Ancient Toolmaking Roused Humanity’s Need for Language

Posted January 24th, 2015 at 2:35 pm (UTC+0)
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Examples of Oldowan chopper tools from Melka Kunture, Ethiopia (Didier Descouens/Wikimedia Commons)

Examples of Oldowan chopper tools from Melka Kunture, Ethiopia (Didier Descouens/Wikimedia Commons)

A couple of million years ago our ancient human ancestors created the world’s first tools when they broke some rocks into sharp shards so that they could slice apart and butcher game such as gazelles or zebras.

These early implements, called Oldowan tools, are the world’s oldest-known cutting devices. The term “Oldowan” is taken from the site of Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, where the first of these tools were discovered by archaeologist Louis Leakey in the 1930s.

This particular tool technology remained pretty much the same for about 700,000 years until more advanced Acheulean tools such as stone hand axes and cleavers were developed.

An extensive new study by an international and interdisciplinary group of researchers suggests that the tools themselves became a force that drove evolution.

These primitive tools became quite popular throughout the ancient world. Because nearly everyone wanted these tools, our early ancestors had to come up with an effective way to communicate with and teach others how to make and use the tools.  This means our ancient ancestors had to develop advanced verbal skills, including language.

The researchers, writing in the journal Nature Communications, suggest the methods of communicating among some of our most ancient ancestors might have been much more complex than had been thought.  So much so that earliest concepts of teaching and perhaps even the development of some kind of a fundamental proto-language or precursor to modern language took place about 1.8 million years ago.

Four views of an Acheulean handaxe (Didier Descouens/Wikimedia Commons)

Four views of an Acheulean handaxe (Didier Descouens/Wikimedia Commons)

Study authors believe that their work offers new insight into the power of human culture to actually guide the evolutionary process.

“Our findings suggest that stone tools weren’t just a product of human evolution, but actually drove it as well, creating the evolutionary advantage necessary for the development of modern human communication and teaching,” said Thomas Morgan, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Morgan said his team’s research shows that even our earliest predecessors were able to more effectively learn how to create and use these ancient tools if they had a teacher, especially one who was able to use language.

It’s possible that more advanced tool technology could have been devised over the 700,000 years the original tools were in use.  But, since these ancient people were still so busy coming up with language and teaching methods, Morgan and his group believes that they were unable to share any possible newer technology with others.

The research team said the development of the newer Acheulean tools about 1.8 million years ago suggests there must have been some development in communication that allowed that to happen.

Homo habilis shown in this forensic facial reconstruction were among the early hominins to devise and use primative stone tools. (Cicero Moraes/Wikimedia Commons)

Homo habilis shown in this forensic facial reconstruction were among the early hominins to devise and use primitive stone tools. (Cicero Moraes/Wikimedia Commons)

To make their findings Morgan’s group recruited 180 students from Scotland’s University of Saint Andrews so that they could teach them how to make the ancient Oldewan “flake” tools.

The researchers split the 180 participants into five different groups using various teaching methods.

One group of participants had to teach themselves since they only got to look at previously fashioned tools without the benefit of any kind guidance from the tool makers.

Another group got to watch someone make the tools and was able to interact with the person who made the tools.

For the remaining groups, teachers actually instructed them how to make the tools with more complex teaching techniques, which included just the use of gestures for one group or verbal language for the others.

Once all the participants were “taught” how to make the tools, they were then tested to see how much skill they had acquired.

The results: Those who had to figure things out for themselves or just watched someone create the tools weren’t able to acquire the needed skills as easily as others who were actually taught, especially those whose instructor used verbal language.

“Human evolution, it’s not just a story of our ancestors evolving in response to environmental conditions, but is actually the case that we made those conditions ourselves,” said Morgan.

According to Morgan, the process of humans guiding their own evolution is sometimes called “gene-culture co-evolution”.  He said that’s when our genes and our culture are evolving in response to each other in one single process.

Creating stone age tools – University of California, Berkeley Video

Dr. Thomas Morgan was interviewed about his team’s research and findings in a recent radio edition of “Science World”.

You can listen to the interview in the player below.

 

Meteorite Reveals Early Solar System Information, Greenland’s Ice Sheet is Melting & Smart Keyboard Adds Layer of Cybersecurity

Posted January 21st, 2015 at 9:45 pm (UTC+0)
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Example of a Pallasite meteorite (Steve Jurvetson/Creative Commons)

Example of a Pallasite meteorite (Steve Jurvetson/Creative Commons)

Meteorite’s Magnetic Memory Reveals its Secret Message

A team of British geologists has developed a new way to learn something about the early days of our solar system.

Since meteorites are fragmented pieces of asteroids that have fallen to Earth, testing the magnetic field of the meteorite can provide some information about its parent asteroid.

