Category Archives: Science

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‘Jeopardy’ Champion Supercomputer Watson Set To Tackle Medical Problems

After Jeopardy, IBM’s Watson is ready to face challenges from the real world. It is all set to fulfil its intended destiny.

Watson clobbering other participants on Jeopardy

No More Playing Games

Watson is best known for walloping human Jeopardy champions at their own game. However, this is just the tip of the Iceberg, as far as Watson is concerned. Originally conceived to serve as a fool-proof database for medicine and healthcare, Watson has been picked up by WellPoint Inc. to serve as an invaluable source for patient information, medical history, known treatments, operational procedures and much more. Watson will be able to delve into its deep memory bank, which will be fed with a huge library of medical books and journals, to come up with a solution in seconds.

The computing behemoth

Though it is obvious what great help this can be, Dr, Sam Nussbaum, Wellpoint’s chief medical officer puts it nicely:

Imagine having the ability within three seconds to look through all of that information, to have it be up to date, scientifically presented to you, and based on that patient’s medical needs at the moment you’re caring for that patient.

No, Watson is not here to replace human doctors, but it can support them really well. Watson’s great computing speed will also be of great help to cancer research and ontological operational procedures.

The amount for which Watson’s services are being availed for is unknown. Watson’s $1 million, won in Jeopardy, was given to charity.

This is the beginning of the road for Watson, says IBM. Watson will then be able to take up challenges from other human sectors, like finances, public works and security.

Of Glow-In-The-Dark Cats And A Cure For AIDS

Whether it be as a pet or a way to test for AIDS resistance, glowing cats are always handy to have around the lab. Fluorescent cats are now being used to study the resistance of the species to the AIDS virus.

The Feline Version of AIDS

Cats, just like humans, are infected by AIDS and have no resistance against the virus. Scientists decided to study the resistance of a few genetically modified cats to the action of the Feline Immuno-deficiency Virus (FIV), the feline equivalent of the Human Immuno-deficiency Virus (HIV). However, the rhesus macaque, a member of the monkey genus, is capable to resisting the AIDS virus. The idea was to inject the restriction factors’ (a set of genes) into the cats and see how the newer generations adapt to this genetic change. In order to track the passage of these antiviral genes throughout the cat’s body, scientists used fluorescent protein extracted from jelly fish. The unimaginatively named Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) acts as a perfect marker and makes the cat, no prizes for guessing, glow with a green fluorescence.

Bright and green! Not to mention, cute.

Immunity As Bright As A Glowing Cat

While it may seem amusing to some, and even macabre to others, GFP is a common way of chromatically tagging cells or tissues in the biotech lab. It is easily available and  gives intense colours around 395 nm (green) wavelength. It is used as a biosensor’, to test whether some inserted genes can be expressed in a particular cell or not.

The antiviral gene and the GFP were both injected into the egg of a female cat. The next generation of cats developed the characteristic glow. Cells taken from these cats were then tested for resistance against FIV and, lo behold, they were indeed found to be resistant.

This is a vital step and might hold the key to finding a cure for the AIDS virus for humans too. The next step in research would be to introduce full-grown injected cats to the AIDS virus and see whether the immunity is multi-cellular or not.

Cats are promising to shed new light on an old menace, in more ways than one.

Discovered ‘Super-Earth’ Could Harbor Life: Is This Our Cosmic Neighbor?

According to a huge announcement by the European Southern Observatory, more than 50 alien planets discovered by its telescope could harbour life. Out of these 50, 16 are so-called super Earths’, or planets that are similar to our own, but bigger.

The Goldilocks Zone

Earth is unique in the sense that it is a rocky planet, contains water in liquid form and is at an optimum distance from the host star. This allows the temperature to be within habitable range, as well as supports diverse weather conditions. These are the signs that astronomers were looking for while scouring the sky with the exo-planet hunting telescope. Sixteen of the potentially habitable 50 were declared to be Earth-like.

