Month: December, 2017

Narwhals Wearing Heart Monitors Reveal Danger Of Human Encounters

Normally when an animal is scared, it either remains very still and slows its heart rate and metabolism in hope that danger will pass like a possum playing dead, in an extreme case or the body revs up to power a “fight or flight” response.

But when narwhals get caught in fishing nets, surprisingly, they do both. Even as the narwhals pump their fins and tails as fast as they can to escape, their heart rates plummet to just three to four beats per minute.

Scientists report Thursday in the journal Science. For reference, that’s about as many beats per minute as a ground squirrel while it’s hibernating.

It’s the first time anyone has measured heart rate and performance at the same time for a diving cetacean, the group that includes whales, dolphins, and narwhals, says Terrie Williams, a wildlife ecophysiologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz and lead author of the new study.




The narwhals’ super-slow heartbeats were a surprise because animals need to pump enough blood around the body to supply oxygen to the brain and stay warm, Williams says.

What’s more, the lack of blood flow could prevent the narwhals’ bodies from removing nitrogen, which leads to decompression sickness, also known as the bends.

Narwhals have always been a bit of a mystery. It’s thought that there may be as many as 173,000 narwhals on Earth, but because of the animal’s remote habitat and cryptic nature, no one is really sure.

For starters, the animals live entirely above the Arctic Circle and tend to hang out in places where sea ice is so thick that it’s nearly impenetrable to ships.

They spend much of the day diving to depths of 4,500 feet or more where they hunt for halibut, cod, shrimp, and squid.

No one has ever seen a narwhal eat, by the way. Scientists know about their menu only from studying the gut contents of narwhals killed by local hunters.

In fact, the current study probably wouldn’t exist without indigenous hunters, since Williams and her coauthors relied on cooperation from the people of Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland, to get access to the narwhals caught in their nets.

The local people would have normally harvested these animals, but instead agreed to let the narwhals go so they could be studied.

Before each animal was released, the scientists used suction cups to attach heart rate monitors and motion sensors called accelerometers to the entangled narwhals.

Williams suspects that other deep-diving cetacean species may also use this bizarre escape response when they become stranded.

If these animals also experience a cardiac freeze either as the result of noise pollution, entanglements, or other human impacts then perhaps the animals’ brains aren’t getting enough oxygen.

This might explain why some whales strand themselves again even after rescuers help them back into the waves.

I don’t have the proof,” says Williams, who published a paper earlier this year that showed noise pollution increases the amount of energy beaked whales expend on their dives.

But we are certainly seeking the proof.”

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Pass it on: Popular Science

Oldest Monster Black Hole Ever Found Is 800 Million Times More Massive Than the Sun

Astronomers have discovered the oldest supermassive black hole ever found — a behemoth that grew to 800 million times the mass of the sun when the universe was just 5 percent of its current age, a new study finds.

This newfound giant black hole, which formed just 690 million years after the Big Bang, could one day help shed light on a number of cosmic mysteries.

Such as how black holes could have reached gargantuan sizes quickly after the Big Bang and how the universe got cleared of the murky fog that once filled the entire cosmos, the researchers said in the new study.




Supermassive black holes with masses millions to billions of times that of the sun are thought to lurk at the hearts of most, if not all, galaxies.

Previous research suggested these giants release extraordinarily large amounts of light when they rip apart stars and devour matter, and likely are the driving force behind quasars, which are among the brightest objects in the universe.

Astronomers can detect quasars from the farthest corners of the cosmos, making quasars among the most distant objects known.

The farthest quasars are also the earliest known quasars — the more distant one is, the more time its light took to reach Earth.

The previous record for the earliest, most distant quasar was set by ULAS J1120+0641. That quasar is located 13.04 billion light-years from Earth and existed about 750 million years after the Big Bang.

The newfound quasar (and its black hole), named ULAS J1342+0928, is 13.1 billion light-years away.

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Can Eating Too Much Make Your Stomach Burst?

I ate so much I’m about to burst!

Someone at your Thanksgiving table likely said this, after you’ve all stuffed your faces with turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes and the rest.

But how much would you have to eat in order for your stomach to actually burst? Is that even possible?

