What’s the Universe Made Of?

By Bill Andrews | January 6, 2017 10:55 am

Minerals that are likely to occur at different depths of Kepler 102 and Kepler 407. (Credit: Robin Dienel, Carnegie DTM)

How much of you lies among the stars? How are the elements that make up life distributed among stars and planets? As trippy as the questions seem, astronomers from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) announced today at the 229th meeting of the American Astronomical Society that they knew the answers — or, at least, were starting to learn them.

SDSS, “the energizer bunny of sky surveys,” according to spokesperson Karen Masters, is a massive data collection project that’s been going on for 17 fruitful years. By analyzing and breaking down a star’s light, astronomers can determine the elements within. Do that with enough stars, and you can start to map out the distribution of elements throughout our galaxy. That’s just what the APOGEE (Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment) project did, looking at more than 150,000 stars in the process, using infrared light to peer through the dust that blocks visible light waves.

Of particular importance are the elements necessary for life, nicknamed CHNOPS for carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. APOGEE found a definite pattern, with the greatest abundance of each of these lying closer to the Milky Way’s center. Since the stars there are typically older, it means more of life’s elements came to be in the inner part of the galaxy earlier than in the outer parts. Does this mean there’s a greater chance for life in the center, since it’s been possible for longer there?

The presenter, Sten Hasselquist of New Mexico State University, said that he doesn’t want to speculate about what it means for life, “but it is very interesting.” As much as the reporters tried to get more out of him (“I don’t want you walking out of here writing that we found life!”), the farthest Hasselquist would go was, “The longer timescale is tantalizing.”

One of the other presenters quipped, “There is a reason why they put the Star Wars capital toward the center of the galaxy,” presumably referring to the Republic/Imperial capital world of Coruscant.

Worlds Apart

But of course stars are only half the story for possible life; what about actual planets for it to live on? Astronomers have a few ways to figure out what individual planets are made of — making inferences from the world’s mass and size, trying to catch a glimpse of its atmosphere to break it down spectroscopically — but the most reliable method might just be by studying its host star.

Johanna Teske of the Carnegie Institution for Science described a new study that plugs the SDSS’ latest observations of stars into a model that figures out what kind of planets would form around them. Since stars and their planets ultimately coalesce from the same clouds of gas and dust, it makes sense that a star’s makeup would shed light on the worlds it keeps in tow; while it would provide only a rough guess at a planet’s makeup, the model did reproduce Earth’s makeup well enough to give the researchers confidence.

What does it matter what particular elements make up a world?

In order to find a world with truly Earth-like conditions, and not just a similar mass and size, composition can make all the difference. Life as we know it formed on a geologically active world with plate tectonics and other features that helped make life possible; we don’t know exactly what it takes for life to arise and thrive, but since our only example is Earth, it makes sense to find as close an analog as possible.

In particular, Teske shared the findings for the planet-having stars Kepler 102 and Kepler 407. (The model doesn’t aim to recreate any planet in particular, but rather what a typical planet around those individual stars might be made of.) Even though Kepler 407 is almost identical in mass to the sun, it would likely produce a stiffer planet with no tectonics. Kepler 102, despite being slightly dimmer than the sun, was made of the right enough stuff to make one of its planets more likely to be truly Earth-like.

The goal, Teske said, is to use these models to help astronomers “hone in” on the best targets for next generation telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope to study up close, the better to find life someday.

But for now, just to be clear (and make Hasselquist happy), Earth remains the only world of its kind, and the only place to produce life. Perhaps, though, that’s just a matter of time.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: exoplanets

3,000 Ride-Sharing Vehicles Could Replace 13,500 Taxis in NYC

By Nathaniel Scharping | January 5, 2017 5:05 pm

(Credit: Luciano Mortula/Shutterstock)

New York City taxis, they ain’t so smart — yet.

