Documentary On ‘The Amazing Randi’ To Film Him As He Busts Charlatans

He is an honest liar. And he is impressive! James Randi, former magician – or as he would like to be called performer – has made a name being the most formidable foe that magicians or psychics have ever faced. He is one of them – only brutally honest! He would tell the audience that he is going to lie to them, then lie to them and then tell them again that he lied to them, yet his audience will be left amazed. He had the arrogance in his personality and dexterity with his performance to call himself ‘Amazing’; ‘the Amazing Randi’ quickly became a TV celebrity.

I know what you did there. Your argument is invalid!

Challenging the fraudsters

His unwillingness to just lie low and let the powerful charlatans carry on their money-making tricks has made him more famous than ever. He has set up his own organization dedicated to exposing tricksters, claiming to have supernatural powers. There is a lot at stake too! The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) offers a prize of $1,000,000 to anyone who would prove that he/she is a psychic or a possessor of whatever supernatural power they claim! The prize has never been claimed since inception and, what more, many have backed out of the challenge; well-known TV charlatan and self-proclaimed psychic Sylvia Brown is one such example. So what’s at stake for the people taking the challenge? Their entire reputation.

On TV in a grand style!

Now, Justin Weinstein and Tyler Meason are filming a documentary called ‘An Honest Liar: The Story of the Amazing Randi’. This documentary will trace Randi as he does what he has been the best at doing – uncovering frauds. The film will track the adventures of “an Ocean’s Eleven-type team for a carefully orchestrated exposure of a fraudulent religious organization”, as Randi puts it. The documentary will also feature well known skeptics like Adam Savage, Richard Dawkins, Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Watch the progress of the documentary below:

An Honest Liar – Work-in-Progress trailer from Justin Weinstein on Vimeo.

You just don’t get away from the awesomeness of the Amazing Randi! He has exposed the best of the worst – people like Peter Popoff and Uri Geller. This is just his next victim!

Swiss-Made Satellite To Clean Up Space

Space is filling up with junk and the Swiss are not very happy about it. They would like to make space look like the bedroom your mother always wanted you to maintain. To achieve this, they are launching a satellite to clean up space junk. The satellite has been christened CleanSpace One.

An artist's impression of CleanSpace One (Courtesy: AFP/Getty Images)

The Swiss space center at Ecole Polytechnique (EPFL) at Lausanne wants to make this ‘janitor satellite’ to clear space of all the dead rocket bits, the different booster stages and pieces of old satellites. There are more than a million shreds of junk out there, orbiting at 18,000 mph, each posing threats ranging from mild to severe.

The satellite will be launched in another 5 years and is expected to cost SFr 10 million (SFr = Swiss Franc) or $11 million.

A Big Problem!

To give you a sense of how serious the problem of junk is, we need consider the US satellite Iridium-33. It exploded when the obsolete and abandoned Cosmos-2251, a Russian satellite, hit it in Feb, 2009. This in turn created more fragments of junk, which may turn out to be just as disastrous in future.

CleanSpace One will pursue junk pieces and then grab them with a robotic hand. After it has cleaned up most of what it intended, it will just drop down through the atmosphere, burning up much before it reaches Earth, incinerating the junk along with itself.

Just the beginning…

And this is just the first step, says EPFL. Says Volker Gass, director at the space center, on the EPFL website:

We want to offer and sell a whole family of readymade systems, designed as sustainably as possible, that are able to de-orbit several different kinds of satellites.

Watch out space junk, here come the Swiss!

First Human to Robot Handshake in Space

It’s enough to make an old Trekkie like me shed a little tear of joy. Yesterday marked a historic moment between man and robot. The first handshake in space between man and robot occurred aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Commander Dan Burbank , American astronaut aboard the ISS, was the first to be greeted by the humanoid hand of Robonaut 2.

Handshake
Commander Dan Burbank receives first robot handshake in space. (Courtesy NASA.gov)

NASA published a YouTube video showing the momentous occasion.

 

Robonaut 2, R2 for short, is a dexterous humanoid robot designed to assist humans in space. It is the hope of NASA that these robots will be able to aid in construction efforts in space and that they will be able to aid in tasks that may be too dangerous for humans to achieve. General Motors is working in a joint project with NASA to help accelerate the development of these robots. One of the cool things about having a dexterous robot is that they don’t need a separate set of tools just to accommodate them. They are able to use the same tools the astronauts use.

It is apparent that NASA has had a lot of fun with the humanoid. On their website dedicated to Robonaut, they have a fun video where they played a prank on the space station crew. They also have used Robonaut to reach out using social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Robonaut Tweeted “Did you catch that? I don’t have a voice, but I sent you a message — Hello world … in sign language!” after his historic debut yesterday. He went on to say, “What a day! I passed my tests with flying colors!!!”

I look forward to hearing more about the type of work R2 will doing on the space station. In the meantime, if you would like to keep up with Robonaut you can go to its website at http://robonaut.jsc.nasa.gov/default.asp.

