Get ready for the shortest solar eclipse of the century

The moon skims the edge of the Earth’s umbral shadow. Note: this graphic is oriented for the southern hemisphere. [Credit: Museum Victoria]

The moon skims the edge of the Earth’s umbral shadow. Note: this graphic is oriented for the southern hemisphere. [Credit: Museum Victoria]

A total lunar eclipse will be visible from across all Australia this Saturday, 4 April, but you will have to be quick to see it. 

As astronomer Tanya Hill notes, the Moon will not pass deep into the Earth’s shadow as it usually does, but skim close to the shadow’s edge. 

The period of totality, when the moon is fully enclosed in the Earth’s umbral shadow, will last just five minutes or so. This makes it the shortest total lunar eclipse of the 21st century.
In fact, this eclipse has the shortest period of totality for almost 500 years. Back in 1529, on October 17, there was an eclipse where totality lasted for just 1 minute and 42 seconds.

The Conversation website has details on where best to view the eclipse.

Medieval potion knocks out super-resistant microbes

A 1,000-year-old formula for a potion from the world's first known medical textbook has shown remarkable results in killing Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), according to Australian Popular Science.

The British researchers who tested the potion will present their findings this week at an annual microbiology conference in the UK.

The recipe for the potion comes from Bald's Leechbook, which was written in the 9th century. 

take cropleek and garlic, of both equal quantities, pound them well together, take wine and bullocks' gall, of both equal quantities, mix with the leek, put this then into a brazen vessel, let it stand nine days in the brass vessel, wring out through a cloth and clear it well, put it into a horn, and about night time apply it with a feather to the eye; the best leechdom.

The researchers tested the concoction on cultures of MRSA bacteria in synthetic wounds as well as in rats. No individual ingredient had no effect on the cultures, but the combined liquid killed almost all the cells; only about one in 1,000 bacteria survived. At more dilute concentrations, the salve didn't kill the bacteria, but still interrupted their communication, preventing them from damaging tissues. Some researchers have been looking into this type of communication interruption as a possible new way to treat antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

“We were genuinely astonished at the results of our experiments in the lab,” Lee said in a press release. The researchers hope to recreate more ancient elixirs to test them against modern medical conditions and bacteria.

World’s largest aircraft: Is it a plane, a balloon or a hovercraft?

Actually it's a hybrid of all three. The Airlander 10 claims to be the next-generation of lighter-than-air flying machine.

The Guardian reports on its potential.

The Airlander 10 can fly for weeks, land virtually anywhere that’s flat, and burns just a fifth of the fuel of a conventional aircraft. With speeds reaching 100mph, it’s slower than a plane but greener, quieter, and potentially far more direct. Its unusual shape emulates a wing, giving it lift as it is propelled forward by its four engines, as well as from the 38,000 square metres of helium that fills its hull.

Hybrid Air Vehicles, the manufacturer, is launching a crowdfunding exercise to match a £3.4 million ($5 million) UK government grant to get the craft off the ground - with plans to eventually build hundreds of the aircraft.

The Airlander was patented in 2001 and developed with US backing as a potential long-range spy aircraft, but the program was scrapped due to defence cuts. Hybrid Air Vehicles bought back the aircraft and the patents.

The UK’s ministry of defence is retaining an interest in the airship’s surveillance capability, but HAV says the civilian potential is enormous. Sweden will trial the airlifting of wind turbines to remote parts of the country. Mining corporations, search operations, disaster relief or high-end tourism could all use its technology to fly long-haul to places where infrastructure doesn’t exist or has been wiped out. HAV believes data gathering and communications from airship levels rather than satellite is a further enormous growth market.

Poverty may hinder brain development in children

Stress from poverty may have an effect on brain development. [Credit: Getty]

Stress from poverty may have an effect on brain development. [Credit: Getty]

Parts of the brain tend to be smaller in people from poorer backgrounds than those from richer families, a new study suggests.

Columbia University researchers scanned the brains of more than 1,000 children aged three to 20 and found that those from higher income families had a cerebral cortex with greater surface area than those from poorer families. The brain region is crucial for the development of language, memory and reasoning skills.

Children from families with an income of more than $150,000 were about 6% larger than those in in children from families earning $25,000 or less. 

“The brain is the product of both genetics and experience, and experience is particularly powerful in molding brain development in childhood,” said Kim Noble, first author on the study, which was published in Nature Neuroscience. “Interventions to improve socioeconomic circumstances, family life, and educational opportunities can make a vast difference.”

Possible reasons for the results are that families with financial problems tend to be more stressed and may have limited choices in diet.

Fear of humans makes counting Asiatic black bears nearly impossible

Asiatic black bears are so wary of humans, zoologist find them nearly impossible to count. [Credit: Mark Newman]

New Zealand zoologist Brendan Moyle reports from China where he is at a meeting discussing the problem of counting Asiatic black bears, which, given that many are caught and kept in misery as bile is extracted from their gall bladders, try to avoid humans as much as possible.

The big reason is that it is hard to count black bears.  They have learned to be very wary of people. This is perhaps unsurprising when locals regard you as a pest, a source of food, and a source of medicine, all rolled into one furry package.  So all the usual observation tricks, don’t work so well. There’s a very very low rate of records with camera traps.  Pandas (also in Sichuan) are relatively easy. Black bears are not only rarely captured, they are almost never seen again in the same camera trap.  Thousands of days of camera trapping has occurred with a handful, or no, records in some locations.  They just don’t like being anywhere or close to anything, they associate with humans.  That extends beyond camera traps to all the varied lures and tricks that work elsewhere.
Estimating the numbers of black bears in China got a lot harder. We have a species that is actively trying to avoid being detected. It has become quite the dilemma.

The Chinese think there is about 28,000 wild black bears in China, Moyle says, but the estimate could be wildly inaccurate.

The problem for the black bears, Moyle says, is that their bile really does have beneficial pharmacological effects, unlike material such as rhino horn, the effects of which are based on superstition not fact. Bear bile is used to treat eye diseases, liver diseases and bacterial infections.


Space Station gets its first espresso machine – the ISSpresso

Click to expand graphic. [Credit: Lavazza]

The Italian Space Agency, Italian engineering company Argotec, and coffee company Lavazza have collaborated to bring cafe-style coffee to space, with a microwave-size capsule-based espresso coffee maker for the International Space Station - dubbed the ISSpresso

Argotec's David Avino describes the machine as "a food laboratory" that might eventually also produce gourmet soups in micro-gravity.

Making coffee in space is difficult, as coffee from an Earth-based machine would form droplets and float away rather than drip into the cup.

The ISSpresso takes water from a pouch and pumps it round the machine through a capsule of coffee and into another pouch which the astronauts can drink from using a straw.

Argotec have been working on the design since 2012, according to The Guardian, after Italian astronaut, Luca Parmitano, complained that he missed his coffee on the Space Station.

Scientists blame climate change as scorching spring intensifies Californian drought

The drought in California has dried up Lake McClure, once a popular tourist destination. [Credit: Getty]

The drought in California has dried up Lake McClure, once a popular tourist destination. [Credit: Getty]

The drought in California is so bad that it has even begun to hit the swimming pool industry, with bans on filling them or constructing new ones threatening one of the state's iconic lifestyle features.

More seriously, of course, the drought, now in its fourth year, has left a number of rural communities without drinking water, and triggered calls for mandatory rationing. 

It has also led some people to question the viability of agriculture, which consumes 80% of California’s developed water, even as it accounts for only 2% of the state’s gross domestic product.   

So the question of what we can expect in the future, and whether human-induced climate change plays a role, is a critical one. Stanford professor Noah Diffenbaugh, heads the Climate and Earth System Dynamics research group in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, has some uncomfortable answers.

In a new study, he and his team found that the worst droughts in California have historically occurred when conditions were both dry and warm, and that global warming is increasing the probability that dry and warm years will coincide.

The study, published in the journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined the role that temperature has played in California droughts over the past 120 years.

It also examined the effect that human emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are having on temperature and precipitation, focusing on the influence of global warming upon California's past, present and future drought risk.

Diffenbaugh is extremely pessimistic about current climate trends. He has been warning the Californian drought is linked to climate change for some time and last year concluded that climate change is occurring 10 times faster now than at any time in the past 65 million years. He has also said that at its current pace, climate change will involve a 5- to 6-degree Celsius rise by 2100.

"Of course low precipitation is a prerequisite for drought, but less rain and snowfall alone don't ensure a drought will happen. It really matters if the lack of precipitation happens during a warm or cool year," Diffenbaugh said.

"We've seen the effects of record heat on snow and soil moisture this year in California, and we know from this new research that climate change is increasing the probability of those warm and dry conditions occurring together."

Diffenbaugh and his team took advantage of recently released monthly precipitation, temperature and drought data for California that goes back to 1895, to calculate the probability of drought years occurring in different temperature and precipitation conditions.

In the past two decades nearly all of the years in California have been either warm or hot.

"Now the temperature coin is coming up tails most years," Diffenbaugh said. "So, even though the precipitation coin is still coming up tails only half the time, it means that over the past two decades we have gotten two tails – warm and dry – in half the years, compared with only a quarter of years in the preceding century."

