Unseen Is Free

Unseen Is Free
Try It Now

Google Translate

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Pluto’s Big Moon Charon Reveals a Colorful and Violent History

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has returned the best color and the highest resolution images yet of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon – and these pictures show a surprisingly complex and violent history.

Charon in Enhanced Color NASA's New Horizons captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Charon just before closest approach on July 14, 2015. The image combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the spacecraft’s Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC); the colors are processed to best highlight the variation of surface properties across Charon. Charon’s color palette is not as diverse as Pluto’s; most striking is the reddish north (top) polar region, informally named Mordor Macula. Charon is 754 miles (1,214 kilometers) across; this image resolves details as small as 1.8 miles (2.9 kilometers).


At half the diameter of Pluto, Charon is the largest satellite relative to its planet in the solar system. Many New Horizons scientists expected Charon to be a monotonous, crater-battered world; instead, they’re finding a landscape covered with mountains, canyons, landslides, surface-color variations and more.

“We thought the probability of seeing such interesting features on this satellite of a world at the far edge of our solar system was low,” said Ross Beyer, an affiliate of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team from the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, “but I couldn't be more delighted with what we see."

High-resolution images of Charon were taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, shortly before closest approach on July 14, 2015, and overlaid with enhanced color from the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). Charon’s cratered uplands at the top are broken by series of canyons, and replaced on the bottom by the rolling plains of the informally named Vulcan Planum. The scene covers Charon’s width of 754 miles (1,214 kilometers) and resolves details as small as 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers).

High-resolution images of the Pluto-facing hemisphere of Charon, taken by New Horizons as the spacecraft sped through the Pluto system on July 14 and transmitted to Earth on Sept. 21, reveal details of a belt of fractures and canyons just north of the moon’s equator. This great canyon system stretches more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) across the entire face of Charon and likely around onto Charon’s far side. Four times as long as the Grand Canyon, and twice as deep in places, these faults and canyons indicate a titanic geological upheaval in Charon’s past.

“It looks like the entire crust of Charon has been split open,” said John Spencer, deputy lead for GGI at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “With respect to its size relative to Charon, this feature is much like the vast Valles Marineris canyon system on Mars.”

This composite of enhanced color images of Pluto (lower right) and Charon (upper left), was taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft as it passed through the Pluto system on July 14, 2015. This image highlights the striking differences between Pluto and Charon. The color and brightness of both Pluto and Charon have been processed identically to allow direct comparison of their surface properties, and to highlight the similarity between Charon’s polar red terrain and Pluto’s equatorial red terrain. Pluto and Charon are shown with approximately correct relative sizes, but their true separation is not to scale. The image combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the spacecraft’s Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC).


The team has also discovered that the plains south of the Charon’s canyon -- informally referred to as Vulcan Planum -- have fewer large craters than the regions to the north, indicating that they are noticeably younger. The smoothness of the plains, as well as their grooves and faint ridges, are clear signs of wide-scale resurfacing.

One possibility for the smooth surface is a kind of cold volcanic activity, called cryovolcanism. “The team is discussing the possibility that an internal water ocean could have frozen long ago, and the resulting volume change could have led to Charon cracking open, allowing water-based lavas to reach the surface at that time,” said Paul Schenk, a New Horizons team member from the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.

Images from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft were used to create this flyover video of Pluto's largest moon, Charon. The “flight” starts with the informally named Mordor (dark) region near Charon’s north pole. The camera then moves south to a vast chasm, descending from 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) to just 40 miles (60 kilometers) above the surface to fly through the canyon system. From there it’s a turn to the south to view the plains and "moat mountain," informally named Kubrick Mons, a prominent peak surrounded by a topographic depression. New Horizons Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) photographs showing details at up to 400 meters per pixel were used to create the basemap for this animation. Those images, along with pictures taken from a slightly different vantage point by the spacecraft’s Ralph/ Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), were used to create a preliminary digital terrain (elevation) model. The images and model were combined and super-sampled to create this animation.

Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Stuart Robbins

Even higher-resolution Charon images and composition data are still to come as New Horizons transmits data, stored on its digital recorders, over the next year – and as that happens, “I predict Charon’s story will become even more amazing!” said mission Project Scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

The New Horizons spacecraft is currently 3.1 billion miles (5 billion kilometers) from Earth, with all systems healthy and operating normally.

New Horizons is part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. APL designed, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. SwRI leads the science mission, payload operations, and encounter science planning.

Contacts and sources: 
Tricia Talbert

Are Fish The Greatest Athletes On The Planet?

When you think of the world's greatest athletes, names like Usain Bolt generally spring to mind, but scientists have discovered the best athletes could well be found in the water, covered in scales.

Scientists have discovered that fish are far more effective at delivering oxygen throughout their body than almost any other animal, giving them the athletic edge over other species.

Fish are far more effective at delivering oxygen throughout their body than almost any other animal.

Credit: Ilan Ruhr

"Fish exploit a mechanism that is up to 50-times more effective in releasing oxygen to their tissues than that found in humans," says study lead author, Dr Jodie Rummer from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.

"This is because their haemoglobin, the protein in blood that transports oxygen, is more sensitive to changes in pH than ours and more than the haemoglobins in other animals."

This is especially important for fish during times of stress, to escape from predators, or when they are living in water that is low in oxygen. They can double or even triple oxygen delivery to their tissues during these critical times.

For the past decade researchers have been using rainbow trout to investigate oxygen delivery in fish. They first discovered and tested this mechanism by monitoring muscle oxygen levels in real-time in trout.

Now they have determined just how powerful that system can be and have compared the results with medical studies on humans.

"This information tells us how fish have adapted this very important process of getting oxygen and delivering it to where it needs to be so that they can live in all kinds of conditions, warm or cold water, and water with high or low oxygen levels," says Dr Rummer.

"This trait may be particularly central to performance in athletic species, such as long distance swimming salmon or fast swimming tuna," adds co-author, Dr Colin Brauner from the University of British Columbia.

"For fish, enhanced oxygen delivery may be one of the most important adaptations of their 400 million year evolutionary history," Dr Brauner says.

Contacts and sources:
Eleanor Gregory
Arc Centre Of Excellence In Coral Reef Studies

Citation: Root effect haemoglobins in fish may greatly enhance general oxygen delivery relative to other vertebrates in published in the journal, Plos One.

Magnetic Contraption Tricks Migrating Songbirds into Changing Direction

When researchers captured Eurasian reed warblers along the Russian coast during their spring migrations and flew them 1,000 kilometers east to Zvenigorod, the birds weren't fazed; they simply re-oriented themselves toward their original destination. Now, the researchers who first demonstrated the birds' navigational skill in the Cell Press journal Current Biology several years ago are back with new evidence that reed warblers rely on a geomagnetic map to point them in the right direction.

This is a photograph of the research setup with a scenic view of the dune at the Courish spit in the Baltic (the study site).

Credit: Dominik Heyers

In fact, the researchers show in Current Biology on October 5 that the birds will respond as though they've been sent to Zvenigorod when they are captured and exposed to a geomagnetic field that matches that location.

"The most amazing part of our finding is that the same birds sitting on the same dune of Courish Spit on the Baltic coast shifted their orientation from their normal migratory direction--northeast--to the northwest after we slightly turned current control knobs on our power supplies," says Dmitry Kishkinev of Queen's University Belfast. "All the other sensory cues remained the same for the birds."

To test the role of magnetic fields, Kishkinev, together with Nikita Chernetsov at the Biological Station Rybachy and their colleagues, had a special magnetic coil system built that allowed them to create a homogeneous magnetic field out on their coastal field site, where it's very easy to catch migratory reed warblers. The system allowed them to manipulate the magnetic field without obscuring the birds' ability to pick up on other cues, including the sun, stars, landmarks, and scents.

This is a photograph of a Eurasian reed warbler.
Credit:  Andy Morffew

The birds were housed inside the magnetic coil system for several days. In that time, they were virtually displaced with a change in magnetic field only once to avoid confusion. The data show that this change in the magnetic parameters led the birds to re-orient toward their breeding destinations just as they would if they'd been physically displaced.

The researchers now suspect that reed warblers track changes in the geomagnetic parameters as they travel during their first fall migration--for example, from the Baltic down to West Africa--to establish certain "rules of thumb." Those rules then guide the birds on future migrations and make it possible for them to re-orient themselves if they find they've gotten off track.

