Newly Discovered Planet: Hot, Muggy And (Maybe) Liveable

9:30:33 PM, Monday, September 12, 2011

"European astronomers said Monday that they had found what might be the best candidate for a Goldilocks planet yet: a lump of something about 3.6 times as massive as the Earth, circling its star at the right distance for liquid water to exist on its surface — and thus, perhaps, to host life, as we narrowly imagine it.

The planet, known as HD 85512b, is about 36 light years from here, in the constellation Vela. It orbits its star at about a quarter of the distance that Earth circles the Sun, taking 58 days to make a year. That distance would put it in the star’s so-called habitable zone, if the planet is rocky and has some semblance of an atmosphere — “if everything goes right and you have clouds to shelter you,” as Lisa Kaltenegger of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, summarized it.

Astronomers cautioned, however, that it would take years and observations from telescopes not yet built before those assumptions could be tested and a search for signs of life could be undertaken.

Neither humans nor their robot helpers are likely to be dispatched toward Vela anytime soon. But the finding did vault HD 85512b to the top of a list of the handful of Goldilocks candidates.

The Vela planet was part of a haul of more than 50 new exoplanets — as planets around other stars are called — discussed in a news conference on Monday hosted by the European Southern Observatory. They are the newest fruits of an eight-year observing program by astronomers based at the University of Geneva and led by Stephane Udry and Michel Mayor, working from a telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile. About 16 of them are so-called super-Earths, with masses less than 10 times the Earth, further encouraging astronomers that they are on the verge of finding planets like ours. A pair of papers — one with Dr. Mayor as lead author and the other with Francesco Pepe, also of Geneva, as lead author — have been submitted to Astronomy and Astrophysics, describing the planets.

The Geneva astronomers used a sensitive spectrograph known as Harps (an acronym for High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher) to detect wobble in the stars’ motions as planets swung around them. The wobble technique, however, only reveals the masses of exoplanets. Without further information like the size — which NASA’s Kepler satellite, also in the exoplanet business, measures by seeing the shadows of planets as they cross in front of their stars — or the composition, the astronomers cannot say for sure whether the Vela planet is made of rock, steam, iron, diamonds or something else. Nor can they tell what, if any, atmosphere it has. Kepler will be of no help because its gaze is fixed on a different swath of sky.

The star that the Vela planet circles is known as HD 85512, or Gliese 370, after Wilhelm Gliese, a German astronomer. The star is orange, about two-thirds as massive and about an eighth as luminous as our Sun..."



World Trade Center Tribute In Lights 2011

7:31:58 PM, Monday, September 12, 2011

-- Love this memorial for the World Trade Center towers. I know it's not new, but I had no idea that you could go to the top of that garage and see it right at the base of the lights!



No Truce Expected In Global Patent Wars

7:15:32 PM, Monday, September 12, 2011

"Patent reform legislation passed by the US Congress may represent the most sweeping changes to the law in decades but the bill is not expected to end the courtroom wrangling between technology giants.

"My feeling is that it won't change the dynamics much of the ongoing patent wars," said Roger Kay of Endpoint Technologies Associates. "The problem is with patents in general, in that there's way too much patenting and people patent any old thing including how to toast bread."

Ed Black, president and chief executive of the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA), said the bill, the America Invents Act, "doesn't effectively address the real serious problems of our patent system.

"The bill tinkers in various ways -- some things are good, some things are bad -- but it's not a gamechanger," Black said, agreeing with Kay that the main problem is "too many patents issued that are simply not high-quality patents."

Black noted that the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) announced recently that it has issued its eight millionth patent.

"Most people think of patents as being like Edison and the light bulb," he said. "Tell me we've had eight million game-changing ideas."

The Senate passed the America Invents Act on Thursday by an 89-9 vote. It cleared the House of Representatives earlier this year by a similarly lopsided 304-117 margin.

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, a key author of the legislation, said the bill will "ensure that inventors large and small maintain the competitive edge that has put America at the pinnacle of global innovation."

The legislation notably shifts the granting of US patents from a "first to invent" system, which left considerable leeway for interpretation, to a "first to file" basis and seeks to reduce a backlog of 750,000 applications..."



