Lonesome George Dies At Age 100; Species Goes Extinct

Lonesome George has passed away!

The legendary tortoise, the rarest of its species and the last giant tortoise from the Galapagos island of Pinta, has died at the age of about 100 years. The Galapagos National Park, Ecuador, staff have said that George was the last of his species and now the species has gone extinct.

Lonesome George (Photo Courtesy: The Guardian)

The exact cause of George’s death is unknown and a post-mortem for the giant elder.

The story of George’s long life has been a sad one. Lonesome George has no offspring and there are no other individuals of his species left.

The story of his life

George had been a mascot of the Galapagos National Park breeding program. He lived with a female for 15 years on a nearby Wolf volcano and mated. However, the eggs were infertile. Slow reproduction rates for the species meant that George remained without an offspring.

He was picked up and kept with females from the nearby Espanola island in the archipelago. These females were genetically closer to him than those from Wolf volcano. But George wasn’t interested in a relationship. He did not mate with these females. George had just tagged himself ‘Lonesome’.

And the Darwin angle

The legend of Lonesome George has as much of a foothold in the history of the island as it has got in the annals of science. The ancestors of Lonesome George, the giant Galapagos tortoises, of which the giants from Pinta are integral members, had been instrumental in suggesting toDarwin, what was then, the hypothesis of evolution.

It was this and his uniqueness that made Lonesome George the star of Pinta Island, attracting close to 200,000 visitors every year.

The star no longer shines.

China Achieves Successful Manual Docking Of Spacecraft With Space Station

China has done what only the Americans and the Russians have had the right to brag about till now. Not only that, they did it, undid it and did it again! I am talking about the manual docking of the Shenzhou spacecraft on their Tiangong-I Space Station module.

Docking with the Tiangong-1 space station module.

The First Docking

The Chinese had launched their their Shenzhou-9 spacecraft to rendezvous with the Tiangong space station module on the 16th of June. Now, finally, on the 24th of June, the Chinese have attempted and succeeded in docking the modules. While Tiangong-1 is unmanned, Shenzhou wasn’t.

This is China’s first shot at an unmanned docking, marking a historic day when they achieve what only the Americans and the Russians have been able to achieve before them. But then, if it’s the Chinese, there’s always something more.

Docking Once More!

The Chinese astronauts, or taikonauts as they are called, undocked the two modules earlier today, and drove them apart by almost 400 meters. Then they attempted to manually maneuver the Shenzhou capsule, with Liu Wang, China’s first woman astronaut and a former fighter pilot, at the steering wheel. The procedure was a grand success! The refitted spacecraft-module configuration is now orbiting the Earth about 343 meters above the Earth’s surface.

China’s Manned Space Mission Program guys are a happy lot. Says Wu Ping, spokeswoman of the Manned Space Program:

The success of the manual rendezvous and docking mission represents another important phase achievement of the Shenzhou 9 and Tiangong 1 rendezvous and docking mission

And then adds

The three astronauts will once again enter the orbiting module of Tiangong 1 to carry out scientific experiments.

The crew returns on the 28th of June, touching down on Earth on the 29th.

CERN Conference On The Higgs Boson To Be Held On 4th Of July

The latest status of the Higgs Boson search at the LHC will be announced on the 4th of July. The conference will be held in Geneva. Incidentally, the International Conference on High Energy Physics (ICHEP), 2012, will also commence on the same date, but in faraway Melbourne.

A Higgs to 4 lepton event. Simulated.

The Higgs announcement

The announcement is expected to a big one – especially with the predicted discovery of the Higgs by the end of the year. The status of the Higgs will not be changed to ‘discovered’, but we will get to know how far we have actually reached.

We have already told you why you shouldn’t believe the rumors going around about the Higgs being discovered (LINK). It hasn’t been discovered as yet!

Just to sum up that post in the link, we predict that the CERN conference will announce that the Higgs bump in 8 TeV data matches with the bump in the 7 TeV data. Better make your way to that post!