Asteroids are as old as the solar system itself.  Studying objects that originate some 4.5 billion years ago can tell scientists something about our own origin as a planet, and perhaps our fate.

The researchers, using the BESSY II synchrotron at Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin for Materials and Energy research center, fired a powerful beam of x-rays at a meteorite to capture information that was stored within miniature magnetic regions of the ancient space rock.

Writing in a new study published by the journal Nature, the research team from the UK’s University of Cambridge said that their findings provide a look at what could happen to Earth’s magnetic field billions of years from now when its core completely freezes solid.

Some scientists believe that the Earth’s core began its process of freezing less than a billion years ago, which is to core only began to freeze relatively recently in geological terms, maybe less than a billion years ago.

According to the research team’s leader, Dr. Richard Harrison of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences, we have no reason to worry about our home planet’s core completely freezing over anytime soon because it will take billions of years for that to happen.  Besides, Harrison adds, chances are that the Sun will get us first.

 

Crater Left behind by a Drained Sub-Glacial Lake in Greenland (Stephen Price, Los Alamos National Laboratory/Ohio State University)

Crater Left behind by a Drained Sub-Glacial Lake in Greenland (Stephen Price, Los Alamos National Laboratory/Ohio State University)

Greenland’s Ice Sheet Is Melting From Above and Below its Surface

Two newly published studies have suggested that atmospheric climate change is quickly melting Greenland’s ice sheet, which makes up about 80 percent of its landmass.  The studies find that the melting is taking place not only at the top of the ice sheet’s surface but also from the bottom.

The studies also found that two lakes of meltwater that formed beneath Greenland’s ice sheet have quickly drained away.

In one study, published in the open-access journal The Cryosphere, researchers said that one of the lakes, which had held billions of liters of meltwater, had emptied out leaving a crater behind that’s 1.5 kilometers wide.

Researchers writing in the other study, published by the journal Nature, said that within the last two years the second sub-glacial lake filled up and emptied twice.

Scientists say that as the meltwater fills the sub-glacial lakes it brings with it stored heat – called latent heat – from the surface’s comparatively warm atmosphere which then softens the surrounding ice.

The researchers suspect that as the melt-water makes it way from the surface to the base of the ice sheet it’s causing naturally formed drainage tunnels on Greenland’s coasts to expand to areas further inland.

These expanded drainage tunnels then bring heat and water to areas of the ice sheet that had been frozen to bedrock, possibly causing the ice to melt faster.

 

A smart keyboard that can tell who you are could help boost cybersecurity.  (American Chemical Society)

A smart keyboard that can tell who you are could help boost cybersecurity.
(American Chemical Society)

New Self-Cleaning Smart Keyboard Also Adds Layer of Cybersecurity

A lot of attention has been focused on cybersecurity lately especially after hackers recently broke into the computer systems at Sony Pictures Entertainment.

A group of scientists from the U.S. and China have come up with a novel and cost effective way to protect computer systems.

The researchers developed what has been described as a “self-cleaning, self-powered smart keyboard that can identify computer users by the way they type.”

Writing in the American Chemical Society’s journal, Nano, the developers of the new “smart keyboard,” could help keep unauthorized users from obtaining direct access to computers.

The new device senses various typing patterns such as the speed and amount of pressure that a user applies to the keyboard which creates a special user profile that allows the keyboard to distinguish one user from another.

So even if someone was to steal your password the keyboard wouldn’t allow access to the computer since the typing profile is different.

The researchers add that the keyboard keeps itself clean because it is coated with a special surface that resists dirt and grime.

Predicting the Movies That Will Stand the Test of Time

Posted January 19th, 2015 at 8:01 pm (UTC+0)
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Poster for the Wizard of Oz (Public Domain via Wikimedia commons)

Poster for the Wizard of Oz (Wikimedia commons)

Nominations for the 2015 Academy Awards were announced last week.  And while they may be among the best movies of the year, how many do you think will survive the test of time to become all-time classics.

Many movie goers would expect such factors such as a film’s box-office revenue, awards, and critical acclaims to be most significant.

But, researchers at Northwestern University in Illinois came up with a new way to accurately predict true classic and significant movies from others.  Reporting their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the researchers noted the frequency a particular film is referenced in other works — such as other movies or TV programs – is key.

“Movie critics can be overconfident in spotting important works, and they have bias,” said Luís Amaral, the leader of the study in a Northwestern press-release. “Our method is as objective as it gets.”  Amaral is a professor of chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern and is co-director the university’s Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems.

In their study, Amaral and his colleagues sifted through the on-line Internet Movie Database (IMDb) and reviewed the entries of some 15,425 movies that were produced in the United States.