Fish Living In Dark Caves Still Feel The Rhythm Of Life

10:25:49 PM, Sunday, September 11, 2011

"A blind, cave-dwelling fish in Somalia knows what time it is, but its "day" is twice as long as ours.

Most animals have an internal body clock, or circadian rhythm, that lasts around 24 hours and is modified by the light-dark cycle of a day.

But an international team, whose research is published in the open access journal PloS Biology, shows that certain blind cave fish have a circadian rhythm that lasts almost two days.

The cavefish, Phreatichthys andruzzii, has evolved for nearly two million years in the isolated darkness of caves beneath the Somali desert.

Professor Nick Foulkes, of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, said that this particular species was chosen "because it was such an extreme example, having been isolated from a day-night cycle for so long".

In the course of its evolution it has lost its eyes, colouration and scales, having no need for them in the pitch-black of an underground cave system.

But it appears that the absence of day and night has caused a much more profound change in the fish's life rhythm..."



10 Years Ago Today

7:21:12 PM, Sunday, September 11, 2011

-- 9/11/11



Glowing Cats Help In Fight Against AIDS, Other Diseases

7:13:49 PM, Sunday, September 11, 2011

"Mayo Clinic researchers have developed a genome-based immunization strategy to fight feline AIDS and illuminate ways to combat human HIV/AIDS and other diseases. The goal is to create cats with intrinsic immunity to the feline AIDS virus. The findings -- called fascinating and landmark by one reviewer -- appear in the current online issue of Nature Methods.

Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) causes AIDS in cats as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) does in people: by depleting the body's infection-fighting T-cells. The feline and human versions of key proteins that potently defend mammals against virus invasion -- termed restriction factors -- are ineffective against FIV and HIV respectively. The Mayo team of physicians, virologists, veterinarians and gene therapy researchers, along with collaborators in Japan, sought to mimic the way evolution normally gives rise over vast time spans to protective protein versions. They devised a way to insert effective monkey versions of them into the cat genome.

"One of the best things about this biomedical research is that it is aimed at benefiting both human and feline health," says Eric Poeschla, M.D., Mayo molecular biologist and leader of the international study. "It can help cats as much as people."

Dr. Poeschla treats patients with HIV and researches how the virus replicates. HIV/AIDS has killed over 30 million people and left countless children orphaned, with no effective vaccine on the horizon. Less well known is that millions of cats also suffer and die from FIV/AIDS each year. Since the project concerns ways introduced genes can protect species against viruses, the knowledge and technology it produces might eventually assist conservation of wild feline species, all 36 of which are endangered.

The technique is called gamete-targeted lentiviral transgenesis -- essentially, inserting genes into feline oocytes (eggs) before sperm fertilization. Succeeding with it for the first time in a carnivore, the team inserted a gene for a rhesus macaque restriction factor known to block cell infection by FIV, as well as a jellyfish gene for tracking purposes. The latter makes the offspring cats glow green..."



Norton I: The First and Only Emperor of the United States

5:24:34 PM, Saturday, September 10, 2011

"From its adoption into the United States in 1850 up until the present day, California has always been a place where eccentricity is accepted, if not welcomed with open arms. Anyone who’s ever spent much time in West Hollywood or San Francisco can attest to that. Today, we’re going to take a look at one of California’s most notorious yet well-loved eccentrics.

He was a self-proclaimed aristocrat, even going so far as to declare himself Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, indulging in the sort of monarchy nonsense that the country had spilled blood over less than a hundred years before. Yet in spite of it, when this Emperor finally died in 1880, almost thirty thousand people jammed the streets of San Francisco to attend his funeral. And in 1880, thirty thousand people represented over ten percent of the city’s population.

Exactly when Joshua Abraham Norton was born is a subject of some dispute. Various records and testimonies place his year of birth anywhere between 1814 and 1819, and his obituary cited his age as “about sixty-five.” Regardless of when he was born, it is known that Norton was born in London but spent most of his early life in South Africa.

Like many men in his time, Norton packed up and traveled to San Francisco in 1849. He financed the move with an inheritance of $40,000 from his father, and within a few years had managed to accumulate a tidy sum in the California real estate market.

