Huge Crack In Antarctic Glacier Gives Rise To Iceberg Bigger Than Manhattan!

NASA’s Terra satellite saw a huge crack in the Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica and it is all set to give rise to an iceberg the size of Manhattan! The huge gash in the snow is 30 kilometers (or 19 miles) long and nearly 100 meters wide, and is widening every passing minute. This is expected to create an iceberg more than 900 square kilometer in area, as compared to the 785 square kilometer area of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island and Bronx combined, said NASA. It recently featured as NASA’s Image of the Day.

The breaking of the glacier in Hi-Res. Courtesy: NASA/JPL/Terra

Bad News!

This is bad news, as it once again shows the disastrous effects of global warming. The Pine Island Glacier is a massive glacier and is also a major contributor to sea-level rise – almost one-third of the total contribution of Antarctica.

Ted Scambos, glaciologist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, Boulder, Colorado, explains that it is nothing unusual when glaciers cleave to produce giant icebergs. The problem is that this is happening out of the general pattern of ice-berg formation. He fears that the trend is shifting ‘upstream’ and that signifies acceleration. The reference to ‘upstream’ is given in the context of ice-flows – rapidly flowing streams of ice which flow into the sea.

That is nothing unusual in most cases. [When the] point of rifting starts to climb upstream, generally you see some acceleration of the glacier. [That] signifies that there are changes in the ice

The effect forms a feedback cycle. The ice breaking off from the Pine Island Glacier will leave a lot of room for ice from higher upstream to flow into the sea. The faster flow of this ice will contribute to a quicker rise in sea level.

News courtesy: National Geographic, JPL/NASA

10-Year Old Girl Accidentally Discovers A New Explosive Molecule, Co-Authors A Paper

When they mean young blood in science, they aren’t kidding. Let me introduce the molecule tetranitratoxycarbon, a compound containing nitrogen, carbon and oxygen. The molecule might be usable as an explosive. Further, it is not listed in the Humboldt State University (HSU) database and can, thus, be classified as a completely new molecule. Now, allow me to introduce to you the discoverer of the molecule – 10 yr old Clara Lazen of Kansas City!

Prof. Robert Zoellner of HSU standing with a ball-and-stick model of the molecule that Clara made. (Courtesy: gizmodo.com)

Just another fifth grader – and an explosive discovery!

Clara might just be a normal fifth grade student, but she just got her name into a paper, which she co-authored with Robert Zoellner. It all started in science class when Kenneth Boehr, her science teacher, brought out the ball-and-stick model and allowed the students to just play around. The ball-and-stick models are used to visualize simple molecules and often proves quite instrumental in explaining the angles and lengths of bonds right.

What Clara did was put the balls of different colours – representing different atoms – in a particularly complicated manner. When she asked Boehr whether this represented any real molecule, Boehr was at a loss. Instead of chucking out the work of the 10-yr old., he took a photograph and sent it to his friend Robert Zoellner, who works at HSU. Zoellner was interested and checked the HSU database only to find that there exists no such molecule. Zoellner confirmed that this should be a perfectly working molecule, but doesn’t occur in nature and hasn’t been synthesized as yet! 10-yr old Clara had made a discovery!!

Tetranitratoxycarbon resembles nitroglycerin, can store energy and can thereby be used as an explosive. Zoellner wrote a paper on this molecule which appeared in Computational and Theoretical Chemistry, and both Boehr and Clara are listed as co-authors.

Here’s another to be added to the list of explosive discoveries!

Story courtesy: gizmodo.com

Fabricated: The World’s First Two-Dimensional Glass

Researchers from the Cornell University and the University of Ulm have created the world’s thinnest pane of glass – and all this due to a failed attempt at making graphene. The glass is a mere 3 atoms thick! It’s the world’s first pseudo two-dimensional glass sheet.

The image as seen by the electron microscope. Inset: What the theorist had predicted about glass's structure in 1932

Making Graphene… err Glass

Graphene is a novel material, which is just one atom thick. It is basically one atomic layer of graphite, having honeycomb shaped lattices, with carbon atoms at each of the lattice points. The researchers were trying to synthesize graphene, using a technique called Chemical Vapour Deposition (CVD). They were trying to make a graphene sheet on a copper-covered quartz layer, which is a standard technique. What they found instead was a glass layer that had formed alongwith the graphene layer.

The scientists believe that an air leak allowed the copper to react with the quartz in the presence of oxygen and under high temperature. This led to the creation of a very thin layer of glass just 3 atoms in thickness.

