'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.”

If you want to be a billionaire, an engineering degree is your best bet

Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim Helú, with a net worth in excess of $71 billion, is one of the world's richest men with an engineering degree. [Credit: Getty]

Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim Helú, with a net worth in excess of $71 billion, is one of the world's richest men with an engineering degree. [Credit: Getty]

An analysis of the Forbes rich list shows that 22% of the world’s wealthiest people studied engineering at university – almost twice as many billionaires as took a business degree.

Just 12% of the world's richest people studied business and 9% arts.

While only 4% of people on the list studied maths and science at university, the result means that more than a quarter of the world's richest had a grounding in so-called STEM subjects, which includes science, technology, engineering and maths.

It's a good result, but not as good as for those who didn't complete tertiary education at all.

Almost a third of people on the rich list do not have degrees including Bill Gates, the richest person in the world with a fortune of around $79 billion who dropped out of Harvard. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, another who left Harvard without a degree, is the youngest person in Forbes’ top 100 with a $33.4 billion net worth.

But before quitting, consider this. The average wealth of those on the list with an engineering background is higher than other categories. The engineering graduates had an average wealth of $25.8 billion, compared to a net worth of $24 billion for billionaires without a degree and $22.5 billion.

 

 

Calling all women scientists

Stanford's Maryam Mirzakhani made history last year as the first woman to win the Fields Medal for mathematics. But negative stereotypes still affect many women.

Stanford's Maryam Mirzakhani made history last year as the first woman to win the Fields Medal for mathematics. But negative stereotypes still affect many women.

A new(ish) blog, Lady Scientists of Tumblr, is calling for submissions from women in science around the world.

They're also asking people to register in their Spotlight section with

  • The field you study and a description
  • A photo (this can be anything…yourself, your work, a hobby, something that inspires you or sums up your passions)
  • Your (general) location
  • Your training/degree(s)Setbacks and/or successes
  • Career plans
  • Advice for someone wanting to go into that field

Meanwhile, on the subject of women in science and mathematics, new research has highlighted the damage that negative stereotyping women and their performance in mathematics can do.

Not only does it become a self-fulfilling prophesy, few people even seem to recognise the damage being done – or even that it's an issue, according to the study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Loony Labs has the details.

The study’s main goal was to find out whether observers could recognize the anxiety and underperformance experienced by women when judged under negative stereotypes. In the study, over 150 study participants, split nearly evenly between men and women, were given 10 minutes to solve seven difficult math problems on a computer with no scrap paper.
Before completing the test, a negative stereotype about women was introduced by telling participants that the researchers were trying to find out why women are generally worse at math than men.
Half the participants were then told they would be asked to solve math problems and they responded to a survey about their expected performance; the other half were told they would simply be asked to predict how they thought women might feel in this test-taking situation and how they would perform on the test.

The results confirmed previous studies by finding that, thanks to the introduction of negative stereotypes, the female test-takers performed worse and reported greater anxiety and lower expectations compared to men.

But researchers also found that while both sexes expected female test-takers to experience greater anxiety under the influence of negative gender stereotypes, both male and female observers expected women to successfully overcome these roadblocks.

As the study's authors ask, if we can't even recognise the problem, how can we address it to find a solution?

Scientists move a step closer to bring back extinct animals

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Scientists have moved a step closer to bringing extinct animals back to life, by have taken a small inserting the DNA of a woolly mammoth into lab-grown elephant cells, Live Science reports.

Harvard geneticist George Church and his colleagues say they inserted mammoth genes for small ears, subcutaneous fat, and hair length and colour into the DNA of elephant skin cells. They claim it might be possible in this way to bring the mammoth, which died out 3,600 years ago – back to life, but probably not anytime soon.

"There is more work to do, but we plan to do so," Church told The Times newspaper.

Next, they need to find a way to turn the hybrid cells into specialized tissues, to see if they produce the right traits. For instance, the researchers need to make sure the mammoth genes produce hair of the right color and texture.
After that, the team plans to grow the hybrid cells in an artificial womb; scientists and animal-rights advocates have deemed it unethical to grow them in a living elephant's womb.

If these hybrids survive, they hope to engineer an elephant that can survive in cold climates. Then, by introducing more mammoth DNA into the elephant's genome they might be able to revive the ancient animals.

If that works, Church has his eye on other animals, including the passenger pigeon, a bird whose flocks once filled the skies of North America but went extinct in the early 20th century.

His current research is yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Antarctic ice shelves vanishing faster than previously thought

An iceberg off the Antarctic Peninsula [Credit: James Hager]

The rate of ice loss in the West Antarctic is accelerating, with ice shelves shrinking at an alarming rate, according to a new study, published in Science this week. If the shelves vanish, as the scientists fear they might, it could lead to sea level rises of up to three metres.

Shrinking rates have increased by 70% over the past decade.

"We are starting to lose more ice at a faster rate; we're accelerating," study co-author Helen Fricker, a climate scientist at University of California, San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography told reporters. 

"If this thinning continues at the rates we report, some of the ice shelves in West Antarctica that we've observed will disappear by the end of this century," Fricker says.

And that will cause serious problems because of the huge amount of "grounded ice", held up from entering the ocean by the shelves.

"A number of these ice shelves are holding back one metre to three metres of sea level rise in the grounded ice. And that means that ultimately this ice will be delivered into the oceans and we will see global sea-level rise on that order."

The study was based on satellite measurements of the ice taken over 18 years – a time period that allows overall trends to be seen in a way that previous shorter-scale studies have not, Fricker says.

