Category Archives: Science

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NASA Launches NuSTAR Mission

NASA launched the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) on Wednesday to observe the secrets of the hidden universe including black holes and other “exotic objects”. The telescopic array was carried by a Pegasus XL rocket which dropped from an Orbital Science Corporation “Stargazer” aircraft and launched successfully into space.

NuSTAR
Artist Rendering of the NuStar Telescope (Courtesy NASA.GOV)

NuSTAR is unique in that it uses the high energy X-Ray region of the electromagnetic spectrum to capture images of the Universe. In the artist rendering, pictured above, you will notice that there is a very long mast stretching out from the main craft. This mast separates the optics from the focal plane. The reason for this is to help with focus. The visible light that we use in our everyday cameras doesn’t need much distance between the lens and the focal point. However, these X-rays require greater distance to get the proper focus.

According to NASA.GOV website, the NusSTAR mission will accomplish the following:

  1. Take a census of collapsed stars and black holes of different sizes by surveying regions surrounding the center of own Milky Way Galaxy and performing deep observations of the extragalactic sky;
  2. Map recently-synthesized material in young supernova remnants to understand how stars explode and how elements are created; and
  3. Understand what powers relativistic jets of particles from the most extreme active galaxies hosting supermassive black holes.
According to NASA’s Astrophysics Division Director, Paul Hertz, “NuSTAR will open a new window on the universe and will provide complementary data to NASA’s larger missions, including Fermi, Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer.” Researchers hope to explore regions of the Universe previously impossible to see. They boast that NuSTAR beats previous X-ray type observatories by a factor of 10 to 100. Currently the observatory has released its solar charging panels and is communicating successfully back to earth. It is expected to extend its mast in about  a week. You can view the launch via the video embedded below.

For more information about NuSTAR, visit its mission site at http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/nustar/main/index.html.

 

Medical Implants of the Future May Be Powered by Sugar

It’s like something out of a science fiction magazine, but leave it to MIT to turn science fiction into science fact. A study published in the June 12th edition of PLoS ONE reveals a new glucose powered chip that literally will create an interface between brain and machine. The glucose “fuel cell” brings hope that in the future we will be able to help paralytics regain control of their limbs using neural prosthetics powered by this new technology.

Glucose is basically the sugar that can be found in our blood. It is the usable form of energy that our bodies use to power our muscles and our brain. The glucose powered fuel cells can be seen, pictured below, on a silicon wafer.

Glucose Fuel Cell
Glucose Fuel Cells on Silicon Wafer (Courtesy PLoS ONE)

The new fuel cells strip electrons from glucose molecules to create a small electric current. Implantable electronics are nothing new. Consider the pace maker, for instance. Many heart patients are alive and well today due to the tiny electronic module that keeps their heart in perfect rhythm. Oddly enough, scientists in the 1970’s originally proved they could power a pacemaker using glucose but due to some inefficiencies with an enzyme necessary to run them, they eventually decided to use lithium ion batteries instead. The difference in this new technology is that it contains no biological components whatsoever. It can generate hundreds of microwatts which can be used to power “ultra-low-power” implants.

Location, Location, Location

One of the groundbreaking aspects of this new research is not only that the fuel cells are powered by glucose, but also its placement in the body. Before this study, any research done using glucose fuel cells relied on blood or tissue fluid. This research suggested using cerebrospinal fluid which basically is a sugar filled barrier that surrounds the brain. One reason is that this fluid basically contains no cells that would stimulate an immune response. The other reason is that it is so rich in glucose. Due to the relatively small amount of glucose needed to power these fuel cells, no adverse affects are expected to occur in the brain.

Research like this is very encouraging especially for those who have lost use of their limbs due to paralysis. However, it may be a few years before we see this research being used in practical medical setting. If you would like more information, you can read the MIT press release http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2012/glucose-fuel-cell-0612.html, or for a more technical experience you can find the published study at this link http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0038436.

 

Nobel Prize Money Slashed By Nobel Committee

The bear hug on worldwide markets is showing itself up in the unlikeliest of places – the Nobel Prize money. The Nobel Prize committee reduced the prize money from SEK 10 million to SEK 8 million, which translates to about USD 1.1 million at today’s exhange rate.

