Thursday, March 28, 2013

Tetrahymena Thermophila (Picture of the Day: 3/28/13)

Tetrahymena Thermophila. Source

This little protozoan is by no means new to science. Over the years, Tetrahymena thermophila has led to many great discoveries, and not just one nobel prize. Even with all that this critter has given to our understanding of nature, it appears as if there is still more to be learned. One of the most fascinating things about this protozoa is that it has seven distinct genders. These seven genders can reproduce in 21 different combinations. Until very recently, it wasn't known how the gender of the offspring was determined, but now researchers from UC Santa Barbara and the Institute of Hydrobiology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences have discovered that T. thermophila contains a germiline nucleus that contains the undifferentiated genes from the parents which are randomly assigned to determine gender.
To learn more, check out this article.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Pluto's New Moons (Picture of the Day: 3/17/13)

Pluto's known moons. Source

New evidence says that Pluto, the not-planet (sorry), might have as many as 10 tiny moons orbiting around it. Ever since Pluto's discovery in 1930 scientists have been discovering more and more large objects orbiting around it. The most recent moon (circled in this picture) P5 was discovered last year, but these potential moons pose a threat to the New Horizons mission which is scheduled to perform a close flyby to Pluto in 2015.
To read more, check out this article.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Mars Could Once Support Life

Ever since Curiosity was told to drill into the Martian surface I have been monitoring its progress. (Check out Curiosity at RocknestCuriosity's Frist Drilling AttemptCuriosity Drills, and Curiosity's Got Dust). Well, the next installment in this exciting story has finally arrived. Our enterprising little rover has analyzed the dust it collected and has returned some exciting results. It appears that Mars could have once sustained life.

Curiosity. Source

Curiosity began drilling into a curiously veiny section of rock near Rocknest on Mars back in February. The drilling project took several weeks as scientists chose where to drill, ran some pre-drill tests and took their time collecting a dust sample, but it was all worth it. As Curiosity used its impressive on-board drill to dig a hole 2.5 inches into solid stone it collected dust. Once the dust was collected and verified, it was placed into Curiosity's on-board chemistry lab. When the research bot was done with its researching, it revealed that the debris contained key chemical ingredients necessary to support life. Specifically sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon.

The hole that Curiosity dug. Source

The drill site before and after picture. Source

Another interesting result of Curiosity's researches is the discovery that the rock was abundant in clay minerals, suggesting that the drill site was formed at the bottom of a pond or lake that wouldn't have been too salty or acidic for life to form. A scientist working on the Curiosity mission, John Grotzinger, even went so far as to say "we have found a habitable environment that is so benign and supportive of life that probably, if this water was around and you had been on the planet, you would have been able to drink it." A bold statement, but it underlines just how impressive these findings are. It really looks as if Mars had an environment that could have supported life. 

Curiosity's drill. Source

It was never certain that Mars could have once sustained life. In fact, previous missions turned up evidence that put the idea of a habitable Mars in question. However,  now that we know it's possible, the search for life will be revitalized. NPR has a really good piece on the new findings, and so does Discovery. I am confident that we will find, one day, that Mars did indeed support life in the far past. After all, life has a way of staying living.

Cockatoos Have Self-Control (Picture of the Day: 3/13/13)

Goffin cockatoo. Source

New research shows that birds, specifically Goffin cockatoos, are able to exercise self-control. The research was done by giving cockatoos a piece of food and teaching them that they could trade in the piece of food for a better one if they waited. Of the 14 birds tested, all of them chose to wait and trade in their food. Previously, many people believed that birds could not exercise self-control, but this should change that point of view.
To read more, read this article.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Sakurajima Volcano Lightning (Picture of the Day: 3/12/13)

The Sakurajima volcano erupting in southern Japan. Credit: Martin Rietze

This picture was taken back in January when the Sakurajima volcano was caught erupting in southern Japan. Aside from the impressive rain of liquid metals, you might have noticed the arcing bolt of lightning. The intensity of volcanic eruptions is often enough to create intense lightning storms. The exact mechanism of the creation of the differential charges necessary for lightning is not exactly know, but whether it be electrically charged particles from the intense heat or the interactions of volcanic dust, the result is terrifying and beautiful.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Comet Pan-STARRS (Picture of the Day: 3/10/3)

Pan-STARRS. Source

A comet known as Pan-STARRS has recently made an appearance in the skies over our lovely planet. So far this bright little comet has only been visible in the Southern Hemisphere, but in just a few days it will be visible over the Northern Hemisphere, where I live. From March 12 through 18 this comet should be visible near the horizon at sundown. If you want to catch a glimpse of what could very well be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, then I suggest finding some clear skies and a horizon free of trees and buildings. I will be trying to catch a glimpse of this comet myself, but with the gloomy weather we've been having in Iowa recently I'm a little worried I won't be able to see it. If the skies do open up, however, I'll be sure to try to get a picture to post.
For more information, click here.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Life from the Depths of Vostok (Picture of the Day: 3/9/13)

Drilling diagram of lake Vostok.

A while back, one of the lakes under the ice of the South Pole was finally reached by a team of Russian scientists. This lake is known as Lake Vostok, the lake isolated from the outside world for 17 million years. The researchers have now announced that they have identified a new form of bacterial life from the depths of this mysterious world. At best, the DNA of this bacteria is only an 86% match to any other form of life, indicating it as a new species.
More research is needed to make sure that this bacteria really is a new species, but until then, I recommend reading this article.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

10 Ways to Destroy Planet Earth

I was recently browsing and stumbled upon this article that caught my attention. Sam Hughes wrote a while back, describing the 10 best ways to destroy Earth, assuming you were a super villain of that caliber. You know, the kind of person that would destroy the birthplace of humanity and the only planet in the universe known to support life. That kind of person.

Anyway, I thought it would be fun to give a brief summary of the top 10 ways to destroy all life; in descending order. If you want the more detailed list, I strongly recommend reading Ham Hughes' article.

10. The entire planet failing to exist

Basically, there is a theoretical probability that a particle can randomly cease to exist. The chances of this happening are very low, and for this method of Earth-destruction to work, all of the particles in the entire planet would have to stop existing simultaneously. The chances of this happening are so low that I don't feel like I need to even write it out. I wouldn't worry about this happening anytime soon, unless you believe in miracles, that is.

9. Consumption by strangelets

There "exists" a hypothetical form of matter called strange matter, a particle of which is a strangelet. This theoretical substance is a combination of quarks that would turn everything they touch into more strange matter. If a strangelet could somehow be released on the Earth, and kept stable, it could theoretically turn the planet into a strange ball floating around the sun.

8. Absorbed by a tiny black hole

If you could figure out how to make a stable yet microscopic black hole, all you'd have to do would be to place it on the ground somewhere and watch as the planet slowly disappeared. This tiny little black hole would fall straight through the Earth, eventually settling inside the core after falling through the other side of the planet a few times, absorbing matter as it went. Everything the black hole touched would be absorbed, adding to the hole's mass. In just a little while, Earth would be nothing but a black hole - visible only with a microscope - orbiting the sun.

7. Hit it with antimatter!

This one is pretty obvious. Antimatter, when it interacts with regular matter, converts entirely to energy, making it the most powerful explosive material in existence. However, a massive amount of antimatter would be needed to blow up the Earth. I don't know if you realize this, but Earth is big. Hughes calculates that we would need 2,500,000,000,000 tons of the substance to really do the job. On the "bright" side, Earth would be reduced to a belt of rubble orbiting the Sun.

6. Use the energy of vacuum

It has been theorized that the "vacuum" of space isn't actually a vacuum afterall. Instead, space is really just an overall vacuum, filled, on an atomic scale, with a soup of particles and antiparticles constantly coming into existence and then meeting each other and blinking back out of existence. If this were so, it would theoretically be possible to harness the energy of the vacuum. Once this energy is harnessed, it could be released to destroy the planet.

5. Absorbed by a not-so-tiny black hole

This method requires a full-fledged black hole. Something on the order of a collapsed star. Once you find such a black hole, all that is necessary is to bring it and Earth close to each other. Nature will do the rest. The black hole will absorb Earth and continue on its merry way.

