Simple Theory May Explain Dark Matter

Posted June 11th, 2013 at 5:54 pm (UTC+0)
2 comments

An artist's impression shows the Milky Way galaxy. The blue halo of material surrounding the galaxy indicates the expected distribution of the mysterious dark matter. (ESO/Calçada)

Artist’s impression of the Milky Way galaxy. The blue halo of material surrounding the galaxy indicates the expected distribution of dark matter. (ESO/Calçada)

Scientists at Vanderbilt University believe dark matter, an invisible substance that makes up almost 85 percent of our universe, might be made out of particles that have an unusual, donut-shaped electromagnetic field called an anapole.

A number of theories concerning dark matter have been developed over the years, but the Vanderbilt University scientists have come up with a relatively simple theory to explain what has so far been unexplainable.

Top image: Comparison of an anapole field in red with common electric and magnetic dipole field, blue. Middle & Bottom: Anapole field - red and Dipole field - blue (Michael Smeltzer, Vanderbilt University)

Top image: Comparison of an anapole field in red with common electric and magnetic dipole field, blue. Middle & Bottom: Anapole field – red and Dipole field – blue (Michael Smeltzer, Vanderbilt University)

In a paper entitled Anapole Dark Matter, they suggest dark matter particles are surrounded by a rare form of electromagnetism.

“There are a great many different theories about the nature of dark matter. What I like about this theory is its simplicity, uniqueness, and the fact that it can be tested,” said Professor Robert Scherrer, a theoretical physicist at Vanderbilt University who performed a detailed analysis along with post-doctoral fellow Chiu Man Ho.

The two physicists believe dark matter might be made out of a type of elementary electrically neutral particle called the Majorana fermion (or Majorana Particle). The existence of this particle was predicted by Italian physicist Ettore Majorana in 1937, but has so far escaped detection.

Fermions – predicted by Paul Dirac in 1928 and named after the renowned physicist Enrico Fermi – are thought to be basic particles that scientists consider to be the building blocks of matter.  Some scientists think the Marjorana fermion may be a neutrino, but they haven’t been able determine the basic nature of this unique and mysterious particle.

While a number of physicists have also previously suggested that dark matter is composed of Majorana particles, Scherrer and Ho performed detailed calculations they believe prove the particles are uniquely suitable to have a rare, donut-shaped type of electromagnetic field called an anapole.

Ettore Majorana - Circa 1906. The Marjoran fermion or particle was predicted by him in 1937, but so far has escaped detection. (Wikimedia Commons)

Ettore Majorana – Circa 1906. The Marjoran fermion or particle was predicted by him in 1937, but so far has escaped detection. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Majorana fermions are difficult to detect, according to Scherrer and Ho, because this anapole field gives the particles certain properties that make them quite different from others that have more common fields comprised of two poles – north and south, positive and negative.

“Most models for dark matter assume that it interacts through exotic forces that we do not encounter in everyday life,” said Scherrer. “Anapole dark matter makes use of ordinary electromagnetism that you learned about in school: the same force that makes magnets stick to your refrigerator or makes a balloon rubbed on your hair stick to the ceiling. Further, the model makes very specific predictions about the rate at which it should show up in the vast dark matter detectors that are buried underground all over the world. These predictions show that soon the existence of anapole dark matter should either be discovered or ruled out by these experiments.”

Scientists developed the concept of dark matter in the 1930s, while trying to explain discrepancies in the rotational rate of galactic clusters. Since then, astronomers have also found similar inconsistencies in the rate at which stars rotate around individual galaxies. Assuming they contain a large amount of invisible dark matter is the most straightforward way to explain these discrepancies.

NASA Builds Bridge to Future with LEGOs

Posted June 7th, 2013 at 5:30 pm (UTC+0)
Comments are closed

The LEGO Group recently unveiled the world’s largest LEGO model, a 1:1 replica of the LEGO® Star Wars™ X-Wing starfighter, in New York’s Times Square. (Used by permission,© 2012 The LEGO Group)

The LEGO Group recently unveiled the world’s largest LEGO model, a 1:1 replica of the LEGO® Star Wars™ X-Wing starfighter, in New York’s Times Square.  (Used by permission, © 2012 The LEGO Group)

NASA is teaming up with LEGO to  inspire a new generation of space explorers.

The US space agency and the LEGO group, creator of the popular building brick and model construction kits, are challenging young people to envision the future through a competition called NASA’s Missions: Imagine and Build.