 

World’s Smallest Chameleon Discovered

A team of scientists have discovered the world’s smallest chameleon on a tiny island off the coast of Madagascar. The leaf litter dweller measures in at a whopping 16mm long. Pictured below, is an example of one of four new species discovered in this expedition, the juvenile of the species Brookesia micra.

Chameleon on Finger Tip
Juvenile Brookesia micra on Finger Tip (Courtesy PLoS One)

The Brookesia micra was identified as the world’s tiniest chameleon species. It was found on a tiny island called Nosy Hara just off the coast of Madagascar. Three other distinct species of chameleon were also found. It inhabits the leaf litter on the forest floor and according to the report published in the journal PLoS One, it climbs on “low perches in the vegetation for sleeping”. You can see in the picture below, the beautiful habitat where scientists discovered the tiny amniote.

Habitat
Creek Bed where the Brookesia micra was found. (Courtesy PLoS One)

Dwarfism in vertebrates has been brought to center stage lately. Back in January, we reported the discovery of what was then thought to be the world’s smallest vertebrate. It was a tiny species of frog which similarly foraged in the leaf litter on the forest floor of Papua New Guinea. Miniaturization of species has brought about many new evolutionary theories. It also brings about new challenges for scientists to identify differences in the species.

While the news of a newly discovered species is very exciting, we’re also reminded of the fragility of these creatures. The Brookesia tristis, Latin for sorrowful, and the Brookesia desperata, Latin for desperate, both suffer from the consequences of deforestation and habitat loss. Hopefully discoveries like these will shed light on the importance of protecting these creatures and lead to better stewardship of their habitats.

 

NASA Captures Europe Reeling In Severe Winter; Spectacular Space Image Reveals Bleak Situation

Entire Europe is reeling under an intense cold spell. This is the worst that Europe has seen since February 1991. NASA’s Terra satellite reveals this with a photograph. Most of the area is blue, indicating a temperature much below the normal. The data stretches from January 25th to February 1st. The “normal temperatures” are estimated from data ranging from January 25th to February 1st over the years 2001 to 2011. And this is just the land temperature. Oceans and lakes appear in gray. This was NASA’s photo of the day today.

The image that NASA's Terra satellite took of the entire landmass of Europe. The scale (below) shows how further below the normal the temperatures across Europe are. (Courtesy: NASA)

This year’s tremendous cold throughout the Northern Hemisphere is a not a sign of global warming, but of erratic climate conditions, which might be indirectly linked to global warming.
Jeff Masters explains it as being due to the Jet streams, or rather their anomalous flow patterns. Jet streams are wide streams of air in the atmosphere and, like ocean currents in the sea, they separate different pockets or regions of air from one another. One of them blows from the west to the east along the middle latitudes, separating cold air from the north from the warmer air packets to the south. This year the Jet stream pattern has been very convoluted and the usual stream is now flowing further south. This means that the cold air front has descended southwards, covering much of Europe and leading to this spell of intense cold.

News from the Himalayas

In related news, a different perspective tab on global weather provides both relief and astonishment. While climatologists have already given their prediction of fast melting of glaciers in the Himalayan regions, it seems that the glaciers have not melted much in the last year or so.
Prof. Jonathan Bamber, glaciologist at Bristol Glaciology Center, University of Bristol, says that this is extremely unusual that the ice mass loss is “not significantly different from zero”. However, the results of the climate scientists fall bang on for the mass loss experienced by Antarctica, Arctic, Greenland and the Alaskan permafrost. The data anomaly for Himalayan regions might indicate some region-specific variation that is difficult to incorporate into models.

Climate denial

This should be music to the ears of climate deniers and provide some much needed ammo in their depleted armory. They have always viewed the conclusions as being falsely alarmist and have called them a fraud. However, outright denial is something to be guarded against. Simon Cook warns:

All too often in the past, media reports have presented a ‘black and white’ view of glacier response to climate change. The reasons for this complex global picture are not clear: some places warm more than others, some places experience more precipitation and, hence, snowfall to maintain glaciers is in positive or neutral balance. What is clear is that more research is required to evaluate the response of glaciers to climate change.

In the absence of an alternative to Earth, we ought to do our bit to prevent the ruin of this planet. And we can start off by taking scientists a bit more seriously.

Breakthrough: Wondrous NASA Biocapsule To Protect Astronauts In Space and Lives on Earth!

The health of men being sent to space has always been a huge concern for space organizations, and NASA has come up with a solution that borders on the edge of being a miracle. NASA has made the NASA Biocapsule – a tangle of carbon nanotubes that will be used to contain particular cells and even medicinal substances inside it. It’s tiny, inserted into the skin, non-reactive, fast-acting and virtually indestructible!

The biocapsule. Courtesy: gizmodo.com

How it works

This is how this contraption works – A small incision is made on the body of the astronaut, barely skin deep. The nanotube, along with whatever package it is wrapped around, is then inserted subcutaneously. The wound is then either stitched up with a couple of stitches and the astronaut is good to go!

The Biocapsule has been made by Space Biosciences Division at NASA Ames, like all other medical technology made exclusively for NASA. Dr. David Loftus has been awarded a patent for leading the group, which came up with this creation.