The study provides some of the strongest evidence yet that at least some birds rely on a geomagnetic map for long-distance navigation, as spiny lobsters and sea turtles also do. Although the idea of magnetic navigation in birds was first proposed back in the 19th century, it has been a challenge to prove, the researchers say.

Further work is needed to understand how birds sense magnetic fields and which portions of the magnetic field are most important to them. The researchers are also curious to know whether reed warblers rely on their sense of smell, as some seabirds and homing pigeons do.

Contacts and sources:
Joseph Caputo
Cell Press

Citation:  Current Biology, Kishkinev and Chernetsov et al.: "Eurasian reed warblers compensate for virtual magnetic displacement" http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.08.012

Researchers Discover How Genetic Mutations Rewire Cancer Cells

An international team of researchers, led by ERC grantee Prof Rune Linding, discovered how genetic cancer mutations attack the networks controlling human cells. This knowledge is critical for the future development of personalized precision cancer treatments.

Credit: © ugreen - fotolia.com

The human genome was decoded more than a decade ago. Since then scientists have been successful at identifying genetic mutations in individual patients and tumours. However, using this knowledge to develop improved cancer therapies was hampered because researchers were not able to link the mutations in genes to their corresponding proteins, the targets of most pharmaceutical drugs.

ERC grantee and lead researcher Prof. Rune Linding from the Biotech Research and Innovation Centre (BRIC) at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH), together with researchers from the universities of Yale, Zurich, Rome and Tottori, unravelled how disease mutations in genes damage kinases, the enzymes which are key to protein signalling networks within human cells.

In two studies, published back-to-back in CELL journal on 17 September, scientists demonstrate that kinases, affected by genetic cancer mutations, can drift in their fidelity and thereby disturb other proteins driving normal cells to a more cancerous state. The team has also developed new software that helps interpret the data from genetic sequencing and translate the effects of cancer mutations on the function of proteins in individual patients.

“The identification of distinct changes within our tissues that help predict and treat cancer is a major step forward and we are confident it can aid in the development of novel therapies and screening techniques,” said Prof Linding.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the genetic basis for each tumour is subtly different. This realization has led to healthcare centres spending millions of dollars sequencing individual patients and their tumours with the aim of using this patient specific information to develop tailored, personalized therapies, with much greater efficacy. The novel tools described in these studies may provide much needed assistance to clinicians and researchers worldwide in interpreting this data.

Contacts and sources:
EC Research & Innovation 

High-Tech Electronics Help the Search for Space Life

The TeraComp project has developed a state-of-the-art 'terahertz receiver' that may help detect traces of life in space. The technology could be used in a 'sub-millimetre spectrometer' for measuring wavelengths of light during the first ESA mission to Jupiter's moons, planned for launch in 2022.

Credit; © Andrey Armyagov - fotolia.com

Exploration of the solar system features regularly in the news. Recent achievements include a ‘rendez-vous’ between European Space Agency (ESA) probe Rosetta and the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, while its lander, Philae, successfully made it to the comet’s surface. On Mars, NASA probes have found new evidence for free-flowing water and living organisms in the planet’s past, and spotted the UK’s long-lost Beagle-2 probe on the surface. Meanwhile, further exploratory missions – NASA’s Dawn and New Horizon probes – promise to send even more new discoveries from the dwarf planets Ceres and Pluto in the first half of 2015.

Such exploratory probes need highly sensitive sensors to gather data for scientists on Earth. The EU-funded TeraComp project has developed a new ‘terahertz receiver’ that could help to detect traces of life in space – especially if used for the first ESA mission to Jupiter’s moons, planned for launch in 2022.

“If Europe is going to send instruments into space, we need to be able to produce some of the key technologies in Europe,” says Jan Stake, project leader at the Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, Sweden. “Building the capacity to make these instruments benefits European industry,” he explains, reducing reliance on US suppliers.
State-of-the-art space science

“We have developed a state-of-the-art receiver operating at 557gigahertz for molecular spectroscopy in space science applications,” Stake continues.

“We’re talking about wavelengths smaller than one millimetre or ‘sub-millimetre waves’,” he explains, at frequencies between microwaves and infra-red. “Many molecules have absorption spectra in this range – such as water, oxygen, carbon dioxide – the substances astronomers and planetary researchers are looking for.”

The project team focused on developing Schottky diodes – devices to detect and receive high-frequency signals. “It’s an old technology but it’s difficult to make it work at this very short wavelength,” says Stake.

The team also worked to integrate complementary circuits such as a local oscillator within the same receiver. This enabled them to push the frequency response as high as possible and optimise the components so that they work well together. “We start with microwave circuits and then multiply up the frequency until we generate a signal for the receiver and signal processing,” explains Stake.
Advancing knowledge of the planets

The end result is a compact, lightweight receiver – “state of the art, with good performance at the water-frequency range” – that could make the grade for ESA’s upcoming JUICE mission to Jupiter’s moons. The instrument can also be used in weather satellites, such as the forthcoming METOP, which measures the water content in the atmosphere for weather forecasts and for monitoring pollution and global warming. In this way, the project’s work will help push forward scientific knowledge about our own planet, and others.

“Beyond atmospheric science and planetary missions, we also have ideas for ground-based applications such as security screens and radar,” says Stake.

The main difficulty is to maintain this technology, he continues, which requires precision engineering of metal parts to guide the waves accurately. He says it is difficult to secure sustainable financing to maintain a critical mass of expertise in this technology.
Strengthening Europe’s position in the space industry

“With EU funding, we were able to bring seven partners into the project, enough to push development in different parts of a complex receiver so the components are optimised to work together,” he says. EU support is boosting Europe’s position in the space race. Thanks to the outcome of TeraComp, participating SMEs such as Omnisys Instruments AB have already received commercial contracts for further instrument development.

Contacts and sources: 
EC Research & Inovation

Future Wildfires May Burn Large Parts Of Landscapes

Wildfire history over the past 2,000 years in Colorado's mountains indicates that large fires will continue to increase in a warming climate, according to results of a new study.

"Even modest regional warming trends, like those we are currently experiencing, can cause exceptionally large areas of the Rockies to be burned by wildfires," says scientist John Calder of the University of Wyoming.

The frequency of large fires has changed over past millennia, scientists have found.

Credit: Bryan Shuman

The findings are published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The paper, "Medieval warming initiated exceptionally large wildfire outbreaks in the Rocky Mountains," is co-written by University of Wyoming researchers Dusty Parker, Cody Stopka and Bryan Shuman, along with scientist Gonzalo Jimenez-Moreno of the University of Granada in Spain.

"This project demonstrates the significance of historical records in addressing current issues," says Thomas Baerwald, National Science Foundation (NSF) program director for Geography and Spatial Sciences, which funded the research. "Scientists are working to understand the complex interactions among climate, vegetation, land use, fire and other factors. The insights gained from such relationships in the past can provide new insights for understanding these processes today."

Calder, Shuman and colleagues examined charcoal deposits in 12 lakes in and near the Mount Zirkel Wilderness of northern Colorado, finding that wildfires burned large portions of the area during a documented spike in temperatures in North America starting about 1,000 years ago.

That period, known as the Medieval Warm Period (MWP), lasted about 300 years during which temperatures rose just under 1 degree Fahrenheit. A single degree might not seem like much, but it can have a huge effect on the potential for wildfires.

Temperature increases over the past few decades have been comparable to those of the MWP, resulting in some of the largest wildfires in U.S. history.

Since the mid-1980s, starting with large fires in Yellowstone National Park in 1988, the frequency of large wildfires in the American West has increased.

Lake-bottom sediments were sampled at Lake Eileen in Colorado to study charcoal from past fires.

Credit: Bryan Shuman

If the warming trend continues as projected, the fires of recent years could be just the start of more extensive and devastating blazes, the researchers say.

The study looked at how often large areas burned in the past 2,000 years. Results show that other than the 20th century, the only time when fires burned substantially more area was during the MWP.

"When we look back in time, we only see evidence of large areas burning one time in the last 2,000 years," Calder says. "This suggests large wildfires of the magnitude we've recently seen used to be very infrequent."

The researchers estimate that 83 percent of their 385-square-mile study area burned at the beginning of the MWP when the climate warmed 0.9 degrees.

By comparison, the average increase in temperature in the Rocky Mountain region since 2000 has been about 1.25 degrees higher than during the 20th century.

