A Nanotech Device Harvests Water in the Driest Places

By Eric Betz | March 6, 2018 11:45 am

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Chile’s Atacama is Earth’s driest desert. You could sit for decades in some places and never feel a raindrop.

And yet, life survives here. Well-adapted plants can catch Pacific Ocean fog; then they provide that hydration to other animals. Indeed, our planet’s atmosphere holds more water than all its rivers combined, and these organisms are tapping into this water supply that humans are only beginning to appreciate.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, top posts
MORE ABOUT: nanotechnology

Success Comes Down to Skill — And a Lot of Luck

By Nathaniel Scharping | March 5, 2018 2:30 pm
(Credit: Sonja Calovini/Shutterstock)

(Credit: Sonja Calovini/Shutterstock)

Is it better to be lucky or good? Well, it’s a trick question — you actually need both if you want to be successful.

In an admittedly simplistic model, researchers from Italy’s University of Catania, looked at whether talented individuals or those blessed with luck rose to the top. Though they found it took a bit of both, the distribution wasn’t even. The most successful people weren’t the most talented — they were simply the luckiest. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts
MORE ABOUT: psychology

Fingerprinting the Very First Stars

By Jake Parks | March 2, 2018 3:42 pm
This artist concept shows one of the universe’s first stars. The massive blue star is embedded within filaments of gas and dust, while the cosmic microwave background (CMB) is shown on the outer edges. Researchers recently inferred the existence of these massive blue stars by measuring the dimming of the CMB. (Credit: N. R. Fuller/National Science Foundation)

This artist concept shows one of the universe’s first stars. The massive blue star is embedded within filaments of gas and dust, while the cosmic microwave background (CMB) is shown on the outer edges. Researchers recently inferred the existence of these massive blue stars by measuring the dimming of the CMB. (Credit: N. R. Fuller/National Science Foundation)

When solving a crime, detectives don’t always have access to footage or photographs of their suspect. Instead, the detectives have to painstakingly search for small, easily overlooked clues — such as fingerprints.

Like detectives, astronomers don’t always have the option of simply examining an image when they want to solve a mystery. Instead, astronomers usually must meticulously piece together tiny bits of evidence, often by scouring the heavens to hunt for clues. And one of the biggest cosmic cold cases that astronomers have been attempting to solve for years is: When exactly did the first stars form?

This week in the journal Nature, after over a decade of intense experimental investigation, a team of astronomers announced that they have finally cracked the case of the first stars. Using a simple radio antenna the size of a tabletop located in the Australian desert, the researchers discovered the faint fingerprints of the earliest stars in the infant universe, which formed when the cosmos was just 180 million years old.

“This is exciting because it is the first look into a particularly important period in the universe, when the first stars and galaxies were beginning to form,” said Colin Lonsdale, director of MIT’s Haystack Observatory, in a press release. “This is the first time anybody’s had any direct observational data from the epoch.

Based on the study, astronomers have updated the timeline of the universe to reflect when the first stars are now thought to have appeared, some 180 million years after the Big Bang. N. R. Fuller/National Science Foundation

Based on the study, astronomers have updated the timeline of the universe to reflect when the first stars are now thought to have appeared, some 180 million years after the Big Bang. (Credit: N. R. Fuller/National Science Foundation)

After the Big Bang and before the first stars ignited, the universe was a very dark and cold place. There were no galaxies, no supernovae, and no quasars. The universe primarily consisted of neutral hydrogen gas floating in an omnipresent sea of background radiation leftover from the Big Bang. Over time, gravity slowly shepherded the densest regions of hydrogen gas into compact clouds, which ultimately collapsed inward to form the first stars.

When these primordial stars first began shining within the pitch-black void, they blasted the surrounding hydrogen gas with ultraviolet radiation. This excited the hydrogen atoms within the gas, causing them to absorb energy from the background radiation at one particular frequency — 1.4 gigahertz. Theoretically, astronomers knew that they should be able to detect the absorption or corresponding emission from this process, but until this study, they have been unable to do so.

