Supermassive black hole will 'eat' gas cloud

4:06:08 AM, Thursday, December 15, 2011

"Researchers have spotted a giant gas cloud spiralling into the supermassive black hole at our galaxy's centre.

Though it is known that black holes draw in everything nearby, it will be the first chance to see one consume such a cloud.

As it is torn apart, the turbulent area around the black hole will become unusually bright, giving astronomers a chance to learn more about it.

The cloud, which is described in Nature, should meet its end in 2013.

Researchers using the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope estimate that despite its size, the cloud has a total mass of only about three times that of Earth.

They have plotted the cloud's squashed, oval-shaped path and estimate it has doubled its speed in the last seven years - to 2,350km per second.

It should spiral in to within about 40 billion kilometres of the black hole in the middle of 2013.

Our local supermassive black hole, dubbed Sagittarius A*, lies about 27,000 light-years away, and has a mass about four million times that of our Sun.

As the name implies, beyond a certain threshold point - the event horizon - nothing can escape its pull, not even light itself.

But outside that regime is a swirling mass of material, not unlike water circling a drain. In astronomical terms, is a relatively quiet zone about which little is known.

That looks set to change, though, as the gas cloud approaches.

Spaghetti tester

It does not comprise enough matter to hold itself together under its own gravity, as a star might, so the cloud will begin to elongate as it meets its doom.

"The idea of an astronaut close to a black hole being stretched out to resemble spaghetti is familiar from science fiction," said lead author of the study Stefan Gillessen, from Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany.

"But we can now see this happening for real to the newly discovered cloud. It is not going to survive the experience."

It is likely that about half of the cloud will be swallowed up, with the remainder flung back out into space.

But this violent process will literally shed light on the closest example we have of an enigmatic celestial object.

The acceleration of the cloud's constituent material will create a shower of X-rays that will help astronomers learn more about our local black hole.

As astronomer Mark Morris of the University of California Los Angeles put it in an accompanying article in Nature, "many telescopes are likely to be watching"."

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Atom Smasher's Higgs Particle Findings: Physicists React

12:35:32 AM, Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"Scientists at the world's largest particle accelerator announced today (Dec. 13) that they'd narrowed down the possibilities for the existence of the elusive Higgs boson particle. This particle, long theorized but not yet detected, is thought to explain why particles have mass.

The data so far from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) indicate that if it exists at all, the Higgs must weigh between 115 and 130 times the mass of a proton (a unit denoted by gigaelectronvolts, or GeV). Two experiments at LHC, called ATLAS and CMS, also show hints that they've seen a particle weighing about 124 or 125 GeV that could be the Higgs boson.

Though it's too soon for physicists to declare a definite discovery of the Higgs, experts said the findings so far represent an important step forward. Here's what some leading physicists have to say about today's announcement:

"This is not the end, but the beginning. The Higgs was just the last missing piece of the Standard Model of particles. But that theory is ugly; it is a theory only a mother can love. The real breakthrough is when the LHC discovers dark matter or strings. That would be spectacular. So there is a whole new universe beyond the Higgs."

—Michio Kaku, City College of New York theoretical physicist, told LiveScience

"Both experiments showed a very impressive turnaround in processing the data and very good understanding of their detectors. It is unprecedented to have full data samples from such complex experiments to be analyzed in a fairly sophisticated way in just one month since the end of the proton-proton run.

—Greg Landsberg, Brown University physicist, CMS physics coordinator at the LHC, told LiveScience

"ATLAS data, just like CMS ones contain interesting excesses. Whether what we both see is a real signal or just a funny game [that] statistics often play with us, remains to be seen.

"This looks to me like a lot more than 'intriguing hints': it's about what you would expect if a Higgs was there at 125 GeV, highly unlikely to see if there is no Higgs there."

— Peter Woit, Columbia University mathematician, from his blog "Not Even Wrong"

"Essentials: what we're seeing is pretty consistent with the existence of a Higgs boson around 123-126 GeV. The data aren't nearly conclusive enough to say that it's definitely there. But the LHC is purring along, and a year from now we'll know a lot more.

"It's like rushing to the tree on Christmas morning, ripping open a giant box, and finding a small note that says 'Santa is on his way! Hang in there!' The LHC is real and Santa is not, but you know what I mean."

—Sean Carroll, California Institute of Technology physicist, from his blog "Cosmic Variance," hosted by Discover Magazine

"All in all, it's a definite maybe. Putting the results together in the way only a frequentist can the result is a 2.4 sigma detection. In other words, nothing any serious scientist would call convincing."

—Pete Coles, Cardiff University theoretical astrophysicist, from his blog "In The Dark"

"Two independent (and highly competitive) research teams, involving thousands of scientists, using each of these detectors have seen moderately convincing evidence that the elusive Higgs particle has been created in some of the proton–proton collisions.

"This is a challenging experiment as the detectors can't see the Higgs particle directly — it is a short-lived particle that quickly falls apart (decays) — but, rather, they infer its presence by seeing its decay products."

—Brian Greene, Columbia University physicist, on the "World Science Festival" blog

"The proof will come in the next year. The spectacularly successful LHC accelerator (which the Europeans built when the U.S. killed the superconducting super collider in Texas) will produce 4 times more Higgs particles in the next year. The significance of the hints reported today could turn into proof beyond a doubt come next October..."

