Month: November, 2017

50 Years Ago, The Theory Of Plate Tectonics Was Radical Counterculture

The Geological Society of London, a learned society and not-for-profit membership organisation serving the Earth sciences community in the UK and overseas, has been privileged to receive the archive of one of Britain’s greatest living scientists, geophysicist Dan McKenzie.

Professor Dan McKenzie was central to formulating the ideas that led to the theory of plate tectonics which, in 1967, represented a paradigm shift in what is now referred to as Earth science.

He and other key protagonists offered a unifying context for almost all disciplines of geology and physical science.

Through storytelling, and illustrated by the papers and photographs McKenzie kept throughout his career as well as recorded interviews.

Dan Peter McKenzie was born on 21 February 1942 in Cheltenham, England.

He first attended a school in Aylesbury, then three public schools in London, most notably Westminster School where he would later state that he was not a particularly academic pupil until the age of 14 or 15 when he began to properly learn mathematics, physics and chemistry.

The publication of his seminal paper on plate tectonics in 1967 had made McKenzie famous in US geoscience circles, but he was virtually unknown in Britain.

Yet despite being offered permanent (and well-paid) full academic posts in America, McKenzie returned to Cambridge University in August 1969 as he felt very English and wanted to work and establish his scientific reputation in his own country.

McKenzie has remained in the Department of Geodesy and Geophysics, Cambridge for the rest of his academic career, first as Senior Assistant in Research (1969-1973), then as Assistant Director of Research (1973-1979).

Later as Reader in Tectonics (1979-1985), a post specially created for him, and as Professor of Earth Sciences (1985-1996).

Between 1996-2006 he was the Royal Society Research Professor (1996-2006), finally retiring from academic teaching in 2012.

Although other papers on plate tectonics followed, McKenzie had all but given up on the subject by 1972, instead broadening out his studies to trying to understand the principal processes by which continents deform.

His theoretical investigations into lithospheric stretching resulted in McKenzie’s most widely cited paper of them all, “Some remarks on the development of sedimentary basins” (1978).

The ‘McKenzie model’ now forms the basis of most sedimentary basin models that are used by the oil industry.

Other major areas of research include his work on mantle convection and the behaviour of vigorously convecting fluids, and melt generation within the Earth and subsequently the planet Venus.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Why Can’t We Predict When A Volcano Will Erupt?

We started 2016 with a bang. Both Chile and Indonesia saw a clutch of volcanoes erupting after laying dormant for a decade or more.

This followed an eruption in April 2015, when Calbuco volcano in Chile burst back to life after more than 40 years of silence, with experts giving less than two hours of warning.

In an era of global satellite monitoring with proliferating networks of instruments on the ground, why can we still not accurately predict volcanic eruptions?

Volcano scientists have an unprecedented array of tools with which to keep an eye on the world’s many restless and active volcanoes. In many cases, we can watch emerging events from the safe distance of an volcano observatory.

Or, once an eruption has begun, we can observe it in near-real time using satellite feeds and social media. But this isn’t matched by our ability to anticipate what might happen next at a restless but dormant volcano.

New research, however, is providing clues about the best way to look for signals of future volcanic behaviour.

Like medicine, volcanologists can get a clearer sense of the state of a volcano using observations from many other examples around the world.

But if we don’t know the prior history of a particular volcano, and with no way of taking the equivalent of a biopsy from it, our capacity to work out what is going on is always going to be limited.

For example, some volcanoes stay completely quiet and then erupt violently without warning, while others are noisy but have a moment of calm before they erupt. Without prior knowledge, how would we know?

Sampling eruptions

While we can’t yet safely drill into a rumbling volcano, the deposits from past eruptions may contain the information we need about what happened in the build-up to that eruption.

Explosive eruptions typically throw out large quantities of ejecta, the frozen and disrupted remnants of the emptied magma reservoir.

This often includes pumice, a light and frothy rock made of a network of glassy tubes, sheets and strands and a void space that fills with volcanic gas, mainly steam, just before eruption which is then replaced with air.

Other components include crystals of different minerals that grew at depth as the magma cooled and started to solidify, perhaps for decades or centuries.

As the magma cools and freezes into solid rock, the gases remain dissolved in a smaller and smaller amount of melt, until eventually the melt becomes saturated and bubbles of gas start to form.

From this point, the pressure inside the volcano begins to build and eventually, the rocks around the magma chamber crack.

Then the bubbly magma rises through the crack to the surface, starting an eruption.

