Science Sunday 07-23-17

Quoth The Raven “No Problem!”

A study in the July issue of Science once again demonstrates the stunningly high intelligence of ravens, and other members of the crow family.

Ravens are part of a larger species called corvids, which include crows, jays and magpies.  Tests conclusively prove that these birds can solve problems better than four year old humans and some great apes.

Ravens have shown the ability to fashion tools to obtain food, to exchange tokens for food on a delayed basis, to hold grudges against fellow birds, etc.

If it’s been a while since you read Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven”, click here.


Peering Into The Past

Don’t look now, but one of the largest ever scientific undertakings is occurring in the southern hemisphere, with strongest participation in South Africa and Australia.

Called the Square Kilometer Array, a massive number of radio telescopes will be deployed in two stages, called SKA1 and SKA2.

SKA1 is expected to be completes by 2023, and will consist of 64 mid-frequency range radio telescopes in South Africa (MeerKAT), as well as 2,048 low frequency range radio telescopes in Australia (Murchison Wide Field Array).

When this deployment is completed, this joint array of telescopes will be 10 times more sensitive than any current radio telescope, and will be able to look back to the earliest part of the illuminated Universe.  Many experiments will be performed, including ones designed to detect far away amino acids (a sign of life), to intercept possible radio signals from distant, advanced civilizations, and to explore the nature of dark matter.

To see this project from an Australian viewpoint, click below:


Rex, We Hardly Knew You

Recent studies demonstrate that it is likely that Tyrannosaurus Rex was not the speedy predator suggested in movies like Jurassic Park.

Instead of moving at the previously hypothesized maximum speed of 45 mph, these new studies suggest much slower maximum speeds.  In one study, the max speed given is about 17 mph, while the other study’s max speed is only 12 mph.


Plastic Twilight Zone

Plastics have only been around for about 65 years, but they seem to taking over the world, and not in a good way.

Roland Geyers of the University of California at Santa Barbara recently published a seminal paper on the problem of plastic waste, and its impact on the world’s lands and seas.

So far, humans have produced an astonishing 8 billion metric tons of plastic since 1952, with nearly half of that having been made in the last 13 years.  This total plastic production is the mass equivalent of 13 billion elephants.

Plastic can only be eliminated through incineration.  It is otherwise non-biodegradable.

Geyers estimates that if nothing is done, then by the year 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste in landfills, and 250 million metric tons of plastic waste in Earth’s oceans.

The big problem with plastics, says Geyers, is packaging, which gets used just once and is thrown away.  While some plastic will break down into smaller parts because of ultraviolet radiation, those smaller parts are still plastic, and if in the oceans, can be ingested by fish small and large, and ultimately end up on your dinner table.

Reminds me of the bread companies that 30 years ago put wood chips in their bread and claimed (correctly) that the bread was now much higher in fiber content.


Hidden Sounds in Microvibrations

Abe Davis and his fellow students at MIT are on to something truly amazing:  the retrieval of otherwise undetectable sounds from high speed “visual only” videos of objects that are apparently not moving but have nevertheless been affected by nearby ambient sounds, sounds of such low intensity that the objects are moving less than a micron (or one millionths of a meter) in lateral displacement.

In the Ted Talk above, we see how computer algorithms can take these incredibly small motions and cumulatively recreate what the original sounds must have been that caused the object to vibrate in the first place.



Science Sunday 07-16-17

Deep Space Testing

On July 10th, NASA sealed the James Webb Telescope into a chamber designed to see how well the telescope will work in the environment of outer space.

The telescope is a successor to the famed Hubble Space Telescope, and is expected to pick up the much fainter infrared light of galaxies shining from near the edge of the visible universe, some 13.4 billion light years away.

Testing is expected to last 100 days, with the first 40 days devoted to conditioning the spacecraft to the extremely cold conditions needed for it to operate properly.

Named after NASA’s second administrator James Webb, the telescope is extremely complicated in form and deployment.  It will be positioned at Lagrange Point 2, about 1 million miles away from Earth’s unilluminated side.  The scope will have a primary mirror greater than 20 feet across, and will permanently face away from the Sun, protected by a football field sized sunshield that reduces the temperature around the mirror to minus 370 degrees Fahreinheit.