4. One piece at a time

This method requires a lot of manual labor. If you could get a mass driver (short definition: a cannon that fires stuff) big enough, you could just fire Earth off into space, one shovelful at a time. Basically, all you'd have to do is find some reliable method of getting matter out of Earth's gravity well. This could be a mass driver or a space elevator or even a nearly infinite quantity of rockets. Once you have your delivery method, you just start firing bits and pieces of the planet into space until there's nothing left.

3. Hit it with something that's not antimatter

An impact of enough force can destroy anything. Using the good ol' equation, force=mass X acceleration we can say that a certain force is necessary to destroy the planet. After that, it's just a matter of finding the right balance between speed and mass (the acceleration comes from the "particle" decelerating when it hits Earth). Throwing something like Mars or Venus at Earth would probably be the easiest solution. There are two limits to be aware of here. The first limit is the speed of light. If whatever you're throwing would have to be going faster than light to destroy Earth, then you can't throw it that fast. The other limit is size. If you were to shoot Earth with a pea with enough speed, it wouldn't stop as it traveled through the planet, and Earth would remain mostly unscathed. The pea just wouldn't be able to transfer all that kinetic energy. (Really what we're talking about here is the transfer of kinetic energy KE = 1/2mv^2)

2. Gray goo

Whenever someone talks about nano-robotics, the age old fear of von Neumann machines is brought up. A von Neumann machine is simply a robot that can replicate itself perfectly using only the materials needed. If you could create one of these machines that required mostly iron and let it do its thing, it would eventually turn the planet into a bunch of robots. After that, if the robots were installed with rockets, they could just fire themselves into the Sun.

1. Or you could just throw Earth at the Sun

The simplest and possibly most possible method of Earth-annihilation would be to just destabilize its orbit such that it falls into the Sun. After all, there is a giant nuclear furnace that would be up to the challenge just a little over 8 light-minutes away. The method of moving the planet, whether it be rockets or meteor impacts, is up to the destroyer-of-worlds.

I thought this was entertaining. But please, don't try any of this at home. Seriously, I live here too.

DE-STAR (Picture of the Day: 3/7/13)

DE-STAR could save us by vaporizing asteroids. Source. Credit: Philip M. Lubin

I am by no means endorsing this idea, but I thought it interesting, and outlandish, enough to warrant a "Picture of the Day".
This picture is a concept drawing for an orbital laser array known as "DE-STAR" (Directed Energy Solar Targeting of Asteroids). With all the asteroid scares recently, a lot of people have been putting their heads together to figure out a way to potentially protect our tiny planet from the nearly invisible floating chunks of death that roam our universe. This laser array, if created large enough, could vaporize nearly any size of asteroid if given enough time. To achieve asteroid vaporization or deflection, the device would take energy from the sun and then redirect it towards its target. The primary goal would be to destroy or deter asteroids, but it could theoretically also be used to send power to spacecraft.
I'll admit that this idea is a little crazy, but you have to admit that it does sound really cool. At least people are trying, right?
For more information, click here.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Electronically Linking Rat Brains (Picture of the Day: 3/5/13)

This wire is linking this rat's brain to the brain of another rat. Source

This might be the coolest thing that I have seen come out of science so far. Researchers at the Duke University Medical Center have developed a way for rats to send and receive information directly from their brains. This picture here is basically how they do it. There are two rats, an encoder rat and a decoder rat. Each rat has a bunch of tiny wires attached to the motor sections of their brains. The encoder rat is then given a task (in this case, pushing a lever), when it completes the task correctly, its brain activity is sent into the brain of the decoder rat. After a significant amount of training, the decoder rat was able to hit the correct lever about 70% of the time, strongly indicating that the rats were developing a method of brain-to-brain communication.
Combine this research with the MRIs that can recreate the images we see in our minds and I think there is some strong evidence for a new era of technological growth. Maybe, one day soon, we'll have computers linked directly to our minds.
Read this article to learn more.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Prebiotic Molecules in Space (Picture of the Day: 3/1/13)

Gas clouds like this one in the constellation Orion could hold the beginnings of life. Source

New research has surfaced showing evidence of prebiotic molecules floating about in interstellar space. A team of researchers and students used the Green Bank Telescope to survey the radio emissions from a gas cloud floating 25,000 light years away. They found the characteristic emissions of both cyanomethanimine and ethanamine, two molecules that are a part of the formation of certain parts of DNA, pre-prebiotic molecules, if you will.