Monday, April 26, 2010

Hawking: Alien contact "risky" for humans, death rays hard to duck

Hawking: avoid space aliens
Smartest guy in the known universe and all around inspiration, Stephen Hawking, has a message for everyone wanting to dial up aliens on the galactic party line: don't. On his new Discovery Channel series, Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking, the good professor warns that aliens might really be of the Hollywood variety. From ABC News:
"If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans," he said. "We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet."
Read the rest and then find a table to hide under (not that it would help...)

Night vision glasses, cell phone cameras on the way!

Not-so-light-weight night vision...
Well, while scientists are still perfecting personal jet packs and flying cars, they've managed to whip up a few other goodies, namely, night vision in your prescription glasses using a film developed for flat screen TVs. MSNBC is on a roll with technology posts today:
Most night vision devices today use massive amounts of electricity — often several thousand volts, according to So — and heavy, glass lenses that maintain a vacuum to make the night come alive. So's device takes a radically different turn, replacing glass with thin plastic, eliminating the vacuum and using energy-efficient, organic LEDs.
Oh, let's just cut to the cool part already:
In other words, heavy and bulky night vision goggles could be replaced with a thin, lightweight coating weighing less than half a deck of playing cards.

According to the article it should take about a year-and-a-half to apply the new tech to car windshields, lightweight night vision eyeglasses and mobile devices.

Space "Taxis" Make for Cheaper, Less Complicated Flights

Image: Boeing
The future of spaceflight is streamlined, cheap flights with no need for bells and whistles--like say, airlocks. MSNBC analyst James Oberg has a great piece on how private space corporations are aiming for inexpensive vehicles that get astronauts from point a to point b without having to spend a lot of time in orbit or performing other tasks. Since the main mission would be immediately dock with a space station or ship already in orbit, NASA and other agencies are looking at vehicles akin to the Soyuz class capsules or something similar to the Gemini/Mercury programs that the US sent up in the 60s. Oberg puts up a few design suggestions of his own:
  • Electrical power? Batteries are fine — recharge when you reach the station, or if you can’t, land immediately. No solar panels, no fuel cells, nothing complex or exotic.
  • Navigation? Big radar dishes, even complex transponders, are unnecessary, with differential GPS navigation now the baseline for most flying all over the planet.
  • Spacewalking? No need, so no airlock, either. At most, the crew would wear in-cabin pressure suits such as those used on Soyuz missions.
  • Passenger accommodations? Room for each passenger in a foldaway seat, and space to turn around if desired would be more than adequate for the short flight. No exercise equipment would be needed. No DVD library.
  • Hygiene? A maximum of 24 hours of independent flight suggests a minimum toilet (or just Apollo-era plastic bags with sticky openings). Or low-residue pre-launch diets, and diapers.
  • Passenger comforts? None. Forget hot food and a complex galley. Box lunches will do. Forget even windows, except for the pilot’s view forward at docking. There need only be minimal carry-on luggage — a take-aboard allowance that would make today’s commercial airlines seem generous.
  • Bulky docking hardware? These mechanically robust components are often a significant fraction of a spaceship’s weight, but the space station can also now grapple a nearby vehicle and emplace it gently on the desired berthing interface.
Read the full article...
Boeing has it's own design for future capsules (as pictured above)

Friday, April 16, 2010

4,000-Year-Old Euro Mummies Found in... China?!

Image: Liu Yu Sheng via New York Times
A cemetery of 200 mummy's from four millennia ago has been discovered in the Xinjiang of China (north of Tibet)--extremely well preserved thanks to the arid air of the Gobi Desert. The rest of the story is so weird that the NYT does better than I ever could at recounting. From the New York Times:
Their remains, though lying in one of the world’s largest deserts, are buried in upside-down boats. And where tombstones might stand, declaring pious hope for some god’s mercy in the afterlife, their cemetery sports instead a vigorous forest of phallic symbols, signaling an intense interest in the pleasures or utility of procreation.
Of course! How else can you find a cemetery of mummies under a pile of boats? There's more...
The 200 or so mummies have a distinctively Western appearance, and the Uighurs, even though they did not arrive in the region until the 10th century, have cited them to claim that the autonomous region was always theirs. Some of the mummies, including a well-preserved woman known as the Beauty of Loulan, were analyzed by Li Jin, a well-known geneticist at Fudan University, who said in 2007 that their DNA contained markers indicating an East Asian and even South Asian origin.

