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20th December 2014

RFID-blocking jeans and blazer

RFID-blocking materials in clothes can prevent "digital pickpocketing".

New devices using RFID/NFC (radio-frequency identification/near-field communication) are now being exploited by criminals to steal personal information – including credit card data – right from victims' pockets. As shown in the video below, this can be done quickly and effortlessly. Over 10 million identities are being digitally pickpocketed each year and more than 70% of all credit cards will be vulnerable to such attacks in 2015.

San Francisco-based clothing company Betabrand has partnered with Internet security firm Symantec as part of a crowdfunding project to create the world’s first RFID-blocking clothes. Incorporating a special material based on silver, the READY Active Jeans and Work-It Blazer can shield credit cards from wireless signals like those in scanning devices. The jeans will retail at $168 (£107) and the blazer at $198 (£127), with both going on sale during the first quarter of 2015.




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19th December 2014

First man with two mind-controlled prosthetic limbs

A Colorado man has become the first bilateral shoulder-level amputee to wear – and simultaneously control – two modular prosthetic limbs using his thoughts alone.


first man with two mind controlled prosthetic limbs
Image Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory


A Colorado man has made history at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), becoming the first bilateral shoulder-level amputee to wear and simultaneously control not one, but two Modular Prosthetic Limbs (MPL). Most importantly, Les Baugh – who lost both of his arms in an electrical accident forty years ago – was able to operate the system by simply thinking about moving his limbs, performing a variety of tasks during a short training period.

During two weeks of testing, Baugh took part in a research effort to further assess the usability of the MPL technology, developed over the past decade as part of the Revolutionising Prosthetics Program. Before putting the limb system through the paces, Baugh had to undergo a surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital known as targeted muscle reinnervation.

“It’s a relatively new surgical procedure that reassigns nerves that once controlled the arm and the hand,” explained Johns Hopkins Trauma Surgeon Albert Chi, M.D. “By reassigning existing nerves, we can make it possible for people who have had upper-arm amputations to control their prosthetic devices by merely thinking about the action they want to perform.”

After recovery, Baugh visited the Laboratory for training on the use of the MPLs. First, he worked with researchers on the pattern recognition system.


Les Baugh and researchers
Image Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory


“We use pattern recognition algorithms to identify individual muscles that are contracting – how well they communicate with each other – and their amplitude and frequency,” Chi explained. “We take that information and translate that into actual movements within a prosthetic.”

Then Baugh was fitted for a custom socket for his torso and shoulders that supports the prosthetic limbs and also makes the neurological connections with the reinnervated nerves. While the socket got its finishing touches, the team had him work with the limb system through a Virtual Integration Environment (VIE) — a virtual-reality version of the MPL.

The VIE is completely interchangeable with the prosthetic limbs and through APL’s licensing process currently provides 19 groups in the research community with a low-cost means of testing brain–computer interfaces. It is used to test novel neural interface methods and study phantom limb pain, and serves as a portable training system.

By the time the socket was finished, Baugh said he was more than ready to get started. When he was fitted with the socket, and the prosthetic limbs were attached, he said “I just went into a whole different world.” He moved several objects, including an empty cup from a counter-shelf height to a higher shelf, a task that required him to coordinate the control of eight separate motions to complete.


Les Baugh and researchers
Image Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory


“This task simulated activities that may commonly be faced in a day-to-day environment at home,” said Courtney Moran, a prosthetist who worked with Baugh. “This was significant because this is not possible with currently available prostheses. He was able to do this with only 10 days of training, which demonstrates the intuitive nature of the control.”

Moran said the research team was floored by what Baugh was able to accomplish.

“We expected him to exceed performance compared to what he might achieve with conventional systems, but the speed with which he learned motions and the number of motions he was able to control in such a short period of time was far beyond expectation,” she explained. “What really was amazing – and was another major milestone with MPL control – was his ability to control a combination of motions across both arms at the same time. This was a first for simultaneous bimanual control.”

Principal Investigator Michael McLoughlin: “I think we are just getting started. It’s like the early days of the Internet. There is just a tremendous amount of potential ahead of us, and we’ve just started down this road. And I think the next five to 10 years are going to bring phenomenal advancement.”

The next step, McLoughlin said, is to send Baugh home with a pair of limb systems so that he can see how they integrate with his everyday life.

Baugh is looking forward to that day: “Maybe for once I’ll be able to put change in the pop machine and get pop out of it,” he said. He’s looking forward to doing “simple things that most people don’t think of. And it’s re-available to me.”




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19th December 2014

Scientists to begin 100-year study on
artificial intelligence

Stanford University will lead a 100-year effort to study the long-term implications of artificial intelligence in all aspects of life.


brain computer artificial intelligence


Stanford University has invited leading thinkers from several institutions to begin a 100-year effort to study and anticipate how artificial intelligence (AI) will affect every aspect of how people work, live and play. This effort – called the One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence, or AI100 – has been initiated by computer scientist Eric Horvitz, a former president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.

In 2009, Horvitz hosted a conference at which top researchers considered breakthroughs in AI and its influence on people and society. While the group concluded that the advances have been largely positive, their debate highlighted the need for longer-term studies of the implications. Now, along with Russ Altman, professor of bioengineering and computer science, Horvitz has formed a group that will begin a series of periodic studies on how AI will affect automation, democracy, ethics, law, national security, privacy, psychology and other issues. These subjects are outlined in a white paper.

"Artificial intelligence is one of the most profound undertakings in science, and one that will affect every aspect of human life," said John Hennessy the President of Stanford University, who helped initiate the project. "Given Stanford's pioneering role in AI and our interdisciplinary mindset, we feel obliged and qualified to host a conversation about how artificial intelligence will affect our children and our children's children."

Five leading academicians with diverse interests will join Horvitz and Altman in launching this effort. The seven researchers will together form the first AI100 standing committee. It and subsequent committees will identify the most compelling topics in AI at any given time, and convene a panel of experts to study and report on these issues. Horvitz envisions this process repeating itself every several years, as new topics are chosen and the horizon of AI technology is scouted.


chess machine vs human


"I'm very optimistic about the future and see great value ahead for humanity, with advances in systems that can perceive, learn and reason," explains Horvitz, who is launching AI100 as a private philanthropic initiative. "However, it is difficult to anticipate all of the opportunities and issues, so we need to create an enduring process."

Altman, who studied computer science and medicine with Horvitz at Stanford during the late 1980s, said a university is the best place to nurture such a long-term effort: "If your goal is to create a process that looks ahead 30 to 50 to 70 years, it's not altogether clear what artificial intelligence will mean, or how you would study it," he said. "But it's a pretty good bet that Stanford will be around, and that whatever is important at the time, the university will be involved in it."

AI100 is funded by a gift from Eric and his wife Mary Horvitz. They envision that the program, with its century-long chain of committees, study panels and growing digital archive, will remain a centre of vigilance as the future unfolds: "We're excited about kicking off a hundred years of observation and thinking about the influences of AI on people and society. It's our hope that the study, with its extended memory and long gaze, will provide important insights and guidance over the next century and beyond," said Horvitz.

Long-term thinking will be vital if humanity is to survive and prosper in the future. More and more people are now recognising its importance as demonstrated by efforts such as the Long Now Foundation, Singularity University, the 100 Year Starship project, the climate projections of the IPCC and indeed this website, Future Timeline. The group of scientists who will join Horvitz and Altman in forming the first AI100 committee – and their comments – are listed below.


robot android running


Barbara Grosz
Higgins Professor of Natural Sciences at Harvard University and an expert on multi-agent collaborative systems
"I'm excited about the potential for AI100 to focus attention on ways to design AI to work with and for people. We can shift the discussion about the societal impact of AI from the extremes to positions that take into account the nuances of societal values, human cognitive capacities and actual AI capabilities."

Alan Mackworth
Professor of computer science at the University of British Columbia and the Canada Research Chair in Artificial Intelligence, who created the world's first soccer-playing robot
"This study will provide a forum for us to consider critical issues in the design and use of AI systems, including their economic and social impact."

Tom Mitchell
Professor and chair of the machine learning department at Carnegie Mellon University, whose studies include how computers might learn to read the Web
"We won't be putting the genie back in the bottle. AI technology is progressing along so many directions and progress is being driven by so many different organisations that it is bound to continue. AI100 is an innovative and far-sighted response to this trend – an opportunity for us as a society to determine the path of our future and not to simply let it unfold unawares."

