Saturday, April 25, 2009

Deadly H1N1 Swine Flu outbreak: Pandemic looms

A novel flu virus has struck hundreds of people in Mexico, and at least 18 have died. It has also infected eight people in the US, and appears able to spread readily from human to human. The World Health Organization is calling an emergency meeting to decide whether to declare the possible onset of a flu pandemic.

Ironically, after years of concern about H5N1 bird flu, the new flu causing concern is a pig virus, of a family known as H1N1.

Flu viruses are named after the two main proteins on their surfaces, abbreviated H and N. They are also differentiated by what animal they usually infect. The H in the new virus comes from pigs, but some of its other genes come from bird and human flu viruses, a mixture that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls "very unusual".

On Wednesday, the CDC announced that routine surveillance had uncovered mild flu cases during late March and April, caused by a novel swine flu virus. Those affected, aged 9 to 54, live in and around San Diego, California, and San Antonio, Texas, near the Mexican border. None was severe. Symptoms were normal for flu, with more nausea and diarrhoea than usual.

Mongrelised mix

On Thursday, Canadian public health officials warned Canadians travelling to Mexico of clusters of severe flu-like illness there. Then on Friday the WHO in Geneva said in a statement there have been around 900 suspected cases of swine flu in Mexico City and two other regions of Mexico, with around 60 suspected deaths. Of those, 18 have been confirmed as H1N1 swine flu, says the WHO, and tests so far have shown that 12 of those are "genetically identical" to the California virus.

On Friday, Richard Besser, head of the CDC, confirmed that Mexican samples tested at CDC were also "similar" to the US virus. "From everything we know to date, this virus appears to be the same," he said.

To be declared a pandemic, Besser said, the virus must be new, cause severe disease, and transmit easily enough to be sustained.

It is new. Anne Schuchat, head of science and public health at the CDC, said that the US virus is an unusually mongrelised mix of genetic sequences from North American pigs, Eurasian pigs, birds and humans. The H protein on its surface, having hitherto circulated only in pigs, is one most human immune systems have never seen, the crucial requirement for a pandemic flu.

Too late to contain

The virus's severity will depend on how many people who catch it die. While suspect deaths in Mexico are being tested for H1N1, is not yet known how many mild cases of virus there may have been in the affected region that have gone untested. Both numbers are needed to calculate how deadly a case might be. One ominous sign, however, is that the Mexican cases are said to be mainly young adults, a hallmark of pandemic flu.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Quantum gods: Creation and everything beyond

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of transcendental meditation, claimed his techniques gave practitioners access to the
Quantum Gods: Creation, chaos and the search for cosmic consciousness by Victor J. Stenger

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of transcendental meditation, claimed his techniques gave practitioners access to the "quantum field of cosmic consciousness" (Image: CSU Archives / Everett Collection / Rex)

QUANTUM mechanics is remarkably weird: even though it is well understood mathematically and can produce accurate, ultra-precise predictions, nobody really knows what it means. This leaves lots of room for people in search of the spiritual - and who are not burdened by any knowledge of mathematics - to impose on it whatever quasi-religious beliefs or interpretations they like.

In this much-needed book, physicist Victor Stenger isolates and then debunks the claims of two kinds of "quantum belief". One he calls "quantum theology" because it offers quantum physics as a way for God to act in the world without violating natural laws. The second is "quantum spirituality", which is rooted in the even vaguer notion that quantum physics connects the human mind to the universe, allowing us to create our own reality.

If I could choose my own reality, would I be wearing these shoes?

Go Badger!

A University of Wisconsin-Madison biomedical engineering doctoral student, Adam Wilson is among a growing group of researchers worldwide who aim to perfect a communication system for users whose bodies do not work, but whose brains function normally. Among those are people who have ALS, brain-stem stroke or high spinal cord injury.