'Super-termite' hybrid could bring wave of destruction

the male Asian subterranean termite (left) actually prefers the female Formosan subterranean termite to females of its own species. [Credit: University of Florida/Thomas Chouvenc, Erika Helmick, Nan-Yao Su].

the male Asian subterranean termite (left) actually prefers the female Formosan subterranean termite to females of its own species. [Credit: University of Florida/Thomas Chouvenc, Erika Helmick, Nan-Yao Su].

Two of the world's most destructive species of termites have swarmed at the same time, creating a hybrid that scientists fear could lead to a wave of destruction.

The combination of genes between the Asian and Formosan subterranean termites in Florida has resulted in highly vigorous hybridised colonies that can develop twice as fast as the two parental species, they say.

The Asian and Formosan termites already cause $40 billion in damage between them. Their hybrid offspring could increase that bill many times over.

The distributions of Asian and Formosan termites overlap in only three areas in the word.

The distributions of Asian and Formosan termites overlap in only three areas in the word.

A new paper published in the journal PLOS ONE by a team of University of Florida researchers, says that, while both of the invasive species have been spread round the world by human activity, their distributions overlap in only three narrow areas – Florida being one.

The authors say that, due to climate change, the dispersal flight seasons of both species overlapped for the first time on record in 2013 and 2014, with Asian termites appearing to actually prefer mating with Formosan females than their own species.

The authors warn that climate change could spread the termites' range even further.

"With a subtropical climate and strong human activity, the continuous spread of exotic termites in south Florida is inevitable," the paper says.

"Climate change can directly shift the distribution range and the timing of reproduction of species because of alterations of environmental conditions...The unusually warm 2013 and 2014 winters (5th and 10th warmest winter on record) with successive cold fronts in the region may have allowed for a wide overlap of the termite species dispersal flight seasons."

The researchers are yet to determine whether the hybrid termites are fertile but, whether they are or not, they are destined to stay around for a long time.

"Because a termite colony can live up to 20 years with millions of individuals, "the damaging potential of a hybrid colony remains a serious threat to homeowners, even if the hybrid colony does not produce fertile winged termites,” lead author Nan-Yao Su says.

Researchers transform packing peanuts into powerful parts for rechargeable batteries

Researchers at Purdue University have developed a way to convert packing peanuts into parts that can be used to store energy in rechargeable lithium ion batteries – and they could work better than rechargeable batteries currently on the market. They presented their findings at the 249th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) on Monday 23 March. 

Dr Vilas Pol, who led the team of researchers, got the idea one day when new equipment delivered to his lab came in a box full of the foam pieces.

Instead of tossing them out, Pol asked a member of his team, Dr Vinodkumar Etacheri, to work out how they could be reconstructed and used.

“Outside in a landfill, potentially harmful substances in the peanuts, such as heavy metals, chlorides and phthalates, can easily leach into the environment and deteriorate soil and water quality,” says Pol.

Packing peanuts are made using new or recycled polystyrene, the same molecule used in Styrofoam. Although the peanuts no longer contain CFCs, known to deplete our ozone, new “eco-friendly” versions of the material can still cause damage to the environment. 

“The starch-based alternatives also contain chemicals and detergents that can contaminate ecosystems,” he explains.

Material used by commercial industry is generally heated up to about 2500 degrees Celsius in order to make microsheets for rechargeable batteries. Pol and Etacheri found that, when baked at just 600 degrees Celsius, the packing peanuts transformed into microsheets with disordered, porous structures.

“Their disordered crystal structure lets them store more lithium ions than the theoretical limit, and their porous microstructure lets the lithium ions quickly diffuse into the microsheets and creates more surface area for electrochemical interactions,” says Etacheri.

Pol says his team hopes to have the trash-turned-technology battery components commercially available within the next few years.

Less than two days until the launch of the historic One-Year Mission in space

The Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft prepares for launch. [Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls]

The Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft prepares for launch. [Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls]

Researchers from the US and Russia prepare for the final countdown to the launch of the historic One-Year Mission as the Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft, which will carry the crew, is transported to its final ground location: the launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The One-Year Mission is an international collaboration between the US and Russia that will investigate how the human body responds to weightlessness, isolation, radiation and stress of long-duration spaceflight. The crew consists of NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), who will live onboard the International Space Station (ISS) for one year.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly (left) and Russian astronaut Mikhail Kornienko of Roscosmos, the two-man crew of the One-Year Mission. [Credit: NASA/Bill Stafford]

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly (left) and Russian astronaut Mikhail Kornienko of Roscosmos, the two-man crew of the One-Year Mission. [Credit: NASA/Bill Stafford]

Because of the low or no-gravity environment, fluids within the human body – such as blood and water – shift to the upper body. Fluids play an important role in our health; you can feel the effects of its redistribution when your legs swell during a long flight or when you get dizzy from standing up too quickly. Fluids also impact your vision.

So researchers will be collecting non-invasive physiological data from the two-man crew based on seven categories of interest: visual impairment, physical performance, functional tasks, behavioral health, metabolic, microbial, and human factors (such as how well crew members remember what they learned on the ground).

The mission is considered a stepping stone to future expeditions to Mars and beyond.

Kelly and Kornienko will be joined by Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka of Roscosmos on their journey to the International Space Station. Their spacecraft, the Soyuz TMA-16M, is scheduled for take-off on 27 March, 3:42 p.m. EST. But Kelly and Kornienko will not return to Earth until March 2016, onboard the Soyuz TMA-18M.

In addition to the research being done by the One-Year Mission, Kelly is a part of NASA’s Twins study with his identical twin brother, Mark Kelly, who is also an astronaut. The Twins study will provide more insight into subtle physiological changes that occur from spaceflight by comparing the shared genetics of the two individuals whilst they are living in different environments – on space and on Earth – for one year.