CERN and murky money matters

CERN’s problem with making the official announcement from ICHEP in Melbourne is that Australia is not a ‘member state’ of CERN. Why make an official announcement in a country that doesn’t foot the bill for running of the LHC? So Geneva it is! And July 4th.

The CERN conference is scheduled for 0900 hours Geneva local time, which is GMT + 2 hours (i.e. it is two hours ahead of GMT) currently, due to daylight savings.

Do stay tuned to our coverage of the announcement.

“Odd Couple”: Kepler Exoplanets Defy Known Planet Formation Theories

As if astrophysics didn’t have enough problems on its hands, it seems that a new discovery has handed over a new challenge. An exoplanet pair, discovered by the exoplanet hunting Kepler Space Telescope, unimaginatively named Kepler 36-b and Kepler 36-c according to accepted catalog practices, turns out to be spectacular blow for established planet-formation theories.

An artist’s impression of the how the second planet would look standing on Kepler 36-b, when the two planets are close to one another. (Photo Courtesy: David Aguilar, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

A problem…

The two planets are very close to one another. They orbit their parent star, but they are separated by only 1.9 million kilometers. This turns out to be 0.01 AU, an AU being an ‘Astronomical Distance’, which is the average distance between the Earth and the Sun. So the two planets are a hundred times closer to each other than the Earth is to the Sun.

Astrophysicists wouldn’t be worried, yet. True this is very odd, but it doesn’t transgress the rule books. Here comes the blow: The two planets are as different as Venus and Neptune!

How is it a problem?

In our own Solar System, Venus is a rocky planet meaning that it has a solid rocky ground to stand on. It’s not a ball of compressed gas. In fact, Venus very much has a surface and it is riddled with numerous volcanic features, like volcanic domes, large fissures on the ground and rolling planes formed by large sheets of solidified lava flows. Kepler 36-b is not quite Venus in the volcanic sense, but is definitely rocky. It’s more like Earth, minus the oceans. Only that it is four times heavier than Earth, suggesting that is very dense.

Neptune is as unlike Venus as a planet can get. It is a gas giant and has no solid ground to stand on. It’s much larger than either Venus or Earth. Kepler 36-c resembles this gas giant.

Making planets

Planet formation theories suggest that when the disc of rocks, gas and dust spinning around a parent star coalesces in clumps to form planets, the gas and dust are naturally flung far away from the center, while the rockier bits of the initial soup of raw materials stay within the vicinity of the parent star. They coalesce to form rocky planets. This explains the occurrence of rocky planets to the interior and the presence of the gas giants farther out for our own Solar System.

Since the forces involved in this process are those of gravitation (due to the star) and the centripetal forces (due to the rotation of the disc of raw materials), scientists would have expected the same rule to work for any planetary system, as these forces are both ubiquitous and inescapable.

But that can’t be the whole story!

That however is not the case apparently. The atmospheres are also very fascinating. Kepler 36-c has an atmosphere which is 10 times as dense as Kepler 36-b, even though they are at almost the same distance from their parent star.

Scientists like puzzles, especially those which can rewrite books. Nothing is ever sacred, not even the physics of the heavenly bodies.

Don’t Believe The Rumors – The Higgs Boson Has NOT Been Discovered! Really!

In a few days, the floodgates will open and you’ll hear about the Higgs Boson being already found. The Holy Grail of particle physics will have been found and only CERN will need to confirm it in their press release. When CERN will deliver the promised press release, they will inevitably say that the Higgs is still far from being discovered and that they have only see a ‘statistically significant fluctuation’ about some energy range. The whole non-high energy physics world will breathe out a collective sigh and, defeated, ask ‘How much longer?’

Not quite yet! (A Higgs to four muon event)

 Higgs Not Discovered!