Sigmoids - not so Freudian

This dramatic

This dramatic "sigmoid", an "S"-shaped bundle of plasma, appeared on the surface of the sun in 2007 and later erupted. Now a new model has reproduced the event (Image: NASA/STFC/ISAS/JAXA)

The formation and eruption of large "S"-shaped structures on the surface of the sun have been modelled in the best detail yet. Further refinements of the model might help sun-watchers predict severe space storms days in advance.

'Sigmoids' are S-shaped structures that appear intermittently on the sun's surface. Many produce eruptions of hot ionised gas, or plasma, such as coronal mass ejections and flares. If the eruptions are powerful enough, they can zap satellites, endanger astronauts, and knock out power grids (see Space storm alert: 90 seconds from catastropheMovie Camera).

Until now, models of the structures have not been able to reproduce the full lifetime of a sigmoid from its beginnings within the sun to its eventual eruption sometimes days later. But now researchers say they have come up with a simple model that could do just that.

"For the first time, we have built a three-dimensional model that shows in a very nice and self-consistent way the evolution and final eruption of a sigmoid," says Vasilis Archontis of St Andrews University in Scotland.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Malachite and Rhodochrosite


Malachite is another carbonate mineral, like rhodochrosite; specifically, it is copper carbonate.

It is often formed by when copper ores, found around limestones, are weathered. It often forms stalacmites.

Like many copper compounds, it is green. As a result, it was used as an artist's pigment until around 1800.

It has been mined for over 3,000 years at the so-called "King Solomon's Mines" in Israel.


Rhodochrosite is made of crystals of magnesium carbonate. The pure form is rose red, but this is rare. Impure varieties are pink or brown.

This specimen is from a stalactite, of a kind found uniquely in an old Inca silver mine in Catamarca, Argentina.

It has been cut in cross-section, revealing concentric bands of light and dark rose-coloured layers.

Scottish logic

An astronomer and a physicist were holidaying in Scotland with a Scottish mathematician friend. They were travelling by train into the country when the astronomer spotted a black sheep in a field and said "Oh, that's interesting, all Scottish sheep are black!" To which the physicist replied "No, No, Some Scottish sheep are black"

The Scottish mathematician turns his face to heaven and sighed. He said "I think you'll that, in Scotland there exists at least one field that contains one sheep, at least one side of which is black!"

'taken from Ian Stewart's book "Concepts of Modern Mathematics"

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Pioneer & Voyager; are we sending Mixed Messages?

NASA's Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft, which launched in 1972 and 1973, carried this design, which was etched on a 15x23-cm gold-anodised aluminium plate. The plaque was intended to inform any extraterrestrials who might come upon it when and where the spacecraft launched (using 14 pulsars as a reference point). "There's also an image of a man and woman - perhaps the most cryptic for an extraterrestrial to understand," says Vakoch. "The response NASA got [to that image] was quite surprising to them. Some were concerned that NASA was sending pornography into space." (Illustration: NASA)

NASA placed a more ambitious message aboard the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft, which launched in 1977.

Sounds and images intended to portray the diversity of life and cultures on Earth were encoded on a phonograph record made of gold-plated copper. A committee chaired by Carl Sagan assembled its contents: 115 images, a variety of natural sounds, music from different cultures and eras, and spoken greetings in 55 languages.

Each record is encased in a protective aluminium jacket, together with a cartridge and a needle. Instructions, in symbolic language, explain the origin of the spacecraft and how to play the record.

"The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilisations in interstellar space," said Sagan. "But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet." (Image: NASA)

"Like other messages that have been created for extraterrestrial audiences, the starting point of the Voyager recording was something we would expect extraterrestrials to have in common with us - and that's basic math and science," says Vakoch. (Illustration: Frank Drake)

This illustration of DNA (top left) shows how "the chemistry of Earth is tied into our genetic material", says Vakoch.