Safeguarding the Prize

This was done to safeguard future of the Nobel Prize, said the committee. Says Lars Heikenstein, Executive Director of the Nobel Foundation:

The reason behind this decision is that the financial markets are really unstable and there are reasons to suspect that this turbulence will continue for a while still

He continues with:

The Nobel Foundation is responsible for ensuring that the prize sum can be maintained at a high level in the long term. We have made the assessment that it is important to implement necessary measures in good time.

This is probably a good move, since over the last few years the average return on the Foundation’s capital has been barely enough to cover the prize money and the operating costs of the Committee. A review of the financial situation of the committee is on the cards.

The Nobel Sphere

The “Nobel sphere” comprises, besides the committee, a number of organisations such as the Nobel Museum, Nobel Media and the Nobel Peace Center. These fringe organisations help spread the message of the Nobel Prize and also contributes financially to the prize money. These organizations are financed externally or supported by government agencies.

Rest assured the prestige of the Nobel Prize hasn’t decreased a bit and won’t. Being a Nobel Winner will still guarantee a place in history no matter how rich you get in the process.

Nobel Foundation Official News: http://www.nobelprize.org/press/nobelfoundation/press_releases/2012/prize_amount.html

Gorilla Glass Makers Now Make “Willow Glass” That Can Be Rolled Up!

The people who made the superhard Gorilla Glass that you find on your smartphones have come up with a glass that folds! Yes, the smartphones of the future might be flexible enough to let the owner roll them up like a cigar.

Willow Glass (courtesy: Corning)

Rolling glass like paper

Christened Willow Glass, it’s more paper than glass. Corning, the company renowned for making Gorilla Glass, is taking a different route to new technology this time. Program director Dipak Chowdhury explains that any substance can be rolled up if made thin enough. Glass isn’t inherently hard, at least not a few atomic layers thick glass. Chowdhury says:

If you take glass as thick as a business card, it’s not flexible. Think about the same business card and make it seven times thinner — it works like paper.

The immediate next step is to figure out how to manufacture rolls and rolls of glass.

The future beckons

So here’s the plan for the future. A number of layers of Willow glass can form the display of futuristic smartphones. The top layer(s) will be present exclusively for protection and the layers beneath will hold the electronics. Behind this will be the silicon backpane.

However, this is quite a bit into the future. The technology needed to implant the electronic display components onto the Willow Glass isn’t here yet! To build a plant implementing that technology is still a long shot!

The first step in that direction has been taken by Dai Nippon Printing Co. They promise to demonstrate the touch sensors and color filters, two of the essential components needed in making electronic displays, and how they can be printed onto the microscopically flat Willow Glass.

Willow replaces Gorilla as their flagship product, as Corning chugs along as the pioneer in glass technology.

Here’s a small Youtube clip about Willow Glass: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAMZPXhxBxo

Alzheimer’s Vaccine Provides New Hope

Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most dreaded diseases known to man. Unlike many other diseases, Alzheimer’s is being diagnosed in increasing numbers and the outlook for any patient is pretty bleak. There is good news being reported out of Sweden where researchers from Karolinska Institute have seen encouraging results of an experimental vaccine. The results are so encouraging, it is now being considered for testing on a larger scale.

alzheimer
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The study was led by Bengt Winblad, Professor of Geriatrics at Karolinska Institute. The new vaccine is called CAD106 and is designed to turn on the body’s natural defenses against beta-amyloid, which is what contributes to plaque build up in the brain. The study was conducted over a three year period and had very good results. 80 percent of the patients involved in the study developed their own antibodies  against beta-amyloid. Even more encouraging, was the fact that there were no serious side affects from the vaccine. The previous clinical studies done 10 years ago were not so lucky. The researchers believe that this is a “tolerable” treatment for patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s. Now they will need to conduct studies on a larger scale to confirm their findings. The study was published in the journal Lancet Neurology.

Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia that affects memory and behavior. It is the most common form of dementia. Below, is a link to a brief video with some statistics from the Alzheimer’s Association. In about a minute, it can show the staggering reality that is Alzheimer’s better than I can explain.

I have personally seen the effects of dementia on one of my grandparents. It is such a humiliating and painful thing to watch. I hope that this study will encourage more research and eventually come up with better treatment or even better, a cure. If you or a loved one are affected by Alzheimer’s, the Alzheimer’s Association has a lot of resources on their website which can be found at the following link: http://www.alz.org/living_with_alzheimers_4521.asp.

Richard Feynman Was A Suspected Soviet Spy, Say Declassified FBI Documents

So Richard Feynman was a Communist, or at least that’s what the FBI might want us to think. The Feynman files have been released and they reveal information about the FBI’s tabs on the world famous scientist. The recently revealed FBI files, all documented in completeness by MuckRock, show the extent to which the FBI went to in pursuing Feynman.

Why put Feynman on the radar?

So why Richard Feynman? What did one of the most brilliant physicists ever to walk the planet, someone who had been intricately involved in the American atom bomb project – the Manhattan Project – do to have his name tagged by the FBI? The most convincing reason appears to be his “extreme charm” and “unusual personal magnetism which enables him to charm or fascinate individual persons or groups.” Even his personal distrust of religion was a cause for concern of the FBI.

The Nobel winner was close to people like project leader Robert Oppenheimer, who came under the FBI scanner right after the war for his leftist links and views, and Klaus Fuchs, who was outed as a Soviet spy, trying to steal nuclear defense secrets from the Manhattan Project.

Links:

The links to the declassified FBI documents as given by MuckRock.

MuckRock Link 1: “The Feynman Files” http://www.muckrock.com/news/archives/2012/jun/06/feynman-files-professors-invitation-past-iron-curt/

MuckRock Link 2: “Feynman: The Master of Deception?” http://www.muckrock.com/news/archives/2012/jun/06/richard-feynman-master-deception-and-enemy-america/

How it all started

Suspicions were raised by one FBI-sponsored interviewer, who swore on the Bible and reported:

I do not know—but I believe that Richard Feynman is either a Communist or very strongly pro-Communist—and as such is a very definite security risk. This man is, in my opinion, an extremely complex and dangerous person, and a very dangerous person to have in a position of public trust, particularly a position that so vitally affects the safety and welfare of this nation

So that’s nice. Feynman was to be either himself – brash, arrogant, mischevious and blindingly brilliant – or he had to be a Russian spy. His fame as the mischevious lock-picker in the Manhattan project did not help his image. His past came back to haunt him, as an innocent association with the “Young People’s Socialist League” during his high school years figured a number of times in the extensive documents.

His brilliance worked against him. The FBI enlisted a few pointers about Feynman, which included, amongst others, his “technical ability to analyse scientific data”, his “experience in picking locks”, his “experience in devising and deciphering coded messages” and his “unusual ability to influence people”. (See below)

All the ways how Feynman was 'dangerous'. A page from the declassified documents. (Courtesy: MuckRock)

Dislike for all things bureaucratic

Feynman’s intense dislike of all things bureaucratic and his love for all things academic also served against him. Why would a loyal, intelligent American reject all lucrative government positions and then settle for some faculty position, which will involve teaching responsibilities and also offer him much lesser pay? But then, what do bureaucrats understand the beauty of the Universe as a physicist sees it? How do they understand the joy of teaching? What about the ecstasy of knowing something deep about the Universe that no one else in the world knows about at the moment? How can anyone understand the feeling of being Richard Feynman?

Serious Trouble

Trouble really started with an invitation from the Soviets to a physics conference in Moscow in 1955. Feynman hesitated and even informed the State Department of the invitation. He wrote back to the Soviets saying that he was “unable to give a definite answer”. The FBI did not openly get involved, but the State Department did not respond to Feynman’s letter. The first notification from Feynman was followed by two more; none of the three received any reply from the authorities.

Finally Feynman got fed up and decided to take the matter into his own hands. After nearly four months of just sitting waiting for a reply, Feynman replied to the Soviet administration saying that he “shall accept the invitation” and that he was merely waiting for the passport to be renewed. The U.S. State Department again stalled this procedure.