The contest calls on young people to share that vision by using LEGO pieces to create models of future NASA missions and spacecraft.

“It is international in scope…one class is for ages 13 and older and the other one is for ages 16 and older,” said Debbie Rivera, acting director of NASA’s Public Outreach Division.

Called "NASA’s Missions: Imagine and Build" - toy maker Lego and NASA have teamed up for a competition to encourage young people to envision the future of space exploration (LEGO/NASA)

Toy maker LEGO and NASA are sponsoring a competition that encourages young people to envision the future of space exploration. (LEGO/NASA)

You can enter the contest by registering online.

One of the two categories in the competition is  Inventing Our Future in Flight, which asks competitors to create an aircraft of the future based on a project NASA is currently working on.

The other category, Imagine Our Future Beyond Earth, encourages entrants to journey into space by using LEGOS to depict one of NASA’s future missions.

Although participants can be as imaginative as they wish, the entries should reflect a future mission NASA is already planning through the 2030s.

Participants will be able to use the LEGO digital designer computer program to help design their models.

Artist's Concept of a Solar Electric Propulsion-based spacecraft. Using advanced Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) technologies is an essential part of future missions into deep space with larger payloads. (Analytical Mechanics Associates/NASA)

Artist’s concept of a solar electric propulsion-based spacecraft. Advanced technologies are an essential part of future missions into deep space. (Analytical Mechanics Associates/NASA)

Entrants will upload pictures of their completed models to any public web-server or photo sharing site such as flickr.com, and then post a link to their pictures on the contest website.

“There will be prizes for the winners, one of which is going to be a LEGO building kit that will be autographed by one of the LEGO designers,” said Rivera. “For one of the contests there will also be an actual trophy that is built out of LEGO bricks. And for winners in both contests there will be NASA commemorative material.”

The deadline for the contest is July 31, 2013 at 1259 UTC.

Ultra-Light Planet Found Outside Solar System

Posted June 4th, 2013 at 6:28 pm (UTC+0)
Comments are closed

The blue dot is the new exoplanet HD95086B image was taken by ESO's Very Large Telescope in Chile (ESO)

The blue dot is the newly discovered exoplanet, HD95086B, which was captured by ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile. (ESO)

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) has discovered what appears to be the lightest planet ever to be directly observed outside of our Solar System.

Astronomers made the discovery using the Very Large Telescope (VLT), located in Chile, which captured the faint object moving near a bright star about 300 light years from Earth. The possible planet has an estimated mass  that is four-to-five times that of Jupiter.

Dubbed HD95086b, the planet appears in ESO’s observations as a faint but clear dot close to the star HD95086, which astronomers consider a fairly young star – about 10 to 17 million years old.

The star itself is a little more massive than the Sun and is surrounded by a debris disc, a disk of dust and debris orbiting a star. It was those properties that allowed ESO astronomers to identify the star as an ideal candidate to harbor young massive planets. Astronomers believe the new exoplanet was probably formed within that gaseous and dusty debris disc.

ESO's Very Large Telescope Array on Cerro Paranal Mountain (ESO)

ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) Array on Cerro Paranal Mountain (ESO)

“Its current location raises questions about its formation process. It either grew by assembling the rocks that form the solid core and then slowly accumulated gas from the environment to form the heavy atmosphere, or started forming from a gaseous clump that arose from gravitational instabilities in the disc,” said Anne-Marie Lagrange, a member of the team that made the discovery. “Interactions between the planet and the disc itself or with other planets may have also moved the planet from where it was born.”

Later observations  indicated the planetary object moved with the star across the sky, suggesting that it is in orbit with the star.

HD95086 b is believed to orbit its young star at a distance of around 56 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun and twice distance between the Sun and Neptune.

Considering the brightness of its star, ESO astronomers estimate the surface temperature of HD95086b is about 700 degrees Celsius.

Image of the sky around the young star HD95086 in the southern constellation of Carina (The Keel). It was created from images from the Digitized Sky Survey 2.  (ESO)

Image of the sky around the young star HD95086 in the southern constellation of Carina (The Keel).  (ESO)

“This is cool enough for water vapor and possibly methane to exist in its atmosphere. It will be a great object to study with the forthcoming SPHERE instrument on the VLT. Maybe it can also reveal inner planets in the system, if they exist,” said Gaël Chauvin, another member of the team.

Astronomers were able to capture an image of HD95086 b, which is unusual. Most exoplanets are too far away to be properly imaged.