Human reproduction is also the focus of multiple Voyager images, from the fertilisation of an egg by a sperm to a developing foetus to a silhouette of a man and a pregnant woman. "There's an emphasis on reproduction in the Voyager recording, but also considerable caution in depicting nude human beings," says Vakoch. "The image [of the man and woman] nicely portrays our ambivalence about sexuality." (Illustrations: Jon Lomberg)

This image illustrates "licking, eating and drinking" (Image: National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center)

There are some Voyager images that relate to health and the human body, including this X-ray of a hand, says Vakoch - "but nothing that explicitly says, 'Our bodies are frail.'"

"The Voyager recordings intentionally minimise negative aspects of [human culture]," says Vakoch. "There was an intentional decision not to include a picture of a nuclear mushroom cloud [or] poverty and disease."

But long-lived alien civilisations are the ones most likely to be around to intercept our messages. "If they're older, perhaps they're also much more advanced than we are," says Vakoch. "What would we have to say that would be of interest to them?"

"I think the greatest thing we have to offer is to be honest about our current level of development, to highlight that we're not sure that we're even going to survive the next century . . . but that we have enough faith that we will continue to exist that we are making an effort to reach out to other civilisations." (Image: National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center)

This illustration of vertebrate evolution shows representatives of the major vertebrate groupings, including amphibians, birds and mammals.

The image of the man and woman at top right is quite similar to the drawing that was on the Pioneer plaque, with one difference - in the Pioneer image of the early 1970s, the man is raising a hand in greeting, but in this image from a few years later, the woman is waving hello. "Just in the span of a few short years, we saw a responsiveness in NASA to [include] a more adequate representation of women by showing a woman not as passively standing next to a man but as being a member of a couple that was actively sending greetings to other worlds," says Vakoch. (Illustration: Jon Lomberg)

NASA really made an effort with Voyager to include images and sounds from around the world. "What's unique about the Voyager recording is there's really an emphasis on describing the breadth of human experience," says Vakoch. "Really it's the best portrayal of human diversity of any messages that have been sent out in space."

Still, the diversity it displays is limited – there are no images representing homosexuality, for example. "I think any interstellar message is in part a reflection of its times," he says. "It may well be that if NASA sends out another image in the future, it may include a picture of two men or two women holding hands." (Images: United Nations)

Friday, April 17, 2009

Space chessmen

Space chess

NASA astronaut Greg Chamitoff, a chess fanatic, took his board with him to the International Space Station in 2008.

He plays against groups of controllers in the various centres supporting the station, including Houston, Moscow, Japan and Germany.

(Image: NASA)

Making Faces: Alan Turing stands the test of time

Friday, April 10, 2009

Galileo; technology pointer

A new exhibit in Florence shows Galileo's contribution to humanity using astronomical artefacts, stunning artwork and impressive technology (Image: Biblioteca Marucelliana / Firenze)

Galileo's Middle finger - Right Hand

The power of Galileo's observations in supplanting religious ideology is best captured in this image of his finger.

It was detached from his remains in 1737 and encased in glass and gilt, pointing heavenward: a scientific reliquary for a secular saint.

A new exhibit in Florence shows Galileo's contribution to humanity using astronomical artefacts, stunning artwork and impressive technology (Image: Biblioteca Marucelliana / Firenze)

Question; If you had the option to 'collect' one finger from a famous or revered person, which finger would you select and why?

Fluxcapacitor is back in the future

A supercapacitor – a device that can unleash large amounts of charge very quickly – has been created using printing technology for the first time. The advance will pave the way for "printed" power supplies that could be useful as gadgets become thinner, lighter and even flexible.

Advances in electronics mean portable gadgets are shrinking in size but growing in their energy demands, and conventional batteries are struggling to cope.

Batteries are slow to recharge because they store energy chemically. By contrast, capacitors, which are common in electronics, are short-term stores of electrical energy that charge almost instantaneously but hold little energy.

