Earth Is a Happy Accident

by: the Common Constitutionalist 

The other evening, I watched a program about planet Earth and how it was formed and so on. Throughout the program the “scientists” were constantly telling the viewers of how lucky we are to be placed in the universe where we are, how everything just seemed to come together for planet Earth, or something like that.

 

At the time I thought nothing about the program. Then Saturday morning, I awoke early, got my coffee, sat in my chair and began to write. I wrote the title of my next article, and that’s as far as I got.

 

I gazed up from the page and stared at some plants in front of a large sliding glass door. For reasons unknown, I began to hypothesize how large I could get them to grow if I somehow pumped up the CO2 in the room. Makes sense right? No? Well I thought it anyway.

 

Of course, I thought, too much and I wouldn’t survive and how much is too much for the plants? The balance would have to be just right.

 

At this point I guess I was just daydreaming. My gaze went from the plants to out the slider where the sun was just up in the sky was becoming blue. Then it hit me. read more

Navigating Beetles

How a beetle can use the stars to navigate its way across the vast deserts of  Africa

It might look small and insignificant but the  dung beetle has its sights set firmly on the stars.

The beetle is the first insect proven to use  the light of the Milky Way to help steer its course.

Also known as the scarab, the tiny creatures  feed on animal droppings, which they fashion into a ball and roll away to a safe  spot where it is less likely to be stolen.

Expert navigator: New research has found that scarabs - also known as dung beetles - find their way through their desert habitat by using the stars of the Milky Way as a reference
 New research has found that scarabs –  also known as dung beetles – find their way through their desert habitat by  using the stars of the Milky Way as a reference

Although their eyes are too weak to  distinguish individual constellations, scientists found they used the  glow of  the Milky Way to navigate in a straight line, ensuring they do  not circle back  to the dung-heap and potential competitors.

‘Even on clear, moonless nights, many dung  beetles still manage to orientate along straight paths,’ said Dr Marie Dacke  from Lund University in Sweden.

‘This led us to suspect that the beetles  exploit the starry sky for orientation – a feat that had, to our knowledge,  never before been demonstrated in an insect.’

Field experiments on a South African game  reserve showed that the beetles were able to roll their dung balls along  straight paths under starlit skies, but not in overcast conditions.

The lighter band of the Milky Way's edge: While unable to pick out constellations, the scarabs could detect the light arcing over their heads
The lighter band of the Milky Way’s edge: While unable  to pick out constellations, the scarabs could detect the light arcing over their  heads

For the tests, the beetles were fitted with  tiny cardboard caps to alter their field of vision.

They were placed in a circular arena  surrounded by a meter-high black cloth, making it impossible for them to see  landmarks.

With no moon, it took much less time for the  beetles to roll a dung ball from the center of the arena to the edge when they  were able to see the sky.

When they could not look up, the time taken  increased from 40 seconds to 124 as they wandered aimlessly around.

The experiment was repeated in a Johannesburg  planetarium, with similar results.

The beetles performed equally well under a  full sky of stars, and when only the glow of the Milky Way was  visible.

Most stars would be too dim for the beetles’ tiny compound eyes to see, said the researchers. While unable to pick out  constellations, the scarabs  could detect the light of the Milky Way arcing over  their heads.

‘This finding represents the first convincing  demonstration for the use of  the starry sky for orientation in insects and  provides the first  documented use of the Milky Way for orientation in the  animal kingdom,’  the researchers wrote in the journal Current  Biology.

Previously only birds, seals and humans were  known to navigate by the stars.

Dung beetles also use the sun and moon as  compass cues, said the scientists.

They added: ‘Although this is the first  description of an insect using the  Milky Way for their orientation, this  ability might turn out to be  widespread in the animal kingdom.’

Attribution: Damien Gayle, Mail Online

 

Space Station Blows Up

The orbital balloon: NASA tests blow-up space-craft

 

A prototype inflatable module is to be tested  aboard the International Space Station to give astronauts an extra bedroom, NASA has announced.

The inflatable module  can be compressed into a 7ft tube for delivery,  and is being heralded as a key component of future exploration and the  development of commercial space travel and research.