An Artist's Impression of the Alien Planet (Courtesy: ESO)

Amongst these 16, one of the planets caught the astronomers’ attention. This Super-Earth, called HD 85512b, orbits its star within the habitable region a narrow region around the star where conditions could be optimal to support known forms of life.

Finding an Alien Planet

The ESO’s instrument of pride is the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) telescope. The HARPS telescope is more a spectroscope than a conventional telescope. It measures changes in the spectral signature of a planet-star system. This simply means that the light intensity and wavelength both change and tracking these gives hints of a planet orbiting a star. Accurate measurements can give the mass of the planet, and sometimes, even the composition.

Planets tug on stars due to gravity and this makes the star wobble slightly. These radial velocity signals’ can be easily picked up by HARPS. The enormous resolution of HARPS ensures that it can even detect the slightest of wobbles.

HD 85512b is located pretty close by too. It is only 35 light-years away and is estimated to be 3.6 times more massive than the Earth. Orbiting in the habitable region’, the super-Earth could possibly support liquid water.

Only further studies will reveal whether this super-Earth is indeed inhabited by beings as complex as those found on Earth. Have we just found the home of our intergalactic neighbour?

Enjoy the Latest NASA’s GRAIL Twin Spacecrafts Launch Pics

After numerous attempts, the GRAIL spacecrafts are finally on their way to the moon aboard the Delta-II rockets. Here we bring you the freshest photos from the launch.

The Delta II rockets were finally launched during the second window on 10th September at 09:08:52 AM EST. The first window opportunity was not availed because of upper atmospheric conditions. The launch was absolutely successful!  

Our GRAIL coverage:

The GRAIL launch buildup:

The GRAIL NASA Tweetup:

NASA’s Awesome Moon Pics Two Days Before GRAIL Launch:

GRAIL Scrubbed and Moon’s North Pole Pic:


Both the First and Second Stage Delta II rockets were ignited perfectly. GRAIL-A, one of the twin spacecrafts, separated from the module at 10:29 AM EST. GRAIL-B separated out at 10:39 AM EST.

Enjoy the GRAIL launch photos below!

Delta II rockets on the launch pad
Still on the pad. T-30 second till launch
Launch!! GRAIL is on its way to the moon


T-10 seconds into flight
The first stage rocket separation.
The Second Stage of the Delta-II Rocket Separation. Showing GRAIL-A breaking off from the Delta Module. It is now flying solo. Taken by the Separation Cam on the Delta rocket nose. The rectangular falling payload is the GRAIL-A spacecraft.
Earth as seen by the Delta rocket after the GRAIL-A separation (Courtesy: NASA TV)

We wish GRAIL the very best for the mission. The Moon’s secrets shall be known!

Courtesy: NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ NASA-TV

Our GRAIL coverage:

The GRAIL launch buildup:

The GRAIL NASA Tweetup:

NASA’s Awesome Moon Pics Two Days Before GRAIL Launch:

GRAIL Scrubbed and Moon’s North Pole Pic:


Origin of Man: Recent Studies Challenge The Accepted Evolutionary Tree For Humans

The Human Evolutionary Tree might need revision. Recent studies and analysis of the fossil of a skull discovered in South Africa in 2008 suggest that a new species, Australopithecus sediba, might have been the earliest human ancestor. The skull of the creature shows both human and ape-like characteristics. Homo habilis, the accepted earliest human ancestor, might have to be relegated to the status of a failed species.

The new species on the block

A. sediba dates back to a period two million years ago. This means that it predates Homo habilis by 77,000 years! The skeletons of A.sediba discovered are thought to belong to a female of about 30 years of age and that of a teenage male. They died together, possibly hours apart. The skeleton still shows bits of skin attached to it!

