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Sat, 24 Feb 2018
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Flowers attract bees by using 'blue halo' optical trick

fower ultra violet
© Edwige Moyroud/Assoiated Press
The region at the base of the petals of this Ursinia speciosa flower appears blue at certain angles due to an optical effect.
The blue light, which can sometimes be seen by humans, is cast by tiny ridges of different height and spacing on petals, scientists have discovered

Flowers might seem like one of life's simple pleasures, but it turns out there might be more to them than meets the eye.

Researchers have discovered that certain species of flowering plants boast tiny ridges on their petals that, thanks to variations in their height or spacing, scatter light to cast a blueish hue over the blooms.

While the effect is not always visible to humans, it can be spotted by bees - suggesting the optical effect might help to attract the pollinators.

"The exciting thing is that it is a new optical trick - we didn't know that flowers could use disorder to generate a specific colour, and that is quite clever," said Professor Beverley Glover, co-author of the research from the University of Cambridge.

Comment: More bee information. Fascinating creatures!

Magic Hat

'A nice trick': Russian space agency downplays significance of SpaceX Falcon launch

SpaceX  launch
© SpaceX / Flicr
Russia's state-owned space corporation Roscosmos has brushed off the significance Elon Musk's successful launch of a reusable rocket toward Mars carrying a red Tesla.

Although the upstart billionaire's SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch on Tuesday was seen as a landmark moment in space exploration, the reaction in Russia was more ambivalent.

"I don't know if this is a conspiracy or not, but in fact it's a very good trick," Roscosmos spokesman Igor Burenkov said about the launch in an interview with the Ekho Moskvy radio station on Thursday.

Comment: See: Another historic SpaceX launch: 'Triple-rocket' Falcon Heavy launches Tesla Roadster to Mars orbit - Two rockets synchronize vertical landings (VIDEO)


Plants have consciousness, new study suggests

Plant Consciousness
© YouTube/Unsplash
The benefits of talking to houseplants have long been relegated to the halls of pseudoscience, while the benefits of playing them music has seemed even goofier. Now, a study published in The Annals of Botany journal suggests that plants are much more complex in their range of reactions and much closer to animals than previously assumed.

The study used a single-lens reflex camera to follow organ movements in plants before, during, and after recovery to exposure to diverse and unrelated anesthetics. "Mimosa leaves, pea tendrils, Venus flytraps and sundew traps all lost both their autonomous and touch-induced movements after exposure to anesthetics," it said. "In Venus flytrap, this was shown to be due to the loss of action potentials under diethyl ether anesthesia. The same concentration of diethyl ether immobilized pea tendrils. Anaesthetics also impeded seed germination and chlorophyll accumulation in cress seedlings."

By trapping pea plants in ether-filled glass chambers, soaking garden cress roots and seedlings in lidocaine, and measuring the electrical activity of Venus flytrap cells, they soon determined the plants become unresponsive. This meant the anesthetics worked, and the plants' cells stopped firing. Once the medicine wore off, they seemed to regain consciousness.


Norway's ice instruments: Coolest sounds in music

Terje Lsungset
© Pinterest
Terje Isungset, the founder and artistic director of the Ice Music Festival, tests a musical instrument made out of ice.
Inside a giant igloo in a snowy Norwegian village, the sound of a horn rings out, warming the mood of a freezing audience, huddled together in -24 Celsius. But the four musicians performing are even colder: the instruments they are playing are all made of ice.

The xylophone, claves and wind instruments have been painstakingly carved from ice blocks extracted from a frozen lake, and are now part of a finger-numbing performance at the 13th Ice Music Festival in the mountain village of Finse.

The problem is, the longer the musicians play, the more the instruments start to disintegrate. It is not an easy task "to perform on instruments that are melting while you play them," says percussionist Terje Isungset, also the founder of the festival. Wearing thick wool gloves, he blows warm air into his ice-sculpted horn, illuminated under blue and turquoise lights.

Next to him, a singer with an angelic voice covers her mouth with a scarf to stay warm, while a bass player removes his gloves so he can pull the strings on his ice-made instrument.
chainsaw ice
© unknown
Musicians carve their own instruments.

Fireball 5

Astronomers have discovered swarms of tiny comets orbiting an alien sun

Star KIC 3542116
© NASA / arXiv
This image shows how star KIC 3542116 looks to the Kepler space telescope. Cooler colors represent darker regions, and warmer colors represent brighter regions.
There are tiny comets orbiting foreign suns. And human beings can detect them.

Six times, about 800 years ago, dark things passed between the bright-yellow dwarf star KIC 3542116 and Earth. They were small in cosmic terms, about 330 billion tons (300 billion metric tons). That's about the size of Halley's Comet, or just one-245 millionth the mass of Earth's moon.

But they were big enough. They blocked a fraction of a fraction of the light that was streaming outward from that star. Eight hundred years later, the sensitive lens of the Kepler Space Telescope - a nearly meterwide piece of precision-cut glass floating in the darkness of space - detected that dimming as KIC 3542116's ancient light reached this solar system.


Job One for Quantum Computers: Boost Artificial Intelligence

The fusion of quantum computing and machine learning has become a booming research area. Can it possibly live up to its high expectations?
Quantum nueral network
© Josef Bsharah/Quanta Magazine
In the early '90s, Elizabeth Behrman, a physics professor at Wichita State University, began working to combine quantum physics with artificial intelligence - in particular, the then-maverick technology of neural networks. Most people thought she was mixing oil and water. "I had a heck of a time getting published," she recalled. "The neural-network journals would say, 'What is this quantum mechanics?' and the physics journals would say, 'What is this neural-network garbage?'"

Today the mashup of the two seems the most natural thing in the world. Neural networks and other machine-learning systems have become the most disruptive technology of the 21st century. They out-human humans, beating us not just at tasks most of us were never really good at, such as chess and data-mining, but also at the very types of things our brains evolved for, such as recognizing faces, translating languages and negotiating four-way stops. These systems have been made possible by vast computing power, so it was inevitable that tech companies would seek out computers that were not just bigger, but a new class of machine altogether.


Ancient virus could be the reason humans developed the ability to think

© Getty
We all have consciousness, but explaining why and how our thoughts occur has always been a scientific mystery
An ancient virus could be responsible for human consciousness, giving you the ability to think for yourself.

New research has linked a human gene responsible for conscious thought to a virus that was spread in the early days of humanity.

Two papers published in the Cell journal discuss the origins of the Arc gene, which packages up genetic information and sends it around nerve cells in little virus-style capsules.

These packages of information are believed to be critical to how our nerves communicate and could be responsible for our thoughts.

Elissa D. Pastuzyn, who authored one of the studies, said: "Evolutionary analysis indicates that Arc is derived from a vertebrate lineage of Ty3/gypsy retrotransposons, which are also ancestors to retroviruses."

Comment: For more on the links between viruses and human evolution, see:


The sun is blank, NASA data shows dimming continues (UPDATE)

blank sun sunsposts dimming
© Solar Dynamics Observatory HMI Continuum
The blank sun
As the sun gets successively more blank with each day, due to lack of sunspots, it is also dimming. According to data from NASA's Spaceweather, so far in 2017, 96 days (27%) of the days observing the sun have been without sunspots. Here is the view today from the NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite:

Today at Cape Canaveral, SpaceX launched a new sensor to the International Space Station named TSIS-1. Its mission: to measure the dimming of the sun's irradiance. It will replace the aging SORCE spacecraft. NASA SDO reports that as the sunspot cycle plunges toward its 11-year minimum, NASA satellites are tracking a decline in total solar irradiance (TSI).

Across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, the sun's output has dropped nearly 0.1% compared to the Solar Maximum of 2012-2014. This plot shows the TSI since 1978 as observed from nine previous satellites:

Comment: The increase in cosmic radiation is bad news for the Earth: UPDATE Feb 1st, 2018:

From SDO:
The sun has had no sunspots for almost two weeks (as of Feb. 1, 2018) and just has a single, tiny one that appeared on Jan. 31, 2018. The video shows a rotating sun in filtered light for the past week, but it is even hard to tell the sun is rotating since there are just about no features. Even the small spot that appears on the 31st is hard to see. This spotless period is a prelude to the approaching period of solar minimum next year, when the sun's activity will be at the low end of its 11-year cycle. Credit: Solar Dynamics Observatory, NASA.



Princeton physicist William Happer states the obvious: Climate models 'don't work'

Al Gore
© Reuters/Yuri Gripa
Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore attends Unlocking Financing for Climate Action session during the IMF/World Bank spring meetings in Washington, U.S., April 21, 2017.
Princeton University physicist William Happer is not a fan of models used to predict future manmade global warming, and stars in a new educational video laying out the reasons he believes climate models are faulty.

"And I know they don't work. They haven't worked in the past. They don't work now. And it's hard to imagine when, if ever, they'll work in the foreseeable future," Happer said in a video produced by PragerU.

In the video, Happer argues that even supercomputers used to predict the weather and forecast future global warming aren't strong enough to capture the complexity of Earth's atmosphere, including cloud cover and natural ocean cycles.

"That's why, over the last 30 years, one climate prediction after another - based on computer models - has been wrong," Happer said in the video. "They're wrong because even the most powerful computers can't solve all the equations needed to accurately describe climate."



A scientific theory and the multiverse madness

© NASA/Brunier
Milky Way Galaxy
Newton's law of gravity - remember that? The force between two massive bodies decreases with the inverse square of the distance and so on?

To use it, you need a constant, "Newton's constant," also called the "gravitational constant," usually denoted G. You can determine G to reasonable accuracy with a few simple measurements. Once you have fixed the gravitational constant, you can apply Newton's law to all kinds of different situations: falling apples, orbiting planets, launching rockets, etc. All with only one constant!

This ability to explain many superficially different processes is what makes natural laws so powerful. Newton's contemporaries were suitably impressed.

After Newton came up with his equation, he could have reasoned: "Since I don't know this constant's value but have to measure it, the constant could have any value. So, there must be a universe for each different value. I conclude that we live in one of infinitely many universes - one for each value of the gravitational constant. I will call this collection of universes the "multiverse.""

But he didn't.

Newton was famously minimalistic with his assumptions and even refused to speculate whether there were deeper reasons for his law of gravity, arguing this was unnecessary. "Hypotheses non fingo," he wrote, "I feign no hypotheses."

But that was then.