Deirdre K. Mulligan
Lawyer and a professor in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, who collaborates with technologists to advance privacy and other democratic values through technical design and policy
"The 100-year study provides an intellectual and practical home for the long-term interdisciplinary research necessary to document, understand and shape AI to support human flourishing and democratic ideals."

Yoav Shoham
Professor of computer science at Stanford, who seeks to incorporate common sense into AI
"The complexities of the field have tended to give rise to uninformed and misguided perceptions and commentaries. This long-term study will help create a more accurate and nuanced view of AI."


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17th December 2014

Possible hints of organic life on Mars

NASA reports detecting an unusual increase, then decrease, in the amounts of methane in the atmosphere of the planet Mars, as well as Martian organic chemicals in powder drilled from a rock by the Curiosity rover.


organic chemistry and life on mars
This image illustrates possible ways methane might be added to Mars' atmosphere (sources) and removed from the atmosphere (sinks). The Curiosity rover has detected fluctuations in methane concentration in the atmosphere, implying both types of activity occur on modern Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SAM-GSFC/Univ. of Michigan


NASA's Mars Curiosity rover has measured a tenfold spike in methane, an organic chemical, in the atmosphere around it and detected other organic molecules in a rock-powder sample collected by the robotic laboratory’s drill.

"This temporary increase in methane – sharply up and then back down – tells us there must be some relatively localised source," said Sushil Atreya of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Curiosity rover science team. "There are many possible sources, biological or non-biological, such as interaction of water and rock."

Researchers used Curiosity’s onboard Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laboratory a dozen times in a 20-month period to sniff methane in the atmosphere. During two of those months, four measurements averaged seven parts per billion. Before and after that, readings averaged only one-tenth that level.

Curiosity also detected different Martian organic chemicals in powder drilled from a rock dubbed Cumberland, the first definitive detection of organics in surface materials of Mars. These Martian organics could either have formed on Mars or been delivered to Mars by meteorites.

Organic molecules, which contain carbon and usually hydrogen, are chemical building blocks of life, although they can exist without the presence of life. Curiosity's findings from analysing samples of atmosphere and rock powder do not confirm whether Mars has ever harboured living microbes, but the findings do shed light on a chemically active modern Mars and on favourable conditions for life in the ancient past.

"We will keep working on the puzzles these findings present," said John Grotzinger, project scientist at the California Institute of Technology. "Can we learn more about the active chemistry causing such fluctuations in the amount of methane in the atmosphere? Can we choose rock targets where identifiable organics have been preserved?"




The researchers worked for many months to determine whether any of the organic material detected in the Cumberland sample was truly Martian. Curiosity’s SAM lab detected in several samples some organic carbon compounds that were, in fact, transported from Earth inside the rover. However, extensive testing and analysis yielded confidence in the detection of Martian organics.

The SAM analysed hydrogen isotopes from water molecules that had been locked inside a rock sample for billions of years and were freed when SAM heated it, yielding information about the past history of Martian water. The ratio of a heavier hydrogen isotope – deuterium – to the most common hydrogen isotope can provide a signature for comparison across different stages of a planet's history.

"It's really interesting that our measurements from Curiosity of gases extracted from ancient rocks can tell us about loss of water from Mars," said Paul Mahaffy, SAM principal investigator and lead author of a report published this week by the journal Science.


Click to enlarge

mars rock
Cross-bedding seen in the layers of this Martian rock is evidence of water movement recorded by the waves or ripples of loose sediment the water passed over, such as a current in a lake. This image was acquired by the Mastcam on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover last month.


The ratio of deuterium to hydrogen has changed because the lighter hydrogen escapes from the upper atmosphere of Mars much more readily than heavier deuterium. In order to go back in time and see how the deuterium-to-hydrogen ratio in Martian water changed over time, researchers can look at the ratio in water in the current atmosphere and water trapped in rocks at different times in the planet’s history.

Martian meteorites found on Earth also provide some information, but this record has gaps. No known Martian meteorites are even close to the same age as the rock studied on Mars, which formed about 3.9 billion to 4.6 billion years ago, according to Curiosity’s measurements.

The ratio that Curiosity found in the Cumberland sample is about one-half the ratio in water vapour in today's Martian atmosphere, suggesting much of the planet's water loss occurred since that rock formed. However, the measured ratio is about three times higher than the ratio in the original water supply of Mars. This suggests much of Mars' original water was lost before the rock formed.

Curiosity is one element of NASA's ongoing research and preparation for human exploration of Mars in the 2030s. Other upcoming missions include the InSight drilling probe in 2016, another Curiosity-style rover in 2020 and a sample return mission in 2023.


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14th December 2014

Laser gun is deployed and operational on U.S. Navy warship

After several years of research and testing, the U.S. Navy has introduced a new laser gun designed to protect ships without using ammunition.




Another entry on our timeline is now a reality as the U.S. Navy has authorised the first operational use of a laser weapon. This new hi-tech system – known as the Laser Weapon System (LaWS) – is designed to serve as a form of defence against drones and other small flying vehicles or small-boat enemies including suicide attackers. It is highly accurate, able to hit objects moving at up to 300 mph (480 km/h).

The LaWS fires a solid-state infrared beam with two modes: high output to destroy a target, and low output for optical "dazzling", warning shots or to cripple a potential attacker. Among the advantages of this device versus projectile weapons is the low cost per shot, as each firing of the weapon requires only minimal cost for generating the energetic pulse; by contrast ordnance for projectile weapons must be designed, manufactured, handled, transported and maintained and requires storage space. It also works flawlessly in adverse weather conditions of high winds, heat and humidity.

Following years of testing prototypes, the LaWS was deployed on the U.S.S. Ponce located in the Persian Gulf in August 2014. This week, the U.S. Navy released video footage of the first operational demonstrations, which took place from September to November 2014. It has now been approved for operational use and is expected to be fitted on many more ships in the coming years. A more powerful version in the future will be capable of tracking and destroying anti-ship missiles.

"Laser weapons are powerful, affordable and will play a vital role in the future of naval combat operations," says Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder in a press release. "We ran this particular weapon, a prototype, through some extremely tough paces, and it locked on and destroyed the targets we designated with near-instantaneous lethality."

“At less than a dollar per shot, there's no question about the value LaWS provides. With affordability a serious concern for our defence budgets, this will more effectively manage resources.”


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12th December 2014

The world has 60 years of topsoil left

If present rates of degradation continue, all of the world's topsoil could be lost by 2075, according to a senior UN official.




Topsoil is the layer of soil that contains the greatest concentration of nutrients, organic matter and microorganisms. It is vital for maintaining a healthy root base and plant growth, enabling farmers to till and produce their food crops. To generate only 3 cm (1.2 in) of topsoil requires between 500 and 1,000 years through natural processes.

Modern agricultural techniques – requiring the soil to be ploughed and replanted each year, together with heavy use of chemicals – have resulted in the gradual erosion of topsoil. Deforestation and global warming also play a role. Worldwide, approximately one-third of topsoil has been lost since the Industrial Revolution. This is already harming the livelihoods of a billion people. If trends continue, all of the world's topsoil will be gone within 60 years, according to a United Nations statement on World Soil Day.

"Soils are the basis of life," said Maria-Helena Semedo, deputy director general of natural resources at the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). "Ninety-five percent of our food comes from the soil."

With global population expected to surpass 9 billion by mid-century – along with huge increases in biofuel production – the amount of arable and productive land per person in 2050 will be only a quarter of the level in 1960, unless a radical transformation of agriculture occurs. In addition to providing food, soils play an essential role in the carbon cycle and water filtration. Soil destruction creates a vicious cycle, in which less carbon is stored, the world gets hotter, and the land is further degraded.

While the rate of degradation is not the same everywhere, "we are losing 30 soccer fields of soil every minute – mostly due to intensive farming," according to Volkert Engelsman, an activist with the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, who spoke to the forum at the FAO's headquarters in Rome.

Organic farming can reduce toxic chemicals and carbon emissions, but requires more land. Vertical greenhouses can work for some crops, but their economic and technical feasibility have yet to be fully proven. In the 2030s, perennial wheat and corn could enable crops to be grown continuously for two or more years – offering a huge improvement over traditional annual crops. Hi-tech solutions might also emerge in the form of 3D-printed or laboratory-grown meat. In the more distant future, humans could upgrade their bodies to become partially or fully non-biological, drawing energy from sources other than food. Whatever solutions are eventually developed, this announcement from the UN is a sobering reminder of just how rapidly our world is changing.