In recent years capacitors able to store thousands of times as much energy as standard ones, called supercapacitors, have been developed. They are charged by applying a voltage to two electrodes suspended in a solution so that positive ions head to one electrode and negative ions to the other.

Now, a team led by George Grüner at the University of California, Los Angeles, has printed a supercapacitor for the first time, building on earlier theoretical work to provide quick bursts of power that today's electronics devices demand.

Team members sprayed carbon nanotubes onto a plastic film – two such films act as both the device's electrodes and charge collectors. Between the two films, the team sandwiched a gel electrolyte made by mixing a water-soluble synthetic polymer with phosphoric acid and water.

It's a Capacitor Jim, but not as we know it!

Reflecting on Earthshine

The moon will be full Thursday, which means we'll see it in all its illuminated glory. But when the moon is just a sliver, we sometimes see our own reflection shining back at us from the moon's shrouded side, in a phenomenon called "earthshine."

Now scientists say the difference in light reflection from the Earth's land masses vs. the oceans can be seen on the moon. By tracking changes in earthshine as Earth rotates, scientists measured brightness variations that correspond to the brilliant, mirror-like reflections from oceans compared to the dimmer reflections from land.

Earthshine was first proposed by Leonardo da Vinci, who suggested that sunlight could bounce off our planet and be reflected back to us by the moon. This light is only visible when there is little sunlight reflecting directly off the moon, which would otherwise drown out the much dimmer earthshine. Thus, Earth's reflection is only visible to the naked eye on the darker portion of thin crescent moons, and not full moons.

The phenomenon can sometimes be seen by the naked eye as a ghostly glow, and is easily visible with a telescope. It is best seen once a month when the crescent moon hangs just above the western horizon right after sunset.

The wraps are off Kepler

NASA's planet hunting Kepler telescope launched March 6. Before it can find planets, its protective dust cover had to be jettisoned. that has been done, NASA announced yesterday.

"The cover released and flew away exactly as we designed it to do," said Kepler Project Manager James Fanson of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "This is a critical step toward answering a question that has come down to us across 100 generations of human history â€" are there other planets like Earth, or are we alone in the galaxy?"

Kepler's mission is to spend more than three years gazing at more than 100,000 stars in our Milky Way galaxy for signs of Earth-size planets. Some of the planets are expected to orbit in a star's "habitable zone," a warm region where water could pool on the surface.

The mission's science instrument, called a photometer, contains the largest camera ever flown in space. Its 42 charge-coupled devices (CCDs) will detect slight dips in starlight, which occur when planets passing in front of their stars partially block the light from Kepler's view.

The Cosmic Hand; Constellations and Galaxies of Stars

The ultra-dense remains of a massive star light up surrounding gas and dust to create what appears to be a cosmic hand. This pulsar, seen in bright blue at the base of the "palm", is called B1509. The star is so dense that the electrons and protons in its atoms have combined to form neutrons. B1509 spins some 7 times a second and measures just 19 kilometres in diameter. The magnetic field at its surface is 15 trillion times stronger than the Earth's magnetic field. The field drives a wind of electrons and charged atoms that illuminates finger-like structures that extend north.

The pulsar's reach extends to a neighbouring gas cloud called RCW 89, where the wind lights up knots of gas, making them glow brightly in X-rays (visible in orange and red in the upper-right). The temperature in the cloud seems to vary in a circular pattern, which could mean the pulsar is precessing like a spinning top. B1509 sits some 17,000 light years away from Earth, and is estimated to be about 1700 years old. This image was captured by the orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory. (Image: NASA/CXC/SAO/P Slane et al)

The Cigar Galaxy, or M82, earns its name when viewed in optical and infrared light (left). But X-rays (right) paint a different picture. M82, which sits some 12 million light years away, is one of the most active nearby galaxies, making it a popular subject of study.

Violent starbursts, likely triggered by the gravitational tugs of a neighbouring galaxy, light up the starry disc near its centre. These intense bursts of new star formation blast out plumes of hot gas that glow in the X-ray part of the spectrum (blue). It took 52.5 hours of observing time to create these images, which were taken by the European Space Agency's orbiting XMM-Newton satellite. (Images: ESA)

The chaotic structure of the spiral galaxy NGC 7793 makes it difficult to identify individual spiral arms, though it is possible to discern some rotation. NGC 7793 sits some 12.5 million light years away from Earth. It is one of the brightest members of the Sculptor Group, a cluster of galaxies that is one of the closest neighbours to our Local Group of galaxies. The Very Large Telescope in the Atacama Desert in Chile snapped this image. (Image: ESO)

A nascent bar sits at the centre of NGC 3359, a delicate spiral galaxy that sits some 49 million light years away in the constellation Ursa Major. Bars are elongated, rectangular bodies of stars, gas and dust that are often seen in spiral galaxies, though it is not yet clear how they fit into galaxies' evolution. Although NGC 3359 is several billion years old, this bar seems to be just 500 million years old.

The galaxy's arms are dotted with light-red patches, hydrogen-rich regions that are sites of intense star formation, similar to those seen in the Orion Nebula in the Milky Way. This image was taken by the Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. NGC 3359 can be seen with amateur telescopes. (Image: Gemini Observatory Legacy Image)

A stellar nursery is not uniformly bright, a fact highlighted by this image of NGC 3582, a nebula that sits some 10,000 light years away in the constellation Carina. Here, dark dust clouds share space with glowing gas that is energised by the ultraviolet light of young stars. Wispy structures in the clouds are created by radiation from these young stars, as well as by the explosions of short-lived, massive neighbours. This image was taken by the Gemini South telescope on Cerro Pachon in the Chilean Andes. (Image: Gemini Observatory Legacy Image)

This trio of galaxies, which together form a system called Arp 274, seem to be heading toward a cosmic collision. In fact, the two large spirals (middle and right) already seem to be entangled. But their proximity is just an illusion – the galaxies lie at different distances from Earth and are far enough from one another that astronomers do not think they interact. Two foreground stars in the Milky Way can also be seen on the right.

All three galaxies show colourful evidence of new star formation. The energised gas of stellar nurseries (pink) and clusters of young, massive stars (blue) dot the arms of the two spiral galaxies and encircle their compact companion (left). Older stars appear yellow.

Arp 274 sits 400 million light years away in the constellation Virgo. The Hubble Space Telescope snapped the ensemble in early April, after it was chosen by the public from six candidate targets. (Image: NASA/ESA/M. Livio/Hubble Heritage Team/STScI/AURA)

Organic molecules mixed with dust glow green in this infrared image of M33 captured by the Spitzer Space Telescope. M33, also called the Triangulum Galaxy, sits some 2.9 million light years away from Earth. The spiral is a member of the Milky Way's Local Group, a band of dozens of galaxies that travel as an ensemble because they are gravitationally bound. Star-forming regions appear orange-red in this image. Cool material, possibly carried outwards by winds from giant stars or supernovae, glows at infrared wavelengths beyond what optical telescopes detect as the galaxy's edge. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer captured this ultraviolet image of the nearby planetary nebula NGC 3242, also called "Jupiter's Ghost" (blue and white region at centre). It may sit as little as 1400 light years away in the constellation Hydra. As sun-like stars run out of fuel, they swell into red giants. These bloated stars jettison their outer layers of gas, eventually exposing a dense core of carbon and oxygen called a white dwarf. The ultraviolet light released by the white dwarfs lights up the surrounding gas, creating planetary nebulae. Although sun-like stars live for billions of years, planetary nebulae only last some 10,000 years. Astronomers are not sure whether the wispy white cloud that curves around the blue nebula is a chance passerby or gas that was ejected while the star was still a red giant. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Hip! Hip! USArray

Probably the most ambitious seismological project ever conducted is taking place in the heartland of America. Its name is USArray and its aim is to run what amounts to an ultrasound scan over the 48 contiguous states of the US. Through the seismic shudders and murmurs that rack Earth's innards, it will build up an unprecedented 3D picture of what lies beneath North America.

