James Cameron’s Amazing Journey to the Bottom of the Ocean

Award winning film director, James Cameron, took an incredible voyage to the deepest point on earth, the Mariana Trench’s Challenger Deep. Such a journey hasn’t been taken in 50 years when two men explored the trench for a period of 20 minutes. The dive was a joint effort between Cameron and National Geographic. Below is a brief video describing what Cameron saw and a glimpse of exciting things to come.

(Video Link)

Cameron took the journey in a torpedo shaped sub he helped design called the DeepSea Challenger. In it he descended to unimaginable depths nearly 7 miles deep. He hoped to see new life adapted to life in the deep. What he saw was more like a barren wasteland.  According to National Geographic Cameron said, “The impression to me was it’s very lunar, very isolated. I felt as if, in the space of one day, I’d gone to another planet and come back.”

Cameron hoped to explore the depths for six hours but unfortunately a hydraulic leak, which impeded his view from the sub’s window, cut the trip down to about two hours. The hydraulic leak prevented him from collecting any biological samples but he was able to get a partial sediment core sample. Scientists are hoping the partial samples might reveal some new life previously unknown to man.

Though the trip was cut short, Cameron seemed upbeat about the whole thing. He emphasized that the sub is a “prototype” and that there are things that need to be ironed out. He stated, “The important thing is that we have a vehicle that’s a robust platform—it gets us there safely, the lights work, the cameras work, and hopefully next time the hydraulics will work.”

It is fascinating to see to footage coming back from this trip even if it is a little lifeless. It just shows you how much more of our world there is left to explore. Cameron plans to make more dives in the coming weeks and hopefully will be able to capture 3-D footage from the ocean deep.

If you would like to read more about this expedition visit National Geographic’s website at http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/03/120326-james-cameron-mariana-trench-challenger-deepest-lunar-sub-science/.

MIT Scientists Pinpoint Location Of Memory; ‘Create’ And Manipulate Memory At Will!!

It’s a dangerous game – playing around with memories – but someone’s got to do it. MIT researchers have just found out where memories are stored – in individual neurons. Not only that, by selectively activating and deactivating certain neurons or group of neurons, the MIT team could either fire or erase certain memories. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” fans might have known this coming for a long time, but this is the first time this kind of manipulation is being made possible.
The team experimented on mice. They drilled a small hole through the skull and then aimed their lasers at very specific areas in the brain. So that the neurons responded to light signals, the researchers used optogenetically modified neurons. This allowed the scientists to play around with thoughts using electric signals as well as laser light.
The hippocampus of a mouse (Courtesy: MIT, Nikon Small World Gallery)

Manipulating Memory

One of the demonstrations involved creating a feeling of fear in the mice. The scientists triggered off a very specific area of the hippocampus of the brain using electric signals. This created a fear memory! The team then fired off lasers in order to activate this memory centre and immediately found that the mouse had gone into a “defensive, immobile crouch”, paralysed by fear. However, we still don’t know what the exact memory was; we just know its nature.
Just to ram home the point: scientists can pinpoint certain regions of the brain and create memories of very specific emotions. They can then ‘replay’ these memories, forcing the individual to react to these memories. Till now, the emotions need to be very simple! Remember that these memories can be very false! However, we still cannot manufacture specific detailed filled memories.


Though these experiments have been done only on mice, human brains are not too different, except that it is a lot more complicated. Scientists think that these can be replicated in humans, but no human subjects have been used for experiment, and none will be used in the near future.
This answers the old question of what memories are in the brain. They are not merely concepts – they are physical objects, represented by individual neurons. The next question to be answered is this: how are memories formed? Also, why do we remember a scene like we do, rather than in greater detail? Also, how are memories encoded? Is it possible to create a computer program to bestow a certain set of memories to an individual? The MIT team may be close to answering that.
Memories are more mundane than one might have thought, proves the MIT team. Remember that!
More info: http://www.mit.edu/newsoffice/2012/conjuring-memories-artificially-0322.html

Shut Up! The Japanese Have Built A Speech-Jamming Gun

This may be the most innovative (and useful) non-lethal weapon invented till date: the speech jamming gun. It’s a great way to shut people up, literally and it works just like any other gun; you point, you aim, you shoot and you silence! Two Japanese researchers, Kazutaka Kurihara and Koji Tsukada from the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology and Ochanomizu University respectively have come up with this marvelous invention.

A figure taken from the paper

The Silent Treatment

The principle is simple. A person’s speech is fed back to him with a slight delay of a few hundred milliseconds, using a mechanism called ‘Delayed Auditory Feedback’ (DAF). This can force the person to stop speaking. It exploits a well-known functionality of the brain called ‘auditory feedback’. The brain not only instructs speech, but also guides it, analyzing the every piece of vocal output. The trick is to stop the brain from hearing what actually comes out of our mouths. When the person’s own words are played back to him/her, the auditory cognition of the brain can be scrambled and, because it affects the logical cognitive processes in the brain, it becomes impossible to continue speaking!

The invention finds a place in the Cornell University Archives. The arXiv paper, titled ‘SpeechJammer: A System Utilizing Artificial Speech Disturbance with Delayed Auditory Feedback’, can be found here.

The paper says:

In general, human speech is jammed by giving back to the speakers their own utterances at a delay of a few hundred milliseconds. This effect can disturb people without any physical discomfort, and disappears immediately by stop speaking.