Also like many men in his time, an ill-fated investment ate the lion’s share of Norton’s fortune. It wasn’t the gold rush that got him, nor his dabbling in real estate, but a gamble on a shipment of Peruvian rice, of all things. Since China had banned the export of rice due to famine, Norton figured that he could purchase a shipment of rice from Peru and sell it to Californians at an exorbitant cost. Unfortunately, by the time his shipment actually arrived, several other Peruvian ships had as well, and the price of rice dropped from thirty-six to three cents per pound. Norton fought hard to hold on to his property if nothing else, but his bank foreclosed on his holdings in order to cover the enormous rice debt..."



Phoenix Goddess Temple Raided as Alleged Brothel

2:45:40 PM, Saturday, September 10, 2011

"Arizona prosecutors have charged more than 30 people affiliated with the Phoenix Goddess Temple, a 10,000-square-foot alleged brothel that had been operating under the pretense of providing "religious" services for hundreds of dollars in cash "donations," police said.

"They were committing crimes under the guise of religious freedom," Phoenix police spokesman Steve Martos said. "It's a sad situation when people are trying to hide behind religion and church to commit a crime."

The "temple" had been operating in Phoenix since 2009, but authorities didn't become aware of it until residents began complaining. After a local newspaper visited the alleged brothel and published an in-depth story, police launched a six-month investigation culminating in the arrest of 18 people Wednesday. They are still hunting down the other 19.

It was the largest Arizona prostitution bust since authorities broke up the tri-state "Desert Divas" ring in 2008.

During the investigation, police discovered the Goddess Temple was operating another alleged house of prostitution in Sedona, Ariz., which was also raided Wednesday.

Goddess Temple founder Tracy Elise, known within her business as "Mystic Mother," was one of the 18 arrested Wednesday. She had also been involved with a similar alleged brothel in Seattle, Wash., that had been shut down in 2009..."

-- So were they paying taxes?! lol



New Evidence for a Preferred Direction in Spacetime Challenges the Cosmological Principle

11:06:00 PM, Friday, September 09, 2011

"According to the cosmological principle, there is no special place or direction in the universe when viewed on the cosmic scale. The assumption enabled Copernicus to propose that Earth was not the center of the universe and modern scientists to assume that the laws of physics are the same everywhere. Due to the cosmological principle, scientists also assume that the universe is “homogeneous” - having a uniform structure throughout - and “isotropic” - having uniform properties throughout.

But a few recent studies have found the possible existence of cosmological anisotropy: specifically, that the universe’s expansion is accelerating at a faster rate in one direction than another. In the most recent study, scientists have analyzed data from 557 Type 1a supernovae and found, in agreement with some previous studies, that the universe’s expansion seems to be accelerating faster in the direction of a small part of the northern galactic hemisphere.

The researchers, Rong-Gen Cai and Zhong-Liang Tuo from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, have posted their study at

A valuable tool for cosmologists, Type 1a supernovae serve as “standard candles” due to their consistent peak luminosity, allowing researchers to measure their distance with high accuracy. Observations of these supernovae famously revealed in 1998 that the universe is not only expanding, but is doing so at an accelerating rate. And now, some observations of Type 1a supernovae at different locations in the sky hint that the acceleration is not uniform in all directions.

In their analysis, Cai and Tuo looked at the deceleration parameter, q0, to quantify the anisotropy level of the northern galactic and southern galactic hemispheres. As the scientists explain in their study, the direction with the smaller value of q0 is expanding faster than the direction with the larger value. The researchers analyzed the data using both a dynamical dark energy model and a standard model without dark energy, and found that both models revealed similar results: an anisotropy deviation of 0.76 and 0.79, respectively, and a preferred direction of (309°, 21°) and (314°, 28°), respectively. As noted by the Physics arXiv Blog, this direction of greatest acceleration is in the faint constellation of Vulpecula in the northern hemisphere..."



Imagining the Downside of Immortality

10:08:12 PM, Friday, September 09, 2011

"IMAGINE nobody dies. All of a sudden, whether through divine intervention or an elixir slipped into the water supply, death is banished. Life goes on and on; all of us are freed from fear that our loved ones will be plucked from us, and each of us is rich in the most precious resource of all: time.

Wouldn’t it be awful?

This is the premise of the TV series “Torchwood: Miracle Day,” a co-production of Starz and the BBC that has been running over the summer and ends in September. The “miracle” of the title is that no one dies anymore, but it proves to be a curse as overpopulation soon threatens to end civilization. The show is a nice twist on our age-old dream of living forever. And it is right to be pessimistic about what would happen if this dream were fulfilled — but for the wrong reasons. Materially, we could cope with the arrival of the elixir. But, psychologically, immortality would be the end of us.

The problem is that our culture is based on our striving for immortality. It shapes what we do and what we believe; it has inspired us to found religions, write poems and build cities. If we were all immortal, the motor of civilization would sputter and stop.

Poets and philosophers have long been attuned to the fact that the quest for immortality drives much of humanity’s peculiar ways. But only in recent decades has scientific evidence backed this up.

In a study that began in 1989, a group of American social psychologists found that just briefly reminding people that they would die had a remarkable impact on their political and religious views.

In their first experiment, the researchers recruited court judges from Tucson. Half the judges were reminded of their mortality (via an otherwise innocuous personality test) and half were not. They were then all asked to rule on a hypothetical case of prostitution similar to those they ruled on. The judges who had first been reminded of their mortality set a bond nine times higher than those who hadn’t (averaging $455 compared to $50)..."



'Invisible' World Discovered: Planet Alternately Runs Late and Early in Its Orbit, Tugged by Second Hidden World

11:19:25 PM, Thursday, September 08, 2011

"Usually, running five minutes late is a bad thing since you might lose your dinner reservation or miss out on tickets to the latest show. But when a planet runs five minutes late, astronomers get excited because it suggests that another world is nearby.

NASA's Kepler spacecraft has spotted a planet that alternately runs late and early in its orbit because a second, "invisible" world is tugging on it. This is the first definite detection of a previously unknown planet using this method. No other technique could have found the unseen companion.

"This invisible planet makes itself known by its influence on the planet we can see," said astronomer Sarah Ballard of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). Ballard is lead author on the study, which has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

"It's like having someone play a prank on you by ringing your doorbell and running away. You know someone was there, even if you don't see them when you get outside," she added.

Both the seen and unseen worlds orbit the Sun-like star Kepler-19, which is located 650 light-years from Earth in the constellation Lyra. The 12th-magnitude star is well placed for viewing by backyard telescopes on September evenings.

Kepler locates planets by looking for a star that dims slightly as a planet transits the star, passing across the star's face from our point of view. Transits give one crucial piece of information -- the planet's physical size. The greater the dip in light, the larger the planet relative to its star. However, the planet and star must line up exactly for us to see a transit.

The first planet, Kepler-19b, transits its star every 9 days and 7 hours. It orbits the star at a distance of 8.4 million miles, where it is heated to a temperature of about 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Kepler-19b has a diameter of 18,000 miles, making it slightly more than twice the size of Earth. It may resemble a "mini-Neptune," however its mass and composition remain unknown..."



Dive-Bombing Hummingbirds Let Their Feathers Do the Talking

11:13:23 PM, Thursday, September 08, 2011

"When it comes to wooing females, male hummingbirds have something in common with World War I fighter pilot the Red Baron. During the mating season, these bright-throated males climb high into the air and then nose-dive, belting out sharp squeaks or trills to impress watching females. A new study shows how the tiny birds emit their high-pitched calls. As they fall, stiff breezes vibrate their tail feathers, giving each species a unique whistle.

Researchers had observed other birds squeaking while flying. When some doves jet away to avoid a predator, for instance, their bodies start to whistle, says Kimberly Bostwick, an ornithologist at Cornell University, who was not involved in this study. "We hear it, but we've never really understood what's going on."

Hummingbirds may be some of the squeakiest fliers. Male Anna's hummingbirds (Calypte anna), which look as if they're wearing bright-pink scarves, swoop at speeds over 20 meters per second, emitting a shriek like a startled rodent. In 2008, Christopher Clark, a physiologist now at Yale University, and colleagues first identified the source of the noise: the birds' tail plumage. When his team plucked the hummingbirds' thin, outermost tail feathers, the boisterous animals became as silent as stealth bombers.

But it still wasn't clear how the hummingbirds' plumage sang. So in the new study, Clark and colleagues put tail feathers from 14 species of "bee" hummingbirds—a rowdy group that includes the Anna's hummingbird—into a wind tunnel. At gentle breezes, the feathers just ruffled, but when the winds sped up to around the birds' normal dive velocities, about 7 to 20 meters per second, something strange happened: The feathers started to ripple rhythmically, much like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which famously began undulating and then collapsed in 1940 when winds hit it at just the right speed. But unlike that infamous Washington State roadway, the feathers emitted sometimes-piercing noises when they vibrated, Clark and his colleagues report today in Science..."



Probe Pictures Moon Landing Sites

10:58:17 PM, Thursday, September 08, 2011

"The pictures clearly show the hardware left on the lunar surface by American astronauts in the 1960s and 70s, including Apollo 17's "Moon buggy".

The images were acquired by the robotic Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which has been circling Earth's satellite since 2009.

Such shots have been returned before, but these are the best yet.

LRO has recently lowered its orbit from 50km above the Moon's surface to just 25km.

This makes it easier to see equipment, such as the descent stages that put the astronauts on the surface. Some of the science experiments are visible, also - as are the trails of bootmarks left in the dirt as the crews positioned these science packages.

The Apollo 17, 14 and 12 sites are the focus of the latest release.

They were viewed by the narrow-angle imaging system on LRO's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) instrument.

At the lower altitude, this instrument sees objects at a resolution of 25cm by 25cm per pixel.

In an extreme blow-up of the Apollo 17 Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), it is just possible to discern the condition in which the astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt parked the buggy - with its wheels turned to the left..."



'Mosaic' Fossil Could Be Bridge From Apes To Humans

10:33:40 PM, Thursday, September 08, 2011

"A pair of fossils from a South African cave have scientists both excited and puzzled. Scientists say the fossils — an adult female and a juvenile — could be the long-sought transition between ape-like ancestors and the first humans.

The bones belong to creatures related to the famous Lucy fossil found in Ethiopia in the 1970s, but their owners lived more recently — just 2 million years ago.

The reason for the excitement? Ask anthropologists what they dream about, and many will tell you it's the fossil of the last pre-human ancestor that led directly to us. Nobody's found it, and any who claim to usually get publicly whacked by their peers.

Lucy and her kind — the diminutive, ape-like Australopithecus that lived 3.2 million years ago — may well have evolved into us, the genus Homo. But a lot happened in between Lucy and the earliest humans, who emerged just over 2 million years ago. The true "transitional" species must have lived about the time we emerged.

'The Best Candidate Ancestor'

Now, we have the South African fossils, dated at 1.9 million years ago. Called Australopithecus sediba, anthropologist Lee Berger says this could be the one. "In our opinion it's probably the best candidate ancestor for giving rise to our immediate ancestor," Berger says..."



How the US Government Chose to Ruin the James Webb Space Telescope, and Blamed NASA

10:17:39 PM, Thursday, September 08, 2011

""A man can fail many times, but he isn't a failure until he begins to blame somebody else." -John Burroughs

The greatest tool for astronomers of the past 20 years has, without a doubt, been the Hubble Space Telescope.

Since its launch in 1990, it's no stretch to say more scientific knowledge has come out of this telescope than out of any instrument in history. It's taught us what the expansion rate of the Universe is, that the expansion is accelerating, has helped us understand how stars are born, directly imaged the first planets outside of our Solar System, and discovered thousands of supernovae from objects many billions of light years away, among many other things.

And, oh yes, it's taken glorious images of the most distant galaxies ever seen, as this image below shows.

This is just one tenth of the image known as the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field, taken over the equivalent of twelve days of pointing this ultra-powerful telescope at a blank area of the sky. Over 10,000 new galaxies were imaged in that image alone, which covers just one-thirtieth of a square degree. It's no exaggeration to say that Hubble has changed our view of the Universe.

But Hubble isn't the end of astronomy and astrophysics; there's a whole lot more Universe out there simply begging to be understood. How did the first stars form? What do the earliest galaxies look like? When did the first galaxy clusters show up? And, needless to say, so much more. To get there, we need a significantly larger telescope, in space, capable of viewing wavelengths of light far longer than the ones Hubble is sensitive to. And that's just what the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) -- with seven times Hubble's light-gathering power -- promises to be..."



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