Film poster for Gone with the Wind (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Poster for Gone with the Wind (Wikimedia Commons)

The researchers developed an automated method that thoroughly analyzed various subjective factors contained within the entries such as reviews from critics or if it had garnered any notable awards – Golden Globe and Academy Awards – as well as objective factors such as box office receipts and how often the film was cited in the future.

The Northwestern researchers found that their method of tallying how many times a movie was cited in other works was better at forecasting classic movies — especially those at least 25 years old –than other factors such a critical praise, awards and even box office receipts.

“There is something about a movie that is hidden to us, but there are measurable things, such as critic ratings, awards and referencing by other filmmakers, that hint at this hidden element — a movie’s significance,” said Amaral. “We find that ultimately it is the creators, the filmmakers themselves, who will determine which movies are important, not the expert critics.”

Original 1942 theatrical release poster for the film Casablanca  (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Original 1942 theatrical release poster for Casablanca (Wikimedia Commons)

The researchers also found that the number of times a particular movie is referenced in other works can also predict its likelihood of being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’ enough to be included in the prestigious U.S. National Film Registry.

The movies that had the most references over a period of many years and are also listed in the National Film Registry are “The Wizard of Oz,” “Star Wars,” “Psycho,” “Casablanca” and “Gone With the Wind.”

“Directors keep coming back to movies that are significant,” Amaral said. “If you show a little bit from ‘Pscyho,’ such as referencing the shower scene, you are putting that whole movie in front of the viewer of the new movie.”

The Northwestern research team is planning to use its newly developed automated analysis method to determine the true importance of various scientific papers, paintings and music.

Are We Destabilizing our Planetary Life Support System?

Posted January 16th, 2015 at 9:01 pm (UTC+0)
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Nine planetary boundaries from 2009 (Azote Images/Stockholm Resilience Centre)

Nine planetary boundaries from 2009 (Azote Images/Stockholm Resilience Centre)

Three recently released studies are painting a grim picture for the future of humanity on planet Earth.

Professor Will Steffen from the Australian National University and the Stockholm Resilience Centre led some international scientists on two of the studies.

Their papers found that the impact of human activity on Earth, such as economic growth/globalization, population increases and energy use, for over the past 60 years, has sped up so quickly that we now are facing risks that are on “planetary-scale” proportions.

This impact of the accelerated human activity, suggested the papers, has also pushed our planet into a new geological epoch that some have named the Anthropocene.

The scientists said that four of nine global-scale processes that are impact life on Earth or ‘planetary boundaries’ have gone beyond safe conditions.  Those four processes include carbon emission driven climate change, the loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change, and changes to biogeochemical cycles such as phosphorus and nitrogen runoff to the land and oceans.

The impact on two of those four processes – climate change and loss of biosphere integrity – has been so severe that they are now posing serious risks to our future well being and are pushing our planet into a new state.

“Human activities could drive the earth into a much less hospitable state – in this research we have more accurately assessed the risk of this happening,” said Steffen in one press release.  “We are starting to destabilize our own planetary life support system.”

The accelerated impacts of human activity on the Earth (ANU Media)

The two studies – “Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet” was published in the journal Science and “The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration” which was published in the journal Anthropocene Review.

The research team will also present the findings in their two studies at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland which runs from January 21 – 25, 2015.

The third study by Dr. Jan Zalasiewicz and Professor Mark Williams from the Department of Geology at the UK’s University of Leicester suggests that this new Anthropocene geological epoch and the “Great Acceleration”, discussed one of the previously mentioned studies, actually began on July 16, 1945 began with the Trinity Test, which was the first detonation the atomic bomb in New Mexico.

This first atomic blast (code named Trinity), a part of the Manhattan Project, marked the beginning of what has become known as the Nuclear or Atomic Age.

The Trinity atomic explosion, 16 ms after detonation. (Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

The Trinity atomic explosion, 16 ms after detonation. (Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

Zalasiewicz and Williams said that they believe that the day when humans first released an incredibly powerful new energy source with Trinity was also an important boundary in the history of Earth.

The researchers said evidence of this can be found through a number of clues that can be found in geological strata – levels of sedimentary soil and rock.

The two researchers said that since that day in July 1945 we humans have really been impacting our home planet which is changing its geology and creating new and distinctive strata that will continue way into the future.

The Zalasiewicz and Williams study, “When did the Anthropocene begin: A mid-twentieth century boundary level is stratigraphically optimal”, was published in the journal Quaternary International.

ISS Crew Safe After Early Morning Scare, Ouchless Glucose Testing, ESA Tests Reentry Technologies, Hope For Binge Eaters

Posted January 14th, 2015 at 10:00 pm (UTC+0)
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Astronauts Barry WiImore (foreground) and Terry Virts re-entered the U.S. segment wearing protective masks.  (NASA TV)

Astronauts Barry WiImore (foreground) and Terry Virts re-entered the U.S. segment wearing protective masks. (NASA TV)

Space Station Crew Safe After Dangerous Leak Scare

The six crew members aboard the International Space Station have returned to the US portion of the space station after being evacuated to the Russian Orbital Section (ROS) early this morning.

