Step Aside, Rockets – Ion Engines Are the Future of Space Travel

By Steve Gabriel, University of Southampton | March 10, 2015 12:02 pm
Image by JPL/ NASA

Image by JPL/ NASA

The NASA spacecraft Dawn has spent more than seven years traveling across the solar system to intercept the asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres. Now in orbit around Ceres, the probe has returned the first images and data from these distant objects.

But inside Dawn itself is another first – the spacecraft is the first exploratory space mission to use an electrically-powered ion engine rather than conventional rockets.

Such ion engines will propel the next generation of spacecraft.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts

With Gene Therapy We Could Direct Our Own Evolution

By Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans | March 9, 2015 9:00 am

vials-viruses

Human genetic engineering is not new; it has been going on for a long, long time — naturally. Ancient viruses are really good at inserting themselves and modifying human gene code. Over millennia, constant infections would come to mean that 8 percent of the entire human genome is made up of inserted virus code. All this gene recoding of our bodies occurred under Darwin’s rules, natural selection and random mutation. But nonrandom, deliberate human genetic engineering is new, and it is a big deal.

As of 1990, increasingly genetically modified humans walk among us. More and more gene therapies carry new instructions into our bodies and place them in the right spots; in so doing, they modify our most fundamental selves, our core, heretofore slow-evolving DNA. We are still in the very early stages of effectively hijacking viruses for human-driven purposes; just a few years ago it took a long time to identify and isolate a single faulty gene and figure out what was wrong, never mind finding a way to replace it with a properly functioning alternative. Early gene therapy focused on obscure, deadly orphan diseases like ADA-SCID (the immune disease that “Bubble Boy” had), adrenoleukodystrophy (say that five times fast), Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, various leukemias, and hemophilia.

In theory the technique is relatively simple: Take a neutered virus, one that is engineered to not harm you but that readily infects human cells to ferry in new DNA instructions, write a new set of genetic instructions into the virus, and let it loose to infect a patient’s cells. And ta‑da! You have a genetically modified human. (Think of this as deliberately sneezing on someone but instead of giving them a cold, you give them a benign infection that enters their body, recodes their cells, and fixes a faulty gene.)

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: biotechnology, genetics

Women Hurt More Than Men, Due to Both Biology and Bias

By Michael Brooks | March 6, 2015 2:35 pm

woman in pain

You might have heard that men are wimps when it comes to pain. It can make for lighthearted argument, but in fact it’s not true. Women have a lower pain threshold. Take a man and a woman, put a piece of ice on the backs of their hands, and wait. The woman will almost certainly complain about the pain first.

Not all pain is equal, but women are definitely worse off. In some quite macabre experiments, researchers have shown that women are much more sensitive to electric shocks, muscle pain, hot and cold, and chemical pain, such as the discomfort of eating a vindaloo curry.

If this comes as a surprise to you, you’re not alone. According to surveys, two-thirds of women still think that men feel more pain than they do. (Men are far less convinced of that; only one third think they are worse off when it comes to pain.)

And this isn’t some half-witted attempt to make out that men are the stronger sex. It’s a serious call to the medical system to improve the way they treat women’s pain.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: personal health

Six Fish That Are Smarter Than We Give Them Credit For

By Yao-Hua Law | March 3, 2015 11:34 am

fish-brain

Name a smart animal. Perhaps dogs, or dolphins, or chimpanzees came to mind. But why not goldfish, salmon, or moray eels?

Most people don’t associate intelligence with fishes. Blame it on the misconception that evolution is linear, with fishes sunk at the primitive end and primates raised near the top. Increasingly, though, scientists are appreciating the full spectrum of fish behaviors in their natural environments, thanks to advances in technology such as underwater ROVs and better recording equipment.

“In the past ten years, there has been a sea change in how scientists view fish intelligence,” says Culum Brown, who studies fish behavior at Macquarie University. Brown notes that some scientists would still deny that fishes possess basic cognitive skills.

Scientists have found that not only can fishes perceive their environments using complex senses, but that they can also coordinate hunts, use tools, and remember and learn – sometimes better than rats and toddlers.
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: animals, fish

The ‘Second Moon’ You Didn’t Know Earth Had

By Duncan Forgan, University of St. Andrews | March 2, 2015 2:35 pm

3753 Cruithne

We all know and love the moon. We’re so assured that we only have one that we don’t even give it a specific name. It is the brightest object in the night sky, and amateur astronomers take great delight in mapping its craters and seas. To date, it is the only other heavenly body with human footprints.

What you might not know is that the moon is not the Earth’s only natural satellite. As recently as 1997, we discovered that another body, 3753 Cruithne, is what’s called a quasi-orbital satellite of Earth. This simply means that Cruithne doesn’t loop around the Earth in a nice ellipse in the same way as the moon, or indeed the artificial satellites we loft into orbit. Instead, Cruithne scuttles around the inner solar system in what’s called a “horseshoe” orbit.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: moon

Google’s Artificial Intelligence Masters Classic Atari Video Games

By Toby Walsh, NICTA | February 26, 2015 5:04 pm

atari-brain

Think you’re good at classic arcade games such as Space Invaders, Breakout and Pong? Think again.

