Year End Special: The Top Ten Science Stories Of 2011

No meteors crashed, no aliens descended. Yet, 2011 was by all means an eventful year! We take a tour of the geeky side of life, with a dash of science! Presenting below are the top 10 science stories in 2011. The list is completely the author’s choice and you are free to disagree with both the ordering and the content. Just let us know, if you do (or even if you don’t)!

Here goes…

Choice 10: Much ado about James Webb

The James Webb Telescope, a proposed super replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope, has been under the weather and it has been hard going for NASA. There has been much talk about this telescope taking money out of the other NASA projects.

A mirror on the James Webb telescope. Isn't she a beauty!!

With several budget overruns and a similar number of missed deadlines, it was on the brink of extinction. We told you about the proposed plan to scrap the project altogether. It was then revived by further funding the project from the Senate.

Cannot miss article: How the US fund cuts affect Science

Choice 9: The Tevatron said Goodbye

The once biggest and baddest boy on the block, when it came to particle colliders, bid a timid goodbye this year, far overshadowed by the much more powerful LHC at CERN.

The LHC bids farewell to the Tevatron. (Look at the bottom-left box)

LHC will now carry the mantle of high energy physics research. However, the Tevatron will be missed. It was the first machine to clock 1 TeV energy scale.

Cannot miss article: The end of an era: Fermilab’s Tevatron shuts down A Tribute

Choice 8: Mission to Mars

Mars was a great place to visit for NASA, and not-so-great for Roskosmos this year. NASA launched the giant super hi-tech rover Curiosity’, which is set to replace the previous rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Curiosity is way more powerful and has a host of cool features.

The Curiosity Rover

On the other hand, Roskosmos, the Russian space agency, embarrassed itself with the failed attempt of putting Phobos-Grunt, a craft intended to be orbiting Phobos, the moon of Mars. The craft later made contact with Earth, but couldn’t be recovered!

Cannot miss article: The 10 Coolest Things about the Mars Rover Curiosity

Choice 7: To the Moon

Yeah, the ancients did think that the Moon could’ve been a not-so-smiling face, but we’ve been there, know better and wanted to go back. NASA decided to measure the gravitational field of the only natural satellite of Earth, and do so in style. Thus the GRAIL mission.

No, the moon’s still not habitable, but when it is, we’ll have Domino’s pizza there!

Oh, and yes, the moon did disappear twice this year. Here’re a collection of stunning images from across the world of the first eclipse in July (here) and from the second eclipse in December (here).

Cannot miss article: NASA releases never before seen photos of the moon showing previous moon missions

Choice 6: Planets outside our own Solar System

This has been a boom year for exoplanets! The Kepler Space Telescope found tonnes of planets orbiting other suns! The most promising of these have been Kepler 22b, the only planet found so far to lie in the Goldilocks zone. Further, we found two Earth sized planets around a sun-like star. For me, the best was the discovery of the planet which orbits two stars!

Cannot miss article:  Planet orbiting two stars a real-life Tatooine

Low Trans Fat Diet Equals Better Brain Function in Elderly

An article by Joseph Brownstein  on Live Science, reports a new study indicates that living a low trans fat lifestyle leads to better brain health in the elderly. “Older people with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins B, C, D, and E in their blood do better on cognitive tests than those with lower levels”, according to the study. Not only that, the study also found that high levels of trans fats actually hurt cognition.

Rubens Study of an Old Man
Rubens Study of an Old Man Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Gene Bowman, an assistant professor of neurology at Oregon Health and Science University, headed up the study. It involved 104 people with the average age of 87. The study was a follow up to a former study to address the problem of people not remembering what they ate. Drawing blood allows for scientists to measure the dietary intake of people and eliminates common mistakes people make when filling out questionnaires . The study was meant to discover the role diet plays in the aging brain.

Feeding the Brain

Recent research is starting to show that there is a definite correlation between brain function and what we eat. Trans fats have been the target of scrutiny among heart researchers and now Bowman believes, “it’s not too much of stretch to think that they’re bad for the brain”. Not only did the presence of trans fats hurt cognitive function, but researchers found a correlation between trans fats and brain shrinkage. If the findings of this study are confirmed, this may give doctors another tool to determine whether patients may need to supplement their diets to decrease the chances of cognitive decline.

Sources of Trans Fats

Trans fats were once thought to be a good thing. They increased the shelf life of many products and addressed the shortage of butterfats in the early 1900’s. It didn’t take long before the negative affects of trans fats were seen. According to Wikipedia, studies were showing the negative affects on coronary artery disease as early as 1956.  Trans fats are dangerous because they raise “LDL” (bad cholesterol levels) in the blood. Not only that, they also lower “HDL” (good cholesterol) in the blood. As of January 2006, the FDA requires all food labels to list trans fats.

