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Fri, 23 Feb 2018
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Massive lava dome lurks underneath Japan's Ōsumi Islands

japanese volcano
© Hydrographic and Oceanographic Department/Japan Coast Guard)
An ancient underwater volcano responsible for one of the largest known super-eruptions in history looks to be busy making silent, fiery preparations for its inevitable return.

The Kikai Caldera, located to the south of Japan's main islands, devastated a large swathe of the Japanese archipelago when it spewed upwards of 500 cubic kilometres (120 cubic miles) of magma during the Akahoya eruption some 7,000 years ago - and scientists have just confirmed evidence of new volcanic activity under the crater.

Researchers at Kobe University have detected a giant lava dome that exists below the Kikai Caldera, holding a volume of more than 32 cubic kilometres (almost 8 cubic miles) of trapped magma - a buildup that could reveal clues as to when Kikai's next super-eruption may be unleashed.


Researchers discover mineral in Earth's mantle could make the internet 1,000-times faster

Perovskite mineral
© Nature Communications
Perovskite was first discovered in the Ural Mountains of Russia. Researchers say it could now hold the key to ultra-fast communications.
A "miracle material" found deep within the Earth's mantle could hold the key to ultra-high-speed communications and computing, researchers say.

Scientists from the University of Utah discovered that a type of perovskite - a mineral first discovered in the Ural Mountains of Russia - could be the "vital component" for next-generation communications systems.

The research, which appeared in a paper published in the journal Nature Communications on November 6, describes how perovskite could be layered onto a silicon wafer in order to create a system that uses the terahertz spectrum. This bandwidth uses light instead of electricity to transfer data and could boost computing and internet speeds by up to 1,000 times.


Cosmopsychism: Is the universe a conscious mind?

In the past 40 or so years, a strange fact about our Universe gradually made itself known to scientists: the laws of physics, and the initial conditions of our Universe, are fine-tuned for the possibility of life. It turns out that, for life to be possible, the numbers in basic physics - for example, the strength of gravity, or the mass of the electron - must have values falling in a certain range. And that range is an incredibly narrow slice of all the possible values those numbers can have. It is therefore incredibly unlikely that a universe like ours would have the kind of numbers compatible with the existence of life. But, against all the odds, our Universe does.

Here are a few of examples of this fine-tuning for life:
  • The strong nuclear force (the force that binds together the elements in the nucleus of an atom) has a value of 0.007. If that value had been 0.006 or less, the Universe would have contained nothing but hydrogen. If it had been 0.008 or higher, the hydrogen would have fused to make heavier elements. In either case, any kind of chemical complexity would have been physically impossible. And without chemical complexity there can be no life.
  • The physical possibility of chemical complexity is also dependent on the masses of the basic components of matter: electrons and quarks. If the mass of a down quark had been greater by a factor of 3, the Universe would have contained only hydrogen. If the mass of an electron had been greater by a factor of 2.5, the Universe would have contained only neutrons: no atoms at all, and certainly no chemical reactions.
  • Gravity seems a momentous force but it is actually much weaker than the other forces that affect atoms, by about 1036. If gravity had been only slightly stronger, stars would have formed from smaller amounts of material, and consequently would have been smaller, with much shorter lives. A typical sun would have lasted around 10,000 years rather than 10 billion years, not allowing enough time for the evolutionary processes that produce complex life. Conversely, if gravity had been only slightly weaker, stars would have been much colder and hence would not have exploded into supernovae. This also would have rendered life impossible, as supernovae are the main source of many of the heavy elements that form the ingredients of life.
Some take the fine-tuning to be simply a basic fact about our Universe: fortunate perhaps, but not something requiring explanation. But like many scientists and philosophers, I find this implausible. In The Life of the Cosmos (1999), the physicist Lee Smolin has estimated that, taking into account all of the fine-tuning examples considered, the chance of life existing in the Universe is 1 in 10229, from which he concludes:
In my opinion, a probability this tiny is not something we can let go unexplained. Luck will certainly not do here; we need some rational explanation of how something this unlikely turned out to be the case.
The two standard explanations of the fine-tuning are theism and the multiverse hypothesis. Theists postulate an all-powerful and perfectly good supernatural creator of the Universe, and then explain the fine-tuning in terms of the good intentions of this creator. Life is something of great objective value; God in Her goodness wanted to bring about this great value, and hence created laws with constants compatible with its physical possibility. The multiverse hypothesis postulates an enormous, perhaps infinite, number of physical universes other than our own, in which many different values of the constants are realised. Given a sufficient number of universes realising a sufficient range of the constants, it is not so improbable that there will be at least one universe with fine-tuned laws.