Experts usually have to rely on indirect methods to find planets, such as looking for a star to dim slightly which may be caused by a planet crossing in front of it. The ESO says there are only about 12 extrasolar or exoplanets that have been discovered using direct imaging.

“Direct imaging of planets is an extremely challenging technique that requires the most advanced instruments, whether ground-based or in space,” says Julien Rameau of the Institute of Planetology and Astrophysics in Grenoble, France who is first author of the paper announcing the discovery. “Only a few planets have been directly observed so far, making every single discovery an important milestone on the road to understanding giant planets and how they form.”

Evidence of Water Found on Mars

Posted May 31st, 2013 at 6:22 pm (UTC+0)
3 comments

NASA's Curiosity rover found evidence for an ancient, flowing stream on Mars at a few sites, including the rock outcrop pictured here, which the science team has named "Hottah". (NASA/JPL)

NASA’s Curiosity rover found evidence for an ancient, flowing stream on Mars at a few sites, including the rock outcrop pictured here, which the science team has named “Hottah.” (NASA)

The Curiosity rover has discovered an ancient stream bed that suggests water, possibly lots of it, once flowed on Mars.

In a new study,  scientists say their findings represent the first on-site evidence of sustained water flow on the Martian landscape. The discovery also supports the theory Mars would have once been able to host life.

Dawn Sumner, a co-author of the study, said  she and her colleagues used very basic geologic principles in making their discovery.  While examining high-resolution photographs of multiple outcrops of pebble-rich slabs  shot by Curiosity, they noticed some rounded pebbles.

“On the first day of my sedimentary class, I have the students measure grain size and the rounding,” said Sumner, who is a University of California-Davis geologist and professor. “It’s simple, and it’s important.”

Sumner said the pebbles’ rounded shape and granular size, along with other characteristics, can only form when pebbles are transported through water over long distances.

The pebbles, which were likely deposited more than two billion years ago, were discovered at three locations on Mars, known as Goulburn, Link and Hottah, which are located between the north rim of the planet’s Gale Crater and the base of a mountain located in the crater called Mount Sharp, about a quarter mile away from where Curiosity landed last summer.

Up close is the gravelly area around the Curiosity’s landing site in Gale Crater, in the distance is Mt. Sharp. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

In the foreground is the gravelly area around Curiosity’s landing site in Gale Crater. Mt. Sharp is seen in the distance. (NASA)

Sumner is also a co-investigator for the Mars Science Laboratory team and played an important role in selecting Gale Crater as Curiosity’s landing site.  She also helped coordinate the first scientific interpretations of what the rover saw during its first few days on the Red Planet, by controlling it with a computer to take photographs of its surroundings.

“The main reason we chose Gale Crater as a landing site was to look at the layered rocks at the base of Mount Sharp, about five miles away,” she said. “We knew there was an alluvial fan in the landing area, a cone-shaped deposit of sediment that requires flowing water to form. These sorts of pebbles are likely because of that environment. So while we didn’t choose Gale Crater for this purpose, we were hoping to find something like this.”

You can hear Dr. Sumner talk about her team’s discovery and the role geology is playing in the Curiosity’s goal of determining the “habitability” of Mars on this weekend’s radio edition of Science World – see right column for times and audio links.

Science Images of the Week

Posted May 28th, 2013 at 5:50 pm (UTC+0)
Comments are closed

Image of IC 2944 nebula, also known as the Running Chicken Nebula or the Lambda Cen Nebula taken by the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope. (ESO)

The IC 2944 nebula, also known as the Running Chicken Nebula or the Lambda Cen Nebula, taken by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope. (ESO)

During spring and fall, mass occurrences of the Asian lady beetle can often be observed. (Andreas Vilcinskas, Justus Liebig University, Giessen, Germany)

The Asian lady beetle, or Harmonia axyridis, is native to eastern Asia and was introduced in North America and Europe as a way to control pests such as aphids and scale insects. The insects have also made homes in South Africa and widely across South America. (Andreas Vilcinskas, Justus Liebig University, Giessen, Germany)

A Soyuz TMA-09M spacecraft is rolled out by train on Sunday, May 26, 2013 to the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch pad in Kazakhstan. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

A Soyuz TMA-09M spacecraft is rolled out by train on Sunday, May 26, 2013, to the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch pad in Kazakhstan in preparation for today’s scheduled launch that will take three new crew members to the International Space Station. (NASA)

A up-close view of the 'Lung-on-a-Chip', a three-dimensional model of a living, breathing human lung on a microchip lined with human lung and blood vessel cells.  This device can mimic complex functions of the living lung. (Wyss Institute)