A new study from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) estimates that just 3,000 ride-sharing cars guided by an algorithm could serve the needs of busy New Yorkers. That’s compared to the roughly 13,500 taxis currently in operation in the city, famous for its frenzied rush hours. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, top posts

NASA Plans to Peer Inside a Black Hole

By Alison Klesman | January 5, 2017 3:55 pm

(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Neutron stars, black holes and other remnants of stellar explosions are some of the universe’s most intriguing objects – and some of the hardest to study. But when NASA’s newest Explorers Program mission, IXPE, launches, we’ll see them like never before.

Stellar remnants such as black holes and neutron stars are difficult to see. Because of their tiny size and oftentimes obscuring disks of dust and gas, direct measurements of these objects have long eluded astronomers. However, such extreme objects heat their environments to millions of degrees, which causes high-energy emission in the form of easily-observable X-rays. Studying these X-rays provides a window into the world around otherwise impossible-to-see phenomena. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: black holes

Dad Turns Newborn Daughter’s Sleeping Patterns Into Stunning Graphic

By Carl Engelking | January 5, 2017 2:44 pm

Andrew Elliot mapped his daughter’s sleeping patterns for the first six months of her life. The circle is oriented like a 24-hour clock with midnight at the top. Each concentric circle represents a day, starting from day 1 in the center. Sleep, or inactivity, is blue and waking hours are tan. (Credit: Andrew Elliot)

Life for a rookie parent can be utterly terrifying. For the first time they’re 100 percent responsible for another human being’s survival. One freshly minted dad, fully comprehending the gravity of the situation, left no stone unturned when it came to caring for his newborn daughter.

In addition to feedings and diaper changes, Andrew Elliot, an industrial designer by day, recorded his daughter’s sleeping patterns to make sure all systems were normal. And after manually collecting six months of daily sleep data using the Baby Connect app, Elliot relied on his technical know-how to extract the numbers and compose a stunning visualization of his daughter’s sleeping habits in the opening days of her life. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts
MORE ABOUT: personal health

21st Century Camouflage Confuses Face Detectors

By Nathaniel Scharping | January 5, 2017 11:07 am

A prototype of the HyperFace design, meant to confuse facial recognition software. (Credit: Adam Harvey)

When it comes to disguises, silly mustaches and fake noses won’t cut it anymore.

As facial recognition capabilities grow more sophisticated, cameras and algorithms can to do more with less. Even grainy images, like those you might find on a gas station surveillance camera, can hold enough information to match a face to a database. But there are ways to hide.  Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, top posts
MORE ABOUT: computers

Fast Radio Bursts Now a Bit Less Mysterious

By Bill Andrews | January 4, 2017 2:01 pm


The dishes of the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array depicted making the first-ever localization of a Fast Radio Burst. (Credit: Danielle Futselaar [www.artsource.nl])

For as long as astronomers have known about Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs), they’ve been stumped. About a decade ago, researchers discovered in archived 2001 data an extremely fast — just a few milliseconds — burst of radio emissions. They’d never seen anything like it before, and didn’t know where it came from or what could cause it.

Finally, we’re starting to get a few answers. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: cosmology

Now You Can Own the NASA-Certified Space Coffee Cup

By Carl Engelking | January 4, 2017 1:26 pm

ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti takes a sip of espresso from the zero-gravity cup. (Credit: NASA)

If you’re planning a trip to space, or for some reason find yourself craving espresso while free falling, you can sip your favorite beverage like an astronaut.

IRPI, an Oregon-based firm that specializes in spacecraft fluid systems, developed a uniquely shaped mug that let astronauts drink coffee like they would on earth. Recently, they’ve spun the feat of engineering into a side hustle, called Spaceware, to sell them. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts

This Map Shows Ecosystems Most Affected by U.S. Consumption

By Nathaniel Scharping | January 4, 2017 1:16 pm

A map of biodiversity hotspots affected by U.S. consumption. Areas in darker purple are those more affected on land, while blue and green indicated areas affected in the ocean. (Credit: Daniel Moran and Keiichiro Kanemoto)

For all the talk of American manufacturing, it’s pretty difficult to find products that come solely from the U.S. anymore. In the quest for new markets and resources, the global economy has stretched its tentacles to far-flung corners of the globe, pulling in resources and harnessing the power of cheap labor.