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Meteor Crater Helps Unlock Planetary History

11:20:50 PM, Thursday, December 08, 2011

"The Barringer meteorite crater — known popularly as "Meteor Crater" — near Winslow, Ariz., was formed some 50,000 years ago in the flat-lying sedimentary rocks of the Southern Colorado Plateau in Arizona. Now, scientists are using the crater to study mysteries near and far.

This out-of-the-blue geological feature is considered a prime example of a young, well-preserved and well-documented simple impact crater.

That means it represents one of the most common morphological features on planetary surfaces, both on Earth, and elsewhere in our solar system. Scientists are using this crater to probe not just our own planetary history, but the mechanics of space rock impacts throughout the universe.

Meteor Crater is one of very few impact sites on our planet where the geologic details of crater excavation and ejecta emplacement are preserved. While the outline of most simple craters is circular, the shape of Arizona's Meteor Crater strongly deviates from a circle and resembles a quadrangle.

"Hole Earth" catalog

The bowl-shape crater is surprisingly well preserved by terrestrial standards. That makes it a "kiss and tell" terrestrial feature that is being plumbed by researchers far and wide.

The crater is roughly 0.75 miles (1.2 kilometers) in diameter. That giant hole in the ground sports a rim that rises up to 196 feet (60 meters) above the surrounding landscape. The crater floor falls to a depth of 590 feet (180 meters).

The upper crater walls have average slopes of 40 to 50 degrees, although they also include vertical to near-vertical cliffs. The rock ejected from the crater forms a debris blanket that slopes away from the crater rim out to a distance of 0.6 miles (1 km).

This impact crater is viewed as a treasured scientific site, not only here on Earth but in shaping future moon and Mars exploration plans. It has become a training ground for astronauts and robot hardware as well as a learning lab for planetary geologists who are investigating impact cratered terrains on other planets.

Indeed, it's a "hole Earth catalog" of processes that keeps on giving.

Honing exploration skills

When a cosmic interloper slammed into Earth tens of thousands of years ago, more than 175 million metric tons of rock were excavated and deposited on the crater rim and the surrounding terrain in a matter of a few seconds, said David Kring, a senior staff scientist and geologist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.

Kring has been engaged in studies of the crater for decades. He uses the site as a teaching tool for students, as well as a locale for honing the exploration skills to lunge beyond Earth.

"Those rocks and the processes they record remain the focus of our studies next year," Kring told SPACE.com. "At the same time, we will conduct training activities that are designed to enhance the success of exploration of the moon and planetary surfaces throughout the solar system."

There are a lot of activities at the crater, Kring said. He made two trips there in October alone, he added..."

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Halliburton 'Destroyed' Gulf of Mexico Spill Evidence

2:05:22 AM, Thursday, December 08, 2011

"(BBC) Oil giant BP has accused oilfields services firm Halliburton of destroying damaging evidence relating to last year's oil well blast in the Gulf of Mexico in which 11 people were killed.

At a hearing in a New Orleans' court, BP said Halliburton had "intentionally" destroyed test results on its cement product used at the Macondo well.

Halliburton denied this, saying the claims were "without merit".

Cement was a key factor in causing America's worst offshore oil spill.

The blast that followed at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in April led to the release of 780m litres (206m gallons) of crude oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

BP and Halliburton are locked in a legal battle ahead of a trial on damages early next year.

Through their lawyers, the former partners in the venture are seeking maximum pre-trial advantage, the BBC's Steve Kingstone in Washington reports.

Trading allegations

BP made its accusations in a court filing on Monday.

It said that after reviewing the test results, Halliburton "destroyed records of the testing as well as the physical cement samples used in the testing".

The company also said that Halliburton had failed to produce computer modelling evidence, which showed how the cement performed.

In its motion, BP asked for sanctions against Halliburton, claiming that the company's cement slurry was "unstable".

In its turn, Halliburton rejected the claim, saying it would contest it in court.

The world's second-largest oilfields services provider also accused BP of fraud and defamation in the investigation.

The contractor alleged that BP had ordered last-minute changes to the cement.

The two companies traded allegations ahead of the trial over the spill disaster in February.

The trial is expected to apportion blame and quantify damages arising from the spill.

There will also be other phases of the case over clean-up costs and other claims."

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500 Million-Year-Old Super Predator Had Remarkable Vision

1:20:00 AM, Thursday, December 08, 2011

"South Australian Museum and University of Adelaide scientists working on fossils from Kangaroo Island, South Australia, have found eyes belonging to a giant 500 million-year-old marine predator that sat at the top of the earth's first food chain.

This important discovery will be accompanied by an artist's impression of the super predator on the front cover of the 8 December 2011 issue of Nature.

Palaeontologists have discovered exceptionally preserved fossil eyes of the top predator in the Cambrian ocean from over 500 million years ago: the fearsome metre-long Anomalocaris.

The scientists show that the world's first apex predator had highly acute vision, rivalling or exceeding that of most living insects and crustaceans.

The international team behind this discovery includes two Adelaide researchers, Dr Michael Lee (SA Museum and University of Adelaide) and Dr Jim Jago (SA Museum and UniSA), and was led by Dr John Paterson (University of New England).

