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Sat, 30 Jul 2016
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Science & Technology


Are organisms quantum machines?

© Andrey Volodin/Alamy
If there's any subject that perfectly encapsulates the idea that science is hard to understand, it's quantum physics. Scientists tell us that the miniature denizens of the quantum realm behave in seemingly impossible ways: they can exist in two places at once, or disappear and reappear somewhere else instantly.

The one saving grace is that these truly bizarre quantum behaviours don't seem to have much of an impact on the macroscopic world as we know it, where "classical" physics rules the roost.

Or, at least, that's what scientists thought until a few years ago.


Sun makes nervous face with hole in its head [VIDEO]

The sun seems to be making a nervous face in this image, which was captured on July 14, 2016 by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft.
The sun has been making some anxious faces lately — but you'd be worried, too, if a huge hole had just opened up on your head.

The sun's apparent nervousness crops up in photos captured over the past few days by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO); you can see the gorgeous images compiled into a video here.

The sun's "eyes" are actually active regions, which serve as launch pads for solar flares and the eruptions of superheated solar plasma known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs). And the anxious, crinkly mouth is a coronal hole, a relatively cool and dark region where the sun's magnetic field lies open to interplanetary space.

Comment: The Sun has been behaving very strangely for a while now:


Storing data on the atomic scale - Rewritable device built [VIDEO]

Delft University of Technology researchers combined a copper surface with chlorine atoms to build a device with "information density as high as 500 terabits per square inch." Tiny 'Atomic Memory' Device Could Store All Books Ever Written

Comment: See also: World's first 'atomic' movie is stored in vapor


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

© W. Stenzel / NASA / Reuters
This artist's concept depicts select planetary discoveries made to date by NASA's Kepler space telescope.
In the race to find somewhere habitable in the cosmos, NASA's Kepler Space Telescope has identified 104 new planets outside of our galaxy. Among them were four "promising planets" that could potentially accommodate life.

Scientists say the four planets are in Earth's size-range, orbiting a single dwarf star. NASA said in a statement that two are "too hot to support life as we know, but two are in the star's 'habitable' zone, where liquid water could exist on the surface."

Cell Phone

Neuroscientists find multitasking literally drains brain's energy reserves

© Reuters/ Yuya Shino
Constantly checking your phone is a drain on productivity.
Does your morning routine consist of checking emails, browsing Facebook, downing coffee, heading to the train while Googling one last idea, checking notifications, more coffee, and going through your work email? The myriad activities crammed into your morning, and the constant switching between them, is likely making you very tired.

When we attempt to multitask, we don't actually do more than one activity at once, but quickly switch between them. And this switching is exhausting. It uses up oxygenated glucose in the brain, running down the same fuel that's needed to focus on a task.

"That switching comes with a biological cost that ends up making us feel tired much more quickly than if we sustain attention on one thing," says Daniel Levitin, professor of behavioral neuroscience at McGill University. "People eat more, they take more caffeine. Often what you really need in that moment isn't caffeine, but just a break. If you aren't taking regular breaks every couple of hours, your brain won't benefit from that extra cup of coffee."

Studies have found that people who take 15-minute breaks every couple of hours end up being more productive, says Levitin. But these breaks must allow for mind-wandering, whether you're walking, staring out the window, listening to music or reading. "Everyone gets there a different way. But surfing Facebook is not one of them," he says. Social networks just produce more fractured attention, as you flit from one thing to the next.

Black Magic

Man's best friend - reborn: South Korean cloning facility promises to bring back your dead dog

Sooam Biotech Research Foundation has cloned over 800 dogs since 2006, offering the service to bring your dead dog back for $100,000. Apart from their popular dog cloning service, they also clone cattle and pigs for medical research and breed preservation.


The Sooam Biotech Research Foundation can reincarnate your dead dog, a service that would delight pet lovers—for $100,000.

"These people have very a strong bond with their pets... and cloning provides a psychological alternative to the traditional method of just letting the pet go and keeping their memory," said Sooam researcher and spokesman Wang Jae-Woong.