He says the findings could help California water managers and state officials plan for the future.

"While our findings don't provide any particular recommendations," Diffenbaugh said, "they do provide very strong evidence that global warming is already making it much more likely that California experiences conditions that are similar to what we have experienced during the current severe drought."

'Star Wars' Tatooine may be a common Earth-like planet out there

Mathematical simulations suggest that Luke Skywalker’s home in “Star Wars” is the desert planet Tatooine, with twin sunsets because it orbits two stars, may be more common that we thought.

Until now, we have identified only uninhabitable gas-giant planets circling binary stars – scientists thought rocky planets could not form there.

But the study, by  Ben Bromley of the University of Utah and Scott Kenyon of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, titled “Planet formation around binary stars: Tatooine made easy", now shows that it is possible.

“Tatooine sunsets may be common after all,” the scientists conclude.

“Our main result is that outside a small region near a binary star, [either rocky or gas-giant] planet formation can proceed in much the same was as around a single star,” they write. “In our scenario, planets are as prevalent around binaries as around single stars.”

The study has been submitted to Astrophysical Journal for review.

Their mathematical formulae describe how binary stars can be orbited by planetesimals – asteroid-sized rocks that clump together to form planets.

“We took our sweet numerical time to show that the ride around a pair of stars can be just as smooth as around one,” when it comes to the early steps of planet formation, Bromley says. “The ‘made easy’ part is really saying the same recipe that works around the sun will work around Tatooine’s host stars.”

'Google Maps for the body' could open way to reverse tissue damage

Australian biomedical engineer Melissa Knothe Tate has unveiled her top secret project to create a map of the human body that allows you to zoom in down to cellular level in the way Google maps can take you from a view of the Earth down to focus on a single house.

Her team have used the new technology to explore the human hip joint and the development of osteoarthritis – you can see what this is like using this tool.

"This is the first Google Maps of the human body," Knothe Tate of the University of New South Wales said.

Future research could reverse the deterioration of tissues, she said.

"This could open the door to as yet unknown new therapies and preventions," she said.

The imaging technology was originally invented for the computer industry by German optical and industrial measurement manufacturer, Zeiss.




Data processing speed the key to getting the most out of SKA

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be a revolutionary radio telescope made of thousands of receptors linked together by high bandwidth optical fibre. [Credit: CSIRO]

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be a revolutionary radio telescope made of thousands of receptors linked together by high bandwidth optical fibre. [Credit: CSIRO]

A team of scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has developed a new, faster approach to analysing the floods of data that will flow from the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), that will be the world's largest radio telescope.

SKA, located in Africa and Australia, is expected to be fully operational in the mid-2020s. It's total collecting area of around a square kilometre will deliver data on the location and properties of stars, galaxies and giant clouds of hydrogen gas.

“There are all these discussions about what we are going to do with the data,” data scientist Robert Lindner told the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We don’t have enough servers to store the data. We don’t even have enough electricity to power the servers. And nobody has a clear idea how to process this tidal wave of data so we can make sense out of it.” 

In many respects, the hydrogen data from SKA will resemble the vastly slower stream coming from existing radio telescopes. The smallest unit, or pixel, will store every bit of information about all hydrogen directly behind a tiny square in the sky. At first, it is not clear if that pixel registers one cloud of hydrogen or many — but answering that question is the basis for knowing the actual location of all that hydrogen.

In the new study, Lindner and his colleagues present a computational approach that solves the hydrogen location problem with just a second of computer time. The system uses software  trained to interpret the “how many clouds behind the pixel?” problem.

The software ran on a high-capacity computer network at UW-Madison called HTCondor. And “graduate student Claire Murray was our ‘human,’” Lindner says. “She provided the hand-analysis for comparison.”

“We’re trying to understand the initial conditions of star formation — how, where, when do they start? How do you know a star is going to form here and not there?” Lindner says.

“We’re trying to understand the initial conditions of star formation — how, where, when do they start? How do you know a star is going to form here and not there?”

By correlating data on hydrogen clouds in the Milky Way with ongoing star formation, data from the new radio telescopes will support real numbers that can be entered into the cosmological models.

“We are looking at the Milky Way, because that’s what we can study in the greatest detail,” Lindner says, “but when astronomers study extremely distant parts of the universe, they need to assume certain things about gas and star formation, and the Milky Way is the only place we can get good numbers on that.”

With automated data processing, “suddenly we are not time-limited,” Lindner says. “Let’s take the whole survey from SKA. Even if each pixel is not quite as precise, maybe, as a human calculation, we can do a thousand or a million times more pixels, and so that averages out in our favour.”