It is a mammoth undertaking, during which USArray's scanner - a set of 400 transportable seismometers - will sweep all the way from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Having started off in California in 2004, it is now just east of the Rockies, covering a north-south swathe stretching from Montana's border with Canada down past El Paso on the Texas-Mexico border. By 2013, it should have reached the north-east coast, and its mission end.

Though not yet at the halfway stage, the project is already bringing the rocky underbelly of the US into unprecedented focus. Geologists are using this rich source of information to gain new understanding of the continent's tumultuous past - and what its future holds.

Slow Death to Chocolate?

Yes! Yes! Yes!

IT'S chocolate egg season again, and sales of the pagan and Christian symbols of rebirth are as strong as ever. But the hunt for Easter eggs may truly be on next year, because chocolate trees are in increasing trouble.

Chocolate is made from the fermented, roasted seeds of the cacao tree. The cacao swollen shoot virus (CSSV) can kill the trees, and threatens to slash this year's spring crop by a third in the world's biggest producer, Ivory Coast. Meanwhile a fungus called witches' broom is doing the same in Brazil. Now researchers are racing to sequence the cacao genome and find genes that can resist CSSV.

Cacao trees are native to the Amazon rainforest, but west Africa produces 70 per cent of the world's cocoa, virtually all on tiny, impoverished farms. In recent years, demand for chocolate has mushroomed. The farmers cannot afford expensive fertiliser so they boost production by planting more cacao trees over a greater area. That means cutting down other trees that normally grow between cacao crops, which also replicate their rainforest origins and give them the protective shade they prefer.

"Increasingly cacao is grown almost as a monoculture," says Paul Hadley of the University of Reading, UK. That promotes the spread of disease, as does the trend towards growing the trees in drier regions - water-stressed cacao trees are less able to fight off disease.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Dr John Stapp - 632 mph

Can she take much more Scottie? Is it an early Smart car design or an IKEA sofa on a test rig?

No, its Dr. John Paul Stapp strapped to his bedstead. He was not only the "fastest human on earth;" in the '50s, he was the quickest to stop. In 1954, America's original Rocketman attained a then-world record land speed of 632 mph, going from a standstill to a speed faster than a .45 bullet in five seconds on an specially-designed rocket sled. Possibly the worst part of the record attempt was coming to a screeching dead stop in 1.4 seconds, sustaining more than 40g's of thrust, all in the interest of safety. Not sure who's safety was involved here.

Herschel & Planck satellites ready to go

Herschel will reveal the young universe in new detail (Image: ESA)

Herschel, the monster space telescope, will position itself in an extended orbit (1.5Mn Km) on the other side of the Earth from the Sun (L2, Le Grange point). It will use the Earth as a shield to protect it from the Sun's local radiation. Its mission is to reveal the young universe in new detail.

Whereas the Planck satellite will take up a similar orbit at the L2, Le Grange point and start to record the background radiation left after the Big Bang. (Image: ESA)

What's behind the mask?

Is this the front or back of the mask? People with schizophrenia will know (Image: bluegum/stock.xchng)

Is this the front or the back of the mask? Are you looking out or in? New research claims that people with schizophrenia will know (Image: bluegum/stock.xchng)

Monday, April 6, 2009

A new Cosmic map

The new survey mapped the positions of more than 100,000 galaxies. The black strips are areas the survey did not cover because matter in our own galaxy blocked the view (Illustration: Chris Fluke/Swinburne University of Technology)

The new survey mapped the positions of more than 100,000 galaxies. The black strips are areas the survey did not cover because matter in our own galaxy blocked the view (Illustration: Chris Fluke/Swinburne University of Technology)