WebMD lists these food types on their website as potential sources of trans fat:

  • cookies, crackers, cakes, muffins, pie crusts, pizza dough, and breads such as hamburger buns
  • some stick margarine and vegetable shortening
  • pre-mixed cake mixes, pancake mixes, and chocolate drink mixes
  • fried foods, including donuts, French fries, chicken nuggets, and hard taco shells
  • snack foods, including chips, candy, and packaged or microwave popcorn
  • frozen dinners
In conclusion, this study barely scratches the surface of the affects of trans fats in brain aging and is not without criticism. For instance, one critic states that the study was done mostly on well educated white people. There is a call for a more diverse population to be studied. It does however, seem to fit in with recent research that diet has a definite affect on cognitive function in the aging brain.

NASA Telescopes Find Rare Distant Galaxy

Researchers using NASA’s Spitzer and Hubble telescopes have discovered a galaxy burning brightly in the distant reaches of our universe. The galaxy, labeled  GN-108036, appears to be giving birth to stars at an alarming rate. Using data from the Spitzer and Hubble telescopes, it is estimated the galaxy is churning out the  equivalent of 100 of our suns per year. That is 30 times what the Milky Way galaxy produces.  Seeing the galaxy is like looking back in time. It is believed to have appeared about 750 million years after the theoretical “Bing Bang”.

GN-108036 As Viewed From Spitzer/Hubble Telescopes
Courtesy of

The international team of astronomers, led by Masami Ouchi of the University of Tokyo, Japan were the first to recognize the galaxy. They used the  Subaru Telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii and later confirmed the distance using the  W.M. Keck Observatory, which is located in Mauna Kea as well. Infrared readings from Spitzer and Hubble telescopes were crucial in determining star formations in the galaxy. The galaxy appears to be about 12.9 billion light-years away.

Astronomers use a measurement called “redshift” to measure the distance of stars. As light travels over great distances the wavelengths are stretched and become “redder” due the expansion of the universe. Objects with a larger “redshift” are more distant and further back in time.  GN-108036 has a redshift of 7.2. To put this in perspective, very few galaxies have been discovered with a redshift of 7. Only two have been confirmed to be higher than GN-108036. It’s like looking at a cosmic time capsule.

What makes this such an amazing discovery is that the galaxy is so small yet it is producing a lot of stars. Galaxies that formed this early in time did not gather the mass that galaxies like our own have. GN-108036 was likely a player in a time called the “dark ages” of our universe. This was a time when shortly after the “Big Bang” a thick fog of hydrogen permeated the universe. As galaxies like GN-108036 formed, they essentially burned through the fog causing the barrier to become transparent.  “This was therefore a likely ancestor of massive and evolved galaxies seen today,” said Bahram Mobasher, a team member from the University of California, Riverside.

For more information about the Spitzer program  you can visit  and

Upcoming Underwater Neutrino Detector To Be Taller Than The Burj Khalifa!

The largest structure ever in the history of mankind is being built for the smallest particle of matter known to mankind. Called the KM3Net Telescope, the structure will be a neutrino detector, taller than the Burj Khalifa, but buried under 3200 meters of water! The whole structure is the latest in the series of larger and larger neutrino detectors and will be the product of a pan-European contribution. It will be the second largest structure in human history, second only to the Great Wall of China.

The neutrino detector (Courtesy: KM3Net)

The super-structure

The super-structure will consist of long cables, holding an optical modulus at the end of each. Each of these optical moduli is a standalone sensing unit, sensitive to light. It will consist of 31 photo-multiplier tubes (or PMTs), which are sensitive light-detectors. All of this will be sealed up as one unit inside a 17-inch glass sphere. The detector will consist of a huge number of such optical moduli!

The optical modulus

Why neutrinos are such a headache!

Neutrinos are notoriously hard to detect. They interact only via the weak force (which is also responsible for the decay of heavy nuclei) with other particles and no other force. They leave no trails in the conventional detector chambers, as they are not charged. They do not affect other matter gravitationally, as they are massless (or have extremely small mass!). In order to detect them, the best strategy is to let it hit a proton and convert it into a neutron. This liberates a positron (or anti-electron). The positron emitted travels at such high speeds that it emits radiation called Cherenkov radiation. (Cherenkov radiation is the radiation emitted by a charged particle when it moves faster then light in that medium. Thus, here the electrons/positrons have to move faster than light moves in water). This radiation is detected by the PMT’s. The radiation comes in the form of a cone. This is how the neutrino is indirectly detected.

