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Wed, 24 Aug 2016
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A protein particle that made humans most intelligent found

Scientists have discovered that a tiny particle within a protein allowed humans to become the most intelligent creatures on the planet.

Researchers from the University of Colorado found that the protein domain issue known as DUF1220 holds the key to understanding why our brains are so much bigger and more complex than any other animal, the Daily Mail reported.

DUF1220 is a protein domain of unknown function that shows a striking human-specific increase in copy number is considered important to human brain evolution.

Humans have more than 270 copies of DUF1220 encoded in their DNA, far more than other species.

"This research indicates that what drove the evolutionary expansion of the human brain may well be a specific unit within a protein - called a protein domain - that is far more numerous in humans than other species," Professor James Sikela from the University said.


Mars mega-rover wiggles its wheels

More than two weeks after landing in Mars' Gale Crater, NASA's Curiosity rover has wiggled its wheels to warm up for its first honest-to-goodness drive, just hours from now.

Mission manager Mike Watkins said that the wiggle tests, which involved twisting the rover's four turnable wheels to the left and to the right in place, were done successfully overnight.

"We wanted to test the steering, because otherwise we would be driving in whatever direction we landed in," Watkins explained today during a teleconference that originated from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Everything's in fine shape, and that means we are 'go' for our first test drive tomorrow."

Watkins said the commands will be sent up tonight for a drive of just a few yards (meters), incorporating a turn to the right and a backing-up maneuver. That initial movement should occur "in the middle of the night our time" and last about a half-hour, he said.


New European Earthquake Catalog Offers Clues to Future Risks

© Helmholtz Centre Potsdam GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences
Map of epicentres Mw ≥ 6 quakes in EMEC , plate boundaries (red) and selected first order fault (black).
Earthquakes in Europe have influenced everything from its legends to its languages.

According to Greek mythology, the Oracle at Delphi spoke through women who inhaled delirium-causing vapors; now, modern geologists say these vapors were hydrocarbon gases released along earthquake faults and fractures crisscrossing the site of the Delphi temple.

In Italy, a magnitude-6.7 quake in 1638 permanently tweaked the Calabria region's dialects, according to a study published in the journal Annali di Geofisica in 1995. For example, the town of Savelli, founded after the quake, was linguistically isolated from its neighbors because it was settled by refugees from villages far to the west.

About 45,000 earthquakes large enough to feel have rocked the continent in the past 1,000 years, according to a newly updated catalog of earthquakes in Europe and the Mediterranean. Combining this historic information with modern-day geologic investigations is the first step in forecasting Europe's future risk of earthquakes, researchers say.

"One has to bring together the information from very old times, and from very modern times," said Gottfried Grünthal, of the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam, Germany.

Estimating earthquake risk requires "good knowledge about the seismological past. That means we have to extend our knowledge of the seismicity of an area as long into the past as possible," Grünthal said.

Bizarro Earth

'Maars' Volcanoes: Research Seeks to Understand Strange Eruptions

© University at Buffalo
Greg Valentine is filming and studying underground explosions in order to better understand maar volcanoes.
Maars are not your typical volcanoes.

These explosive geological oddities don't form neat, cone-shaped mountains. Rather, they can crop up just about anywhere within certain volcanically active areas.

Maars are created when a rising plume of magma interacts with underground water, creating a mixture that bursts out of the ground without much warning.

To get a better idea of where and when these eruptions might strike, Greg Valentine, a researcher at SUNY Buffalo, is trying to recreate his own miniature maars.

A better understanding of this phenomenon could lead to better warnings before explosions, and could also help geologists locate hidden sources of diamonds, which can form in maars, Valentine said.

The problem is, there are very little data on maar eruptions, which happen worldwide about once every 20 years, he said. They are also short-lived; after forming, they are active for a few weeks to a few years before disappearing.


Microsoft's Slow Death as Bureaucracy Stifles Creativity

Microsoft is suffering a slow death by committee as bureaucracy stifles the company's core creativity

Here's a question you don't often hear asked: whatever happened to Microsoft? To many people, it will seem a silly question. Microsoft, they point out, is still around - with a vengeance. It's a huge company worth $250bn (£160bn) that employs 94,000 people worldwide and earns vast profits. (OK, it made a loss last quarter for the first time in its history, but that's because it had to write off $6bn it blew in 2007 on a company called aQuantive which turned out to be a turkey.) Microsoft dominates the market for PC operating systems and Office software, products that are still licences to print money: its Xbox game console sweeps all before it; its server software is a big seller in the corporate world. In 2012, the company's net revenues totalled $74bn.

Sure, there are some flies in the ointment. Microsoft's search engine, Bing, has failed to break Google's stranglehold on search. The company's repeated attempts to break into the smartphone market have been failures, and its new partnership with Nokia hasn't changed that. Its effort to get into the music business with the Zune player (remember that?) turned out to be an embarrassing farce.


Bonobo Stone Tools as Competent as Ancient Human?

© ISNS/YouTube
Screen shot from video below.
The great apes known as bonobos can make stone tools far more varied in purpose than previously known, reaching a level of technological competence formerly assigned only to the human lineage, according to researchers.

These findings may shed light on the mental capabilities of the last common ancestor of humans and these apes, scientists added.

Bonobos are, with chimpanzees, humanity's closest living relatives. Together bonobos and chimps are part of the group Pan, just as modern humans and extinct species of humans make up the group Homo.