The Skull of Australopithecus sediba

Making Tools and Using them too

What makes A.sediba an exciting prospect is the fact that the species could make and use tools, a fact we can infer from the brain size and the shape of the fingers. X-ray scans of the skull of the young male fossil showed the braincast of the creature. Once the skull cast is known, scientists can work backwards, tracing the marks in the skull and location of the various artery marks to determine the shape and size of the brain. It turns out that the brain was a quarter of the size of the modern human brain, but still bigger than a chimpanzee’s or even Homo habilis‘s. What is more thrilling is the shape of the hands.

The hands of A.sediba had long thumbs, meaning they could do precision work with tools, much like us. This suggests that they could probably make tools and use them! In fact, the grip of A.sediba might have been better than our own, given the fact that the thumb was longer than ours.

The bigger brained and better tool-making A.sediba might really have been our ancestor, rather than Homo habilis. So what of Homo habilis?

What happens to our Evolutionary Tree?


In the accepted view of the evolution of the human species, Homo habilis represents the first creature in the Homo lineage that leads directly to us, Homo sapiens. Homo habilis gave way to Homo erectus, which then split into Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthals). The H.neanderthalensis species went extinct and H.sapiens came to dominate as the only species in the Homo genus. (Look at the graphic below)

The human timeline (Courtesy: National Geographic)

Now, A.sediba challenges that. It aims to replace H.habilis as the first creature that bore human characteristics, rather than ape-like ones. This means that H.habilis is relegated to being a mere species which went extinct, rather being a transitional form for modern humans. It was, by all means, a failed species that just couldn’t survive the evolutionary competition. However, more research and debate needs to be done to establish this hypothesis.The final word has not been said!

One thing is for sure : We are just Children of Africa searching for our own origins, our place in the cosmos and where we came from.

NASA Scrubs GRAIL Launch For A Day: Discover An Awesome Moon Pic While You Wait! [UPDATED]

NASA’s new Moon Mission GRAIL has been scrubbed for another day. The launch is now scheduled for 10th September, weather conditions permitting. While you wait for the launch to happen, you might as well drool over the following photo taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). The photo has never been seen before and is unique amongst the plethora of moon photos taken over the decades. Here it is!

UPDATE: The Launch was scheduled for the first window. Due to upper atmospheric wind conditions, it has been shifted to the second launch window at 9:08 AM EST (1838 IST and 1408 GMT).  

Launch Webcast Link:

North Pole of the Moon (Courtesy: NASA/ Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter)

The photo shows Moon’s North Pole. You’ve all heard about the moon’s dark side the side which is permanently hidden from us but this is different. The photo is not actually one photo, but 983 different ones stitched together. The 983 photos were taken over the period of one month! The magical thing about this photo is that the dark regions seen are regions that NEVER receive any sunlight. Remember that the photo was taken over the course of one month, thus the moon was illuminated in every way possible by the Sun. Thus, the dark regions, near the center of the photo really do not receive any sunlight ever!

About the GRAIL launch

Returning to news about the GRAIL launch, the latest from NASA is that the weather on 10th September (i.e. tomorrow) is likely to be 60% co-operative’, which is good enough for a launch. The launch windows remain roughly the same as it was yesterday one at 8:37 AM EST and the next one at 9:12 AM EST. Yesterday’s launch was scrubbed due to high turbulence in the upper atmosphere. While the Delta II rockets would presumably have flown through, NASA did not want to take any chances. It also gives NASA another day to complete another round of checks.

Since, we don’t have launch pictures, we might just as well share a picture of the scrub. The GRAIL spacecrafts, housed safely inside Delta II rockets, sits patiently on the Cape Canaveral Launch Pad.

GRAIL sits silently aboard the Delta II rockets (Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cape Canaveral Air Force Base)

We can afford to take some time it’s not as if someone’s expecting us on the moon.

