Archive for November, 2008

IBM to Build "Thinking" Computers Modeled on the Brain

By Nina Bai | November 21, 2008 5:51 pm

brainIBM has won a $4.9 million government grant from DARPA to begin the first phase of research on “cognitive computing”– essentially building computers that work like living brains. The new brain-like computers will aim to process vast amounts of data to solve problems without relying on specific programmed algorithms. Mark Dean, Vice President of IBM said, “The challenge is that computers today are very good at computing, but what we really need is a more efficient way of sifting through information” [International Herald Tribune].

The inside of computers already have the look of neural networks, a static road map of electronic circuits. But the brain actually works by constantly creating, breaking, and tweaking the synaptic connections between neurons. Although today’s computers may excel at complex challenges with clear rules, like chess, they fail at simple tasks that require strategy, sensation, perception, and learning, like finding misplaced keys. IBM will partner with five universities to develop new nano-scale circuitry that has the ability to shift depending on the signals that pass through them. Free from the constraints of explicitly programmed function, computers could gather together disparate information, weigh it based on experience, form memory independently and arguably begin to solve problems in a way that has so far been the preserve of what we call “thinking” [BBC].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Technology

Confirmed: Scientists Understand Where Mass Comes From

By Eliza Strickland | November 21, 2008 10:54 am

quarks gluonsThe standard model of physics got it right when it predicted where the mass of ordinary matter comes from, according to a massive new computational effort. Particle physics explains that the bulk of atoms is made up of protons and neutrons, which are themselves composed of smaller particles known as quarks, which in turn are bound by gluons. The odd thing is this: the mass of gluons is zero and the mass of quarks [accounts for] only five percent. Where, therefore, is the missing 95 percent? [AFP]

The answer, according to theory, is that the energy from the interactions between quarks and gluons accounts for the excess mass (because as Einstein‘s famous E=mc² equation proved, energy and mass are equivalent). Gluons are the carriers of the strong nuclear force that binds three quarks together to form one proton or neutron; these gluons are constantly popping into existence and disappearing again. The energy of these vacuum fluctuations has to be included in the total mass of the proton and neutron [New Scientist]. The new study finally crunched the numbers on how much energy is created in these fluctuations and confirmed the theory, but it took a supercomputer over a year to do so.

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Grape-Sized Amoeba Raises Questions About Origins of Animal Life

By Eliza Strickland | November 21, 2008 8:56 am

protist 2On the seafloor near the Bahamas, researchers have discovered a single-celled organism about the size of a grape, and they say the unusual organism raises interesting questions about the evolution of complex, multicellular animals. The oversized protists were found at the end of long, linear tracks that appear to have been made by the slowly rolling amoebas; lead researcher Mikhail Matz says the tracks resemble fossilized impressions from over 1 billion years ago, which scientists had assumed were made by multicellular worms. “We were looking for pretty animals that have eyes, are coloured, or glow in the dark; instead, the most interesting find was the organism that was blind, brainless, and completely covered in mud,” he said [BBC News].

The origin of multicellular life has been shrouded in mystery, because few animals fossils have been found that predate the beginning of the Cambrian Period around 542 million years ago. Some researchers point to rare Precambrian “trace fossils” – such as slither prints left in ancient sea bottoms – as evidence for complex animal life predating the Cambrian. The oldest of these trace fossils yet found are 1.8 billion years old, about three times older than any animal in the fossil record [The Scientist]. However, the new tracks raise another possibility: that the ancient traces were created by large single-celled organisms.

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Female Monkeys Chat More Than Males to Maintain Social Ties

By Nina Bai | November 20, 2008 6:08 pm

macaqueFemale macaques are much chattier than male macaques, according to a new study. The researchers say vocal communication is an important part of macaque social bonding and the findings may reflect similar patterns in the evolution of human language. Klaus Zuberbühler, who studies primate communication, says social animals communicate to resolve the constant tension between a “need to compete and a desire to cooperate” [New Scientist].

The researchers studied macaques living on Cayo Santiago island off Puerto Rico, and for three months they followed a group of macaques that consisted of 16 females and 8 males. Friendly monkey chit-chat included a variety of grunts, coos, and girneys (nasally whines, usually between mother and infant). The researchers counted the social vocalizations, excluding those that were used only to indicate food or predators, and found that females vocalized 13 times more often than the males. Researcher Nathalie Greeno says, “The results suggest that females rely on vocal communication more than males due to their need to maintain the larger social networks” [News Scientist].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins, Living World

Even More Ice on Mars: This Time It's Entire Glaciers

By Eliza Strickland | November 20, 2008 6:03 pm

Martian glacierHope you’re not bored of stories about water ice on Mars: Now that scientists have found it, they can’t seem to stop finding it. Just a few months after the dear, departed Mars Phoenix Lander made history by touching and analyzing water ice beneath the soil near the Martian north pole, researchers using NASA‘s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have discovered massive glaciers near the equator. The glaciers, buried under rocky debris, are said to be more than three times the size of Los Angeles, up to half a mile thick and skirt the edges of mountains and cliffs [Telegraph].

The glaciers’ presence means that rovers on future scientific missions won’t have to land at the freezing cold poles to study the planet’s ice. The glaciers could even prove helpful as a source of drinkable water to future astronauts exploring Mars. “This says there may be samples of ice within our reach,” [researcher Jim] Head said. “If we’re thinking ahead to human exploration of Mars, it means we could go to some of these places and actually have water ice there” [Wired News]. Astronauts could also make hydrogen fuel from the ice, researchers say.