A pleasant surprise

The greater surprise – and a pleasant one – emerged from the fact the glass structure looks like what a theorist had actually envisioned way back in 1932. Look at the inset figure. It clearly shows a few honey-comb structures alongwith many irregular ones. While oxygen appears white, silicon is marked in black. The use of ultra-thin glass sheets is innumerable. It can be used as miniature dielectric layers. Furthermore, this ‘accident’ reveals how such thin glass sheets can be produced.

The scientists have published this finding in Nano Letters.

Discovered: The Best Bet Yet For A Super-Earth, And It’s Very Close Too!

This might be even better than Kepler 22b! An alien exoplanet has been discovered, which resembles our own Earth the most. It is the best bet scientists are putting forward for a planet outside our own Solar System that is capable of harbouring liquid water. It lies in just the right zone – called the Goldilocks Zone – at the perfect distance away from its parent star and might even be congenial enough to harbour life of the form we see on Earth. It is also our next door neighbour, being just 22 light years away. The planet is christened GJ 667C.

An artist's impression

Just to give you a sense of how close GJ677C is, consider the fact that there are only 100 stars closer to Earth than this planet. The planet occurs bang in the middle of the Goldilocks zone, as Steven Vogt, astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, emphatically stresses in an interview to space.com:

It’s right smack in the habitable zone – there is no question or discussion about it. It’s not on the edge, it’s right in there!

The planet is about 4.5 times the size of Earth, but is not gaseous. It is rocky, having a composition similar to that of Earth. It orbits its parent star in only 28 days. The parent star is one of a triple-star system, which by itself is a nice fact about this planetary system. The star is a faint M-star, but still visible from Earth. This faintness of the star explains the fact the planet is quite close to the star – as indicated by its small orbital period – while still being in the Goldilocks zone, which is in itself a first instance. It just shows that there are systems which, otherwise deemed boring, might be worth checking.

The sight of the sky from GJ667C should be great! It’s parent star is one of a triple-star system, which means that apart from its own sun, the planet’s sky has two more suns, which are also just far enough to not destabilize the orbit or burn up the planet. Vogt does the explanation again:

The planet is around one star in a triple-star system. The other stars are pretty far away, but they would look pretty nice in the sky.

The study was published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Researchers Create Brain Tissue Using Skin Cells

A medical miracle has been achieved in Edinburgh’s Center for Regenerative Medicine, Scotland, just a few miles from Roslin Institute, where Dolly, the world’s first cloned sheep was created. Scientists have created brain cells from skin cells and this is to study patients suffering from schizophrenia and depression. Since, it is not possible to poke the brain and study the development and degeneration of brain cells in such patients, scientists have hoped for a workaround.

Brain network - an artist's impression

Using the Stem Cell Route

After long frustrating periods fraught with disappointing results, researchers finally made a breakthrough using skin cells to make stem cells, which can then be made into brain tissue. The main reason for this is that tissues degenerate soon after death. Furthermore, they get affected by lack of oxygen during death, medication and, of course, ultimate stages of the disease itself.

Royal Edinburgh Hospital’s Professor Andrew McIntosh, collaborating with the study, says:

That tissue is affected by whatever killed them and by the impact of the medication they had been taking for their condition, possibly for several decades. So having access to living brain cells is a significant development for the development of drugs for these conditions.

Controversy

Stem cells have been held up as a potential cure for many diseases, including cancer. Unfortunately, there has been opposition to the use of stem cells, especially when the stem cells need to be embryonic. Several religious groups have likened this to murder, as they believe that the soul enters the embryo when it is 10 days old and killing this fetus is equivalent to taking a life. Scientists around the world are strongly against this kind of reasoning, hailing stem cell research as the next big thing in medical sciences, a revolution potentially more impactful than even penicillin.

Embryonic Stem Cells (Courtesy: Scientific American)

As this pioneering experiment showed, it might be possible to generate tissues for other organs like lungs and heart. However, that is still some time away, even if funds and academic freedom are granted to scientists.

Tiny Amounts Of Alcohol Double A Worm’s Life Expectancy!

Humans might just envy Caenorhabditis elegans. It has been found that tiny amounts of alcohol nearly double the lifespan of this particular worm. However, even the UCLA chemistry professors who discovered this bizarre phenomenon, are unable to explain why.

The worm! (Photo courtesy: Shilpi Khare, one of the team members)

This study was intended as a model of aging. Tiny amounts of ethanol were given to worms and they found that, instead of dying soon, the worms were  living much longer – sometimes almost twice as longer!