Resources regarding the launch:  

1. Our Post Giving You all Updated Details:

2. Our Post About the NASA Tweetup Event:

3. NASA’s Webcast Link:

4. NASA’s official GRAIL page:

Discovered: An ‘Invisible’ Alien Planet

The best hidden player in a cosmic game of hide-and-seek has just been given away by its own gravitational attraction. For the first time ever, scientists have identified an invisible alien planet by just noticing the gravitational attraction it exerts on another planet, which has been observed. The game was won by the NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope.

An artist's impression of Kepler 19c tugging stealthily at Kepler 19b, as the latter makes its transit across the host star. (Courtesy: David Augilar, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

An Alien World

Kepler detected one alien planet as it made a transit across the star it orbits. However, it was noticed that the transit started five minutes early and ended five minutes later than expected. This could only mean that another planetary body tugs on this planet speeding up or delaying its orbital speed. The observed planet has been named Kepler 19b and the unseen planet, Kepler 19c. This is the first time this technique known as transit timing variation or TTV has been used to figure out the existence of an exoplanet. The planetary system is 650 light years away in the constellation Lyra.

Sarah Ballard of Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics explains it in naughty-next-door-kid jargon:

It’s like having someone play a prank on you by ringing your doorbell and running away. You know someone was there, even if you don’t see them when you get outside

What about Kepler 19c?

Almost nothing is known about Kepler 19c, except for the fact that it exists. Generally, all planets fall in two categories rocky planets and gas giants. Kepler 19c can be a rocky planet with an orbital period of about 5-7 days (i.e. it is really close to the host star, but light) or it can be a gas giant with an orbital period of 100 or 200 days (i.e. it is far off, but very massive). Both types would be able to exert similar gravitational influence on Kepler 19b.

Kepler 19c hasn’t been seen transiting the parent star, suggesting that the planes of orbit of Kepler 19b and 19c are oblique to one another. Kepler will keep looking. Kepler has done an excellent job in detecting exoplanets, detecting as many as 1235 planets in its first four months of operation.

The excitement and toil of such a search is the same as that of a murder mystery investigation, but happily without a victim. Did you just say, Elementary…? It is not!

Strong Signals Of Dark Matter Detection Noticed: Huge Announcement Coming In From Germany Conference

Dark matter may finally have been driven out of its hiding place. Scientists report seeing as many as 67 events of dark matter detection at the Cresst Experiment in Italy. This is the startling news coming out of the ongoing 7-day Topics in Astroparticle and Underground Physics Meetingin Germany. The announcement was made yesterday, i.e. on the 6th of September.

Exciting Events

The events have been detected with a four-sigma confidence level, or with about 99.994% confidence. For the status of a discovery, the detection has to be at a five-sigma confidence level or at 99.99994% confidence. Thus, we may say that the signals are extremely strong, but not strong enough to warrant a discovery.

The Cresst Experiment (Courtesy: Max Planck Institute)

What is Dark Matter?

Dark Matter has been predicted to occupy 24% of the Universe, with ordinary matter occupying just 4-5%. The challenge in detecting dark matter is due to the fact that it interacts really weakly with matter (hence, its name). It was introduced into the theoretical framework to explain the rapid spinning of the galactic arms. It soon turned out that fine-tuned Dark Energy Models are needed to explain Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation and Gravitational Lensing.

Dark Matter particles must have mass. Thus, the constituent particles of dark matter are called broadly as Weakly Interacting Massive Particles’ or WIMPs. The Cresst experiment uses supercooled calcium tungstate crystals to search for dark matter particle. When a dark matter particle hits one of the crystals, it scintillates and the detectors can pick up that pulse of radiation and measure the energy of the collision.


While this is great news for most gravitational models, it doesn’t reconcile with the non-detection of dark matter events in the CDMS-II and XENON100 experiments, both of which are also searching for Dark Matter particles. The fact that the detection is not at a 5-sigma confidence level yet means that all hopes of reconciliation are not gone.

Dark Matter may finally have been smoked out of its hiding place, but we’re still not sure of that.

