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Science

11,000 year old artifact is one of the oldest examples of complex stone age art

Archaeologists believe that the Shigir Idol, a 5-meter carved wooden idol unearthed in 1894 by gold prospectors, is 11,600 years old. Covered front and back with recognizably human faces, the wooden artifact is one of the world’s oldest examples of monumental art, writes Andrew Curry for Science. For more than a century, archaeologists assumed the statute was a few thousand years old, but in a paper published in the journal Antiquity, scholars argue that it is the handiwork of hunter-gatherers, and not of farming societies.

New samples taken in 2014 place the age of the sculpture to a time when the world was transitioning out of the last ice age. “We have to conclude hunter-gatherers had complex ritual and expression of ideas, says Thomas Terberger, an archaeologist at the University of Göttingen, Germany, and a co-author or the paper. “Ritual doesn’t start with farming, but with hunter-gatherers.” The new date places the statue in post-glacial Eurasia at a time when forests were just beginning to spread, writes Curry.

Peter Vang Petersen, an archaeologist at The National Museum of Denmark, believes that art changed as the landscape changed, perhaps as a way to help people come to grips with the unfamiliar forest environments they were navigating. Mikhail Zhilin of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and co-author of the study agrees. “The idol is a reminder that stone wasn’t the only material people in the past used to make art and monuments—just the one most likely to survive, possibly skewing our understanding of prehistory,” he says.

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TECH_Technology

The U.S. has taken the lead over China with the world’s fastest supercomputer

The U.S. has regained its position as having the world’s fastest super computer, a $200 million government investment called Summit. For five years, China held that title, reports Steve Lohr for the New York Times (NYT), until Oak Ridge National Laboratory completed America’s latest entry. According to NYT, Summit can do mathematical calculations at the rate of 200 quadrillion per second, or 200 petaflops. As Lohr explains it, a person doing one calculation a second would have to live for more than 6.3 billion years to match what Summit does in one second.

The benefits of supercomputers like Summit cannot be overstated. Besides its ability to handle vast amounts of data, Summit can be used to help tackle challenges in science, industry and national security. Scientists at government labs like Oak Ridge are doing exploratory research in areas like new materials to make roads more robust, writes Lohr, and designs for energy storage that might apply to electric cars or energy grids. One of the programs that Summit has begun processing data for is the Million Veteran Program, which enlists veterans to give researchers access to all of their health records.

Thomas Zacharia, lab director at Oak Ridge, explains that the insights from this program could “help us find new ways to treat our veterans and contribute to the whole area of precision medicine. Dr. Gaziano, a principal investigator on the Million Veteran Program also sees the benefits supercomputers like Summit provides. He explains that population science might be entering a new golden age, “we have all this big, messy data to create a new field—rethinking how we think about disease. It’s a really exciting time.”

Categories
Physics

Company seeks to run planet on fusion by 2030s

Tokamak Energy, a UK-based nuclear fusion company, believes that it is well on the way to creating a mega-reactor that harnesses superhot plasma as a clean energy source, reports Elizabeth Rayne for Syfy Wire.  The new ST40 reactor has recently heated hydrogen plasma to a temperature of about 27 million degrees Fahrenheit—hotter than the core of the sun. The success of this test could be a major leap towards global plasma energy, leaving fossil fuels as a relic of the past. “Our aim is to make fusion energy a commercial reality by 2030,” said Tokamak Energy CEO John Carling.

The tokamak fusion reactor, first developed during the 1960s in Soviet Russia, uses a doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber that confines plasma, allowing fusion to occur and be sustained. Hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium are exposed to tremendous heat and pressure, going through an electrical breakdown that produces electrically charged gas known as plasma. These charged particles of plasma become so energized that when they crash into each other, they fuse, releasing enormous bursts of energy. Not only will nuclear fusion power Earth, but also rockets, keeping them airborne and elimination the need for massive amounts of fuel. In fact, NASA is funding the development of fusion reactor rockets by Princeton Satellite Systems.

Tokamak Energy’s next goal is to reach 212 million degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature at which deuterium and tritium particles fuse. An admittedly big challenge the company believes it can tackle, as co-founder Dr. David Kingham puts it. “We believe that with collaboration, dedication and investment, fusion will be an important part of achieving deep decarbonization of the global energy supply in the 2030s and beyond.”

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HEALTH Mobile TECH_Technology

DARPA awards contract to develop an app that monitors soldiers’ health

DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) announced that it has awarded a $5.1 million contract to Kryptowire to develop an app that monitors the health of deployed U.S. Service Members, writes Aaron Gregg for The Washington Post. The “Warfighter Analytics using Smartphones for Health” program (WASH), would spot diseases based on data collected from a user’s smartphone.

The WASH development program began last year and runs through 2021, reports Gregg. The aim of the program is helping the military work through some of its healthcare issues, while conserving resources. According to the The Washington Post, the app will collect data from smartphone features including cameras, light sensors, fingerprint sensors, microphones and other sources. DARPA’s head of communications explained that “the program aims to develop algorithms that use raw data from smartphone sensors to enable continuous and real-time assessment” of service members’ health status in an effort to find latent or developing conditions and diseases.