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NASA Sends First Space-Mails via New "Interplanetary Internet"

By Eliza Strickland | November 20, 2008 2:46 pm

interplanetary internetNASA engineers have finally tested an “interplanetary Internet” that could be crucial for future communications with rovers and astronauts exploring the moon, Mars, or other planets. NASA says the system would rely on probes and orbiters to serve as relay stations, or routers, to send communications around the solar system. The space agency has been working for 10 years on the project with Vint Cerf, one of the Internet’s key inventors and now chief Internet evangelist for Google [AP].

The protocols (the language computers use to speak to each other) used for our terrestrial Internet won’t work for deep space, because they assume that the network’s nodes will be connected continuously, and that messages will travel swiftly. But communication between objects in space are frequently disrupted by solar storms and obstructing planets, and sending a message from Earth to Mars can take up to 20 minutes. So engineers at NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory worked with Cerf to come up with a new protocol, called Disruption-Tolerant Networking (DTN).

With the new communications design, each network node is designed to hold onto data packets, instead of discard them, until a destination path can be found. “The incentive to use Internet-like protocols over space links was to take advantage of automated routing,” [said NASA’s Leigh Torgerson]. “With standard space-link communications, the ground sends commands to spacecraft to tell it what time and what data to send. It’s very hands-on-intensive” [Computerworld].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology

Marine Worm's Light-Sensitive Cells Are the Earliest Vision System

By Eliza Strickland | November 20, 2008 10:13 am

zooplanktonResearchers have determined the mechanism by which the world’s simplest vision system works. A team of biologists spent a decade studying the larvae of the marine rag-worm Platynereis, a tiny creature with just two cells that respond to light and direct the worm to swim towards it. The rag-worm and other zooplankton like krill drift in the ocean‘s water columns, swimming up from the depths towards the light in order to graze on marine plants called phytoplankton near the surface. This movement, called phototaxis, is the biggest biomass displacement in the world [AFP].

The rag-worm has two cells that work together as “proto-eyes”: one pigment cell and one light-sensitive cell. First, the pigment cell absorbs light and casts a shadow over the photoreceptor cell. The shape of the shadow varies according to the position of the light source. The photoreceptor cell then converts this light signal into electricity, sending it in a signal along a nerve that connects to a band of cells endowed with thin hairs, called cilia, that beat to displace water [AFP]. So although the worm sees no images, it can sense the difference between light and dark and swim in the right direction.

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MORE ABOUT: evolution, ocean, senses, vision

Have Researchers Found Dark Matter's Signature Over Antarctica?

By Eliza Strickland | November 20, 2008 8:56 am

balloon AntarcticaAn enormous helium balloon floating about 24 miles above Antarctica has detected a mix of high-energy electrons so exotic that researchers say the particles must have been created by some fascinating process: They may have been formed when dark matter particles collided and annihilated each other, or else a surprisingly close astronomical object like a pulsar could be spitting the electrons at Earth.

Researchers can’t yet determine which answer is correct, but say the dark matter explanation is more exciting. Dark matter is one of astrophysics’ greatest enigmas. It is thought to be five times more common than visible matter, but there is no proof of what it is made of. The existence of dark matter has largely been inferred from its gravitational effects, such as the fact that most galaxies have enough mass to remain as well-defined objects despite having too little visible matter to account for the necessary gravity [National Geographic News]. If the research balloon did detect the signature of dark matter through the particles left over from collisions, it would be the closest researchers have ever gotten to seeing the mysterious stuff.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Space

Crichton's Dream Survives: Woolly Mammoth Genome 50% Complete

By Nina Bai | November 19, 2008 6:01 pm

woollyThe genome of the woolly mammoth is halfway sequenced and science-fiction fanatics are once again talking about resurrecting extinct species–except this time, the scientists are talking too. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University extracted DNA from the hair of two woolly mammoths found in the permafrost of Siberia; one lived about 20,000 years ago, the other about 60,000 years ago. Reporting in Nature [subscription required], the researchers say they have already sequenced more than three billion base pairs of the mammoth genome, and they say there should be no technical obstacles to sequencing the complete genome. “It’s a technical breakthrough,” says ancient-DNA expert Hendrik N. Poinar [Scientific American].

Access to clumps of preserved mammoth hair was essential to the researchers’ success. The tough keratin that makes up the hair encased the mammoth’s DNA and separated it from any alien fragments, keeping these samples more pure [New Scientist]. Horns and feathers are also made of keratin, broadening the prospects of sequencing other extinct species from museum specimens.

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Despite Economic Hard Times, Obama Promises Action on Global Warming

By Eliza Strickland | November 19, 2008 5:35 pm

Obama videoIn a signal that president-elect Barack Obama will take a drastically different approach to global warming than the outgoing Bush administration, Obama sent a video message to a group of governors who had gathered to discuss climate policy. He reiterated his campaign promise to establish a nationwide cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide emissions as soon as possible, and repeated his ambitious goals: “We will establish strong annual targets that set us on a course to reduce emissions to their 1990 levels by 2020 and reduce them by an additional 80 percent by 2050,” he said [Reuters].

President George W. Bush famously pledged to tackle global warming when campaigning for the presidency in 2000, but backtracked when in office, saying that the science had not yet been settled. In contrast, Obama made clear that he had no intention of retreating from his campaign promises despite the worsening economic climate, and said that the science is beyond dispute. “Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all,” Obama said. “Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high, the consequences too serious” [San Francisco Chronicle].

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