The mission will launch in October of 2018, from French Guiana, aboard an Arianne 5 rocket.  It will take about 10 days from launch to become fully operational.


Banana Nana Fo Fana

From Time Magazine:

Genetically engineered bananas, packed with micronutrients, are to undergo their first human trial in the United States to test their ability to battle rampant vitamin A deficiency — a large cause of infant death and blindness throughout low-income communities around the world.

“The consequences of vitamin A deficiency are dire with 650,000 to 700,000 children worldwide dying … each year and at least another 300,000 going blind,” the project leader, Professor James Dale from Australia’s Queensland University of Technology, told AFP.

The six-week trial backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation expects to have results by the end of the year and plans to have the bananas growing in Uganda by 2020.


CAR-T Therapy Shows High Cure Rate for Leukemia

CAR-T stands for chimeric antigen receptor T cell therapy, a gene editing technique that promises to cure certain cancers on an individual by individual basis.

The FDA has just given tentative approval for a version of this therapy that promises to knock out B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).  Clinical trials showed a complete remission (or cure) rate of 83%.

The treatment is called CTL019, and is being manufactured by Novartis.


Exploring Inner Space

The above video is a Ted Talk by Robert “Bob” Ballard, deep sea explorer extraordinaire.  Professor Ballard is best known for finding sunken ships like the Titanic, the Bismarck, and the Yorktown.

But Mr. Ballard is a polymath of the unexplored world of Earth’s oceans and seas, known not only for finding lost ships like those listed above, but also for exploring the Mid-Ocean Ridge, which altogether comprise an essentially uninterrupted span of underwater mountains over 40,000 miles long.

Along this mid-ocean ridge and its accompanying “rift” valley, hydrothermal vents spawn an amazing diversity of life, including bacteria that can change chemicals into the energy needed by the creatures hosting them (chemosynthesis).

In Mr. Ballard’s Ted Talk, he “complains” that the yearly budget for NASA would pay NOAA’s budget for 1600 years.  A compelling speaker, Mr. Ballard makes the case that humanity should as much explore the inner space of our oceans and seas as we do the outer space we seek to understand.





Science Sunday 07-09-17

You Go Frogs

A recent article in National Academy of Sciences Journal asserts that frogs were a primary beneficiary of the asteroid strike some 66 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Known as the Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction Event, the asteroid impact was so devastating that nearly 75% of all life on Earth was wiped out.

Frogs, which have been around for at least 200 million years, were able to survive and flourish after this extinction event, asserts the authors, because of the frogs’ relatively small sizes, their post extinction adaptive behaviors, and abandoned ecosystems.

The article’s authors, David Blackburn and Peng Zhang, studied DNA evidence from modern frogs to show that that most of the current 6,700 frog species date from the post extinction period.  They suggest that the frogs may have initially survived the extinction event because they could either burrow into the ground or live in trees.


New Baryon Discovered

Scientists using the large hadron collider (LHC) at CERN have discovered a long sought after baryon called the Xi-CC++.  It is composed of two charm quarks and an up quark.

Lead scientist Patrick Spradlin of the University of Glasgow “explains” the structure of this new particle (which only lasts a trillionth of a second, and whose existence must be inferred by the debris left behind when it decays) by making an analogy to a peculiar kind of star-planet system.

The particle is composed of two heavy charm quarks, and one light up quark.  The charm quarks are slow moving, like a binary star system, and the fast moving up quark acts like a planet moving around the two “charm stars”.

Although the discovery of this new particle is just “pure science”, it is nevertheless important because it reinforces the standard model of how ordinary matter is constructed, and paves the way for further exploration of the strong nuclear force that binds nuclear particles together.


Blow Blow Thou Winter Wind

There’s been a lot of hot air blowing out of Washington, DC, recently, about global warming and a resurgence of coal as an electrical power source, but the inevitability of renewable electrical power production eventually eclipsing fossil fuel electrical power production (i.e. natural gas, coal and nuclear) is becoming increasingly obvious.