Interestingly enough, you can rupture your stomach if you eat too much,” says Dr. Rachel Vreeman, co-author of “Don’t Cross Your Eyes … They’ll Get Stuck That Way!” and assistant professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine.

It is possible, but it’s very, very rare.

A handful of reports over the years document the tales of people who literally ate themselves to death, or at least came dangerously close.

Japanese doctors wrote in a 2003 case report that they believed it was a 49-year-old man’s “excessive over-eating” that caused his stomach to rupture, killing him.




And this 1991 case report describes a similar “spontaneous rupture” in an adult’s stomach “after overindulgence in food and drink.

Normally, your stomach can hold about one or one-and-a-half liters, Vreeman says — this is the point you may reach if you overdo it tomorrow, when you feel full to the point of nausea.

Pathologists’ reports seem to suggest the stomach is able to do OK handling up to about three liters, but most cases of rupture seem to occur when a person has attempted to stuff their stomach with about five liters of food or fluid.

It takes a certain amount of misguided determination to manage to override your natural gag reflex and continue to eat.

Which is, not surprisingly, reports of ruptured stomachs caused by overeating are most common in people with some sort of disordered eating, or limited mental capacity, Vreeman says.

Speaking of strong stomachs, you’d best have one in order to read this next paragraph. If vomiting isn’t happening, all that food and fluid still has to go somewhere.

The increasing volume of stuff in the gut puts pressure on the stomach’s walls, so much so that the tissue weakens and tears, sending the stomach contents into the body and causing infection and pain, Vreeman says.

Surgical intervention is necessary to repair a ruptured stomach and save the patient’s life.

In particular, she says, anorexics or bulimics may be at risk. In fact, Cedars-Sinai, the non-profit hospital in Los Angeles, actually lists this as a “symptom” of bulimia.

In rare cases, a person may eat so much during a binge that the stomach bursts or the esophagus tears. This can be life-threatening.

Other reported cases of spontaneous stomach rupture happen in individuals with Prader-Willi syndrome, a congenital disease that is characterized by, among other things, a kind of disordered eating.

An “intense craving for food,” resulting in “uncontrollable weight gain and morbid obesity.” according to the National Institutes of Health.

In a 2007 study examining the deaths of 152 individuals with the condition, 3 percent of those deaths were the result of gastric rupture and necrosis.

The takeaway here: This really happens, sometimes! Also: This is probably not going to happen to you.

Even if you’re starting to feel a bit sick or tired and overwhelmed from eating so much at Thanksgiving, you’re still far, far away from the scenario where you’re going to make your stomach actually explode,” Vreeman assures.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

Drone Race: Human Versus Artificial Intelligence

JPL engineers recently finished developing three drones and the artificial intelligence needed for them to navigate an obstacle course by themselves.

In October, NASA’s California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory pitted a drone controlled by artificial intelligence against a professional human drone pilot named Ken Loo.

According to NASA’s press release, it had been researching autonomous drone technology for the past two years at that point, funded by Google and its interest in JPL’s vision-based navigation work.

The race consisted of a time-trial where the lap times and behaviors of both the A.I.-operated drone and the manually-piloted drone were analyzed and compared. Let’s take a look at the results.

NASA said in its release that the company developed three drones; Batman, Joker, and Nightwing.

Researchers focused mostly on the intricate algorithms required to navigate efficiently through a race like this, namely obstacle avoidance and maximum speed through narrow environments.




These algorithms were then combined with Google’s Tango technology, which JPL had a significant hand in as well.

Task Manager of the JPL project, Rob Reid said, “We pitted our algorithms against a human, who flies a lot more by feel.”

“You can actually see that the A.I. flies the drone smoothly around the course, whereas human pilots tend to accelerate aggressively, so their path is jerkier.”

As it turned out, Loo’s speeds were much higher, and he was able to perform impressive aerial maneuvers to his benefit, but the A.I.-infused drones were more consistent, and never gave in to fatigue.

“This is definitely the densest track I’ve ever flown,” said Loo. “One of my faults as a pilot is I get tired easily. When I get mentally fatigued, I start to get lost, even if I’ve flown the course 10 times.”

Loo averaged 11.1 seconds per lap, while the autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles average 13.9 seconds.

In other words, while Loo managed to reach higher speeds overall, the drones operating autonomously were more consistent, essentially flying a very similar lap and route each time.

