Category: News Posts

The Harvard Library That Protects The World’s Rarest Colors

Today, every color imaginable is at your fingertips.

You can peruse paint swatches at hardware stores, flip through Pantone books, and fuss with the color finder that comes with most computer programs, until achieving the hue of your heart’s desire.

But rewind to a few centuries ago and finding that one specific color might have meant trekking to a single mineral deposit in remote Afghanistan–as was the case with lapis lazuli, a rock prized for its brilliant blue hue, which made it more valuable than gold in medieval times.

The history of pigments goes back to prehistoric times, but much of what we know about how they relate to the art world comes from Edward Forbes, a historian and director of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University from 1909 to 1944.

Considered the father of art conservation in the United States, Forbes traveled around the world amassing pigments in order to authenticate classical Italian paintings.

Over the years, the Forbes Pigment Collection–as his collection came to be known–grew to more than 2,500 different specimens, each with its own layered backstory on its origin, production, and use.

Today, the collection is used mostly for scientific analysis, providing standard pigments to compare to unknowns.

Narayan Khandekar is the director of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at the Harvard Art Museums and the collection’s custodian.

For the last 10 years, Khandekar has rebuilt the collection to include modern pigments to better analyze 20th century and contemporary art.

A lot has changed in the art world since painters worked with “colormen”–as tradesmen in dyes and pigments were known–to obtain their medium.

The commercialization of paints has transformed that process. “Artists today will use anything to get the idea that’s in their head into a physical form,” Khandekar says.

It could be pieces of plastic. It could be cans of food. It could be anything. We need to be able to identify lots of different materials that are industrially produced as well as things that are produced specifically for artists’ use.

The way he describes his work researching and cataloging pigments is akin to detective work. “We use our instruments in the same way that forensic scientists do,” Khandekar says.

We examine and find out what we can about the key compounds that will tell us the material’s origin.”

But instead of tools such as DNA analysis, he and his team of conservation scientists use techniques such as Raman spectroscopy, mass spectrometry, gas chromatography, and electron microscopy to map out the precise chemical composition of a pigment.


Synthetic Ultramarine
This was discovered in 1826 as the result of a contest. In a way it is like discovering how to make gold as artists no longer had to buy natural ultramarine at great cost.”

Mummy Brown
People would harvest mummies from Egypt and then extract the brown resin material that was on the wrappings around the bodies and turn that into a pigment.

“It’s a very bizarre kind of pigment, I’ve got to say, but it was very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Brazilwood is any of several tropical trees of the senna genus. Its hard, red-color wood has had limited use for violins, bows, veneer, and high-quality furniture.

“The wood contains the colorant brasilin, which gives a deep-red to brownish color. Brazilwood dye has been used for textile and leather dyes, inks, paints, varnish tints, and wood stains.”

A yellow vegetable dye, quercitron is extracted from the black or dark brown bark of the black oak, Quercus velutina, that is native to the Eastern and Midwestern parts of the United States.

The lipstick plant–a small tree, Bixa orellana, native to Central and South America–produces annatto, a natural orange dye.

“Seeds from the plant are contained in a pod surrounded with a bright red pulp. Currently, annatto is used to color butter, cheese, and cosmetics.

Lapis Lazuli
“People would mine it in Afghanistan, ship it across Europe, and it was more expensive that gold so it would have its own budget line on a commission.”

Dragon’s Blood
“It has a great name, but it’s not from dragons. [The bright red pigment] is from the rattan palm.”

“This red dye comes from squashed beetles, and it’s used in cosmetics and food.”

Cadmium Yellow
Cadmium yellow was introduced in the mid 19th century. It’s a bright yellow that many impressionists used. Cadmium is a heavy metal, very toxic.

“In the early 20th century, cadmium red was introduced. You find these pigments used in industrial processes. Up until the 1970s, Lego bricks had cadmium pigment in them.”

Emerald Green
This is made from copper acetoarsenite. We had a Van Gogh with a bright green background that was identified as emerald green.

“Pigments used for artists’ purposes can find their way into use in other areas as well. Emerald green was used as an insecticide, and you often see it on older wood that would be put into the ground, like railroad ties.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Google’s DeepMind AI Fakes Some Of The Most Realistic Human Voices Yet

Google’s DeepMind artificial intelligence has produced what could be some of the most realistic-sounding machine speech yet.

WaveNet, as the system is called, generates voices by sampling real human speech and directly modeling audio waveforms based on it, as well as its previously generated audio.

In Google’s tests, both English and Mandarin Chinese listeners found WaveNet more realistic than other types of text-to-speech programs, although it was less convincing than actual human speech.

