Watch Live: LIGO Scientists Settle Gravitational Wave Rumors

By Carl Engelking | February 10, 2016 10:22 pm
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Orbiting black holes generate gravitational waves. (Credit: NASA)

On Thursday, the world will find out if scientists confirmed yet another aspect of Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity.

If rumors are correct, researchers at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) will announce that they’ve directly detected a gravitational wave, or a ripple in the fabric of space-time. LIGO’s twin detectors, in Louisiana and Washington state, use lasers to watch for these tiny stretches and squeezes of space-time. Einstein published his pioneering work predicting the existence of gravitational ripples a century ago. The LIGO team’s timing couldn’t be better.

Scientists from Caltech, MIT and the LIGO Scientific Collaboration will gather to deliver a “status update” about their detection efforts at 10:30 a.m. EST from the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

If the LIGO team indeed observed a gravitational wave, the finding would represent one of the most significant scientific discoveries of the decade, and launch a new era in observational astronomy. On Thursday, find a steady Internet connection and watch science history unfold right here, via the National Science Foundation’s live stream. The broadcast will start 15 minutes before the scheduled announcement.

Visit Discover throughout the day for extended coverage of Thursday’s announcement.

 

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts

At Age 65, Wisdom the Albatross Hatches a Healthy Chick

By Nathaniel Scharping | February 10, 2016 4:47 pm
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Wisdom’s mate cares for the newly hatched chick, named Kūkini. (Credit: Kiah Walker/USFWS Volunteer)

The oldest known wild bird continued her reign as the world’s most aged avian mother.

Wisdom, a Laysan albatross nesting at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, laid an egg back in November that started hatching on Feb. 1 while under the care of her mate, according to the the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It’s estimated that this is the 40th time 65-year-old Wisdom has brought a new life into the world, and her chick was named Kūkini — Hawaiian for messenger.  Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: sex & reproduction

Mechanical Chameleon Changes Colors on the Fly

By Nathaniel Scharping | February 10, 2016 3:25 pm
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The chameleon changes from red to green as it moves from one background to the next. (Credit: Guoping Wang et al./ACS Nano)

When scientists from Wuhan University in China created a novel color-shifting material, they knew exactly how to show it off: attach it to a 3-D printed chameleon.

The faux chameleon’s body is covered with artificial scales that allow it to blend in with its surroundings. Although the technology is still slow and limited to three primary colors, the real-time demonstration represents yet another step toward the elusive invisibility cloak. In the video below, you can watch colors ripple across the faux chameleon’s body as it glides from red to green to blue.

Colors Created at the Nanoscale

The biomimetic chameleon pulls off its feat thanks to nanoparticles that influence electromagnetic radiation — visible light — in response to changes in electrical current. To blend in with its surroundings, the chameleon is outfitted with two sensors, one in each eye, that pick up color variations. When the sensors detect a change, they adjust the current flowing through the panels, causing them to change color accordingly.

The color-shifting plates adorning the chameleon are composed of thin glass sheets covered with tiny gold domes. The domes are covered with a layer of electrolytic gel containing positively-charged silver ions. Changing the current modulates the thickness and orientation of the silver ions, altering the wavelength of light the material reflects. Researchers published their work recently in the journal ACS Nano.

The robotic chameleon shares more than a surface-level similarity to the living, breathing reptiles. Recent research suggests that chameleons use guanine crystals in their skin to alter wavelengths of reflected light and tune in to different colors. Instead of crystals, researchers’ color-changing panels use electrical fields and nanoparticles to alter reflected light.

If the researchers’ color-shifting panels can be paired with flexible electronics, dynamic camouflage suits could be all the more attainable. Flexible electronic paper and video screens are other potential uses for the technology, but more research is needed. The panels are too slow to support video, and the range of colors is still limited.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, top posts

Scientists Connect Neurons in the Lab for the First Time

By Nathaniel Scharping | February 9, 2016 5:12 pm
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Credit: NICHD/S. Jeong

Injuries to the central nervous system — the brain and spinal cord — are particularly devastating because the body doesn’t regenerate neurons to repair connections between vital circuits and restore function. In other words, the damage is permanent or even fatal.