Our autonomous drones can fly much faster,” said Reid. “One day you might see them racing professionally!

Of that latter statement, there’s certainly no doubt.

A future where companies like Google and NASA square off in public arenas where their autonomous drones compete against one another is definitely plausible.

It wouldn’t be shocking to see such an event televised, either, as we’re already seeing similar results with the Drone Racing League.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

The Collision: What Caused The Halifax Explosion?

The Imo came to rest against the Dartmouth shore on the other side of the harbor.

The Halifax Explosion was caused when two ships collided in the narrowest part of Halifax Harbor on the morning of Thursday, December 6, 1917.

The SS Mont Blanc, a French ship was arriving from New York City filled with munitions for World War I in Europe.

In addition to the 2,925 tons of explosives in its hold, it carried barrels of highly flammable benzol and picric acid on the deck.

Unable to travel with its scheduled convoy across the Atlantic, the Mont Blanc went to Halifax so it could travel with a new group.

It arrived the night before and had to wait outside the anti-submarine net that protected the harbor. At dawn, it began to move into the harbor.




Normally a munitions ship would fly a red flag to warn others of the dangerous cargo, but the Mont Blanc did not raise its warning flag.

Meanwhile, the SS Imo, a Norwegian ship carrying Belgian relief supplies that had been held up in the harbor for several days, began to move down the harbor toward the Atlantic.

The Imo’s captain was angry because he had been delayed and so he put to sea without the harbor master’s permission.

The two ships were maneuvering for position as they met in the Narrows between Halifax on the southern shore and Dartmouth on the northern shore.

Halifax harbor before the explosion.

Initially, the Imo refused to give way. Once it began to turn out of the Mont Blanc’s path, it could not move fast enough to avoid a collision.

Barrels on deck broke loose with the impact, and sparks from the scraping metal ignited the benzol that had spilled across the deck.

The Mont Blanc’s captain recognized the terrible danger of these fires and abandoned ship, rowing with the crew to the Dartmouth shore.

The damaged and burning Mont Blanc drifted to shore in the heavily populated wharf area of Halifax.

Halifax harbor after the explosion.

Crowds gathered on the shore and at windows to watch the burning ship run aground. Barrels of benzol began to shoot into the air like fireworks and explode. More people gathered to watch.

Approximately 20 minutes after the collision—at 9:04 a.m.—the fires ignited the 2,925 tons of munitions on the Mont Blanc and the ship exploded.

The ship was vaporized instantly, a huge area of Halifax was destroyed, and an enormous debris cloud rose over the city.

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Bacteria On Space Station Likely From Germy Humans, Not Aliens

Living bacteria have been found on the outside of the International Space Station, a Russian cosmonaut told the state news agency TASS this week.

Anton Shkaplerov, who will lead Russia’s ISS crew in December, said that previous cosmonauts swabbed the station’s Russian segment during spacewalks and sent the samples back to Earth.

The samples came from places on the station that had accumulated fuel waste, as well as other obscure nooks and crannies.

Their tests showed that the swabs held types of bacteria that were not on the module when it originally launched into orbit, Shkaplerov says.

In his interview with TASS, Shkaplerov says the bacteria “have come from outer space and settled along the external surface“, a claim that sparked some media outlets to issue frenzied reports about aliens colonizing the space station.

For now, though, details about the swabbing experiment are thin on the ground.




Shkaplerov did not note whether the study has been vetted by a peer-reviewed journal, which means it’s unclear exactly when and how the full experiment was conducted, or how the team avoided any contamination from much more mundane bacteria on the cosmonauts or in the Earth-bound lab.

Interview requests with the Russian space agency were unanswered when this article went to press. Up in the vacuum of space, microbes have to deal with turbulent temperatures, cosmic radiation, and ultraviolet light.

But Earth is home to plenty of hardy organisms that can survive in extreme environments, like virtually indestructible tardigrades.

Sometimes, researchers intentionally send terrestrial contaminants, such as E. coli and rocks covered in bacteria, into space to see how it will react.

And TASS reports that on a previous ISS mission, bacteria accidentally hitched a ride to the station on tablet PCs and other materials.

Scientists sent these objects up to see how they would fare in space, and the freeriding organisms managed to infiltrate the outside of the station.