An alarm went off within the US module and flight controllers at NASA’s Mission Control in Houston noticed high pressure levels in parts of the control system that helps maintain proper temperature levels.

A little later the flight controllers also noticed a jump in cabin pressure.

The two anomalies suggested the potential of a dangerous ammonia leak so as a precaution the ISS crew was instructed to evacuate and seal themselves within the Russian segment of the space station. Non-Essential equipment inside the US module was also powered down at that time.

Before the space station residents re-entered the US module this afternoon (1/14/15), ISS crew members Terry Virts of NASA and Flight Engineer Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency, wearing protective masks, took some air samples and reported that there were no signs of ammonia.

NASA is saying that “a transient error message in one of the station’s computer relay systems, called a multiplexer-demultiplexer” probably is responsible for setting of this morning’s alarm.

The relay box was turned off then back on, which cleared the error message. Flight controllers say that the relay box is now in good operating condition.

NASA says the crew is in good condition, and stresses that they were never in any danger.

 

Scientists at University of California, San Diego have tested a flexible and easy to wear device that extracts and measures the level of glucose in the fluid in between skin cells. (Jacobs School of Engineering/UC San Diego)

Scientists at University of California, San Diego have tested a flexible and easy to wear device that extracts and measures the level of glucose in the fluid in between skin cells. (Jacobs School of Engineering/UC San Diego)

Ouchless Glucose Testing Possible for Diabetes Patients

Hundreds of millions of people around the world who suffer with diabetes must prick their fingers with a needle or other sharp object once or several times a day to extract a drop of blood which is then used to measure their blood glucose levels.

Medical experts say that rather than putting up with the pain and aggravation of the finger prick, a number of diabetes patients tend to skip these needed tests that help them manage their illness.

Scientists from the University of California, San Diego,writing in the American Chemical Society’s journal “Analytical Chemistry”, say that they’ve come up with a new way to test those blood glucose levels without the pain and inconveniences of those finger pricks.

The researchers say that a person’s glucose levels can be measured by their new flexible and ultra-thin device that applied to their skin like a rub-on tattoo.

The rub-on tattoo device is able to detect glucose in fluid that’s just under the skin.

After putting their new tool through some preliminary tests on seven healthy volunteer subjects, the researchers say that it was able to accurately determine the volunteer’s glucose levels.

 

In this October 27, 2014 photo, a technician checks ESA's IXV Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle that's being prepared for launch on 2/11/15 ((c) ESA)

In this October 27, 2014 photo, a technician checks ESA’s IXV Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle that’s being prepared for launch on 2/11/15 ((c) ESA)

ESA will Launch Space Plane to Test New Re-entry Technologies

The European Space Agency (ESA) plans to send its Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle, (IXV), into suborbital space on 2/11/15 so that it can check out some re-entry devices that could be used on the space agency’s spacecraft of the future.

ESA says that the automobile-sized, un-manned experimental space plane will be sent up into space aboard one of its Vega rockets. The launch was originally scheduled for 10/23/14, but was scrubbed due to various safety concerns.

The space agency is using the mission to gather some important flight data so that it can develop systems and technology that will be needed for its transportation systems of the future.

The mission is expected to last a total of about 100 minutes.

The IXV space plane will be released by the Vega rocket at an altitude of about 320 km.  It will then coast in suborbital space for about 420 km before it is set to begin the re-entry phase of its mission.

As it goes through this re-entry procedure, various sensors and advance instruments will gather an extensive amount of valuable data before the vehicle splashes down in the Pacific Ocean.

 

 

Lots of food! (Dennis Yang/Creative Commons via Fllickr)

Lots of food! (Dennis Yang/Creative Commons via Fllickr)

New Hope for Those Suffering from Binge Eating Disorder

A new study just published in the journal “JAMA Psychiatry” suggests the effectiveness of a drug called lisdexamfetamine dimesylate is effective at reducing the uncontrollable desire to eat   — something doctors call Binge Eating Disorder (BED).

The medication has already been approved to treat patients with attention-deficit disorder/attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD).

Someone with Binge Eating Disorder is prone to frequently and uncontrollably eat unusually large amounts of food.  Those with B-E-D usually feel as if they are out of control and powerless to stop eating.

The researchers conducted randomized clinical trials with adults suffering from the disorder. What they found is those given higher doses of the medication were less likely to engage in binge eating that those who took placebos.

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) estimates between 1-5% of the general population suffers from Binge Eating Disorder and that it tends to affect women more than men.