The World's Oldest Apex Predator

Anomalocaris is the stuff of nightmares and sci-fi movies. It is considered to be at the top of the earliest food chains because of its large body size, formidable grasping claws at the front of its head and a circular mouth with razor-sharp serrations.

Supporting evidence of this predator's dominance includes damage to contemporaneous trilobites, and even its fossilised poo (or coprolites) containing the remains of its prey.

The discovery of its stalked eyes - showing astonishing details of its optical design - from a 515 million-year-old deposit on Kangaroo Island in South Australia now confirms it had superb vision to support its predatory lifestyle.

All The Better To See You With…

The fossils represent compound eyes - the multi-faceted variety seen in arthropods such as flies, crabs and kin - and are amongst the largest to have ever existed, with each eye up to 3 cm in length and containing over 16,000 lenses.

The number of lenses and other aspects of their optical design suggest that Anomalocaris would have seen its world with exceptional clarity whilst hunting in well-lit waters. Only a few arthropods, such as modern predatory dragonflies, have similar resolution.

The existence of highly sophisticated, visual hunters within Cambrian communities would have accelerated the predator-prey 'arms race' that began during this important phase in early animal evolution over half a billion years ago.

The discovery of powerful compound eyes in Anomalocaris confirms it is a close relative of arthropods, and has other far-reaching evolutionary implications. It demonstrates that this particular type of visual organ appeared and was elaborated upon very early during arthropod evolution, originating before other characteristic anatomical structures of this group, such as a hardened exoskeleton and walking legs."

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NASA Vows $8.8 bn Space Telescope on Track for 2018

12:43:04 AM, Thursday, December 08, 2011

"After a series of delays and billions spent over budget, the potent James Webb Space Telescope is on track to launch in 2018 at a total project cost of $8.8 billion, NASA vowed on Tuesday.

The project, which aims to build the world's most powerful telescope, 100 times more sensitive than the Hubble space telescope, has been riddled by poor management and cost overruns.

Though a Congressional subcommittee threatened to ax the project altogether earlier this year as lawmakers grappled with how to reduce a more than $15 trillion national deficit, Congress has since agreed to fully fund it at the level NASA requested.

But NASA's new JWST program manager Rick Howard who came on board last year, still faced an acrimonious grilling on Tuesday from lawmakers in the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

Committee chair Ralph Hall described the project as "another case study of NASA mismanagement" and said the NASA reshuffle was "the agency's last opportunity to hold this program together."

"We have changed the management, the priority and the approach," Howard told the committee hearing. "We can deliver JWST within costs."

In February, NASA inspector general Paul Martin told lawmakers that the telescope had gone way over its initial budget of $3.5 billion and was likely to come in at around $6.5 billion.

NASA has also pushed back its scheduled launch -- initially set for 2013 -- numerous times. It is now set for October 2018.

Garth Illingworth, an astronomer and professor at University of California, Santa Cruz, was part of an independent comprehensive review panel (ICRP) that reviewed NASA's work on the JWST and issued a report last year.

"I feel that NASA has actually done a very good job on this replan. They have developed a plan that is I would say uniquely conservative for NASA in the level of reserves and the approach that they are taking," Illingworth told lawmakers.

"They realized that they had seriously flawed management before the time of the ICRP and are trying to rectify it, as Rick said," he added.

"I am highly encouraged by what I have seen over the last six to nine months on this program."

Republican lawmaker James Sensenbrenner asked how the US space agency would carry out any repairs on the telescope, recalling how the orbiting Hubble needed numerous service missions by the space shuttle program, which retired this year.

"We don't have the shuttle anymore. What is going to happen if we need to repair the James Webb Space Telescope or if we find out some the parts were not properly done?" he asked.

Howard responded that NASA was already in the process of testing and checking the mirrors at operating temperature, and noted that the telescope's path would take it beyond where the world's spacecraft have the capacity to carry humans, anyway.

"We know that we only have one chance to get this right," Howard said.

"It is not going to be in orbit around the Earth, it is going to a distance four times further away than the moon. So we are taking every step we can to mitigate the risks to make sure that we do have a system that can work."

"You've just increased my skepticism given the history, and I have been on this committee longer than anybody else," Sensenbrenner answered.

"I can see another money pit coming up.""

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Silicon Rival MoS2 Promises Small, Low-Energy Chips

7:43:25 PM, Monday, December 05, 2011

"The first computer chip made out of a substance described as a "promising" alternative to silicon has been tested by researchers.

The Switzerland-based team used molybdenite disulfide (MoS2) - a dark-coloured, naturally occurring mineral.

The group said the substance could be used in thinner layers than silicon, which is currently the most commonly used component in electronics.

It said MoS2 could make smaller, more flexible chips that used less energy.

The substance is currently used as an ingredient in engine lubricants, ski waxes and as a strengthening agent for plastics.

Prof Andras Kis, the director of the Laboratory of Nanoscale Electronics and Structures (LANES) in Lausanne, published details of the research in the latest edition of the ACS Nano journal.

He said the team chose to experiment with this semiconductor, rather than another material, in part because it was easily available.

"There is something like 19 million metric tonnes around," Prof Kis told the BBC.

"You can just go on some websites on the internet and buy a 1cm by 1cm crystal for around $100 [£64]."

