Month: January, 2018

Quantum Field Theory: Reality Is Not What You Think It Is

Quantum Field Theory is the current best understanding of the nature of reality that we have. It’s also the strangest. Join me as we break down how we got there and what it all means.

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LINKS LINKS LINKS:

From The Royal Institution – David Tong on Quantum Field Theory

Part one on Quantum Electrodynamics and Paul Dirac at PBS Digital Studios

Fermilab on Quantum Field Theory

Taking Gene-Editing To The Next Level

Researchers who discovered a molecular “scissors” for snipping genes have now developed a similar approach for targeting and cutting RNA.

The new cutting tool should help researchers better understand RNA’s role in cells and diseases, and some believe it could one day be useful in treatments for illnesses from Huntington’s to heart disease.

To develop the “blades” for the process, researchers led by Feng Zhang at the Broad Institute used CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)—a system that bacteria evolved to fight off pathogens.

CRISPR has previously been used to edit DNA but had been theorized to work on RNA as well.

The new findings, reported Thursday in Science, came from systematically exploring different aspects of that natural defense system that protects bacteria—and may eventually be put to use helping people.

Nature has already invented all these really interesting mechanisms,” Zhang says, comparing himself with a treasure hunter.

We’re just trying to play with that and learn how they work…then turn them into tools that will be useful to us.




 

Zhang says the new paper will not affect an ongoing patent dispute over who owns rights to the gene-editing approach known as CRISPR–Cas9. His team was the first to use CRISPR–Cas9 in mammalian cells.

Another team—led by Jennifer Doudna, at the University of California, Berkeley, and French researcher Emmanuelle Charpentier—was first to publish on CRISPR–Cas9, showing its activity in bacteria.

Ironically, Doudna was a co-author on a March paper in Cell that used CRISPR–Cas9 to cut RNA in mammalian cells whereas Zhang’s new paper focuses on bacteria.

The two RNA manipulation methods may be complementary ways to approach the same ends or one may turn out to be more efficient than the other.

In interviews this week each group praised the other’s work while touting the advantages of their own respective approaches.

Zhang says his new method—using the enzyme C2c2 to target RNA—relies on an existing natural system and therefore may be more effective than an approach that requires more manipulation.

Gene Yeo, senior author on the Cell paper, says he has collaborated with both Doudna and Zhang, and described the new paper as a continuation of the kind of “friendly competition” that drives science.

There’s always a bit of a race between a lot of the groups, including mine,” he says. “I think scientific competition is good. People tend to push the boundaries more.

Although Yeo pointed out that the C2c2 system has not yet been shown to work in mammalian cells, Zhang says unpublished results make him optimistic that it will.

Both RNA-targeting approaches have a long way to go before they could be tested in people—but the promise is there, says Yeo, a professor of cellular and molecular medicine at the University of California, San Diego.

Targeting RNA may also offer new insights into how changes in RNA lead to changes in biology and the development of disease.

I think we’ll see an avalanche of these tools that will enable us to monitor and study RNA,” Yeo says.

This helps us think about RNA as not just an intermediate molecule between DNA and protein,” but as a therapeutic tool for treating diseases and problems of development.

Genes consist of double-stranded DNA, which makes single-stranded RNA—which in turn makes the proteins needed for life. Many diseases result from too much or too little protein.

Theoretically, acting on the RNA could push those protein levels up or down, thereby offering treatments.

Manipulating RNA poses fewer ethical concerns than tinkering with the underlying DNA, although gene editing will remain a better approach for treating some diseases.

The problem with DNA editing is that it’s permanent,” Yeo says. “That could be good, but what if you make a mistake?

In some cases, such as with brain cells, DNA repair mechanisms are so strong that it may be more effective to act on the RNA rather than cutting the DNA, says Yeo, who has started a company that’s still in stealth mode to begin looking at treating diseases with this approach.

Zhang says he has long been interested in developing systems to target RNA. His team decided to survey the different kinds of CRISPR systems to figure out their functions.

C2c2 turned out to be an RNA-targeting system, according to the new study, which includes researchers from the National Institutes of Health, Rutgers University and the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Russia, in addition to Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Like the Cas9 system that targets specific DNA, C2c2 can be aimed directly at desired RNA sequences, with seemingly few off-target effects.

The reason that it has evolved is to be able to use RNA guides to target RNA,” Zhang says.

His colleague, Eugene Koonin, a co-author on the new paper, puts it more poetically: “Evolution of life to a very large extent is a story of host–parasite interactions,” says Koonin, an expert in evolutionary genomics at the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

As we explore this arms race between host and parasite, we discover more and more intricate, novel ways in which cellular organisms cope with parasites and parasites counteract.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

NASA Plans To Put Nuclear Reactors On MARS To Power A Human Colony

The first humans to settle on Mars could have small nuclear power stations responsible for providing energy.

