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Fri, 22 Sep 2017
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Solar Flares

Sun unleashes monster X9.3 solar flare, strongest in a decade

This solar flare was the most powerful for 11 years.
Early this morning (Sept. 6), the sun released two powerful solar flares - the second was the most powerful in more than a decade.

At 5:10 a.m. EDT (0910 GMT), an X-class solar flare - the most powerful sun-storm category - blasted from a large sunspot on the sun's surface. That flare was the strongest since 2015, at X2.2, but it was dwarfed just 3 hours later, at 8:02 a.m. EDT (1202 GMT), by an X9.3 flare, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC). The last X9 flare occurred in 2006 (coming in at X9.0).

According to SWPC, the flares resulted in radio blackouts: high-frequency radio experienced a "wide area of blackouts, loss of contact for up to an hour over [the] sunlit side of Earth," and low frequency communication, used in navigation, was degraded for an hour.


New research says 'vampires' are people with a blood disorder

© Universal Pictures / Global Look Press
A rare blood disorder may be responsible for the myth.
Porphyrias, a group of eight known blood disorders, affect the body's molecular machinery for making heme, which is a component of the oxygen-transporting protein, hemoglobin. When heme binds with iron, it gives blood its hallmark red color.

The different genetic variations that affect heme production give rise to different clinical presentations of porphyria - including one form that may be responsible for vampire folklore.

A clinical cause for nocturnal blood drinking?

Erythropoietic protoporphyria (EPP), the most common kind of porphyria to occur in childhood, causes people's skin to become very sensitive to light. Prolonged exposure to sunshine can cause painful, disfiguring blisters.

"People with EPP are chronically anemic, which makes them feel very tired and look very pale with increased photosensitivity because they can't come out in the daylight," says Barry Paw MD, PhD, of the Dana-Farber/Boston Children's Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. "Even on a cloudy day, there's enough ultraviolet light to cause blistering and disfigurement of the exposed body parts, ears and nose."

Staying indoors during the day and receiving blood transfusions containing sufficient heme levels can help alleviate some of the disorder's symptoms. In ancient times, drinking animal blood and emerging only at night may have achieved a similar effect - adding further fuel to the legend of vampires.

Now, Paw and his team of international investigators report - in a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)- a newly discovered genetic mutation that triggers EPP. It illuminates a novel biological mechanism potentially responsible for stories of " vampires" and identifies a potential therapeutic target for treating EPP.


How Google is recording you and storing the data

© Sun
DID you know that Google has been recording you without your knowledge?

The technology giant has effectively turned millions of its users' smartphones into listening devices that can capture intimate conversations - even when they aren't in the room.

If you own an Android phone, it's likely that you've used Google's Assistant, which is similar to Apple's Siri.

Google says it only turns on and begins recording when you utter the words "OK Google".


Jupiter captured in glorious detail by Juno flyby

The images were part of the probe's seventh flyby.
NASA's Juno spacecraft is gifting us its latest batch of images taken during its seventh flyby of Jupiter. The latest snaps reveal the beauty of the planet's swirling clouds with the public invited to add color to the raw images.

The space probe made the flyby on September 1, coming within 3,500km (2,200 miles) of the planet. Swirling clouds are visible in the images, indicating storms in the planet's upper atmosphere.


Do solar storms lead to beached whales?

© Dan Kitwood/Getty
Sperm whales stranded at Skegness on England's North Sea coast in January 2016.
In early 2016 a spate of sperm whale strandings in the North Sea perplexed scientists. Many theories were proposed for why 29 of the huge marine mammals - all males, most relatively young - died on European beaches in the course of January and the first few days of February, ranging from poisoning by pollutants to climate-change-induced dislocation.

According to a paper published in the International Journal of Astrobiology, however, the real cause was not human activity of any sort - it wasn't even on Earth.

Instead, the authors propose that solar storms threw off the navigation systems of the whales and led them to become lost and stranded. Solar storms, caused by ejections of charged particles from the Sun, disrupt the Earth's magnetic field, especially near the poles, where they are also responsible for producing auroras.

Lead author Klaus Heinrich Vanselow of Christian-Albrechts-Universität in Kiel, Germany, had earlier found correlations between solar activity and recorded numbers of North Sea sperm whale strandings over several centuries of historical records. The new study is the first to connect specific strandings to specific solar activity, however.