Cholesterol and Ethanol

Steven Clarke, the biochemistry professor at UCLA and lead author of the study, surmised that it’s only the high doses of alcohol which affect an organism adversely. Alcohol in low concentrations might actually be helpful. He says:

We used far lower levels, where it may be beneficial.

The team studied the worms right from their larval stage to adulthood. The worms eat bacteria and live for a mere 15 days. The tiny amount of alcohol was noticed to extend the life of the worms to 20 to 40 days consistently.

The lab tested the effect of cholesterol on these worms. They injected cholesterol, which is quite harmful in humans, since it often tends to clog up vital arteries and veins in humans. What they found was that the ethanol ingested earlier was helpful in dissolving the cholesterol, and indeed cholesterol dissolves in ethanol rather readily. The dilution of the ethanol administered earlier was 1-in-1000.

No one knows why!

Different concentrations yielded similar results. The team tried concentrations of 1-in-20,000, but the results were still positive. The effect was however not found when the concentration was increased to about 1-in-250. The puzzle is still open.

The lab is now trying to isolate the factor, which leads to this strange behavior. They suspect a gene. This immediately opens up the question as to whether this same procedure can be helpful to humans or not. Afterall, we share a large percentage of our genetic baggage with these worms. There is more – the worms ingesting alcohol look healthier than ones which do not. Says Paola Castro, one of the members of the group:

At high magnifications under the microscope, it was amazing to see how the worms given a little ethanol looked significantly more robust than worms not given ethanol.

It is possible that the worms are using the ethanol directly as a source of food.

Before you ask, let us just say that this procedure may not really be applicable to humans. And if you really want to drink, kindly give yourself a better excuse than ‘Even a worm drinks and look where that’s got it’.

Discovered: A Dark Matter Galaxy As Far As 10 Billion Light Years Away!

When galaxies form, they leave a lot of debris strewn around and this might reveal vital clues about the nature of dark matter, think scientists. Galaxies are believed to form by collision of smaller bodies of stars, which then equilibriate due to gravitational interactions. Even the Milky Way is believed to be surrounded by smaller galaxies, called satellites. A group of scientists looking at the Local Group, or a group of a few galaxies, including our Milky Way and the neighboring Andromeda, have found that the number of observed satellite galaxies is much smaller than expected from cold dark matter simulations.

The Local Group of Galaxies, with M33 being in the center

These satellite galaxies have unusually low number of stars and can be made up of mostly dark matter. These dark satellites could only be seen by the way they bend light due to their gravitation.

Searching for Dark Satellites

Attempts to find dark satellite galaxies in the Local Group had yielded a candidate at a redshift of z= 0.222, which works out to about 3 billion light years, which is quite close by cosmological standards. However, the number was just not tallying up; out of a predicted number of 10,000 only 30 showed up. Scientists decided that the Local Group case might be an anomaly and looked further out.

Infrared image of the 'dark galaxy'. Photo courtesy: David Lagattuta/ Keck Observatory

In a paper published in Nature, by the team of Vegetti (MIT), Lagattuta (University of California, Davis), McKean (Netherlands Institute of Radio Astronomy), Auger(University of California, Santa Barbara), Fassnacht (University of California, Davis) and Koopmans (University of Groningen, Netherlands) report to have observed a dark satellite galaxy at a redshift of 0.881, which puts its distance at about 10 billion light years.

Using General Relativity to See!

The method is a beautiful consequence of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, the modern theory of gravity. It says that mass bends space-time and light rays will follow this bent path as they travel. This allows us to use a technique called gravitational lensing. The technique is quite simple in principle. A dark matter object will act as a lens, bending light as it travels through it. If you have a light-emitting galaxy behind a dark matter galaxy, the light will get distorted and we will be seeing an image of the galaxy at a position where it is not really there. A beautiful demonstration of this is manifested as an Einstein’s Ring.

An Einstein Ring - Note the circular streaks of light.
How an Einstein ring forms.

Using the Keck-II telescope, one of these Einstein Rings was observed and a satellite galaxy was noticed at about 10 billion light years away, which has about the same mass as the Sagittarius galaxy. This is the first gravitational detection of a low-mass dark satellite galaxy at cosmological distances!

Exactly as predicted!!

The most exciting feature about this is that the mass calculations yield just the right mass for the galaxy to be consistent with cold dark matter simulations. It gives more credence to the hierarchical formation of stellar structures like galaxies as described by cold dark matter models.

Says Vegetti:

The existence of this low-mass dark galaxy is just within the bounds we expect if the universe is composed of dark matter that has a cold temperature. However, further dark satellites will need to be found to confirm this conclusion

Ignorance may not always be blissful, but it is certainly exciting most of the time!