What ancient footprints may tell of the life of children in prehistoric times

prehistoric footprints
© Matthew Bennett
Namibian footprints.
Western society has a rather specific view of what a good childhood should be like; protecting, sheltering and legislating to ensure compliance with it. However, perceptions of childhood vary greatly with geography, culture and time. What was it like to be a child in prehistoric times, for example - in the absence of toys, tablets and television?

In our new paper, published in Scientific Reports, we outline the discovery of children's footprints in Ethiopia which show how children spent their time 700,000 years ago.

We first came across the question of what footprints can tell us about past childhood experiences a few years back while studying some astonishingly beautiful children's footprints in Namibia, just south of Walvis Bay. In archaeological terms the tracks were young, dating only from around 1,500 years ago. They were made by a small group of children walking across a drying mud surface after a flock of sheep or goats. Some of these tracks were made by children as young as three-years-old in the company of slightly older children and perhaps young adolescents.

Comment: Clearly the footprints are subject to the archaeologists interpretation but it does make one wonder:

Snowflake Cold

Study shows the sun will be unusually cool by 2050

cooling sun
© Xinhua/Then Chih Wey
Sun makes a silhouette of the cable car as it sets in Singapore on Jan. 31, 2018.
The sun might be unusually cool by 2050, according to a new study.

Based on the cooling spiral of recent solar cycles, scientists from University of California, San Diego believe the next "grand-minimum" is just decades away, during which the sun will be 7 percent cooler.

A grand-minimum, according to the study, is a period of very low solar activity, which will lead to lower temperature on earth.

During the grand-minimum in the mid-17th century, named Maunder Minimum, the temperature dropped low enough to freeze the Thames River.

However, the cooling is not uniform around the globe. Despite the chilling weather in Europe during the Maunder Minimum, other areas such as Alaska and southern Greenland warmed.

Comment: Those scientists are still drinking the global warming kool-aid. There's considerable evidence for the link between the sun's cycle and ice ages. See also:


New electronic skin is self-healable and recyclable

Electronic Skin
© Twitter
CU Boulder researchers have developed a new type of malleable, self-healing and fully recyclable "electronic skin" that has applications ranging from robotics and prosthetic development to better biomedical devices.

Electronic skin, known as e-skin, is a thin, translucent material that can mimic the function and mechanical properties of human skin. A number of different types and sizes of wearable e-skins are now being developed in labs around the world as researchers recognize their value in diverse medical, scientific and engineering fields.

The new CU Boulder e-skin has sensors embedded to measure pressure, temperature, humidity and air flow, said Jianliang Xiao, an assistant professor in CU Boulder's Department of Mechanical Engineering who is leading the research effort with Wei Zhang, an associate professor in CU Boulder's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry as well as a faculty member in the Materials Science and Engineering Program.

The technology has several distinctive properties, including a novel type of covalently bonded dynamic network polymer, known as polyimine that has been laced with silver nanoparticles to provide better mechanical strength, chemical stability and electrical conductivity.


Dangerous knowledge: Monopoly of Consensus Science

"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."

That's very true.
Misinformation - scientist and politicains
© University of Concerned Scientists
In a mild way, the quote also illustrates itself since it is so often attributed wrongly; perhaps most often to Mark Twain but also to other humorists - Will Rogers, Artemus Ward, Kin Hubbard - as well as to inventor Charles Kettering, pianist Eubie Blake, baseball player Yogi Berra, and more ("Bloopers: Quote didn't really originate with Will Rogers").

Such mis-attributions of insightful sayings are perhaps the rule rather than any exception; sociologist Robert Merton even wrote a whole book (On the Shoulders of Giants, Free Press 1965 & several later editions) about mis-attributions over many centuries of the modest acknowledgment that "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants".

Comment: See also:


Neurons are even more complex than we thought

cat feline pet
© Photo by Paul on Unsplash
One of the biggest misconceptions around is the idea that Deep Learning (DL) or Artificial Neural Networks (ANN) mimic biological neurons. At best, ANN mimic a cartoonish version of a 1957 model of a neuron. Anyone claiming Deep Learning is biologically inspired is in doing so for marketing purposes or has never bother to read the biological literature. Neurons in Deep Learning are essentially mathematical functions that perform a similarity function of its inputs against internal weights. The closer a match is made, the more likely an action is performed (i.e. not sending a signal to zero). There are exceptions to this model (see: Autoregressive networks) however it is general enough to include the perceptron, convolution networks and RNNs.