"Corresponding to those higher temperatures, 12 percent of our study area burned in the large Zirkel Complex fire in 2002," Calder says. Data indicate that in the Medieval Warm Period large fires similar to the Zirkel Complex fire burned in that same wilderness area once every decade or two when the temperatures warmed by 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Seven Lakes study site in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area also has charcoal from past fires.

Credit: Bryan Shuman

"Using Yellowstone fire history as a baseline for comparison, our minimum estimate of 50 percent of Mount Zirkel sites burned within a century at the beginning of the MWP exceeds any century-scale estimate of Yellowstone burning for the past 750 years," the scientists write in their paper.

Over the century that led up to and included the massive 1988 fires, only about 30 percent of Yellowstone burned.

"The large increase in the number of sites burned by fires during the MWP highlights the risk that large portions of individual landscapes may burn as the climate continues to warm today," the researchers conclude.

Shuman's research on forest dynamics is also funded by NSF's Division of Environmental Biology.

Contacts and sources:
Cheryl Dybas, NSF
Chad Baldwin, University of Wyoming

Monday, October 5, 2015

Ancient Alga Knew How to Survive On Land before It Left Water & Evolved Into First Plant

A team of scientists led by Dr Pierre-Marc Delaux (John Innes Centre / University of Wisconsin, Madison) has solved a long-running mystery about the first stages of plant life on earth.

The team of scientists from the John Innes Centre, the University of Wisconsin - Madison and other international collaborators, has discovered how an ancient alga was able to inhabit land, before it went on to evolve into the world's first plant and colonise the earth.

Closterium strigosum is one of the green algae the scientists analyzed.

Credit: Michael Melkonian

Up until now it had been assumed that the alga evolved the capability to source essential nutrients for its survival after it arrived on land by forming a close association with a beneficial fungi called arbuscular mycorrhiza (AM), which still exists today and which helps plant roots obtain nutrients and water from soil in exchange for carbon. 

The previous discovery of 450 million year old fossilised spores similar to the spores of the AM fungi suggests this fungi would have been present in the environment encountered by the first land plants. Remnants of prehistoric fungi have also been found inside the cells of the oldest plant macro-fossils, reinforcing this idea. However, scientists were not clear how the algal ancestor of land plants could have survived long enough to mediate a quid pro quo arrangement with a fungi. This new finding points to the alga developing this crucial capability while still living in the earth's oceans!

Dr Delaux and colleagues analysed DNA and RNA of some of the earliest known land plants and green algae and found evidence that their shared algal ancestor living in the Earth's waters already possessed the set of genes, or symbiotic pathways, it needed to detect and interact with the beneficial AM fungi.

The team of scientists believes this capability was pivotal in enabling the alga to survive out of the water and to colonise the earth. By working with the fungi to find sustenance, the alga was able to buy time to adapt and evolve in a very different and seemingly infertile environment.

Dr Delaux said: "At some point 450 million years ago, alga from the earth's waters splashed up on to barren land. Somehow it survived and took root, a watershed moment that kick-started the evolution of life on earth. Our discovery shows for the first time that the alga already knew how to survive on land while it was still in the water. Without the development of this pre-adapted capability in alga, the earth could be a very different place today.

"This finding has filled a gap in our collective knowledge about the origins of life on earth. None of this would have been possible without the dedication of a world-wide team of scientists including a tremendous contribution from the 1KP initiative led by Gane KS Wong ."

Professor Jean-Michel Ané, from the University of Wisconsin said: "The surprise was finding the mechanisms in algae which allow plants to interact with symbiotic fungi. Nobody has studied beneficial associations in these algae."

Contacts and sources:
Geraldine Platten
John Innes Centre 

World's Largest Atom Smashers Produce World's Smallest Droplets: How Small Can a Droplet Shrink and Still Remain a Liquid?

How small can a droplet shrink and remain a liquid?

This existential question has been raised by a series of experiments conducted recently at the Large Hadron Collider and the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider that smash various atomic particles together at nearly the speed of light in order to create tiny drops of primordial soup: the quark-gluon plasma (QGP) that cosmologists are convinced dominated the universe microseconds after the Big Bang before the universe cooled down enough for atoms to form. In fact, the flow characteristic of these droplets is a major topic at a scientific conference, Quark Matter 2015, taking place this week in Kobe, Japan.

This is a diagram of a proton-lead collision in the Large Hadron Collider that produced a drop of quark-gluon plasma about one-tenth the size of those produced in previous experiments.

Credit: Large Hadron Collider/CMS

As part of the Large Hadron Collider's CMS detector team, Professor of Physics Julia Velkovska, post-doctoral fellow Shenguan Tuo and assistant research professor Shengli Huang at Vanderbilt University have been at the middle of these discoveries.

In 2010, the LHC successfully created sub-atomic blobs of QGP by colliding lead ions together. Smashing these two massive ions - each containing hundreds of protons and neutrons - had generated the tremendous temperatures, more than 250,000 times hotter than the core of the sun, that are required for the primordial state of matter to form.

(Unfortunately, the physicists don't have a direct way to measure the number of particles in the quark-gluon plasma, so they use the number of subatomic particles that are created when the plasma evaporates as a measure of their size.)

"Lead ions are very large, each containing hundreds of protons and neutrons. When you smash them together at very high speed, they generate blobs of plasma that produce thousands of particles when they cool down," said Velkovska. "But when the LHC switched to proton-lead ion collisions, we didn't think the collisions would contain enough energy to produce the plasma."

However, Tuo, as part of his doctoral thesis, made detailed measurements of the behavior of the particles produced by these smaller proton-lead collisions and discovered that they were in fact producing liquid droplets that were about one tenth the size of those produced in the lead-lead collisions.

"Everyone was surprised when we began finding evidence for liquid behavior," said Tuo. "It caused some very intense debates."

One of the key properties of a liquid is the ability to flow. Looked at from the point of view of the individual particles in a liquid, the ability to flow means that each particle is exerting an attractive force on its neighbors that is strong enough to effect their movement but not strong enough to lock them together like they are in a solid. So their movements are coordinated and, when released from a container, they retain information about the container's shape. Tuo's measurements showed that small numbers of particles produced in the proton-lead collisions originated on the ellipsoidal surfaces of small QGP droplets.

Because of the computational difficulty involved, physicists normally look for these correlations between pairs of particles, but Velkovska, Tuo and their CMS collaborators took it several steps further. They searched for correlations between groups of four, six and eight particles. In some cases, they went to the extraordinary length of computing the correlations between all the particles in a given collision.

"These measurements confirmed that we were seeing this coherent behavior even in droplets producing as few as 100 to 200 particles," Tuo said. The results were published in Physical Review Letters in June. But that wasn't the end of the story.

The recreation of the quark gluon plasma (QGP) dates back to 2005. Velkovska and her Vanderbilt colleagues - physics professors Victoria Greene and Charlie Maguire - were members of the PHENIX science team at RHIC, located at Brookhaven National Laboratory, when they announced that they had created this new state of matter by colliding gold ions together at relativistic velocities. The big surprise was that this primordial material behaved like a liquid, rather than a gas.

To see what happened at even higher energies, the Vanderbilt group joined the CMS science team at the LHC located at the European Laboratory for Nuclear and Particle Physics in Geneva. The more powerful particle collider succeeded in duplicating the RHIC results, first as expected, by smashing lead ions together and then, unexpectedly, in the proton-lead collisions.

The proton-lead results prompted the scientists in the PHENIX team to re-analyze data that had been collected at RHIC in 2000, when the collider had smashed deuterium ions (proton-neutron pairs) and gold ions together at much lower energies than those in the LHC. The re-analysis, led by Shengli Huang, found that the proton-neutron pairs formed two hot spots in the gold ion when they collided which then merged into an elongated drop of QGP.

The RHIC researchers decided to test this further by adding a new run that collided helium ions (two protons and a neutron) with gold ions, and found that the same thing happened, except that three hot spots formed and merged into the QGP droplet. The results were just published in Physical Review Letters.

"Although the LHC collisions release 25 times more energy than the RHIC collisions, we don't see much difference in the droplet-formation process: Once you have reached the threshold, adding more energy doesn't seem to have much effect," said Velkovska. "I guess you can't get more perfect than perfect!"

Not only have the physicists found that the quark-gluon plasma is a liquid, the physicists have also established that it is nearly a perfect liquid: That is a liquid with zero viscosity that flows without any resistance. If you swish a perfect liquid in a glass and set the glass down, then the liquid will continue to swirl around as long as it is not disrupted.