Surfaces oxidise

To obtain a thin layer of the material to work with, Prof Kis's team put a strip of sticky plastic over the crystal, peeled it off and then attached the sliver to a support. The plastic was then peeled off to leave the very thin layer of MoS2 exposed.

Using this, the team built a prototype microchip circuit to which they attached up to six serial transistors allowing them to carry out simple logic operations.

Although the integrated circuit was basic, Prof Kis said it proved that more complex designs would be possible on thinner chips than could be produced with silicon.

"The problem with silicon is that you cannot make very thin things from it because it is very reactive," he said.

"The surface likes to oxidise - to bind with oxygen and hydrogen - and that makes its electrical properties degrade when you want to make a very thin film."

As a result the thinnest usable layers of silicon used in computer chips have been around two nanometres thick. MoS2, by contrast, can be used in layers just three atoms thick, allowing chips to be made at least three times smaller.

Stiff as steel

A key advantage of having a thinner material is that the transistors can also be shrunk in size.

"If you have a transistor that is very thin it will also automatically dissipate less power - so it spends less power. So in a nutshell it allows you to make electronics that spend less electrical energy," Prof Kis said.

MoS2 also has the advantage that it is as stiff as stainless steel, but is also capable of being flexible.

"It can be bent to large angles and can be stretched a lot," said Prof Kis.

"If you take a sheet of molybdenite you can stretch it so that it increases its length by 10% - that is a lot in this context.

"If you did the same with silicon it would break like glass."

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Astronomers Discover Biggest Black Holes Ever

5:40:59 PM, Monday, December 05, 2011

"University of California, Berkeley, astronomers have discovered the largest black holes to date two monsters with masses equivalent to 10 billion suns that are threatening to consume anything, even light, within a region five times the size of our solar system.

These black holes are at the centers of two galaxies more than 300 million light years from Earth, and may be the dark remnants of some of the very bright galaxies, called quasars, that populated the early universe.

"In the early universe, there were lots of quasars or active galactic nuclei, and some were expected to be powered by black holes as big as 10 billion solar masses or more," said Chung-Pei Ma, UC Berkeley professor of astronomy. "These two new supermassive black holes are similar in mass to young quasars, and may be the missing link between quasars and the supermassive black holes we see today."

Black holes are dense concentrations of matter that produce such strong gravitational fields that even light cannot escape. While exploding stars, called supernovas, can leave behind black holes the mass of a single star like the sun, supermassive black holes have presumably grown from the merger of other black holes or by capturing huge numbers of stars and massive amounts of gas.

"These black holes may shed light on how black holes and their surrounding galaxies have nurtured each other since the early universe," said UC Berkeley graduate student Nicholas McConnell, first author of a paper on the discovery being published in the Dec. 8 issue of the British journal Nature by McConnell, Ma and their colleagues at the university of Toronto, Texas and Michigan, as well as by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Arizona.

To date, approximately 63 supermassive black holes have been found sitting in the cores of nearby galaxies. The largest for more than three decades was a 6.3 billion solar mass black hole in the center of the nearby galaxy M87.

One of the newly discovered black holes is 9.7 billion solar masses and located in the elliptical galaxy NGC 3842, the brightest galaxy in the Leo cluster of galaxies, 320 million light years away in the direction of the constellation Leo. The second is as large or larger and sits in the elliptical galaxy NGC 4889, the brightest galaxy in the Coma cluster about 336 million light years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Coma Berenices.

According to McConnell, these black holes have an event horizon – the "abandon all hope" edge from which not even light can escape – that is 200 times the orbit of Earth, or five times the orbit of Pluto. Beyond the event horizon, each black hole has a gravitational influence that would extend over a sphere 4,000 light years across.

"For comparison, these black holes are 2,500 times as massive as the black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, whose event horizon is one fifth the orbit of Mercury," McConnell said..."

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Kepler 22-b: Earth-Like Planet Confirmed

5:32:30 PM, Monday, December 05, 2011

"Astronomers have confirmed the existence of an Earth-like planet in the "habitable zone" around a star not unlike our own.

The planet, Kepler 22-b, lies about 600 light-years away and is about 2.4 times the size of Earth, and has a temperature of about 22C.

It is the closest confirmed planet yet to one like ours - an "Earth 2.0".

However, the team does not yet know if Kepler 22-b is made mostly of rock, gas or liquid.

During the conference at which the result was announced, the Kepler team said that it had spotted some 1,094 new candidate planets.

The Kepler space telescope was designed to look at a fixed swathe of the night sky, staring intently at about 150,000 stars. The telescope is sensitive enough to see when a planet passes in front of its host star, dimming the star's light by a minuscule amount.

Kepler identifies these slight changes in starlight as candidate planets, which are then confirmed by further observations by Kepler and other telescopes in orbit and on Earth.

Kepler 22-b was one of 54 candidates reported by the Kepler team in February, and is just the first to be formally confirmed using other telescopes.

More of these "Earth 2.0" candidates are likely to be confirmed in the near future, though a redefinition of the habitable zone's boundaries has brought that number down to 48.

Kepler 22-b lies at a distance from its sun about 15% less than the distance from the Earth to the Sun, and its year takes about 290 days. However, its sun puts out about 25% less light, keeping the planet at its balmy temperature that would support the existence of liquid water.

The Kepler team had to wait for three passes of the planet before upping its status from "candidate" to "confirmed".

"Fortune smiled upon us with the detection of this planet," said William Borucki, Kepler principal investigator at Nasa's Ames Research Center.

"The first transit was captured just three days after we declared the spacecraft operationally ready. We witnessed the defining third transit over the 2010 holiday season."

The results were announced at the Kepler telescope's first science conference, alongside the staggering number of new candidate planets. The total number of candidates spotted by the telescope is now 2,326 - of which 207 are approximately Earth-sized.

In total, the results suggest that planets ranging from Earth-sized to about four times Earth's size - so-called "super-Earths" - may be more common than previously thought."

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Your Brain Knows a Lot More Than You Realize

1:12:18 AM, Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"Only a tiny fraction of the brain is dedicated to conscious behavior. The rest works feverishly behind the scenes regulating everything from breathing to mate selection. In fact, neuroscientist David Eagleman of Baylor College of Medicine argues that the unconscious workings of the brain are so crucial to everyday functioning that their influence often trumps conscious thought. To prove it, he explores little-known historical episodes, the latest psychological research, and enduring medical mysteries, revealing the bizarre and often inexplicable mechanisms underlying daily life.

Eagleman’s theory is epitomized by the deathbed confession of the 19th-century mathematician James Clerk Maxwell, who developed fundamental equations unifying electricity and magnetism. Maxwell declared that “something within him” had made the discoveries; he actually had no idea how he’d achieved his great insights. It is easy to take credit after an idea strikes you, but in fact, neurons in your brain secretly perform an enormous amount of work before inspiration hits. The brain, Eagleman argues, runs its show incognito. Or, as Pink Floyd put it, “There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.”

There is a looming chasm between what your brain knows and what your mind is capable of accessing. Consider the simple act of changing lanes while driving a car. Try this: Close your eyes, grip an imaginary steering wheel, and go through the motions of a lane change. Imagine that you are driving in the left lane and you would like to move over to the right lane. Before reading on, actually try it. I’ll give you 100 points if you can do it correctly.

It’s a fairly easy task, right? I’m guessing that you held the steering wheel straight, then banked it over to the right for a moment, and then straightened it out again. No problem.

Like almost everyone else, you got it completely wrong. The motion of turning the wheel rightward for a bit, then straightening it out again would steer you off the road: you just piloted a course from the left lane onto the sidewalk. The correct motion for changing lanes is banking the wheel to the right, then back through the center, and continuing to turn the wheel just as far to the left side, and only then straightening out. Don’t believe it? Verify it for yourself when you’re next in the car. It’s such a simple motor task that you have no problem accomplishing it in your daily driving. But when forced to access it consciously, you’re flummoxed.

The lane-changing example is one of a thousand. You are not consciously aware of the vast majority of your brain’s ongoing activities, nor would you want to be—it would interfere with the brain’s well-oiled processes. The best way to mess up your piano piece is to concentrate on your fingers; the best way to get out of breath is to think about your breathing; the best way to miss the golf ball is to analyze your swing. This wisdom is apparent even to children, and we find it immortalized in poems such as “The Puzzled Centipede”:

A centipede was happy quite,

Until a frog in fun

Said, “Pray tell which leg comes after which?”

This raised her mind to such a pitch,

She lay distracted in the ditch

Not knowing how to run.

The ability to remember motor acts like changing lanes is called procedural memory, and it is a type of implicit memory—meaning that your brain holds knowledge of something that your mind cannot explicitly access. Riding a bike, tying your shoes, typing on a keyboard, and steering your car into a parking space while speaking on your cell phone are examples of this. You execute these actions easily but without knowing the details of how you do it. You would be totally unable to describe the perfectly timed choreography with which your muscles contract and relax as you navigate around other people in a cafeteria while holding a tray, yet you have no trouble doing it. This is the gap between what your brain can do and what you can tap into consciously.

The concept of implicit memory has a rich, if little-known, tradition. By the early 1600s, René Descartes had already begun to suspect that although experience with the world is stored in memory, not all memory is accessible. The concept was rekindled in the late 1800s by the psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, who wrote that “most of these experiences remain concealed from consciousness and yet produce an effect which is significant and which authenticates their previous existence.”

To the extent that consciousness is useful, it is useful in small quantities, and for very particular kinds of tasks. It’s easy to understand why you would not want to be consciously aware of the intricacies of your muscle movement, but this can be less intuitive when applied to your perceptions, thoughts, and beliefs, which are also final products of the activity of billions of nerve cells. We turn to these now.

Chicken Sexers and Plane Spotters

When chicken hatchlings are born, large commercial hatcheries usually set about dividing them into males and females, and the practice of distinguishing gender is known as chick sexing. Sexing is necessary because the two genders receive different feeding programs: one for the females, which will eventually produce eggs, and another for the males, which are typically destined to be disposed of because of their uselessness in the commerce of producing eggs; only a few males are kept and fattened for meat. So the job of the chick sexer is to pick up each hatchling and quickly determine its sex in order to choose the correct bin to put it in. The problem is that the task is famously difficult: male and female chicks look exactly alike.