I was struck by an AP article that said that electrical power production from renewable sources had outpaced electrical power production from nuclear power plants (for the months of March and April 2017) for the first time since 1984.

To put things in perspective, for the calendar year 2016, nuclear energy accounted for 19.7% of total electrical energy production, and renewables accounted for 14.9 %.  So this is a big shift just this year.

As a possible explanation for this shift, the article went on to say that more than 60% of all utility-scale electrical power generating capacity that went online in 2016 was from wind and solar.

Solar has a way to go, accounting for less than 1% of total electrical energy production in 2016, but it is quite popular in California, where 13.2 GW of solar power production occurred in 2015.  Recent increases in solar power efficiency (out of Australia) seem very promising.

What struck me the most was the incredible increase in electrical energy produced by offshore and onshore wind turbines.  In the period from 2004 to 2016, total power capacity from wind increased from 6.46 GW (Gigawatts or trillions of watts) to 81.3 GW, a 12,600% increase.  Wind power now accounts for 5.56% of total electrical energy production in the US.

Here’s a little 101 video on wind turbine electrical energy production:

In a comparable period (2006 to 2016), US coal production declined by a whopping 37%, with 7% of coal mined in 2015 being exported.

The opening video, from D News, discusses what the positive consequences would be to the US if traditional fossil fuel power plants were replaced by renewable power sources like wind and solar.

The bottom line: as renewable power sources become cheaper and more efficient, more traditional power plants will inevitably go offline.  Hopefully the US will continue to be a leader in renewable electrical energy source production.

Science Sunday 07-01-17

Colony Collapse Disorder

The ongoing concern about declines in honey bee populations worldwide recently made the news again, with a report that neonicotinoid insecticides may play a significant role in colony collapse disorder, a process wherein a healthy bee colony simply disappears (dies off) within a very short time.

Using 33 test sites in Germany, Hungary and England, the researchers determined that neonicotinoids can have a devastating effect on a honey bee colony, depending on how exclusively the bees fed on crops sprayed with these chemicals.

The above Kurzgesagt video well summarizes all the causes of colony collapse disorder, and why the disappearance of bees is such an alarming development.

Better Than Flight Simulator?

Apparently, 360 degree videos are all the rage now, and I am just catching up.  Here we see a 360 video of a complete Airbus 320 flight, from taxi through takeoff, to approach and landing.  You can swivel your view to see what is going on in the entire cockpit, and you can decide what portion of the flight you want to watch or rewatch.

Water Water Everywhere

The nature of dihydrogen oxide, commonly known as water in its liquid state, has been a subject of fascination for me for some time, so I was surprised to find out that physicists now seem firmly convinced that water has two liquid states, one below 40 degrees Celsius and one above 60 degrees Celsius.  The “interphase” range between 40 to 60 Celsius degrees is viewed as a transition range within which various properties of water change abruptly at different temperatures.

You can read about this new development here.

A Possible New Planet in Our Solar System

We all know that Pluto, which we just visited, in no longer considered a solar system planet, but has instead been demoted to the status of dwarf planet, one of five so far recognized by the International Astronomical Union.  Dwarf planets are Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), as they reside farther out than Neptune in our solar system.  They are also called Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs), as they reside at least part of the time in the Kuiper Belt, which is region in the solar system that is between 30 and 50 astronomical units (AUs) from the Sun.  An astronomical unit is roughly the average distance from the Earth to the Sun, about 93 million miles).

Now comes a new report by researchers from the University of Arizona that a distinct group of KBOs exhibit a common behavior different from most other solar system objects.  The common plane of these KBOs’ orbits are nearly 8 degrees off from the “invariable plane” of most all other solar system objects.  The researchers reason that this is due to a “Mars sized planet” heretofore undetected and residing in the outer regions of the Kuiper Belt.  The researchers are careful to point out that their hypothesized planet (and it would be a real planet if it were the size of Mars) should not be confused with another hypothesized planet, called Planet Nine, that is thought to be 10 times the size of  Earth and be much father out in the solar system (about 700 AU).