Facebook Likes Reveal Personality Traits

Posted January 13th, 2015 at 2:52 pm (UTC+0)
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(Ksayer1/Creative Commons via Flickr)

(Ksayer1/Creative Commons via Flickr)

A new Anglo-American study has provided evidence that the ‘digital footprints’ you leave behind on your visits to social media websites such as Facebook can reveal more about your personality than your family or best friends.

Researchers at California’s Stanford University and the UK’s University of Cambridge constructed a computer model that mined the Facebook Likes of some 86,220 volunteers who also filled out a 100 question personality survey through a Facebook app called ‘myPersonality’.

The researchers found their computer model was better able to forecast an individual’s personality than family members and close friends.

The new study was built on research conducted by the University of Cambridge back in 2013 that found Facebook ‘likes’ could accurately forecast a number psychological and demographic traits.

The study found that the computer, by analyzing a mere 10 Facebook ‘likes’, was better able to predict an individual’s personality than a co-worker.   With 70 ‘likes’ to study, the computer did better than a friend or roommate and 150 ‘likes’ to gauge personality traits better than parents or siblings.

With enough Facebook ‘likes’ to analyze, the study showed that only the spouse came as close as the computer model for accurately tracking psychological traits.  The computer model needed to analyze at least 300 ‘likes’ before coming close to making its personality forecast compared with the same accuracy as a significant other.

FILE - Facebook employee walks past a sign at company headquarters in Menlo Park, California. (AP)

FILE – Facebook employee walks past a sign at company headquarters in Menlo Park, California. (AP)

To get an idea of just how accurate their new system was in forecasting personality traits, the research team compared the results of findings made by the new computer model to a number of past psychological studies that only used family and friends to judge personality traits.  The researchers found that their new computer model was able to produce results that were similar to the averages produced by the person-to-person studies.

The study volunteers who used the ‘myPersonality’ app also had the chance to invite their family and friends to weigh in on the volunteer’s personality traits by filling out a shorter – 10 question – version of the 100 item questionnaire.

Describing their findings as an “empathic demonstration” of the computer’s ability to unveil personality traits through purely scientific data analysis, the British/American collaboration also said that their investigation provided an “important milestone” by showing how non-human devices such as computers can get to know us better than what had been thought.  The research team also said that their work   provides some insight into better human-computer interactions.

“In the future, computers could be able to infer our psychological traits and react accordingly, leading to the emergence of emotionally-intelligent and socially skilled machines,” said lead author Wu Youyou, from Cambridge’s Psychometrics Center in a university press release.

This is a graph showing accuracy of Stafford/University of Cambridge computer model's personality judgement compared with humans (Wu Youyou/Michal Kosinski)

This is a graph showing accuracy of Stafford/University of Cambridge computer model’s personality judgement compared with humans (Wu Youyou/Michal Kosinski)

The research team in addressing concerns about privacy, especially as communications/computer technology continues to develop, said that they support policies that would give online users total control over their digital footprint.

The research team believes that their findings, which could lead to the development of quick, accurate, and inexpensive personality appraisals, may prove to be quite useful in helping people make better decisions in areas such as personnel screening and recruitment to choosing a romantic partner.

The Stanford/University of Cambridge study was published today in the journal the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”.

NASA’s Dawn Spacecraft Begins Approach to Dwarf Planet Ceres

Posted January 2nd, 2015 at 8:27 pm (UTC+0)
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Artist concept of NASA's Dawn spacecraft heading toward the dwarf planet Ceres. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Artist concept of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft heading toward the dwarf planet Ceres. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is getting set for the final segment of its planned ten-year mission after entering the approach phase of its visit to the dwarf planet Ceres.

This dwarf planet, with an average diameter of 950 kilometers, is the largest object in the asteroid belt, a region of space located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter  filled with debris of all sizes left over from the creation of the solar system.

Mission officials say that Dawn is scheduled to enter orbit with Ceres in March to study and photograph the celestial object up close.

When Dawn enters its orbit around Ceres, NASA says that the spacecraft will become the first ever to circle two solar system targets.

According to NASA, the Dawn spacecraft is about 640,000 kilometers from the dwarf planet target and is traveling at a speed of around 725 kilometers per hour.

NASA's Space Probe sitting atop a Delta II rocket begins its journey on 9/27/2007 to study two of the solar system's largest asteroids. (NASA)

NASA’s space probe Dawn, sitting atop a Delta II rocket, begins its journey on 9/27/2007 to study two of the solar system’s largest asteroids. (NASA)

Dawn, launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in 2007, already completed half of its mission back in 2012 after spending 14 months visiting and exploring Vesta, the second largest object in the asteroid belt.  Scientists also refer to Vesta as a minor planet named Vesta 4.