Curiously, the phenomenon that most closely resembles the properties of the hottest known liquid is one of the coldest known liquids: lithium atoms that have been cooled to temperatures one-billionth of a degree above absolute zero using a device called a laser trap. When released from the trap these ultra-cold atoms also behave as a perfect liquid with near-zero viscosity.

"These are both strongly coupled systems. This appears to be an emergent property of such systems," Velkovska has concluded.

Contacts and sources:
David F Salisbury
 Vanderbilt University

Researchers Find a New Way to Weigh a Star

Researchers from the University of Southampton have developed a new method for measuring the mass of pulsars - highly magnetised rotating neutron stars formed from the remains of massive stars after they explode into supernovae.

Until now, scientists have determined the mass of stars, planets and moons by studying their motion in relation to others nearby, using the gravitational pull between the two as the basis for their calculations. However, in the case of young pulsars, mathematicians at Southampton have now found a new way to measure their mass, even if a star exists on its own in space.

Credit: NASA

Dr Wynn Ho, of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Southampton, who led the research says: "For pulsars, we have been able to use principles of nuclear physics, rather than gravity, to work out what their mass is - an exciting breakthrough which has the potential to revolutionise the way we make this kind of calculation."

Collaborator Dr Cristobal Espinoza of the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile goes on to explain: "All previous precise measurements of pulsar masses have been made for stars that orbit another object, using the same techniques that were used to measure the mass of the Earth or Moon, or discover the first extrasolar planets. Our technique is very different and can be used for pulsars in isolation."

Pulsars are thought to emit relatively narrow radio beams, shown as green in this animation. If these beams don't sweep toward Earth, astronomers cannot detect the radio signals. Pulsar gamma-ray emission (magenta) is thought to form a broader fan of radiation that can be detected even when the radio beam is unfavorably oriented. 

Credit: NASA/Fermi/Cruz deWilde

Pulsars emit a rotating beam of electromagnetic radiation, which can be detected by telescopes when the beam sweeps past the Earth, like observing the beam of a lighthouse. They are renowned for their incredibly stable rate of rotation, but young pulsars occasionally experience so-called 'glitches', where they are found to speed up for a very brief period of time.

The prevailing theory is that these glitches arise as a rapidly spinning superfluid within the star transfers its rotational energy to the star's crust, the component that is tracked by observations.

Professor of Applied Mathematics at Southampton, Nils Andersson explains, "Imagine the pulsar as a bowl of soup, with the bowl spinning at one speed and the soup spinning faster. Friction between the inside of the bowl and its contents, the soup, will cause the bowl to speed up. The more soup there is, the faster the bowl will be made to rotate."

Dr Ho has collaborated with his colleague Professor Andersson and external researchers Dr Espinoza and Dr Danai Antonopoulou of the University of Amsterdam, to use new radio and X-ray data to develop a novel mathematical model that can be used to measure the mass of pulsars that glitch. The idea relies on a detailed understanding of superfluidity. The magnitude and frequency of the pulsar glitches depend on the amount of superfluid in the star and the mobility of the superfluid vortices within. By combining observational information with the involved nuclear physics, one can determine the mass of the star.

The team's results have important implications for the next generation of radio telescopes being developed by large international collaborations, like the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR), of which Southampton is a UK partner university. The discovery and monitoring of many more pulsars is one of the key scientific goals of these projects.

"Our results provide an exciting new link between the study of distant astronomical objects and laboratory work in both high-energy and low-temperature physics. It is a great example of interdisciplinary science," says Professor Andersson.

Contacts and sources:
Peter Franklin
University of Southampton

The Southampton-led team has written a paper detailing their work, published in Science Advances http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/9/e1500578

Animals Return to Chernobyl

In 1986, after a fire and explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant released radioactive particles into the air, thousands of people left the area, never to return. Now, researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on October 5 have found that the Chernobyl site looks less like a disaster zone and more like a nature preserve, teeming with elk, roe deer, red deer, wild boar, and wolves.

This photograph shows wild boar in a former village near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

Credit:  Valeriy Yurko

The findings are a reminder of the resilience of wildlife. They may also hold important lessons for understanding the potential long-term impact of the more recent Fukushima disaster in Japan.

"It's very likely that wildlife numbers at Chernobyl are much higher than they were before the accident," says Jim Smith of the University of Portsmouth in the UK. "This doesn't mean radiation is good for wildlife, just that the effects of human habitation, including hunting, farming, and forestry, are a lot worse."

This photograph shows roe deer near where the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster took place.

Credit: Tatyana Deryabina

Earlier studies in the 4,200 km2 Chernobyl Exclusion Zone showed major radiation effects and pronounced reductions in wildlife populations. The new evidence, based on long-term census data, now shows that mammal populations have bounced back.

The relative abundance of elk, roe deer, red deer, and wild boar within the exclusion zone are now similar to those in four uncontaminated nature reserves in the region, the researchers report. The number of wolves living in and around the Chernobyl site is more than seven times greater than can be found in those nature reserves.

Helicopter survey data also reveal rising trends in the abundance of elk, roe deer, and wild boar from 1 to 10 years after the accident. A dip in the wild boar population at one point was traced to a disease outbreak unrelated to radiation exposure.

"These results demonstrate for the first time that, regardless of potential radiation effects on individual animals, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone supports an abundant mammal community after nearly three decades of chronic radiation exposure," the researchers conclude. They note that these increases came at a time when elk and wild boar populations were declining in other parts of the former Soviet Union.

"I've been working, studying, and taking photos of the wonderful wildlife in the Chernobyl area for over 20 years and am very pleased our work is reaching an international scientific audience," says Tatiana Deryabina from the Polessye State Radioecological Reserve in Belarus, a few miles from the site of the Chernobyl accident.

"These unique data showing a wide range of animals thriving within miles of a major nuclear accident illustrate the resilience of wildlife populations when freed from the pressures of human habitation," says Jim Beasley, a study co-author at the University of Georgia.

Contacts and sources:
Joseph Caputo
Cell Press

Citation: Current Biology, Deryabina et al.: "Long-term census data reveal abundant wildlife populations at Chernobyl" http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.08.017

Fusion Reactors 'Economically Viable' Say Experts

Fusion reactors could become an economically viable means of generating electricity within a few decades, and policy makers should start planning to build them as a replacement for conventional nuclear power stations, according to new research.

Researchers at Durham University and Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire, have re-examined the economics of fusion, taking account of recent advances in superconductor technology for the first time. Their analysis of building, running and decommissioning a fusion power station shows the financial feasibility of fusion energy in comparison to traditional fission nuclear power.

The research, published in the journal Fusion Engineering and Design, builds on earlier findings that a fusion power plant could generate electricity at a similar price to a fission plant and identifies new advantages in using the new superconductor technology.

This is an illustration of a tokamak with plasma.
Credit: ITER Organization

Professor Damian Hampshire, of the Centre for Material Physics at Durham University, who led the study, said: "Obviously we have had to make assumptions, but what we can say is that our predictions suggest that fusion won't be vastly more expensive than fission."

Such findings support the possibility that, within a generation or two, fusion reactors could offer an almost unlimited supply of energy without contributing to global warming or producing hazardous products on a significant scale.

Fusion reactors generate electricity by heating plasma to around 100 million degrees centigrade so that hydrogen atoms fuse together, releasing energy. This differs from fission reactors which work by splitting atoms at much lower temperatures.

The advantage of fusion reactors over current fission reactors is that they create almost no radioactive waste. Fusion reactors are safer as there is no high level radioactive material to potentially leak into the environment which means disasters like Chernobyl or Fukushima are impossible because plasma simply fizzles out if it escapes.

Fusion energy is also politically safer because a reactor would not produce weapons-grade products that proliferate nuclear arms. It is fuelled by deuterium, or heavy water, which is extracted from seawater, and tritium, which is created within the reactor, so there is no problem with security of supply either.

A test fusion reactor, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, is about 10 years away from operation in the South of France. Its aim is to prove the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion energy.

Professor Hampshire said he hoped that the analysis would help persuade policy-makers and the private sector to invest more heavily in fusion energy.

"Fission, fusion or fossil fuels are the only practical options for reliable large-scale base-load energy sources. Calculating the cost of a fusion reactor is complex, given the variations in the cost of raw materials and exchange rates. However, this work is a big step in the right direction" he said.