In order to spare at least our readers from being part of this international collective gasping team, I would like to mention this: The Higgs Boson’s status on its road to being discovered hasn’t changed since the December CERN update. It hasn’t been discovered as yet!

I predict that this is the line that CERN will adopt when it gives the Higgs Boson status update during the International Conference on High Energy Physics (ICHEP) that will be held in Melbourne from the 4th of July to the 11th of July.

The Last Six Months at the LHC

But then what has changed in the last six months? Has the LHC been doing nothing?

The LHC is now operating at a new energy scale. The LHC had been colliding beams at 7 TeV energy last year, and, beginning this year, it has been colliding beams at 8 TeV energy. The good news is that they still see the 125 GeV bump in the 8 TeV data they saw in the 7 TeV data, which has been attributed to the Higgs Boson. This means that the 125 GeV bump is not some random fluctuation, but an actual particle – probably the Higgs.

Why Is It Still Not A Discovery?

However, the data collected is not enough to guarantee a discovery, not even when integrated with the 7 TeV data. The 7 TeV data had yielded a confidence level of 1.9 sigma from the CMS detector and a confidence level of 2.3 sigma from the ATLAS detector. Both numbers are far from the 5 sigma confidence level needed to guarantee a discovery. However, the coincidence of the mass range for the fluctuation in the two detectors is heartening.

As I have explained here, ‘confidence level’ is a quantitative measure which tells physicist how unlikely it is that a certain signal is a mere fluctuation. So 3 sigma means that the chances that a signal is a fluke are less than 0.13%. High Energy physics demands very high rigour at 5-sigma confidence level – that’s the doubts reducing from 0.13% to less than .00007%.

What To Expect From ICHEP

The ICHEP announcement will say that the Higgs has been seen in the same energy range – 125 to 126 GeV mass range – and that the amount of data is not enough to say that it is really there. The 8 TeV data is far too small – giving at most a 1.5 sigma confidence level and no more. Integrated with the 7 TeV data, the confidence levels for both detectors might swell up to 2.5 to 3-sigma (taking into account the look-elsewhere effect), which, though significant, is still not a discovery. Sorry for the disappointment!

The good news is that this is exactly what is to be expected. The Higgs search is expected to end by the end of this year. That is when you will REALLY get to know whether the Higgs actually exists or not.

As for ICHEP and Higgs announcements by CERN, you can rely on us for the information. We will post them as they are announced. Not before!

BaBar Data Hints At Physics Beyond The Standard Model

Experiments may just be showing some chinks in the massive armour of the Standard Model of particle physics. The Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC) experiment BaBar has just produced data that contradicts the Standard Model, but the confidence level is still not high enough to warrant the tag of a discovery. So the Standard Model stays where it is, at least for the moment. Physicists are waiting for a confirmation of the same anomalous effect from the Belle experiment.

The Decay Deal

So this is what’s happening. A particle called the B-bar meson (i.e. a bound state of a quark and an anti-quark in which the antiquark is a anti-bottom or b-bar) decays into a D-meson (i.e. a meson containing a down quark) and a tau anti-neutrino and a tau lepton. The problem is not in the decay products but in the rate of decay. The Standard Model predicts very definite rates for particle decays, but the observed decay rate is higher than what the Standard Model predicts. This excess is what has got physicists interested.

The confidence level of the observation is about 3.4 sigma, which is not enough to claim a discovery, which requires 5 sigma. Confidence level is a quantitative measure of how solid a set of data is. The higher the confidence level, the lesser the chances that the result is a mere fluctuation.

There is work to be done, though. Seasoned particle physicists are wary. BaBar spokesperson, Michael Roney, professor at University of Victoria, Canada is visibly enthusiastic:

The excess over the Standard Model prediction is exciting

but then puts up a cautious front with:

But before we can claim an actual discovery, other experiments have to replicate it and rule out the possibility this isn’t just an unlikely statistical fluctuation.

And that’s exactly how these things work.