Bubbles point the way

But how can we find out the point at which the magma starts to grow bubbles? This is where forensic volcanology comes in.

As magmas freeze, the crystals formed at different times will capture snapshots of the state of the reservoir.

With some good fortune, it is sometime possible to go and find these crystals after an eruption, and piece together the sequence of events.

In our new research, my colleagues and I have shown how this approach works at Campi Flegrei, a steaming volcanic field that lies west of Naples and the supposed location of the entrance to the underworld in Roman mythology.

By analysing the composition of one particular mineral called apatite, which grew throughout the long cooling history of the magma, we found that the gas bubbles could only have formed shortly perhaps a few days to months before the eruption itself.

So at this volcano, the best signals of an impending eruption might be a combination of swelling of the ground levels (with changing pressure) and in the gases escaping out of the volcano.

This still doesn’t provide us with a simple way to predict the eruptions of any volcano.

But it does show how taking a forensic look at the deposits of past eruptions at a specific site offer a way to help identify the monitoring signals that will give us clues to future behaviour.

And this moves us a step closer to being able predict when an eruption is likely.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

Mussel-Inspired Plastic May Lead To Self-Repairing Body Armour

Scientists have developed a new mussels inspired plastic that can stretch without snapping and repair its own molecular bonds, paving the way for self- repairing body armour.

The material could also find an application in the joints of robotic arms that need to bear heavy weights but still move around, researchers said.

Mussels and some other molluscs hang onto solid surfaces using an adhesive protein and tough, plastic like fibers, which are extremely strong and can repair themselves when a few molecular bonds within them are broken, they said.

The study, published in the journal Science, found that for a mussel, these stretchy yet strong fibres come in handy when a wave hits.

Researchers from University of California, Santa Barbara in the US created a plastic with these same properties by mimicking the chemistry the mussels use.

Molecular bonds between iron and an organic compound called catechol make the material difficult to break or tear, while still allowing it to remain stretchy, they said.

The iron-catechol bonds dissipate energy from something hitting or stretching the material. These “sacrificial bonds” break, but the overall structure stays intact.

It is like a bike helmet: if you are in a bike accident, the foam inside the helmet crushes and dissipates some of the energy.

“All that energy that would have gone into a skull fracture, instead goes into the helmet,” Megan Valentine from University of California said.

In our case, instead of foam we have this sacrificial bonding that protects the underlying polymer system,” Valentine said.

By sacrificing the iron-catechol bonds, the material can stretch by 50 per cent. Then, once the stress is taken away, the bonds reform, making it reusable, researchers said.

Adding these bonds results in the plastic being 770 times stretchier and 58 times stronger than it is without them, they said.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

“Feeling” Fireworks For The Visually Impaired With Disney Water Jets

Fireworks are a sign of America’s freedom and independence, reminding people that there are others who fought long and hard for this country.

Why should people who are visually impaired miss out on the full experience? Well, Paul Beardsley and his colleagues at Disney Research in Switzerland engineered a solution to solve this problem.

The created five water jets that shoot a pattern at the back of a big glass screen. Then users can place their hands on the front of the screen, and feel how the vibrations mirror expanding light as seen in fireworks.

For now, the “feeling” experience is a separate event at Disney as of October, 2017. Computer code that operates the timing of the jet releases.

However, the group’s goal is to make it active during the fireworks display. This project has only been tested on sighted people, but looks to incorporate blind users.

The water jet fireworks have 2 ways of operating.

1) The first way to enjoy the experience is to place your hand at the bottom of the screen and then move around your hands to find the fireworks’ origins.

2) The second way is to have the person put their hands inside an ellipse centered on the middle of the screen. Then the main explosions occur in this region, and all of the minor explosions can be felt somewhere else on the screen.

So far this project was further demonstrated at the User Interface Software and technology conference in October, with good reviews.

If pursued, I think this would be a really awesome way to include everyone when it comes to remembering the experience of independence and freedom through a variety of senses.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

This App That Turns Your Phone Into A Sonar Detector To Monitor Lip Movement As You Speak

Biometric voice authentication is the technology that allows your voice to be recognized as a password.

Researchers say their sonar system called VoiceGesture can detect live users and whether or not people are misusing recordings for ‘replay attacks.

The fact that people share so much audio and video of themselves on social media makes it even easier for identity thieves to pass voice authentication tests fraudulently.

We hope to hear in early February,” Jie Yang at the State University of Florida in Tallahassee said.

The team also plan to expand the antispoofing technology’s applications to voice assistants, like the Amazon Echo and Google Home.