They remained there for three years, braving temperatures fluctuating between -150 and 150 degrees Celsius.

 

These types of discoveries present concerns for scientists trying to limit the spread of human germs on other worlds.

NASA in particular has set strict limits on its interplanetary contamination.

Apollo astronauts were quarantined when they returned from their missions, for example, to prevent extraterrestrial germs from making their way out into the world.

And almost all equipment from Earth is sterilized before it heads skyward, either with extreme heat or an alcohol bath, depending on its intended destination.

These treatments are especially important for missions sent to Mars, which may have once hosted its own life-forms, leaving fossil traces in the rusty rocks.

But all bets may be off when and if we manage to send humans to explore Mars, writes The Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla: “Once we’ve put humans on the surface, alive or dead, it becomes much, much harder to identify native Martian life.”

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Pass it on: Popular Science

The Mystery Of The Oh My God Particle

From 1983 to 1991 on the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, an experiment had been under way by the University of Utah called the Fly’s Eye Cosmic Ray Detector.

And this is how they found the Oh My God particle, but before I explain it, let me back up and talk about cosmic rays so you can fully grasp the Oh My God reaction here.

Cosmic rays are mostly made up of the nuclei of atoms, 90% of them are single protons – the nuclei of hydrogen atoms. These are much higher energy than solar radiation because unlike photons they actually have mass.

This was the first ultra-high energy cosmic ray discovered, which was shocking not just because of it had a lot of energy, but because it kind-of shouldn’t have been possible thanks to something called the GZK cutoff.

GZK stands for the scientists Kenneth Greisen, Georgie Zatsepin and Vadim Kuzmin, who set a speed limit for cosmic rays at 5 x 10 to the 19th electron volts, or 8 joules of energy. It was believed that particles couldn’t exceed this limit due to interactions with photons in the microwave background radiation.

This new class of cosmic rays became known as trans-GZK cosmic rays. They are super rare and believed to be from fairly close by in order to have that kind of speed – the less they’ve travelled, the less they would be slowed down by the CMB.

Since discovering the OMG particle, there have been a slew of new cosmic ray observatories like the Pierre Auger observatory and the Telescope Array Project, which is the successor to the fly’s eye.

There have also been efforts to focus on high-energy neutrinos with the belief that they may be created in a similar process to the high-energy cosmic rays. There’s an observatory underneath the south pole that specializes in that.

The Big Bang Wasn’t The Beginning

What if the Big Bang wasn’t the beginning of the universe, but only one stage in an endlessly repeated cycle of universal expansion and contraction?

So suggests mathematical physicist and string theorist Neil Turok.

He thinks there may be many universes, at once interpolated but separate, like a mixture of gases.

These universes are attracted to each other; every few trillions of trillions of years, they collide, explode, expand and contract, then repeat the sequence all over again.

According to Turok, winner of the first TED Prize of 2008, “The Big Bang theory rests very strongly on Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which combines with nuclear and particle physics and all the other physical laws to describe the contents of the universe.




The theory is that 13.7 billion years ago, there was a singularity, a point of infinite density, and the universe emerged, emerging and very hot, from that singularity.

But the singularity is not describable with Einstein’s theory. The theory fails: everything goes to infinity. The density of the universe goes to infinity.

The curvature of spacetime goes to infinity. All the properties we normally use to describe the universe and its contents just fail.

Experts just say, “Let’s assume the universe sprang into existence, start our decription a tiny fraction of a second after that, run the clock forward and never ask where it came from.”

Turok’s theory:

“Imagine two sheets on a washing line, and they’re very close together, very nearly parallel. Those are two-dimensional sheets; ours are three-dimensional.”

“Think of it as two intimately intertwined objects which are nevertheless able to exert force on each other, a pull. The Big Bang is the touching of those two sheets. When they touch, they release that energy.”

Interestingly, Turok’s theory hasn’t always been well-received by Christians, for whom the Big Bang dovetails neatly with their creation myths.

Conversely, New Age types have embraced this scientific picture of a cyclical universe without beginning or end. Turok, for his part, doesn’t want any such attention.

I see religion and science as being two completely different things,” he said.

Science studies how the world operates, not why it?’s here. I think the world is an incredible miracle, and we have to do whatever we can to appreciate it.”