Chimpanzees are well-known tool-users, capable of fashioning spear-like weapons from branches for hunting and using stones as hammers and anvils in the wild. Although bonobos in the wild are not known for tool use, in captivity they have shown remarkable capabilities with stone tools. For instance, in the 1990s, researchers taught the male bonobo Kanzi and the female Pan-Banisha how to knap flint -- that is, strike the rocks together to create tools -- and use the resulting stone flakes to cut rope to open a box and to cut leather to open a drum for food.

Now scientists reveal that in the intervening years, by practicing on their own, Kanzi and Pan-Banisha have developed a broader stone tool kit for more complex tasks, making them at least a match with chimpanzees in tool use.

The researchers challenged Kanzi and Pan-Banisha to break wooden logs and to dig underground, tests similar to tasks the apes might have to carry out to get food in the wild. To break the logs -- an act similar at cracking open bones to get at marrow -- the scientists not only saw these apes use rocks as hammers or projectiles to smash their targets, but also observed them either rotating stone flakes to serve as drills or use the flakes as scrapers, axes or wedges to attack slits, the weakest areas of the log. To root into hard soil, these bonobos used both unmodified rocks and a variety of handmade stone tools as shovels.


New Hover Vehicle Recalls 'Star Wars' Bike

© Aerofex
The Aerofex hover vehicle recalls the futuristic look of Star Wars speeder bikes.
A resurrected hover vehicle won't fly through dense forests as effortlessly as the Star Wars speeder bikes from Return of the Jedi, but its intuitive controls could someday allow anyone to fly it without pilot training.

The aerial vehicle resembles a science fiction flying bike with two ducted rotors instead of wheels, but originates from a design abandoned in the 1960s because of stability and rollover problems. Aerofex, a California-based firm, fixed the stability issue by creating a mechanical system - controlled by two control bars at knee-level - that allows the vehicle to respond to a human pilot's leaning movements and natural sense of balance.

"Think of it as lowering the threshold of flight, down to the domain of ATV's (all-terrain vehicles)," said Mark De Roche, an aerospace engineer and founder of Aerofex.


Red Sprites - A strange and beautiful form of lightning

High above Earth in the realm of meteors and noctilucent clouds, a strange and beautiful form of lightning dances at the edge of space. Researchers call the bolts "sprites"; they are red, fleeting, and tend to come in bunches. Jesper Grønne of Silkeborg, Denmark, photographed these specimens on August 15th:

© Jesper Grønne
After several years of hunting sprites from my location in Denmark, I finally caught some last week--the first danish Red Sprites ever photographed," says Grønne. "They were located 50 km to 90 km above a thunderstorm some 350 km away over the North Sea. There were 2 flashes, each producing 5-6 individual Red Sprites."

"Sprites are a true space weather phenomenon," explains lightning scientist Oscar van der Velde of Sant Vicenç de Castellet, Spain. "They develop in mid-air around 80 km altitude, growing in both directions, first down, then up. This happens when a fierce lightning bolt draws lots of charge from a cloud near Earth's surface. Electric fields [shoot] to the top of Earth's atmosphere--and the result is a sprite. The entire process takes about 20 milliseconds."


First evidence discovered of planet's destruction by its star

© Marty Harris/McDonald Obs./UT-Austin
The first evidence of a planet's destruction by its aging star indicates that the missing planet was devoured as the star began expanding into a "red giant" — the stellar equivalent of advanced age. "A similar fate may await the inner planets in our solar system, when the Sun becomes a red giant and expands all the way out to Earth's orbit some five-billion years from now," said Alexander Wolszczan, Evan Pugh Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State and the discoverer of the first planet ever found outside our solar system.
The first evidence of a planet's destruction by its aging star has been discovered by an international team of astronomers. The evidence indicates that the missing planet was devoured as the star began expanding into a "red giant" -- the stellar equivalent of advanced age.

"A similar fate may await the inner planets in our solar system, when the Sun becomes a red giant and expands all the way out to Earth's orbit some five-billion years from now," said Alex Wolszczan, an Evan Pugh Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State University, who is one of the members of the research team. Wolszczan also is the discoverer of the first planet ever found outside our solar system.

The astronomers also discovered a massive planet in a surprisingly elliptical orbit around the same red-giant star, named BD+48 740, which is older than the Sun with a radius about eleven times bigger. Wolszczan and the team's other members, Monika Adamow, Grzegorz Nowak, and Andrzej Niedzielski of Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun, Poland; and Eva Villaver of the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid in Spain, detected evidence of the missing planet's destruction while they were using the Hobby-Eberly Telescope to study the aging star and to search for planets around it. The evidence includes the star's peculiar chemical composition, plus the highly unusual elliptical orbit of its surviving planet.


Quakes Beneath Antarctic Glacier Linked to Ocean Tides

© NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCI
Antarctic ice flow speeds derived from satellite data.
Thousands of earthquakes occurring in rapid succession in less than a year under an Antarctic glacier may have been linked to ocean tides, new research suggests.

Scientists investigated seismic activity under David Glacier, a large glacier in East Antarctica about 270 square miles (700 square kilometers) in size. The glacier serves as the outlet from which ice from 4 percent of that region's ice sheet drains out toward the sea.

To learn more about the foundations and behavior of this glacier, the researchers analyzed seismic data gathered from there over a nine-month period between 2002 and 2003 by the Transantarctic Mountains Seismic Experiment array of 42 seismometers. They identified about 20,000 seismic events during this period that were stronger and lasted longer than the shaking typically seen with glaciers.

"The fact these events exist is fairly surprising," researcher Lucas Zoet, a glaciologist at Pennsylvania State University, told OurAmazingPlanet. "This type of seismic behavior had not been observed before in Antarctic outlet glaciers, so one main challenge was just to categorize it initially."

The earthquakes also perplexingly occurred at regular intervals about 25 minutes apart.