Archive for February, 2012

Shouldn't Undersea Telecom Cables Be Obsolete? Surprisingly, No.

By Valerie Ross | February 29, 2012 4:40 pm

Two weeks ago, an accident in the Red Sea sliced through three fiber-optic telecommunications cables that carried phone calls and connected Internet users in Africa and the Middle East. Then, on Saturday, a ship dropped its anchor at an inopportune spot off the Kenyan city of Mombasa, severing another cable. With those four cables out of commission, a single cable is left to shuttle information into and out of East Africa, slowing down connection speeds by 20% in six countries in the regions for weeks until the other cables are fixed.

It seems, in the increasingly interconnected and wireless world, like a clumsy system at best to rely on cables crisscrossing the ocean floor—particularly when two relatively small maritime mishaps are enough to throw that system out of whack. But as Clay Dillow explains over at Popular Science, these undersea links are actually an impressively efficient, powerful, and—yes—stable way to connect the globe:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology

From Analog TV to Super WiFi: Spectrum Auction Will Open Way for Fast Wireless Future

By Sarah Zhang | February 29, 2012 12:18 pm

cell phone tower

For something that you can’t see or touch, the electromagnetic spectrum sure is valuable property. The auction of a big slice of useful, empty airwaves—used by television broadcasts before they went all digital in 2009—is expected to net the federal government $25 billion to fund payroll tax cut extensions. This auction is one thing everyone could agree on amidst all the bipartisan sniping in Congress. That’s how much of a no-brainer it is.

While the electromagnetic spectrum is fixed by the laws of physics, the use of that spectrum is human and quickly changing affair: global mobile traffic is expected to increase 18-fold in the next 5 years. WiFi, mobile phones, and radio are all vying for a limited slice of the radio frequency part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Luckily, we’ve got a chunk of empty airwaves where analog TV used to be. Mobile phone companies, whose networks are crunched by the hundreds of millions of smartphones we’re now toting around, will definitely be in the auction.

A proposal to designate a chunk of the former TV airwaves as a free, unlicensed “white space” may be even more interesting. Tech companies such as Google have long campaigned for white spaces, with the hope that public access to the spectrum will spur innovation in wireless technology. WiFi currently operates at high frequencies and short range, which is why you have to be pretty close to a coffee shop to steal its free WiFi.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts

IBM Snaps a Picture of the Charge Distribution of a Single Molecule

By Veronique Greenwood | February 29, 2012 12:10 pm

molecule

Using an exquisitely sensitive probe, scientists at IBM have succeeded in making an image of where a single molecule’s positive and negative charges lie. The molecule in question is X-shaped naphthalocyanine, which can switch back and forth between two different configurations when voltage is applied to it, and which IBM has used in its research into tiny logic switches. It was this shift and its accompanying change in the distribution of the molecule’s charge that the researchers chose to investigate. In the image above, red indicates where the electrical field between the probe and molecule was positive, and blue indicates negative. As scientists and engineers look into building molecule-sized transistors and other electronic devices, being able to detect exactly where a molecule’s charge is and how chemical reactions change it will be invaluable.

Image courtesy of IBM Research

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology

Defibrillators Malfunction at Shockingly High Rates

By Sarah Zhang | February 28, 2012 3:34 pm

spacing is important
Diagram for AED electrode placement.

Touted as life-saving devices, some 1.5 million automated external defibrillators (AEDs) are around the US. AEDs are designed to be used by anyone, regardless of training, to restore normal heartbeats after sudden cardiac arrest. And in this life-or-death situation, a surprisingly number of the devices fail.

Between 2005 and 2009, there were 28,000 reports of AED malfunction in the US, representing 1 out of 50 devices in the country. Mark Harris at IEEE Spectrum investigates the cause of these failures. Surprisingly basic engineering errors were responsible for some of the malfunctions, such as parts that are just too imprecise for a matter of life or death:

One AED, the brand name of which the FDA would not disclose, was found to occasionally misdiagnose the heart’s electrical rhythm. It delivered some shocks that weren’t needed and failed to deliver others that were. The culprit was a resistor that could vary in resistance by up to 10 percent of its stated value. “When our engineer looked at this design, it was an instant ‘uh‑oh,’ ” says [Al Taylor of the FDA].

How could regulations on medical devices be so lax? Harris explains a loophole in the FDA regulation system: Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Technology

Yes, Antibiotics Used on Livestock Do Breed Drug-Resistant Bacteria That Infect Humans

By Veronique Greenwood | February 28, 2012 1:33 pm

pig

The rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has got many experts predicting a future in which currently tractable diseases, like tuberculosis, became untreatable again. The popularity of modern antibiotics, ironically, is what is leading to their downfall: antibiotics in consumer products, like soaps, as well as the excessive use of antibiotics by people who have no bacterial infections, help select for strains of bacteria that don’t respond to drugs. Factory-farmed livestock, which receive tremendous doses of antibiotics in their feed, are also a likely breeding ground for resistant bacteria that could potentially infect humans.

Proponents of factory farming have scoffed at such claims [pdf], but now, scientists have provided definitive evidence that this happens: through genetic analysis, they found that a strain of MRSA, already resistant to one family of drugs, had hopped from people to farmed pigs, acquired resistance to another antibiotic being fed to the pigs, and then leapt back into humans, taking its new resistance with it. That strain, called MRSA ST398 or CC398, is now causing 1 out of 4 cases of MRSA in some regions of the Netherlands [pdf], where it arose, and it has also been found across the Atlantic in nearly half of the meat in US commerce. After this strain arose in 2004, the European Union began a ban the use of antibiotics in livestock feed. In the United States, however, where most of the antibiotics in circulation are being used in farming, no such regulation exists.