Tom Karygiannis, Kryptowire’s vice president of product, believes that although this product’s initial purpose is for military use, it will one day be available to all consumers. “Ultimately, this could mean better treatment, cost savings and making treatment available to more people,” he said. Chris Shipley, managing partner of Ascent Line Partners (a market strategy consultancy) predicts that DARPA’s involvement could mean the technology will reach the commercial market relatively quickly.

“The fact that this is being deployed in a DARPA-funded application is going to be a great learning space for how they can be used in a consumer context,” he said.

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NWT_Animals TECH_Technology

Coral conservationists are launching a new satellite-based monitoring system

A new global monitoring system capable of detecting daily changes in coral cover will launch this fall at five pilot sites. The satellite-based system will enable researchers, policymakers, and environmentalists to track sever bleaching events, reports Rhett A. Butler for Pacific Standard. The system is the product of a partnership between Paul G. Allen Philanthropies, Planet, the Carnegie Institution of Science, the University of Queensland, and the Hawaii Institute of Marine biology.

Rising sea temperatures, coastal development, and unsustainable fishing practices cause reef damage, and trigger bleaching. The new monitoring system looks to provide daily high-resolution cover of the reef. “This system could be a game-changer for coral reef conservation,” says Greg Asner, a scientist at Carnegie. “It will be the first large-scale monitoring system that can detect where reefs are changing thereby enabling direct action to mitigate losses.” Current monitoring systems aren’t comprehensive, writes Butler, usually based on scuba or aircraft surveys, which are limited in extent.

In contrast, the new system leverages Planet’s daily high-resolution satellite imagery, running the data through cloud computing-based artificial intelligence, Butler explains. Algorithms from ocean researchers at the University of Queenland’s Remote Sensing Research center is then applied to the satellite imagery in order to classify the reefs. Finally, Carnegie applies a change detection algorithm to the data, which gives the system its monitoring capability. Andrew Zolli, vice president for global impact initiatives at Planet, believes the system is the first step in accelerating “action on the coral crisis before it’s too late.”

Categories
HEALTH

Microbiome accounts for more than half our body’s total cell count

Microscopic bacteria, viruses, fungi and archaea make up more than half the human body, reports James Gallagher for BBC News. This large microbial phenomenon is changing the way scientists think about diseases like Parkinson’s, depression, and even autism.

Human cells make up only 43% of the body’s total cell count. Genetically, the ratio is even higher. Science has confirmed that 20,000 genes make up the human genome. However, combine all the genes in our microbiome and the human body has between two and 20 million microbial genes. Sarkis Mazmanian, a microbiologist from Caltech, explains that the genes of our microbiome “present essentially a second genome which augment the activity of our own.” Scientists are discovering the critical role the microbiome plays in our health. Rob Knight, professor at University of California San Diego, posits that we’re more microbe than we are human, and that this impacts our health. “We’re finding ways that these tiny creatures totally transform our health in ways we never imagined until recently,” he says.

Though in its early stages, microbial medicine is becoming a vehicle for obtaining valuable information about our health. “It’s incredible to think each teaspoon of your stool contains more data in the DNA of those microbes than it would take literally a ton of DVDs to store,” said Knight. He believes that a day will come when “as soon as you flush it’ll do some kind of instant read-out …,” indicating whether we are in good, or bad health.

Categories
PHYS

Scientists discover more evidence of water on Jupiter’s moon Europa in old images

Scientists discover images of what seems to be the Galileo orbiter flying through a plume of water shooting out from Jupiter’s moon Europa twenty years ago. On December 16, 1997, Galileo flew 400 kilometers above Europa’s surface and recorded an isolated spike in the magnetic field along with a spike in the energy of the particles it detected, writes Ryan F. Mandelbaum for Gizmodo.

Looking at the twenty-year evidence with fresh eyes, a team of researchers believe the spike was Galileo flying through a plume of water. “This wasn’t planned out,” says study author Xianzhe Jia from the University of Michigan. “It just so happened that the spacecraft passed through a region where we saw plumes.” When NASA announced in 2013 that Hubble spotted what appeared to be water vapor above the moon’s south pole, Jia and his team decided to look for more evidence of the plumes using images taken by Galileo. They found what they were looking for–the evidence seemed clear.

Jesse Christiansen, staff scientist at the NASA Exoplanet Archive, is excited by the results. “It’s incredible that these authors were able to go back to 20-year-old observations from the Galileo spacecraft with new information and fresh eyes and find this smoking-gun evidence that Galileo encountered one of Europa’s plumes,” he told Gizmodo. Scientists are preparing for the “Europa Clipper” mission that would potentially sample the plumes for biological material, writes Mandelbaum. Grant Tremblay, astrophysicist at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, believes the images offer more evidence of water on Jupiter’s moon. “Europa’s possible subsurface ocean remains among the best candidate harbors of extraterrestrial life in our Solar System.”

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Business NWT_Biology TECH

Scientists develop a poop-vaporizing, self-flushing toilet

Diana Yousef, founder and CEO of change:Water Labs, has developed a waterless toilet that virtually vaporizes human waste.  Her company designed the toilet for places that don’t have indoor plumbing, writes Ben Paynter for Fast Company, and resembles a traditional toilet set atop a box with a side vent.

The lining of the toilet consists of a pouch made from a proprietary moisture-wicking polymer.  It sucks water out of excrement deposited into the pouch, dehydrating the sewage while releasing the water vapor.  Essentially, this prototype is a way to have “like a self-flushing toilet,” Yousef says.  She explains that she developed this toilet to solve sewage issues in developing economies.  “I thought initially we’d be this platform where we’d connect the dots between technologies and applications across borders, and we try to solve these problems that nobody was really solving or at least nobody was successfully solving,” she says.

Paynter explains that sanitation services in developing economies takes two forms:  composting toilets, which need lots of space and are smelly; or, personal bucket-based systems, which are continuously collected and carted away by health workers.  The change:Water toilet transforms bowel movements into dried turds, enabling the device to go through multiple uses before users empty it.  For a family of five or six, the toilet should last at least two weeks before being emptied.

The company has built and tested a prototype, and various grants account for the current $250,000 in total funding.  “This is the thing that deals with … sustainability and climate change, and girls’ empowerment, so I just went all in,” Yousef reveals.

Categories
HEALTH

Clinical trial reveals the potential to slow the aging process by severely restricting calories

A recent clinical trial has found that when people severely cut calories, they can slow their metabolism and possibly the aging process. Patti Neighmond at NPR, writes about the study, which was published in the journal Cell Metabolism last month.

Clinical physiologist Leanne Redman at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge led the study. Redman explained that one of the first challenges was finding people willing to take part in a trial where the typical caloric intake for breakfast, lunch and dinner would be cut by 25 percent. “I don’t know if you understand the rigor of what it means to do calorie restriction every day,” she said.

Redman was able to recruit 53 healthy volunteers: one third ate their regular meals while the rest were on the severe calorie reduction plan for two years. Her goal was to deduce whether this dramatic reduction in calories could affect how quickly people age. For testing, participants spent 24 hours in special rooms that measured their metabolic rates via gas, oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Redman noticed that for those on the restricted diet, their metabolism slowed and became more efficient. She explains that what this basically means is “cells are needing less oxygen in order to generate the energy the body needs to survive; and so the body and the cells are becoming more energy efficient.”

If less oxygen is needed to burn energy, then dangerous byproducts of that burning (free radicals) can be reduced. “Oxygen can actually be damaging to tissues and cells, and so if the cells have become more efficient, then they’ve got less oxygen left over that can cause damage,” she says. These findings, however, are not easily replicated and don’t directly prove that drastic calorie-cutting will actually help people live longer, writes Neighmond. The study did find, however, that blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides were lower in the group on severe calorie restriction.

Biochemist Valter Longo, who studies longevity at the University of Southern California, is a proponent of “mini-fasts” versus severe calorie restriction. Mini-fasts are short reductions in calories to just 900 a day for five days a month, which he says have the benefits of fasting without the potentially negative long-term effects.

Categories
PHYS

Quantum physics illustrates how reality depends on our conscious perception of it

We are living in a “holographic-type” universe, according to physicist Andrew Truscott from the ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering. This is because studying the unsettling world of quantum physics brings to light observed phenomena that defy logic, and challenge our concepts of reality and time. No two experiments (studied repeatedly by physicists) highlight this more than the classic double slit experiment, and the “delayed-choice” experiment, writes Bren O’Neal on Wonderfullthing.com.

In the quantum double slit experiment, tiny bits of matter are shot towards a screen that has two slits in it. A camera on the other end records where the photons land. When one slit is closed, an expected pattern is recorded. However, when both slits are open, an “interference pattern” emerges—the photons begin to act like waves, explains O’Neal. Meaning (inexplicably), that each photon individually goes through both slits at the same time interfering with itself, but also goes through one slit, and goes through the other. Even stranger still, the photon goes through neither of them. “The single piece of matter becomes a ‘wave’ of potentials, expressing itself in the form of multiple possibilities,” O’Neal explains.

When the “observer” decides to measure which slit the piece of matter goes through, the “wave” of potential paths collapses into one. In other words, the observer creates the reality—or, “reality does not exist unless we are looking at it,” Truscott says. Similarly, John Wheeler’s 1978 delayed choice experiment shows how what happens in the present can change what happens(ed) in the past. Essentially, by measuring a photon travelling from a billion years in the past around a galaxy (gravitational lensing), we affect the trajectory of its path now—in the present. As O’Neil explains it, “time as we measure it and know it, doesn’t really exist.”