The detection system requires only a speaker and a microphone that are commonly available on smartphones.

It works by using the smartphone as a Doppler radar, which transmits a high frequency sound from the built-in speaker and listens to the reflections at the microphone when a user speaks their passphrase.

When a user sets their passphrase, the VoiceGesture app emits a barely audible, high pitched 20 kilohertz acoustic signal from the phone’s loudspeaker.

This signal bounces off the moving jaw, lips and tongue as they speak, and creates a unique ‘mouthprint‘.

The Doppler shift is the same effect that causes sirens from an emergency vehicle to change in pitch as it passes you by.

In a study with 21 participants and different types of phones, the VoiceGesture system achieved over 99 per cent detection accuracy at a 1 per cent Equal Error Rate.

The study also showed that the system works well with different voice frequencies and different phone placements – for example when the phone is placed by the ear or in front of the mouth.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Next Generation Cochlear Implant Restores Hearing By Shining A Laser Beam In Your Ear

Could focused laser light be used to help deaf people hear again? Based on some innovative work by a team of researchers in Europe, the answer certainly seems to be a resounding “yes.”

What the team of engineers from Germany, Switzerland, and Austria have invented is a brand-new type of cochlear hearing implant that uses laser pulses to trigger auditory signals from hair cells in the inner ear.

The result? A more focused listening device that could prove transformative for those lucky enough to wear it.

The laser-based approach differs significantly from conventional cochlear implants, which use electric fields to stimulate auditory nerves.

The problem with this method is the challenge of stimulating a single auditory nerve in the cochlea, due to the fact that the auditory portion of the inner ear is tiny and crams lots of nerves into a closed space — meaning-less focused electric fields, and worse sound quality.

Lasers, on the other hand, are much more efficient at targeting specific areas of the ear.

[We’ve built] a prototype of a cochlear implant based on opto-acoustic stimulation,” Dr. Mark Fretz, a physicist and project manager at the wiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology said.

We use laser light in the infrared range to generate a sound wave in the fluid inside the cochlea. The process is somewhat similar to the thunder following lightning.

In both cases, the sound is the result of rapidly heated fluid, with the distinction that in our device the light is actually generating the sound by heating up the liquid, whereas in the case of the lightning, a strong electric current quickly heats up the air, consequently generating both the light and the thunder.

Over the past three years, the team has demonstrated its theories about using laser light to stimulate auditory nerves using guinea pigs.

They have also created a device (not yet tested in vivo), comprising a palm-sized box containing the necessary electronics components and two ultrathin implantable lasers.

Going forward, the main challenges are to turn this into a finished product, while finding a way to deal with the issue of energy consumption, as well as increasing the number of lasers per device and looking at different stimulation patterns.

Should all go to plan, however, it may not be long before focused laser light is a crucial part of helping people who are deaf or hard of hearing to register sound again.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

New Solar Panel Design Could Charge Your Phone With Ambient Light

These days, we use our cell phones for a lot more than just making calls.

Smartphones have become essential tools for monitoring our health, interacting with our vehicles, and entering the world of augmented reality.

But these expanded smartphone functions have brought with them the need for us to find new ways to keep our cell phones charged.

Recently, some have attempted to power smartphones through wireless power transmission or by capturing the kinetic energy of the user’s movements.

Now, researchers have devised a method to charge cell phones with ambient light.

Scientists at Dracula Technologies, a French solar energy company, have developed “LAYER” technology — short for “Light As Your Energetic Response.

Essentially, LAYERs are thin, flexible solar cells that can be manufactured using an inkjet printer.

These cost-effective, foldable sheets are composed of a unique conductive plastic that can capture energy from both solar and artificial light — making this technology much more versatile than many of its predecessors.

A LAYER could either be printed onto the electronic device itself, or a larger sheet could be fixed to something that might capture more light, such as a backpack.

That object, then, would be hooked up to the device.

These solar cells only take about an hour to print and can be customized in shape and color, or even transparent.

While the researchers are still looking for ways to shorten the time it takes the solar cells to charge cell phones, they are confident that the technology is almost ready for real-world applications.

In a few months’ time, we should be able to charge a smartphone,” Ben Dkhil said in the interview.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Laboratory Cultured Sea Urchins

Sea urchins can be raised from egg to egg in the laboratory.

With proper food, the larvae can be grown to maturity in about 3 weeks. When mature larvae are exposed to the proper chemical cues metamorphosis occurs.