[via Superbug and NPR]

Image courtesy of wattpublishing / flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Living World

Can Women Grow More Eggs? Stem Cells That Might Lead to Fresh Eggs Discovered in Humans

By Veronique Greenwood | February 27, 2012 2:19 pm

egg
A developing human egg.

What’s the News: Since the 1950s, it’s been generally accepted that women are born with all the eggs they will ever have. One gets doled out with each menstrual cycle, and when they run out, you get menopause. But a smattering of papers over the last decade or so have indicated that that dogma might be incorrect: scientists found cells in the ovarian tissue of female mice that appear capable of producing new eggs. Now, working with donated tissue, researchers have found similar cells in human ovaries.

Headlines hyping the find have been spreading across the web, and we feel compelled to point out that this paper doesn’t mean that we will be able to grow fresh new eggs in Petri dishes, and it doesn’t prove that in real, live women these cells actually mature into eggs that can develop into offspring. It does, however, provide an interesting chance to see whether egg production by these cells can be jump-started using drugs.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

Bat's Very Strange-Looking Nose May Be Used For Echolocation

By Sarah Zhang | February 27, 2012 1:01 pm

spacing is important
Whatcha looking at? This is just my face.

This new leaf-nosed bat species was recently discovered in Vietnam. What’s with the strange nose? Scientists think that its protuberances and indentations help the bat in echolocation. Come to think of it, it does kind of resemble another excellent sound detector: the inside a cat’s ear.

As strange as the Hipposideros griffini’s nose is, it’s really got nothing on the star-nosed mole.

[via National Geographic News]

Image courtesy of Vu Dinh Thong / Journal of Mammalogy 

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

Study: Raindrops Take Energy Out of Air

By Sarah Zhang | February 24, 2012 4:21 pm

spacing is important

Thank god for air friction. Without it, falling rain would smack into our heads at hundreds of miles per hour. But friction works both ways—falling raindrops also slow down the movement of air molecules in the atmosphere. A new paper in Science calculated that raindrops dissipate as much kinetic energy from the atmosphere as air turbulence. Granted, at 1.8 watts per square meter and 0.75% of the atmosphere’s total kinetic energy, that’s not very much. What’s surprising is that rain drops are pulling more than their weight, as they make up only 0.01% of the atmosphere’s mass.

Researchers calculated the kinetic energy dissipated by a single raindrop and put it together with precipitation rates around the world. Since satellite precipitation data also show the height from which rain started falling, the researchers could plug how far raindrops fell into their energy calculations. It all adds up across the whole globe: the researchers estimate the total rate of energy dissipation from rainfall to be 1015 Watts. That’s a lot of energy, but still unlikely to affect major weather phenomena like hurricanes or tornados.

[via Nature News]

Image via Shutterstock 

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment

To Get at Treats, This Dingo Uses Tools

By Veronique Greenwood | February 24, 2012 3:44 pm

Dingoes are in the news lately: the infamous “a dingo ate my baby” case may be nearing its conclusion, 32 years after an Australian baby disappeared on a family camping trip; her mother, who long claimed the baby was stolen by a dingo, has been vindicated by an inquest this week noting that dingo attacks on humans have been well-documented in the intervening decades. But dingoes can use their cleverness for less gruesome purposes, as well. What is apparently the first tool use in a canid was observed recently, in a dingo named Sterling who really, really wanted to chew on something out of his reach.

As you can see in the video above, Sterling is trying to get a hold of a piece of food placed on his enclosure at the Dingo Discovery Research Center in Australia, after researchers caught him on tape yanking down a name tag from the same location. He has never been trained in any similar tasks, as far as the researchers know, but after jumping fails to get him close enough, he heads off to the back of the enclosure and hooks his teeth around the leg of a white table. Then the table begins to move, as Sterling pulls it towards the front of the enclosure. Once he gets it near the front, one of his compatriots jumps on, but then stands around doing nothing. Sterling hops on, pushes the offender out of the way, and, after several false starts, manages to walk his forelegs across the wire mesh to bring the food within his reach. He promptly tears his prize to the ground.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

Rest Easy, Men: Shrinkage (of the Y Chromosome) Has Apparently Stopped

By Veronique Greenwood | February 24, 2012 9:33 am

Y chromosome
The Y chromosome, at the bottom right of this set of human
chromosomes, is dwarfed by the X.

Over the last few decades, scientists and journalists have speculated that the end of man—men, that is—was nigh. The biological reason for this possibility is the ever-shrinking Y chromosome: 300-200 million years ago, the Y, like females’ X chromosome, had hundreds of genes, but it now contains less than 80, 19 of which code for specifically male traits such as sperm production. This remarkable contraction set people’s imaginations spinning, especially after an opinion piece said in Nature 10 years ago that the Y chromosome might disappear, as it already has in voles, in 10 million years.

A Nature paper published this week, however, may indicate that the Y is sticking around. Biologists at the Whitehead Institute have compared the Y chromosome of rhesus monkeys with the human Y chromosome, and they’ve found that the two have the same number but one of key male-specific genes. This implies that the human Y chromosome’s shrinkage, at least when it comes to key genes, stopped at least around 25 million years ago, when the common ancestor of humans and rhesus monkeys was alive. The team says that this 25 million years of stasis indicates that the Y’s days of sloughing genes are over, that the genes it carries now are the essential ones and cannot be removed without seriously impacting reproductive function, while the genes lost in the past were expendable.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Living World
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