“The problem is, due to the expanding universe, this absorption would be observed at some [unknown] lower frequency,” said Peter Kurczynski, a program officer with the National Science Foundation who supported the study, in a video by NSF. “Finding that frequency, finding the absorption that comes when the first stars turn on, would be like listening to every station on your car stereo at once, and being able to tell that your favorite is missing.”

To find this unknown signal, the team of researchers used an Earth-based instrument called a radio spectrometer, located at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in Western Australia. As part of the Experiment to Detect the Global Epoch of reionization Signature (EDGES), the team measured the vast majority of the southern sky. After collecting the average radio spectrum for all astronomical signals, the team combed over the data searching for minute fluctuations in the signal’s power as a function of frequency.

The design for the radio spectrometer used in this study is relatively simple, working much like an FM radio receiver. It consists of two rectangular plates that function together as a radio antenna, and these plates are mounted on fiberglass legs sitting atop a metal mesh carpet. As radio waves enter the antenna, a sophisticated receiver amplifies them before a computer digitally records them. CSIRO Australia

The design for the radio spectrometer used in this study is relatively simple, working much like an FM radio receiver. It consists of two rectangular plates that function together as a radio antenna, and these plates are mounted on fiberglass legs sitting atop a metal mesh carpet. As radio waves enter the antenna, a sophisticated receiver amplifies them before a computer digitally records them. (Credit: CSIRO Australia)


CSIRO Australia

Initially, the team was searching for frequencies that corresponded to later points in cosmic time, but in 2015, they extended their search to lower frequencies, which would have come from even earlier. “As soon as we switched our system to this lower range, we started seeing things that we felt might be a real signature,” said Alan Rogers, a scientist at MIT’s Haystack Observatory and co-author of the study, in a press release. “We see this dip most strongly at about 78 megahertz, and that frequency corresponds to roughly 180 million years after the Big Bang. In terms of a direct detection of a signal from the hydrogen gas itself, this has got to be the earliest”

Surprisingly, in addition to detecting the first sign of hydrogen gas being blasted by radiation from the first stars, the investigators may have also unexpectedly shed light on the true nature of dark matter.

The results of the study revealed that the pre-star universe was likely a much colder place than previously thought. In fact, the researchers found that the hydrogen gas in the early universe was less than half the temperature they expected to find. This suggests one of two things: astronomers’ theories are missing something major about our universe, or the study has detected the first evidence of dark matter siphoning off energy from normal matter — a theory initially proposed by Renna Barkana of Tel Aviv University.

“If Barkana’s idea is confirmed,” said Judd Bowman, an astronomer at Arizona State University and lead author of the study, in a press release, “then we’ve learned something new and fundamental about the mysterious dark matter that makes up 85 percent of the matter in the universe, providing the first glimpse of physics beyond the standard model.”

However, Bowman is quick to note that the research is not yet conclusive. “We worked very hard over the last two years to validate the detection,” he said, “but having another group confirm it independently is a critical part of the scientific process.”

In order to confirm the study’s findings, astronomers intend to bring new radio telescopes online, such as the Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array (HERA) and the Owens Valley Long Wavelength Array (OVRO-LWA). But for now, Bowman and his team have earned a moment to bask in the glory of their discovery.

“There is a great technical challenge to making this detection, as sources of noise can be a thousand times brighter than the signal they are looking for. It‘s like being in the middle of a hurricane and trying to hear the flap of a hummingbird’s wing,” said Kurczynski. “These researchers with a small radio antenna in the desert have seen farther than the most powerful space telescopes, opening a new window on the early universe.”


[This article first appeared on Astronomy.com]

MORE ABOUT: cosmology

Your Weekly Attenborough: Polioptila attenboroughi

By Nathaniel Scharping | March 2, 2018 3:24 pm
A blue-grey gnatcatcher. It's a different species, but hey, what's a species anyway, right? (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A blue-grey gnatcatcher. It’s a different species, but hey, what’s a species anyway, right? (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Bro, what even is a species?

