science


Let There Be Life!

The beginning of life may have been inevitable, it seems, a natural and logical result of thermodynamics.

From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat. Jeremy England, a 31-year-old assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has derived a mathematical formula that he believes explains this capacity. The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life.

The article comes at the news as another nail in Creationism’s coffin, but personal experience suggests Creationism is an undead thing, immune even to shooting in the head. Creationists have evolved their denial techniques so that, no matter how strong the evidence or logical the argument, they always have a nonsensical reply waiting.

So, let’s not worry about shooting down the Creationists- though they must be shown this theory whenever possible- let’s just concentrate on the incredible coolness and massive potential of life, on Earth and as many other planets as possible.


Fossil Galaxy May Be One of First Ever Formed

A fossil galaxy sounds like the sort of thing Doctor Who would visit.

A tiny galaxy circling the Milky Way may be a fossil left over from the early universe, astronomers say. A recent study found that the stars in the galaxy, called Segue 1, contain fewer heavy elements than those of any other galaxy known, implying that the object may have stopped evolving almost 13 billion years ago. If true, Segue 1 could offer a window into the conditions of the early universe and reveal how some of the first galaxies came to be.

via RDFRS: Fossil Galaxy May Be One of First Ever Formed.


Australian scientists should set minds to developing bionic brain, report says – theguardian.com

Australian scientists should set a goal of developing the world’s first bionic brain, a report into the future of brain research recommends.

The report, Inspiring smarter brain research in Australia, calls for an investment of $250m over 10 years into interdisciplinary projects to understand the human brain.

via Australian scientists should set minds to developing bionic brain, report says | World news | theguardian.com.


Geoengineering side effects could be potentially disastrous, research shows – theguardian.com

Large-scale human engineering of the Earth’s climate to prevent catastrophic global warming would not only be ineffective but would have severe unintended side effects and could not be safely stopped, a comparison of five proposed methods has concluded.

via Geoengineering side effects could be potentially disastrous, research shows | Environment | theguardian.com.


A New Tool That Seals Bullet Wounds in Seconds With High-Tech Sponges | Wired Design | Wired.com

Caught in a fire fight, a soldier might hope for air support rained down from a Predator Drone, a kitted out AR-15 assault rifle, and soon, a tube full of high-tech cotton balls. The last item on the list might seem out of place, but the XStat syringe, filled with scientifically advanced sponges, can plug a life-threatening bullet wound in a matter of seconds.

via A New Tool That Seals Bullet Wounds in Seconds With High-Tech Sponges | Wired Design | Wired.com.


Eurosceptics could damage British science and innovation – theguardian.com

Given how keen the loudest bunch of Eurosceptics are to ignore scientific findings, is this really a great surprise?

It is widely known in British science and industry that the EU’s now-impressive engine is providing a boon for UK research and innovation. The bureaucracy is being stripped away and being replaced with a “can do” attitude. Yet our current government is hardly communicating this to the British people. They have not even told our small businesses that billions of euros in competitive funds are now available from the EU for them to collaborate with universities and develop marketable products. The Conservatives have recently been accused of burying, behind flood news, government documents showing a strong positive impact of the EU on British science and business, whilst last month a Conservative think-tank bizarrely accused the EU of being “anti-science”. Add this to anti-immigration noises that scientists have long warned is damaging, and the result is that Eurosceptics are compromising critical UK innovation opportunities.

Eurosceptics could damage British science and innovation | Mike Galsworthy | Science | theguardian.com.


Robots with human-like brains to take on Mars unaided – New Scientist

It’s hard not to read articles like this without seeing lots of Wall-E like robots roaming around the red planet.

So how do we make robot brains more like ours? One way might be to change the type of processor they use. Until now, robots have always been fitted with central processing units (CPUs), just like most PCs. Such units are very good at crunching small streams of data fast, but they can only do one thing at a time.

In contrast, graphics processing units (GPUs), which are heavily used in supercomputers and gaming, can handle larger data sets more quickly, and deal with several of them at once. This is how the human brain works, and even though we process some tasks millions of times more slowly than does a computer, the amount of information our brains can handle is vast. But until quite recently, GPUs have been too big and expensive to use in robots.

Robots with human-like brains to take on Mars unaided – tech – 19 February 2014 – New Scientist.


Laser-sparked fusion power passes key milestone – New Scientist

CLEAN energy inspired by the stars is the dream of scientists pursuing nuclear fusion, in which atomic nuclei fuse together and release energy. In a first for laser-driven fusion, scientists at a US lab say they have reached a key milestone called fuel gain: they are producing more energy than the fuel absorbed to start the reaction.

via Laser-sparked fusion power passes key milestone – tech – 12 February 2014 – New Scientist.


A Tumbleweed Robot to Stop the Spread of Deserts | Wired Design | Wired.com

Wind driven mapping and data collection robots. Cool.

I could see these rolling around the post-apocalypse wastelands or being used to gather data about other planets.

Mir designed his current Tumbleweed prototype to be a robust, adaptive robot. The steel structure relies on tension, which allows it to transform itself depending on its path. The arrangement of the robot’s sails allow it to catch wind and roll. Using a kinetic generator, the Tumbleweed’s motion powers an onboard computer, sensors and motor.

The Tumbleweed can’t control its exact path, but Mir designed it to respond to favorable wind conditions, meaning, the robot will flatten out like a pancake until a gust comes along to propel it in its intended direction. “There are applications where this system could go where people can’t go or can’t afford to go, or can’t go enough to collect the information that these researchers need,” he says.

A Tumbleweed Robot to Stop the Spread of Deserts | Wired Design | Wired.com.


Does Evolution Evolve Under Pressure? – Wired Science

Rather than targeting specific traits, as Lamarck’s theory would have predicted, the mutations struck random genes, with some good outcomes and some bad. However, the process wasn’t completely random. Rosenberg’s findings suggested that bacteria were capable of increasing their mutation rates, which might in turn produce strains capable of surviving new conditions.

“Cells are able to adapt to stress not by knowing exactly what they need to do, but by throwing the dice as a population and making random changes to the genome,” said James Broach, a biologist at Pennsylvania State University’s College of Medicine in Hershey who studies a similar phenomenon in yeast. “That will allow stressed progeny to find an escape route.”

Does Evolution Evolve Under Pressure? – Wired Science.


Moth drone stays rock steady in gale-force winds – New Scientist

THEY might not seem at all stable as they batter into light bulbs but moths have inspired an autopilot for drones.

Small drones find it difficult to fly in strong winds and cluttered environments. So Physical Sciences Inc (PSI) based in Andover, Massachusetts, in association with the US military, filmed hawk moths to see how they manage to stay aloft.

via Moth drone stays rock steady in gale-force winds – tech – 16 January 2014 – New Scientist.


BBC News – Battery advance could boost renewable energy take-up

While flow battery designs are suited to storing large amounts of energy cheaply, they have previously relied on chemicals that are expensive or difficult to maintain, driving up costs.

Most previous flow batteries have chemistries based on metals. Vanadium is used in the most commercially advanced flow battery technology, but its cost is relatively high. Other variants contain precious metal catalysts such as platinum.

The researchers say their new battery already performs as well as vanadium flow batteries, but uses no precious metal catalyst and has an underlying chemistry that is metal-free, instead relying on naturally abundant, more affordable chemicals called quinones.

BBC News – Battery advance could boost renewable energy take-up.


Spray bacteria on the desert to halt its spread – New Scientist

Planting hardy grasses helps keep sand in place, but the wind can still whip away particles between the grasses. So Chunxiang Hu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’s Institute of Hydrobiology in Wuhan has developed an alternative approach. She coats planted dunes with a mixture of photosynthesising cyanobacteria that can thrive in the semi-arid environment.

Grown in nearby ponds, the cyanobacteria are trucked into the desert every few days and sprayed over the dunes, where they form sticky filaments that hold soil particles in place and prevent them from being blown away. Cyanobacteria get their energy from sunlight via photosynthesis, and as part of the chemical reactions involved, they absorb carbon from the atmosphere and provide the organic matter the soil needs to be productive.

Spray bacteria on the desert to halt its spread – environment – 02 January 2014 – New Scientist.


Elephant shark takes record for slowest evolution – life – 08 January 2014 – New Scientist

And you thought Creationists weren’t evolved….

The Elephant Shark’s genome has barely changed in 400 million years, making it slower evolving than the coelacanth.

Elephant shark takes record for slowest evolution – life – 08 January 2014 – New Scientist.


Let’s all move to a different planet


10 Most Habitable Alien Worlds by alltime10s
Video via Geeks Are Sexy

The Earth Similarity Index, ESI or “easy scale” is a measure of how physically similar a planetary mass object is to Earth. It is a scale from zero to one, with Earth having a value of one. The ESI was designed to measure planets, however the formula can also be applied to large natural satellites and other objects. The ESI is a function of the planet’s radius, density, escape velocity, and surface temperature. These parameters are often estimated based on one or more known variables. Such variables depend greatly on the method of observation used. For example, surface temperatures is influenced by a variety of factors including irradiance, tidal heating, albedo, insolation and greenhouse warming. Where these are not known, planetary equilibrium temperature is frequently used, or the variable is inferred from other known attributes.

Earth Similarity Index – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.


Is there life on Mars (and did it come from Earth)

Panspermia – the idea that organisms can “hitchhike” around the solar system on comets and debris from meteor strikes – has long fascinated astronomers.

But thanks to advances in computing, they are now able to simulate these journeys – and follow potential stowaways as they hitch around the Solar System.

via BBC News – Dinosaur asteroid 'sent life to Mars'.


Feel-good graphene condom development to be funded by the Gates Foundation (Wired UK)

The future of condoms could come from Manchester! Okay, the intention- improved sexual health, particularly in the developing world- is serious, but it’s hard not to make funnies about condom research.

With all the students in town, it shouldn’t be hard to get volunteers to test them out. (I think I did it again.)

Feel-good graphene condom development to be funded by the Gates Foundation (Wired UK).


A Neuroscientist’s Radical Theory of How Networks Become Conscious – Wired Science

I can’t be the only person who’s tried to plot out “the network’s alive!” story.

It’s a question that’s perplexed philosophers for centuries and scientists for decades: Where does consciousness come from? We know it exists, at least in ourselves. But how it arises from chemistry and electricity in our brains is an unsolved mystery.

Neuroscientist Christof Koch, chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, thinks he might know the answer. According to Koch, consciousness arises within any sufficiently complex, information-processing system. All animals, from humans on down to earthworms, are conscious; even the internet could be. That’s just the way the universe works.

A Neuroscientist's Radical Theory of How Networks Become Conscious – Wired Science.