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10th December 2014

Clothes that can monitor and transmit biomedical info

Researchers at Université Laval in Canada have developed "smart textiles" able to monitor and transmit wearers' biomedical information via wireless or cellular networks.


smart textiles
Credit: Stepan Gorgutsa, Université Laval


This technological breakthrough, described in the scientific journal Sensors, paves the way for a host of new developments for people suffering from chronic diseases, elderly people living alone, and even firemen and police officers. A team under the supervision of Professor Younès Messaddeq created the smart fabric by successfully superimposing multiple layers of copper, polymers, glass and silver.

"The fibre acts as both sensor and antenna," explains Professor Messaddeq, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Photonic Innovations. "It is durable but malleable, and can be woven with wool or cotton. And signal quality is comparable to commercial antennas." The surface of the fibre can also be adjusted to monitor a range of information such as glucose levels, heart rhythm, brain activity, movements and spatial coordinates.

The design is based on hollow-core polymer-clad silica fibres, featuring a thick polyimide polymer overcoat. This enables it to withstand high tensile and bending stresses, mechanical abrasion, extreme heat conditions (up to 350°C), humidity, water, detergent or acidic environments. A patent application has already been filed, though certain elements still need to be fine-tuned before the innovation is ready for commercialisation.

"Of course, the technology will have to be connected to a wireless network – and there is the issue of power supply to be solved," notes Messaddeq. "We have tested a number of solutions, and the results are promising."


smart textiles


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7th December 2014

How common is alien life in our galaxy?

Using new data from Kepler, an astrobiologist has attempted to update the famous Drake equation. It is estimated that a biotic planet may be expected within 10-100 light years from Earth, while the nearest intelligent life is probably a few thousand light years away.


alien life


Amri Wandel is an astrobiologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His latest paper is available as a preprint version titled "On the abundance of extraterrestrial life after the Kepler mission" and will appear next year in the International Journal of Astrobiology.

His research is based on the latest available data from Kepler, an exoplanet hunting telescope launched by NASA in 2009. To date, this observatory has revealed nearly 1,000 planets in 400 star systems, with a further 3,200 unconfirmed candidates. These range in size from small and Earthlike, to rocky "super Earths" with high gravity, to enormous "hot Jupiters" in close proximity to their parent star.

While the sample size is tiny compared to the 100 billion+ total planets in our galaxy, it has nevertheless provided useful scientific data, allowing us to extrapolate some interesting estimates. Wandel has taken these figures and inputted them into the Drake Equation, to calculate the most realistic expectation of life elsewhere in our galaxy.

The Drake Equation is a famous mathematical formula devised by the American Frank Drake in 1961. It uses several different variables to produce "N" – representing the number of intelligent civilisations with active radio communications in our galaxy.


drake equation


R* = The rate of formation of stars suitable for the development of intelligent life.

fp = The fraction of those stars with planetary systems.

ne = The number of planets, per solar system, with an environment suitable for life.

fl = The fraction of suitable planets on which life actually appears.

fi = The fraction of life bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges.

fc = The fraction of civilisations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space.

L = The length of time such civilisations release detectable signals into space.


Until recently, there was little or no data to constrain the parameters in this formula. Now that Kepler and other telescopes are illuminating our region of the galaxy, astronomers are gaining at least some idea of how exoplanets are distributed in terms of size, mass, densities, orbits, composition and atmospheric characteristics. They are beginning, for the first time, to narrow the possible range of values in the Drake equation. For instance, it is now likely that a typical star has on average a minimum of one planet. Around 1 in 5 Sun-like stars have an "Earth-sized" planet within their habitable zone and the nearest of these is expected to be within 12 light years of Earth.



exoplanets distribution
Scatter plot of mass, m, and semimajor axis, a, for exoplanet discoveries as of 2014, indicating the discovery method using distinct colours: radial velocity (dark blue), transit (dark green), timing (dark purple), direct imaging (dark red), microlensing (dark orange)


Using the latest available data, Wandel estimated the distribution of life-bearing worlds in our part of the universe. His calculation suggests there are likely to be millions or even billions of planets with simple life forms (i.e. resembling a single-celled amoeba) in the Milky Way, the closest being somewhere between 10-100 light years from Earth. Intelligent life is much rarer, the nearest such world likely to be a few thousand light years distant.

That's assuming alien biology is at least somewhat predictable and similar to life here on Earth, of course – his estimate may be conservative. Silicon or ammonia-based life, for example, could use entirely different chemical structures unlike anything seen on our world. What may appear at first glance to be a "pebble" lying on the beach might, on closer inspection, turn out to be alive. Or there could be "living clouds" made of gaseous material.

Michio Kaku, in his 2008 book Physics of the Impossible, offers his thoughts on the matter. The majority of alien creatures, according to him, would be limited in size by the laws of physics. After a certain point is reached, the ratio of size:mass becomes so unbalanced that an object soon collapses under its own weight. Assuming a biology at least somewhat similar to our own, organisms would be unlikely to grow much larger than dinosaurs. The largest ever dinosaur is thought to have been Amphicoelias fragillimus, a sauropod which may have grown to a length of 60 m (196 ft).

As for advanced intelligence, futurist Ray Kurzweil says it is unlikely that a Star Trek-style universe exists. He divides the evolution of life into six epochs with exponential progress in the later stages. If his model is true, a civilisation with biological intelligence will transcend rapidly into post-biological form and reach "Singularity"-type status in a relatively short time. A scenario involving two biological intelligences meeting each other – like that between humans, Vulcans and other races – therefore seems improbable.

There are still many uncertainties, with astrobiology and exoplanet science in their infancy, but progress is clearly accelerating now as shown by Wendel's study and others. Further refinements of the Drake equation will emerge in the near future, as exponentially growing data is pieced together by astronomers to form an increasingly accurate picture of the galaxy and our place within it.

Future space telescopes will be far more powerful than Kepler – vastly increasing the tally of confirmed worlds and offering detailed analyses of exoplanets and their atmospheres. In fact, Kepler itself has already provided a hint of what lies ahead, having assisted in producing the first cloud map of an exoplanet last year. NASA is launching a mission called TESS in 2017, while ESA is deploying Cheops in the same year and PLATO from 2024-2030. New techniques used with ground-based telescopes should also help in characterising the many expected discoveries, possibly revealing biosignatures.


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5th December 2014

NASA conducts first unmanned test flight of Orion

A spacecraft that will take humans to Mars in the 2030s had its first unmanned test flight today.




A major step on the long road to human exploration of Mars was achieved today, as NASA conducted the first test flight of Orion. This new spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral in eastern Florida at 07:05 EST (12:05 UTC) aboard a Delta IV Heavy rocket. It accomplished a series of milestones as it jettisoned a set of fairing panels around the service module, before the launch abort system (LAS) pulled itself away from the craft as planned.

Orion and the second stage of the rocket settled into an initial orbit around 17 minutes after lift-off. Flight controllers put them into a slow roll to keep temperatures controlled while they flew through a 97-minute coast phase. This was followed by upper stage separation and disposal, then splashdown and recovery in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

During four and a half hours of total flight time, Orion made two orbits of Earth, achieving a peak altitude of 3,600 miles (5,800 km), or about 13 times higher than the International Space Station. This high altitude enabled the craft to achieve reentry speeds of 20,000 mph (32,000 km/h; 8,900 m/s), which exposed the heat shield to temperatures up to 4,000°F (2,200°C), or 80% of the temperature that would be experienced upon reentry from a Moon mission.


orion orbit of earth


This was an unmanned test, but Orion will eventually carry astronauts farther into space than has ever been possible before. Data from today's flight will be analysed by the Critical Design Review in April 2015. Alongside this, a massive new rocket – the Space Launch System (SLS) – is being developed to carry payloads of 70 metric tons, with a later version capable of 130 tons. The SLS will perform its first test launch by 2018, with a manned flight around the Moon planned for 2021 and exploration of an asteroid in the early 2020s. If all goes according to plan, the SLS in combination with Orion will send humans to Mars in the 2030s – the first time humanity has set foot on another celestial body since the Apollo era.

The effects of radiation will be critically important in assessing the safety of Orion. Mission planners will analyse the doses recorded inside the cabin on this and future tests, helping to refine the spacecraft's design and evaluate the best way of sending astronauts into deep space. Over 1,200 sensors were placed throughout the crew module to measure all elements of the spacecraft and the details of their performance.

"We're already working on the next capsule," said Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin's Orion program manager, the company that built Orion and operated the flight for NASA. "We'll learn a tremendous amount from what we did today."

Rex Waldheim, who flew on the very last shuttle mission in 2011, told the BBC: "The people that are actually going to fly in Orion – I just can't imagine the thrill they're going to have when they sit here at the Kennedy Space Centre atop the rocket, ready to go to the Moon or to Mars or an asteroid – these incredible destinations. It's just going to be spectacular."