The KM3Net project is also a Cherenkov type detector, like the famous T2K detector in Japan, which is the largest right now.

Tall, Taller – Tallest!

The whole structure will be taller than the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. But, this will not be noticed, because it will be underwater. The chamber will be filled with water, as it has a high density of protons. It is meant to detect neutrinos coming through the Earth, and through the sea-floor. This is possible, since neutrinos interact very weakly.

Sometimes mountains have to be moved before the truth can emerge.

The official website of the KM3Net here:

Vatican Preserves Ancient Texts Using NASA Technology

You might say they make strange bedfellows. The Vatican isn’t exactly known for the way it embraces science and technology, just ask  Galileo. Oddly enough though, the Vatican finds itself in a bit of a  quandary. How can one of the oldest known libraries preserve ancient texts for future generations? The answer to that question comes from a NASA developed technology used to preserve images from satellites like the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Vatican Library

Archivists at the library have already begun the task of scanning the delicate Tomes that it houses into a file format called FITS. FITS stands for Flexible Image Transport System and was developed by NASA in the late 1970’s. The format is open source and designed to always be backwards compatible. According to Wikipedia, there is a saying “once FITS, always FITS” to describe how all future implementations of this format must be backwards compatible. The format stores more than just an image. It contains a text header that contains instructions for processing the data it contains. An overview of FITS can be found on NASA’s website here.

The problem for the Vatican Library staff is that every time the ancients texts are handled, it presents the possibility to damage them.  Luciano Ammenti, director of the Vatican’s Information Technology Center, chose FITS because of its open-source approach, its longevity over several decades, and the fact that it’s not owned by any one company.  Having a format like FITS that will be compatible with computer systems long into the future will cut down on the necessity of having to handle these Tomes again just to convert them to the next big fad in imaging technology.

I think this all goes to show that science and religion don’t always have to be mortal enemies. Through the advances of science, people of faith will be able to delve deep into their origins for years to come, and scientists, such as anthropologists, will be able to see a timeline of human behavior and development over the course of  many years. Sounds like a win-win to me.

Discovered: Two Earth-Sized Planets Around A Sun-Like Star

Scientists report the finding of true two Earth-sized planets orbiting a star very similar to the sun, using the Kepler telescope. The discovery was announced today. Named Kepler 20e and Kepler 20f, these are the smallest planets ever to be discovered.

An artist's impression of Kepler 20e. Image Courtesy: NASA/JPL/Caltech

The location and details

The stellar system is located 950 light years away from Earth. Both planets are about the size of Earth, with one of them being slightly smaller. This is important, since we now know that we can indeed detect planets the size of Earth in another stellar system. In the future, we might indeed stumble upon a planet, the size of the Earth, with conditions similar to our home.

The planets orbit the star a bit too close for comfort and the surface temperature is too hot to sustain the kind of life we know. It’s not a true twin of the Earth, but this does indeed bring us tantalizingly close to finding one.

+2 for Kepler

This is again a feather in the burgeoning cap of NASA’s Kepler space telescope, which was recently lauded for finding a planet, called Kepler 22b, orbiting another star in the Goldilocks region.

Both Kepler 20e and 20f are rocky planets and have an estimated mass of 1.7 times and 3 times the mass of the Earth respectively. While Kepler 20e lies at a distance of 7.5 million km away from the sun, making it 20 times as close to the star as Earth (150 million km), Kepler 20f, does slightly better at 16.5 million km. Kepler 20e takes a mere 6.1 days to complete an orbit around the star, while Kepler 20f takes 19.6 days.

There is no possibility of liquid water, or even an atmosphere on either of the planets. However, astronomers are hoping that, given the plethora of exoplanets being discovered, one will turn out to be just right’ for life.

Guinness World Records Confirms World’s Shortest Woman

It’s not often that your 18th birthday is accompanied by a world record, but that is exactly what happened to Jyoti Amge of Nagpur, India today. Representatives from Guinness World Records traveled from London to Nagpur today to do final measurements and confirm that Jyoti is indeed the  shortest  living woman. She had already been confirmed as the shortest living teenager back in 2009, but she had to turn 18 to be officially pronounced World’s Shortest Woman. According to Guinness’ standards, she had to be measured 3 times within a 24 hour period by doctors to win the confirmation. Today, it’s official; she is  62.8 cm tall (2 ft 06 in). You can see her pictured below with her new title.