The LHC Angle to “New Physics”

Incidentally, this one is not coming from the LHC at CERN. LHC has been hard at work and the data it is churning out is killing off one ‘New Physics’ or Beyond Standard Model theory after the other, confirming the Standard Model even further. The greatest confirmation of the accuracy of the Standard Model will come from the Higgs discovery, which is where the irony lies. The irony is that, if the Higgs is discovered at 125-126 GeV range, and this is the likeliest scenario, physics beyond the Standard Model is a definite requirement.

As I mentioned, the wait now is for another experiment to repeat these results. Says Roney:

If they do, the combined significance could be compelling enough to suggest how we can finally move beyond the Standard Model.

 New physics beckons. 

The SLAC press release: https://news.slac.stanford.edu/press-release/babar-data-hint-cracks-standard-model

Study Shows the Most Contaminated Surfaces in Hotel Rooms

If you’re like me, the first thing you think about when you walk in a hotel room is whether or not the sheets are clean. After reviewing the information provided by Katie Kirsch, an undergraduate student at the University of Houston, I may have to change my priorities. Kirsch led a team that swabbed various surfaces in hotel rooms then tested them for microbials. The results are little stomach turning.

Hotel Room
(Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The study was conducted Texas, Indiana, and South Carolina. It was relatively small in scale only evaluating 3 rooms in each state. The study sought out aerobic bacteria, which is the kind most likely to make one sick. The bacterial measurement is called colony forming units or CFU. So who were the big offenders? Well, as expected, the toilet and bathroom sink had high levels of bacteria. What might be less expected however, was the TV remote and the main light switch for the room. Let’s put it this way, in hospitals the cleanliness CFU goal is less than 5CFU per centimeter squared. The TV remote measured close to 70CFU per centimeter squared. The light switch was a whopping 112CFU per centimeter squared. Yikes! Another major problem they found was in the cleaning tools used by housekeepers. For instance, the sponges housed enormous amounts aerobic bacteria which presents a risk of cross contaminating room to room.

The study was not meant to be a scare tactic but rather, it was done as a first step to introduce the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) system to the hotel industry. This system was originally designed by NASA as a way to prevent dangerous chemicals and microbes. The food and healthcare industries already use this system to prevent unwanted encounters with biological and chemical hazards. Kirsch said, “Hoteliers have an obligation to provide their guests with a safe and secure environment. Currently, housekeeping practices vary across brands and properties with little or no standardization industry wide. The current validation method for hotel room cleanliness is a visual assessment, which has been shown to be ineffective in measuring levels of sanitation.”

Kirsch presented her findings at the 2012 General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology. You can watch the video via the YouTube link below.




China Sends Its First Woman Into Space As It Sets Up Its Space Station

China has joined the space race. The Asian giant with a booming economy launched its Shenzhou spacecraft carrying three astronauts, including the 33 year-old Liu Yang.

Liu Yang, the Chinese astronaut and first Chinese woman in space. (Courtesy: Reuters)

The spacecraft will dock with the spacestation module Tiangong 1. Tiangong means Heavenly Palace in Chinese. This is the second step in China’s long-time plans to put a space station in orbit, rivalling the International Space Station. The target year is 2020.

The Shenzhou spacecraft

While Tiangong 1 is nowhere close to the magnificence of the International Space Station, it has to be remembered that this is just a test module. The docking techniques being used by China have been mastered by only the Soviets and the Americans before. A space lab is on the cards and China is putting heavy stress on manned missions.

This is in complete contrast with the ambitions of the American space program, which is now focussing on unmanned and a future manned mission to Mars. While it has been only the Chinese government which has been funding and operating the space program, NASA has been encouraging private players like SpaceX and Orbital Corps into entering the space race. Of course, the end of the Space Shuttle program has a lot to do with that!