In spite of Feynman’s growing displeasure – and his openness to reveal it in letters – the State Department kept him hanging for two more months. When the reply did come, it was a disappointing “we urge you to decline the invitation”, but there was no non-clearance or directive against him. The government couldn’t act directly against a man, who was, on the other hand, brashly against the government work ethics.

History repeats and it is often ironic

It is indeed ironic that NASA, another American govt. Agency, would, 30 years later, during the Challenger disaster investigation, turn to the Nobel Winner to be a part of the investigation team. The irony deepens since this would be a very man who would crack open the case and expose NASA and its bureaucracy.

Feynman during the press meet after the Challenger disaster enquiry. He was demonstrating the brittle nature of the O-rings.

The ultimate rockstar of physics could never fit the mould.

The All-You-Need-To-Know-And-More Guide To The Venus Transit on June 5/6

It’s really an eclipse, but not quite. When Venus moves across the disc of the Sun on the 5th/6th of June, you’ll be witnessing history – and be able to realize how lucky you really are! In this article, I plan to provide you with everything you need to know in order to watch the transit and also appreciate the significance of this cosmic event!

A time-lapse photo of the 2004 transit

Basic Facts

Here’s the deal: Venus will be making its way around the Sun like normal, but this time, we will be behind it to observe. We will be seeing Venus move across the Solar Disc through nearly 7 hours. The last transit happened in 2004 and this one is occuring faithfully after 8 years. The next one will, however, occur after 105 more years – in 2117!

Venus Transit (Courtesy: GSFC/NASA)

So this is your last chance to see a Venus transit! Yes, there are many questions that you suddenly have in your mind right now, and I will try and answer all of them as we go along in this article.

Location Location!

The event will not be visible all over the world. There will be parts of the world, like Western part of Africa and Eastern part of South America, which will just miss the event completely. Sorry Brazil and Argentina. That said, the good news is that large parts of the world will definitely see the event.

Visible or not? Check for your location

Asia

Date: 6th June

The whole event
East Asia will be lucky to witness the whole nearly-7 hour event! By the time Venus enters the disc of the Sun, it will already be sunrise in these regions. Venus will exit the solar disc before sunset.
From sunrise till end
India and countries to the west of India, like Pakistan, Afghanistan and the entire Gulf region, will miss the start of the transit. Almost the entire Indian subcontinent will see the transit 3 hours after it starts. That’s no reason to fret, however; the transit will still be pretty long!

Europe

Date: 6th June

From event start till sunset
Most of Europe will be seeing the last part of the event. Venus will already have entered the solar disc by the time the sun rises and then it will exit before sunset. The unfortunate countries will be Spain and Portugal. While Spain will be getting a small last bit of the transit pie, Portugal will miss out on the event completely, as Venus will be just touching the solar disc at sunset.

North America

Date: 5th June

From Event start till Sunset
The event actually occurs when the date is 5th June, owing to its position on the other side of the International Date Line. So Venus will just touch the Sun’s disc at some point in the day. The transit will be visible till the Sun sets. Venus will still be within the Solar disc at sunset.
If you’re in Alaska for some reason, you might not be able to see Russia, but will definitely get to witness the whole transit.

South America

Date: 5th June
If you’re anywhere on this continent, you have really bad luck! Only the north-western parts of the continent will get to see any transit. That too, it won’t be for too long!

New Alternate History Intellectual Game From the Founder of Quasicrystal Math Expedition

As one of the most awaited astronomical phenomena of this year slowly edges closer to us, a new kind of alternate history game is being prepared by Rohit Gupta, an Indian math geek who is spearheading a crowdsourced path to solving the Riemann Hypothesis. Gupta is well known in these parts and he has been at the helm of quite a few mathematical and geeky expeditions known collectively as Kali & the Kaleidoscope.

zetatrek

As part of a continuation of the ZetaTrek – the open quest to solving the Riemann Hypothesis – Gupta is inviting new people to join the next phase of the quest that begins by uncovering the secrets of an ancient cuneiform tablet (no, not the electronic kind built by ancient aliens) that contains a series of mysterious numbers. While most of the numbers conform to a specific form there are a few that break this pattern.