Well, almost exactly. The Japanese invented a method of sexing chicks known as vent sexing, by which experts could rapidly ascertain the sex of one-day-old hatchlings. Beginning in the 1930s, poultry breeders from around the world traveled to the Zen-Nippon Chick Sexing School in Japan to learn the technique.

The mystery was that no one could explain exactly how it was done. It was somehow based on very subtle visual cues, but the professional sexers could not say what those cues were. They would look at the chick’s rear (where the vent is) and simply seem to know the correct bin to throw it in.

And this is how the professionals taught the student sexers. The master would stand over the apprentice and watch. The student would pick up a chick, examine its rear, and toss it into one bin or the other. The master would give feedback: yes or no. After weeks on end of this activity, the student’s brain was trained to a masterful—albeit unconscious—level..."

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The Xinjiang Procedure: Beijing’s ‘New Frontier’ is Ground Zero for the Organ Harvesting of Political Prisoners

9:12:22 PM, Tuesday, November 29, 2011

"To figure out what is taking place today in a closed society such as northwest China, sometimes you have to go back a decade, sometimes more. Photo of Chinese Flag with surgical stitches in it

One clue might be found on a hilltop near southern Guangzhou, on a partly cloudy autumn day in 1991. A small medical team and a young doctor starting a practice in internal medicine had driven up from Sun Yat-sen Medical University in a van modified for surgery. Pulling in on bulldozed earth, they found a small fleet of similar vehicles—clean, white, with smoked glass windows and prominent red crosses on the side. The police had ordered the medical team to stay inside for their safety. Indeed, the view from the side window of lines of ditches—some filled in, others freshly dug—suggested that the hilltop had served as a killing ground for years.

Thirty-six scheduled executions would translate into 72 kidneys and corneas divided among the regional hospitals. Every van contained surgeons who could work fast: 15-30 minutes to extract. Drive back to the hospital. Transplant within six hours. Nothing fancy or experimental; execution would probably ruin the heart.

With the acceleration of Chinese medical expertise over the last decade, organs once considered scraps no longer went to waste. It wasn’t public knowledge exactly, but Chinese medical schools taught that many otherwise wicked criminals volunteered their organs as a final penance.

Right after the first shots the van door was thrust open and two men with white surgical coats thrown over their uniforms carried a body in, the head and feet still twitching slightly. The young doctor noted that the wound was on the right side of the chest as he had expected. When body #3 was laid down, he went to work.

Male, 40-ish, Han Chinese. While the other retail organs in the van were slated for the profitable foreigner market, the doctor had seen the paperwork indicating this kidney was tissue-matched for transplant into a 50-year-old Chinese man. Without the transplant, that man would die. With it, the same man would rise miraculously from his hospital bed and go on to have a normal life for 25 years or so. By 2016, given all the anti-tissue-rejection drug advances in China, they could theoretically replace the liver, lungs, or heart—maybe buy that man another 10 to 15 years.

Body #3 had no special characteristics save an angry purple line on the neck. The doctor recognized the forensics. Sometimes the police would twist a wire around a prisoner’s throat to prevent him from speaking up in court. The doctor thought it through methodically. Maybe the police didn’t want this prisoner to talk because he had been a deranged killer, a thug, or mentally unstable. After all, the Chinese penal system was a daily sausage grinder, executing hardcore criminals on a massive scale. Yes, the young doctor knew the harvesting was wrong. Whatever crime had been committed, it would be nice if the prisoner’s body were allowed to rest forever. Yet was his surgical task that different from an obstetrician’s? Harvesting was rebirth, harvesting was life, as revolutionary an advance as antibiotics or steroids. Or maybe, he thought, they didn’t want this man to talk because he was a political prisoner.

Nineteen years later, in a secure European location, the doctor laid out the puzzle. He asked that I keep his identity a secret. Chinese medical authorities admit that the lion’s share of transplant organs originate with executions, but no mainland Chinese doctors, even in exile, will normally speak of performing such surgery. To do so would remind international medical authorities of an issue they would rather avoid—not China’s soaring execution rate or the exploitation of criminal organs, but rather the systematic elimination of China’s religious and political prisoners. Yet even if this doctor feared consequences to his family and his career, he did not fear embarrassing China, for he was born into an indigenous minority group, the Uighurs.

Every Uighur witness I approached over the course of two years—police, medical, and security personnel scattered across two continents—related compartmentalized fragments of information to me, often through halting translation. They acknowledged the risk to their careers, their families, and, in several cases, their lives. Their testimony reveals not just a procedure evolving to meet the lucrative medical demand for living organs, but the genesis of a wider atrocity..."

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Giant Nasa Rover Launches to Mars

2:33:17 PM, Saturday, November 26, 2011

"Nasa has launched the most capable machine ever built to land on Mars.

The near one-tonne rover, tucked inside a capsule, left Florida on an Atlas 5 rocket at 10:02 local time (15:02 GMT).

Nicknamed Curiosity, the rover will take eight and a half months to cross the vast distance to its destination.

If it can land safely next August, the robot will then scour Martian soils and rocks for any signs that current or past environments on the planet could have supported microbial life.

The Atlas flight lasted almost three-quarters of an hour.

By the time the encapsulated rover was ejected on a path to the Red Planet, it was moving at 10km/s (6 miles per second).

