population, but came from the sub-Antarctic relatively recently and replaced the extinct Waitaha Penguin," said team member Dr Jeremy Austin, deputy director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA.

"Previous analysis of fossil records and anecdotal evidence suggested that the yellow-eyed penguin was more abundant and widespread in the past, but it now appears they have only been around for 500 years," he said.


New Planet Discovered Orbiting Dangerously Close To Giant Star

A team of astronomers from Penn State and Nicolaus Copernicus University in Poland has discovered a new planet that is closely orbiting a red-giant star, HD 102272, which is much older than our own Sun. The planet has a mass that is nearly six times that of Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system.

The team includes Alexander Wolszczan, the discoverer of the first planets ever found outside our solar system, who is an Evan Pugh Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics and the director of the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds at Penn State; and Andrzej Niedzielski, who leads his collaborators in Poland. The team suspects that a second planet may be orbiting HD 102272, as well.
© Thomas Sebring
The Hobby-Eberly Telescope, one of the largest and most powerful telescopes in the world, photographed at dusk.

The findings, which will be published in a future issue of The Astrophysical Journal, shed light on the ways in which aging stars can influence nearby planets.