"We have known about the possibility of fusion reactors for many years but many people did not believe that they would ever be built because of the technological challenges that have had to be overcome and the uncertain costs."

"While there are still some technological challenges to overcome we have produced a strong argument, supported by the best available data, that fusion power stations could soon be economically viable. We hope this kick-starts investment to overcome the remaining technological challenges and speeds up the planning process for the possibility of a fusion-powered world."

The report, which was commissioned by Research Council UK's Energy Programme focuses on recent advances in high temperature superconductors. These materials could be used to construct the powerful magnets that keep the hot plasma in position inside the containing vessel, known as a tokamak, at the heart of a fusion reactor.

This advancing technology means that the superconducting magnets could be built in sections rather than in one piece. This would mean that maintenance, which is expensive in a radioactive environment, would be much cheaper because individual sections of the magnet could be withdrawn for repair or replacement, rather than the whole device.

While the analysis considers the cost of building, running and decommissioning a fusion power plant, it does not take into account the costs of disposing of radioactive waste that is associated with a fission plant. For a fusion plant, the only radioactive waste would be the tokamak, when decommissioned, which would have become mildly radioactive during its lifetime.

Contacts and sources:
Leighton Kitson
 Durham University

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Most Detailed Life History of Any Known Dinosaur

Decades of research on Montana's state fossil -- the "good mother lizard" Maiasaurapeeblesorum - has resulted in the most detailed life history of any dinosaur known and created a model to which all other dinosaurs can be compared, according to new research published recently in the journal Paleobiology.

Research published in the journal Paleobiology is showing more about the life history of Maiasaura peeblesorum than any other known dinosaur.

Courtesy Holly Woodward

Researchers from Oklahoma State University, Montana State University and Indiana Purdue University used fossils collected from a huge bonebed in western Montana for their study.

"This is one of the most important pieces of paleontology involving MSU in the past 20 years," said Jack Horner, curator of the Museum of the Rockies at MSU. "This is a dramatic step forward from studying fossilized creatures as single individuals to understanding their life cycle. We are moving away from the novelty of a single instance to looking at a population of dinosaurs in the same way we look at populations of animals today."

The study was led by Holly Woodward, who did the research as her doctoral thesis in paleontology at MSU. Woodward is now professor of anatomy at Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences.

The Paleobiology study examined the fossil bone microstructure, or histology, of 50 Maiasauratibiae (shin bones). Bone histology reveals aspects of growth that cannot be obtained by simply looking at the shape of the bone, including information about growth rate, metabolism, age at death, sexual maturity, skeletal maturity and how long a species took to reach adult size.

"Histology is the key to understanding the growth dynamics of extinct animals," Woodward said. "You can only learn so much from a bone by looking at its shape. But the entire growth history of the animal is recorded within the bone."

A sample of 50 might not sound like much, but for dinosaur paleontologists dealing with an often sparse fossil record, the Maiasaura fossils are a treasure trove.

"No other histological study of a single dinosaur species approaches our sample size," Woodward said.

With it, the researchers discovered a wealth of new information about how Maiasaura grew up: it had bird-level growth rates throughout most of its life, and its bone tissue most closely resembled that of modern day warm-blooded large mammals such as elk.

Decades of research on Montana's state fossil -- the 'good mother lizard' Maiasaura peeblesorum -- has resulted in the most detailed life history of any dinosaur known and created a model to which all other dinosaurs can be compared, according to new research published today in the journal Paleobiology. Researchers from Oklahoma State University, Montana State University and Indiana Purdue University used fossils collected from a huge bonebed in western Montana for their study.

Photo courtesy of Holly Woodward.

Major life events are recorded in the growth of the bones and the rates at which different-aged animals died.

"By studying the clues in the bone histology, and looking at patterns in the death assemblage, we found multiple pieces of evidence all supporting the same timing of sexual and skeletal maturity," said Elizabeth Freedman Fowler, curator of paleontology at the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta and adjunct professor at MSU, who performed the mathematical analyses for the study.

Sexual maturity occurred within the third year of life, and Maiasaura reached an average adult mass of 2.3 tonnes in eight years. Life was especially hard for the very young and the old. The average mortality rate for those less than a year of age was 89.9 percent, and 44.4 percent for individuals 8 years and older.

If Maiasaura individuals could survive through their second year, they enjoyed a six-year window of peak physical and reproductive fitness, when the average mortality rate was just 12.7 percent.

Holly Woodward points at a Maiasaura fossil. Decades of research on Montana's state fossil -- the 'good mother lizard' Maiasaura peeblesorum - has resulted in the most detailed life history of any dinosaur known and created a model to which all other dinosaurs can be compared, according to new research published today in the journal Paleobiology. The study was led by Woodward, who did the research as her doctoral thesis in paleontology at MSU. 
Photo courtesy of Karen Chin.

"By looking within the bones, and by synthesizing what previous studies revealed, we now know more about the life history of Maiasaura than any other dinosaur and have the sample size to back up our conclusions," Woodward said. "Our study makes Maiasaura a model organism to which other dinosaur population biology studies will be compared."

The 50 tibiae also highlighted the extent of individual size variation within a dinosaur species. Previous dinosaur studies histologically examined a small subset of dinosaur bones and assigned ages to the entire sample based on the lengths of the few histologically aged bones.

"Our results suggest you can't just measure the length of a dinosaur bone and assume it represents an animal of a certain age," Woodward said. "Within our sample, there is a lot of variability in the length of the tibia in each age group. It would be like trying to assign an age to a person based on their height because you know the height and age of someone else. Histology is the only way to quantify age in dinosaurs."

Horner, a coauthor on the research and curator of the Museum of the Rockies at MSU where the Maiasaura fossils are reposited, discovered and named Maiasaura in 1979. He made headlines by announcing the world's first discovery of fossil dinosaur embryos and eggs. Based on the immature development of the baby dinosaur fossils found in nests, Horner hypothesized that they were helpless upon hatching and had to be cared for by parents, so naming the dinosaur Maiasaura, Latin for "good mother lizard."

Studies that followed revealed aspects of Maiasaura biology including that they were social and nested in colonies; Maiasaura walked on two legs when young and shifted to walking on all four as they got bigger; their preferred foods included rotting wood; and that their environment was warm and semi-arid, with a long dry season prone to drought.

The tibiae included in the Paleobiology study came from a single bonebed in western Montana covering at least two square kilometers. More than 30 years of excavation and thousands of fossils later, the bonebed shows no signs of running dry. Woodward plans to lead annual summer excavations of the Maiasaura bonebed to collect more data.

"Our study kicks off The Maiasaura Life History Project, which seeks to learn as much as possible about Maiasaura and its environment 76 million years ago by continuing to collect and histologically examine fossils from the bonebed, adding statistical strength to the sample," she said.

"We plan to examine other skeletal elements to make a histological 'map' of Maiasaura, seeing if the different bones in its body grew at different rates, which would allow us to study more aspects of its biology and behavior. We also want to better understand the environment in which Maiasaura lived, including the life histories of other animals in the ecosystem," she added.

The Maiasaura Life History Project will also provide opportunities for college-aged students accompanying Woodward in her excavations to learn about the fields of ecology, biology and geology, thereby encouraging younger generations to pursue careers in science.

Contacts and sources:
Holly WoodwardMontana State University

Can a Pill Replace Exercise?

Everyone knows that exercise improves health, and ongoing research continues to uncover increasingly detailed information on its benefits for metabolism, circulation, and improved functioning of organs such as the heart, brain, and liver. With this knowledge in hand, scientists may be better equipped to develop "exercise pills" that could mimic at least some of the beneficial effects of physical exercise on the body. But a review of current development efforts, publishing October 2 in Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, ponders whether such pills will achieve their potential therapeutic impact, at least in the near future.

Credit: Slashme/Wikipedia 

"We have recognized the need for exercise pills for some time, and this is an achievable goal based on our improved understanding of the molecular targets of physical exercise," says coauthor Ismail Laher, of the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Several laboratories are developing exercise pills, which at this early stage are being tested in animals to primarily target skeletal muscle performance and improve strength and energy use--essentially producing stronger and faster muscles. But of course the benefits of exercise are far greater than its effects on only muscles.