I’ve been writing about various species for a while now, and this latest Attenborough is really throwing me for a loop. It’s a kind of small bird from the Amazon called a gnatcatcher. They’re a kind of small songbird related to wrens, and they feast on insects with small, sharp beaks—in between warbling out their songs, I imagine.

And it’s most likely a new species. But the researchers in charge of deciding weren’t all that sure. Because we don’t have enough data at the moment, it exists in a hazy no-man’s-land between speciation and anonymity. And if we can’t decide whether this little bird deserves to be a species, perhaps there’s more uncertainty than we might like in the world of taxonomy.

In 2013, two researchers, Lincoln Carneiro and Alexandre Aleixo recommended recognizing a new species of gnatcatcher, Polioptila attenboroughi, based on an analysis of their morphology, genetics and vocalizations. The distinctions are subtle, but that’s common in the field in the field of taxonomy. P. attenboroughi has a darker-colored chest and throat, longer tail, and its song is slower, raspier and possessed of “differently shaped” notes. It differs genetically from its sister species by about 4 percent, the researchers report. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts

What’s It Look Like on the Doorstep of a Supermassive Black Hole?

By Alison Klesman | March 2, 2018 2:34 pm
supermassive black hole illustration

This artist’s impression shows the area surrounding a supermassive black hole, including its dusty torus, hot accretion disk, and energetic jets. (Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser)

Supermassive black holes sit in the centers of all massive galaxies. Many of these giants are actively accreting material, earning them the name active galactic nuclei or AGN. As material falls in toward the black hole, it creates a disk that shines brightly and can even generate huge outbursts and jets. Compared with a galaxy hundreds of thousands of light-years across, the accretion disk around a supermassive black hole and the dusty structure that surrounds it are extremely small — on the order of just tens of light-years across. But two recent studies are finally giving us the up-close look we need to test our current models of supermassive black hole growth and evolution.

A Rotating Donut

Astronomers use the “unified model” of AGN to describe the structure around a feeding black hole. It’s believed this structure and its orientation affect what we see, which is why not all AGN look the same. Part of this structure is a dusty, donut-shaped torus of material — gas and dust — around the black hole, shrouding part or all of it from view, depending on its orientation.

Now, using the resolution afforded by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), astronomers have clearly imaged for the first time the rotation of a dusty torus around a supermassive black hole. Their target was the center of the spiral galaxy M77, which lies 47 million light-years away in the constellation Cetus. Using ALMA, they were able to identify emission from hydrogen cyanide molecules (HCN) and formyl ions (HCO+) associated with the gas and dust in the center of the galaxy around the black hole, zeroing in on a dense “donut” of material rotating around the central object. The work was published February 1 in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.


A supermassive black holes’s torus (yellow-orange) of dusty material surrounds the accretion disk (blue-green) and singularity (black) in this artist’s imagining. (Credit: ALMA [ESO/NAOJ/NRAO])

“To interpret various observational features of AGNs, astronomers have assumed rotating donut-like structures of dusty gas around active supermassive black holes,” said Masatoshi Imanishi of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, and lead author of the paper, in a press release. “However, the dusty gaseous donut is very tiny in appearance. With the high resolution of ALMA, now we can directly see the structure.”

That donut sits inside a 700-light-year-wide filamentary half-ring of material. The torus itself spans only about 20 light-years, an extremely small region of space compared with the larger galaxy M77. Using ALMA, the team was able to show Doppler shifting of the material in the donut, with some material moving away from Earth and some moving toward it — a clear sign of rotation.

But that clear sign also carries with it additional complexities. The torus is rotating as expected, but it appears asymmetric and some of that rotation is also associated with random motion. The team believes this could be a sign of disruption, such as a past merger with another, smaller galaxy. More work is needed to determine the history of the galaxy and its AGN, but this first image of the rotating torus is a significant step forward in the study of galaxies and their supermassive black holes.

Beaming Away Energy

Many AGN — and their smaller, stellar-mass counterparts — are associated with jets of material spewing along their rotational axes. The mechanism behind launching these jets, and even the material that makes up the jets, is still poorly understood. But a new model based on measurements of the magnetic field associated with these jets offers possible insight into the amount of rotational energy lost by the black hole as it shoots these beams out into space.