Newton’s Third Law

Veritasium has posted a video about a new “water toy” that stably suspends most any lightweight ball at the top of a vertically ascending water jet.  Apparently the jet causes the ball to spin away from it.  The ball carries the water around it in such a way that the water pushes the ball back towards the water jet, producing a hydrodynamic equilibrium state..

To quote our fearless leader, Enjoy!



Science Sunday 06-25-17

Paris Air Show

This year’s International Paris Air Show at Le Bourget Airport finishes today, after one week of spectacular surprises.

Perhaps the standout of many competitors is Aeromobil’s Flying Car.  The Aeromobil has foldable wings when used as a car, and retractable wheels when used as a plane.

With a maximum takeoff mass of 960 kg (about 4300 lbs.), and a wingspan of 8.8 m  (about 29 ft), the Aeromobil has a maximum ground speed of about 100 mph, and a maximum air speed of 224 mph.  Orders are being taken now, for delivery in 2020.  The anticipated price range is a mere 1.35 to 1.68 million dollars.  Here is a nice video of the prototype:


Drone Taxi

Not shown at the Paris Air Show is Airbus’ anticipated entry into the drone taxi aerial sector.  Called the Vahana, and designed by Airbus’ silicon valley outpost A Cubed, The Vahana is expected to ferry its single occupant like a drone at takeoff and landing, but fly like a plane between those two points in the journey.  Wired has a nice article on the Vahana here.


Moth Eyes and Smart Phones

Research has been going on for some time into the structure of moths’ eyes, which do not significantly reflect light at night, thereby protecting the moths from natural predators.  It seems that moths have dimples in their outer eyes’ surfaces, about 100 nanometers wide, that temporarily trap light that would otherwise be reflected.

Now Dr. Shin-Tson and his team from the University of Central Florida have used nanotechnology to develop a thin antireflective film that can be placed over a smartphone screen to reduce  glare by nearly 95% when viewing the phone screen in sunlight.

This film is also scratch resistant and self cleaning, added pluses.

The technology is described in latest issue of the journal Optica.

The video above is a few years old, but shows how scientists have been working on exploiting the secret of moths’ eyes to improve efficiency in solar panels.


Extra Virgin Olive Oil


Recent research indicates that extra virgin olive oil, a key ingredient in the so-called Mediterranean diet, significantly reduces the buildup of amyloid-beta plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in the brains of mice bred to develop Alzheimer’s disease.


Landsat Explorer

Landsat Explorer

Want to explore how your neighborhood, your state, or someplace else in the world has changed over time?  Well now you can, courtesy of Landsat, Amazon Web Services and ESRI.

Click here to go to the new Landsat Explorer app.  It’s like Google Earth, but with Landsat data added.


Science Sunday 06-18-17

How We All Got Here

In roughly the time it takes for light to get from the Sun to the Earth, astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson explains how the Universe evolved from the Big Bang to us safely ensconced here on Earth.  Courtesy of Minute Physics.

Chocolate and A Fib

Chocolate not only tastes good, but you may need to indulge in its pleasures to avoid or reduce the effects of atrial fibrillation.

Tis The Season

The Summer Solstice moment, the beginning of Summer, is nearly upon us, coming early in the morning of June 21st in sunny old England and late in the previous day in toddling Chicago, where I live.

The Summer Solstice is marked by being the day with the most sunshine for us northern hemispherians.  In Chicago, at roughly 42 degrees north latitude, we will enjoy 15 hrs and 14 minutes of Mr. Sunshine.

Londoners by contrast will enjoy 1 hr and 23 minutes more of direct sunshine, because London is nearly 10 latitude degrees farther north than Chicago.

Chicagoans get a “free” additional 68 minutes of indirect lighting (civil twilight) every day of the year, with half of that time in the morning (dawn) and half of it in the evening (dusk).  Londoners receive an astounding additional 95 minutes of indirect lighting, again because they are 10 latitude degrees farther north than Chicago.

It is fun to observe the shadows cast by street sign poles on the “longest day”.  Here is Chicago, the shadow will be a little more than 35 degrees south of east at sunset.

V Sauce Michael above talks at length at issues regarding time and our planet’s motion relative to the Sun in the video above.

To play with your location’s sunrise, sunset, and civil twilight times, visit this delightful site.