That’s because NASA is currently working on an £11 million project to develop nuclear fission reactors that could work on the red planet .

The space agency has built several 6.5ft (1.98m) reactors and is due to start testing them here on Earth.

Each reactor splits uranium atoms in half to generate power and, if they pass the initial tests, they could be shipped to Mars to be tested there.

Any human colony on the harsh planet will need power to generate oxygen, water, light, heat and electricity for recharging vehicles and scientific equipment.




Each nuclear reactor can produce up to 10 kilowatts of power – enough to support two people on an expedition mission to the planet.

That’s according to a 2008 paper in which NASA estimated that an eight-person expedition would need 40 kilowatts of power.

This isn’t the first time the US space agency has experimented with nuclear reactors in space.

Back in the 1960s it had a so-called SNAP (Systems for Nuclear Auxiliary Power) program that developed, among other things, the radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG).

This is, in effect, a small lump of decaying plutonium-238 that gives off heat and power as it breaks down.

Lee Mason, who oversees power and energy storage technology development at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, said that these new reactors will be the “first time we operate a fission reactor that could be used in space since [the] 1960s SNAP program.”

Successfully installing a power source on Mars is going to be a key part of establishing humans on the planet.

Fission reactors are a better choice than solar panels because of Mars’ distance from the sun and their resistance to the planet’s infamous dust storms.

We’ve landed some really cool things on Mars and they’ve had some pretty remarkable power systems … but they’re not going to cut it for human missions,” Mason said during last month’s Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, D.C.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

5 Reasons Why Smartphones With A Stylus Are Simply Better

1. No screen is too big

While a big screen means better viewing and more space for games, it also means awkward hand positions while typing or the fear of dropping your phone/making too many mistakes while writing something.




This is where the S Pen comes in. You can now easily hold the phone in one hand and write away with the other without any fear!


2. Use them in any climate!

The best part about an S Pen is that it can be used in any climate and any condition. You can easily send texts even if your hands are wet or soiled. Psst: Don’t forget to wipe your S Pen clean later.

 

3. A boon for those suffering from OCD

Do you cringe every time you come in contact with a touch-screen at a public facility like ATM machines or ticket vending kiosks?

Then you can just use an S Pen to operate touch screens other than your smartphones and rest assured that your fingers are germ free. Do we hear the ‘Monks’ cheering?

 

4. Keep your screen safe 

S Pens can save the day and a whole lot of screen trouble as they’re specially designed for your smartphone screens and keep the screens completely safe.

They’ll not only keep your precious phone screens scratch and smudge free but even save you thousands of bucks for screen damage repairs.

5. Precision redefined

The S Pen is designed with a special S tip that makes selecting text more easy and you almost always get precise results. No more scope for error or cussing out loud when you just cannot select the right text!

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Pass it on: Popular Science

Social Media Is Making You Depressed: Let’s Learn To Turn It Off

Do Facebook and Twitter make us happier? The answer it would seem is: no. A recent survey found as many as one in five people say they feel depressed as a result of using social media.

That might come as a surprise to the generation under 30; social media is part of their DNA and teenagers are rapidly losing the ability to communicate if not through their smartphones.

But the stress of constantly monitoring our statuses and endlessly documenting every aspect of our lives via networks like Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram is taking its toll.




Employers claim many school leavers are unprepared for the world of work, where they will have to interact with people outside their peer group and actually speak face-to-face with total strangers.

Meanwhile, there have been countless academic studies since 2015 on the negative impacts of social media, showing that its regular use leads to feelings of anxiety, isolation and low self-esteem, not to mention poor sleep.

We use these outlets to present a false picture of our lives to the online community; with flattering selfies and faux-glamorous images of holidays, parties and meals.

It’s as if we’re starring in a movie of the life we’d like to lead, not the humdrum one we actually inhabit. An underwhelming number lack of shares or ‘likes’ can lead to debilitating feelings of inadequacy.

We post intimate fragments of our lives to total strangers, falsely believing that a ‘friend’ online is a real friend whose opinions matter.

As for Twitter, it is a vehicle for screaming, nothing more and nothing less. Best not to read tweets if you are of a vulnerable disposition.

Twitter has an effect on one’s disposition; augmenting anger and upset. Many of the women I know have come off Twitter because of the constant abuse that waits every time they pick up their phone or log in to their computer.

The latest fashion among hipsters is to have a ‘digital-free’ home. That could be a good move.

Arianna Huffington has just written a book (The Sleep Revolution) citing experts who say there should be no screens in the bedroom and we shouldn’t use social media in the hour before lights-out.

How many times have we read a message on our phones and then spent hours in turmoil? Social media never switches off: someone, somewhere, is posting pictures, comments or messages, asking you to join a chat or wade in with an opinion.

