Searching the Deep Web for science clues

What you see when you do a basic Web search is only the tip of the iceberg. Most of the information is buried in the "Deep Web." JPL is collaborating on a DARPA initiative called Memex, which explores the connections between bits of information hidden in this vast ocean of content. [Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech]  

What you see when you do a basic Web search is only the tip of the iceberg. Most of the information is buried in the "Deep Web." JPL is collaborating on a DARPA initiative called Memex, which explores the connections between bits of information hidden in this vast ocean of content. [Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech]


The internet contains vast amounts of information that does not show up on Google searches. The so-called "Deep Web" -contains data that is not indexed by search engines.

But all that information could soon become accessible to law enforcement agencies and scientists under a program being developed by US The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, have joined the program, hoping it will help catalogue the vast amounts of data NASA spacecraft deliver on a daily basis.

"We're developing next-generation search technologies that understand people, places, things and the connections between them," said Chris Mattmann, principal investigator for JPL's work on Memex.

Memex checks not just standard text-based content online but also images, videos, pop-up ads, forms, scripts and other ways information is stored to look at how they are interrelated.

"We're augmenting Web crawlers to behave like browsers – in other words, executing scripts and reading ads in ways that you would when you usually go online. This information is normally not catalogued by search engines," Mattmann said.

Memex can even recognise what's in videos and pair it with searches on the same subjects. The search tool could identify the same object across many frames of a video or even different videos.

All of the code written for Memex is open-source.

Scientists discover 11 new species of chameleon in Madagascar

A panther chameleon. [Credit: © Michel Milinkovitch]

Madagascar, already a by-word for extraordinary biodiversity, has been shown to have 11 more species than previously thought.

A new study by Michel Milinkovitch, professor of genetics, evolution, and biophysics at the University of Geneva (UNIGE), reveals that the panther chameleon, which is only found in Madagascar, is is actually composed of eleven different species. 

The results of their research appear in the latest issue of the Molecular Ecology journal. 

Over two expeditions, the scientists collected a drop of blood from each of 324 individual chameleons and documented them through colour photographs.

The sequenced the DNA (mitochondrial and nuclear) of each of the specimens, analysing them according to the hypothesis that a chameleon's dominant colour might be related to the geographic zone where it is found.

They found that the genetic material indicated strong genetic structure among geographically restricted lineages, revealing very low interbreeding among populations.

The mathematical analyses of the 324 colour photographs demonstrated that subtle colour patterns could predict assignment of chameleon individuals to their corresponding genetic lineage, confirming that many of the geographical populations might need to be considered separated species. 

While Madagascar is blessed with exceptional biodiversity, that is under attack, mainly due to habitat loss for the animals.

The widespread destruction of forests for agriculture, firewood and charcoal production threaten the survival of 400 species of reptile, 300 species of amphibians, 300 species of birds, 15,000 species of plants and countless species of invertebrates.

Up to 90% of all living species found in Madagascar are found nowhere else on earth.

NASA imaging shows magnetic field over a sunspot group

[Credit: NASA SDO]

The Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) instrument aboard NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) images the solar atmosphere in multiple wavelengths to link changes in the surface to interior changes.

Its data includes images of the sun in 10 wavelengths every 10 seconds.

When AIA images are sharpened, as in the image above, the magnetic field can be readily visualised through the bright, thin strands that are called "coronal loops".

Loops are shown here in a blended overlay with the magnetic field as measured with SDO's Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager underneath. Blue and yellow represent the opposite polarities of the magnetic field.

Echolocation a complete substitution for sight in blind people's brains

Echo-related activity in the brain of an early-blind echolocator is shown on the left. There is no activity evident in the brain of a sighted person (shown on the right) listening to the same echoes.

Some blind individuals can use echoes from tongue or finger clicks to recognise objects in the distance.

And in these individuals, echolocation is a full form of sensory substitution, using regions of the brain normally associated with visual perception, research by Mel Goodale, from the University of Western Ontario, in Canada, has found.

Dr. Goodale's latest results were presented at the 9th Annual Canadian Neuroscience Meeting yesterday in Vancouver.

"Our experiments show that echolocation is not just a tool to help visually impaired individuals navigate their environment, but can act as an effective sensory replacement for vision, allowing them to recognise the shape, size, and material properties of objects" says Goodale.

Just as the size, expected weight, texture and composition of an object can be assessed by visual cues, Goodale's research shows that the same is true of information obtained through the auditory cues provided by echolocation.

Many of the same regions in the sighted brain that are used for the visual assessment of objects are recruited in the blind brain when objects are explored using echolocation.

"Remarkably, expert blind echolocators can tell whether something is hard or soft, dense or not, just by listening to the echoes bouncing back from that material," notes Dr. Goodale.