One is merely limited by one’s own imagination as to how important and useful this instrument can turn out to be, especially in the hands of students in a classroom or in the hands of husbands in front of their wives. Enough said, time to stop talking.

NASA Clocks Record Breaking Winds Around a Black Hole

NASA announced earlier this week that astronomers using the Chandra X-ray Observatory observed the fastest winds ever blowing off a disk around a stellar-mass black hole. These observations shed some new light on the mysterious black holes and how they behave.

Artists Rendering of Stellar-Mass Blackhole (Courtesy NASA.gov)

So what kind of speed does it take to break a record? How does 20 million mph strike you? Speeds like that are hard to fathom. To put in perspective that is 3% of the speed of light. Ashley King, of the University of Michigan is quoted in the NASA press release as saying, “This is like the cosmic equivalent of winds from a category five hurricane.” Ashley was the lead in the study which was published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Stellar-mass black holes are created when a super massive stars collapse. These are stars are usually about 10 times the mass of the sun. An interesting point about this discovery oddly enough, was that this particular black hole was behaving like black holes with much higher mass. “It’s a surprise this small black hole is able to muster the wind speeds we typically only see in the giant black holes,” said co-author Jon M. Miller, also from the University of Michigan. “In other words, this black hole is performing well above its weight class.”

There were several unexpected findings surrounding this observation. For instance, the wind seems to be carrying more material away from the black hole than it is taking in. Unlike hurricane winds here on earth, the stellar-mass black hole winds travel in all directions.

For more information about the Chandra X-ray Observatory, visit http://www.nasa.gov/chandra.

Permian Era Forest Preserved in Pompeii-like Ash Found in China

Imagine being able to go back in time nearly 300 million years and see the flora and fauna that has long since been extinct. Then imagine being able to freeze that moment in time like a snapshot. For professor Hermann W. Pfefferkorn, of the University of Pennsylvania, that experience became a reality. Pfefferkorn and a team of Chinese scientists found a nearly complete Permian era forest frozen in volcanic ash near a mining site in Wuda, China.

Hermann Pfefferkorn
Professor Hermann Pfefferkorn of Penn (Photo courtesy Penn News)

According to Penn News, Pfefferkorn is quoted saying, “It’s marvelously preserved…We can stand there and find a branch with the leaves attached, and then we find the next branch and the next branch and the next branch. And then we find the stump from the same tree. That’s really exciting.” The Wuda site is near a large coal mining operation. This provided a very unique opportunity for them to study this ancient forest on a large scale. They were able to study nearly 1000 square meters. This gave them an unprecedented look at the flora from that time. Pictured below, you can see a well preserved branch from trees classified as a Noeggerathiales. These trees were small spore-bearing trees that are long since extinct.

Noeggerathiales an extinct tree (Courtesy of PNAS.org)

The ancient tropical forest dates back nearly 300 million years ago to what is called the Permian era. It sat on a peat bed which eventually became a layer of coal due to many years of pressure. Reminiscent of Pompeii, this forest was beautifully preserved in a bed of volcanic ash. The scientists examined and mapped out this preserved forest and were able to reconstruct how it must have looked millions of years ago. They worked with an artist to reconstruct this vast tropical forest. You can see one of the renderings pictured below.

Reconstruction of Permian Era Forest (Courtesy of PNAS.org)

This is certainly a significant find. It’s the first such finding in Asia and the first peat forest of its kind to be found anywhere from this period. The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences early edition. You can also see the fantastic images of the preserved flora in the “Supporting Information” supplement here.

Will Your Next Hamburger be Grown in a Tube?

Scientists at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting recently took on the challenge of solving the world’s food problems. Dr. Mark Post, professor at Maastricht University, proposed a rather bizarre way to grow meat in the future. The world’s first hamburger developed from cow stem cells is expected to come this fall. The meat will be grown in a test tube. It makes you wonder if Anthony Bourdain would even be brave enough to eat it.

Test Tube Meat
Courtesy Mark Post via AAAS.org

The hamburger is being developed with from an anonymous donor who gave Dr. Post 250,000 Euros to get the job done. Pictured above, you can see a strip of muscle tissue developed from cow stem cells at the lab. It will take many of these strips to produce an actual hamburger.

So why the interest in a new meat substitute. Scientists note the inefficiencies surrounding meat production as it is done today. The environmental impact is also a huge concern. Large meat farming operations produce a lot of green house gases and other environmental issues. There is also a noted risk to humans as there has been a rise of E. Coli outbreaks recently.

Another scientist, Patrick Brown of Stanford University, proposed a meat substitute derived from plant material. Brown sounded very confident that his product could win over the meat and potatoes crowd. This seems to be a more viable alternative as Post’s stem cell approach is a very expensive and time consuming process.

Probably most surprising to me was to hear about the meat industry’s interest in this research. Big names like Tyson Foods have expressed interest in the synthetic meat. It will be interesting to see what the food of the future looks like and how this type of research will change things for us. I have to admit my own skepticism, mostly out of concern for eating synthetic proteins and what unforeseen problems may occur from eating synthetic meat. However, the possibility that we could produce more food with less energy sounds very promising. I think I’ll go get a hamburger now before they become a thing of the past. ;)

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!

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.