No wonder many teenagers suffer from what shrinks call “decision paralysis”. The options are simply too enormous for any human brain to deal with.

For many people (not just teenagers), it seems the only way we can validate ourselves is though a screen, a habit which is just as bad for our health as over-indulging in drink or drugs.

And just as addictive.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

People Smell Great! Human Sniffers Sensitive as Dogs’

As you read this, take a whiff. What smells do you detect? How do these smells affect how you feel?

It’s rare that people consciously take in the smells around them, but a new review argues that the human sense of smell is more powerful than it’s usually given credit for, and that it plays a bigger role in human health and behavior than many medical experts realize.

The fact is the sense of smell is just as good in humans as in other mammals, like rodents and dogs,” John McGann, a neuroscientist at Rutgers University-New Brunswick in New Jersey and the author of the new review, said in a statement.




People often think of dogs and rats as the superior sniffers in the animal kingdom, but humans also have an extremely keen sense of smell, McGann argued in the review, which was published last year, May 11 in the journal Science.

In fact, humans can discriminate among 1 trillion different odors, McGann wrote, far more than a commonly cited claim that people can detect only about 10,000 different smells. [10 Things That Make Humans Special]

By overlooking humans’ keen smelling abilities, medicine may be missing a key component of human health, McGann said. S

mell influences human behavior, from stirring up memories to attracting sexual partners to influencing mood to shaping taste, he said.

It’s no coincidence that the French word for smell, “sentir,” also means to feel; emotion and smell are often intricately linked.

It’s true that humans have relatively smaller olfactory organs and fewer odor-detecting genes compared with other animals. However, the power of the human brain more than makes up for this.

When a person smells something, odor molecules bind to receptors in the nose.

These receptors send information about the molecules to the human olfactory bulb in the brain, which then sends signals to other areas of the brain to help identify scents.

This is different from the way smell works in dogs, McGann said. Dogs have a “pump” in their noses that’s designed to take in chemicals in liquid form for identification, he said.

Because the smelling mechanisms are so different, it’s hard to compare humans to dogs, McGann said.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

A New Study Suggests That As A Star Begins To Die And Slowly Expands Outward, It Would Temporarily Light Up As It Eats The Worlds It Hosts

600 light years away, in the constellation of Auriga, there is a star in some ways similar to our Sun. It’s a shade hotter (by about 800° C), more massive, and older.

Oddly, it appears to be laced with heavy elements: more oxygen, aluminum, and so on, than might be expected. A puzzle.

Then, last year, it was discovered that this star had a planet orbiting it. A project called WASP – Wide Area Search for Planets, a UK telescope system that searches for exoplanets — noticed that the star underwent periodic dips in its light.

This indicates that a planet circles the star, and when the planet gets between the star and us, it blocks a tiny fraction of the starlight.




The planet is a weirdo, for many reasons… but it won’t be weird for too much longer. That’s because the star is eating it.

OK, first, the planet. Called WASP 12b, it was instantly pegged as an oddball. The orbit is only 1.1 days long! Compare that to our own 365 day orbit, or even Mercury’s 88 days to circle the Sun.

This incredibly short orbital period means this planet is practically touching the surface of its star as it sweeps around at over 220 km/sec!

That also means it must be very hot; models indicate that the temperature at its cloud tops would be in excess of 2200°C.

Not only that, but other numbers were odd, too. WASP 12b was found to be a bit more massive and bigger than Jupiter; about 1.8 times its size and 1.4 times its mass.

That’s too big! Models indicate that planets this massive have a funny state of matter in them; they are so compressible that if you add mass, the planet doesn’t really get bigger, it just gets denser.

In other words, you could double Jupiter’s mass and its size wouldn’t increase appreciably, but since the mass goes up, so would its density.

But WASP 12b isn’t like that. In fact, it has a lower density than Jupiter, and is a lot bigger! Something must be going on… and when you see a lot of weird things all sitting in one place, it makes sense to assume they’re connected.

In this case it’s true: that planet is freaking hot, and that’s at the heart of this mess. Heating a planet that much would not exactly be conducive to its well-being.

When you heat a gas it expands, which would explain WASP 12b’s big size. It’s puffy! But being all bloated that close to a star turns out to be bad for your health.

Astronomers used Hubble to observe the planet in the ultraviolet and found clear signs of all sorts of heavy elements, including sodium, tin, aluminum, magnesium, and manganese, as well as, weirdly, ytterbium*.

Moreover, they could tell from the data that these elements existed in a cloud surrounding the planet, like an extended atmosphere going outward for hundreds of thousands of kilometers.

This explains the peculiar high abundance of heavy metals in the star I mentioned at the beginning of this post; they come from the planet! But not for long.