The Chinese are optimistic about their chances. Said Zhou Jianping, the chief designer of China’s manned mission:

I believe that we can achieve this goal, because we already have the basic technological capability

The Sino-US competition is getting hotter and, in a twist of fate, entering a space race just like the one of the Cold War days. History does repeat itself… hopefully in a more positive way.

Future Displays May Consist of Water and Air

Can you say superhydrophobic three times real fast? Yeah, me neither. This is a term that describes something that is extremely resistant to water. If you were superhydrophobic, you would emerge the clear winner in any water gun fight. However, I shall get back to the point. Researchers have long marveled at how the lotus leaf, pictured below, repels water. Its surface is so smooth that water and dirt cannot adhere to it. To achieve this super water repellency on a surface, there have to be structures in place which force air between the water and the surface of the leaf. Researchers have mimicked this effect by developing a surface that allowed them to print letters in the air layer between it and the water above it.

Water Drop on Lotus
Water Drop on Lotus (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Dr. Robin Ras of Aalto University in Finland lead the study along with researchers from University of Cambridge and Nokia Research Center Cambridge. You can watch a really neat display of this technology at work via this link http://youtu.be/AEWPIjLbrSE.  It is pretty impressive to see how they carried this research out. They squirt water directly onto the surface where below, you can see the word “Nokia”. The water just bounces off the surface until it is completely covered. In an effort to keep this simple, what basically happens because of the presence of nano-scale posts on the surface, a layer of air is trapped between the superhydrophobic surface and the water above it. Because of the way the posts are designed, the shape of the air can exist in two “wetting” states. The researchers refer to this as “reversible switching”. All it takes is a pressure change to change the shape of this air layer. “The minimal energy needed to switch between the states means the system is bistable, which is the essential property of memory devices, for example”, Academy Research Fellow Dr. Robin Ras points out. However, there is a feature that makes it all the more interesting: there is a striking optical contrast between the states due to a change in the roughness of the water-air interface. “Combined with the optical effect, the surface is also a bistable reflective display.” Video is also embedded below.

Who knows where this research could lead? It could have applications such as lower power data storage all the way to low power displays. The amazing thing to me is that the original idea came from observing nature. There is so much discovery left in this world and so much to learn. If only, we took more time to ponder nature’s wonders, who knows what amazing innovations we might achieve.

For more information on this research, you can view the published study on the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences website at http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/06/05/1204328109.



Artificial Vein Created Out of Stem Cells Saves A 10-Year Old Girl’s Life

The stem cell revolution is doing exactly what had been predicted of it – saving lives of patients with rare diseases. A 10-year old Swedish girl, suffering from a blockage of a vein in the liver (medically ‘extrahepatic portal vein blockage’), is the first recipient of a major vein replacement using stem cells.

Stem Cell (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Stem Cells are cells capable of specializing into cells with very specific functions. Stem cells can thus be used to regenerate any part of the body, proving invaluable to treatment of cancer – or even vein blockages.

The Operation

Associated Press reported the story saying that the vein replacement using stem cells was the alternative to a liver transplant. A 9-cm vein was taken from a dead man and stripped of all living cells. Only the protein remained, devoid of any genetic information. This was then grafted with the stem cells extracted and harvested from the girl’s bone marrow. The graft became a vein exactly identical to one made by the girl’s body within a period of two weeks of so. This was planted into the patients body after removing the offending blocked vein.

No post-operative complications

There have been no complications accompanying the surgery. The biggest fear remains that of rejection. If the body’s immune system recognises the grafted vein as a foreign object, it will attack it, causing severe complications and even death. This happens during the first few days immediately after surgery and immunosupressant are prescribed to prevent this hyperactivity of the immune system.

In this present case, no immunosuppression was required. A liver transplant requires lifelong dependance on immunosuppresants.

The doctors measured the blood flow through the new vein and found it to be normal. This was confirmed using ultrasound.

The whole operation has been funded by the Swedish government.

The report: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(12)60633-3/fulltext