"Clearly people derive many other rewarding experiences from exercise--such as increased cognitive function, bone strength, and improved cardiovascular function," says Laher. "It is unrealistic to expect that exercise pills will fully be able to substitute for physical exercise--at least not in the immediate future."

While exercise pills may provide some benefits for people in the general population, they might be especially helpful for those who are unable to exercise for a variety of reasons, as the review by Laher and his coauthor Shunchang Li notes. "For example, a pill for people with spinal cord injury could be very appealing given the difficulties that these individuals face in exercising due to paralysis--in such patients, a large number of detrimental changes occur in cardiovascular and skeletal muscle function," explains Laher.

Much more research is needed to fully understand the side effects of candidate exercise pills, in addition to determining their optimal dosages, and the potential for misuse in humans and animals (e.g., races). (The first doping case regarding one candidate pill was reported in a cycling competition in 2013.)

"We are at the early stages of this exciting new field," says Laher. "Further development of exercise pills that act in combination may be more effective than single compounds. We just don't know anything about their long-term use in humans yet."

Contacts and sources:
Joseph Caputo
Cel Press

Citation: Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, Li and Laher: "Exercise Pills: At the Starting Line?" http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tips.2015.08.014

Micro Photosynthetic Power Cells May Be the Green Energy Source for the Next Generation

A team of researchers from the Optical Bio Microsystem lab at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, have invented and developed micro-photosynthetic cell technology that can harness electrical power from the photosynthesis and respiration of blue-green algae. 

This image shows: (a) Main components of micro PSC; (b) unassembled micro PSC model; (c) assembled proposed micro PSC model; (d) schematic of micro PSC tested; (e) schematic of experimental set up; and (f) experimental measurement set up.

This novel, scalable technology enables economical ways of generating clean energy, and may be the superlative, carbon-free power source for the future of mankind. The team headed by Dr. Muthukumaran Packirisamy, research Chair of the Optical Bio Microsystem lab at Concordia, has conceived and developed such a contraption. The report is featured in the September 2015 issue of the journal TECHNOLOGY.

Clean and green carbon-free energy is globally anticipated as the potential solution for the mitigation and eventual erasure of global warming. The main source of clean energy comes from the sun, which emits more energy to the earth every hour than mankind depletes in one year. Hence, technologies that derive energy from the sun are instrumental to the worldwide conversion of power sources to eco-friendly auxiliaries. This constitutes a large part of the incentive for the team of researchers at Concordia University, who have come up with an effective method for harnessing photosynthetic power from algae.

Both photosynthesis and respiration, which take place in plants cells, involve electron transfer chains. The main concept herein involves trapping these electrons that are released by blue-green algae. The electron transfer chains of photosynthesis and respiration are constructive in harnessing the electrical energy from blue-green algae. This photosynthetic power cell consists of an anode, cathode and proton exchange membrane. The anode chamber consists of cyanobacteria and it releases electrons to the electrode surface from a redox agent that is present at the cathode. An external load is connected to extract the electrons. The fabricated cell could produce an open circuit voltage of 993mV and a power density of 36.23W/cm2. 

The more detailed report is available in the journal TECHNOLOGY. The performance of the power cell can be increased by reducing the electrode spacing between the two electrodes of proton exchange membrane and efficient design of the cell.

These micro photosynthetic power cells may entail significant military and wireless applications. They can also be good power sources for Bio MEMS devices. However, challenges still exists for MEMS researchers to fabricate the small scale anode-cathode chambers that are suitable for generating the high current density and high power density from the cell. Of course, much work needs to be done in scaling the power cell and making this commercial. The team of researchers in Optical Bio Micro Systems is working to fabricate the high power density and high current density power cell in economical ways.

Contacts and sources:
Philly Lim
World Scientific

Disney Research Uses Augmented Reality to Turn Coloring Books Into 3-D Experience

A coloring book and a box of crayons may give kids an early opportunity for creative expression but, next to TV and video games, coloring can sometimes seem unexciting. A coloring book app devised by Disney Research, however, can cause characters to leap from the page in 3-D glory with the help of augmented reality.

A child colors a character, such as an elephant, on the book page normally, while a tablet or smartphone running the app monitors the drawing. Based on the child's coloring, the app fills in colors in real-time on an animated 3-D version of the elephant that is visible on the device's screen and integrated into the video.
Credit: Disney Research

The app keeps the core focus on the traditional activity of coloring while offering a magical digital overlay that enhances engagement.

In user testing - performed with adults rather than children in this early study - the researchers found that most users said the app increased their motivation to draw in coloring books and 80 percent said the app increased their feeling of connection to a character.

Researchers from Disney, ETH Zurich and the Swiss university EPFL presented the augmented reality app at the IEEE International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality (ISMAR 2015) in Fukuoka, Japan. Although the research work is just now being presented to scientific audiences, it has already gone through the tech transfer process, inspiring the commercial product called "Disney Color and Play" launched earlier this year by Disney Publishing Worldwide and Bendon.

This work fits into a larger initiative at Disney Research called Augmented Creativity, which focuses on using augmented reality to enhance creative play.

"Augmented reality holds unique and promising potential to bridge between real-world activities and digital experiences, allowing users to engage their imagination and boost their creativity," said Robert W. Sumner, a principal research scientist who leads the group on animation and interactive graphics at Disney Research. "We are thrilled to have the opportunity to present the scientific advances behind this technology," continued Sumner, "and are especially happy that it is available to consumers, thanks to our cooperation with Disney Publishing."

To create this new experience, the researchers first created animated 3-D virtual characters and then use custom software to generate 2-D line-art representations of the characters for a coloring book. The app, operating on a device with a camera viewing the user and the coloring book, automatically detects the character the user is coloring and displays the 3-D version.

As the child applies color to the 2-D drawing, the app applies the same color to the 3-D character - both to the areas visible in the 2-D drawing and to the remainder of the 3-D form not visible in the book. Because the coloring occurs in real-time, the illusion is created that the user is also coloring the occluded areas, with similar texturing of the color.

Determining how to apply color to the occluded areas was one of the tougher problems to solve, Sumner said. Simply mirroring the user's colored strokes doesn't work because the pattern of colors used for, say, a character's face will not be appropriate for the back of the character's head. The color also has to be continuous, so no seams can be seen between the visible areas and the occluded areas or where disparate portions of the textures meet.

Their approach was to create a "lookup map" for each character, which matches pixels in the occluded parts with corresponding pixels in the portion visible to the user. User testing showed that this method provides better results than "naïve" approaches such as mirroring. Most importantly, the lookup map method enables the coloring to be performed instantly.

Because paper books don't lie perfectly flat and can flex as a user colors, the team developed a deformable surface tracking method to monitor surface changes and to keep the virtual character displayed on the device screen correctly oriented with the book's page.

Contacts and sources:
Disney Research

Citation: "Live Texturing of Augmented Reality Characters from Colored Drawings-Paper"[PDF, 1.72 MB]

Signs of Ancient 800 Foot Mega-Tsunami Portends Modern Hazard

Scientists working off west Africa in the Cape Verde Islands have found evidence that the sudden collapse of a volcano there tens of thousands of years ago generated an ocean tsunami that dwarfed anything ever seen by humans. The researchers say an 800-foot wave engulfed an island more than 30 miles away. The study could revive a simmering controversy over whether sudden giant collapses present a realistic hazard today around volcanic islands, or even along more distant continental coasts. The study appears today in the journal Science Advances.
 Credit:  Earth Institute on Vimeo.

"Our point is that flank collapses can happen extremely fast and catastrophically, and therefore are capable of triggering giant tsunamis," said lead author Ricardo Ramalho, who did the research as a postdoctoral associate at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, where he is now an adjunct scientist. "They probably don't happen very often. But we need to take this into account when we think about the hazard potential of these kinds of volcanic features."

The tsunami generated by Fogo's collapse apparently swept boulders like this one from the shoreline up into the highlands of Santiago island. Here, a researcher chisels out a sample.

Credit: Ricardo Ramalho

The apparent collapse occurred some 73,000 years ago at the Fogo volcano, one of the world's largest and most active island volcanoes. Nowadays, it towers 2,829 meters (9,300 feet) above sea level, and erupts about every 20 years, most recently last fall. Santiago Island, where the wave apparently hit, is now home to some 250,000 people.

There is no dispute that volcanic flanks present a hazard; at least eight smaller collapses have occurred in Alaska, Japan and elsewhere in the last several hundred years, and some have generated deadly tsunamis. But many scientists doubt whether big volcanoes can collapse with the suddenness that the new study suggests. Rather, they envision landslides coming in gradual stages, generating multiple, smaller tsunamis. A 2011 French study also looked at the Fogo collapse, suggesting that it took place somewhere between 124,000-65,000 years ago; but that study says it involved more than one landslide. The French researchers estimate that the resulting multiple waves would have reached only 45 feet--even at that, enough to do plenty of harm today.

Geologists think that the eastern slope of Fogo volcano crashed into the sea some 65,000 to 124,000 years ago, leaving a giant scar where a new volcano can be seen growing in this satellite image.

Credit: NASA

A handful of previous other studies have proposed much larger prehistoric collapses and resulting megatsunamis, in the Hawaiian islands, at Italy's Mt. Etna, and the Indian Ocean's Reunion Island. But critics have said these examples are too few and the evidence too thin. The new study adds a new possible example; it says the estimated 160 cubic kilometers (40 cubic miles) of rock that Fogo lost during the collapse was dropped all at once, resulting in the 800-foot wave. By comparison, the biggest known recent tsunamis, which devastated the Indian Ocean's coasts in 2004 and eastern Japan in 2011, reached only about 100 feet. (Like most other well documented tsunamis, these were generated by movements of undersea earthquake faults--not volcanic collapses.)

Santiago Island lies 55 kilometers (34 miles) from Fogo. Several years ago, Ramalho and colleagues were working on Santiago when they spotted unusual boulders lying as far as 2,000 feet inland and nearly 650 feet above sea level. Some are as big as delivery vans, and they are utterly unlike the young volcanic terrain on which they lie. Rather, they match marine-type rocks that ring the island's shoreline: limestones, conglomerates and submarine basalts. Some weigh up to 770 tons. The only realistic explanation the scientists could come up with: A gigantic wave must have ripped them from the shoreline and lofted them up. They derived the size of the wave by calculating the energy it would have taken to accomplish this feat.

To date the event, in the lab Ramalho and Lamont-Doherty geochemist Gisela Winckler measured isotopes of the element helium embedded near the boulders' surfaces. Such isotopes change depending on how long a rock has been lying in the open, exposed to cosmic rays. The analyses centered around 73,000 years--well within the earlier French estimate of a smaller event. The analysis "provides the link between the collapse and impact, which you can make only if you have both dates," said Winckler.

On a clear day, from these cliffs in northern Santiago island, it is possible to see a silhouette of Fogo, nearly 40 miles away. The geologists on this ridge believe that a tsunami generated by Fogo's sudden collapse generated a wave that swept the spot where they are standing.

Credit: Kim Martineau/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Tsunami expert Bill McGuire, a professor emeritus at University College London who was not involved in the research, said the study "provides robust evidence of megatsunami formation [and] confirms that when volcanoes collapse, they can do so extremely rapidly." Based on his own work, McGuire s says that such megatsunamis probably come only once every 10,000 years. "Nonetheless," he said, "the scale of such events, as the Fogo study testifies, and their potentially devastating impact, makes them a clear and serious hazard in ocean basins that host active volcanoes."

Ramalho cautions that the study should not be taken as a red flag that another big collapse is imminent here or elsewhere. "It doesn't mean every collapse happens catastrophically," he said. "But it's maybe not as rare as we thought."

In the early 2000s, other researchers started publishing evidence that the Cape Verdes could generate large tsunamis. Others have argued that Spain's Canary Islands have already done so. Simon Day, a senior researcher at University College London has sparked repeated controversy by warning that any future eruption of the Canary Islands' active Cumbre Vieja volcano could set off a flank collapse that might form an initial wave 3,000 feet high. This, he says, could erase more than nearby islands. Such a wave might still be 300 feet high when it reached west Africa an hour or so later he says, and would still be 150 feet high along the coasts of North and South America. So far, such studies have raised mainly tsunamis of publicity, and vigorous objections from other scientists that such events are improbable. A 2013 study of deep-sea sediments by the United Kingdom's National Oceanography Centre suggests that the Canaries have probably mostly seen gradual collapses.

Part of the controversy hangs not only on the physics of the collapses themselves, but on how efficiently resulting waves could travel. In 1792, part of Japan's Mount Unzen collapsed, hitting a series of nearby bays with waves as high as 300 feet, and killing some 15,000 people. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake shook 90 million tons of rock into Alaska's isolated Lituya Bay; this created an astounding 1,724-foot-high wave, the largest ever recorded. Two fishermen who happened to be in their boat that day were carried clear over a nearby forest; miraculously, they survived.

These events, however, occurred in confined spaces. In the open ocean, waves created by landslides are generally thought to lose energy quickly, and thus to pose mainly a regional hazard. However, this is based largely on modeling, not real-world experience, so no one really knows how fast a killer wave might decay into a harmless ripple. In any case, most scientists are more concerned with tsunamis generated by undersea earthquakes, which are more common. When seabed faults slip, as they did in 2004 and 2011, they shove massive amounts of water upward. In deep water, this shows up as a mere swell at the surface; but when the swell reaches shallower coastal areas, its energy concentrates into in a smaller volume of water, and it rears up dramatically. The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami killed 230,000 people in 14 countries; the 2011 Tohoku event killed nearly 20,000 in Japan, and has caused a long-term nuclear disaster.

James Hunt, a tsunami expert at the United Kingdom's National Oceanography Centre who was not involved in the study, said the research makes it clear that "even modest landslides could produce high-amplitude anomalous tsunami waves on opposing island coastlines." The question, he said, "is whether these translate into hazardous events in the far field, which is debatable."

When Fogo erupted last year, Ramalho and other geologists rushed in to observe. Lava flows (since calmed down) displaced some 1,200 people, and destroyed buildings including a new volcano visitors' center. "Right now, people in Cape Verde have a lot more to worry about, like rebuilding their livelihoods after the last eruption," said Ramalho. "But Fogo may collapse again one day, so we need to be vigilant."

Contacts and sources:
Kevin KrajickLamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
Columbia University

New Biodegradable Materials Could Replace Plastic Bags

As England gets set to start paying for plastic bags, researchers at The Open University (OU) are making inroads into developing alternative biodegradable materials that could potentially replace fossil fuel derived polyethylene single-use carrier bags in the future.

A team at the OU’s Integrated Waste Systems (IWS) research group is working on an ambitious partnership worth around £250,000 with a UK SME, and funded by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to develop a new type of biodegradable single-use plastic carrier bags that is recyclable, biodegradable and will have no harmful effects on plants or animals.

Credit:  The Open University (OU) 

From October 5 2015, all large retailers in England will have to charge customers 5p for each carrier bag they use. This charge is designed to reduce the quantity of single-use plastic carrier bags – and the tons of litter associated with them – and encourage people to reuse bags. According to Dr Boardman, the project’s lead, “the introduction of single-use carrier bag charge in England is a welcome development and follows the success of the policy in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland”. For example, the data coming out from Wales shows a very encouraging c. 80 % reduction in plastic bag consumption over the last three years.

The introduction of the new single-use plastic carrier bag charge in England will potentially reduce the numbers of plastic bags going into landfill. The UK Government is also committed to investigating the possibility of exempting biodegradable carrier bags from the single-use charge in future. Dr Boardman adds “currently in the UK we still dispose of the majority of the plastic products we use in landfill sites,” which he believes “is a tragic waste of energy and resource.” Encouraging the uptake and use of biodegradable bags and materials is advantageous as this moves society away from a linear economic model based on ‘take, make, dispose’, which relies on there being an infinite supply of resources and energy, to one that enables us to maximise the limited natural resources available.

The results of this research and development are expected within the next year.

Contacts and sources:

Friday, October 2, 2015

Opioid Misuse Continues To Dominate for Treatment Use, Spread of Disease and Drug-Related Deaths

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) produces an annual report of the latest data available on drug demand and drug supply in all 28 EU Member States plus Norway and Turkey, available at http://www.emcdda.europa.eu/edr2015. The scientific journal Addiction has today published the EMCDDA's summary of the most important findings from that report.

The spread of HIV: (Figure 1.) Drug use, principally through injecting, continues to play an important role in the transmission of blood-borne infections in Europe, mainly HIV and hepatitis C virus. In 2013, the average rate of newly reported HIV diagnoses attributed to injecting drug use was 2.5 per million population, with the three Baltic States showing rates 8 to 22 times higher than the EU average.