NASA Releases Never Before Seen Photos Of The Moon Showing The Legacy Of The Previous Moon Missions

With no winds or water to wash it off, the Moon has not forgotten its past. Today, September 6th, NASA  released several images of the landing sites of the previous moon missions taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). These photos are the sharpest ever photos of the lunar surface and the indelible marks left by humans on it.

Image 1: Photo of the Apollo 17 mission landing site. Note the American Flag, hoisted there since the first moon mission. (Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Among the most notable features of the photo are the American flag planted during the historic first moon mission, craters left behind by rockets during launch and footprints of astronauts.

Image 2: Note the ALSEP equipment dump and the Surveyor Crater (Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The LRO also captured the equipment from the ALSEP project, the present location of the Lunar Rover and the Surveyor spacecraft. The ALSEP acronym for Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package project comprised of measuring seismological activity on the moon, determining the lunar atmospheric pressure, installing a laser reflector on the surface to return a laser beam so that the earth-moon distance can be accurately measured and gauging the history and effect of meteorite impacts on the lunar surface. ALSEP was a vital ingredient of all the Apollo missions, including Apollo 17.

Image 3: The trail marks were left by astronaut Alan Shepherd. (Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Footprints of the legendary Alan Shepherd, who was the first American to walk in space, can also be found in the photos. He was the fifth man on the moon. He is also known for being the only person to play golf on the moon. The LRO is in its extended mission period and will operate till 2012. Many may view this photo release as a nice PR move just two days before the big GRAIL launch, which will study the gravitational field of the moon in more detail than ever before.

Image and Label Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Innocuous Prehistoric Soil Bacteria Can Destroy Cancer Cells

This is the microbial version of the Good Samaritan story with far greater consequences. A very common soil bacterium Clostridium sporongenes can kill off cancerous cells and can be easily harnessed into a cancer drug. Furthermore, the bacterium does no damage to the cancer patient.

Clostridium sporogenes: Final Answer?

Common Wonder

The bacterium grows only in those places where oxygen is absent, like deep inside the soil or within tumors in the body. It is extremely specific in this aspect and does not grow in places where oxygen concentration exceeds a certain threshold level.

Scientists from Dutch and UK stimulated the production of an enzyme by the bacterium that can serve as a cancer drug. The studies were presented to the Society of Microbiology.

The Procedure

Spores of the bacterium are injected into the patients’ body. Since the microbe grows only in oxygen-depleted regions, it doesn’t grow indiscriminately and latches onto solid tumours. In this anaerobic environment, the bacterium produces a specific enzyme. A separate anti-cancer drug is injected into the patient at the same time, but in an inactive form. When this inactive drug meets the bacteria at the tumour site, the secreted enzyme activates the drug. Once activated, it destroys the cells surrounding it i.e. the tumor cells.

The Ultimate Magic Bullet

The bacterium may really be the magic bullet’ scientists have been searching for. Magic Bullet’ refers to the hypothetical medical concept in which a drug will only act on a specific type of cell or enzyme and not disturb any other component of the body. In case of cancer, the drug must target only cancer cells and not harm the healthy living tissues. C.sporogenes fits the bill perfectly. Since it grows only is low-oxygen regions, it will not grow on healthy tissues, as they are richly supplied by oxygen.

Prof. Nigel Minton explains this bizarre characteristic:

Clostridia are an ancient group of bacteria that evolved on the planet before it had an oxygen-rich atmosphere and so they thrive in low oxygen conditions. When Clostridia spores are injected into a cancer patient, they will only grow in oxygen-depleted environments, i.e. the centre of solid tumors. This is a totally natural phenomenon, which requires no fundamental alterations and is exquisitely specific. We can exploit this specificity to kill tumor cells but leave healthy tissue unscathed

Thus, new age cancer treatments may be non-invasive with little or no side-effects and due to a harmless soil microbe.

The Final Answer may have been under our feet all along. Who’d have thought that the dirt that you wash off your shoes might hold the key to a cancer cure?