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5th December 2014

Asteroid sample return mission is successfully launched by Japan

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has successfully launched its Hayabusa 2 spacecraft. The mission blasted off at 13:22 local time on Wednesday 3rd December from Tanegashima Space Centre.

The probe will travel to an Apollo asteroid known as 1999 JU3. Upon arrival in 2018, a small explosive device will be launched towards the surface with enough force to produce a new crater. The aim is to investigate the composition of the rock and detect any organic materials or water contained inside. Like the current Rosetta mission at comet 67P, this could reveal new clues about the origins and formation of the Solar System.


hayabusa and 1999 ju3 impact
Credit: JAXA


A deployable camera (DCAM3), will observe the explosion and its aftermath. Three rovers (collectively called Minerva II) and a small lander known as MASCOT (Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout) will then conduct surface operations – using a range of instruments including an infrared spectrometer, magnetometer, radiometer and cameras. Samples will be obtained and returned to the main craft, with surveys continuing for a year and a half before it departs in 2019 and returns its cargo to Earth in 2020.

In a description of the Hayabusa 2 mission, JAXA explains as follows: "An asteroid is considered to have information about the birth of the Solar System and its later evolution. For a large celestial body such as Earth, its original materials were melted once, and consequently there is no way to reach the history before melting. On the other hand, most of the hundreds of thousands of asteroids and comets which we found at this point preserve history of the place and era of their birth within the Solar System."




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4th December 2014

3-D haptic shapes can be seen and felt in mid-air

New research, using ultrasound, has developed a 3-D haptic shape that can be seen and felt in mid-air.


3d haptic shape in mid air


Touch feedback technology – known as haptics – has advanced rapidly in recent years. It is now used in a range of applications including entertainment, rehabilitation and even surgical training. New research by the University of Bristol, using ultrasound, has created a virtual 3-D haptic shape that can be seen and felt in mid-air.

This breakthrough, led by Dr Ben Long and colleagues at the university's Department of Computer Science, could improve the way 3-D shapes are used and function as an important new tool in certain situations. It could enable surgeons to explore a CT scan, for example, by enabling them to actually "feel" a disease, such as a tumour.

The method uses ultrasound, focussed onto hands above the device and can be felt. By focussing complex patterns of ultrasound, the air disturbances can be seen as floating 3-D shapes. Visually, the researchers have demonstrated the ultrasound patterns by directing the device at a thin layer of oil so that the depressions in the surface can be seen as spots when lit by a lamp.

The system generates a virtual 3-D shape that can be added to 3-D displays to create a holographic effect that can be seen and felt. The research team have also shown that users can match a picture of a 3-D shape to the shape created by the system. They have already been approached by companies interested in commercialising the technology. At this early stage of development, the level of detail in the virtual objects is limited, but using a greater number of speakers at smaller sizes could improve the resolution of projections.

“Touchable holograms, immersive virtual reality that you can feel and complex touchable controls in free space, are all possible ways of using this system,” says Dr Long. “In the future, people could feel holograms of objects that would not otherwise be touchable, such as feeling the differences between materials in a CT scan or understanding the shapes of artefacts in a museum.”

The research paper is published in ACM Transactions on Graphics and is presented at this week’s SIGGRAPH Asia 2014 conference [3-6 December].




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4th December 2014

New solar cell efficiency record

A new solar cell efficiency record of 46% has been achieved by a French-German collaboration.


new solar cell record


A new world record for the direct conversion of sunlight into electricity has been established. The multi-junction solar cell converts 46% of the solar light into electrical energy. It was developed in a joint collaboration between Soitec and CEA-Leti (France), together with the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE (Germany).

Multi-junction cells are used in concentrator photovoltaic (CPV) systems to produce low-cost electricity in photovoltaic power plants, in regions with a large amount of direct solar radiation. It is the group's second world record in the last year – after the one previously announced in September 2013 – and clearly demonstrates the strong competitiveness of European photovoltaic research.

Multi-junction solar cells are based on a selection of III-V compound semiconductor materials. The world record cell is a four-junction cell, and each of its sub-cells converts precisely one quarter of the incoming photons in the wavelength range between 300 and 1750 nm into electricity. When applied in concentrator PV, a very small cell is used with a Fresnel lens, which concentrates the sunlight onto the cell. The new record efficiency was measured at a concentration of 508 suns and has been confirmed by the Japanese AIST (National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology), one of the leading centres for independent verification of solar cell performance under standard testing conditions.


new solar cell record
© Fraunhofer ISE/Photo Alexander Wekkeli


A special challenge that had to be met by this cell was the exact distribution of photons among the four sub-cells. It was achieved by precise tuning of the composition and thicknesses of each layer inside the structure. “This is a major milestone for our French-German collaboration. We are extremely pleased to hear that our result of 46% efficiency has now been independently confirmed by AIST in Japan,” explains Dr. Frank Dimroth, project manager for the cell development at the German Fraunhofer Institute. “CPV is the most efficient solar technology today and suitable for all countries with high direct normal irradiance.”

Jocelyne Wasselin, Vice President at Soitec in France: “We are very proud of this new world record. It confirms we made the right technology choice when we decided to develop this four-junction solar cell and clearly indicates that we can demonstrate 50% efficiency in the near future. To produce this new generation of solar cells, we have already installed a line in France. It uses our bonding and layer-transfer technologies and already employs more than 25 engineers and technicians. I have no doubt that this successful cooperation with our French and German partners will drive further increase of CPV technology efficiency and competitiveness.”


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3rd December 2014

Mediterranean diet linked to longer life

A new study has provided evidence that a Mediterranean diet can increase longevity by preserving telomere lengths.


mediterranean diet


Eating a Mediterranean diet can extend your lifespan, suggests a study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) this week. The diet appears to be associated with longer telomere length – an established marker of slower ageing. In previous studies, a regular intake of Mediterranean food has been consistently linked with health benefits, including reduced mortality and reduced risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease.

The diet is characterised by a high intake of vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes (such as peas, beans and lentils), and (mainly unrefined) grains; a high intake of olive oil but a low intake of saturated fats; a moderately high intake of fish, a low intake of dairy products, meat and poultry; and regular but moderate intake of alcohol (specifically wine with meals).

Telomeres are located on the end of our chromosomes, like the plastic tips on the end of shoelaces, stopping them from fraying and scrambling the genetic codes they contain. In healthy people, telomeres shorten progressively throughout life, more than halving in length from infancy to adulthood, and halving again in the very elderly.

Shorter telomeres are thus associated with a lower life expectancy and greater risk of age-related diseases. Lifestyle factors, such as obesity, smoking and consumption of sugar sweetened drinks, have all been linked to people having shorter telomeres than typically occur in people of a similar age. Oxidative stress and inflammation have also been shown to speed up telomere shortening.




Given that fruits, vegetables and nuts – key components of the Mediterranean diet – have well-known antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, a team of US researchers led by Immaculata De Vivo, Associate Professor at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, set out to examine whether adherence to the Mediterranean diet was associated with longer telomere length. They analysed data on 4,700 healthy middle-aged women from the Nurses’ Health Study – an ongoing study tracking the health of more than 120,000 US nurses since 1976. Participants completed detailed food questionnaires and had a blood test to measure telomere length.

A diet score ranging from 0-9 points was calculated for each participant, with a higher score representing closer resemblance to a Mediterranean diet. The results, after adjusting for other factors, show that greater adherence to Mediterranean diets was significantly associated with longer telomeres. Each one point change in diet score corresponded on average to 1.5 years of telomere ageing.

However, none of the individual dietary components was associated with telomere lengths – underlining the importance of examining dietary patterns in relation to health, not just separate dietary factors such as intake of whole grains, say the authors.

“To our knowledge, this is the largest population-based study specifically addressing the association between Mediterranean diet adherence and telomere length in healthy, middle-aged women,” they write. “Our results further support the benefits of adherence to the Mediterranean diet for promoting health and longevity.”

A Mediterranean diet is the cornerstone of dietary advice in cardiovascular disease prevention, and the fact that it also links with a biomarker of slower ageing is reassuring, says Prof. Peter Nilsson from Lund University, Sweden in an accompanying editorial. He suggests that genetic background factors, reflecting ancestry, could probably explain some of the variation in association between dietary patterns and telomere length, and that future studies on this question “should take into account the possibility of interactions between genes, diet, and sex.”