Spectacular video taken from the upper-stage of the rocket showed it drifting off into the distance.

"Our spacecraft is in excellent health and it's on its way to Mars," said Curiosity project manager Peter Theisinger.

Nasa received a first communication from the cruising spacecraft about 50 minutes after lift-off through a tracking station in Canberra, Australia.

Controllers will command a course correction manoeuvre in two weeks to refine the trajectory to the Red Planet.

The rover - also known as the Mars Science laboratory (MSL) - is due to arrive at the Red Planet in early August 2012. Then, the hard part begins - landing safely.

One senior space agency official this week called Mars the "Death Planet" because so many missions have failed to get down in one piece.

The Americans, though, have a good recent record and they believe a new rocket-powered descent system will be able to place the rover very precisely in one of the most exciting locations on the planet.

It is being aimed at a deep equatorial depression called Gale Crater, which contains a central mountain that rises some 5km (3 miles) above the plain below.

The crater was chosen as the landing site because satellite imagery has suggested that surface conditions at some point in time may have been benign enough to sustain micro-organisms.

This included pictures of sediments at the base of the peak that were clearly laid down in the presence of abundant water.

MSL is equipped with 10 sophisticated instruments to study the rocks, soils and atmosphere in Gale Crater.

The $2.5bn (£1.6bn) mission is funded for an initial two Earth years of operations, but MSL-Curiosity has a plutonium battery and so should have ample power to keep rolling for more than a decade.

It is likely the mechanisms on the rover will wear out long before its energy supply.

"The agency is ecstatic," observed Doug McCuistion, Nasa's Mars exploration programme director.

"We have started a new era of exploration, not just technologically but scientifically as well.

"I hope we have more work than the scientists can handle. When we get to the surface, I expect them all to be overrun with data they've never seen before. I expect the public to have images, vistas that we've never seen before.

"Down in the bottom of Gale Crater, those images are going to be just stunning I believe. It will be like sitting at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, I think.""

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'US Should Freeze Deployment of Anti-Missile Systems in European Countries'

3:12:42 AM, Friday, November 25, 2011

"Russia is pushing hard for a joint European missile defense system with NATO, a system which is spearheaded by the US. But as of late, Moscow has been complaining about lukewarm co-operation from its Western partners.

The US should freeze the current deployment of US anti-missile systems in certain European countries, Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee told RT.

At the G8 summit in France last week, Russia’s president Dmitry Medvedev said the US could spark a new arms race if it keeps building its missile defense system in Europe. According to Kosachev, there are some ways to avoid this, though “nobody believes we will ever have a joint button to be pushed simultaneously by the two participants.”

“Number one is not to take any practical steps immediately to create a future global anti-missile system. Number two is to make a legally-binding agreement on the purposes of the future system and to ensure the US or NATO system will not be aimed at Russia. And number three is to start practical co-operation on exchange of information on missile launches and to introduce certain elements of joint commander on the future integrated anti-missile system,” said Kosachev.

Whether or not the US decides to keep building up its missile defense system and military potential in Europe, and Russia’s response to that is a matter for the future negotiations, said Kosachev.

“As for tactical nuclear weapons, Russia now does not have any tactical nuclear weapons outside its borders, while the US have deployed certain amounts of these armaments in five or six European countries, so the first step to be taken here is to get tactical nuclear weapons inside national borders of each country that possesses these types of weapons and, later on, start further negotiations. When that happens, Russia will be ready to enter the process,” Kosachev said.

Missile defense, along with its global implications, is to become one of the main issues at the meeting between Russian and the NATO defense ministers in Berlin on June 9, and also of the next summit of Russia and the European Union in Nizhny Novgorod on June 9 and 10.

Russia warned it would consider withdrawing from the latest Russian-American Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, New START, if there was no progress.

“There was no sufficient progress in any of the cases because NATO countries in Europe are not ready to take on the expenditures for the expensive system. They want the US to spend their money on European security. And in the dialogue between NATO and Russia, we discuss all possible options. But as nobody knows how NATO will behave, we are not making any progress here either,” Kosachev believes."

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Mystery of Dead Sea Scroll Authors Possibly Solved

2:57:26 AM, Friday, November 25, 2011

"The Dead Sea Scrolls may have been written, at least in part, by a sectarian group called the Essenes, according to nearly 200 textiles discovered in caves at Qumran, in the West Bank, where the religious texts had been stored.

Scholars are divided about who authored the Dead Sea Scrolls and how the texts got to Qumran, and so the new finding could help clear up this long-standing mystery.

The research reveals that all the textiles were made of linen, rather than wool, which was the preferred textile used in ancient Israel. Also they lack decoration, some actually being bleached white, even though fabrics from the period often have vivid colours. Altogether, researchers say these finds suggest that the Essenes, an ancient Jewish sect, "penned" some of the scrolls.

Not everyone agrees with this interpretation. An archaeologist who has excavated at Qumran told LiveScience that the linen could have come from people fleeing the Roman army after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and that they are in fact responsible for putting the scrolls into caves.

Iconic scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls consist of nearly 900 texts, the first batch of which were discovered by a Bedouin shepherd in 1947. They date from before A.D. 70, and some may go back to as early as the third century B.C. The scrolls contain a wide variety of writings including early copies of the Hebrew Bible, along with hymns, calendars and psalms, among other works.

