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Sat, 30 Jul 2016
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Science & Technology


NASA allows Mars 'Curiosity' rover to fire laser at will

When NASA launched Curiosity Rover, a 1-ton robotic beast that would basically take planetary exploration to the next level, we all knew we were in for a brilliant treat.

The car-sized Curiosity rover is the centerpiece of NASA's US$2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission to Mars. Curiosity was sent to the Red Planet to assess whether it is, or ever will be, capable of supporting microbial life.

Well its official, the Curiosity Rover has just become even cooler — and here's why:


China to launch first fully-automatic driverless subway train

The first fully-automatic subway train entirely developed in China will be put into operation in Beijing in 2017, media reported Friday.

According to the China Radio International (CRI), the trial of the subway train on 35-kilometer-long (22 miles) Yanfang Line linking Hebei's Yanjiao and Fangshan district in Beijin will be launched in December 2016, while the commissioning is expected by the end of 2017.

Once integrated into an automatic metro system, the driverless trains will be able to run between the stations and make stops, open and close doors and return to the terminal station. It is expected that the automatic trains will run well on schedule without any delay.

The fully-automatic trains are designed by the Chinese CRRC Corporation Limited company, a state-owned rolling stock manufacturer.

Better Earth

Wild birds and humans cooperate to find honey in Mozambique

© Claire N. Spottiswoode
Yao honey hunter Orlando Yassene holds a female honeyguide bird.
Over thousands of years, honey hunters in northern Mozambique have forged a relationship with wild birds to find the location of bees' nests.

But not only do humans seek out the small birds known as honeyguides, the birds also actively seek out humans ensuring both species benefit, a new study shows.

Pioneering work by the Kenyan ecologist Hussein Isack in the 1980s confirmed honeyguides communicate reliable information to humans about the location of bees' nests, and this greatly increased honey-hunters' harvests, said the study's lead author Dr Claire Spottiswoode of the University of Cambridge in the UK and the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

In return, the greater honeyguide (Indicator indicator), which feeds from bees' nests, eating eggs, larvae and beeswax, relies on their human partner to crack open the hive.

"It's a remarkable example of cooperation between humans and a free-living wild animal," Dr Spottiswoode said.

But in a new study of the Yao honey hunters from Mozambique's Niassa National Reserve, published today in Science, Dr Spottiswoode and her colleagues show the interaction has an extra dimension.

Not only do the Yao honey hunters follow the birds' call to guide them to the hive, the birds themselves seek out the specific call made by the hunters to initiate the hunt.
© Claire N. Spottiswoode
Yao honey-hunters searching for honeyguides in the Niassa National Reserve, Mozambique.
"Yao honey hunters searching for honeyguides, or wanting to maintain a honeyguide's attention as they follow it through the bush, give at intervals a loud trill followed by a grunt — 'brrrr-hm!'," Dr Spottiswoode said.

"They make this sound only in this context, so it's a reliable signal to honeyguides that a human is looking for bees."


Soviet-born scientist stirs up a revolution in rotary engines in the U.S.

© Press photo
In 1975 Russian physicist Nikolai Shkolnik left the Soviet Union for the U.S. after graduating from the Kiev Polytechnic Institute. For 10 years he worked as a consultant for struggling innovation companies. Throughout these years, he was constantly preoccupied with one question - why are modern car engines so inefficient?

Shkolnik developed his own high-efficiency hybrid cycle (HEHC) engine, which became a key step towards his dream. He was helped by his son Alexander, who eventually graduated from MIT and had become an expert in system optimization.

Nikolai Shkolnik is convinced that, among other things, the education he received in the USSR helped his ambition to create a revolutionary engine.

"There are big differences between American engineers and those trained in Russia,'' said Shkolnik. ''American engineers are incredibly effective in what they do, and it usually takes two or three Russian engineers to replace one American. However, Russians have a broader view of things, which has to do with their education; at least in my time it did. They are capable of achieving goals with a minimum of resources."


Viruses have been a major force driving our evolution

The constant battle between pathogens and their hosts has long been recognized as a key driver of evolution. Their findings suggest an astonishing 30 percent of all protein adaptations since humans' divergence with chimpanzees have been driven by viruses.
The constant battle between pathogens and their hosts has long been recognized as a key driver of evolution, but until now scientists have not had the tools to look at these patterns globally across species and genomes. In a new study, researchers apply big-data analysis to reveal the full extent of viruses' impact on the evolution of humans and other mammals.

Their findings suggest an astonishing 30 percent of all protein adaptations since humans' divergence with chimpanzees have been driven by viruses.

"When you have a pandemic or an epidemic at some point in evolution, the population that is targeted by the virus either adapts, or goes extinct. We knew that, but what really surprised us is the strength and clarity of the pattern we found," said David Enard, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University and the study's first author. "This is the first time that viruses have been shown to have such a strong impact on adaptation."

The study was recently published in the journal eLife and will be presented at The Allied Genetics Conference, a meeting hosted by the Genetics Society of America, on July 14.