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2nd December 2014

Horizontal, cable-free elevators arriving in 2016

The American industrialist, Elisha Otis, demonstrated the first safety elevator in 1854. His invention was revolutionary, paving the way for buildings of unprecedented height. These "skyscrapers" (as they became known) transformed the urban landscape, allowing cities with greatly increased verticality and population density.

In the 160 years since then, little has fundamentally changed in the design of elevators. Meanwhile, the world has become highly urbanised – a trend that is forecast to continue in the future, with two-thirds of people living in urban areas by the 2050s compared to 50% in 2010. In response to the emerging challenges of city and building design, German company ThyssenKrupp aims to reinvent this form of transportation. By using a combination of linear motors (similar to those in maglev trains), inductive power transfers from shaft to cabin, multi-level brakes and lightweight materials, they intend to develop a new system that eliminates the need for cables.

Known as "MULTI", this setup could reduce elevator footprints by 50% and increase a building's available space by 25%. Many cabins in the same shaft moving around vertical and horizontal loops would allow much higher volumes of passengers to be handled. Office workers, residents, and other users would no longer have to endure long waits, having near-constant access to a cabin every 15-30 seconds. The overall increase in efficiency would translate into major cost savings for construction, as well as a multiplication of rent revenues from the increased usable floorspace. Architects could also experiment with radically new heights, shapes and building purposes. The first MULTI unit will be tested in 2016.




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29th November 2014

Breakthrough in treating advanced bladder cancer

Researchers at Queen Mary, University of London, have announced "a hugely exciting step forward" in treating advanced bladder cancer.


bladder illustration


With almost 430,000 new cases each year, bladder cancer is the 9th leading cause of cancer in the world. A significant percentage of diagnoses are advanced (meaning the cancer has already spread to another part of the body), making it very difficult to treat, with chemotherapy the only option. Patients often choose to forgo chemotherapy due to its toxicity and limited survival benefit. As shown in the graph below, no major advances have occurred in treating bladder cancer during the past 30 years. That may be about to change, thanks to research by Queen Mary, University of London.

Published this week by the journal Nature, a new study examines an antibody (MPDL3280A) which blocks a protein (PD-L1) thought to help cancer cells evade immune detection. In a Phase one clinical trial, 68 patients with advanced bladder cancer (who had failed all other standard treatments such as chemotherapy) received a cancer immunotherapy medicine – MPDL3280A – which is being developed by Roche. In addition, the patients were all tested for the protein PD-L1 and 30 were identified as having PD-L1 positive tumours.

After six weeks of treatment, 43 per cent of PD-L1-positive patients found their tumour had shrunk. This rose to 52 per cent after 12 weeks of follow up. In two of these patients (7 per cent) radiological imaging found no evidence of the cancer at all following the treatment. Patients who had a positive response to treatment found the benefits were prolonged, and safety results were also encouraging, with few reported side effects. The early results of this drug are so promising that it has received a breakthrough therapy designation status by the U.S. FDA.

Dr Tom Powles, lead author and Consultant Medical Oncologist at Queen Mary University of London, says: "This study is a hugely exciting step forward in the search for alternative advanced bladder cancer treatment. For decades, chemotherapy has been the only option, with a poor outcome and many patients too ill to cope with it. Not only has this investigational drug had a striking response rate, we can target this therapy for patients by screening specific protein PD-L1.

"We now need larger trials to confirm our findings, and as this drug has been given breakthrough designation status by the FDA, we hope to fast track this process so we can begin to give hope to the thousands of people affected by advanced bladder cancer each year."


five year survival rate for bladder cancer usa uk graph


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27th November 2014

Ebola vaccine shows promise

A vaccine to prevent Ebola has shown promising results in a Phase 1 human clinical trial. The current outbreak in West Africa has resulted in almost 16,000 cases and 6,000 deaths.




An experimental vaccine to halt the Ebola virus was well-tolerated and produced immune system responses in all 20 healthy adults who received it in a Phase 1 clinical trial conducted by researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The candidate vaccine, which was co-developed by the NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), was tested at the NIH Clinical Centre in Bethesda, Maryland. These interim results are reported online in advance of print in the New England Journal of Medicine.

"The unprecedented scale of the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa has intensified efforts to develop safe and effective vaccines, which may play a role in bringing this epidemic to an end and undoubtedly will be critically important in preventing future large outbreaks," said NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. "Based on these positive results from the first human trial of this candidate vaccine, we are continuing our accelerated plan for larger trials to determine if the vaccine is efficacious in preventing Ebola infection."

The candidate vaccine contains segments of genetic material from two Ebola virus species – Sudan and Zaire. This material is delivered by a carrier virus (chimpanzee-derived adenovirus 3 or cAd 3) that causes a common cold in chimpanzees but causes no illness in humans. The candidate vaccine does not contain Ebola virus and cannot cause Ebola virus disease.

The trial enrolled volunteers between the ages of 18 and 50. Ten volunteers received an intramuscular injection of vaccine at a lower dose and 10 received the same vaccine at a higher dose. At two weeks and four weeks following vaccination, the researchers tested the volunteers' blood to determine if anti-Ebola antibodies were generated. All 20 volunteers developed such antibodies within four weeks of receiving the vaccine. Antibody levels were higher in those who received the higher dose vaccine.


ebola vaccine trial patient
A 39-year-old woman, the first participant enrolled in the trial, receives a dose of the Ebola vaccine at the
NIH Clinical Centre in Maryland.


Researchers also analysed the participants' blood to learn whether the vaccine prompted production of immune system cells called T cells. A recent study found that non-human primates inoculated with the candidate NIAID/GSK vaccine developed both antibody and T-cell responses, and that these were sufficient to protect vaccinated animals from disease when they were later exposed to high levels of the Ebola virus.

The experimental NIAID/GSK vaccine did induce a T-cell response in many of the volunteers – including production of CD8 T cells – which may be an important part of immune protection against Ebola viruses. Four weeks after vaccination, CD8 T cells were detected in two volunteers who had received the lower dose vaccine and in seven of those who had received the higher dose.

"We know from previous studies in non-human primates that CD8 T cells played a crucial role in protecting animals that had been vaccinated with this NIAID/GSK vaccine and then exposed to otherwise lethal amounts of Ebola virus," said Julie E. Ledgerwood, D.O., a VRC researcher and the trial's principal investigator. "The size and quality of the CD8 T cell response we saw in this trial are similar to that observed in non-human primates vaccinated with the candidate vaccine."

There were no serious adverse effects observed in any of the volunteers, although two people who received the higher dose vaccine did develop a briefly lasting fever within a day of vaccination.


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24th November 2014

Ocean Spiral – an underwater city

Japanese engineering firm, Shimizu Corp, has announced plans for "Ocean Spiral", an underwater city that would form a nine mile (15 km) structure plunging down to the sea floor. Costing three trillion yen ($25 billion), it would feature residential, hotel and business zones at its top, with resource development facilities at its base to harvest rare earth metals and minerals. Electrical power could be generated by exploiting the wide differences in water temperature between the top and bottom of the ocean. Construction would be achieved with industrial-scale 3D printers using resin components instead of concrete. Shimizu believes the technology required for this project could be available by 2030. The company has been behind a number of previous futuristic concepts, including a "Luna Ring" of solar panels going around the Moon and a floating botanical city that could absorb CO2.

“We had this in Japan in the 1980s when the same corporations were proposing underground and ‘swimming’ cities and 1 kilometre-high towers as part of the rush to development during the height of the bubble economy," says Christian Dimmer, assistant professor in urban studies at Tokyo University. “It’s good that many creative minds are picking their brains as to how to deal with climate change, rising sea levels and the creation of resilient societies – but I hope we don’t forget to think about more open and democratic urban futures in which citizens can take an active role in their creation, rather than being mere passengers in a corporation’s sealed vision of utopia.”

For more information on the Ocean Spiral, see its press release.


Click to enlarge

  ocean spiral future underwater city   ocean spiral future underwater city   ocean spiral future underwater city   ocean spiral future underwater city  
  ocean spiral future underwater city   ocean spiral future underwater city   ocean spiral future underwater city    


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21st November 2014

AI software can identify objects in photos and videos at near-human levels

A new AI software program developed by researchers at Google and Stanford University can recognise objects in photos and videos at near-human levels of understanding.


ai software program google stanford university object recognition technology images videos human level understanding


It was only recently that computer systems became smart enough to identify unknown objects in photographs. Even then, it has generally been limited to individual objects. Now, two separate teams of researchers at Google and Stanford University have created software able to describe entire scenes. This could lead to much better and more intelligent algorithms in the future.