Comment: The shady past of wolves in sheep's cloning


World's potentially biggest telescope discovers 13,000 new galaxies at only 25% capacity

© ska.ac.za
South Africa's MeerKAT radio telescope has proven its potential, releasing its first images, which reveal some 1,300 galaxies in a far-off corner of the universe where only 70 were known to exist before.

"Based on the results being shown today, we are confident that after all 64 dishes are in place, MeerKAT will be the world's leading telescope of its kind," said Professor Justin Jonas, Chief Technologist at the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project, which manages MeerKAT. SKA is an international effort to build the world's largest and most precise radio telescope.


Megathrust: Giant Bangladesh earthquake possible putting 140 million lives at risk, says study

© Ashikur Rahman / Reuters
Up to 140 million lives could be at risk from a potentially massive earthquake in Bangladesh, according to a new study. The research found that pressure is building along a fault line situated underneath the most densely-populated nation on Earth.

The research, published in the journal Nature Geoscience on Monday, found that a juncture between major tectonic plates in the region is locked and mounting with stress.

Citing data collected using GPS devices since 2003, the paper states that measurements found convergence of tectonic plates at a rate of 13-17mm "on an active, shallowly dipping and locked megathrust fault."

One plate is moving under the other deep beneath the surface, and two plates are stuck together at the upper layers of the fault. The plates are covered in layers of sediment more than 20 meters thick.

The situation could result in a magnitude 8.2 to 9.0 earthquake in Bangladesh.


Australian physicist proposes theory that building blocks of life are information, not chemicals

Among all the extraterrestrial species featured in the late Douglas Adams' excellent Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy novels there is one called a Hoovooloo, described as "a super intelligent shade of the colour blue".

Oddly enough, this utterly abstract sort of alien might yet turn out to be the author's most perspicacious invention.

A leading Australian physicist has co-authored a new paper proposing a radical new theory of life.If a new paper co-written by prominent Australian physicist Professor Paul Davies is on the money, every other fictitious ET, from Star Trek's Vulcans to Star Wars' Yoda, are the products of depressingly limited imaginations.

Pretty much all cinematic aliens - think Dr Who's Sontarans, the bubble-headed things from Mars Attacks!, the giant worms from Dune - have something recognisably "life-like" about them: they have a chemical structure broadly similar to those found in earth species, and (it is implied) some kind of DNA-ish apparatus that facilitates reproduction.

They are reasonable enough assumptions to make, but what if they are plain wrong?

Davies and co-author Dr Sara Imari Walker, both from the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at the Arizona State University, suggest that fleshiness and double-helixes might be things confined only to life on Earth. Life in the rest of the universe, they venture, could be based on something much more unlikely: information.

Comment: Further reading:

Eye 1

Iris scans may soon replace fingerprints

© Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock
Could iris scans replace fingerprints?
An FBI pilot program to record prisoners' eyes is under way in California, Texas and Missouri.

FBI officials have scanned the irises of nearly 460,000 people in a pilot program that may soon replace fingerprints. While iris-scanning technology has been around for more than 25 years, it's just now getting to where it's fast, easy and relatively bug-free.

"It's a powerful biometric," said Patrick Grother, a computer scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md., who has been developing algorithms and software for iris scanning. "It's fast to process, it has discriminative power -- my iris doesn't look like your iris, and it has reasonable permanence."

Iris scanning has replaced retinal scans, a method that has been pretty much abandoned since it turned out to be uncomfortable for people to endure, Grother explained. Iris scan technology was featured recently in the AMC mini-series The Night Manager, based on a John LeCarre spy novel. The lead character used an iris scan camera on his smartphone to access his Swiss bank account (just before a big truck blew up).

Grother says that kind of quick reading ability isn't far away, and several banks are looking at using it. Windows' Lumia Nokia and Fujitsu both have iris scanners to unlock their phones, (similar to the iPhone fingerprint pad) but it's not ready to authenticate other sorts of apps or accounts.