Neil deGrasse Tyson wins science academy's top honour

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson

The US National Academy of Sciences is presenting its 2015 Public Welfare Medal to astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson in recognition of his “extraordinary role in exciting the public about the wonders of science, from atoms to the universe”.

“Through just about every form of media available, Neil deGrasse Tyson has made millions of people around the world excited about science,” said Susan Wessler, home secretary for the National Academy of Sciences and chair of the selection committee for the award.

“Ultimately, the success of science depends on the public’s understanding of its importance and value. Neil masterfully conveys why science matters – not just to a few, but to all of us.”

“At a time when science is often misunderstood or ignored, Neil deGrasse Tyson is truly its most visible and most recognisable advocate,” said National Academy of Sciences President Ralph J. Cicerone.

“By personably and skillfully explaining the significance and the thrills of scientific discoveries, Neil has captured the public’s imagination like no other scientist alive today. We are pleased to present him our highest award.”

Tyson was born in New York, graduating from the Bronx High School of Science. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Columbia.

He took over directorship of the Hayden Planetarium in 1995, where he played a key role in the design of the world-class Rose Center for Earth and Space. Tyson also hosted “NOVA Origins” on PBS and was executive producer and host of “NOVA scienceNOW” for several seasons.

Most recently, Tyson was editor and presenter of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a 13-episode, Emmy-nominated TV series that was a remake of previous Public Welfare Medal recipient Carl Sagan’s landmark 1980 television series.

The award will be presented at a ceremony in April.

Blast off! NASA marks historic Apollo-Saturn test flight

NASA marks the anniversary of the launch of Apollo-Saturn 201, the first unmanned test flight of a combined Apollo Command/Service Module and the Saturn IB launch vehicle, with this great picture as it lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 11:12 a.m. on 26 February 1966. During the 37-minute flight, the vehicle reached an altitude of 487 kilometres. [Credit: NASA]

Too much sleep increases risk of stroke

Sleeping in this weekend?

Too much sleep – more than eight hours a night – could increase your risk of stroke, University of Cambridge researchers say, although they have no idea why.

"It's apparent both from our own [research] and the wealth of international data that there's a link between sleeping longer than average and a greater risk of stroke," says Yue Leng, a PhD candidate at Cambridge. "What is far less clear, however, is the direction of this link, whether longer sleep is a symptom, an early marker or a cause of cardiovascular problems."

The study, published in the journal Neurology, is the first to examine the relationship between a change in sleep duration over time and subsequent stroke risk.

Researchers followed around 10,000 people aged 42-81 years of age for nearly 10 years. Over that time 346 participants suffered a stroke.

After adjusting for various factors including age and sex, the researchers found that people who slept longer than eight hours a day were at a 46% greater risk of stroke than average. People who slept less than six hours a day were at an 18% increased risk, but the small number of people falling in this category meant the association was not statistically significant.

Professor Kay-Tee Khaw, senior author on the study, said more work needs to go into the link between sleeping longer and stroke risk. 

"We need to understand the reasons behind the link between sleep and stroke risk. What is happening in the body that causes this link? With further research, we may find that excessive sleep proves to be an early indicator of increased stroke risk, particularly among older people."

Research suggests room-temperature superconductors are possible

Prof. Vitaly Kresin explains his research in Experimental Nanoscience to Engineers as Teachers class at the University of Southern California.

Scientists at the University of Southern California may have discovered a family of materials that could make superconductors that work at room temperature.

Superconductivity is where electricity is transmitted without any resistance, meaning that no energy is lost. Superconductors are already used in specialty equipment such as MRI machines, and maglev trains, but if they could be made to work at room temperature all electronic devices could be made to be super-efficient.

The scientists, led by Vitaly Kresin, professor of physics at USC, found that aluminum "superatoms" – homogenous clusters of atoms – appear to form Cooper pairs of electrons (one of the key elements of superconductivity) at temperatures around 100 Kelvin.

Although that is still a long way from room temperature (100 Kelvin is about -173 degrees Celsius) it's a big improvement on bulk aluminum metal, which turns superconductive only near 1 Kelvin (-272 degrees Celsius).

"This may be the discovery of a new family of superconductors, and raises the possibility that other types of superatoms will be capable of superconductivity at even warmer temperatures," said Kresin.

The research was published by Nano Letters.

Cooper pairs were first predicted in 1956 by Leon Cooper. They consist of two electrons that attract one another in some materials under certain conditions, such as extreme low temperatures. Kresin explains

Imagine you have a ballroom full of paired-up dancers, only the partners are scattered randomly throughout the room. Your partner might be over by the punch bowl, while you're in the center of the dance floor. But your motions are done in tandem – you are in step with one another. Now imagine everyone changes dance partners every few moments. This is a commonly used analogy for how Cooper pairing works.

USC discusses the significance of Cooper pairs in its public release announcing the discovery:

When electrons flow through a material, they bump into various imperfections that knock them off course. That's the resistance that causes energy loss in the form of heat.
If the electrons are mated up into Cooper pairs, however, that connection is just strong enough to keep them on course regardless of what they bump into. Cooper pairs are what make superconductivity work.

Superatoms are clusters of atoms that in some ways behave as if they were a single atom – the free electrons become defined by the cluster rather than single atoms but flow as if in a single atom's electron cloud. The USC scientists' research suggests that they may also exhibit Cooper pairing as if they were single atoms.

The next step will be to explore the superconductivity of various sizes of superatoms and various elements to make them. 

Kresin envisions a future in which electronic circuits could be built by placing superatoms in a chain along a substrate material, allowing electricity to flow unhindered along the chain.
"One-hundred Kelvin might not be the upper-temperature barrier," Kresin said. "It might just be the beginning."

The scale of things – a yardstick for understanding the vastness of space

One of the most difficult things about thinking about space is to imagine the scale of things. It's not easy to comprehend the enormous distances, sizes and temperatures that are involved.

So when scientists tell us that Jupiter is 142, 984 km (88, 846 miles) across at the equator – 11 times the diameter of our planet – it sounds big, but just how big?

John Brady at Astronomy Central has come up with a useful way to help us compare sizes as in the two examples, above. North America stretches across the face of Mars (top) but looks like a speck of moss near the great storm on Jupiter.

Similarly, the size of Saturn's rings are put into perspective below.

Brady has lots more fascinating comparisons here

Extra oxygen breathes life back into a deep fjord

Instruments measuring microbial processes in the sediment about to be lowered into Byfjord, Sweden. [Credit: Alexander Treusch/University of Southern Denmark] 

Instruments measuring microbial processes in the sediment about to be lowered into Byfjord, Sweden. [Credit: Alexander Treusch/University of Southern Denmark] 

By pumping oxygen-rich surface water into the oxygen-starved water at the bottom of the sea, a Danish/Swedish research team has helped resuscitate a dying fjord.

A report on their efforts has been reported in the multidisciplinary journal of microbial ecology, ISME. The pilot project, in which pumping took place intermittently between 2010 and 2013, saw the return of oxygen-loving organisms on the bottom of the fjord.

Low levels of oxygen in bottom waters, also known as hypoxia, is a particular problem in the Baltic Sea. It is caused by nutrients from farming and other human activities flowing into the sea and causing algal blooms. The blooms sink to the bottom consuming more oxygen as they decompose than is added by natural processes. Anoxia, or lack of oxygen, kills organisms that require oxygen and creates dead zones in the sea.

Scientists from the University of Southern Denmark and the University of Gothenburg in Sweden wanted to test if pumps could enhance a natural venting process that takes oxygen-rich water into the deeper parts of the sea. The experiment took place in the 51-metre deep-Byfjord in Sweden. Surface water was pumped to a depth of 35 metres, and was replaced with new water flowing in from the Kattegat Ocean. Overall, 50% of fjord's bottom water was replenished in this way.

Postdoctoral researcher Michael Forth and Professor Alexander Treusch from the Nordic Centre for Earth Evolution at the University of Southern Denmark said:

"In the later phase of the experiment the entire water column began to look healthy. Many of the oxygen-needing bacterial species had returned and new bacterial communities similar to those in natural oxic fjords formed. This showed us that the idea worked."

Scientists do not yet know if the oxygen levels will fall again now the pumps have stopped. They believe the experiment could be replicated in the Baltic Sea where conditions are similar.

Large Oxygen Minimum Zones exist off the coast of Chile and in the Arabian Sea and are growing. According to climate models this growth may lead to more organic nitrogen being lost and may affect the global carbon cycle.

Curiosity rover's latest selfie shows progress through Mount Sharp foothills

Click to expand. [Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS]

The latest self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at the "Mojave" site, where its drill collected the mission's second taste of Mount Sharp.

It is the combination of dozens of images taken during January 2015 by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera at the end of the rover's robotic arm. 

The annotated version below labels several of the sites Curiosity has investigated during three passes up the Pahrump Hills. The rover used its sample-collecting drill at "Confidence Hills" as well as at Mojave, and in late February was assessing "Telegraph Peak" as a third drilling site.

More on Curiosity's mission here, here and here.

Click to expand. [Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS]

Australian researchers create 3D-printed jet engine

One of the two 3D-printed jet engines, the world's first. [Credit: Monash University]

One of the two 3D-printed jet engines, the world's first. [Credit: Monash University]

Researchers from Monash University have 3D-printed two jet engines that could revolutionise aircraft manufacture.

Parts of the engine were made using printers that spread a very thin layer of metal powder across a base plate, building the shape from a computer-generated template with lasers.

The machines were displayed for the first time at an International Air Show in Avalon, Victoria, Australia.

“The project is a spectacular proof of concept that’s leading to significant contracts with aerospace companies,” said Ben Batagol, of Amaero Engineering, a company associated with Monash on the project.

“It was a challenge for the team and pushed the technology to new heights of success – no one has printed an entire engine commercially yet,” he told reporters.

The project has taken two years and was launched when French aerospace company Safran. gave the Monash researchers an old engine to copy.

The project was led by Professor Xinhua Wu, Director of the Monash Centre for Additive Manufacturing.

Surgeon says human head transplant possible in 2017

Transplantation of a dog head by transplant pioneer Vladimir Demikhov in East Germany in 1959. Under Demikhov's hand the dogs maintained full cerebral function but died shortly after the procedure.

Transplantation of a dog head by transplant pioneer Vladimir Demikhov in East Germany in 1959. Under Demikhov's hand the dogs maintained full cerebral function but died shortly after the procedure.

Italian surgeon Sergio Canavero says it will be possible to transplant a severed human head on to a decapitated human body within about two years.

New Scientist reports that Canavero plans to announce the transplant project at the annual conference of the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons in Maryland in June.

Canavero, of the Turin Advanced Modulation Group in Italy, first proposed the procedure in 2013.

He says the surgery could be used in cases where a person's body has been wasted away by cancer, or where the muscles and nerves have degenerated. He says problems such as how to fuse the spinal cord, or how to prevent the body from rejecting the head, can be overcome by as early as 2017.

A summary of the technique has been published in Surgical Neurology International.

"The real stumbling block is the ethics," he says. "Should this surgery be done at all? There are obviously going to be many people who disagree with it."

Neurologist and bioethicist Patricia Scripko from the Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System in California says:

"I believe that what is specifically human is held within the higher cortex. If you modify that, then you are not the same human and you should question whether it's ethical. In this case you're not altering the cortex." 

But she adds that those cultures that believe the human soul also resides in the body would likely object to the procedure. Other surgeons are sceptical the operation would succeed at all.

Canavero says several people have already volunteered to have the procedure done. He predicts they will speak with the same voice and will be able to walk, with the help of physiotherapy, within a year. He says:

"If society doesn't want it, I won't do it. But if people don't want it in the US or Europe that doesn't mean it won't be done somewhere else. I'm trying to go about this the right way, but before going to the Moon you want to make sure people will follow you.

Two out of three Australian smokers will die from the habit

[Credit: iStock]

[Credit: iStock]

That smoking is bad for you is old news – but just how bad is not. A new study by the Sax Institute says that up to two in every three smokers in Australia will die from it if they don’t quit.

So of the 2.7 million smokers in Australia, 1.8 million will die from smoking-related illness unless they kick the habit. About 13% of the Australian population smokes, giving the country one of the lowest smoking rates in the world.

Professor Emily Banks discusses 45 and Up Study findings. [Credit: Sax Institute]

Professor Emily Banks discusses 45 and Up Study findings. [Credit: Sax Institute]

“Even with the very low rates of smoking that we have in Australia we found that smokers have around three-fold the risk of premature death of those who have never smoked,” says Professor Emily Banks of Australian National University, lead author of the study and scientific director of the Sax Institute’s 45 and Up Study. “We also found smokers will die an estimated 10 years earlier than non-smokers.”

The research also revealed that, compared with non-smokers, those who smoke 10 cigarettes a day double their risk of dying. Smoking a pack a day increases that risk four- to five-fold.

There are three major causes of death that are traced back to smoking: cardiovascular disease, cancer and chronic lung disease.

Previous studies have estimated that about half of smokers will die of a smoking-related illness. But this study, along with new research from the UK and the US, have placed that figure higher, at up to 67%.

The study, published in the journal BMC Medicine, examined data from a four-year analysis of more than 200,000 men and women over they age of 45 participating in the Sax Institute’s 45 and Up Study. 

There is some good news. In an interview with the ABC, Banks said:

“The good news is that quitting at any age is good, compared to continuing to smoke. But the earlier that you quit, the better. And we also found that people who quit by age 45 had really avoided a lot of the lifetime risks related to smoking.”

The Sax Institute's 45 and Up Study gathers research from large population-wide data sets that will help scientists better understand how Australians are aging, and it is the largest ongoing study of healthy aging in the southern hemisphere. The National Heart Foundation of Australia and the Cancer Council NSW supported the research.