The Bigger They Are

The deeper they live.  I speak of deep sea gigantism, aka abyssal gigantism, the tendency of sea dwelling invertebrates to grow larger the deeper in the oceans they live.  Examples abound: the giant isopod, the giant amphipod, the Japanese spider crab, the giant oarfish, the deepwater stingray, the seven-arm octopus, and a number of squid species including the colossal squid (up to 14 m in length) and the giant squid (up to 13 m).

No one knows for sure why there is this tendency, but one speculation is that the larger the body, the lower the skin surface to body mass ratio, an important characteristic for creatures living in very cold water and high hydrostatic pressure, where conversation of body heat is a matter of life and death.

A related rule called Bergmann’s rule states that crustaceans tend to be larger the higher in latitude they are observed.  A similar rule applying to humans called Allen’s rule is supported by observation that indigenous people living at higher latitudes have shorter limbs.

For a more general review of the mysteries of the barely explored deep ocean, check out this fascinating video:

Schlieren Imaging

There’s an old type of dimly lit photography (and videography) called shlieren imaging that reveals the subtle differences in densities (and refractive indices) of moving fluids, like hot air ascending from a burning match, or the ejecta from your mouth and nose when you sneeze.  Veritasium’s video above is a great take on this cool optical phenomenon.

Science Sunday 06-11-17


Author Dan Goleman speaks with eloquence about the three kinds of empathy, and how these human qualities, in various admixtures, inform today’s leaders.  As I watched this video, it was hard not to think of the current resident of the White House and the current Speaker of the House, and how they specifically lack emotional empathy.


The Machines Are Taking Over

Call me a Neanderthal, but I refuse to use the self-service checkout lines at big box multibillion dollar chain stores like Home Depot, because these checkout lines are designed to make you do the work normally reserved for human beings, who while low-paid, at least have a job.

Now comes a news story from the BBC about possibly getting rid of pilots on commercial flights. Basically, the aircraft and airline industries want to know if drone technology is advanced enough to be extended to commercial flights, and more importantly, whether the public will accept such a development.

On a much larger and foreboding scale is the question of whether even highly educated people will soon find themselves replaced by machines that can do their jobs better.  Kurzgesagt explores this increasingly likely and dismal future in unrelenting detail:

Are we just frogs in a simmering pot of water?


Antibiotic Resistance and Phages

The medical profession has been in a bit of a tizzy in recent years because the ”age of antibiotics” seems to be coming to an end, with no apparent solution.

Overuse of antibiotics in humans and farm animals has accelerated the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacterial pathogens like MRSA, so-called superbugs.  It is estimated that by the year 2050, if no solution to superbugs is found, 10 million people will die for lack of a viable treatment against the superbugs.

Enter an old-fashioned treatment called phage therapy.  Phages are viruses specifically cultivated to take out antibiotic resistant pathogens without harming the host organism (meaning you).

Phage therapy was considered normal in the early part of the 20th century, but with the advent of antibiotics, it was “forgotten”, at least forgotten by medical professionals in western Europe and the United States.  Fortunately, it was not forgotten by medical professionals in eastern Europe, notably Russia and Georgia.

In the above video, Heather Hendrickson of Massey University, New Zealand, talks about the dangers of antibiotic resistant pathogens, and the great promise of a resurgent phage therapeutic regime.

For some odd reason, phage therapy is not currently allowed in the United States.

You can read about the promise of phage treatment of bacterial infections here and here.


99 Million Year Old Bird

Prepare to be fascinated.  Scientists are reporting that an amber sample found in Burma a few years ago contains an almost perfectly preserved portion of a baby bird that died about 99 million years ago.  Feathers, claws and contemporaneous bugs included.


Oldest Homo Sapiens

For about the last 20 years, scientists have been of the consensus that the human species Homo Sapiens started in East Africa no earlier than 200,000 years ago.  But now Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute – publishing in Nature – makes a convincing claim that humans were around a good 100, 000 years earlier, and residing in a remote region called Jebel Irhoud in Morocco.


Postcards From the Mariana Trench

There’s a panoply of life at the greatest depths of the ocean floor.