If that weren’t enough, it can also play the piano rather well.

Text-to-speech programs are increasingly important for computing, as people begin to rely on bots and AI personal assistants like Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa, and the Google Assistant.

If you ask Siri or Cortana a question, though, they’ll reply with actual recordings of a human voice, rearranged and combined in small pieces.

This is called concatenative text to speech, and as one expert puts it, it’s a little like a ransom note.

The results are often fairly realistic, but as Google writes, producing a new audio persona or tone of voice requires having an actor record every possible sound in a database. Here’s one phrase, created by Google.

The alternative is parametric text to speech — building a completely computer-generated voice, using coded rules based on grammar or mouth sounds.

Parametric voices don’t need source material to produce words. But the results, at least in English, are often stilted and robotic. You can hear that here.

Google’s system is still based on real voice input. But instead of chopping up recordings, it learns from them, then independently creates its own sounds in a variety of voices. The results are something like this.

Granted, there’s already plenty of generative music, and it’s not nearly as complicated as making speech that humans will recognize as their own.

On a scale from 1 (not realistic) to 5 (very realistic), listeners in around 500 blind tests rated WaveNet at 4.21 in English and 4.08 in Mandarin.

While even human speech didn’t get a perfect 5, it was still higher, at 4.55 in English and 4.21 in Mandarin. On the other hand, WaveNet outperformed other methods by a wide margin.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Largest Known Prime Number Discovered With Over 23 Million Digits

A collaborative computational effort has uncovered the longest known prime number.

At over 23 million digits long, the new number has been given the name M77232917 for short.

Prime numbers are divisible only by themselves and one, and the search for ever-larger primes has long occupied maths enthusiasts.

However, the search requires complicated computer software and collaboration as the numbers get increasingly hard to find.

M77232917 was discovered on a computer belonging to Jonathan Pace, an electrical engineer from Tennessee who has been searching for big primes for 14 years.

Mr Pace discovered the new number as part of the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS), a project started in 1996 to hunt for these massive numbers.

Mersenne primes – named after the 17th century French monk Marin Mersenne who studied them – are calculated by multiplying together many twos and then subtracting one.

Six days of non-stop computing in which 77,232,917 twos were multiplied together resulted in the latest discovery.

The number is the 50th Mersenne prime to be discovered, and the 16th to be discovered by the GIMPS project.

It is nearly one million digits longer than the previous record holder, which was identified as part of the same project at the beginning of 2016.

Mersenne primes are a particular focus for prime aficionados because there is a relatively straightforward way to check whether a number is one or not.

Nevertheless, the new prime has to be verified using four different computer programs on four different computers.

The process also relies on thousands of volunteers sifting through millions of non-prime candidates before the lucky individual chances upon their target.

Professor Caldwell runs an authoritative website on the largest prime numbers, with a focus on the history of Mersenne primes.

He emphasised the pure excitement that searching for prime numbers brings, describing the latest discovery as “a museum piece as opposed to something that industry would use”.

Besides the thrill of discovery, Mr Pace will receive a $3,000 (£2,211) GIMPS research discovery award.

GIMPS uses the power of thousands of ordinary computers to search for elusive primes, and the team behind it state that anybody with a reasonably powerful PC can download the necessary software and become a “big prime hunter”.

The next Mersenne prime discovery could be smaller or larger than the existing record holder, but the big target for the GIMPS team is to find a 100 million digit prime number.

The person who discovers such a number will be awarded $150,000 by the Electronic Frontier Foundation for their efforts.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

SpaceX To Launch Heaviest Rocket Falcon Heavy At ‘End Of Month’, Elon Musk Announces

The space exploration company has said that it will fire its Falcon Heavy rocket in a test flight from the Kennedy Space Center “at the end of the month”, without giving a specific date.Billionaire Mr Musk posted a picture of the Falcon Heavy on Instagram, alongside the caption: “At 2500 tons of thrust, equal to 18 Boeing 747 aircraft at full throttle, it will be the most powerful rocket in the world by a factor of two.

Excitement on launch day guaranteed, one way or another.”

Rather than carrying a customers’ payload, the Falcon Heavy will carry a “cherry Tesla Roadster” to orbit Mars, playing David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ on repeat.

The firm said it would “be in deep space for a billion years or so if it doesn’t blow up on ascent.

Last month, Mr Musk posted a series of pictures on Instagram of the red Tesla Roadster inside the Falcon Heavy.Alongside the images, Mr Musk put: “Test flights of new rockets usually contain mass simulators in the form of concrete or steel blocks.

“That seemed extremely boring. Of course, anything boring is terrible, especially companies, so we decided to send something unusual, something that made us feel.

“The payload will be an original Tesla Roadster, playing Space Oddity, on a billion-year elliptic Mars orbit.”However, Mr Musk has admitted there is a significant chance that the Falcon Heavy rocket test could fail.

Speaking of the rocket in July, he said: “I hope it makes it far enough away from the pad that it does not cause pad damage.

“I would consider even that a win, to be honest.”

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Pass it on: New Scientist

This Is NASA’s Plan For Humanity’s Return To The Moon, And Beyond

There is still no official NASA mission to Mars, but after years of uncertainty, America’s space agency is giving us a glimpse of its grand strategy to extend human presence beyond low-Earth orbit with a plan to build a solid technological foundation for sending astronauts to other worlds.

The decades-long space exploration schedule, detailed in a press conference last week with NASA’s William Gerstenmaier, lists 10 upcoming missions involving NASA’s new-generation Orion spacecraft.

But unlike earlier disjointed proposals for loosely defined missions, this new plan is laid out more like an Ikea manual—a step-by-step guide on how to get to Mars.

NASA says the enterprise relies on a substantial but not outrageous budget, and that the plan has been drafted in close coordination with NASA’s key partners like the European Space Agency, Roscosmos, JAXA, and the Canadian Space Agency.

The main goal of the Orion program is to assemble a Moon-orbiting space station, which by the end of the 2020s could be beefed up to become a kind of interplanetary mothership.

Without additional money, the proposed spacecraft will not be able to put astronauts onto the surface of Mars, but it will be able to carry a crew into the vicinity of the Red Planet as early as 2033, says Gerstenmaier.

Visits to Martian moons Phobos and Deimos and expeditions to asteroids might also be possible.

In a nutshell, this is the closest humanity’s ever been to setting foot on Mars and many other destinations in the Solar System.

The program will certainly be the boldest, riskiest, and most ambitious undertaking for human spaceflight in nearly half a century—since the end of the Apollo program in 1972.

Now for a gut punch of reality. Due to budget constraints, the Mars program likely move at a snail’s pace, according to available flight manifests.

That means its unlikely astronauts will have a chance to leave new footprints on another world before well into the 2030s.

An even longer wait is a bitter pill to swallow, and that probably explains why NASA has been shy about publicizing its mega-plan right away.

It’s easy to draw parallels with the Apollo program’s 10-year plan for putting a man on the moon to the Orion project, which has been in planning and development since 2003 and is not even expected to carry its first crew until 2021.

The first manned flight of Orion, called Exploration Mission 2 or EM-2 was recently “de-ambitioned” from entering a lunar orbit to just running a quick loop behind the Moon and returning to Earth eight days after liftoff from Cape Canaveral.

In the meantime, NASA’s international partners will have an opportunity to dispatch robotic and, possibly, even human missions to the surface of the Moon.

With the nascent outpost growing in the vicinity of the Moon, the Orion crews could extend their stays in lunar orbit from a week to months or even a year.

Inhabitants of the outpost could also make outings to other locations near the Moon, such as a visit to a scientifically interesting Lagrangian points, where gravitational forces of the Moon and the Earth cancel each other out.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Black Holes Offer A Way To Another Universe, Stephen Hawking Said

Things might fall through black holes into an alternate universe, according to a newly published paper by Stephen Hawking.

The professor has laid out a theory that suggests the holes aren’t quite as black as previously thought.

Rather than destroying everything that goes near them, we might not need to be so afraid of black holes, he said in a paper published this week in Physical Review Letters, written with colleagues Andrew Strominger.

He is a professor of physics at Harvard University, and Malcolm Perry, a professor of theoretical physics at Cambridge University.

If the work is correct – and the new paper means that the theory, only suggested, has now received approval from other experts – then it could solve a central paradox of black holes.

Professor Hawking’s paper addresses a fundamental assumption about black holes – that they have “no hair”.

It has previously been assumed that anything that falls into a black hole would be destroyed and lost forever.

That caused problems because the information about the object has to be preserved, even if the object itself is entirely swallowed up – and it has remained unclear how those two things could both happen.

The universe is meant to keep a kind of log of what it contains – even if it fell into a black hole and was destroyed – but until now the information in that log was thought to be lost along with the thing itself, swallowed up by the black hole.

But Professor Hawking has since last year been implying that anything that falls into a black hole shouldn’t give up hope of coming back out – somewhere.

The paradox is solved because the information is stored on the boundary, or event horizon, of the hole, so it doesn’t come back out of the pit so much as stay away from its most terrifying part.

That way out wouldn’t take people back to where they’d come from, he has said. Instead, they would reappear, but somewhere else – perhaps even in an alternative universe.

Professor Hawking’s theory helps keep some of the most central parts of our assumptions about the universe intact.

If it is possible to destroy information, for instance, then it’s possible to speculate that the past might not exist at all.

Black holes would be able to delete parts of the past – and, as Mr Hawking said: “It’s the past that tells us who we are. Without it we lose our identity.”

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Pass it on: New Scientist

No ‘Alien Megastructure’ Around Tabby’s Star, Only Cosmic Dustbunnies

Sorry to burst your bubble, folks, but the mysteriously dimming Tabby’s Star isn’t due to an “alien megastructure” after all – it’s just obscured by dust, according to a paper published today.

KIC 8462852 (but Tabby’s Star is catchier) was first spotted by NASA’s Kepler telescope.

It quickly became an object of fascination for citizen scientists working for the Planet Hunters project, hoping to discover why its brightness levels weirdly dipped for prolonged periods.

Other than that, it’s a pretty regular flaming gas ball.

Located in the Cygnus constellation, the F-type main sequence star is about 1,000 light years away, and is about 50 per cent bigger and 1,000oC (1,832oF) hotter than the Sun.

Several hypotheses have been suggested for the dimming light. Some people thought it was due to cold comet fragments circling the star in a highly eccentric orbit. Others believed it was a sign of extraterrestrial life trying to communicate.

Over 1,700 people donated more than $107,000 (£73,708) through a Kickstarter campaign to support a team of more than 200 researchers to observe the star at the Las Cumbres Observatory in Goleta, California, from March 2016 to December 2017.

The results have now been published in The Astrophysical Journal and suggest the dimming is all just down to, er, dust. NASA also proposed dust in uneven rings as the cause back in October last year.

Jason Wright, co-author of the paper and an astrophysics assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University, said: “We were hoping that once we finally caught a dip happening in real time we could see if the dips were the same depth at all wavelengths.

If they were nearly the same, this would suggest that the cause was something opaque, like an orbiting disk, planet, or star, or even large structures in space.

But careful analysis showed that the intensity of the dimming of the light varied across different wavelengths.

Tabetha Boyajian, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of astrophysics at Louisiana State University, said: “Dust is most likely the reason why the star’s light appears to dim and brighten.

The new data shows that different colors of light are being blocked at different intensities. Therefore, whatever is passing between us and the star is not opaque, as would be expected from a planet or alien megastructure.”

Although the results rule out more exotic explanations, they still raises interesting questions, Wright said.

Boyajian said the prospect was “exciting”.

I am so appreciative of all of the people who have contributed to this in the past year – the citizen scientists and professional astronomers.

“It’s quite humbling to have all of these people contributing in various ways to help figure it out.

“If it wasn’t for people with an unbiased look on our universe, this unusual star would have been overlooked.”

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Belly Fat Is More Dangerous Than Being Overweight, Study Finds

In older women, it’s not excess weight that’s deadly, but where those extra pounds collect that can shorten life, a new study reports.

Among women 70 to 79, being overweight or obese didn’t appear to cut years of life — unless the weight was centered around the waist.

But being underweight also appeared to shorten life span, researchers found.

Abdominal fat is more deadly than carrying excess weight,” said lead researcher Zhao Chen. She’s chair of the University of Arizona’s department of epidemiology and biostatistics in the College of Public Health.

While the study found that a large waist circumference is detrimental, Hispanic women were somewhat protected.

They had lower mortality rates at any waist measurement or BMI level than white or black women.

Chen added, “An older woman should be concerned when her body weight is below normal for her height, and less concerned when she is slightly heavier than normal.”

The researchers found that the risk of mortality increased when waist circumference measured more than 31.5 inches (80 centimeters), and they classified anything above nearly 35 inches (88 centimeters) as an “extreme risk.”

The study looked at weight by using body mass index (BMI) measurements. BMI is a rough estimate of a person’s body fat based on height and weight measurements.

A BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 is considered normal weight. Below 18.5 is underweight, while 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight.

Obesity is a BMI of 30 or more. But obesity can also be broken into three classes, as was done in this study.

Class I or “slight” obesity is a BMI of 30 to 34.9. Class II is 35 to 39.9, and class III is a BMI of 40 or above.

Although being overweight is often considered generally bad for your health, how bad may depend on your age, race and ethnic background, Chen said.

In general, these findings suggest that being underweight is more detrimental in older women, and being slightly heavier in later life could be beneficial, she said.

Body weight can reflect several different aspects of body composition, each reflecting health and disease in its own way, Chen said.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

A New Implant Heals Broken Legs by Transforming Into Real Bone

When a bone breaks, medical devices and objects like screws and pins are often used to hold the pieces together while the bone heals.

But this process can be extremely painful, long, and difficult. One new technological marvel might make these methods obsolete.

This potentially game-changing new tool is a 3D printed ceramic implant that holds fractured bones together while turning into actual, natural bone.

Created by Hala Zreiqat at the University of Sydney in Australia and her colleagues, this implant has successfully repaired broken arm bones in rabbits in testing.

Additionally, in a soon-to-be-published study, the team tested this ability with large leg fractures in sheep.

Despite the small sample, the researchers were encouraged by the fact that the experiment was equally successful in all the eight animals involved in the study.

According to the scientists, the sheep were able to walk immediately after surgery where the implant was placed.

However, for four weeks after surgery, the sheep did walk with plaster casts to improve stabilization throughout the healing process.

Three months post-op, the researchers observed complete healing in 25 percent of the fractures, and this rose to 88 percent at the one-year mark.

Additionally, as these bones grew back, the scaffolds of the initial implant dissolved gradually.

So, not only does the implant allow the bone to heal while quite literally creating natural bone in places where it’s missing, but it also dissolves when it is no longer needed.

The implant has a similar composition to natural bone.

So the researchers concluded that it was able to dissolve seamlessly without any toxic side effects and meld into the bone because, “the body can’t tell the difference,” Zreiqat said.

The implant is porous and acts as a scaffold that natural bone and blood vessels can grow through, which makes it a seemingly perfect tool in bone restoration.

This, if it continues to prove successful in testing, would be a drastic improvement to treatment for broken bones.

The sheep in the study were observed to be extremely tolerant of the implants.

Additionally, methods that use bone grafts can be rejected by a patient’s immune system, whereas the ceramic implant tested here was not.

Specifically, the implant is made up of calcium silicate, the mineral granite, and small amounts of strontium and zinc which are trace elements in natural bone.

One downside to the new implants seems to be their rigidity, but for many people the use of these grafts could significantly reduce pain and allow them to heal faster.

The future of medicine will benefit from unique applications of advancing technologies.

3D printing isn’t just for plastics and digital devices. Biological elements can be used within the medical sector to improve the lives of patients, physicians, and the continually developing field.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Recreational Marijuana Is Now For Sale In California

The Golden State is about to get a lot greener.

Sales of recreational marijuana began on Monday, January 1, after Californians voted to legalize the drug in the 2016 election.

The market’s debut brings an end to prohibition in the most populous state, which is now also the biggest legal marijuana market in America.

Adults over the age of 21 can now use, carry, and buy up to an ounce of marijuana for non-medical use, and grow as many as six plants at home, without a doctor’s letter.

How can you buy it?

Though it is legal, Golden State tokers won’t find marijuana in corner drug stores.

California began issuing temporary licenses to dispensaries — or pot shops — in December that will allow those stores to sell non-medical marijuana. The licenses became valid on January 1.

So far, the state Bureau of Cannabis Control has awarded retail licenses to 42 dispensaries from Eureka to Oakland to San Diego.

Customers can view a full list of the pot shops that received licenses on the bureau’s website.

State rules dictate that marijuana will not be sold between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Not everyone in California is on board with the so-called green rush.

A review by the Los Angeles Times found that more than 70% of California’s counties and cities, including Fresno, Bakersfield, and Anahaim, have moved to ban the sale or cultivation of marijuana.

How much will it cost?

The nation’s going rate for legal, non-medical marijuana is about $11 per gram or $34 for an eighth of an ounce, according to price index site MJCharts.

State law imposes a 15% tax on sales of the drug, which will generate up to $1 billion in new tax revenue annually, according to the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Additional state and local taxes means some Californians could expect to pay an effective tax rate of 45% each time they buy.

BDS Analytics, a marijuana data insights company, told Business Insider that a shortage could causes prices to rise as much as 10 to 20% — roughly $2 more per gram or $7 more per eighth of an ounce.

Where can you smoke it?

It’s still illegal to consume marijuana in public, on sidewalks, and in places where smoking tobacco is prohibited, like restaurants and theaters.

Lighting up while driving is also off-limits. People busted for smoking weed in public can expect to pay a fine between $100 and $250.

A private home is the safest bet for legal toking, though landlords may prohibit the possession of marijuana on their premises.

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Pass it on: New Scientist