Dead Hand: A real doomsday device made by the Soviets in the '80s, and the Russians still have it today

You've all seen Dr. Strangelove, which means I'm pretty sure you understand the general idea behind a doomsday device: if you destroy us, we destroy you, no matter what. The concept of an automatic system that guarantees nuclear retaliation if a country is subjected to a nuclear attack has been part of the collective nuclear nightmare for decades. It's not just a concept, though. Such a doomsday device exists, and it goes by the chilling name Dead Hand.

Just for fun, or, really, whatever the diametric opposite of 'fun' is, let's go over what such a doomsday device is designed to do. In the event of a nuclear attack on a given country, a doomsday device is designed to launch a vigorous retaliatory nuclear strike on the attacker, regardless of whether or not anyone is left alive in the attacked country to order it.

It's a fully automatic system; it can't be overruled or disabled. It only activates once it's sure everyone in power (those are the key words - everyone in power) is dead. The whole point of such a system is to make the whole business of having a nuclear war at all seem futile.

Even if you launch the first strike, a doomsday device insures that any victories gained from taking the initial act of aggression will be hollow, because you'll be dead, too. It's a way of guaranteeing 'mutually assured destruction,' which is the process by which peace is maintained-everyone with nukes must think 'fuck it, it's not worth it.'

The one true doomsday device that's known to exist has been around since 1985 and is called Система «Периметр», or, in normal people talk, Perimeter System. It's also more evocatively known as Dead Hand.


Researchers invent completely new type of camera that sees through structures inside the human body

Way better than X-ray!
Medical techniques for looking inside our bodies have come a long way, but in the future it looks like doctors may be able to see absolutely everything going on under our skin.

Researchers have invented a new kind of camera that can actually see through structures inside the human body, detecting light sources behind as much as 20 centimetres (7.9 inches) of bodily tissue.

The current prototype, developed by researchers from the University of Edinburgh in the UK, is designed to work in conjunction with endoscopes - long, slender instruments that are often equipped with cameras, sensors and lights to peer inside hollow cavities inside the human body.

Solar Flares

New study suggests that solar storms are the cause of sperm whales beaching in North Sea

29 whales were stranded off the North Sea.
The Northern Lights may disrupt the navigation mechanisms employed by sperm whales, according to new research. Mass strandings in the North Sea were connected to large solar storms which took place in late 2015.

"Sperm whales spend their early, non-breeding years in lower latitudes, where magnetic disruptions by the sun are weak and thus lack experience of this phenomenon," according to the new research, published in the International Journal of Astrobiology.

Scientists studied the stranding of 29 sperm whales in the North Sea in January 2016 on beaches in Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and France. The strandings puzzled scientists as all the whales were in otherwise good health.


Facebook's AI learns to mimic human expressions by watching videos of Skype conversations

© Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images
Humanoid robots may be cute up to a point, but once they become a bit too realistic, they often start to creep us out – a foible called the uncanny valley. Naturalistic reactions are the way to evade the uncanny valley.
There's something not quite right about humanoid robots. They are cute up to a point, but once they become a bit too realistic, they often start to creep us out - a foible called the uncanny valley. Now Facebook wants robots to climb their way out of it.

Researchers at Facebook's AI lab have developed an expressive bot, an animation controlled by an artificially intelligent algorithm. The algorithm was trained on hundreds of videos of Skype conversations, so that it could learn and then mimic how humans adjust their expressions in response to each other. In tests, it successfully passed as human-like.

To optimise its learning, the algorithm divided the human face into 68 key points that it monitored throughout each Skype conversation. People naturally produce nods, blinks and various mouth movements to show they are engaged with the person they are talking to, and eventually the system learned to do this too.

Comment: Further reading:


Scientists use magnetic pulses to zap 'voices' from schizophrenia sufferers

Scientists have pinpointed a part of the brain where "voices" torment schizophrenia sufferers, and partially muted them with magnetic pulse treatment, a team reported on Tuesday.

More than a third of sufferers treated with magnetic pulses in a patient trial experienced "significant" relief, the scientists said in a statement.

"We can now say with some certainty that we have found a specific anatomical area of the brain associated with auditory verbal hallucinations in schizophrenia," the team said.

"Secondly, we have shown that treatment with high frequency TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation) makes a difference to at least some sufferers."

Further research must be done to confirm the usefulness of TMS as a treatment in the longer term.

Comment: There are many potential causes for schizophrenia.