Infections can lower your IQ

New research shows a clear correlation between infections and impaired cognitive ability measured by IQ.

"Our research shows a correlation between hospitalisation due to infection and impaired cognition corresponding to an IQ score of 1.76 lower than the average," says Michael Eriksen Benrós, of the University of Copenhagen.

"People with five or more hospital contacts with infections had an IQ score of 9.44 lower than the average."

The study showed infections in the brain affected the cognitive ability the most, but many other types of infections severe enough to require hospitalisation also impaired a patient's cognitive ability.

"Moreover, it seems that the immune system itself can affect the brain to such an extent that the person's cognitive ability measured by an IQ test will also be impaired many years after the infection has been cured," said Eriksen Benrós. 

The research was a collaboration between researchers from the University of Copenhagen and Aarhus University. It was the largest study of its kind to date, involving 190,000 Danish participants.

The findings have just been published in the prestigious international journal PLOS ONE.

So how do scientists measure sea level, anyway?

Gary Griggs, University of California, Santa Cruz

There are about 330 million cubic miles of water in the world oceans today, 97% of all the water on the planet. Early in our planet’s 4.5 billion year history, water from the atmosphere and from the interior of the Earth gradually collected in the low areas on the planet’s surface to form the ocean basins, accumulating salts along the way.

Sea level change between 1993 and 2008 NASA/JPL

The level of the ocean around the Earth, and therefore the location of the shoreline, are directly related to the total amount of water in the oceans, and also closely tied to climate. As climate changes, so does sea level.

Throughout the history of the oceans, which goes back about 3.5 billion years, give or take a few million, climate has constantly changed and, in response, sea level has gone up and down. As seawater warms, it expands and sea level rises. As the Earth warms, ice sheets and glaciers melt and retreat, adding more water to the oceans, which raises sea level.

Installing a tide gauge in Alaska. NOAA Photo Library, CC BY

People have been keeping track of sea level, or the elevation of the oceans, for about 200 years. Until fairly recently, this was done with tide gauges, which are water-level recorders anchored to some structure along the coastline. It might be a wharf, a concrete breakwater or some other solid structure that is stable over long periods of time.

The oldest tide gauge in the world is on the coast of Poland and was installed in 1808. In the United States, there are two tide gauges that have been in operation since 1856, one in New York and one in San Francisco. There are many others as well, but most of them are much newer; many were set up over the past 50-75 years.

A tidal gauge, ready to be installed. David Monniaux, CC BY-SA

A tide gauge is essentially a large pipe inserted into the ocean, which has a float inside that moves up and down as the water level changes. As the tide rises and falls each day, these gauges record those changes in water level, day after day, year after year.

These instruments were first set up to provide accurate information on water depths so ships could enter and leave ports safely. As time went on, however, it became clear that sea level recorded on these instruments was rising globally.

NOAA tide gauge data for Grand Isle, Louisiana (near New Orleans), where sea level is rising relative to the land at 9.03 mm/yr (36 inches/century) due to subsidence of the Mississippi delta area. NOAA

Each of these official tide gauges keeps track of sea level at a particular coastal location. Many coastal areas are not stable, however. Some are sinking (such as New Orleans or Venice), and some are rising (Alaska and Scandinavia, for example). Each tide gauge keeps track of how sea level is changing relative to the land on which it is anchored.

NOAA tide gage record for Juneau, Alaska, where local sea level is dropping relative to the land at 13.16 mm/year (4.3 feet/century) due to uplift of the coastline. NOAA

Even though sea level rose around the world at a rate of about 1.7 millimeters per year over the last century (nearly seven inches per century), because some gauges are on coasts that are rising and some on coasts that are sinking, these local sea-level rise rates will vary. In parts of Alaska, the land is rising faster than sea level, so the tide gauge actually records a drop in sea level relative to the land.

Global mean sea level as measured by satellite. University of Colorado/NASA

These geographic variations were resolved in 1993 when two satellites were launched that use radar to measure the level of the ocean very precisely from space. This high-tech approach eliminates the problems of land motion on Earth and has given us a new global sea-level rise rate over the past 22 years of 3.2 millimeters per year, the equivalent of 12 inches per century.

Wind and currents can affect a sea’s level. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, CC BY

Elevations on land, contour lines on maps and depths on nautical charts are based on the long-term average of sea level. This is complicated by the fact that sea level around the world at any instant is not the same, due to local variations resulting from differences in water temperatures, currents, atmospheric pressure and wind.

In order to bring some order to all of these geographical variations, and to provide a constant point of reference, a datum or base level was established based on averaging out the elevation of sea level from many tide gauges over an extended period of time. This datum is now called the North American Vertical Datum (or NAVD) and is the elevation (close to mean sea level) on which all map elevations are based. So if a wharf, highway or building is “20 feet above sea level,” it is 20 feet above this official North American Vertical Datum.