Wolfram Research Rolls Out ‘Wolfram Education Portal’, Makes Teaching And Learning Much More Interactive

Teaching just became a lot easier thanks to Wolfram Research Institute and the resources they have put online. Called the ‘Wolfram Education Portal’, it combines the power of Wolfram research’s best computation engines with other teaching aids like lesson plans to make learning as pleasurable for both teachers and students. Hold on tight as we introduce to you the different features of this wonderful portal.

Wolfram Education Portal: http://education.wolfram.com/
Wealth of information: http://www.wolframalpha.com/educators/
Image 1: Tan(z) on a complex plane.

Wolfram had already demonstrated the power of interactive computational techniques by developing the Computable Document Format or CDF, where it is possible to spice up documents with interactive graphs and figures. The present development seems to be an even bigger jump.

Introducing the Wolfram Education Portal

The Education Portal has a lot of material in the algebra and calculus section, but it will soon expand into other sections as well. Instructors will benefit greatly by being able to easily present the methods of calculation, like finding the slope of a curve, the meaning of discontinuity and numerical integration. It also aims to stress the inculcation of Wolfram’s wonderful web-based mathematical software-cum-database Wolfram|Alpha. There are also a number of introductions to different Wolfram products like Mathematica and CDF.

Exploring it myself

I decided to explore what the big fuss was and was quite impressed. You’ll have to log in with a certain Wolfram ID. If you don’t have one, creating one is extremely easy and it’s free. Once that is done, you can access everything that has been put out there.

Algebra

Let’s first start off with the Algebra section.

In the so-called Library view, you can see that there are currently 90 textbook sections, 68 lesson plans, 15 demonstrations and 10 widgets. I especially liked the widgets; they do simple things quickly and without fuss. I checked out several sections, ‘Multi-Step Equations’, ‘Graphs of Quadratic Functions’ and ‘The Pythagorean Theorem and its Converse’. They contain textbook material, which provides direct, easy-to-understand-and-present material, deliciously sprinkled with a healthy dose of problems.

Instructors might be more interested in the Lesson Plans. It draws up a list of things that the instructor is supposed to teach and the students are supposed to work out. Examples are nicely provided and stress has been laid to the use of Wolfram|Alpha in classrooms. There are also widgets provided in between the examples.

Calculus

Next comes the calculus section. I loved this section more for the simple reason that it is richer in content. This section has demonstrations and widgets. The demonstrations are brilliant and spent quite some time fiddling around with them, even though I knew every technique being shown here. It’s great fun, and it makes you love the things you already know. It will definitely be a great help for students, more as a visual aid than as a computational technique.

I loved the demonstration of numerical integration, using the three different techniques – rectangular (not so accurate), trapezoidal rule (more accurate) and Simpson’s rule (quite accurate). You can easily see the comparison and judge which method works best for different functions. What method are you supposed to use for functions which are discontinuous at certain points? Use the different functions and different methods interactively to find out! It’s a fun way to learn.

Image 2: The derivative of a polynomial. You can change the polynomial (blue) by changing the position of the black knobs. The purple bar, showing the derivative, changes automatically.

I had to mention the demonstration on the squeeze theorem and taking derivatives of polynomials. Can you draw the derivative of any given polynomial by simply looking at it? No? Then give this a try, fiddle around with it and you’ll know how you do that!

Wolfram|Alpha and the classroom

Lastly, I cannot but mention the Wolfram|Alpha and how Wolfram wants teachers to use it for instruction. Wolfram has this comprehensive step-by-step-math guide for Wolfram|Alpha. Give Wolfram|Alpha something to solve and then ask it to show the steps as well. If it can, it will.

Image 3: Wolfram|Alpha showing the steps of the calculation. The 'Show Steps' button is placed right where the 'Hide Steps' button (arrow) is now placed. The equation is quadratic.
Image 4: No steps shown for the cubic equation. But do notice the graphical solution shown.

I found out that it can easily show steps for quadratic equations (image 3), but not so for cubic equations (image 4). I think the method of intersection of curves to solve equations is something that is not given its due importance in classrooms, so it was quite refreshing to see Wolfram|Alpha displaying that as a primary technique.

There you have it! Oh, you can also give suggestions, share material and inform Wolfram about any novel teaching methods that you might have thought of by clicking the give feedback link at the top of the page.

Have a lot of fun with Wolfram Education Portal.

Stem-Cell Laden Windpipe Transplanted In A Cancer Patient

The potential of stem-cells was demonstrated again when a man from Baltimore, Christopher Lyles, aged 30, received an artificial wind-pipe made out of stem-cells. He’s just the second person in history to have received this treatment.