A variety of early studies in animals and humans indicate the field of neural regeneration research is advancing. A 20-year-old man in Naples, Florida recently enrolled in the first clinical trial to assess the ability of stem cells to repair spinal cord injuries. But, a team of scientists from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, are working an entirely different method to inject hope into an otherwise bleak prognosis.

Working with rat neurons grown in a petri dish in the laboratory, the team artificially connected two neurons using an atomic force microscope and tiny, polystyrene spheres. Though the work is an early proof-of-concept, it could lay the foundation for novel surgeries and therapies for people with brain and spinal damage.

Neuron Repair

Atomic force microscopes drag an ultra-fine needle, or microprobe, attached to a cantilever beam across the object it is observing. The microprobe rises and falls like a record player needle as it passes over the object’s physical features. A laser measures the cantilever’s motion to build a picture of the object.

Researchers used a specialized microprobe to grab on to an axon, the part of a neuron that connects it to others in the brain, and stretch it across the dish to connect it to another neuron. Their microprobe takes advantage of minuscule forces between objects at the atomic level to grasp the polystyrene spheres, which in turn hold the axon. You can see the thin filament of the axon trailing behind the probe in the video above.

Peter Grutter, a senior author of the paper, likened the process to pulling a piece of chewing gum apart. In this case the gum, or axon, was roughly 1/100 the width of a human hair. Because of this, the researchers had to be extremely careful both when stretching the axon and when they detached it from the probe, Grutter said in an email. In all, the researchers only stretched the axon about 1 mm, a small span when compared to the size of the brain, but enough to do the trick. By using a larger dish, the researchers think they can extend their artificial neural connections out to a length of several millimeters.

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A before (left) and after (right) image of the experiment shows the new connection stretched between neurons. (Credit: Grutter group/McGill University)

A Good Connection

Researchers tested the artificial connection by measuring the neuron’s electrical potential. It responded similarly to organic neurons, indicating the synthetic network was functional. And although the process is complicated, researchers say their method still creates neural connections 60 times faster than our bodies can.

Our brains grow in complexity and ability by forming more and more connections between the neurons they are composed of. New experiences, thoughts and memories all create their own special connections in our brains. Rewiring neural networks ourselves could give us the ability to not only repair neural networks that have been damaged by injury, but to create our own.

Functional applications of this technology remain years away, but this method could be used to treat patients who have suffered traumatic injuries that severed connections in their brain, or to treat degenerative neurological diseases by strengthening the brain’s neural circuitry. In the near-term, this approach creates opportunities to grow and test neural networks in the lab to study how the brain works.

As an added, far-out application, researchers say their neuron-stitching technique indicates it’s possible to weave electronic circuitry into the brain to construct robust brain-machine interfaces.

 

 

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts

WATCH: Robot Navigates Tight Spaces Like a Cockroach

By Nathaniel Scharping | February 8, 2016 2:03 pm
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The CRAM robot next to its cockroach counterpart. (Credit: Tom Libby/Kaushik Jayaram/Pauline Jennings/PolyPEDAL Lab UC Berkeley)

There’s no hiding from cockroaches. In addition to their ability to survive extreme cold, lack of air and even radioactivity, they are adept shape-shifters, contorting their shelled bodies to slip through cracks and crevices one-tenth of an inch tall — about the height of two stacked pennies.

Say what you will about cockroaches, but to engineers who design robots, these deft deformers are an inspiration.

Researchers at the University of California-Berkeley’s Poly-PEDAL lab built a palm-sized robot that mimics the movements of a cockroach in order to squeeze through confined spaces. The aptly named CRAM (Compressible Robot with Articulated Mechanisms) robot sports a tough, yet bendable, shell and flexible legs that splay to the sides under pressure. The combination of features allows CRAM to squeeze through spaces only half its body height.
Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, top posts
MORE ABOUT: animals, robots

Scientists Perfect the Skipping Stone

By Nathaniel Scharping | February 5, 2016 3:05 pm
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An elastic sphere bounces off the surface of the water, captured by a high-speed camera. (Credit: Chris Mabey/Randy Hurd/Splash Lab)

A friendly trip to the beach often sparks a casual competition to see who is more skilled in the art of skipping a stone. But before the first attempt, a tactful stone-skipper will examine the inventory of seaside rocks to find a one uniquely shaped for the task.

Scientists at the aptly named Splash Lab at Utah State University have perfected the skipping stone. Through a series of experiments that applied scientific rigor to our favorite lazy beach activity, they determined that a squishy sphere will maximize the number of skips. Read More

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

Some Ants Never Get Old

By Nathaniel Scharping | February 4, 2016 5:07 pm
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(Credit: Alexas_Fotos/Pixabay)

It’s better to burn out than to fade away, according to Neil Young. And one ant species seems to embody this timeless philosophical advice.

Getting old is no fun. Failing bodies, faltering eyesight and declining health plague us as we enter the autumn of our lives. Aging for humans is as implacable as it is frightening, and despite years of research, we have made very little headway in halting our senescence.

For one species of ant, the passage of time isn’t associated with diminishing physical prowess. A team of researchers led by James Traniello, a professor in the biology department at Boston University, studied Pheidole dentata, a species of American ant, and found that the minor worker ants showed no declines in fitness or health as they aged — they even improved as they got older. They recently published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: animals

Wildebeest Ancestor Shared ‘Bizarre’ Trait With Dinosaurs

By Kiona Smith-Strickland | February 4, 2016 1:46 pm
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An artist’s interpretation of Rusingoryx atopocranion. (Credit: Todd S. Marshall)

It seems unlikely that a shaggy-maned antelope from the Ice Age would have much in common with a group of dinosaurs that roamed during the Cretaceous period 145 to 66 million years ago. But, then again, science is perpetually full of surprises.

Rusingoryx atopocranion, an extinct species related to the modern wildebeest, shares a bizarre adaptation with a group of hadrosaurs: a hollow, domed ridge of bone along the front of its face called a nasal crest. Paleontologists say that a Pleistocene antelope with a bony nasal crest like that of some hadrosaur species is a surprising example of what’s called convergent evolution. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: paleontology

Germany’s Nuclear Fusion Experiment Begins With Success

By Nathaniel Scharping | February 3, 2016 4:29 pm
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The hydrogen plasma created inside the Wendelstein stellarator, which lasted only a quarter of a second. (Credit: IPP)

Scientists in Germany successfully completed another phase of an experiment designed to one day produce nuclear fusion

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Particle Physics heated up a small sample of hydrogen to over 170 million degrees Fahrenheit using the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator, a donut-shaped device that uses magnetic fields to suspend hydrogen gas while zapping it with powerful microwaves. They succeeded in creating a super-hot plasma, which lasted for about a quarter of a second, according to a news release from the institute. Although fleeting, this experiment successfully demonstrated that plasma can be contained while heated to such extremes, a key step in harnessing nuclear fusion. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology, top posts
MORE ABOUT: energy

WATCH: How the Brain Gets Its Folds

By Nathaniel Scharping | February 2, 2016 3:32 pm
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The gel model of the brain created by the researchers. (Credit: Mahadevan Lab/Harvard SEAS)

Scientists performed some heady origami in the lab.

In order to study how the brain forms its unique structure of folds and grooves, a team of scientists from Finland and the United States recreated the folding process with a 3-D printed, artificial brain. One could be forgiven for confusing their model with the real thing, and they published findings from their hyper-realistic simulation Monday in the journal Nature Physics Read More

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