The model, developed by astrophysicists at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology’s Laboratory of Fundamental and Applied Research of Relativistic Objects of the Universe, connects the energy that goes into these extremely powerful jets to the rotation of the black hole itself, and provides astronomers with a measurable characteristic to test this idea. The work, authored by Elena Nokhrina, appeared December 22 in Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences.

Black holes are believed to rotate, just as stars and planets do. As material streams into them from their accretion disk, they absorb angular momentum and spin faster. This effect is also observed in young stars, which are surrounded by similar accretion disks of material. But nascent stars often spin too slowly for the amount of angular momentum they should be absorbing — that’s because the momentum goes into powering jets from these stars. The same process could be at work around black holes.


Left: ALMA data showing emission from molecules and ions in a horseshoe-shaped region about 700 light-years across around the central supermassive black hole. Right: Measured Doppler-shifted motion of the 20-light-year-wide torus around the black hole; red shows motion away from Earth, blue shows motion toward Earth. (ALMA [ESO/NAOJ/NRAO], Imanishi et al.)

But to confirm it, astronomers would need to measure how much rotational energy is lost by the black hole, which is difficult. Similarly, measuring the amount of magnetic “flux” from accretion disk material that passes over the event horizon would give an estimate of rotational energy loss, but this is also difficult to measure. Now, Nokhrina’s new model — and other recent, more advanced models of black hole jets — suggests a proxy: measuring the magnetic field of the jets, which can then be tied into the amount of rotational energy required to power them.

The jets’ magnetic field can be measured, and “because the magnetic flux is conserved, by measuring its magnitude in the jet, we also learn the magnetic flux near the black hole,” said Nokhrina in a press release. Her work now allows astronomers to connect the magnetic field of jets to the rotation lost by the black hole, and test experimentally whether our understanding of how black holes and the disks and jets around them behave is correct, or still needs further refinement.

All this comes just months before the expected release of the results from the Event Horizon Telescope, a worldwide network of facilities that in April 2017 spent a week and a half gathering data on the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole, as well as the huge black hole in the elliptical galaxy M87. Soon we may have the first image of not only the torus around a supermassive black hole, but the edge of a black hole’s event horizon itself. It’s certainly an exciting time to be an astrophysicist.


This post originally appeared in Astronomy.com.

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

We’ll Be Chowing Down Electronics in No Time

By Bill Andrews | March 2, 2018 2:03 pm


With the growing encroachment of Big Data and the Internet of Things and other digital buzzwords on our daily lives, it should be no shock that we’re now on the verge of literally eating the latest advance in electronics.

It’s actually pretty neat. According to a study this week in ACS Nano, chemists have learned how to imbue a laser-branded conductive pattern onto anything containing carbon, including your dinner. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, top posts

Scientists Gave Monkeys Ayahuasca and It Helped Their Depression

By Troy Farah | March 2, 2018 11:58 am
scientists marmosets ayahuasca for their depression

(Credit: Shutterstock)

In a 1973 study, scientists at the University of Chicago fitted cocaine-dependent rhesus monkeys with stainless steel catheter harnesses, allowing them to self-administer PCP to until they were “highly intoxicated.”

This type of research isn’t exactly unusual — for decades, humans have been pumping primates full of psychedelics like LSD and DMT to study the effects of hallucinogenic drugs.

But in a recent first, researchers at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil gave ayahuasca, a potent entheogenic brew from the Amazon Basin, to common marmosets. Ayahuasca has been studied in rodents and humans before, but not non-human primates. And strangely — or not-so-strangely, depending on who you ask — the drug seemed to help the monkeys’ depression. Read More

MORE ABOUT: emotions, mental health

Fasting and Exercise: A Perfect Pair?