Over the next 5 days the small urchins develop internal organs and then begin to feed. Sexual maturity can be reached in as little as 4.5 months.

By then the urchin is about a centimeter in diameter. Several different approaches to the study of developmental genetics are covered.

These include:

  1. Hybrids between the sand dollars Dendraster and Encope, in which both crosses produce offspring that have predominantly paternal characteristics;
  2. a preliminary description of two mutants, one which produces abnormally shaped blastula that may lead to a significant number of exogastrulae, and another that produces a large number of four- part symmetrical urchins;
  3. urchins produced by parthenogenetic activation and from reaggregated larval cells.

Almost all of sea urchin genetics has been limited either to studies of inter-specific and inter-generic hybrids or to the area of molecular biology.

To some extent, hybrid studies have been forced on the sea urchin embryologist because genetics at a more refined level has not been possible.

Hybrid studies have been useful and they played a particularly important part in the early investigation of the role of the nucleus vs. that of the cytoplasm.

Horstadius (1973) pre-sents an extensive discussion of these early investigations.

In many ways, research at the molecular level is just beginning, in spite of the fact that the literature is already very extensive.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Boston Dynamics Unveils Stunning Robot That Can Run, Jump And Execute The Perfect Backflip

Boston Dynamics’ humanoid robot can execute a perfect backflip.

Atlas, which can also keep its balance when it’s pushed and get back up if it falls over, can now perform impressive gymnastic moves.

Boston Dynamics has just released footage of the machine’s latest trick, and viewers are both impressed and concerned.

As well as being able to jump from block to block and turn 180-degrees in mid-air, Atlas can do a backflip and land securely on its feet.

Like a human, it even lifts its arms in the air as if to celebrate, though this may also help it balance.

However, as the final part of the clip shows, it can’t always pull the move off successfully.

Atlas’ control system coordinates motions of the arms, torso and legs to achieve whole-body mobile manipulation, greatly expanding its reach and workspace,” says Boston Dynamics.

Atlas’ ability to balance while performing tasks allows it to work in a large volume while occupying only a small footprint.

The Atlas hardware takes advantage of 3D printing to save weight and space, resulting in a remarkable compact robot with high strength-to-weight ratio and a dramatically large workspace.

Stereo vision, range sensing and other sensors give Atlas the ability to manipulate objects in its environment and to travel on rough terrain.”

Atlas stands at 1.5m tall, weighs 75kg and has 28 joints in its body.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Scientists Have Created Brain Implants That Could Boost Our Memory By Up To 30%

Scientists have developed a groundbreaking brain implant that can boost human memory.

In recent years, studies have shown that so-called ‘memory prostheses’ can be used to improve memory in rodents and primates, helping them to perform better on cognitive tasks.

Now, researchers have shown for the first time that the technique can enhance human memory, too, by mimicking processes that occur naturally in the brain.

The new study, presented at the Society of Neuroscience meeting in Washington DC this past weekend, found that stimulating a region in the brain responsible for learning and memory can improve performance on memory tasks by up to 30 percent.

Researchers recruited 20 volunteers who were undergoing epilepsy monitoring, in which they were fitted with electrodes targeting the brain’s hippocampus.

Subjects were first asked to participate in a training session, where they were given visual delayed-match-to-sample (DMS) tasks.

Each participant was shown images in a sample presentation, and later had to recall the images during a match phase up to 75 seconds later.

The researchers then modeled the neural recordings from the training session to pinpoint the regions likely activated during the task.

Then, in a second session, the researchers used the implant to stimulate the subjects’ brains with micro-electric shocks based on the model.

In the trials, the technique was found to improve performance by as much as 30 percent.

While prior research has shown similar methods to enhance memory in some mammals, the researchers say it’s the first time it’s been demonstrated in humans.

These studies have yielded a prosthetic system that restored DMS task-related memory in rodents and nonhuman primates, and is now extended to successful memory facilitation in humans,” the authors wrote in an abstract detailing their presentation.

The work has implications for the treatment of memory disorders, suggesting that stimulating the brain based on patterns in a healthy brain could help to improve function, according to New Scientist.

And, it could pave the way for memory-enhancing prosthetics.

Cognitive task performance on MIMO stimulated trials was compared with non-stimulated and random pattern stimulated trials,” according to the researchers.

MIMO stimulation resulted in a 15-25% improvement in DMS task performance in five patients, demonstrating successful implementation of a new neural prosthetic system for the restoration of damaged human memory.”

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Pass it on: New Scientist