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Leftovers From The Moon’s Formation May Have Tunnelled To The Earth’s Core

The origin of our moon has long been debated.

Now, a scientist has claimed that Earth effectively ‘gave birth‘ to the moon four-and-a-half billion years ago.

A controversial new theory has been proposed that a giant explosion equivalent to 40 billion atomic bombs originating from the Earth’s core somehow led to the formation of the moon.

Planetary scientist Wim van Westrenen believes this violent event took place approximately four-and-a-half billion years ago and could answer the hotly contested question of where our moon comes from.

The scientist, from VU University in Amsterdam said that previous explanations about how the moon came to be simply do not add up.

Charles Darwin’s son, astronomer George Darwin, proposed that the early Earth spun so fast that it fell apart, hurling a part of itself into space that became the moon.





His theory was popular but was then eclipsed by the giant impact hypothesis, or ‘big splat‘, which said that a Mars-sized object crashed into an infant Earth and shattered on impact, the magazine reported.

In this theory, the debris formed the moon. However, it was largely thrown-out when astronauts brought back rocks from the Apollo moon landings.

Chemical analysis of the rocks last year by the University of Chicago found that they shared identical oxygen, silicon and potassium isotopes with Earth, hinting that the Moon shares its origin with the Earth.

Van Westeren said that taken at face value, the findings suggest that the moon was once part of the Earth that was blasted into space by an enormous explosion from the Earth’s fiery core.

To do this, he believes that there must have been a ‘massive energy kick‘ delivered quickly and he calculates that the explosion was the strength of 40 billion atomic bombs the size of those dropped on Hiroshima.

The idea that the Earth’s core harbours a huge nuclear reactor has been around for over 60 years.

There is also evidence of much smaller natural fossil reactors up to 10 metres across in West Africa that were active around 10 billion years ago.

This theory of  an internal nuclear reactor could explain why Earth gives out more energy than it receives from the sun.

However, experts have said that even if evidence of “global georeactors” was found, many scientists would need convincing that they were capable of creating the moon.

There are many conflicting ideas of exactly how the moon came to be and scientists are starting to re-question older theories.

Matija Cuk, a planetary scientist at Harvard University said: “I don’t think you can separate the moon’s formation from a giant impact.”

But he draws upon Darwin’s idea and the big splat and believes that a peculiar alignment of the sun, earth and moon is the reason why the moon orbits the Earth.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Facebook Is Developing A Harry Potter-Style System That Makes Your Profile Pictures Smile And Wink

Facebook is developing new ‘reactive profile pictures‘ that pull faces like the cheeky portraits at Hogwarts in Harry Potter.

The new feature will make your photo smile and wink in response to likes and comments on your page.

The tool can take a single image of a face and animate it with happy, sad or angry expressions by mapping it to the movement of real people’s faces.

Researchers at Tel Aviv University, Israel, developed the software, called ‘bringing portraits to life‘, alongside Facebook.




While the effect looks slightly bizarre, a study found half of people who saw the animations were tricked into thinking they were real.

The system is improving all the time, the researchers said. “I think eventually they will be completely indistinguishable from real videos,” lead researcher Hadar Averbuch-Elor said.

The tool creates animations using a ‘base‘ video of a completely different person. The ‘model‘ does not have to be the same gender or look anything like the person in the profile photo.

The expression the model makes is mapped directly onto the eyes, mouth, cheeks and other parts of the profile photo’s face so that it looks like animated movement.

But the animations aren’t perfect – when people smile their mouth often goes from tight-lipped to a toothy grin.

But from a single image the software doesn’t know what the subject’s teeth look like.

It therefore has to map the pearly whites of the base video onto the profile photo to match up the expressions.

We found that if we change the teeth people don’t notice too much,” Ms Averbuch-Elor, who is a PhD student at the university, said.

In a set of videos about the new feature, the tam showcased several ways Facebook could use the moving pictures in future.

Ahead of the project’s Facebook collaboration, in future the tool could be linked with AI language processing when you are messaging someone.

This means that, rather than a static image, your recipient will see an animated version of the person reacting to what’s being said.

The software will be presented at the Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques in Bangkok, Thailand later this month.

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Pass it on: New Scientist