Stanford's work, entitled "Deep Visual-Semantic Alignments for Generating Image Descriptions", explains how specific details found in photographs and videos can be translated into written text. Google's version of the technology, in a study titled "Show and Tell: A Neural Image Caption Generator", produced similar results.

While each team used a slightly different approach, they both combined deep convolutional neural networks with recurrent neural networks that excel at text analysis and natural language processing. The programs were able to "learn" from each new interaction, with algorithms enabling the system to improve its accuracy by scanning scene after scene, looking for patterns, and then using the accumulation of previously described scenes to extrapolate what is being depicted in the next unknown image.


ai image recognition


"The system can analyse an unknown image and explain it in words and phrases that make sense," says Fei-Fei Li, a professor of computer science and director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab. "This is an important milestone. It's the first time we've had a computer vision system that could tell a basic story about an unknown image by identifying discrete objects and also putting them into some context."

These latest algorithms are being trained on a visual dictionary – the ImageNet project – with a database of more than 14 million objects. Each object is described by a mathematical term, or vector, that enables the machine to recognise the shape the next time it is encountered. Those mathematical definitions are linked to the words humans would use to describe the objects.

“I was amazed that even with the small amount of training data that we were able to do so well,” said Oriol Vinyals, a Google computer scientist who worked with members of the Google Brain project. “The field is just starting, and we will see a lot of increases.”

In the near term, computer vision systems that can discern the story in a picture will enable people to search photo or video archives and find highly specific images. Eventually, these advances will lead to robotic systems able to navigate unknown situations. Driverless cars would also be made safer. However, it also raises the prospect of even greater levels of government surveillance.



"A group of young people playing a game of Frisbee."




"A person riding a motorcycle on a dirt road."




"A pizza sitting on top of a pan on top of a stove."



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19th November 2014

Lightning strikes will increase due to global warming

Global warming will cause lightning strikes in the U.S. to increase 50% by 2100, according to a study by the University of California (UC).




New climate models predict a 50 percent increase in lightning strikes across the United States during this century as a result of warming temperatures associated with climate change.

Reporting in the peer-reviewed journal Science, UC Berkeley climate scientist David Romps and his colleagues look at predictions of precipitation and cloud buoyancy in 11 different climate models and conclude that their combined effect will generate more frequent electrical discharges to the ground.

“With warming, thunderstorms become more explosive,” says Romps, an assistant professor of earth and planetary science and a faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “This has to do with water vapour, which is the fuel for explosive deep convection in the atmosphere. Warming causes there to be more water vapour in the atmosphere – and if you have more fuel lying around, when you get ignition, it can go big time.”

More lightning strikes mean more human injuries; estimates of people struck each year range from hundreds to nearly a thousand, with many deaths. But another significant impact of increased lightning strikes would be more wildfires, since half of all fires – and often the hardest to fight – are ignited by lightning, Romps said. More lightning would also generate more nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere, exerting a strong control on atmospheric chemistry.

While some studies have shown changes in lightning associated with seasonal or year-to-year variations in temperature, there have been no reliable analyses to indicate what the future may hold. Romps and graduate student Jacob Seeley hypothesised that two atmospheric properties — precipitation and cloud buoyancy — together might be a predictor of lightning, and looked at observations during 2011 to see if there was a correlation.




“Lightning is caused by charge separation within clouds, and to maximise charge separation, you have to loft more water vapour and heavy ice particles into the atmosphere,” he said. “We already know that the faster the updrafts, the more lightning, and the more precipitation, the more lightning.”

Precipitation – the total amount of water hitting the ground in the form of rain, snow, hail or other forms – is basically a measure of how convective the atmosphere is, and convection generates lightning. The ascent speeds of those convective clouds are determined by a factor called CAPE — convective available potential energy — which is measured by balloon-borne instruments, called radiosondes, released around the United States twice a day.

“CAPE is a measure of how potentially explosive the atmosphere is – that is, how buoyant a parcel of air would be if you got it convecting, if you got it to punch through overlying air into the free troposphere,” Romps said. “We hypothesised that the product of precipitation and CAPE would predict lightning.”

Using U.S. Weather Service data on precipitation, radiosonde measurements of CAPE and lightning-strike counts from the National Lightning Detection Network at the University of Albany, State University of New York (UAlbany), they concluded that 77 percent of the variations in lightning strikes could be predicted from knowing just these two parameters.

“We were blown away by how incredibly well that worked to predict lightning strikes,” he said.


lightning usa

The intensity of lightning flashes averaged over the year in the lower 48 states during 2011. Data from NLDN.


They then looked at 11 different climate models that predict precipitation and CAPE through this century and are archived in the most recent Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP5). CMIP was established as a resource for climate scientists, providing a repository of output from global climate models that can be used for comparison and validation.

“With CMIP5, we now have for the first time the CAPE and precipitation data to calculate these time series,” Romps said.

On average, the models predicted an 11 percent increase in CAPE in the U.S. per degree Celsius rise in global average temperature by the end of the 21st century. Because the models predict little average precipitation increase nationwide over this period, the product of CAPE and precipitation gives about a 12 percent rise in cloud-to-ground lightning strikes per degree in the contiguous U.S., or a roughly 50 percent increase by 2100 if Earth sees the expected 4-degree Celsius increase (7 degrees Fahrenheit) in temperature.

Exactly why CAPE increases as the climate warms is still an area of active research, Romps said, though it is clear that it has to do with the fundamental physics of water. Warm air typically contains more water vapour than cold air; in fact, the amount of water vapour that air can “hold” increases exponentially with temperature. Since water vapour is the fuel for thunderstorms, lightning rates can depend very sensitively on temperature.

In the future, Romps plans to look at the distribution of lightning-strike increases around the U.S. and also explore what lightning data can tell climatologists about atmospheric convection.


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15th November 2014

Hottest October on record

A new global temperature record for October has been set, according to data from the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA).


hottest october on record Japan Meteorological Agency JMA October 2014 temperature trend graph


Globally, last month was the hottest October on record – by far – according to data just released by the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA). This follows the hottest March–May, June, August and September, also recorded this year. Near-surface land and sea surface temperatures were 0.67°C (1.2°F) higher than the 20th century average. Despite oft-repeated claims of a "pause", it seems increasingly likely that 2014 is on course to be the all-time hottest year since the JMA began record-keeping in 1891. Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – the U.S. equivalent of Japan's agency – presents a similar trend, with October 2013 to September 2014 being the warmest 12-month period among all months since 1880. These records have occurred even without the latest El Niño, which has yet to begin, meaning that 2015 could be even hotter.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just released the final part of its Fifth Assessment Report. This further discusses the future impacts of climate change and – it is hoped – will pave the way for a global, legally binding treaty on carbon emissions at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris during late 2015. This week in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Barack Obama to announce a "historic" agreement that would see U.S. emissions fall 26%-28% below 2005 levels by 2025, while China's would peak by 2030. By announcing these targets now, they hope to inject momentum into the global climate negotiations and inspire other countries to join in coming forward with ambitious actions as soon as possible, preferably before the first quarter of 2015. The two Presidents resolved to work closely together over the next year to address major impediments to reaching a successful treaty in Paris. UN climate chief, Christiana Figueres, said: "These two crucial countries have today announced important pathways towards a better and more secure future for humankind."

Unfortunately for Barack Obama, the U.S. midterm election was a disaster for the Democrats. They will now lose control of the Senate, for the first time since January 2007, with Republicans also increasing their majority in the House. The incoming Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, stated that his top priority is to "get the EPA reined in" and to dismantle the new emissions rules for coal power plants. In a related development, the controversial Keystone XL was approved yesterday with a 252-161 vote. This 875-mile (1,408 km) pipeline will carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to the US state of Nebraska where it joins pipes running down to Texas. While creating only 35 permanent jobs, it will transport 51 coal plants' worth of CO2 and do nothing to lower U.S. gas prices.

Meanwhile, the G20 summit now underway in Brisbane, Australia, has seen hundreds of people staging a "head in the sand" protest over the lack of discussions on climate change. Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, recently declared that "coal is good for humanity" while opening a new coal plant and expressing his belief that "the trajectory should be up and up and up in the years and decades to come ... The future for coal is bright."

A new report from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and Oil Change International highlights the fact that G20 governments are now spending almost £56bn ($90bn) a year on finding new oil, gas and coal reserves. This is despite clear evidence that two-thirds of fossil fuels must be left in the ground to avoid tipping the world into a climate catastrophe. Phasing out these perverse subsidies may form a crucial part of the negotiations at the Paris conference in 2015.