Jyoti Amge
Courtesy of Guinness World Records

Jyoti’s size is due to a type of dwarfism known as  achondroplasia. This means that she will likely grow no further than her current stature. Her small frame doesn’t prevent her from flashing a radiant smile and having big dreams. She actually hopes to someday be a Bollywood film star. Her family does everything they can to ensure that she reaches her dreams. She has been in school since she was 4 and, other than her size, is like any other student. She seems to take her size in stride. For instance, the Guinness World Records’ site quotes her as saying:

“I feel grateful to be this size, after all if I weren’t small and had not achieved these world records I might never have been able to visit Japan and Europe, and many other wonderful countries.”

Guinness World Records Adjudicator, Rob Molloy, said, “Jyoti encourages us all to look beyond mere size and to just celebrate our differences.” Below is a YouTube video that features Jyoti and her superstar smile.


If you are interested in learning more about Jyoti, visit Guinness’ website and look at the article “Ten Things You Need to Know about Jyoti Amge“.

Amateur Treasure Hunter Discovers Unknown Viking King

While most people are probably satisfied to get a good deal on a burger during their lunch break, a northern England man scored the find of a lifetime: a buried Viking treasure! According to a Daily Mail article, Darren Webster, an amateur metal detector enthusiast, was enjoying his favorite hobby on his lunch break when he made the startling find.

“When I lifted the lead pot out of the ground, there was a hole underneath and silver started to fall out. That is when I realized I had found something important.”

“Important” might be the understatement of the century. Buried about 18 inches below the surface, in a field on the outskirts of Silverdale, a village near the coast in north Lancashire, Webster recovered what is possibly the most significant Viking hoard to be found this century. The lead box contained over 200 pieces of silver. Of most significance was an unknown type of coin bearing the name of what is believed to be an unknown Viking king. You can see the relics pictured below.

Viking Hoard
Image Courtesy of Daily Mail

The Viking king’s name is Airdeconut, which is thought to represent the  Scandinavian  name  Harthacnut.  The Viking hoard was probably buried somewhere around AD900, which was a tumultuous time of war between the Viking kings of Northern England. The fact that it remained buried indicates that the warrior probably didn’t survive his conquest.

Another significant revelation came from the coin bearing the inscription “DNS REX” on one side, which means “the Lord and King”. It was written in the shape of the cross indicating that this king was a Christian. This find serves to dispel the myth that the vikings attacked  monasteries  out of hatred for the Christian church.

The treasure will go through an inquest next week to determine its value. It is estimated to be worth more than £500,000. Webster and the land owner will split the money. Currently the Museum of Lancashire is working to get the funds to buy the treasure.

For more information you can read the Daily Mail’s article here.

Don’t Blink: Physicists Break Data Network Speed Record at 186Gbps

High-energy physicists have pushed the limits of network data transfer to mind boggling speeds. Researchers attending the Super Computing 2011 conference, held in Seattle Convention Center, transferred data in opposite directions to eventually reach a combined rate of 186Gbps over a Wide Area Network. For those of you not quite familiar with the terminology, a Wide Area Network is typically defined as a network that is separated by long geographic distances such as, between a main office and a branch office in another state. The typical Wide Area Network usually ranges from 1.54Mbps T1 or DSL connections to 10Mbps fiber or cable. As you can see, 186Gbps speeds blows the standard network speeds away.

The small team of researchers consisted of members from Caltech and University of Victoria. In  the first demonstration the team transferred data from hard disks located at University of Victoria down to the show room floor at more than 60Gbps. This is thought to be a record all its own, but then they transferred data from memory to memory at 98Gbps. They were able to sustain this transfer reaching bidirectional speeds of 186Gbps.  University of Victoria Professor and LHC physicist Randall Sobie said:

The 100Gb/s demo at SC11 is pushing the limits of network technology by  showing that it is possible to transfer peta-scale particle physics data sample in a  matter of hours to anywhere around the world.

Canada’s Advanced Research and Innovation Network (CANARIE) and BCNET, a non-profit, shared IT services organization constructed the production grade network to transmit the data. The data transfer was done using an open source application developed by Caltech called FDT. One of the amazing accomplishments in this was that all of the data transmitted was received on only 4 pieces of equipment on the show room floor. This type of data transfer would have required dozens of servers just a few years ago. The video below describes the type of technology used to make this landmark data transfer happen.

One of the factors driving the need for this kind of speed is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. The amount of data being collected at the LHC is growing rapidly so it is becoming increasingly important to find avenues of transporting this data worldwide at faster speeds. “Enabling scientists anywhere in the world to work on the LHC data is a key objective, bringing the best minds together to work on the mysteries of the universe,” says David Foster, the deputy IT department head at CERN.  Hopefully this new technology will lead to innovations to make data sharing in the scientific community a little easier.

According to the Caltech press release, “the key to discovery, the researchers say, is in picking out the rare signals that may indicate new physics discoveries from a sea of potentially overwhelming background noise caused by already understood particle interactions. To do this, individual physicists and small groups located around the world must repeatedly access—and sometimes extract and transport—multiterabyte data sets on demand from petabyte data stores.” In case you’re wondering, that amount of data is  equivalent to hundreds of Blu-ray movies.

More information can be found at You may also want to read more about CERN’s research at the following:

Higgs Boson Definitely ‘Observed’, But Not ‘Discovered’ As Yet: Official Word From CERN

The Higgs search is not yet over and is all set to go on at LHC, CERN. This is the natural consequence of the CERN official seminar.

The Higgs has been definitely observed at the energy 126 GeV at a 3.6  2.3-sigma confidence level at ATLAS, combining all decay channels!

The data presented at ATLAS, by ATLAS boss Fabiola Gianotti, is more-or-less in line with Standard Model expectations.

Result from ATLAS:

The Higgs officially lies between 114 GeV to 141 GeV. The rest of the mass range has been eliminated with 95% confidence level.Several channels like the Higgs-> WW* has been excluded.

The mass range between 113 t0 115.5 GeV has been excluded, as has been the range from 131-453 GeV, with the exception of a window from 237-251 GeV at 95% confidence.

The Higgs-> gamma-gamma is a very promising channel and this suggests the 126 GeV figure for the mass of the Higgs. This suggests the presence of a ‘low-mass’ Higgs, which is quite in line with the Standard Model.  More data in 2012 will help CERN make a more definitive statement.

  • Bottom Line: Local Significance – 3.6-sigma; Global Significance – 2.3-sigma  at 126 GeV

Result from CMS:

The CMS results ruled out a high mass Higgs, much like the ATLAS results. 270-440 GeV was excluded and the Higgs->gamma-gamma channel gave very clear results. This low mass Higgs is very consistent with the previously announced ATLAS results, which is extremely good news.  There were excess events noticed between 110-130 GeV, in the tau-tau and bottom-bottom decay channels; this eliminates 134-158 GeV mass range.

A curious 4-lepton excess was noticed at 125 GeV, which is bang on target, if you take the ATLAS results (above) at face-value. This is again, very good news. The Higgs-> WW and Higgs-> ZZ excludes 129-270 GeV mass range. Multiple channel “modest excess” was noticed just below 129 GeV!

  • Bottom Line: Local Significance – 2.6-sigma; Global Significance – 1.9-sigma  at 124 GeV  
One of the key slides from today's seminar. Look at the excess in each of the channels at 126 GeV! (Courtesy: CERN live webcast)

The global results take into account the so-called ‘look elsewhere’ effect, which means that it factors in the chances of observing this same local excess at any point within a certain range and also in all channels.

The CERN announcement

CERN announced today that the Higgs has been observed’, but not detected’. The subtle difference between these two words lies in mathematics. When CERN says that they have observed the Higgs, it means that they are 99.73% sure that the Higgs is there. This is, however, not enough to guarantee the tag of a discovery. For that, the confidence level has to go up to 5-sigma, which gives a 99.99994% surety. This is very important, since 3-sigma effects have been known to go away in the past.

The non-discovery of the Higgs, as yet

The only reasonable explanation for the less-than-discovery tag at the moment is because LHC still doesn’t have enough data or rather, not enough data has been crunched.

This is surely great news for the particle physics community. The Higgs may be there in this and there are strong indications from both ATLAS and CMS that it is there and this means that the Standard Model has passed its stringent test yet! However, the mass is still to be ascertained exactly. The error bars haven’t been fully established.

So, the wait continues.

The Super Symmetric Models

This mass of the Higgs Boson, if actually true, is extremely exciting. It lends credibility to the cMSSM models, which is one of the basic Super Symmetric Models. There were widespread news reports that LHC has ruled out super-symmetric models or at least the simplest ones. Not quite! The cMSSM can accommodate a Higgs of 121 GeV mass and no higher. However, a small tweaking of the parameters yield a different version of the theory, which can very well accommodate a 125 GeV Higgs.

Another revolution may be just around the corner! Watch out!