The Biocapsule might contain cells, which can dispense hormones should the body require it. For example, if one is diabetic, or if one develops such a condition during a long stay in outer space, the capsule might contain pancreatic islet cells (or some cells which behave like these). Should the body need insulin, the cells will detect the low amounts in the blood and automatically start secretion. Dr. Loftus explains:

The capsule would contain pancreatic islet cells (from animals) or would contain engineered cells designed to behave like pancreatic islet cells, with both glucose-sensing and insulin secretion function. Patients with low-insulin requirement might benefit from implantation of a single capsule (containing perhaps a million to 10 million cells); patients with higher insulin requirement might require implantation of more than one capsule.

The Biocapsules can handle diseases as serious as radiation sickness. The Biocapsules can be used to contain cells that release the hormone G-CSF (Granulocyte colony-stimulating factor), which is a standard treatment for cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy so that they don’t develop any side-effects. Cells capable to detecting high exposure can be planted inside these Biocapsules and these will discharge the G-CSF hormone when triggered by the high radiation dose.

The Best Aspect of it all!

Now here is the coolest aspect of this miracle – it can be easily used on Earth! This is a potential explosive keg of medical revolution having the size of a few microns. It can save millions of lives on Earth, were it to go public! This might even be used to administer very local dosages of substances, which might be harmful to other organs, if it spreads.

With the closest doctor being a few thousand kilometers away, the tiny bundle of security might be the life of an astronaut. Literally!

Higgs Search Becomes More Promising With More Data Analysis; CERN Increases Confidence Level

The Higgs search gets hotter and hotter. Recent analysis of old data have raised the confidence level of the Higgs detection from the older value of 3.8-sigma overall to a much healthier 4.3-sigma, as indicated by the two papers sent for publication, one by CMS and the other by ATLAS. The Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) detector group had given the confidence level of 2.5-sigma. Now, with the analysis of more data, they have pushed it up to 3.1-sigma. Remember that a 5-sigma confidence level is what you need for tagging something as a discovery – so 4.3-sigma, though exciting, is not momentous.

A Higgs simulation at CMS

There – but not quite there

The results overwhelmingly predict a Higgs mass in the range of 124-126 GeV, which is exactly what scientists had reported on December 13th.

A 5-sigma means that one is 99.99997% sure, while a 4.3-sigma result means that scientists are 99.996% sure that the identified peak is the Higgs peak.

Just a joke!

This is just an improvement over the ‘initial’ December announcements by CERN. The data is not new, since the LHC hasn’t been taking any since November, but a more thorough analysis has been done and this is what it says. I suspect that this is as far as CERN can go at the moment with the Higgs confidence levels, and they will require much more data to be completely sure.

The 3.8-sigma confidence levels shouldn’t be taken too seriously. There have been peaks of this confidence level, but they had vanished. Fortunately, this hasn’t.

A new chapter

We should have to wait another year or so before the LHC can give something definite on the Higgs search. Now that the LHC is temporarily closed down for mandatory maintenance efforts, the big bosses, meeting at Charminox, France, are discussing the energy and the luminosity it will be tuned to when it opens later this year. The scale up to 8 TeV in energy is expected, but the luminosity is not yet revealed.

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

First Astronomical Observatory of Harrapan Civilization Discovered

Scientists from Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) have discovered two large circular structures which they believe were used by the Harrapan Civilization as astronomical observatories. This is a significant find as it is the first evidence of astronomy being used by the ancient people group.

Dholavira is one of the largest ancient cities of the Indus valley civilization. This civilization existed around 2650 BCE and encompassed areas of western India and modern day Pakistan. Pictured below, you can see the location of Dholavira on the map.

Dholavira
Courtesy Google Maps

Dholavira was first discovered in 1967 and according to Wikipedia “has been under excavation almost continuously since 1990 by the Archaeological Survey of India“. Recently, a team led by Dr. Mayank Vahia of TIFR set out to study the  Dholavira site in hopes to discover what structures might have been used as observatories.

According to an Indian Express article:

“It is highly implausible that such an intellectually advanced civilisation did not have any knowledge of positional astronomy. These (structures) would have been useful for calendrical (including time of the day, time of the night, seasons, years and possibly even longer periods) and navigational purposes apart from providing intellectual challenge to understanding the movement of the heavens,”

It is assumed that Dholavira was surrounded by water back in the day and that it was an important center of trade for the region. This idea is what drove the team to search for astro observatories due to the fact that such a cultural center had to have a strong grasp of time. Out of over a thousand structures observed so far it appears they have only been able to identify these two structures with such a purpose. Due to their “celestial orientations”, it is believed that this was their express purpose. They were able to make assumptions based on computer simulations which showed that shadows would align at an entrance on summer and winter solstice.

This study will enable scientists to measure the intelligence of the Harappan people and will give them some idea how they “used the astronomical data to conduct business, farming and other activities”.

For more information about this archaeological site see the Archaeology Survey of India’s page.

 

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