Given the mass of the planet and the density of the stream, it looks like it has roughly ten million years left. At that point, supper’s over: there won’t be anything left for the star to eat.

In reality it’s hard to say exactly what will happen; there may be a rocky/metal core to the planet that will survive. But even that is so close to the star that it will be a molten blob of goo.

The way orbits work, the way the dance of gravity plays out over time, the planet itself may actually be drawn inexorably closer to its star. Remember, too, the star is old, and will soon start to expand into a red giant.

So the planet is falling and the star is rising; eventually the two will meet and the planet will meet a fiery death.

All in all, it sucks to be WASP 12b.

But it’s cool to be an astronomer!

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Scientists Study Winter Storms Involving Thundersnow To Pinpoint Where Heavy Snowfalls May Occur

It’s been more than 30 years—during the Blizzard of 1978 to be exact—since Neil Stuart saw “thundersnow,” a weather phenomenon featuring the unusual combination of thunder, lightning and snow.

The National Weather Service (NWS) meteorologist was 10 years old, living near Boston. The storm—which he says “is famous in meteorological circles” and influenced his career path—dumped 27 inches of snow on the ground over two days.

The heaviest snow, however, came during a six-hour thundersnow storm that delivered one foot of snow over a six hour period.

Seeing thundersnow come down is “like watching a time-lapse movie of the snow building up, because it falls so quickly,” Stuart says.




 

Thunder and lightning during a snowstorm is different from a run-of-the-mill snowstorm; it is extremely rare—fewer than 1 percent of observed snowstorms unleash thundersnow, according to a 1971 NSW study.

But recorded observations of the phenomenon date back to 250 B.C., say ancient Chinese records translated in 1980 by atmospheric scientist Pao-Kuan Wang, now of the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Today, researchers are interested in thundersnow for its predictive value.

According to Patrick Market, an associate professor of atmospheric science at the University of Missouri, a 30-year study of snowfall found that when lightning is observed during a snowstorm, there is an 86 percent chance that at least 15 centimeters of snow will fall within 113 kilometers of the flash.

Researchers are trying to determine the combo of atmospheric conditions required to create thundersnow to help them better predict heavy snowfall.

Which they define as at least 20 centimeters falling at a rate of 7.5 to 10 centimeters per hour—and issue warnings about hazardous weather before it hits, giving people time to prepare, take cover and get off the road.

By the time the lightning flashes during a thundersnow-storm, it is often already too late to prepare local residents for the whiteout on the way.

If we’re talking about the observation of thundersnow,” Market says, “the predictive value is on the order of minutes to hours.

In the U.S. thundersnow is most likely to form in mountainous regions like the Rockies as well as in the vicinity of comparatively warm and large bodies of water such as the Great Lakes.

Snow requires a cold environment, adequate moisture to form clouds, and rising air; thundersnow makes an appearance when a fourth ingredient is added: thermal instability, which is created by the addition of relatively warm air.

Market last month joined a team of storm-chasing University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign researchers using various radars to examine what takes place inside storm clouds to cause snowfall.

The team is surveying atmospheric conditions in several locations in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.

A field mill, a device that measures electric fields near the ground, will be used to determine whether there is an accumulation of charged ice particles in the clouds above.

The team next year plans to fly into snowstorms in NWS planes and drop parcels containing thermometers, barometers and other devices that, like weather balloons, will measure temperature on their way down.

If the team encounters thundersnow during its study, it may be able to confirm the conditions needed to produce it, making such icy tempests easier to forecast.

With some lead time, [be it] hours or even a day or two,” Stuart says, “we can see a big storm and predict which areas will see extreme snowfall.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

Incredible Dashcam Footage Shows Giant Fireball Hurtling Towards Ground In Michigan Before Sparking 2.0 Magnitude Earthquake

The impressive dash-cam footage, recorded from a vehicle traveling on a motorway near the US city Detroit, shows a dazzlingly bright object hurtling towards the ground.

Other clips posted on social media also show the meteorite lighting up the night sky. Terrified onlookers posted dramatic footage and images of the cosmic event online.

It sparked a 2.0 magnitude earthquake near Detroit eastern Michigan, and a powerful explosion that shook homes.




The National Weather Service said: “After reviewing several observational data sets, we can confirm the flash and boom was NOT thunder or lightning, but instead a likely meteor.

The United States Geological Survey late confirmed a meteorite had been seen and heard in the area.

Meteors, also known as shooting stars, are created when little chunks of rock and debris in space fall through a planet’s atmosphere.

They leave a bright trail as they are heated by the friction of the atmosphere. If they hit the ground, they become a meteorite.

On Twitter, people reacted with shock at the phenomenon. “Did Michigan just get hit with a meteor? A bomb? A UFO?” one person said.

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Pass it on: Popular Science