“Ceres is almost a complete mystery to us,” said Christopher Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission, in a NASA press release. “Ceres, unlike Vesta, has no meteorites linked to it to help reveal its secrets. All we can predict with confidence is that we will be surprised.”

Before entering its approach phase with Ceres, the spacecraft was in a solar conjunction, meaning it was on the other side of the sun from us.  With the sun right in the middle between Earth and Dawn, those involved with its mission had limited contact with the spacecraft.

But since the sun is no longer blocking Dawn from Earth and reliable communications have been re-established, mission controllers are able to program the spacecraft’s computers with the maneuvers necessary to safely and effectively guide it to Ceres.

With its unique ion propulsion system, NASA says that the Dawn spacecraft is able to travel to its destinations much more efficiently than if it had been equipped with a traditional chemical based propulsion system.

A full view of Vesta composed of mosaic of images taken by the Dawn space probe in September, 2012 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

A full view of Vesta composed of mosaic of images taken by the Dawn space probe in September, 2012 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

Because of this efficient method of propulsion Dawn has been able to travel through the cosmos with a higher amount of thrust time than any other spacecraft.

“Orbiting both Vesta and Ceres would be truly impossible with conventional propulsion. Thanks to ion propulsion, we’re about to make history as the first spaceship ever to orbit two unexplored alien worlds,” said Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Scientists think that Ceres may have formed later and may have a cooler interior than Dawn’s first target asteroid, Vesta.

Recent research suggests that since it formed earlier, when radioactive material was more plentiful, Vesta was able to produce more heat than Ceres and retain only a small amount of water.  On the other hand, scientists believe that Ceres is covered with thick mantle of ice and could even have an ocean tucked under its frigid crust.

NASA says that as Dawn comes closer and closer to Ceres, the spacecraft’s cameras will be able to provide some of the best images ever taken of the dwarf planet.

NASA/JPL video explaining Dawn’s Ion Propulsion System

Science Images of the Month – December, 2014

Posted December 31st, 2014 at 5:50 pm (UTC+0)
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NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) captured this image of the sun as it pumped out a powerful X1.8-class solar flare on 12/19/14.  X-class flares are the biggest and most intense of these solar explosions that blast large amounts of energy, light and high speed particles into space. (NASA)

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of the sun pumping out a powerful X1.8-class solar flare on 12/19/14. X-class flares are the biggest and most intense of these solar explosions that blast large amounts of energy, light and high speed particles into space. (Reuters/NASA)

How much money are you supposed to tip your robot waiter?  A crew of 30 robots welcomes customers, cooks meals and delivers dishes at a restaurant located in Hefei, in the Chinese province of Anhui on 12/26/14. (Reuters)

How much money are you supposed to tip your robot waiter? A crew of 30 robots welcomes customers, cooks meals and delivers dishes at a restaurant located in Hefei, in the Chinese province of Anhui on 12/26/14. (Reuters)

NASA sent its new Orion capsule, atop a Delta IV rocket, into space on its first unmanned orbital test flight on 12/5/14.  NASA hopes to use the new space capsule in the future for manned flights to an asteroid or perhaps even Mars. (AP/NASA)

NASA sent its new Orion capsule, atop a Delta IV rocket, into space on its first unmanned orbital test flight on 12/5/14. NASA hopes to use the new space capsule for future manned flights to an asteroid or perhaps even Mars. (AP/NASA)

And of course what goes up must come down.  After successfully completing its first unmanned orbital test flight, NASA’s Orion Crew Module is shown here as it descends to the Pacific Ocean under its three main parachutes on 12/5/14. (AP/US Navy)

And of course what goes up must come down. After successfully completing its first unmanned orbital test flight, NASA’s Orion Crew Module is shown here as it descends to the Pacific Ocean under its three main parachutes on 12/5/14. (AP/US Navy)

A student at the Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Science, located in Manahawkin, NJ holds an adult diamondback terrapin turtle on 12/16/14. The students, who study and take care of the turtles at the school recently, mounted a successful campaign to get New Jersey state lawmakers to introduce a bill that would make it illegal to catch or take the turtles from the wild. (AP)

A student at the Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Science, located in Manahawkin, NJ holds an adult diamondback terrapin turtle on 12/16/14. The students, who study and take care of the turtles at the school, recently mounted a successful campaign to get New Jersey state lawmakers to introduce a bill that would make it illegal to catch or take the turtles from the wild. (AP)

This amazing photo of the sun setting (left) over the Gulf of Mexico and the U.S. Gulf Coast (right) from space was posted to social media by the crew of the International Space Station on 12/14/14.  (Reuters/NASA)

This amazing photo of the sun setting (left) over the Gulf of Mexico and the U.S. Gulf Coast (right) from space was posted to social media by the crew of the International Space Station on 12/14/14. (Reuters/NASA)