The mummies in the Small River Cemetery are, so far, the oldest discovered in the Tarim Basin. Carbon tests done at Beijing University show that the oldest part dates to 3,980 years ago. A team of Chinese geneticists has analyzed the mummies’ DNA.
Full story.....

Thursday, April 15, 2010

What we all feared: jellyfish are immortal

A species of jellyfish, Turritopsis nutricula, may be the world's only known immortal species, according to scientists. Apparently the hydrozoan can vacillate between youth (polyp) and adult stages of growth--prolonging it's unusual, eldritch existence. From
Through this process - called transdifferentiation - the jellyfish is able to return to its polyp state, the first stage of the life of a jellyfish. During transdifferentiation, its cells can become completely transformed. For example, a muscle cell could become a nerve cell - even an egg. The jellyfish then reproduces asexually and breed hundreds of jellyfish that are identical to the original adult. This process can be repeated - again and again, but only as an emergency measure. As Dr Maria Miglietta of the Smithsonian Tropical Marine Institute says, "We are looking at a worldwide silent invasion."
Upside: they're the size of a human pinky fingernail

Read the full story...
Also at TimesOnline

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Two-Story Tall Fungus Fossils Found

Image: Mary Parrish via MSNBC
Researchers say that waaaay back in the Silurian and Devonian periods (350-420 million years remember those from science class, right?) the world's largest fungus grew to around 26 feet tall--about the size of modern telephone poles. The fungus, called Prototaxites, was about the width of a tree trunk. From MSNBC:
"The above-ground structure -- what actually gets preserved as a fossil -- would have been involved in spore dispersal, like a mushroom," he added. "For that purpose, the higher off the ground you can get, the farther spores will travel on the wind."

He and his colleagues first began to suspect Prototaxites was a fungus and not a plant after they analyzed carbon isotopes in its fossils. These remaining carbon atoms can suggest what existing, and once-living, organisms ate. Boyce explained that since plants derive their energy from the sun and its carbon from carbon dioxide in the air, the carbon isotope signatures for plants tend to look the same.
Kinda cool, let's face it, also kinda creepy!
Full article....

Monday, April 12, 2010

Scientists Discover Micro-organisms That Don't Need Oxygen

Image: R. Danovaro et al., BMC Biology
Okay, this is getting nerdy, but it's still cool. (Science is ALWAYS cool!). Researchers have discovered the first micro-organism (animal) that doesn't need oxygen to survive. The organism dubbed Loricifera, was found on the L'Atalante basin in the Mediterranean.From Science American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS):
The creature's cells apparently lack mitochondria, the organelles that use oxygen to power a cell. Instead they are rich in what seem to be hydrogenosomes, organelles that can do a similar job in anaerobic (or oxygen free) environments. The find could help scientists understand what life might have looked like in the earth's early oceans, which also had very little oxygen.
Read the full story...

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

New "Goldilocks" exoplanet discovered

Image: Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias via ScienceNews
The first observable exoplanet, within an "Goldilocks Zone" has been discovered! This is a HUGE discovery as planets within the zone are considered excellent candidates for supporting life due to their not-too-close/not-to-far distance from their parent star. This "just right" distance allows for liquid water to exist on the surface--making for a comfy environment for life to flourish.

The planet, a gas giant roughly the size of Jupiter or Saturn, is designated as COROT-9b, but it's thought that if Jupiter can have moons, then why not COROT? The moons could be habitable, even if the main planet is not.

While other Goldilocks planets have been discovered, COROT is a diamond in the rough because it's much more easily observable from Earth. From ScienceNews:
Although a number of extrasolar planets with moderate temperatures have been discovered, only a planet that passes in front of — or transits — its star can be studied in depth. The starlight that filters through the atmosphere of the planet during each passage reveals the orb’s composition, while the amount of starlight that is blocked outright indicates the planet’s size.

All the other transiting planets seen so far have been “weird — inflated and hot” because they orbit so close to their stars, notes study collaborator Didier Queloz of the Geneva Observatory in Sauverny, Switzerland. Deeg, Queloz, and their colleagues report their findings in the March 18 Nature.
The planet is 1,500 light years away  (in the constellation Serpens), so it will be a while before we get to stop in on the neighbors and say hello!

Read the full article.