The game begins on the 9th of June and ends on the 9th of October, 2012:-

When you join the game, you become part of a diverse but small group who are artists, geologists, physicists, poets or computer programmers. After we launched the expedition in October last year, we have already assembled an exclusive group of adventurers from 8 countries.

Joining ZetaTrek involves a one time registration fee of Rs. 4,900 that comes with the promise of opening your mind far beyond any known psychedelic drug without the undue side effects.

Strange New Zealand Reptile Chews Food

You may have heard the old saying that you should chew your food 32 times for good health. Like most mammals in the world, we humans tend to chew our food to aid in digestion. A commonly held theory has been that the ability to chew food is linked directly with high resting metabolisms observed in mammals. However, a new study suggests that this perception may not quite be a reality. Scientists from the University College of London observed chewing in a New Zealand reptile called the Tuatara.

tuatara
Tuatara (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Most reptiles use repeated bites to break down food or in the case of snakes, simply swallow their food whole. This unique lizard however, uses a very complex chewing method to break down its food. One of the surprising discoveries with this reptile was that its ability to chew seemed to have no bearing on its metabolism. It uses its bottom jaw to push food in between two rows of upper teeth and then is able to move the lower jaw in sort of a sawing motion.  The researchers produced a video describing this process. See below to watch it in motion.

[Video Link]

 

Lead author Dr Marc Jones, UCL Cell and Developmental Biology, said, “The slicing jaws of the tuatara allow it to eat a wide range of prey including beetles, spiders, crickets, and small lizards. There are also several grizzly reports of sea birds being found decapitated following predation by tuatara.” The tuatara is actually a descendant of reptile that existed during the time of dinosaurs. Though its jaws are a rarity in today’s animals, there is fossil evidence showing that this system of chewing was once widespread among its ancestors. The study was published in the The Anatomical Record.

Tuatara

LHCb Detects Decays of B-Mesons Which Hints At New Physics

The most promising signatures of something beyond what we know have been coming consistently from an experiment in LHC, CERN that has received the least public attention. While the CMS and ATLAS detectors (and collaborations) at the LHC are running their proton beams day and night in search of several things, primary among them being the Higgs Boson, the other big experiment, the LHCb, has been quietly chugging along with its own set of measurements.

Part of the LHCb detector

The latest from the LHCb detector, housed in the same compound as the CMS and ATLAS, is a result that just might signal physics from Beyond the Standard Model (BSM), fashionably titled New Physics. BSM has been a devoutly investigated area of interest for both CMS and ATLAS, but the LHCb focusses on very specific types of particles and observes their modes of decay.

‘Exotic’ Physics

The types of particles LHCb is interested in contains a very exotic type of quark – the bottom quark. Protons and neutrons don’t contain that quark; they are entirely made up of ‘up’ and ‘down’ quarks. The Standard Model accurately predicts the decay rates and lifetimes of particles and, so far, experiments and theory have always matched. The recent LHCb result, adding to a few other ‘anomalous’ results of the past, show deviation from the theoretical values. Of course, no one is jumping into the BSM bandwagon just yet, but there is clearly excitement.

The Result

The LHCb collaboration found that a specific decay – a B-meson (i.e. a particle containing the bottom quark) becoming a kaon (another short-lived ‘exotic’ particle) along with a muon-antimuon pair. Muons are like heavy electrons. The LHCb collaboration observed that there is a difference in the decay rates between a neutral B-meson going to a neutral Kaon-muon-anti-muon and a positive B-meson going to a positive Kaon-muon-antimuon. This difference – called ‘isospin asymmetry’ – is not predicted by the Standard Model and this is what is interesting.

More data is required to confirm whether this is really a BSM signal.

The CERN bulletin: https://cdsweb.cern.ch/journal/CERNBulletin/2012/21/News%20Articles/1451542?ln=en
The LHCb detector website: http://lhcb-public.web.cern.ch/lhcb-public/