It is designed by Bigelow Aerospace, based in  Las Vegas, which has been awarded a $17.8  million (£11m) test  project for the inflatable room – and hopes to develop  space hotels and even planetary bases using the technology.

This artist's impressions shows the Bigelow inflatable space station that can be compressed into a 7-foot tube for delivery to the International Space Station. NASA is expected to install the module by 2015This artist’s impressions shows the Bigelow inflatable  space station that can be compressed into a 7-foot tube for delivery to the  International Space Station. NASA is expected to install the module by 2015

 

Bigelow Aerospace president Robert Bigelow, left, and NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver with a one third scale model of the inflatable room Bigelow Aerospace president Robert Bigelow, left, and  NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver with a one third scale model of the  inflatable room

Astronauts will test the ability of  the  bladder, known as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM,  to withstand  heat, radiation, debris and other assaults.

Some adventurous scientists might  also try  sleeping in the spare room, which is the first piece of private property to be  blasted into space, NASA said.

Lori Garver, NASA’s deputy administrator,  said as she unveiled the contract award that the inflatable module concept is  simultaneously cutting edge technology and affordable.

‘This partnership agreement for the use of  expandable habitats represents a step forward in cutting-edge technology that  can allow humans to thrive in space safely and affordably, and heralds important  progress in U.S. commercial space innovation,’ she said.

‘The International Space Station is a unique  laboratory that enables important discoveries that benefit humanity and vastly  increase understanding of how humans can live and work in space for long  periods.’

Part of NASA’s interest in the inflatable  technology is prompted by its potential for deep space missions.

If the module proves durable during two years  at the space station, it could open the door to habitats on the moon and  missions to Mars, Nasa engineer Glen Miller said.

The agency chose Bigelow for the contract  because it was the only company working on inflatable technology, said NASA  deputy administrator Lori Garver.

An artist's rendering of Bigelow Aerospace's balloon-like module attached to the International Space StationAn artist’s rendering of Bigelow Aerospace’s  balloon-like module attached to the International Space Station

 

Founder and president Robert Bigelow, who  made his fortune in the hotel industry before getting into the space business in  1999, framed the gambit as an out-of-this-world property venture.

He hopes to sell his spare-tire habitats to  scientific companies and wealthy adventurers looking for space  hotels.

NASA is expected to install the 13ft  blimp-like module in a space station port by 2015.

Mr Bigelow plans to begin selling stand-alone  space homes the next year.

The new technology provides three times as  much room as the existing aluminium models, and is also easier and less costly  to build, Mr Miller said.

Artist renderings of the module resemble a  tin-foil clown nose grafted on to the main station. It is hardly big enough to  be called a room.

Mr Miller described it as a large closet with  padded white walls and gear and gizmos strung from two central beams.

Attribution: Lewis Smith and Mark Prigg

Impact Protection

An orange goo that looks like the children’s toy silly putty seems an unlikely material to protect valuable technology products.

Yet this strange  gel, also known as D3O, behaves very differently under sudden impact, as the molecules of this ‘non-Newtonian polymer’ lock together, immediately dissipating the force of a blow.

These characteristics make the goo an ideal product for a variety of protective purposes and it is now being used by a  British company in protecting cell phones and computers.

Scroll down  for video

Magic goo: When the material is touched gently it is soft and malleableMagic goo: When the material is touched gently it is  soft and malleable
Shock absorber: When the slime is hit violently with a mallet it dissipates the impact and protects the man's handShock absorber: When the slime is hit violently with a  mallet it dissipates the impact and protects the man’s hand

Popsci  encountered the product at the 2013 International Consumer Electronics Show  (CES), a four-day event which finished on Friday in Las Vegas.

A representative from London-based  company Tech  21 toyed with and then wrapped his hand in the slimy gel.

The man then whacked his fingers several  times with a large mallet with no ill-effect, proving the incredible properties  of D3O.

The patented gel was invented by British scientist Richard Palmer after a skiing accident in 1999.

Gloop: When not under stress, D3O is stretchy and slimyGloop: When not under stress, D3O is stretchy and  slimy
The unique properties of the material mean it has been used in many types of shock protectionThe unique properties of the material mean it has been  used in many types of shock protection

It is a non-Newtonian fluid – one whose viscosity differs from the Newtonian model that is  followed by liquids such as water and gasoline.

Since Palmer and his team completed development of D3O in 2005, it has been used in a number of wyas impact protection, from winter sports clothing to use on the battlefield.

Tech 21 describe their field as ‘impactology’ – the ‘science of protection’ and they are now using the intelligent gloop in  protective cases for technology products, such as phones and  computers.

In 2009, a different company company won a £100,000 contract from the UK Ministry of Defence to develop the shock-absorbing gel in helmets for British troops fighting on the frontline in Afghanistan.

Now the material is used in motorcycle and sports equipment, personal protection, footwear and safeguarding  electronics.

Silly putty is also a non-Newtonian fluid, but not as useful in a combat situation Silly putty is also a non-Newtonian fluid, but not as  useful in a combat situation

Attribution: Daily Mail

A Quick Nap

We spend around 10% of our waking hours with our eyes shut.

And while it’s commonly thought that we blink to keep our eyes lubricated, it seems a lot of the time it’s because our brains need a little nap.

New research suggests that the human brain uses that tiny moment of shut-eye to power down.

Blink and you'll miss it: Scientists find that blinking is a chance for our brains to power down
Blink and you’ll miss it: Scientists find that blinking is a chance for our brains to power down

Researchers from Japan’s Osaka University found that the mental break can last  anywhere from a split second to a few seconds before attention is fully  restored.

Scans that track the ebb and flow of blood within the brain revealed that regions associated with paying close attention momentarily go offline.

The brain then goes into a ‘default mode  network’, or idle setting.

The same setting is engaged when our attention is not required by a cognitive task such as reading or speaking and our thoughts wander freely.

Mini nap: blinking allows the brain to go into idle mode
Mini nap: blinking allows the brain to go into idle  mode

During this mode we tend to contemplate our feelings; we wonder what a friend meant by a recent comment; we consider something we did last week, or imagine what we’ll do tomorrow.

While listening to another person or reading, that usually comes at the end of a sentence and while watching a film, we’re most likely to blink when an actor leaves the scene or when the camera shifts.

Most of us take between 15 and 20 such moments of downtime per minute.

The new research, published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, studied 20 healthy young subjects in a brain scanner as they watched snippets from the British comedy Mr. Bean.

When subjects blinked, the researchers detected a momentary stand-down within the brain’s visual cortex and somatosensory cortex — both involved with processing visual stimuli – and in areas that govern attention.

Separate studies on blinking have shown  that  while telling a lie, people have been found to blink less.

In the seconds after telling a lie, however,  the liar will blink far more frequently than a truth-teller.

Attribution: Mail Online

This Ain’t Your Grandpas Field Rations

The Military Is Pushing the Bounds… of Food Science

Tremendous breakthroughs are often born out of military pursuits. In the past, military research has directly or indirectly led to technological innovations like the microwave oven, nuclear power, and the Internet.

You can also add M&M’s to that list — yes M&M’s. Those delightfully crunchy and satisfyingly chocolatey candies that melt in your mouth (not in your hand) were originally intended for American troops in World War II.m & m

Legend has it that Forrest Mars, Sr., while traveling in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, found soldiers eating tiny chocolate pellets coated in hard, sugar shells. Returning to the states in 1940, Mars perfected the candy and negotiated an amicable deal with the Hershey Corporation, which already had an agreement to provide chocolate to the army. When World War II rolled around, M&M’s became an instant hit with the troops because the candies could travel well and withstand high temperatures without melting.

shutterstock_120239824.jpg

Today, M&M’s remain a troop favorite, but the battleground has changed. While the first rendition of the delectable candies could withstand the temperatures of Europe, Africa, and the Pacific fairly well, they were found to be no match for the incessant heat of the Middle East. So, in the midst of Operation Desert Storm, food technologist Tom Yang led a team that redesigned M&M’s so they wouldn’t turn into a “sticky mess.”

“Regular chocolate is protein in the center coated with fat, so that fat can easily melt,” Yang explained to PBS’ NOVA. “So we came up with sort of a reverse phase chocolate, putting the protein on the outside and the fat in the center. And protein is not that easy to melt.”

A Meat Roll-Up

Yang isn’t solely focused on the sweet side of food, however. He’s recently been investigating a method called osmotic dehydration for use in military MREs (meals, ready-to-eat). The process involves rolling meat into thin sheets, extracting water via osmosis, osmotic dehydration of meatthen running the product through a brine composed primarily of an oligosaccharide food additive called maltodextrin. The end product is a meat roll-up, very much like a fruit roll-up.

Yang plans to adapt osmotic dehydration to all sorts of foods. “The beauty of this technology is you can use beef, you can use  pork, you can use poultry or you can even use fish or a combination of  fruit, vegetable and meat together,” Yang said.

Years of Freshness

An American army soldier’s “meat and potatoes” is the MRE. Available in 24 different varieties, the meal must — as described by Director of Combat Feeding Program Jerry Darsch — have at least “a minimum shelf life at three years at 80 degrees Fahrenheit, six months at 100. It has to be stored, distributed for minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit to 120 degrees Fahrenheit.  It has to be able to be thrown — free fall out of a chopper at 100 feet, and obviously airdropped with parachutes from about 2,000 feet and higher.”

320px-MRE_20071124.PNGIt also has to be at least mildly pleasurable to eat. Military food scientists’ constantly try to balance taste and longevity — a difficult task — but recently they made a breakthrough by creating a sandwich that can stay fresh for three years! The key to the near immortal sandwich was limiting moisture, which is necessary for bacteria to grow. The scientists utilized three surprisingly simple ingredients — honey, sugar, and salt — to retain moisture and seal it off at the same time, thus keeping the sandwich fresh and safe-to-eat. Oxygen, a primary cause of food deterioration, was also limited. A small package of iron filings placed within the sandwich bag traps the gas in a layer of rust.

Another part of the food pleasure equation is warmth. All MREs come equipped with a flameless heater. It’s a small pad filled with magnesium dust, salt, and a little iron dust. Add water, and an oxidation reaction begins that releases a good amount of heat, which can be used to warm the food packages.

Military food scientists continue to push the envelope. During the Civil War, salted pork and hardtack was the faire du jour. Today, it’s lemon pepper tuna, chicken pesto pasta, and beef roast with vegetables. Vast improvements have been made, but the work is never done.

Soldiers have been clamoring for pizza, but technologists have yet to master a version that fits to the MRE’s stringent requirements.

Attribution: Ross Pomeroy, Real Science

Killer T Cell

No, it’s not the name of a rap artist.

Scientists have created cells capable of killing cancer for the first time.

The dramatic breakthrough was made by researchers in Japan who created cancer-specific killer T cells.

They say the development paves the way for the cells being directly injected into cancer patients for therapy.

Scientists have created cells capable of killing cancer for the first time. Pictured: microscopic cells being cultured to kill cancerScientists have created cells capable of killing cancer  for the first time. Pictured: microscopic cells being cultured to kill  cancer

The cells naturally occur in small numbers,  but it is hoped injecting huge quantities back into a patient could turbo-charge the immune system.

Researchers at the RIKEN Research Center for Allergy and Immunology revealed they have succeeded for the first time in creating cancer-specific, immune system cells called killer T lymphocytes.

To create these, the team first had to reprogram T lymphocytes specialized in killing a certain type of cancer, into another type of cell called induced pluripotent stem cells  (iPS cells).

These iPS cells then generated fully active, cancer-specific T lymphocytes.killer-t-cell

These lymphocytes regenerated from iPS cells  could potentially serve as cancer therapy in the future.

Previous research has shown that killer T  lymphocytes produced in the lab using conventional methods are inefficient in  killing cancer cells mainly because they have a very short life-span, which  limits their use as treatment for cancer.

To overcome the problems, the Japanese researchers, led by Hiroshi Kawamoto reprogrammed mature human killer T lymphocytes into iPS cells and investigated how these cells differentiate.

The team induced killer T lymphocytes  specific for a certain type of skin cancer to reprogram into iPS cells by exposing the lymphocytes to the ‘Yamanaka factors’ – a group of  compounds that induce cells to revert back to a non-specialized, stage.

Japanese researchers who created cancer-specific killer T cells (pictured) say the development paves the way for the cells being directly injected into cancer patients for therapyJapanese researchers who created cancer-specific killer  T cells (pictured) say the development paves the way for the cells being  directly injected into cancer patients for therapy

The iPS cells obtained were then grown in the lab and induced to differentiate into killer T lymphocytes again. This new batch of T lymphocytes was shown to be specific for the same type of skin cancer as the original lymphocytes.

They maintained the genetic reorganisation, enabling them to express the cancer-specific receptor on their surface. The new T lymphocytes were also shown to be active and to produce an anti-tumor compound.

Doctor Kawamoto said: ‘We have succeeded in the expansion of antigen-specific T cells by making iPS cells and differentiating them back into functional T cells.

‘The next step will be to test whether these T cells can selectively kill tumor cells but not other cells in the body. If  they do, these cells might be directly injected into patients for therapy. This could be realized in the not-so-distant future.’

The findings were published in the journal Cell Stem Cell.

Dr Dusko Ilic, Senior Lecturer in Stem Cell Science, King’s College London, said: ‘The study tackled a novel, quite interesting approach to cell based therapy, something that we do not usually hear about.

‘Although this approach requires further verification and a lot of work needs to be done before we can think about clinical trials, the initial data are promising.

‘This pioneering work definitely provides a strong foundation to build and expand our knowledge about new opportunities in cell based therapy and personalized medicine.’

Attribution: Daily Mail

Fab Four Can Heat You Up

Feeling nostalgic about days gone by can make us feel warmer, new research has claimed.

The study investigated the effects of nostalgic feelings on reaction to cold and the perception of warmth.

The volunteers, from universities in China and the Netherlands, took part in one of five studies.

Researchers say that recalling nostalgic events can actually make people feel warmerResearchers say that recalling nostalgic events can actually make people feel warmer

The first asked participants to keep an account of their nostalgic feelings over 30 days.

Results showed they felt more nostalgic on colder days.

The second study put participants in one of three rooms: cold (20C, 68F), comfortable (24C, 75F) and hot (28C, 82F), and then measured how nostalgic they felt.

Participants felt more nostalgic in the cold room than in the comfortable and hot rooms.

The third study used music to evoke nostalgia to see if it was linked to warmth.

The participants who said the music made them feel nostalgic also tended to say that the music made them feel physically warmer.

The fourth study tested the effect of nostalgia on physical warmth by placing participants in a cold room and instructing them to recall either a nostalgic or ordinary event from their past.

They were then asked to guess the temperature of the room.

Those who recalled a nostalgic event perceived the room they were in to be warmer.

Study five again instructed participants to recall either a nostalgic or ordinary event from their past.

Researchers found that even listening to nostalgic music, such as the Beatles, can make us feel slightly warmerResearchers found that even listening to nostalgic music, such as the Beatles, can make us feel slightly warmer

They then placed their hand in ice-cold water to see how long they could stand it.

Findings showed that the volunteers who indulged in nostalgia held their hand in the water for longer.

Dr Tim Wildschut, senior lecturer at the University of Southampton and co-author of the study, said: ‘Nostalgia is experienced frequently and virtually by everyone and we know that it can maintain psychological comfort.

‘For example, nostalgic reverie can combat loneliness.’

‘We wanted to take that a step further and assess whether it can also maintain physiological comfort.

‘Our study has shown that nostalgia serves a homeostatic function, allowing the mental simulation of previously enjoyed states, including states of bodily comfort; in this case making us feel warmer or increasing our tolerance of cold.

‘More research is now needed to see if nostalgia can combat other forms of physical discomfort, besides low temperature.’

The study, published in the journal Emotion, was carried out in collaboration with researchers from Sun Yat-Sen University and Tilburg University.

Attribution: Mark Prigg