The brain appears to be wired more like the checkerboard streets of New York City than the curvy lanes of Columbia, Md., suggests a new brain imaging study. The most detailed images, to date, reveal a pervasive 3D grid structure with no diagonals, say scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health. “Far from being just a tangle of wires, the brain’s connections turn out to be more like ribbon cables — folding 2D sheets of parallel neuronal fibers that cross paths at right angles, like the warp and weft of a fabric,” explained Van Wedeen, M.D., of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), A.A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging and the Harvard Medical School. “This grid structure is continuous and consistent at all scales and across humans and other primate species.” Wedeen and colleagues report new evidence of the brain’s elegant simplicity March 30, 2012 in the journal Science. The study was funded, in part, by the NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the Human Connectome Project of the NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research, and other NIH components. “Getting a high resolution wiring diagram of our brains is a landmark in human neuroanatomy,” said NIMH Director Thomas R. Insel, M.D. “This new technology may reveal individual differences in brain connections that could aid diagnosis and treatment of brain disorders.” http://www.nih.gov/news/health/mar2012/nimh-29.htm
Archive for March, 2012
There are tens of billions of these light planets around red dwarf stars in our galaxy alone, it has just been announced by an international team using observations with the HARPS spectrograph on the 3.6-meter telescope at ESO‘s La Silla Observatory in Chile .A recent announcement , showing that planets are ubiquitous in our galaxy used a different method that was not sensitive to this important class of exoplanets. The HARPS team has been searching for exoplanets orbiting the most common kind of star in the Milky Way — red dwarf stars (also known as M dwarfs ). These stars are faint and cool compared to the Sun, but very common and long-lived, and therefore account for 80% of all the stars in the Milky Way. “Our new observations with HARPS mean that about 40% of all red dwarf stars have a super-Earth orbiting in the habitable zone where liquid water can exist on the surface of the planet,” says Xavier Bonfil (IPAG, Observatoire des Sciences de l’Univers de Grenoble, France), the leader of the team. “Because red dwarfs are so common — there are about 160 billion of them in the Milky Way — this leads us to the astonishing result that there are tens of billions of these planets in our galaxy alone.”
The HARPS team surveyed a carefully chosen sample of 102 red dwarf stars in the southern skies over a six-year period. A total of nine super-Earths (planets with masses between one and ten times that of Earth) were found, including two inside the habitable zones of Gliese 581 and Gliese 667 C respectively. The astronomers could estimate how heavy the planets were and how far from their stars they orbited. By combining all the data, including observations of stars that did not have planets, and looking at the fraction of existing planets that could be discovered, the team has been able to work out how common different sorts of planets are around red dwarfs. They find that the frequency of occurrence of super-Earths  in the habitable zone is 41% with a range from 28% to 95%. On the other hand, more massive planets, similar to Jupiter and Saturn in our Solar System, are found to be rare around red dwarfs. Less than 12% of red dwarfs are expected to have giant planets (with masses between 100 and 1000 times that of the Earth). As there are many red dwarf stars close to the Sun the new estimate means that there are probably about one hundred super-Earth planets in the habitable zones around stars in the neighbourhood of the Sun at distances less than about 30 light-years. “The habitable zone around a red dwarf, where the temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist on the surface, is much closer to the star than the Earth is to the Sun,” says Stephane Udry (Geneva Observatory and member of the team). “But red dwarfs are known to be subject to stellar eruptions or flares, which may bathe the planet in X-rays or ultraviolet radiation, and which may make life there less likely.” One of the planets discovered in the HARPS survey of red dwarfs is Gliese 667 Cc. This is the second planet in this triple star system and seems to be situated close to the centre of the habitable zone. Although this planet is more than four times heavier than the Earth it is the closest twin to Earth found so far and almost certainly has the right conditions for the existence of liquid water on its surface. This is the second super-Earth planet inside the habitable zone of a red dwarf discovered during this HARPS survey, after Gliese 581d was announced in 2007 and confirmed in 2009. “Now that we know that there are many super-Earths around nearby red dwarfs we need to identify more of them using both HARPS and future instruments. Some of these planets are expected to pass in front of their parent star as they orbit — this will open up the exciting possibility of studying the planet’s atmosphere and searching for signs of life,” concludes Xavier Delfosse, another member of the team. http://www.eso.org/sci/facilities/lasilla/instruments/harps/
With new Web-based software called SETILive, an army of independent citizen-scientists are being enlisted to help with the hunt for unusual signals. The software, which can be found at setilive.org, was designed by Zooniverse, a team of programmers and scientists who have created Web-based systems to enable citizen participation in research in fields like astronomy and marine biology. SETILive was switched on late last month.
In two weeks, more than 40,000 volunteers have signed up, and more than one million radio samples have been analyzed. (Another Zooniverse project, Galaxy Zoo, has enabled more than 600,000 amateur astronomers to help with classifying an immense number of deep-sky objects since 2007.)
Thanks to the remarkable revelations of the Kepler satellite mission, the searchers have a target list. Kepler has revealed thousands of planets relatively close to our solar system. Now, rather than sweeping the entire sky, the array of 42 antennas, spread over the countryside in the mountain valley here in Northern California, dart electronically from target to target, capturing snippets of what the watchers hope might be evidence of alien life.http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/21/science/in-search-for-alien-life-researchers-enlist-human-minds.html?_r=1
The Fermi Gamma-Ray Telescope has just picked up “crazy-energetic photons,” says Dave Thompson, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “And it’s detecting so many of them we’ve been able to produce the first all-sky map of the very high energy universe.” “About a third of the new sources can’t be clearly linked to any of the known types of objects that produce gamma rays,” Thompson says. “We have no idea what they are.” Among them are super massive black holes called blazars, the seething remnants of supernova explosions, and rapidly rotating neutron stars called pulsars. Some of the gamma rays seem to come from “Fermi bubbles” — giant structures just discovered two years ago that emanate from the Milky Way’s center and span some 20,000 light years above and below the galactic plane. Exactly how these bubbles formed is another mystery, but they may be the remnant of an eruption from a supersized black hole at the center of our galaxy, astronomers say. http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2012/16mar_theedge/
A milestone of sorts was passed last year when IBM’s Watson supercomputer bested the two human superstars of the Jeapardy! TV program, answering questions that would stump an ordinary person. Tensions were high during this contest, since the stakes are potentially very great. This contest harkens back to the famous test mentioned by the AI pioneer, Alan Turing, who said that, sooner or later, a machine will be so advanced that its answers to questions will be indistinguishable from a human’s answers. To be fair, no machine can pass a Turing test in all situations. It is still relatively easy for a human to detect which answer came from a human and which came from a machine. But the victory of IBM’s Watson computer shows that, one by one, the machines are chipping away at the supremacy of human beings. What this contest showed was that, in a very specialized area, machines can do better than humans. This involves answering questions that are posed in a highly stylized way, suitable for the Jeopardy! TV program. This does not involve answering questions that are posed, off-the-cuff, by an ordinary person using colloquial, conversational English. http://mkaku.org/home/
A sub-scale solid rocket motor designed to mimic NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, booster design successfully was tested today by engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The 20-second firing tested new insulation materials on the 24-inch-diameter, 109-inch-long motor. The motor is a scaled down, low-cost replica of the solid rocket motors that will boost SLS off the launch pad. Marshall is leading the design and development of the SLS on behalf of the agency. The new heavy-lift launch vehicle will expand human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and enable new missions of exploration across the solar system. The test will help engineers develop and evaluate analytical models and skills to assess future full-scale SLS solid rocket motor tests. The next full-scale test, Qualification Motor-1 (QM-1), is targeted for spring 2013. Two five-segment solid rocket motors, the world’s largest at 154-foot-long and 12-foot diameter, will be used in the first two 70-metric-ton capability flights of SLS. http://www.nasa.gov/exploration/systems/sls/H12-085.html
People who constantly reach into a pocket to check a smartphone for bits of information will soon have another option: a pair of Google-made glasses that will be able to stream information to the wearer’s eyeballs in real time. According to several Google employees familiar with the project who asked not to be named, the glasses will go on sale to the public by the end of the year. These people said they are expected “to cost around the price of current smartphones,” or $250 to $600. The people familiar with the Google glasses said they would be Android-based, and will include a small screen that will sit a few inches from someone’s eye. They will also have a 3G or 4G data connection and a number of sensors including motion and GPS. A Google spokesman declined to comment on the project. Seth Weintraub, a blogger for 9 to 5 Google, who first wrote about the glasses project in December, and then discovered more information about them this month, also said the glasses would be Android-based and cited a source that described their look as that of a pair of Oakley Thumps. They will also have a unique navigation system. “The navigation system currently used is a head tilting to scroll and click,” Mr. Weintraub wrote this month. “We are told it is very quick to learn and once the user is adept at navigation, it becomes second nature and almost indistinguishable to outside users.” The glasses will have a low-resolution built-in camera that will be able to monitor the world in real time and overlay information about locations, surrounding buildings and friends who might be nearby, according to the Google employees. The glasses are not designed to be worn constantly — although Google expects some of the nerdiest users will wear them a lot — but will be more like smartphones, used when needed.http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/21/google-to-sell-terminator-style-glasses-by-years-end/?ref=technology
After 40 years of searching, physicists have the elusive Higgs boson in their sights. Wade Fisher, Michigan State University assistant professor of physics, presented the team’s results today at a physics conference in La Thuile, Italy. The Higgs boson is a hypothetical particle thought responsible for giving mass to matter, a critical but still unproven component of the long-standing Standard Model of particle physics. If a Higgs boson is created in a high-energy particle collision, it immediately decays into lighter more stable particles before even the world’s best detectors and fastest computers can snap a picture of it. To find one, physicists retraced the path of these secondary particles and ruled out processes that mimic its signal. Fisher, who coordinates the Collider Detector at Fermilab and DZero teams at the Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, however, suggests the elusive Higgs boson may nearly be cornered. “We see a distinct Higgs-like signature that cannot be easily explained without the presence of something new,” Fisher said. “If what we’re seeing really is the Higgs boson, it will be a major milestone for the world physics community and will place the keystone in the most successful particle physics theory in history.” The results, which have been collected over several years at Fermilab, are similar to those found by teams working at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. But even though the results are close, scientists are not quite ready to claim a definitive discovery, said Dmitri Denisov, a DZero spokesperson and physicist at Fermilab. “There is still much work ahead before the scientific community can say for sure whether the Higgs boson exists,” he said. “Based on these exciting hints, we are working as quickly as possible to further improve our analysis methods and squeeze the last ounce out of our data.” http://news.msu.edu/story/elusive-higgs-boson-in-sight/
Discovered by the LaSagra observatory in southern Spain, the small asteroid 2012 DA14 will pass within about 3.5 Earth radii of the Earth’s surface on February 15, 2013. Although its size is not well determined, this near-Earth asteroid is thought to be about 45 meters in diameter. Asteroid 2012 DA14 will pass inside the geosynchronous satellite ring, located about 35,800 km above the equator. Its orbit about the sun can bring it no closer to the Earth’s surface than 3.2 Earth radii on February 15, 2013. On this date, the asteroid will travel rapidly from the southern evening sky into the northern morning sky with its closest Earth approach occurring about 19:26 UTC when it will achieve a magnitude of less than seven, which is somewhat fainter than naked eye visibility. About 4 minutes after its Earth close approach, there is a good chance it will pass into the Earth’s shadow for about 18 minutes or so before reappearing from the eclipse. When traveling rapidly into the northern morning sky, 2012 DA14 will quickly fade in brightness.
Asteroid 2011 AG5 is more troubling. This 460 feet (140 meters) rock could be on an Earth-interception course in 2040. But it is currently ranked a “1″ on the 1 to 10 Torino Impact Hazard Scale, with odds of occurring at 1-in-625, according to JPL. “In September 2013, we have the opportunity to make additional observations of 2011 AG5 when it comes within 91 million miles (147 million kilometers) of Earth,” said Don Yeomans, manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at JPL. http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news174.html
Big defense budgets during the aughts financed the deployment of thousands of robots, including unmanned aerial and underwater vehicles, to Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon’s fascination with robots hasn’t slackened even in these more austere times. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) is funding Boston Dynamics’ development of a prototype robot called the Cheetah. On March 5, the company announced that the cat-like bot managed to gallop 18 mph on a treadmill, setting a new land speed record for legged robots. (The previous record: 13.1 mph, set at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1989.) Boston Dynamics, a 1992 spinoff from MIT that’s headed by Marc Raibert, has also developed a quadrupedal pack robot called the Legged Squad Support System (LS3). And in a move sure to wig out elements of the singularity movement, the company has a prototype human-like robot in the works called the Atlas that can walk upright and use its hands for balance while squeezing through narrow passages on surveillance or emergency rescue missions. As for the Cheetah, Raibert thinks the cat-bot could clock speeds of nearly 40 mph once key design and technical features are further refined. “We’ve solved a lot of the engineering problems,” he says. Raibert declined to say when such a technology would be ready for the battlefield, but he says this sort of machine could someday serve as a “scout robot” and “maybe deliver some payload.” This kind of machine could also be useful in emergency rescue and civilian disasters, the company says. In the latest speed test, the Cheetah was tethered to a hydraulic pump for power and relied on a boom-like device to help maintain balance. “It’s a lot like training wheels,” says Raibert. Those come off later this year when Boston Dynamics will start testing a free-running robot that will have an internal gas-powered engine and software capable of handling 3D movements. The Boston Dynamics research team is working with Dr. Alan Wilson, an expert on the dynamics of fast-running animals at London’s Royal Veterinary College. While the Cheetah won’t be combat-ready for some time, its technology may be more immediately useful in improving other Boston Dynamics bots. Last month Darpa announced it had started field testing Boston Dynamics LS3 pack-bot, including the ability to carry 400 lbs on a 20-mile trek in 24 hours without being refueled. http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-03-05/behold-the-cheetah-robot-dot-the-singularity-is-nigh