Nearly 200 textiles were found in the same caves, along with a few examples from Qumran, the archaeological site close to the caves where the scrolls were hidden.

Orit Shamir, curator of organic materials at the Israel Antiquities Authority, and Naama Sukenik, a graduate student at Bar-Ilan University, compared the white-linen textiles found in the11 caves to examples found elsewhere in ancient Israel, publishing their results in the most recent issue of the journal Dead Sea Discoveries.

A breakthrough in studying these remains was made in 2007 when a team of archaeologists was able to ascertain that colorful wool textiles found at a site to the south of Qumran, known as the Christmas Cave, were not related to the inhabitants of the site. This meant that Shamir and Sukenik were able to focus on the 200 textiles found in the Dead Sea Scroll caves and at Qumran itself, knowing that these are the only surviving textiles related to the scrolls.

They discovered that every single one of these textiles was made of linen, even though wool was the most popular fabric at the time in Israel. They also found that most of the textiles would have originally been used as clothing, later being cut apart and re-used for other purposes such as bandages and for packing the scrolls into jars.

Some of the textiles were bleached white and most of them lacked decoration, even though decoration is commonly seen in textiles from other sites in ancient Israel.

According to the researchers the finds suggest that the residents of Qumran dressed simply.

"They wanted to be different than the Roman world," Shamir told LiveScience in a telephone interview. "They were very humble, they didn't want to wear colorful textiles, they wanted to use very simple textiles."

The owners of the clothing likely were not poor, as only one of the textiles had a patch on it."This is very, very, important," Shamir said. "Patching is connected with [the] economic situation of the site."

Shamir pointed out that textiles found at sites where people were under stress, such as at the Cave of Letters, which was used in a revolt against the Romans, were often patched. On the other hand "if the site is in a very good economic situation, if it is a very rich site, the textiles will not be patched," she said. With Qumran, "I think [economically] they were in the middle, but I'm sure they were not poor."

Robert Cargill, a professor at the University of Iowa, has written extensively about Qumran and has developed a virtual model of it. He said that archaeological evidence from the site, including coins and glassware, also suggests the inhabitants were not poor..."

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New Find Sheds Light on Ancient Site in Jerusalem

2:41:56 PM, Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"JERUSALEM (AP) — Newly found coins underneath Jerusalem's Western Wall could change the accepted belief about the construction of one of the world's most sacred sites two millennia ago, Israeli archaeologists said Wednesday.

The man usually credited with building the compound known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary is Herod, a Jewish ruler who died in 4 B.C. Herod's monumental compound replaced and expanded a much older Jewish temple complex on the same site.

But archaeologists with the Israel Antiquities Authority now say diggers have found coins underneath the massive foundation stones of the compound's Western Wall that were stamped by a Roman proconsul 20 years after Herod's death. That indicates that Herod did not build the wall — part of which is venerated as Judaism's holiest prayer site — and that construction was not close to being complete when he died.

"The find changes the way we see the construction, and shows it lasted for longer than we originally thought," said the dig's co-director, Eli Shukron.

The four bronze coins were stamped around 17 A.D. by the Roman official Valerius Gratus. He preceded Pontius Pilate of the New Testament story as Rome's representative in Jerusalem, according to Ronny Reich of Haifa University, one of the two archaeologists in charge of the dig.

The coins were found inside a ritual bath that predated construction of the renovated Temple Mount complex and which was filled in to support the new walls, Reich said.

They show that construction of the Western Wall had not even begun at the time of Herod's death. Instead, it was likely completed only generations later by one of his descendants.

The coins confirm a contemporary account by Josephus Flavius, a Jewish general who became a Roman historian. Writing after a Jewish revolt against Rome and the destruction of the Temple by legionnaires in 70 A.D., he recounted that work on the Temple Mount had been completed only by King Agrippa II, Herod's great-grandson, two decades before the entire compound was destroyed.

Scholars have long been familiar with Josephus' account, but the find is nonetheless important because it offers the "first clear-cut archaeological evidence that part of the enclosure wall was not built by Herod," said archaeologist Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University, who was not involved in the dig.

Josephus also wrote that the end of construction left 18,000 workmen unemployed in Jerusalem. Some historians have linked this to discontent that eventually erupted in the Jewish revolt.

The compound, controlled since 1967 by Israel, now houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the golden-capped Muslim shrine known as the Dome of the Rock. The fact that the compound is holy both to Jews and Muslims makes it one of the world's most sensitive religious sites.

The dig in which the coins were discovered cleared a Roman-era drainage tunnel that begins at the biblical Pool of Siloam, one of the city's original water sources, and terminates with a climb up a ladder out onto a 2,000-year-old street inside Jerusalem's Old City. The tunnel runs by the foundation stones of the compound's western wall, where the coins were found.

The drainage tunnel was excavated as part of the dig at the City of David, which is perhaps Israel's richest archaeological excavation and its most contentious.

The dig is being carried out inside the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, and is funded by a group associated with the Israeli settlement movement that opposes any division of the city as part of a future peace deal.

The excavation of the tunnel has also yielded a Roman sword, oil lamps, pots and coins that scholars believe are likely debris from an attempt by Jewish rebels to hide in the underground passage as they fled from the Roman soldiers."

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