By Mark Barna | March 2, 2018 11:21 am

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Athletes training for endurance competitions tend to eat a lot, especially carbohydrates, which produce glucose to fuel the muscles. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps took in 12,000 calories a day during the 2008 Summer Olympics, for example. Regimented nutrition diets are also popular among athletes. The top Mixed Martial Arts fighters employ full-time nutritionists who prepare each meal for them.

But fasting?

More bodybuilders, professional cyclists and other athletes are turning up their nose at food. Some of them fast two days a week by eating about 600 calories a day (not a fast proper, but enough to achieve its metabolic effects) and then eating regularly the other five days. In shoptalk, this is called the 5:2 diet. Meanwhile, these athletes are doing aerobics and strengthening exercises – in other words, full training. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts

We Still Don’t Know How to Deal With Moon Dust

By Nathaniel Scharping | March 2, 2018 10:36 am
Astronaut James B. Irwin, lunar module pilot, uses a scoop in making a trench in the lunar soil during Apollo 15. (Credit: NASA)

Astronaut James B. Irwin, lunar module pilot, uses a scoop in making a trench in the lunar soil during Apollo 15. (Credit: NASA)

If we’re going back to the moon, we’re going to need to learn how to deal with the dust.

U.S. President Donald Trump has made returning to the moon a priority, and China and India both have lunar landers in the works. The endeavor is difficult for myriad reasons, but one borders on the prosaic — moon dust. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: space exploration

This Exosuit Learns How You Walk To Give You A Boost

By Leah Froats | March 1, 2018 12:02 pm
The exosuit in action. (Credit: Harvard Biodesign Lab)

The exosuit in action. (Credit: Harvard Biodesign Lab)

Exosuits may seem the stuff of anime and superhero movies, but the technology is actually used for assisting those who might need a boost to go about their daily lives.

These wearable technologies fit onto the body, usually the legs, much like a high-tech wetsuit. The exosuit is designed to provide supportive force to various points of the leg when needed, helping the user walk more easily and naturally.

Now, new research out of Harvard University published in Science Robotics shows the potential for exosuits to adapt to their users in real-time, accounting for minor changes in gait as the user walks.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

To give the most benefit, these wearable technologies have to be perfectly in sync with a user’s unique physiology and movement patterns. This is challenging, because every person has a unique gait that’s dependent on their anatomy, age, presence of injuries or illness and even personality. An exosuit’s design and programming may work flawlessly for one person, but actually inhibit movement in another.

Building an adaptable exosuit, one that responds to variations in gait and movement, is the best way to deal with the broad range of human bodies that such technology will inevitably encounter.

The challenge with current optimization methods is that they take a great deal of time and observation in order to create. A subject would need to walk repeatedly in order to establish a rough approximation of their movement patterns — which, even then, would not account for changes that might occur as a user is walking.

What the new suit does is adapt to the user’s movements quickly. This is important, because humans actually make tiny adjustments to their gait while walking to maximize efficiency. By measuring these changes, the researchers were able to build profiles for each user that told the exosuit when and where to give them a boost.

Walk the Walk

The exosuit the researchers worked with fits snugly around the waist and thighs, and helps to optimize hip extension when walking. It’s more subtle than a full-on robotic leg, but the goal here is efficiency, not power.

Eight adult male subjects walked on a treadmill while wearing the suit while a computer monitored their movements. The researchers refer to this as a “human-in-the-loop” model of optimization because it depends on constant input from users to refine its calculations. An optimization algorithm updated how the suit applied force after each cycle, gradually locking in ideal motions for each subject. After about 20 cycles, the computer had created personalized “profiles” for each participant.

All of that research and math is nice, but what’s the point? Well, the optimized exosuits reduced the users’ metabolic output by a total average of 17.4 percent compared to walking without the suit—a 60 percent improvement over existing exosuits, the researchers say.

Individualizing exosuits is another step toward bringing them into our lives. But for now the math and processing required for such a personalized touch requires that the suit be in constant communication with a nearby computer — not so great for mobility.

But as we all know, computers are getting smaller and more powerful every day. Next stop, Neon Genesis Evangelion — or Iron Man, take your pick.

MORE ABOUT: gadgets, robots

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