Detailed cut-paper sculpture expands an E. Coli bacterium to more than a metre

[Credit: Rogan Brown]


Artist Rogan Brown created this incredibly detailed cut-paper sculpture of an E. coli bacterium.

At 112 centimetres in length, it is half a million times larger than life. As Brown says:

Obviously when enlarging to this degree you have to use your imagination to complete the image but the main features here are accurate: the flagella or tentacle-like appendages allow the bacteria to swim through the intestinal tract and the pilli or hair-like structures allow it to attach itself to the intestine wall.

The close-up below shows the sculpture in greater detail.

[Credit: Rogan Brown]

New drone tests US Air Force's next generation of flight systems

The X-56A Multi-Utility Technology Testbed (MUTT) on an Edwards Air Force Base runway under the control of a US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) team member. [Credit: NASA/Ken Ulbrich]

The X-56A Multi-Utility Technology Testbed (MUTT) on an Edwards Air Force Base runway under the control of a US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) team member. [Credit: NASA/Ken Ulbrich]

NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center and the Air Force Research Laboratory, with support from Lockheed Martin, have put into service their second X-56A (dubbed “Buckeye”) unmanned aerial vehicle.

The machine is being used to check aircraft systems and improve aircraft performance.

A recent 20-minute flight marked the beginning of a research effort designed to yield significant advances in flight technology.

Australian government funds climate contrarian Bjørn Lomborg to the tune of $4 million

Bjørn Lomborg [Credit: Beowulf Sheehan/Opale/Headpress]

Bjørn Lomborg [Credit: Beowulf Sheehan/Opale/Headpress]

The Australian government is giving climate science contrarian Bjørn Lomborg A$4 million ($3.1 million) to establish his “consensus centre” at an Australian university.

Lomborg's centre in Copenhagen was defunded by the Danish government in 2012. He is currently operating out of the US relying on private donations for a budget of about $1 million a year, according to The Guardian.

“We used to be funded by the Danish government, from 2004 until 2012,” Lomborg told the paper. “One of the things that the Danish government did not like was that we said, ‘Yes global warming is real, it is a challenge, but the typical way that we solve it turns out to be a pretty poor investment of resources.’ When there was a change of governments here we went from a centre-right to a centre-left government, they actually cut off our funding."

Lomborg's sceptical approach to climate change policies is likely to appeal to the current Australian government. The prime minister, Tony Abbott, once described climate science as "crap" and more recently announced that, “Coal is good for humanity, coal is good for prosperity, coal is an essential part of our economic future, here in Australia, and right around the world,”

Cosmos investigated Lomborg's combative style in a profile in 2013.

Given his high profile, it’s worth asking at this stage in his career if  Lomborg is a voice of reason, a professional pot stirrer, or a trollish ankle-biter. The answer probably depends on where you sit in these debates. His combative style, he insists, is a necessary consequence of challenging conventional wisdom.

Lomborg's Australian-funded centre will be based at the University of Western Australia in Perth, where he has been made an adjunct professor.

Lab-based grapefruit compound could have huge commercial future

Scientists have recreated the flavour and scent of a grapefruit in the lab, using an orange. But the work was far from frivolous.

Oxford University science students' magazine Bang! Science has the details.

Nootkatone is the molecule which gives this distinctive aroma, and is used worldwide in foods, drinks, and bathroom products. However, it takes around 400,000kg of grapefruit to produce 1kg of nootkatone, making it one of the most expensive ingredients in the world. It is also heavily reliant upon a good harvest, in an industry which is very sensitive to weather and disease.

But nor is synthesising the plant terpene in a lab any simple matter. The process uses some of the most complex reaction pathways in biology.

The University of Oxford spin-out company, BioTrans, looked to oranges as a way to improve production while avoiding man-made chemicals. They found that oranges produced a very similar compound, valencene, which when treated with a specially modified cytochrome P450 enzyme, was oxidised to nootkatone.
This new method complies with EU regulations for "natural" flavourings, and is vastly cheaper, as the supply of valencene is plentiful, even in years of poor orange harvest. The compound is found in the essential oil of oranges, a by-product of the juice industry.

“There are immense opportunities for the UK to lead the way in this technology. We are developing novel ways to produce high-value natural compounds without having to disrupt natural habitats or use manmade toxic chemicals that require careful disposal,”  said James Brown of the, UK Knowledge Transfer Network.

Click to expand the infographic explaining the production of Notkatone

Data collection app speeds up Ethiopian sorghum research

Abdalla Ebro (left) and Sintayehu Hailu (right) recording sorghum plants height using the Fieldscorer app. [Credit: EIAR]

Abdalla Ebro (left) and Sintayehu Hailu (right) recording sorghum plants height using the Fieldscorer app. [Credit: EIAR]

Plant scientists at the Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural Research (EIAR) are now gathering data using a smartphone app developed in Australia as part of a project jointly funded by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) to improve their sorghum breeding program.

The app, called Fieldscorer, was developed by researchers from the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries over the past five years as a simple way to automate data collection. As ACIAR notes on its blog.

In 2014 the Ethiopian researchers recorded more than 160,000 sorghum datapoints using the system: this is five times more information than was typically being recorded in the sorghum breeding program. The information is also available for analysis immediately. Increased data and early availability will accelerate the breeding program.

Image of China's Piqiang fault lines takes top honours in NASA photo competition

The winning image in NASA's Tournament Earth photo competition shows Piqiang Fault in China. Click to expand image. Annotations below explain the structure. [Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/Robert Simmon and Jesse Allen]

NASA's photo competition, Tournament Earth 2015, has been won by this dramatic image of faults just south of the Tien Shan mountains, in northwestern Xinjiang province, China, where a series ridges dominates the landscape.

The highest hills reach 1,200 metres above the adjacent basins, and they are decorated with distinctive red, green, and cream-coloured sedimentary rock layers. The colours reflect rocks that formed at different times and in different environments. The red layers near the top of the sequence are Devonian sandstones formed by ancient rivers. The green layers are Silurian sandstones formed in a moderately-deep ocean. The cream-colored layers are Cambrian-Ordovician limestone formed in a shallow ocean.

The Xinjiang image beat runner-up, an image of a bolt of lightning as seen from the International Space Station (below).

The winning shot was an image from a Landsat satellite taken last year by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on Terra.

The runner-up image was snapped by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station on December 12, 2013. It shows a white flash of lightning amidst the yellow city lights of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. 

[Credit: NASA /ISS Expedition 38 crew]

The clam that lost its shell – how the octopus learnt to move

Detailed kinematic analysis of octopus arm coordination in crawling show that the animals have a unique motor control strategy to match their "odd" form.

Octopuses probably evolved from animals similar to clams, with a protective outer shell and almost no movement to speak of, and developed a unique motor control strategy that matches their unusual body shape, a new study has found.

"Octopuses use unique locomotion strategies that are different from those found in other animals," says Binyamin Hochner of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who led the research.

"This is most likely due to their soft molluscan body that led to the evolution of 'strange' morphology, enabling efficient locomotion control without a rigid skeleton."

During evolution, octopuses lost their heavy protective clam-like shells. They "became more manoeuvraable on the one hand, but also more vulnerable on the other hand", says study co-author Guy Levy. "Their locomotory abilities evolved to be much faster than those of typical molluscs, probably to compensate for the lack of shell."

The evolution of something like a snail's foot into long and slender arms gave octopuses extraordinary flexibility. Excellent vision, together with a highly developed and large brain and the ability to colour camouflage, made cephalopods very successful hunters.

The researchers,  who set out to discover how the creatures manage to co-ordinate their eight, long flexible arms, studied videos of octopuses in action, frame by frame.

they found that, despite the octopus' bilaterally symmetrical body, it can crawl in any direction relative to its body orientation.

The orientation of its body and crawling direction are independently controlled, and its crawling lacks any apparent rhythmical patterns in limb coordination. Their manoeuvrability comes from the radial symmetry of their arms and the simple mechanism by which the arms create the crawling thrust: pushing-by-elongation.

"These two together enable a mechanism whereby the central controller chooses in a moment-to-moment fashion which arms to recruit for pushing the body in an instantaneous direction," the researchers write. The animal needs only to choose which arms to activate in order to determine the direction of locomotion.

The research is published in Current Biology. Previous reports and videos of these remarkable animals here and here.

The avant garde has nothing on the entangled sound of quantum music

Quantum musical notation as imagined by the two physicists.

Quantum musical notation as imagined by the two physicists.

Two physicists have mapped out a way to create "quantum music" with the probability of two members of the audience hearing the same thing at the same time only infinitesimal.

Karl Svozil, a theoretical physicist at the University of Technology in Vienna and his friend Volkmar Putz, who developed the idea, call it “quantum parallel musical rendition”.  

“A classical audience may perceive one and the same quantum musical composition very differently,” MIT Technology Review reports them as saying.

An audience listening to such a melody would have a bizarre experience. In the classical world, every member of the audience hears the same sequence of notes. But when a quantum musical state is observed, it can collapse into any one of the notes that make it up. The note that is formed is entirely random but the probability that it occurs depends on the precise linear makeup of the state.

The pair also consider the quantum phenomenon of entanglement – the connection between paired quantum objects whereby a measurement on one immediately influences the other, regardless of where they are.

Exactly what form this might take in the quantum musical world isn’t clear. But it opens the prospect of an audience listening to a quantum melody in one part of the universe influencing a quantum melody in another part.



There is a future and it will be different - the sci-fi writer's craft

[Credit: Gatsby]

[Credit: Gatsby]

We caught up with Dave Luckett, the author of this week's science fiction story The Best is Yet to Be to have a chat about his writing. We asked him how he decided that science fiction was the genre for him, his favourite themes, where his inspiration comes from and to discuss The Best is Yet to Be.

You can catch up with all Cosmos magazine's fiction here.

In one sense, I've been writing since I was six. I always had to tell stories, though. I made my first pro sale in 1993, a short story I'm still proud of, but before that lies thirty years of gradual improvement.

I had produced my first novel at age 16. It was, of course, dreadful. I produced another, a gritty piece of social realism, when I was 20-something, and it was worse, since it lacked colour and a resolution. And a plot, too, because I'd been taught at Uni that a novel with an actual plot was very suspect. It took me years to shed the damfool notions they teach in Lit courses there.

It isn't a conscious decision, what you write. Or not for me, anyway. Inspiration? I know there's a story around somewhere when a question occurs: "What would happen if...?" and the bit represented by the ellipsis is fairly specific. To prompt that question, I have probably heard something, seen something, read something... and it figures that whatever it was must have interested me. Science fiction doesn't necessarily come out of science, though. It comes out of putting fewer constraints, but making them technological ones, on the "if" in that question.

You start doing that when you read science fiction a lot, and I do. Why? Well, because I enjoy it. What I most enjoy about it is this: it supposes that there's a future, and that things won't be the same.

Much of the "realist" literature of the 20th century assumes that there isn't a future, or that nothing really changes. A lot of it makes a point of returning everything to the beginning again. That's a theme that's overdone, if anything is, and to a far greater degree than anything in sf. But science fiction can overdo things, too. The Frankenstein plot, for example. Can we be destroyed by our technology? Interesting question. What if we were? Why, then, the ending to the story would be "Then we all died". Lousy ending. Lousy story. No use writing a story like that.

But, you know, we do all die. Lousy ending, but it's the one we have. So stories are concerned with how we get there, and what we do along the way. The Best is Yet to Be is about that. It came out of a question: "What if there were crew on light-speed starships?" Essentially: how would they get on, given that they live in collapsed time? Who could they relate to? The answer to that question wasn't the story, it was just an answer to a question.

The story only happens when you put people in. People who have to handle the question and the answer, and get on anyway. A person who lives in collapsed time could only relate to one who didn't if the latter were very long-lived. That threw up a huge number of other questions, the answers to which have got to be something different from "Then we all died", not because we don't, but because it's a lousy ending. And off I go, to find them.

If there's anything that informs me about telling stories, it's this: there is a future; it will be different; we have to deal with it with something better than "Then we all died". Well, I have to, anyway. 

How curiosity boosts your memory

It's no secret that it is easier to learn about a subject we find interesting compared to one we find boring, but why?

Cristiana Vagnoni on Neurobabble looks at some new research which sheds light on how the process may work and the ways in which curiosity affects memory.

The paper, published in the journal Neuron,  describes a study in which subjects were shown a series of trivia questions and was asked to rate how curious they were to find out each answer.

Their brain activity was then monitored in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner while a selected trivia question was presented, followed by its answer. Before the answer appeared, however, the subjects were also shown a picture of a neutral face, which was unrelated to the task. After the scan, participants were tested on how well they remembered the answers to the trivia questions. They were also tested on how well they remembered the faces.
The researchers found not only that curiosity improved the participants’ memory for the trivia questions but that their increased interest also resulted in better memory for the faces shown after these questions. 

The MRI scans shows that curiosity ratings were associated with a higher activation of brain areas that have previously been linked to extrinsic reward-related memor

The reward in this task – having your curiosity satisfied – came from within, however. These findings suggest that a common mechanism may be shared between extrinsic and intrinsic reward-related memory.

SpaceX fails in second attempt to land rocket – but this time it was close

SpaceX came close to recovering the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket by landing it on a barge in the ocean. The company's founder Elon Musk tweeted that "excess lateral velocity" led it to tip over.

The video above shows the rocket firing its engines as it descends toward the platform, only tipping over after contact.

The Falcon 9 rocket with the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft launched successfully from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on its sixth resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

Musk hopes he can perfect the landing to make his rockets reusable.

Following the attempt, SpaceX's president, Gwynne Shotwell, was quoted as saying that he hoped the next rocket landing attempt would take place on land, to benefit from the landing pad's greater stability.

"Just purely the boat moving, even in a low sea state, it's hard to imagine that vehicle is going to stay vertical," Shotwell said. "That vehicle is big and tall, compared to the itty-bity-greater-than-a-football-field-size ship."

The next attempt could come in June when SpaceX is due to launch another shipment to the ISS on a Falcon 9.