A visitor gets an early look at the "Musee des Confluences", a brand new science and anthropology museum in Lyon, France on 12/18/14.  The museum, designed by Austrian architect Wolf Dieter Prix officially opened its doors to the public on 12/20/14. (AP)

A visitor gets an early look at the “Musee des Confluences”, a brand new science and anthropology museum in Lyon, France on 12/18/14. The museum, designed by Austrian architect Wolf Dieter Prix, officially opened its doors to the public on 12/20/14. (AP)

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) successfully launched its heaviest rocket ever on 12/18/14.  Called the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV Mark-III), the huge rocket also carried an experimental crew module, CARE (Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment), into space.  (AP/Press Trust of India)

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) successfully launched its heaviest rocket ever on 12/18/14. Called the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV Mark-III), the huge rocket also carried an experimental crew module, CARE (Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment), into space. (AP/Press Trust of India)

“Pepper”, a friendly human-like robot is shown here at its new job selling new Nestle coffee machines at a Tokyo electric shop on 12/1/14.  Nestle says it would like to have robots like “Pepper” working at 1,000 stores by the end of next year.  (Reuters)

“Pepper”, a friendly human-like robot is shown here at its new job selling new Nestle coffee machines at a Tokyo electric shop on 12/1/14. Nestle says it would like to have robots like “Pepper” working at 1,000 stores by the end of next year. (Reuters)

NASA and the European Space Agency released this new Hubble Space Telescope image of the galaxy IC 335 on 12/24/14.  The IC 335 galaxy is located in the Fornax Galaxy Cluster, which is about 60 million light-years away. (ESA/Hubble/NASA)

NASA and the European Space Agency released this new Hubble Space Telescope image of the galaxy IC 335 on 12/24/14. The IC 335 galaxy is located in the Fornax Galaxy Cluster, which is about 60 million light-years away. (ESA/Hubble/NASA)

A scientist holds the fossil skull of an Aquilops americanus which is believed to be the oldest known horned dinosaur species from North America. Scientists announced the discovery of this ancient fossil at press conference that was held on 12/10/14. (Reuters/Andrew A. Farke)

A scientist holds the fossil skull of an Aquilops americanus which is believed to be the oldest known horned dinosaur species from North America. Scientists announced the discovery of this ancient fossil at press conference on 12/10/14. (Reuters/Andrew A. Farke)

Ho ho ho!  Diver Mark Lane, who was dressed as Scuba Santa Claus, delights children on 12/17/14 as he makes his first dive of the holiday season in the 802,507 liter Philippine Coral Reef tank at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. (AP)

Ho ho ho!  Diver Mark Lane, who was dressed as Scuba Santa Claus, delights children on 12/17/14 as he makes his first dive of the holiday season in the 802,507 liter Philippine Coral Reef tank at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. (AP)

Science Scanner: Venus Mission Ends, Organic Chemistry on Mars, Hormone Changes in Expectant Dads, New High in CO2 Output

Posted December 17th, 2014 at 9:24 pm (UTC+0)
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Artist impression of ESA's Venus Express conducting special maneuvers to lower its orbit around Venus ((c) ESA–C. Carreau)

Artist impression of ESA’s Venus Express conducting special maneuvers to lower its orbit around Venus ((c) ESA–C. Carreau)

ESA’s Venus Express Mission Ends

The European Space Agency (ESA) announced this week that the space probe it sent to orbit Venus back in 2006 has reached the end of its life.

Called the Venus Express, the spacecraft ran out of its propellant after executing a number of thruster burns that returned the probe to a normal orbit, following a daring low altitude exploratory operation this past June and July.

During the last week of November, mission officials thought that the space probe still had some remaining propellant after completing the low altitude operation.  However, attempts to boost the spacecraft back up to its previous orbiting altitude failed.  ESA lost full contact with the probe on November 28.

Mission officials did manage to partially re-establish the telemetry and telecommand links for a short time afterward, but could only retrieve a limited amount of information.

Patrick Martin, ESA’s Venus Express mission manager said that the spacecraft probably ran out its remaining fuel about half way through the November efforts to raise its altitude.  He noted the probe had already exceeded its life expectancy.

 

The first conclusive detection of Martian organic chemicals in material on the surface of Mars came from analysis by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover of sample powder from this mudstone target, "Cumberland." (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

The first conclusive detection of Martian organic chemicals in material on the surface of Mars came from analysis by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover of sample powder from this mudstone target, “Cumberland.” (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

NASA/JPL’s Curiosity Rover Finds Signs of Organic Chemistry on Mars

Meanwhile, officials at NASA/JPL, say the Martian rover Curiosity has discovered signs of the building blocks of life on the red planet.