The Conversation

Gary Griggs is Director, Institute of Marine Sciences and Distinguished Professor of Earth & Planetary Sciences at University of California, Santa Cruz.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A star nicknamed 'Nasty' gives hints to evolution of extremely massive stars

Astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have uncovered surprising new clues about a hefty, rapidly ageing star whose behaviour has never been seen before in our Milky Way galaxy. [Credit: NASA/Hubble]


A giant, rapidly ageing star has given astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope clues to how stars evolve.

Nicknamed it "Nasty 1" – a play on its catalogue name of NaSt1 – star may represent a brief transitory stage in the evolution of extremely massive stars as they rapidly shed their hydrogen-filled outer layers, exposing their super-hot and extremely bright helium-burning cores.

Nasty 1 was first observed decades ago and identified as a Wolf-Rayet star – a rapidly evolving star more than 20 times as massive as our sun that spews out ionised helium and nitrogen or carbon. But recent observations show Nasty 1 is not behaving like one.

Instead of twin lobes of gas flowing from opposite sides of the star, Hubble revealed a pancake-shaped disc of gas, some three trillion kilometres wide, encircling the star. Astronomers believe it may have formed from an unseen companion star that snacked on the outer envelope of Nasty 1.

Based on current estimates, the nebula surrounding the stars is just a few thousand years old, and as close as 3,000 light-years from Earth.

"We were excited to see this disc-like structure because it may be evidence for a Wolf-Rayet star forming from a binary interaction," said study leader Jon Mauerhan of the University of California, Berkeley. "There are very few examples in the galaxy of this process in action because this phase is short-lived, perhaps lasting only 100,000 years, while the timescale over which a resulting disc is visible could be only 10,000 years or less."

In the team's proposed scenario, a massive star evolves very quickly, and as it begins to run out of hydrogen, it swells up. Its outer hydrogen envelope becomes more loosely bound and vulnerable to gravitational stripping, or a type of stellar cannibalism, by a nearby companion star. In that process, the more compact companion star winds up gaining mass, and the original massive star loses its hydrogen envelope, exposing its helium core to become a Wolf-Rayet star.

Another way Wolf-Rayet stars are said to form is when a massive star ejects its own hydrogen envelope in a strong stellar wind streaming with charged particles. The binary interaction model where a companion star is present is gaining traction because astronomers realise that at least 70% of massive stars are members of double-star systems. Direct mass loss alone also cannot account for the number of Wolf-Rayet stars relative to other less-evolved massive stars in the galaxy.

"We're finding that it is hard to form all the Wolf-Rayet stars we observe by the traditional wind mechanism, because mass loss isn't as strong as we used to think," said Nathan Smith of the University of Arizona in Tucson, who is a co-author on the new NaSt1 paper.

"Mass exchange in binary systems seems to be vital to account for Wolf-Rayet stars and the supernovae they make, and catching binary stars in this short-lived phase will help us understand this process."

The disc is thought to form from stripped matter from the star that spills out during the mass transfer process due to competing gravitational fields.

"That's what we think is happening in Nasty 1," Mauerhan said. "We think there is a Wolf-Rayet star buried inside the nebula, and we think the nebula is being created by this mass-transfer process. So this type of sloppy stellar cannibalism actually makes Nasty 1 a rather fitting nickname."

For images and more information about Nasty 1 and the Hubble Space Telescope, visit:

Liquid crystal lens configuration works like an insects eye

The micro-lenses self-assemble around a central pillar. [Credit: University of Pennsylvania]

The micro-lenses self-assemble around a central pillar. [Credit: University of Pennsylvania]

Engineers and physicists at the University of Pennsylvania have developed a way to use liquid crystals to grow compound lenses that work like insects.

Insects use thousands of individual lenses that work together to provide a wealth of input.

The lenses could be used for three-dimensional imaging, as they produce sets of images with different focal lengths, ranging from a few micrometres to a few tens of micrometres. The lenses are reconfigurable with temperature and sensitive to light polarisation – the latter thought to be one of the ways bees navigate..

The research was published in Advanced Optical Materials.

Futurity has the details.

Previous work by the group had shown how smectic liquid crystal, a transparent, soap-like class of the material, naturally self-assembled into flower-like structures when placed around a central silica bead. Each “petal” of these flowers is a “focal conic domain,” a structure that other researchers had shown could be used as a simple lens.
“Given the liquid crystal flower’s outward similarity to a compound lens, we were curious about its optical properties,” says study co-leader Mohamed Amine Gharbi, a postdoctoral researcher in the physics and astronomy department

The researchers made the lenses using photolithography to create a sheet of micropillars, then spread the liquid crystal on the sheet.