New modeling suggests Earth's supercontinents tore apart quickly after millions of years of strained separation

Around 175 million years ago, the ancient supercontinent Pangea began to break up. New research shows how the continents were sling-shotted off each other, thanks to their strained separation.
Earth's supercontinents spent millions of years under huge amounts of strain before abruptly lurching apart to form oceans between them, new modelling suggests.

A team at the University of Sydney in Australia revealed the underlying actions of the splitting landmass - a sustained period of slow inching apart followed by a sudden heave - in the journal Nature.

Dieter Mueller, senior author on the paper, likens the geological mechanics to pulling apart a thick piece of dough: "At first, separating it requires a lot of effort because the dough resists your pulling and stretches slowly between your hands.

"If you're persistent, you'll eventually reach a point where the dough becomes thin enough to separate quite easily and quickly."


Final frontier: Hubble captures spectacular space-warped images of mega-distant galaxies (VIDEO)

© NASA Goddard / YouTube
The latest images from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope show the spectacular space-warping of hundreds of distant galaxies - something first outlined by Albert Einstein in his General Theory of Relativity.

The vivid galaxy cluster Abell S1063, located some 4 billion light-years away, holds the key to this staggering phenomenon.

Comment: See also: Kepler Spacecraft telescope discovers crop of 104 new planets, 4 look promising that could potentially accommodate life


Scientific procedures using millions of animals still being used despite tried and tested alternative

Routine scientific procedures using millions of animals are still being authorised when there is a tried and tested alternative, according to a group of scientists investigating the production of antibodies.

The scientists, writing in the Cell Press journal, Trends in Biotechnology, say the use of animals in consumer society is effectively 'hidden' and products assumed to be 'animal-friendly' are anything but. They say an animal friendly antibody production technique using bacteriophage viruses instead of live animals is being overlooked, despite the enormous potential for reduction in animal use.

The global antibody industry is worth 80 billion dollars and relies heavily on animals to produce the antibodies that are used to detect the vast range of molecules indicative of state of health, safety or the environment. Antibody-based tests are used in consumer and environmental safeguarding -- from healthcare, over the counter, point of care and laboratory diagnostic testing to food safety, agriculture and household products.

Dr Alison Gray, a visiting researcher at The University of Nottingham's School of Veterinary Medicine and Science, said: "The antibody-based tests that are commonly used in society appear to be far removed from animal experimentation since no animals were directly tested on. However, the target molecule to be detected is repeatedly injected into the animal, initiating an immune response. Months later, the animal is euthanased and antibodies to that molecule are extracted and incorporated into an in vitro, 'animal-free' test. So in reality, we are not replacing animals but substituting methods.

Comment: Seventeen to 100 million mice, rats, birds, rabbits, cats, dogs, primates and other animals suffer and die in laboratories every year in the U.S. Scientists, medical doctors and animal activists have railed against animal experimentation for decades, yet the practice continues. Listen to the The Health & Wellness Show: The Quackery and Cruelty of Animal Medical Research to learn more about the controversy surrounding animal medical research.

Alarm Clock

Signs of impending volcanic super-eruptions become evident less than a year before eruption

The Long Valley Caldera in eastern California was created by a super-eruption 760,000 years ago.
Super-eruptions—volcanic events large enough to devastate the entire planet—give only about a year's warning before they blow.

That is the conclusion of a new microscopic analysis of quartz crystals in pumice taken from the Bishop Tuff in eastern California, which is the site of the super-eruption that formed the Long Valley Caldera 760,000 years ago.

The study is described in the paper "The year leading to a supereruption" by Guilherme Gualda, associate professor of earth and environment sciences at Vanderbilt University, and Stephen Sutton at the University of Chicago published July 20 in the journal PLOS One.

"The evolution of a giant, super-eruption-feeding magma body is characterized by events taking place at a variety of time scales," said Gualda. Tens of thousands of years are needed to prime the crust to generate sufficient eruptible magma. Once established, these melt-rich, giant magma bodies are unstable features that last for only centuries to few millennia. "Now we have shown that the onset of the process of decompression, which releases the gas bubbles that power the eruption, starts less than a year before eruption."

Comment: Magma May Give Signs of Super-Volcano Eruptions


Updated map of the brain identifies nearly 100 new regions

© Matthew F. Glasser, David C. Van Essen
A new map based on brain scan data collected by the Human Connectome Project. The data revealed 180 new regions.
The brain looks like a featureless expanse of folds and bulges, but it's actually carved up into invisible territories. Each is specialized: Some groups of neurons become active when we recognize faces, others when we read, others when we raise our hands.

On Wednesday, in what many experts are calling a milestone in neuroscience, researchers published a spectacular new map of the brain, detailing nearly 100 previously unknown regions — an unprecedented glimpse into the machinery of the human mind.

Scientists will rely on this guide as they attempt to understand virtually every aspect of the brain, from how it develops in children and ages over decades, to how it can be corrupted by diseases like Alzheimer's and schizophrenia.

"It's a step towards understanding why we're we," said David Kleinfeld, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, who was not involved in the research.

Scientists created the map with advanced scanners and computers running artificial intelligence programs that "learned" to identify the brain's hidden regions from vast amounts of data collected from hundreds of test subjects, a far more sophisticated and broader effort than had been previously attempted.