The stem-cell laden windpipe. (Courtesy: University College London)

Removal and replacement

Lyles was suffering from tracheal cancer, or cancer of the windpipe. A team of doctors, led by Dr. Paolo Macchiarini, removed his cancerous trachea and replaced it with one made of a polymer, seeded with stem cells. The stem cells were taken from his own bone marrow and should grow to replace the trachea which he once had.

Dr. Macchiarini, a professor of regenerative surgery at Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, was the hero of the occasion, as he was in the only other attempt made before.

The litmus test

A glass mold of the windpipe was made and this was coated with stem cells, taken from the patient’s bone marrow and nose. This was then left in a bioreactor – a device to stimulate cell growth – for two days to grow. The transplant was then ready!

Further growth of cells can happen within the human body – the best bioreactor known. The cancerous trachea was removed and this stem-cell laden trachea was put in.

Stem cell research holds huge potential for medicine. It won’t be any exaggeration to say that stem cell holds the key to medical research and success in the near future.

More info: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504763_162-57359679-10391704/cancer-patient-receives-stem-cell-made-windpipe-first-in-u.s/

Researchers Recreate Major Evolutionary Transition From Unicellularity to Multi-Cellularity

A key step in the evolution of multi-cellularity has been reproduced in the lab, and it involves the death of cells. Will Ratcliff, Micheal Travisano, Ford Denison and Mark Borrello of University of Minnesota (UMN) recreated the process of cell death in multi-cellular organisms. The subject of the study – the humble Brewer’s yeast! Their work figures in the week’s issue of the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The onset of multicellularity. A clump of about 100 cells showing multicellular properties.

The Division of Labor and Cell Death!

The Brewer’s yeast is a single-celled organism and it was seen to evolve into multi-cellular families or clusters that worked as a unit, employing the principle of division of labor. This is a major step from single-celled to multi-celled organisms. A single cell needs to do all it has to sustain itself on its own. What multi-cellularity introduces is the concept of labor division and, thereby, specialization. Certain cells can specialize in a certain way, and other cells in other ways and they can then sustain each other. An important process in this organizational structure is the faculty of cell death.

Moving towards multi-cellularity. Dead cells are stained red.

Cells have an inherent program designed to ensure that they have a tendency to die. Apoptosis is the term used to describe this kind of programmed cell death. It occurs in multi-cellular organisms and is to the advantage of the living organism. How this program evolved in single-celled organisms before they clump up to form multi-cellular organisms is a major question. As Ratcliff puts it nicely, a clump is not really multi-cellular:

A cluster alone isn’t multi-cellular. But when cells in a cluster cooperate, make sacrifices for the common good, and adapt to change, that’s an evolutionary transition to multi-cellularity.

Cells stained green are undergoing apoptosis. This helps the organism survive better.

Sacrifice for a greater good – what’s the evolutionary background to that? And how long does it take?

The Experiment

This is how the experiment was conducted.

Procedure

Saccharomyces cerevisiae or Brewer’s yeast was chosen and grown on a nutrient rich substrate in a test-tube for a day. Then they centrifuged the culture. Clusters of cells landed in the bottom of the test-tube. This was repeated every day for sixty days. What they found was that the balls of cells were not just balls of cells anymore, but had become fully-cooperative and acted as a unit. Cells remained attached after cell division and did not simply branch off. After a certain size of the cluster, cells started to die off – as if the program for apoptosis had been switched on! This was the onset of true multi-cellularity.

The central row of dead cells (stained bright red), promoting reproduction. This forms the line along which the cleavage occurs.

What about reproduction? Reproduction happened asexually as is typical for yeasts. Budding happens along ‘fault lines’ created by rows of dead cells. However, the budding process occurred only after the yeast achieved adulthood, which was ascertained by the size of the clump.

Time

Just to point out, the greatest wonder of this is that the road from unicellularity to multi-cellularity took so little time! This hardly seems like a bottleneck evolutionary development, which occurs after a long standstill. This process took just 60 days! Two months is utterly insignificant in evolutionary timescale.

Cancer… And more

Current medical research into cancer leads one to believe that cancer is just a vestigial process of apoptosis, which can be directly traced to the origin of multicellularity. However, little is known and the researchers hope that this will shed some critical light on the whole issue. Travisano says:

Multi-cellular yeast is a valuable resource for investigating a wide variety of medically and biologically important topics. Cancer was recently described as a fossil from the origin of multi-cellularity, which can be directly investigated with the yeast system.

A lot of hope and a great opportunity all due to a humble microbe.