According to NASA, those conclusions are based on a tenfold jump in the levels of the organic chemical, methane, the rover detected in the Martian atmosphere.  Curiosity also found other organic molecules in samples of rock-powder that had been collected by its robotic drill.

NASA/JPL officials announced these new findings during a news briefing held Tuesday at the American Geophysical Union’s convention in San Francisco.  The news was published online this week in the journal Science.

 

Expectant couple (Jason Corey/Creative Commons via Flickr)

Expectant couple (Jason Corey/Creative Commons via Flickr)

Study: Expectant Fathers Also Experience Hormonal Changes

Excited expectant couples often announce the upcoming birth of their child by saying “we’re pregnant”.  While we all know that only women can actually become pregnant, a number of men swept up in the excitement of becoming a father often talk and act as though they were pregnant as well.

It turns out that that “we’re pregnant” may be closer to the truth than thought after a new study conducted by the University of Michigan found that men may also go through actual hormonal changes as his mate’s pregnancy progresses.

It’s well known that pregnant women naturally go through a number of hormonal changes.

But what researchers at the University of Michigan didn’t expect to find was that while pregnant women had large increases in the levels of salivary testosterone, cortisol, estradiol and progesterone, their male mates showed substantial prenatal drops in their levels of testosterone and estradiol.  They found no noticeable changes in levels of cortisol or progesterone in the males.

 

Industrial pollution - one source of CO2 emissions (©Martin Muránsky/Shutterstock.com)

Industrial pollution – one source of CO2 emissions (©Martin Muránsky/Shutterstock.com)

European Report:  CO2 Levels Keep Getting Higher but Rate of Increase Slows

A new report out of Europe indicates while we continue to pour record levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) into our atmosphere, the rate at which we are doing so is on the decline.

CO2, a bi-product of burning fossil fuels,is the primary culprit blamed for global warming.

The report released this week by the European Commission’s Joint Research Center and the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency says while global levels CO2 emissions reached a new all-time high in 2013, the growth rate was slower than the average over the past ten years.

The report indicates the atmospheric increase in CO2 levels over the last decade was mostly due to a steady rise in energy use in countries with emerging economies.

The European study said that the slowdown in the increase of global CO2 emissions started in 2012 and is mainly a reflection of China’s lower growth rate in emissions.

China, the US and the EU are still listed in the report as the world’s top-3 CO2 producers.

Despite previous years of declining carbon dioxide output in the United States, emission levels of the greenhouse gas actually grew by 2.5% in 2013, while emissions from European Union countries decreased 1.4% in 2013.

Tweets Offer Insight into Mental Health Issues

Posted December 15th, 2014 at 7:38 pm (UTC+0)
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A portrait of the Twitter logo (Reuters)

A portrait of the Twitter logo (Reuters)

Computer scientists are analyzing Twitter tweets to gather key information on the prevalence of common mental illnesses.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore say their new computer program can sift through volumes of publicly available postings on the social media website, and detect certain ‘language cues’ associated with particular disorders, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and season affective disorder (SAD).

One benefit of mining relevant mental health data in Twitter posts is that analysis of the information can be delivered to medical professionals much quicker and cheaper than with current, traditional methods.

The data on mental illness trends discovered during a Twitter search can even provide information for specific geographical areas, which would be handy for public health officials and medical providers during times that follow natural and man-made disasters.

The Johns Hopkins scientists evaluated over eight billion tweets in developing their computer algorithms that look for specific words and language patterns in the Tweets.  For example, if information regarding disorders such as anxiety or insomnia is desired, the algorithm would pour through the tweets and look for words and phrases such as “I really don’t want to get out of bed today” or “I’m feeling really sad today”.

This new Tweet-based data gathering and analysis system for mental illness was built off a similar system that Johns Hopkins researchers developed back in 2013.  That system filtered out irrelevant online chatter to produce real-time data on cases of influenza.

As the researchers put their new system to the test it revealed a prevalence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among military personnel at US armed services installations that regularly deployed combat troops to Afghanistan and Iraq.  It also detected Tweets indicating higher than normal symptoms of depression in areas where unemployment was high.

Tweeting with mobile device (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

Tweeting with mobile device (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

“Using Twitter to get a fix on mental health cases could be very helpful to health practitioners and governmental officials who need to decide where counseling and other care is needed most,” says Mark Dredze, an assistant research professor in the Whiting School of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science.

“It could point to places where many veterans may be experiencing PTSD, for example, or to towns where people have been traumatized by a shooting spree or widespread tornado damage,” Dredze says.

Privacy issues were of the utmost concern to the researchers as they developed their new mental health analysis system.  They noted that information on mental health issues gathered and analyzed by their new tool does not reveal the names of people who publicly tweeted about their disorders.

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