The science of global warming is clearer than ever. Back in April, a report by McGill University concluded "with confidence levels greater than 99% and most likely greater than 99.9%" that recent warming is not caused by natural factors but is man-made. A new generation of supercomputers – able to crunch hundreds of terabytes' worth of data – has led to what one researcher calls "a golden age for high-resolution climate modelling" with accurate simulations of intense weather and climate events. These models will only get better in the years ahead. On current trends, it should be possible to achieve resolutions down to a square metre by 2030. And yet, even without these models or the IPCC, we know the problem is real.


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13th November 2014

Genomes of the world's oldest people are published

The genomes from 17 of the oldest people have been published. Researchers were unable to find genes associated with extreme longevity.




Supercentenarians are the world's oldest people, living beyond 110 years of age. There are 74 alive worldwide, with 22 in the USA. The longest confirmed human lifespan on record is that of Jeanne Calment (1875–1997), a French woman who reached 122 years and 164 days. The oldest person alive today is Misao Okawa, a Japanese woman aged 116. She is the last living Japanese person to have been born during the 1800s.

In a study published yesterday by the journal PLOS ONE, whole-genome sequencing was performed on 17 supercentenarians to explore the genetic basis underlying extreme human longevity. The researchers – Hinco Gierman and colleagues from Stanford University – were unable to find any rare protein-altering variants significantly associated with extreme longevity compared to control genomes. However, they did find that one supercentenarian carries a variant associated with a heart condition, which had little or no effect on his/her health, as this person lived over 110 years. The authors say it is recommended by the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics to report the results to this individual as an incidental finding.

Although the authors didn't find significant association with extreme longevity, they have publicly published the genomes, making them available as a resource for future studies on longevity.


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10th November 2014

Synthetic platelets could accelerate healing of injuries

Basic wound healing has been advanced with a synthetic platelet that accumulates at sites of injury, clots and stops bleeding three times faster. The synthetic platelets have realistic size, disk-shape, flexibility, and the same surface proteins as real platelets.




Artificial platelets made by the University of California and Case Western Reserve University have been shown to halt bleeding in mouse experiments much faster than nature can on its own. For the first time, they have been able to integratively mimic the shape, size, flexibility and surface chemistry of real blood platelets on albumin-based particle platforms. The researchers believe these four design factors together are vital for inducing clots to form faster at vascular injury sites while preventing harmful clots from forming elsewhere in the body.

The new technology, reported in the journal ACS Nano, is aimed at stemming bleeding in patients suffering from traumatic injury, undergoing surgeries or suffering clotting disorders from platelet defects or a lack of platelets. Further, it could be used to deliver drugs to target sites in patients suffering atherosclerosis, thrombosis or other platelet-involved pathologic conditions.

Anirban Sen Gupta, associate professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve, previously designed peptide-based surface chemistries that mimic the clot-relevant activities of real platelets. Building on this work, he now focuses on incorporating morphological and mechanical cues that are naturally present in platelets to further refine their design.

"Morphological and mechanical factors influence the margination of natural platelets to the blood vessel wall, and only when they are near the wall can the critical clot-promoting chemical interactions take place," he said.

These cues motivated Sen Gupta to team up with Samir Mitragotri, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of California. In his laboratory, Mitragotri has recently developed albumin-based technologies to mimic the geometry and mechanical properties of red blood cells and platelets. Together, the team has developed artificial platelet-like nanoparticles (PLNs) that combine morphological, mechanical and surface chemical properties of natural platelets.




The researchers believe this refined design can simulate natural platelet's ability to collide effectively with larger and softer red blood cells in systemic blood flow. The collisions cause "margination" – pushing the platelets out of the main flow and closer to the blood vessel wall – increasing the probability of them interacting with an injury site. The surface coatings enable the artificial platelets to anchor to injury-site-specific proteins, von Willebrand Factor and collagen, while inducing the natural and artificial platelets to aggregate faster at the injury site.

Testing in mouse models showed that injection of the artificial platelets formed clots at the site of injury three times faster than natural platelets alone in the control mice. The ability to interact selectively with injury site proteins, as well as remaining mechanically flexible like natural platelets, enables these artificial versions to safely ride through the smallest of blood vessels without causing damage.

Albumin, a protein found in blood serum and eggs, is already used in cancer drugs and considered a safe material. Artificial platelets that don't become involved in a clot and continue to circulate are metabolised within one to two days. The researchers believe their new artificial platelet design may be even more effective in larger volume flows where margination to the blood vessel wall is more prominent. They will soon begin testing that capability.

In addition to stemming bleeding, Sen Gupta believes this technology could also be useful in delivering clot-busting medicines directly to clots, to treat heart attack or stroke without having to systemically suspend the body's coagulation mechanism. The artificial platelets may also be used to deliver cancer medicines to metastatic tumours with high platelet interactions.


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8th November 2014

Amazon launches "Echo" speaker with interactive AI

Online retail giant Amazon has unveiled a new hi-tech speaker system with a wide range of interactive features. Called Echo, the cylindrical device is controlled by your voice, activated by a special "wake word" and uses far-field listening to hear from anywhere in the room. It can provide real-time information, music, news, weather, a timer/alarm, and many more services – even telling jokes. Crisp vocals with dynamic bass are fine-tuned to deliver an immersive sound from 360° omni-directional speakers.

With an always-on connection, it uses the cloud to continually learn and increase functionality over time – adapting to speech patterns, vocabulary and users' personal preferences. For now, Echo is only available to those with an invitation, but you can request an invite on its product page. It is currently priced at $199, but Prime members can obtain it for $99 for a limited time. Although its technology appears impressive, to some people it might seem rather Orwellian. Let us know your opinion in the comments below.




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7th November 2014

The world's first solar-powered road

A project creating the first solar-powered bicycle path will be officially opened in the Netherlands next week. If successful, it could be applied to 20% of the country's roads in the future.


solar road


Developed by the Netherlands' TNO research institute, SolaRoad is the first road in the world that converts sunlight into electricity. The pilot project of just a hundred metres will be used as a bike path and consists of concrete modules each measuring 2.5 by 3.5 metres. Solar cells are fitted in one travelling direction underneath an extremely strong top layer of glass with a dirt and abrasion-resistant coating about 1 cm thick.

There are no solar cells on the other side of the road and this is used to test various top layers. In time, energy generated from the road will be used for practical applications in street lighting, traffic systems, electric cars (which will drive on the surface) and households. This first section of SolaRoad is located in Krommenie, along the provincial road N203, next to the Texaco garage on the railway track side (see Google Street View).

For a three-year period, various measurements will be taken and tests performed to enable SolaRoad to undergo further development. The tests must answer questions such as: How does it behave in practice? How much energy does it produce? What is it like to cycle over? In the run-up to the surface being laid, laboratory tests were conducted to ensure all safety and other requirements were met. The modules were found to successfully carry the weight of heavy vehicles such as tractors, though how they respond to longer term wear and tear remains to be seen.

A spokesperson for the project, Sten de Wit, claims that up to 20% of the Netherlands' 140,000 km (87,000 miles) of road could potentially be adapted. The pilot road will be officially opened on 12th November by Dutch Minister of Economic Affairs, Henk Kamp.

A similar concept – Solar Roadways – is being developed in the US, though its technical and financial viability seems to have come under a lot of criticism in the blogosphere and elsewhere. Perhaps this Dutch effort can prove to be more successful.




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7th November 2014

The clearest ever image of planets forming around a young star

The birth of planets has been revealed in astonishing detail by a telescope with 10 times the resolution of Hubble.


planets forming around a young star


The Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA) is a new radio telescope in northern Chile that became fully operational in 2013. Costing $1.4 billion, it is the most expensive ground-based telescope in the world, and the most sensitive at millimetre and submillimetre wavelengths. A cluster of 66 high-precision antennas work in unison to achieve phenomenal resolution.

ALMA was designed to open an entirely new "window" on the universe. Its capabilities have been demonstrated once again with a stunning image released by astronomers this week, showing extraordinarily fine detail in the planet-forming disk around a young star. These new results are a major step forward in the understanding of protoplanetary disks and the formation of planets.

HL Tau is a million-year-old Sun-like star, located 450 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Taurus. The photo seen here exceeds all expectations and reveals a series of concentric and bright rings, separated by gaps. These new substructures have never been seen before and are believed to show the possible positions of planets forming in the dark patches – similar to how our own Solar System would have looked more than 4 billion years ago.

ALMA Deputy Director, Stuart Corder: "These features are almost certainly the result of young planet-like bodies forming in the disk. This is surprising, since such young stars are not expected to have large planetary bodies capable of producing the structures we see in this image."