Unfortunately, many of the most economically lucrative regions are also hotspots of biodiversity, harboring species close to the brink of extinction. It’s the classic division between economic and environmental preservation, and researchers recently attempted to illustrate how consumption habits in the U.S. impact delicate ecosystems around the planet. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, top posts

IBM’s Watson Replaces 34 ‘White-Collar’ Employees at Japanese Insurance Company

By Carl Engelking | January 3, 2017 3:56 pm

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Technology pundits say 2017 will be the year of artificial intelligence (similar predictions were made about 2016), but news from the Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance Company may be a harbinger of what’s to come.

In the final week of December, Fukoku Mutual announced plans to replace 34 claim workers with IBM’s Watson Explorer starting this month. The Watson artificial intelligence system will be tasked with reading medical documents and determining payouts based on a person’s injuries, medical history and procedures that were administered.

The company plans to invest $1.7 million to launch the system, with annual maintenance costs expected to reach $128,000. By making the switch to Watson Explorer, Fukoku expects to save $1.1 million every year and “reduce the burden of business process by about 30 percent.” The company already uses Watson Explorer to analyze customer voices when they lodge complaints. The system converts spoken words into text, and determines if the customer’s language is positive or negative.

Several other insurance firms in Japan are also bringing AI into their operations. As The Mainichi reports:

Dai-ichi Life Insurance Co. is already using a Watson system to process payment assessments, but alongside human checks, and it appears there have been no major staff cuts or reshuffling at the firm due to the AI’s introduction. Japan Post Insurance Co. is also looking to install a Watson AI for the same duties, and is set to start a trial run in March 2017.

Meanwhile, Nippon Life Insurance Co. began this month to use an AI system to analyze the best coverage plans for individual customers, based on the some 40 million insurance contracts held by its various salespeople. The system’s results are then used as a reference by the sales offices.

The impact AI and robotics is having on repetitive manual labor is evident — automobile assembly lines and Amazon’s fulfillment centers are just two examples. But many white-collar jobs are similarly repetitive; they can be broken down into steps and decisions that a machine can easily learn.

The bad news is that jobs have been, and will be, eliminated. By 2021, AI systems could gobble up some 6 percent of U.S. jobs, according to a report from Forrester Research. The World Economic Forum predicts advances in AI could eliminate more than 7 million jobs in 15 of the world’s leading economies over several years.

But here’s the upside: Handing repetitive tasks to machines might free us up for higher-level tasks. The same WEF report notes that AI will create 2 million new jobs in computer science, engineering and mathematics. And leaders from tech giants like Google, IBM and Microsoft have said AI will amplify human abilities rather than fully replace us. Instead of sweating time-consuming repetitive tasks, computers will, perhaps, free us up to tackle challenges that require a human touch.

For example, an AI company called Conversica built a system that sends messages to sales leads to get initial conversations started and gauge interest. The most promising leads are then sent to a salesperson to close the deal. IBM’s Watson can dig through medical data and images to find signs of cancer, but the final diagnosis is still in the warm, fleshy hands of a human.

Ovum, a firm that keeps its thumb on the pulse of tech trends, expects AI to be the biggest disruptor for data analytics in 2017. Forrester predicts 2017 will be the year “big data floodgates open,” with investments in AI tripling.

Time will tell if AI lives up to these expectations; in the meantime you can use this helpful tool to determine the likelihood of a computer taking your job.

MORE ABOUT: computers

The Mesentery: The Human Body’s 79th Organ?

By Nathaniel Scharping | January 3, 2017 2:23 pm

(Credit: J Calvin Coffey/D Peter O’Leary/Henry Vandyke Carter)

To the 78 organs that make up the human body, a group of scientists says we should add one more: the mesentery.

Located in our abdominal cavity, the mesentery is a belt of tissue that holds our intestines in place. While anatomists knew it was there, it was always thought to be composed of several different segments, as opposed to being one single structure. This knocked it out of contention for organ status, as our bodily organs must be continuous, as well as provide some vital function to our anatomy. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts
MORE ABOUT: personal health


Briefing you on the must-know news and trending topics in science and technology today.

See More


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar