NASA's Hubble Telescope captures a galactic merger

[Credit: ESA, NASA Acknowledgement: A. Gal-Yam (Weizmann Institute of Science)]

[Credit: ESA, NASA Acknowledgement: A. Gal-Yam (Weizmann Institute of Science)]

The Hubble Space Telescope has captured this spectacular image of spiral galaxy NGC 7714, which is 100 million light-years away from Earth, after it drifted too close to another galaxy. This interaction has resulted in a ‘twisting’ of the galaxies spiral ‘arms’, causing streams of material to be dragged into space and rapidly increasing star formation.

The two galaxies began to drift too close to each other around 100-200 million years ago, distorting and disrupting each other’s shapes. As a result of this, a ‘bridge’ was created between the galaxies, made up of a ring of stars. This bridge funnels material between the galaxies, triggering bright bursts of star formation.

Bill Gates concerned about artificial intelligence

Microsoft founder Bill Gates speaking at the Davos World Economic Forum in 2008

Microsoft founder Bill Gates speaking at the Davos World Economic Forum in 2008

At his third Ask Me Anything (AMA) session on social networking and news site Reddit, former Microsoft boss Bill Gates expressed concern about machine super intelligence in the decades to come. He also outlined Microsoft's plans for artificial intelligence in the more immediate future. 

Question to Bill Gates: How much of an existential threat do you think machine super intelligence will be?

Bill Gates: I am in the camp that is concerned about super intelligence. First the machines will do a lot of jobs for us and not be super intelligent. That should be positive if we manage it well. A few decades after that though the intelligence is strong enough to be a concern. I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don't understand why some people are not concerned.

Question2015 will mark the 30th anniversary of Microsoft Windows. What do you think the next 30 years holds in terms of technology? What will personal computing will look like in 2045?

Bill GatesThere will be more progress in the next 30 years than ever. Even in the next 10 problems like vision and speech understanding and translation will be very good. Mechanical robot tasks like picking fruit or moving a hospital patient will be solved. Once computers/robots get to a level of capability where seeing and moving is easy for them then they will be used very extensively.

One project I am working on with Microsoft is the Personal Agent which will remember everything and help you go back and find things and help you pick what things to pay attention to. The idea that you have to find applications and pick them and they each are trying to tell you what is new is just not the efficient model - the agent will help solve this. It will work across all your devices.

More on this from COSMOS: Special edition: Robots and AI

Rare total cloud inversion seen in Grand Canyon

The National Park Service has released this stunning time-lapse video of two scenes from the Grand Canyon National Park taken over 30 minutes. The entire video has been condensed into one minute showing the glorious sea of clouds moving through the Canyon. 

Total cloud inversion happens when cold air is trapped in the canyon then covered with a layer of warm air. Condensation of the moisture in the cold reserve causes fog to form, and the warm layer limits its upward growth and movement.

Thursday provided ideal conditions for total cloud inversion to take place, an event which is actually quite rare and usually occurs only every 7 or so years, although this is the second time in six weeks it has been observed.

Visitors viewing the inversion from Hopi Point along Hermit Road on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. NPS photo by M.Quinn. Click image to expand.

Ebola infection rate slowing: WHO

Scanning electron micrograph of the Ebola virus budding from the surface of a Vero cell (African green monkey epithelial cell line). [Credit: NIAID]

Scanning electron micrograph of the Ebola virus budding from the surface of a Vero cell (African green monkey epithelial cell line). [Credit: NIAID]

Fewer than 100 new cases of the Ebola virus were reported in a week for the first time since June 2014, according to recent figures from the World Health Organisation

The WHO says focus is now shifting to ending the epidemic. In the week to 25 January, 30 cases were reported in Guinea, four in Liberia and 65 in Sierra Leone. As of 25 January, 22,092 Ebola cases had been reported worldwide and 8,810 deaths recorded, of which the great majority were in those three countries.

According to the WHO, each of those countries now has enough treatment beds to isolate and treat Ebola patients and to bury everyone known to have died of the disease.

Scientists are now beginning the task of analysing hundreds of blood samples from Ebola patients in Guinea and are investigating if the virus is becoming more contagious.

"We know the virus is changing quite a lot," human geneticist Dr Anajav Sakuntabhai told the BBC. It is not unusual for viruses to change over time. "We've now seen several cases that don't have any symptoms at all, asymptomatic cases. These people may be the people who can spread the virus better, but we still don't know that yet. A virus can change itself to less deadly but more contagious and that's something we are afraid of."

While the lower rate of infection is welcome news, it also makes the task of testing vaccines against Ebola more difficult. Trials of a vaccine by GlaxoSmithKline were due to begin in Liberia to compare infection rates among vaccinated and unvaccinated groups of people.

More from COSMOS: Ebola: Have we turned the corner?

Neurons responsible for overeating discovered

[Credit: iStock]

[Credit: iStock]

Earlier this week, we talked about the discovery of specific neurons which switch thirst on or off.

Now, two independent studies published in Cell  have identified neurons in the hypothalamus that are responsible for overeating, particularly sucrose consumption.

Using similar techniques as researchers in the thirst experiment, a team led by neuroscientist Garret Stuber of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, used optogenetics to activate specific neurons called GABAergic neurons, which led mice to eat more frequently. When the neurons were inhibited, the mice were not motivated to eat in excess.

The second study, led by MIT neuroscientist Kay Tye, also used optogenetic techniques in mice to target GABAergic neurons in the lateral hypothalamus that link to the ventral tegmental area of the midbrain, known for reward-processing functionality.

The team found that these neurons were activated when the mice sought a sugar reward, regardless of whether the reward was obtained. In fact, when the GABAergic neurons were stimulated, the animals gnawed at the floor or empty space in their cages when no food was present. When the neurons were inhibited, only the sugar-seeking behaviours of the mice decreased, while their normal feeding behaviour was unchanged.

“We can reduce compulsive sucrose-seeking but not affect their normal feeding,” said study co-author Edward Nieh. “This is important because for treating compulsive eating behaviour, we only want to stop the unhealthy parts of eating and keep normal eating intact.”

These findings, if replicated in humans, could lead to treatment of eating disorders and perhaps even gambling and drug addiction, due to the similarity of the pathways that activate those types of behaviours.

The two journal articles can be found here and here.

Celebrating Stephen Hawking's remarkable life

Physicist Stephen Hawking enjoys zero gravity during a flight aboard a modified Boeing 727. [Credit: Jim Campbell/Aero-News Network]

Physicist Stephen Hawking enjoys zero gravity during a flight aboard a modified Boeing 727. [Credit: Jim Campbell/Aero-News Network]

The life of theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking is told in the new feature film The Theory of Everything, which is showing in cinemas now. British actor Eddie Redmayne plays the man with the extraordinary mind who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease when he was a graduate student at Cambridge.

Redmayne has been nominated for an Oscar for his performance. Hawking has said he found the actor so convincing that there were moments during the film when he thought he was seeing himself on the screen. The actor prepared for the role by spending time with MND patients and doctors - but he made a decision not to watch the 2004 film Hawking in which his friend Benedict Cumberbatch played the scientist. 

"I thought long and hard about it, " Redmayne said. "I heard it was breathtaking. I knew myself well enough to know that if I watched it I'd try to steal little bits."

As it happens, Cumberbatch is also nominated for an Oscar this year for his portrayal of another British scientist - the Enigma code breaker and computer pioneer Alan Turing, in The Imitation Game.

Hawking, who is now 72, has lived with MND for 50 years, defying medical expectations that he would die young. Since 2005 he has communicated by means of a device which he controls with his cheek muscles at the rate of one word a minute. He is perhaps best known for his attempt to explain theoretical physics to a lay audience. Hawking's book A Brief History of Time was published in 1988 and has sold about nine million copies.

For those readers who are interested in watching Benedict Cumberbatch play the part of the physicist, Village Roadshow Entertainment is giving away five DVDs of Hawking. To enter, follow this link. 



Over-the-counter medicine linked to dementia

[Credit: iStock]

[Credit: iStock]

Common medicines, including treatments for insomnia and hay-fever that can be purchased over the counter, have been linked to dementia in a new study.

The US study did not include brand names but all medicines in the study were drugs that had an "anticholinergic" effect. Anticholinergic drugs block the action of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. 

Almost a fifth of the drugs could be purchased over the counter and included tricyclic antidepressants for treating depression, antihistamines used to treat allergies and hay-fever and antimuscarinics for treating urinary incontinence. 

The study was led by Professor Shelly Gray, from the University of Washington School of Pharmacy in Seattle, and was reported in JAMA Internal Medicine

Gray urged people not to stop their therapies but to talk to their doctor and to tell them about their over-the-counter drug use. 

The seven-year study looked at 3,434 people aged 65 and older who had no signs of dementia when the research began. It looked at pharmacy and medical records to determine what drugs were taken by the participants. Over the seven years 797 participants developed dementia.

The researchers estimated that people taking at least 10mg of doxepin (an antidepressant) a day, four mg a day of diphenhydramine (to help them sleep) or five mg a day of oxybutynin (for urinary incontinence) for more than three years had a greater risk of developing dementia.

The recommended doctors and pharmacists offer different treatments where possible, or offer the lowest dose for the shortest possible time.

Skull discovery shows human-Neanderthal mating link

Four views of the 55,000-year-old skull missing its jaw, found in a cave in northern Israel, in the region of western Galilee. [Credit: Tel Aviv University and University of Vienna]

Four views of the 55,000-year-old skull missing its jaw, found in a cave in northern Israel, in the region of western Galilee. [Credit: Tel Aviv University and University of Vienna]

A 55,000-year-old skull found in a cave near Nahariya in northern Israel has been described as a "key piece in the puzzle of human evolution".

The words belong to anthropologist Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University,  one of the authors of a paper in Nature describing the find in the Manot cave in western Galilee.

The limestone cave was discovered by accident in 2008 when a bulldozer opened a hole in the cavern's ceiling while digging a sewer for a nearby village. Palaeontologists abseiled into the cave in 2010 and found the skull sitting on a shelf.

“We couldn’t believe our eyes. We immediately realised it was a prehistoric cave and that it had been inhabited for a very long time," Hershkovitz said. "Because the entrance had collapsed so long ago, it had been frozen in time.”

The skull was missing its face and jaw. It belonged to an anatomically modern human and included an "archaic" protrusion at the base of the skull. 

The Manot cave people "could be closely related to the first modern humans who later successfully colonised Europe," Hershkovitz said. "Manot, in terms of time and location, is the best candidate for the love story that scientists talk about between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens."

The limestone cave where the human skull was found was sealed off for thousands of years. [Credit: Amos Frumkin/Hebrew University Cave Centre]

The limestone cave where the human skull was found was sealed off for thousands of years. [Credit: Amos Frumkin/Hebrew University Cave Centre]

Hershkovitz said genetic analysis of modern humans indicate they came out of Africa about 60,000 years ago and began interbreeding with Neanderthals. According to genetic models, the first intermingling likely took place in the Levant.

Tools made from stone and bone, and bone fragments from hyena, deers, gazelles and humans dating from 45,000 to 20,000 years ago have also been found in the cave. Excavations are continuing. 

More on this topic from COSMOS: The Neanderthals live on in us

Did mothering defeat the Neanderthals?

Living in the distant past

Final countdown to the launch of NASA’s newest mission

Artist's rendering of the Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite. The width of the region scanned on Earth’s surface during each orbit is about 1,000 kilometres (620 miles). [Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech]

Artist's rendering of the Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite. The width of the region scanned on Earth’s surface during each orbit is about 1,000 kilometres (620 miles). [Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech]

NASA will launch its first satellite designed to observe surface soil moisture in less than 12 hours. The Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission will collect moisture readings from the first five cm (two inches) of topsoil, as well as the state it is in – frozen or thawed – from around the world. By doing so, SMAP will help scientists establish global patterns of moisture evaporation in order to curb the impacts of having either too much or too little water in soil.

Soil moisture plays a major role in how Earth’s biosphere works. Although only 0.001% of Earth’s total water resides in the first metre of dirt beneath our feet, topsoil affects how water, energy and carbon are exchanged between the Earth and the atmosphere. It also affects the absorption of carbon dioxide. SMAP will give us a more comprehensive understanding of how Earth operates as a whole, and how climate change is dependent on Earth’s land and air cycles working together.  

Measurements from SMAP will also help create better weather forecasts, including the prediction of floods and the monitoring of droughts. Growing conditions for crops will be better forecasted as well, which means that SMAP will improve how humanitarian food assistance is directed to affected areas in need.

The mission is an impressive one. Every two to three days, the spacecraft will map the entire globe using the largest rotating antenna of its kind that NASA has ever deployed. And it will do so for at least three years, providing the most accurate and highest-resolution maps of soil moisture ever obtained.

SMAP is being launched on a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, USA at 6:20am PST (that’s Friday 30 January, 1:20am AEDT). NASA’s live coverage begins approximately two hours before the launch. To watch it live, go to the NASA TV site.

Giant ring system surrounds distant planet

Artist's impression of the massive ring system circling the young giant gas planet J1407B. [Credit: Ron Miller]

Artist's impression of the massive ring system circling the young giant gas planet J1407B. [Credit: Ron Miller]

A ring system roughly 200 times larger than the rings of Saturn has been analysed by astronomers at the Leiden Observatory, The Netherlands, and the University of Rochester in the US.

The rings surround a young giant gas planet or brown dwarf star denoted as J1407b. "This planet is much larger than Jupiter or Saturn, and its ring system is roughly 200 times larger than Saturn's rings are today," says Eric Mamajek, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester.

Matthew Kenworthy from Leiden who led the study, says J1407b is too far away to observe directly. "We could make a detailed model based on the rapid brightness variations in the star light passing through the ring system," he says. "If we could replace Saturn's rings with the rings around J1407b they would be easily visible at night and many times larger than the full moon." 

The astronomers have calculated that the diameter of the ring system is almost 120 million kilometres and that their mass is roughly equal to the Earth.

"The planetary science community has theorised for decades that planets like Jupiter and Saturn would have had, at an early stage, disks around them that then led to the formation of satellites," says Mamajek.  "However until we discovered this object in 2012, no one had seen such a ring system. This is the first snapshot of satellite formation on million-kilometre scales around a sub-stellar object."

Astronomers believe the rings will become thinner over the next several million years, and may eventually disappear as satellites form out of the disks.

Chemists discover how to unboil an egg

Chemists working in California and South Australia have worked out how to unboil egg whites, a process they say could transform how proteins are produced in medical labs and in food production.

The scientists employ a vortex fluid device, a machine designed at Professor Colin Raston's chemistry lab at Flinders University in South Australia. The results have been published in ChemBioChem.

"Yes, we have invented a way to unboil a hen egg," said University of California chemistry Professor Gregory Weiss. "We describe a device for pulling apart tangled proteins and allowing them to refold. We start with egg whites boiled for 20 minutes at 90 degrees Celsius and return a key protein in the egg to working order."

Weiss said the team was not particularly interested in eggs – "the real problem is there are lots of cases of gummy proteins that you spend way too much time scraping off your test tubes and want want some means of recovering that material".

To recreate a clear protein known a lysozyme in a boiled egg, Weiss and his colleagues add a urea substance that liquefies the soild egg white. They then use Raston's vortex fluid device, which works to untangle the protein at a molecular level. The process takes minutes.

A technique that can reform common proteins from yeast or E. coli bacteria cheaply and quickly has the potential to make cancer treatments more affordable, and could also be used in cheese production.