Catherine Vlahakis, Deputy Program Scientist: "When we first saw this image, we were astounded at the spectacular level of detail. HL Tauri is no more than a million years old, yet already its disk appears to be full of forming planets. This one image alone will revolutionise theories of planet formation."

ALMA's new high-resolution capabilities were achieved by spacing the antennas up to 15 kilometres apart. This baseline at millimetre wavelengths enabled a resolution of 35 milliarcseconds – equivalent to a penny seen from over 110 kilometres away. An even larger cluster of telescopes known as the Square Kilometre Array is planned for operation in 2024. This will have 50 times the resolution of ALMA and 500 times that of Hubble.




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5th November 2014

Scientists uncover potential drug to tackle 'undruggable' fault in third of cancers

Scientists have found a possible way to halt one of the most common faults in many types of cancer, according to research presented at the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) Cancer Conference in Liverpool today.


  ras proteinMolecular structure of KRAS, part of the Ras family of proteins. The 3 Ras genes (HRAS, KRAS, and NRAS) are the most common oncogenes in human cancer.


A team of scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Physiology in Germany has uncovered a new strategy and new potential drug to target an important signalling protein in cells called Ras, which is faulty in a third of cancers. When the Ras protein travels from the centre of a cell to the edge of the cell membrane, it becomes ‘switched on’ and sends signals which tell cells to grow and divide. Faulty versions of this protein cause too many of these signals to be produced – leading to cancer.

For decades, scientists have been attempting to target Ras, but with little success. The reason the protein is so difficult to target is because it lacks an obvious spot on its surface that potential drug molecules can fit into in order to switch it off, like a key closing a lock.

But now the researchers have shown that instead of directly targeting the faulty protein itself, they can stop it moving to the surface of the cell by blocking another protein which transports Ras – preventing it from triggering cancer in the first place. By targeting a link in the chain reaction that switches on the Ras protein, the scientists have opened opportunities to develop new treatments in the future.

Dr Herbert Waldmann at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Physiology, said: “We’ve been scratching our heads for decades to find a solution to one of the oldest conundrums in cancer research. And we’re excited to discover that it’s actually possible to completely bypass this cancer-causing protein rather than attack it directly.

“We’re making new improvements on compounds for potential drugs, although the challenge still lies in developing a treatment that exploits this discovery without ruining the workings of healthy cells.”

Professor Matt Seymour, clinical research director at the NCRI: “This is an exciting approach to targeting one of the most common faults in cancer, which could lead to a new way of treating the disease. The research is still at a very early stage, and it will be years before it can benefit patients – but it is a key step forward in the field.”


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4th November 2014

DARPA circuit achieves speed of 1 terahertz (THz)

The fastest ever integrated circuit has been announced by DARPA – achieving one terahertz (1012 Hz), or a trillion cycles per second.


darpa circuit


Guinness World Records has officially recognised DARPA's Terahertz Electronics program for creating the fastest solid-state amplifier integrated circuit ever measured. The ten-stage common-source amplifier operates at a speed of one terahertz (1,000,000,000,000 Hz), or one trillion cycles per second — 150 billion cycles faster than the existing world record of 850 gigahertz set in 2012.

“This breakthrough could lead to revolutionary technologies such as high-resolution security imaging systems, improved collision-avoidance radar, communications networks with many times the capacity of current systems and spectrometers that could detect potentially dangerous chemicals and explosives with much greater sensitivity,” said Dev Palmer, DARPA program manager.

Developed by Northrop Grumman Corporation, the Terahertz Monolithic Integrated Circuit (TMIC) exhibits power gains several orders of magnitude beyond the current state of the art, using a super-scaled 25 nanometer gate-length. Gain, which is measured logarithmically in decibels, similar to how earthquake intensity is measured on the Richter scale, describes the ability of an amplifier to increase the power of a signal from the input to the output. The Northrop Grumman TMIC showed a measured gain of nine decibels at 1.0 terahertz and 10 decibels at 1.03 terahertz. By contrast, current smartphone technology operates at one to two gigahertz and wireless networks at 5.7 gigahertz.

“Gains of six decibels or more start to move this research from the laboratory bench to practical applications — nine decibels of gain is unheard of at terahertz frequencies” said Palmer. “This opens up new possibilities for building terahertz radio circuits.”

For years, researchers have been looking to exploit the tremendously high-frequency band beginning above 300 gigahertz where the wavelengths are less than one millimetre. The terahertz level has proven to be somewhat elusive though, due to a lack of effective means to generate, detect, process and radiate the necessary high-frequency signals.

Current electronics using solid-state technologies have largely been unable to access the sub-millimetre band of the electromagnetic spectrum due to insufficient transistor performance. To address the “terahertz gap,” engineers have traditionally used frequency conversion — converting alternating current at one frequency to alternating current at another frequency — to multiply circuit operating frequencies up from millimetre-wave frequencies. This approach, however, restricts the output power of electrical devices and adversely affects signal-to-noise ratio. Frequency conversion also increases device size, weight and power requirements.

DARPA has made a series of strategic investments in terahertz electronics through its HiFIVE, SWIFT and TFAST programs. Each program has built on the successes of the previous one, providing the foundational research necessary for frequencies to reach the terahertz threshold.


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3rd November 2014

3D printer is 10 times faster than current models

Hewlett-Packard (HP) has unveiled a 3D printer that it claims will be 10 times faster than current models.


hp 3d printer 10 times faster


HP has introduced its vision for the future of computing and 3D printing by unveiling its new "Blended Reality" ecosystem. Designed to break down the barriers between the digital and physical worlds, this ecosystem is underpinned by two key advancements:

  • HP Multi Jet Fusion: A revolutionary technology engineered to resolve critical gaps in the combination of speed, quality and cost, and deliver on the potential of 3D printing.

  • Sprout by HP: A first-of-its-kind Immersive Computing platform that will redefine the user experience and that creates a foundation for future immersive technologies.

"We are on the cusp of a transformative era in computing and printing," said Dion Weisler, executive vice president, Printing & Personal Systems (PPS). "Our ability to deliver Blended Reality technologies will reduce the barriers between the digital and physical worlds, enabling us to express ourselves at the speed of thought – without filters, without limitations. This ecosystem opens up new market categories that can define the future, empowering people to create, interact and inspire like never before."

"As we examined the existing 3D print market, we saw a great deal of potential but also saw major gaps in the combination of speed, quality and cost," said Stephen Nigro, vice president of Inkjet and Graphic Solutions at HP. "HP Multi Jet Fusion is designed to transform manufacturing across industries by delivering on the full potential of 3D printing with better quality, increased productivity, and break-through economics."

Multi Jet Fusion is built on HP Thermal Inkjet technology and features a unique synchronous architecture that significantly improves the commercial viability of 3D printing and has the potential to change the way we think about manufacturing.

  • 10 times faster: Images entire surface areas versus one point at a time to achieve breakthrough functional build speeds, 10 times faster than the fastest technology in the market today.

  • New levels of quality, strength and durability: Multi-agent printing process utilising HP Thermal Inkjet arrays that simultaneously apply multiple liquid agents to produce best-in-class quality that combines greater accuracy, resiliency and uniform part strength in all three axis directions.

  • Accuracy and detail: Capable of delivering fully functional parts with more accuracy, finer details and smooth surfaces, and able to manipulate part and material properties, including form, texture, friction, strength, elasticity, electrical, thermal properties and more.

  • Achieves breakthrough economics: Unifies and integrates various steps of the print process to reduce running time, cost, energy consumption and waste to significantly improve 3D printing economics.


hp blended reality ecosystem


Sprout – the first product available in HP's Blended Reality ecosystem – combines the power of an advanced desktop computer with an immersive, natural user interface to create a new computing experience. As shown in the image above, this puts a scanner, depth sensor, hi-resolution camera and projector into a single device, allowing users to take physical items and seamlessly merge them into a digital workspace. The system also delivers an unmatched collaboration platform, allowing users in multiple locations to collaborate on and manipulate a single piece of digital content in real-time.

"We live in a 3D world, but today we create in a 2D world on existing devices," said Ron Coughlin, senior vice president, Consumer PC & Solutions, HP. "Sprout by HP is a big step forward in reimagining the boundaries of how we create and engage with technology to allow users to move seamlessly from thought to expression."

Together, HP says these advancements have the potential to revolutionise production and offer small businesses a new way to produce goods and parts for customers. HP aims to invite open collaboration and partnerships in 2015 to further develop its 3D print system, with general consumer availability in the second half of 2016.


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