Neurons are very different from DL constructs. The don't maintain continuous signals but rather exhibit spiking (or event driven) behavior. So, when you hear about "neuromorphic" hardware, then these are inspired on "integrate and spike" neurons. These kinds of system at best get a lot of press (see: IBM TrueNorth), but have never been shown to be effective. There has been some research work however that has shown some progress. If you ask me, if you truly want to build biologically inspired cognition, then you should at the very least explore systems that are not continuous like DL. Biological systems by their very nature will use the least amount of energy to survive. DL systems in stark contrast are power hungry. That's because DL is a brute-force method to achieve cognition. We know it works, we just don't know how to scale it down.

Jeff Hawkins of Numenta has always lamented that a more biologically-inspired approach is needed. So, in his research in building cognitive machinery, he has architected system that try to more closely mirror the structure of the neo-cortex. Numenta's model of a neuron is considerably more elaborate than the Deep Learning model of a neuron as you can see in this graphic:

neurons graphic
© https://www.slideshare.net/numenta/realtime-streaming-data-analysis-with-htm


This could get bad: Earth's magnetic field is shifting - which may well cause the poles to flip

pole reversal
The shield that protects the Earth from solar radiation is under attack from within. We can't prevent it, but we ought to prepare.

One day in 1905, the French geophysicist Bernard Brunhes brought back to his lab some rocks he'd unearthed from a freshly cut road near the village of Pont Farin. When he analyzed their magnetic properties, he was astonished at what they showed: Millions of years ago, the Earth's magnetic poles had been on the opposite sides of the planet. North was south and south was north. The discovery spoke of planetary anarchy. Scientists had no way to explain it.

Today, we know that the poles have changed places hundreds of times, most recently 780,000 years ago. (Sometimes, the poles try to reverse positions but then snap back into place, in what is called an excursion. The last time was about 40,000 years ago.) We also know that when they flip next time, the consequences for the electrical and electronic infrastructure that runs modern civilization will be dire. The question is when that will happen.

Comment: See also: The Earth's magnetic poles may reverse soon


Sunspots are not from Solar Interior

Sunspot caused by impact
© Acksblog
Fig. 1. A sunspot caused by the impact of a Kreutz sungrazing asteroid, 2000 C cooler than the photosphere. Umbra, containing water and iron is moving inward at 30,000 km/hr.
Until about 20 years ago, helio-scientists believed sunspots were caused by some mysterious magnetic process within the Sun that has periods of about eleven years, because they could not conceive of a regular rain of bodies crashing into the Sun. Then SOHO, STEREO and other Sun-staring satellites observed over 3,000 such bodies, called Kreutz sungrazers, all in the same unique orbit, every one of which disappeared into the Sun. These are referred to as 'comets', because when they get close to the Sun, they leave trails, but none of these have been observed in the vicinity of the Earth. Although comets are imagined to comprise solely water, no such bodies have ever been observed close-up. When approached by probes, every one of them has displayed a solid core. Comets are merely 'leaking' asteroids. Despite the observations of these bodies hundreds of papers are being written attempting to explain the magnetic process within the Sun which creates the sunspots.

The > 3,000 Kreutz sungrazers are unique in ways that were not known until 2014, when the Rosetta mission approached and orbited 'comet' 67P C-G. Although this body emitted a few streaks of gas, it was never visible from Earth, except by powerful telescopes and thousands more are circulating unobserved. The belief that it was just water ice, because of its low density 0.5 g/cm3, the popular image of 'comets', was disproven when Rosetta's 200 lb. lander Philae, equipped with spikes that were supposed to penetrate the ice and become locked on the surface, failed to penetrate and Philae bounced off the surface. This is the same tough stuff that comprises all asteroids. Rosetta images of 67P belie its low reflected radiance, only 4% of the incident light. The brightness of the Kreutz tails as they approach the Sun are used to estimate their mass, assuming they are pure water ice, and when they become invisible the 'comet' is imagined to have been consumed before impact. But they all have the same composition as 67P, which is obviously much tougher than water ice. That assumption leads to estimates of their diameters of several meters. However, 67P, was measured to be about 4 km in diameter. Images acquired by Rosetta show only a few thin streams of vapor - nothing like what would produce a large tail.

Another pertinent factor about the 3,000+ Kreutz sungrazers is that not a single one survived their close encounters with the Sun. This is well illustrated by a NASA video constructed using data from several Sun staring satellites. Despite this, astronomers claim that these 'comets' are not the cause of sunspots, because of their estimated size. Attempts to explain their origin as the result of the break-up of large comets thousands of years ago are futile, since all the fragments would be placed in different orbits. The 3,000 Kreutz sungrazers in exactly the same orbit dismisses this argument.