At room temperature, the liquid crystal adheres to the top edges of the posts, transmitting an elastic energy cue that causes the crystal’s focal conic domains to line up in concentric circles around the posts

The rise of wearable health tech could mean the end of the sickie

Data from wearable tech such as Fitbit could be used to prove how well, or unwell, you are – such as when phoning in sick.

Data from wearable tech such as Fitbit could be used to prove how well, or unwell, you are – such as when phoning in sick.

By Emmanuel Tsekleves, Lancaster University

Now that the sun is shining and the temperature is rising, it’s officially sickie season: go to work, or get struck down with “flu”, a “24-hour virus”, or that faithful stand-by, the dodgy prawn takeaway.

Figures show that over a third of employees in the UK admit to pulling a sickie at some point or other. But things may be changing soon – wearable tech such as the Apple Watch, Microsoft Band, Fitbit, or Jawbone Up may become mainstream within a few years, bringing health monitoring capabilities that reveal how your body is performing. It’s not inconceivable that in time this same data could be used to prove how well, or unwell, you are – such as when phoning in sick.

Wearable health tech is still in its early days. These devices come with sensors that can record how many steps and how much exercise you’ve taken, how well and long you‘ve slept, stress levels, blood pressure, sun exposure, even what you’ve have eaten. Added together, all this could easily demonstrate that you’re not so sick after all.

Since some wearables are aimed at being fashionable accessories, employers might be minded to tap into the trend. So next time you’re pulling a sickie, you might need the data to back up your story. With GPS-equipped devices there’ll be no opportunity to escape your sickbed to a barbeque or trip to the beach, while ultraviolet sensors will detect the increase in sunshine and motion sensors detect movement not typically associated with bed rest.

Using your data against you

What if employers and health insurance companies move in the direction that the car insurance industry has taken, where every health transgression (a boozy night out, a Christmas feast, or too many lazy days on the sofa) could increase your health premium rates? Such a scenario isn’t so far away, and this should concern us. Apple is clearly making a beeline for the health and fitness industry with Watch and its integrated HealthKit software, now integrated with its iOS mobile operating system, and it is the only firm to do so.

Typically, health insurers use body mass index (a calculation of body fat that takes into account your age, weight and height) to set premiums, and some insurers set rates based on basic data from wearables, such as the number of steps we take link?. Fitbit and Jawbone Up are both already playing a bigger role in how health insurance is calculated, with more employers opting to monitor data generated by such wearable trackers. And here’s the catch: employers are holding their insured staff to account with penalties and rewards as part of an increasing number of so-called “corporate-wellness programmes”.

For example, at BP staff are given Fitbits for free as long as the company has access to their data. The more physically active an employee is (as measured by the device) the more points they’re awarded. Higher points lower the company’s insurance premium. Other companies are adopting similar wellbeing employee health insurance programmes too.

Consent, for now

Wearable tech is still far from perfect, and that means inventive workarounds will be found. A few acquaintances of mine who shall remain nameless have found creative ways of racking up a few more miles, while actually continuing their usual, less-than-active habits. These include holding and shaking the device for a few minutes at a time, or attaching it to their cat or dog, or offering pocket money to other, younger and fitter family members to wear. Obviously insurers and developers are aware of these, so it won’t be long until such loopholes are closed.

For now, we can consent to share our health data from wearables with employers or insurers in exchange or lower premiums or cheaper travel. But how long before the company wearable is a mandatory part of the uniform?

The Conversation

Emmanuel Tsekleves is Senior Lecturer in Design Interactions at Lancaster University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A new history of ancient snakes

An artist's impression of an ancient snake, with tiny hind limbs. [Credit: Julius T. Csotonyi]

An artist's impression of an ancient snake, with tiny hind limbs. [Credit: Julius T. Csotonyi]

Early snakes had hind legs, according to Yale palaeontologists who have analysed snake genomes and new fossil records.

"We generated the first comprehensive reconstruction of what the ancestral snake was like," said Allison Hsiang, lead author the study published in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology

"We infer that the most recent common ancestor of all snakes was a nocturnal, stealth-hunting predator targeting relatively large prey, and most likely would have lived in forested ecosystems in the Southern Hemisphere," she said.

The scientists concluded that the most recent common ancestor of all 3,400 species of living snakes would have already lost its forelimbs, but would still have had tiny hind limbs, with complete ankles and toes.

"It would have first evolved on land, instead of in the sea," said co-author Daniel Field. "Both of those insights resolve longstanding debates on the origin of snakes."

The ancestral snakes originated about 128.5 million years ago, during the middle Early Cretaceous period, the study suggests. They were non-constricting, wide-ranging foragers that seized their prey with needle-like hooked teeth and swallowed them whole.

"Primate brains, including those of humans, are hard-wired to attend to serpents, and with good reason," said Jacques Gauthier, senior author of the study.