In a groundbreaking paper published yesterday in Nature, a team of researchers led by DeepMind co-founder Demis Hassabis reported developing a deep neural network that was able to learn to play such games at an expert level.

What makes this achievement all the more impressive is that the program was not given any background knowledge about the games. It just had access to the score and the pixels on the screen.

It didn’t know about bats, balls, lasers or any of the other things we humans need to know about in order to play the games.

But by playing lots and lots of games many times over, the computer learned first how to play, and then how to play well.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: computers

Pluto a Planet Again? It May Happen This Year

By David A. Weintraub, Vanderbilt University | February 25, 2015 12:22 pm

planets_iau_2
Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt, and NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will arrive there on March 6.

Pluto is the largest object in the Kuiper belt, and NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will arrive there on July 15.

These two events will make 2015 an exciting year for solar system exploration and discovery. But there is much more to this story than mere science. I expect 2015 will be the year when general consensus, built upon our new knowledge of these two objects, will return Pluto and add Ceres to our family of solar system planets.

The efforts of a very small clique of Pluto-haters within the International Astronomical Union (IAU) plutoed Pluto in 2006. Of the approximately 10,000 internationally registered members of the IAU in 2006, only 237 voted in favor of the resolution redefining Pluto as a “dwarf planet” while 157 voted against; the other 9,500 members were not present at the closing session of the IAU General Assembly in Prague at which the vote to demote Pluto was taken. Yet Pluto’s official planetary status was snatched away.

Ceres and Pluto are both spheroidal objects, like Mercury, Earth, Jupiter and Saturn. That’s part of the agreed upon definition of a planet. They both orbit a star, the Sun, like Venus, Mars, Uranus and Neptune. That’s also part of the widely accepted definition of a planet.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: solar system

Eye Tracking Is Coming Soon to a Computer Near You

By Melodie Vidal, Lancaster University | February 23, 2015 10:51 am

 eye

Eye tracking devices sound a lot more like expensive pieces of scientific research equipment than joysticks – yet if the latest announcements about the latest Assassin’s Creed game are anything to go by, eye tracking will become a commonplace feature of how we interact with computers, and particularly games.

Eye trackers provide computers with a user’s gaze position in real time by tracking the position of their pupils. The trackers can either be worn directly on the user’s face, like glasses, or placed in front of them, such as beneath a computer monitor for example.

Eye trackers are usually composed of cameras and infrared lights to illuminate the eyes. Although it’s invisible to the human eye, the cameras can use infrared light to generate a grayscale image in which the pupil is easily recognizable. From the position of the pupil in the image, the eye tracker’s software can work out where the user’s gaze is directed – whether that’s on a computer screen or looking out into the world.

But what’s the use? Well, our eyes can reveal a lot about a person’s intentions, thoughts and actions, as they are good indicators of what we’re interested in. In our interactions with others we often subconsciously pick up on cues that the eyes give away. So it’s possible to gather this unconscious information and use it in order to get a better understanding of what the user is thinking, their interests and habits, or to enhance the interaction between them and the computer they’re using.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts

Mars One Finalist: “I Could Sow the Seeds of a New Civilization”

By Hannah Earnshaw, Durham University | February 20, 2015 2:41 pm
Hannah Earnshaw - student, scientist, adventurer. Photo by Monica Alcazar-Duarte

Hannah Earnshaw – student, scientist, adventurer. Photo by Monica Alcazar-Duarte

I have always been in awe of the night sky, trying to comprehend the vastness of space and the countless wonders it contains. But I have always felt a certain dissatisfaction with only being able to see it at a distance.

One day I imagine that humanity will be able to visit other planets in the solar system, and venture even further to other stars, but this has always seemed very far away. That’s the reason why I applied for the Mars One mission, aimed at starting a human colony on Mars – it seemed like a real opportunity to get closer to the rest of the night sky, to give me a chance to be a part of taking humanity into the stars.

Mars is, in a way, the perfect stepping stone into the rest of the universe. Despite its inhospitable conditions, it has a day-night cycle only 39 minutes longer than on Earth. Unlike the moon, it is resource-rich, and has a soil and atmosphere rich in water and nitrogen respectively. Mars does not suffer from the sweltering heat and toxic atmosphere found on Venus, closer to the sun from Earth, but still receives enough light from the sun to enable the generation of solar power.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Mars, space exploration

Infinity Is a Beautiful Concept – And It’s Ruining Physics

By Max Tegmark | February 20, 2015 9:00 am

infinity-band

I was seduced by infinity at an early age. Georg Cantor’s diagonality proof that some infinities are bigger than others mesmerized me, and his infinite hierarchy of infinities blew my mind. The assumption that something truly infinite exists in nature underlies every physics course I’ve ever taught at MIT—and, indeed, all of modern physics. But it’s an untested assumption, which begs the question: Is it actually true?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: mathematics
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