This figure shows newly diagnosed HIV cases related to injecting drug use: trends in number of cases.

Credit: ECDC

Treatment: (Table 1.) The most recent analysis of treatment data highlights the burden that opioid drugs continue to place on the drug treatment system, although both new entrants to heroin treatment and injecting have declined in importance. In 2013, opioids -- mainly heroin -- were reported as a 'primary drug' by only 20% of those entering treatment for the first time, and the number of new heroin treatment clients has more than halved since 2007. The illicit use of opioids remains responsible for a disproportionately large share of the morbidity and mortality resulting from drug use in Europe.

National data on opioids, prevalence, treatment demand and substitution treatment are shown.

Credit: European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction

Drug-related mortality: (Table 2.) National estimates of drug-induced mortality rates vary considerably, from 2.2 per million population in Romania to 70 per million in Norway and Sweden, and 127 per million in Estonia. Drug overdose continues to be the main cause of death among problem drug users, and over three-quarters of overdose victims are male (78 %). Between 2006 and 2013, a pattern has emerged of decreasing numbers of overdose deaths among younger drug users and increasing numbers among older users. This reflects the ageing nature of Europe's opioid-using population, who are at greatest risk of drug overdose death.

This table shows reported drug-induced deaths by country, 2013 or most recent data.
Credit:  European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction

New psychoactive substances (NPS): (Figure 2.) More 100 new substances were reported to the European Early Warning System (EWS) in 2014, bringing the number of substances being monitored by the EWS to over 450.

Number and categories of new psychoactive substances notified to the EU Early Warning System.

Credit: European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction

Contacts and sources:
Jean O'Reilly

Mechanism of Explosions and Plasma Jets Associated With Sunspot Formation Revealed

Sunspots are planet-sized conglomerates of bundles of intense magnetic field lines on the surface of the Sun. They are known to cause explosions (solar flares) which can directly impact our technological infrastructure. What astrophysical mechanisms are responsible for the formation of sunspots and how do they drive explosive events are important questions in our quest to understand the Sun's activity and its magnetic effect on Earth.

Field lines extend from the solar interior and appear at the solar surface. The horizontal fields of the bridge (sky-blue) are pressed between the vertical fields of the pores (red). The magnetic flux splits into two parts, which appear as two pores at the surface. Weakly-magnetized plasma is sandwiched between the two flux bundles.


To tackle these questions, an international research team led by Shin Toriumi (Specially Appointed Assistant Professor at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan) analyzed observations of sunspots as they formed taken by Hinode, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) satellites. The team modeled the observations using state-of-the-art numerical simulations performed on the Pleiades supercomputer at the NASA Ames Research Center.

The study reveals how during the course of sunspot formation the territorial struggles between magnetic bundles emerging onto the Sun's surface drive the formation of so-called 'light bridges' and the generation of plasma jets and explosions. This study reveals, for the first time, the intimate relationship between the magnetism hidden in the solar interior, sunspot formation at the surface, and the dynamism of the Sun's atmosphere. The peer-reviewed results will appear in "The Astrophysical Journal."

(Left) Hinode observation of a developing sunspot is shown. An elongated bright feature called a 'light bridge' appears between the merging pores (darkest parts). (Right) Computer simulation of sunspot formation. A light bridge resembling the one observed is formed between the pores. 

Sunspots, mysterious dark speckles on the Sun's luminous surface, have been observed and monitored by astronomers for centuries. However, it was only in the early 20th century that George Ellery Hale at Mt. Wilson Observatory discovered their true nature. Using the newly discovered atomic physics, Hale attributed the polarized light from sunspots to the existence of intense magnetic fields. With field strengths of 0.3 Teslas and above, sunspots have magnetic fields stronger than those generated inside the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines in hospitals. Sunspots are so large that several Earths could fit into each one. In a sense, sunspots are like planet-sized MRIs.

The intense magnetic fields of sunspots energize the Sun's atmosphere, often triggering solar flares and ejections that have a direct impact on the space environment around the Earth. How sunspots are born, how they evolve, and how they impact space weather are questions central to our understanding of the Sun and the magnetic relation between the Sun and the Earth. Space missions such as Hinode, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) allow scientists to witness the birth of sunspots in unprecedented detail. These combined observations reveal how magnetic field lines in the Sun's interior emerge onto the surface. First, the magnetic fields appear as 'small' bundles the size of cities and states. Sometimes, when two neighboring 'proto-spots' (known as pores) approach each other, they squeeze the intervening weakly magnetized plasma into an elongated structure called a light bridge. As the coalescence progresses, the light bridges are eventually squeezed out of existence and fully-fledged sunspots are formed. The power struggles of the magnetic field during this amalgamation process triggers repeated episodes of plasma jets and explosions.

Upper left) NASA/IRIS observation of the atmosphere above the light bridge is shown. Explosions and jet ejections are caused by a mechanism called 'magnetic reconnection.' (Lower left) Hinode observation of magnetic fields on the solar surface. Color indicates the inclination of the magnetic fields. The pores have vertical magnetic fields (red), while the bridge has horizontal fields (blue). (Right) Illustration summarizing the observational results. Magnetic reconnection between the bridge's horizontal fields and the pores' vertical fields produces explosions and jet ejections. 

Dr. Toriumi and his colleagues tracked the formation of a sunspot in unprecedented detail using data from Japan's Hinode satellite as well as data from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory and the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph. By combining this data with a detailed computer model of sunspot formation performed on the Pleiades supercomputer at NASA Ames, their work explains how the pores merge, how sunspots are created, and why explosions and jets occur between the merging pores.

First, they analyzed the satellite observation data and determined the detailed magnetic structures of the pores and bridge as well as the mechanism for the explosions and jet ejections. High-resolution observations of the surface magnetic fields by Hinode revealed that the two merging pores have strong, vertical magnetic fields while the sandwiched light bridge harbors weak, horizontal fields. In addition, IRIS observations of the atmosphere above the light bridge showed that explosions and jet ejections take place repeatedly and intermittently as a result of magnetic reconnection. This means that the horizontal fields of the bridge repeatedly snap and establish new connections with the vertical fields of the surrounding pores. This results in sudden, repetitive bursts of activity (explosions and jet ejections).

What drives the formation of the light bridge and the misalignment between adjacent magnetic fields? The team answered this question with the help of NASA's Pleiades supercomputer. Their computer model showed how streams of magnetism in the solar interior bursts onto the surface of the Sun. The emerging magnetic flux first appears as small bundles, but self-organizes into larger conglomerates to eventually form a sunspot. The model reproduces the light bridge and pores found in the observations and offers the following explanation. As two walls of magnetic flux approach each other during sunspot formation, plasma with weaker magnetic fields is sandwiched between the walls. As this trapped material is squeezed, it appears as a light bridge at the surface. The magnetic field of this trapped plasma is misaligned relative to the neighboring strong fields, which results in magnetic reconnection causing repeated eruptions and plasma jets.

This research reveals that subsurface motions in the Sun are the ultimate driving force of bursty activity in the Sun's atmosphere. The solar interior serves as the reservoir of energy that gives birth to sunspots, which structure the magnetic field of the Sun's corona and determine how the Sun affects the Earth magnetically. The similarities between observations and numerical simulations suggest that we are beginning to understand the fundamental processes operating in the Sun's interior and atmosphere. These physical principles, which dictate the evolution of magnetic plasmas, also operate in the heliosphere, in other astrophysical objects, and in fusion devices in the laboratory. Missions including Hinode, SDO, and IRIS observe the Sun, turning it into a natural laboratory for studying plasma physics.

Solar flares: Massive explosions which occur on the solar surface. These are the largest explosions in the Solar System today. The intensities of electromagnetic waves of various wavelengths increase suddenly, sometimes ejecting high-speed plasma clouds into space. Therefore, the sunspots may affect the Earth by producing exceedingly vigorous flares.

Light bridges: Bright, elongated structures that divide sunspot umbrae (the darkest parts in the spot centers). Light bridges are seen in the developing and decaying stages of the sunspot life cycle. This research focuses on the bridges that appear during the merging of pores to form sunspots.

Magnetic reconnection: The physical process where magnetic fields with different orientations approach and reconnect to each other. This process converts magnetic energy to kinetic and thermal energy. This is thought to be the energy-release mechanism in solar flares.

Contacts and sources:
Masaaki Hiramatsu
The National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS)