[Video] 3 Fascinating Facts about Pluto from New Horizons

The New Horizons spacecraft continues to send data back to us from about 35 Astronomical Units (AU) away, and since an AU is equal to the average distance of the earth from the sun – about 93 million miles – and it takes a long time for it to get back to us here on Earth. Also, the spacecraft has a limited amount of power to devote to data transmission and lots of data to send back, so we just have to be patient to learn all of the secrets that the New Horzions’ data will reveal.

In the meantime, here are 3 awesome videos form NASA’s “Pluto in a Minute” channel that reveal some recent cool facts from the data we do have so far:

Continue on to the next page to learn about the amazing frozen volcanoes on Pluto…


Mystery of ‘Alien Megastructure Star’ Deepens

The mystery of the so-called “alien megastructure” star, just got deeper as another study has discounted the hypothesis that the authors of the original paper on this star had felt was the most likely explanation for the mysterious dimming of the star that was detected.

The star, officially know as KIC 8462852 – and also referred to informally as “Tabby’s Star” after the astronomer who discovered it, Tabetha Boyajian of Yale University – has previously been reported on Science Rocks My World (This Mysterious Star is Baffling AstronomersResearch of Mysterious Dimming Star Rapidly Moves to Next PhaseSearch for Intelligent Life Around “Megastructure Star” Inconclusive – So FarMore News from NASA on the Mysterious “Megastructure Star”, and More Studies, But Still No Sign of Life Around ‘Megastructure Star’).

In the latest study, astronomer Bradley Schaefer of Louisiana State University studied almost a century’s worth of astronomical photographic plates that had been digitally scanned into a Harvard University archive. He was looking for a signal that would be similar to what the researchers had originally detected, but did not any evidence of that. This means that it’s not only unlikely that the the unusual dimming detected by the original research team is caused by alien megastructures, but also that the “cloud of comets” hypothesis put forward by the Yale astronomers is probably also unlikely.

However, the star had piqued his curiousity, so he took another look, and he found something very unusual about the star. Continue reading to learn this latest oddity of Tabby’s star.


Food Safety Testing with a New Twist in the Works from IBM

Big-data computer company IBM is working on an innovative project that may have a big role in making the food supply safer in the future. The computer behemoth has partnered with the Mars food company to begin testing ingredients coming into on of the company’s plants.

What’s the new twist? IBM will be sequencing the genetics of the microbiome (yes, the bacteria!) of the meats and other ingredients that go into the Mars products. By sequencing a large number of each ingredient’s normal microbiome, IBM believes that it will become easier to detect when something unusual shows up there. In other words, they won’t be testing for the presence of specific microbes, but rather for what’s normally there. Current tests can return negative results when there is some new or unexpected microbe that somehow makes its way into the food supply.

An informative article on the Forbes website details the approach:

The goal—at once futuristic and a little icky—is to track food across the sprawling, global supply chain by sequencing the DNA of the microorganisms that live on it.

Just like our bodies, our food has thousands of these tiny hitchhikers, the vast majority harmless, making up what’s known as a “microbiome.” According to lead researcher Jeff Welser, conditions as diverse as soil and processing methods all influence a food’s microbiome, making the collective DNA of its microorganisms a detailed and unique record of its path to your plate.

To explain how microbiome testing could improve on current food safety standards, Welser points to the appearance of melamine in Chinese food products in 2008. The problem initially went undetected because, he says, no one was specifically testing for melamine. But a microbiome-based test could detect any shift away from a ‘normal’ baseline, because anything from tampered ingredients to unsafe handling would change a food’s microorganism profile.

Welser points out that most current food safety tests come back negative—which is great, but doesn’t provide a lot of bang for the testing buck. Microbiome testing wouldn’t just improve existing standards, it would also produce a data set with many other applications—something like a Google Analytics for food production.

“Wouldn’t it be great,” he asks, “If every test I did taught me something?”

Microbiome DNA testing could help producers track which healthy microbiomes help meats, fruits, and vegetables stay fresh longer on store shelves. That data could then be used to tailor farming or processing globally to promote microbiomes with preservative properties.

“The other thing you get for free on this,” Welser continues, “Is a really easy and clear way to stop food fraud.” For instance, testing fish would confirm that it’s the species a supplier claims it to be.

You can read more about this innovative new approach to using big data for food testing in the excellent article on the Forbes website.

Source: Forbes.com – “Your Food’s Bacteria is a Big Data Gold Mine”

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Pluto has Much More Water Ice than Previously Thought

A new analysis in the infrared spectrum by New Horizons mission scientists has revealed that water-based ice is widespread on Pluto and, in fact, is the “crustal bedrock” of the dwarf planet, according to a recent article on the NASA website.

Researchers were very interested in reanalyzing the data because found that they needed to refine the initial analysis that of the spacecraft’s LEISA instrument data in order to gain a better understanding of the prevalence of water ice.

The NASA article explains this new analysis and it’s surprising results:

This false-color image [shown below], derived from observations in infrared light by the Ralph/Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA) instrument, shows where the spectral features of water ice are abundant on Pluto’s surface. It is based on two LEISA scans of Pluto obtained on July 14, 2015, from a range of about 67,000 miles (108,000 kilometers).

The scans, taken about 15 minutes apart, were stitched into a combined multispectral Pluto “data cube” covering the full hemisphere visible to New Horizons as it flew past Pluto. A data cube like this is a three-dimensional array in which an image of Pluto is formed at each LEISA-sensitive wavelength.

Water ice is Pluto’s crustal “bedrock,” the canvas on which its more volatile ices paint their seasonally changing patterns. Initial New Horizons maps of Pluto’s water ice bedrock compared LEISA spectra with a pure water ice template spectrum, resulting in the map at left.

A disadvantage of that technique is that water ice’s spectral signature is easily masked by methane ice, so that map was only sensitive to areas that were especially rich in water ice and/or depleted in methane. The much more sensitive method used on the right involves modeling the contributions of Pluto’s various ices all together. This method, too, has limitations in that it can only map ices included in the model, but the team is continually adding more data and improving the model.

The new map shows exposed water ice to be considerably more widespread across Pluto’s surface than was previously known — an important discovery. But despite its much greater sensitivity, the map still shows little or no water ice in the informally named places called Sputnik Planum (the left or western region of Pluto’s “heart”) and Lowell Regio (far north on the encounter hemisphere). This indicates that at least in these regions, Pluto’s icy bedrock is well hidden beneath a thick blanket of other ices such as methane, nitrogen and carbon monoxide.

Evidence of widespread water ice is shown in this comparison of the two different analysis of LEISA data. (Credit: NASA)
Evidence of widespread water ice is shown in this comparison of the two different analysis of LEISA data. (Credit: NASA)

This incredible discovery may mean that Pluto could someday be used as a water top-up stop for interstellar missions.

Source: NASA.gov – “Pluto’s Widespread Water Ice”

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Breakthrough Drug is Like Morphine Without the Addiction

Scientists are testing a new painkiller that is as strong as morphine but isn’t likely to be addictive and with fewer side effects.

Using rats, scientists compared several engineered variants of the neurochemical endomorphin, which is found naturally in the body, to morphine to measure their effectiveness and side effects. The peptide-based drugs target the same pain-relieving opioid receptor as morphine.

Opium-based drugs are the leading treatments for severe and chronic pain, but they can be highly addictive. Their abuse results in thousands of overdose deaths in the United States annually. They can cause motor impairment and potentially fatal respiratory depression. Patients also build up tolerance over time, increasing the risk for abuse and overdose.

“These side effects were absent or reduced with the new drug,” says lead investigator James Zadina, a professor of medicine, pharmacology, and neuroscience at Tulane University School of Medicine. “It’s unprecedented for a peptide to deliver such powerful pain relief with so few side effects.”

In the study, the new endomorphin drug produced longer pain relief without substantially slowing breathing in rats; a similarly potent dosage of morphine produced significant respiratory depression. Impairment of motor coordination, which can be of particular importance to older adults, was significant after morphine but not with the endomorphin drug.

The new drug produced far less tolerance than morphine and did not produce spinal glial cell activation, an inflammatory effect of morphine known to contribute to tolerance.

Scientists conducted several experiments to test whether the drug would be addictive. One showed that although rats would spend more time in a compartment where they had received morphine, the new drug did not affect this behavior.

Another test showed that when the press of a bar produced an infusion of drug, the rats only increased efforts to obtain morphine and not the new drug. The tests are predictive of human drug abuse, Zadina says.

They published the results in the journal Neuropharmacology, and they hope to begin human clinical trials of the new drug within the next two years.

Republished from Futurity.org as a derivative work under the Attribution 4.0 International license. Original article posted to Futurity by .

Featured Photo Credit: Tom Varco via Wikimedia Commons

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Zika Virus: ‘Is About as Scary as it Gets’

The Zika virus, unlike other mosquito-borne viruses such as dengue, has until now been relatively unknown and unstudied.

That is set to change since Zika, now spreading through Latin America and the Caribbean, has been associated with an alarming rise in babies in Brazil born with abnormally small heads and brain defects—a condition called microcephaly.

“This is a huge public health emergency and horrible on many levels,” says Uriel Kitron, chair of the environmental sciences department at Emory University and an expert in vector-borne diseases, which are transmitted by mosquitoes, ticks, or other organisms.


“The microcephaly cases are a personal tragedy for the families whose babies are affected. They will need much care and support, some of them for decades. The costs to the public health system will be enormous, and Brazil was already experiencing an economic crisis.”

For the past several years, Kitron has collaborated with Brazilian scientists and health officials to study the dengue virus, which is spread by the same mosquito species, Aedes aegypti, as Zika. The focus of that collaboration is now shifting to Zika.

“Dengue is a very serious disease, but it doesn’t usually kill people,” Kitron says. “Zika is a game-changer. It appears that this virus may pass through a woman’s placenta and impact her unborn child. That’s about as scary as it gets.”

Since the Zika outbreak began in northeastern Brazil last spring, an estimated 500,000 to 1.5 million people have been infected. The resulting illness only lasts a few days. The symptoms, including a rash, joint pains, inflammation of the eyes and fever, tend to be less debilitating than those of dengue. As many as 80 percent of infected people may be asymptomatic.

It was not until months after Zika cases showed up in Brazil that a spike in microcephaly births was tied to women infected during pregnancy. More than 3,500 microcephaly cases have been reported since October in Brazil, compared to around 150 cases in 2014.

What’s scary is that we just don’t know much about the virus, read on to learn more.


Google’s Go triumph is a milestone for artificial intelligence research

Peter Cowling, University of York and Sam Devlin, University of York

Researchers from Google DeepMind have developed the first computer able to defeat a human champion at the board game Go. But why has the online giant invested millions of dollars and some of the finest minds in Artificial Intelligence (AI) research to create a computer board game player?

Go is not just any board game. It’s more than 2,000 years old and is played by more than 60m people across the world – including a thousand professionals. Creating a superhuman computer Go player able to beat these top pros has been one of the most challenging targets of AI research for decades.

The rules are deceptively simple: two players take turns to place white and black “stones” on an empty 19×19 board, each aiming to encircle the most territory. Yet these basics yield a game of extraordinary beauty and complexity, full of patterns and flow. Go has many more possible positions than even chess – in fact, there are more possibilities in a game of Go than we would get by considering a separate chess game played on every atom in the universe.

AI researchers have therefore long regarded Go as a “grand challenge”. Whereas even the best human chess players had fallen to computers by the 1990s, Go remained unbeaten. This is a truly historic breakthrough.

Games are the ‘lab rats’ of AI research

Since the term “artificial intelligence” or “AI” was first coined in the 1950s, the range of problems which it can solve has been increasing at an accelerating rate. We take it for granted that Amazon has a pretty good idea of what we might want to buy, for instance, or that Google can complete our partially typed search term, though these are both due to recent advances in AI.

Go originated in China over 2,000 years ago and is played by millions. A.Davey via flickr, CC-BY 4.0

Computer games have been a crucial test bed for developing and testing new AI techniques – the “lab rat” of our research. This has led to superhuman players in checkers, chess, Scrabble, backgammon and more recently, simple forms of poker.

Games provide a fascinating source of tough problems – they have well-defined rules and a clear target: to win. To beat these games the AIs were programmed to search forward into possible futures and choose the move which leads to the best outcome – which is similar to how good human players make decisions.

Yet Go proved hardest to beat because of its enormous search space and the difficulty of working out who is winning from an unfinished game position. Back in 2001, Jonathan Schaeffer, a brilliant researcher who created a perfect AI checkers player, said it would “take many decades of research and development before world-championship-caliber Go programs exist”. Until now, even with recent advances, it still seemed at least ten years out of reach.

The breakthrough

Google’s announcement, in the journal Nature, details
how its machine “learned” to play Go by analysing millions of past games by professional human players and simulating thousands of possible future game states per second. Specifically, the researchers at DeepMind trained “convolutional neural networks”, algorithms that mimic the high-level structure of the brain and visual system and which have recently seen an explosion in their effectiveness, to predict expert moves.

This learning was combined with Monte Carlo tree search approaches which use randomness and machine learning to intelligently search the “tree” of possible future board states. These searches have massively increased the strength of computer Go players since their invention less than ten years ago, as well as finding applications in many other domains.

Only human: Fan Hui at a tournament in 2006. lyonshinogi via flickr, CC BY-SA

The resulting “player” significantly outperformed all existing state-of-the-art AI players and went on to beat the current European champion, Fan Hui, 5-0 under tournament conditions.

AI passes ‘Go’

Now that Go has seemingly been cracked, AI needs a new grand challenge – a new “lab rat” – and it seems likely that many of these challenges will come from the $100 billion digital games industry. The ability to play alongside or against millions of engaged human players provides unique opportunities for AI research. At York’s centre for Intelligent Games and Game Intelligence, we’re working on projects such as building an AI aimed at player fun (rather than playing strength), for instance, or using games to improve well-being of people with Alzheimer’s. Collaborations between multidisciplinary labs like ours, the games industry and big business are likely to yield the next big AI breakthroughs.

A computer can run through thousands of these per second.

However the real world is a step up, full of ill-defined questions that are far more complex than even the trickiest of board games. The techniques which conquered Go can certainly be applied in medicine, education, science or any other domain where data is available and outcomes can be evaluated and understood.

The big question is whether Google just helped us towards the next generation of Artificial General Intelligence, where machines learn to truly think like – and beyond – humans. Whether we’ll see AlphaGo as a step towards Hollywood’s dreams (and nightmares) of AI agents with self-awareness, emotion and motivation remains to be seen. However the latest breakthrough points to a brave new future where AI will continue to improve our lives by helping us to make better-informed decisions in a world of ever-increasing complexity.

The Conversation

Peter Cowling, Professor of Computer Science, University of York and Sam Devlin, Research Fellow in Artificial Intelligence and Digital Games, University of York

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Featured Photo Credit: Xchen27, CC BY-SA

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Pen-sized Microscope Will Simplify Cancer Detection [Video]

Engineers at the University of Washington are developing a handheld microscope, roughly the size of a pen, that could help surgeons see at the cellular level where tumors stop and start.

To create a handheld dual-axis confocal microscope, UW engineers miniaturized the larger microscope prototype seen on the table into a device roughly the size of a pen. (Credit: Dennis Wise, University of Washington)
To create a handheld dual-axis confocal microscope, UW engineers miniaturized the larger microscope prototype seen on the table into a device roughly the size of a pen. (Credit: Dennis Wise, University of Washington)

“Surgeons don’t have a very good way of knowing when they’re done cutting out a tumor,” says Jonathan Liu, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Washington. “They’re using their sense of sight, their sense of touch, pre-operative images of the brain—and oftentimes it’s pretty subjective.

“Being able to zoom and see at the cellular level during the surgery would really help them to accurately differentiate between tumor and normal tissues and improve patient outcomes,” says Liu, who is senior author of a paper in Biomedical Optics Express that describes the technology.

The microscope combines technologies in a novel way to deliver high-quality images at faster speeds than existing devices. Researchers expect to begin testing it as a cancer-screening tool in clinical settings next year.


For instance, dentists who find a suspicious-looking lesion in a patient’s mouth often wind up cutting it out and sending it to a lab to be biopsied for oral cancer. Most come back benign.

That process subjects patients to an invasive procedure and overburdens pathology labs. Instead, physicians could use the microscope to better assess which lesions or moles are normal and which ones need to be biopsied.

“The microscope technologies that have been developed over the last couple of decades are expensive and still pretty large, about the size of a hair dryer or a small dental x-ray machine,” says study coauthor Milind Rajadhyaksha, associate faculty member in the dermatology service at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. “So there’s a need for creating much more miniaturized microscopes.”

Read on to understand the challenges that the team faced to engineer their miniaturized microscope and to see a short video and examples of the images it can produce.


Polar Bears Prove that Bigger Brain Equals Smarter [Video]

Scientists have suspected that brain size is linked to intelligence, but there’s not been enough evidence to show that a bigger brain predicts cognitive ability.

To gather the evidence, researchers traveled to nine US zoos and presented 140 animals from 39 different mammalian carnivore species with a novel problem-solving task.

The study included polar bears, arctic foxes, tigers, river otters, wolves, spotted hyenas, and some rare, exotic species, such as binturongs, snow leopards, and wolverines.

Each animal was given 30 minutes to extract food from a metal box, closed with a bolt latch. The box was scaled to the animal’s size and baited with each study animal’s preferred food—red pandas received bamboo and snow leopards got steak.

“Does a larger brain imply greater intelligence?” asks George Gilchrist, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Environmental Biology, which helped fund the research. “This is a key question for those studying brain evolution.

“These researchers devised a clever puzzle that could be presented to multiple species—and discovered a strong correlation between relatively large brain size and problem-solving ability.”

Next, learn about the high success rate that bears had, and watch a great video of different animals taking the test…


New Low-cost Filter Removes Toxic Metals in One Pass

A new water filter can remove toxic heavy metal ions and radioactive substances in just one pass.

The filter membrane is a hybrid of two low-cost materials: whey protein fibers and activated charcoal. The simple technology overcomes several disadvantages of existing methods, which are typically expensive and can only remove a specific element or have a very small filter capacity.

“The project is one of the most important things I might have ever done,” says Raffaele Mezzenga, a professor of food and soft materials at ETH Zurich. He and colleague Sreenath Bolisetty describe the technology in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

At the heart of the filtration system is a new type of hybrid membrane made up of activated charcoal and tough, rigid whey protein fibers. The two components are inexpensive and simple to produce.

The whey proteins are denatured, which causes them to stretch, and ultimately come together in the form of amyloid fibrils. Together with activated carbon, these fibers are applied to a suitable substrate material, such as a cellulose filter paper. The carbon content is 98 percent, with a mere 2 percent made up by the protein.

The filter can even be used for recovering gold, read on to learn how.