A up-close view of the Lung-on-a-Chip, a three-dimensional model of a living, breathing human lung on a microchip lined with human lung and blood vessel cells. By mimicking the complex functions of the living lung, scientists may be able to some day replace animals in testing drugs and toxins. (Wyss Institute)

Engineer uses a focused-ion beam instrument to prepare samples of organic solar cell material for imaging under an electron microscope. (Brookhaven National Laboratory)

Engineer uses a focused-ion beam instrument to prepare samples of organic solar cell material for imaging under an electron microscope. (Brookhaven National Laboratory)

Abundant corals are shown in a shallow Hawaiian lagoon. (Keoki Stender)

Abundant corals in a shallow Hawaiian lagoon. (Keoki Stender)

A supermassive black hole at the center of this galaxy 850 million light years from Earth generates two powerful jets of particles that are speeding out at millions of kilometers per hour (NASA\NSF\NRAO\VLA)

A super-massive black hole at the center of this galaxy 850 million light years from Earth generates two powerful jets of particles that are speeding out at millions of kilometers per hour. (NASA)

Close up of a 'tawny crazy ant' or 'raspberry crazy ant' an invasive species that has become so “ecologically dominant” that its even driving vicious fire ants from their homes. (Joe MacGown, Mississippi Entomological Museum)

Close up of a ‘tawny crazy ant’ or ‘raspberry crazy ant’ an invasive species that has become so ecologically dominant that scientists have observed them driving vicious fire ants from their homes in Texas and the Southeast US. (Joe MacGown, Mississippi Entomological Museum)

Technicians inspect primary mirror segments that will be used on the James Webb Space Telescope scheduled for launch in 2018. (NASA/Chris Gunn)

Technicians inspect primary mirror segments that will be used on the James Webb Space Telescope scheduled for launch in 2018. (NASA)

An Old German owl breed of domestic pigeon. Researchers at the University of Utah have identified a gene that is responsible for the fancy head crests of rock pigeons.(Sydney Stringham)

An Old German Owl breed of domestic pigeon. Researchers at the University of Utah have identified a gene that is responsible for the fancy head crests of rock pigeons. (Sydney Stringham)

Arctic Bacterium Offers Clues to Life on Mars

Posted May 24th, 2013 at 6:44 pm (UTC+0)
1 comment

Microscopic view of , Planococcus halocryophilus OR1 (McGill University)

Microscopic view of  Planococcus halocryophilus OR1 (McGill University)

A permafrost microbe has been discovered growing at –15°C, the coldest temperature ever reported for bacterial growth.

A team of scientists from Montreal’s McGill University made the discovery on Ellesmere Island, located in the Canadian High Arctic.

Researchers said they  found the living strain of bacteria growing in the extreme cold of the  permafrost, which may offer insight into possibilities of life existing beyond Earth.

The bacterium, Planococcus halocryophilus OR1, not only survives, but thrives in the permanently frozen sub-soil. Finding the microbe in the briny conditions of the Arctic could provide some hints about what it would take for microbial life to survive in conditions  found on the Saturn moon, Enceladus, or Mars, where similar frigid conditions are thought to exist.

The researchers examined about 200 separate types of microbes from the high Arctic before they found the microorganism that was best adapted to the harsh conditions of the Arctic permafrost.

”We believe that this bacterium lives in very thin veins of very salty water found within the frozen permafrost on Ellesmere Island,” said McGill professor Lyle Whyte who co-led the research team. “The salt in the permafrost brine veins keeps the water from freezing at the ambient permafrost temperature creating a habitable but very harsh environment. It’s not the easiest place to survive but this organism is capable of remaining active  to at least -25ºC in permafrost.”

To make their discovery, the research team studied the genomic sequence and other molecular characteristics of the P. halocryophilus OR1 microbe. The researchers found the bacterium adapts quite well to its bitter cold and salty environment, thanks to significant adjustments in its cell structure and function, as well as having increased amounts of cold-adapted proteins. Some of these cellular modifications also include changes to the membranes that envelop the microbe and protect it from its hostile environment.

Research team leaders Lyle Whyte (l) and Nadia Mykytczuk (r) (McGill University)

Research team leaders Lyle Whyte (l) and Nadia Mykytczuk (r) (McGill University)

After studying the microbe’s genome sequence, the scientists also discovered the bacterium is unusual in other ways;  it seems to have the ability to maintain high levels of compounds within the bacterial cell that act like molecular antifreeze, keeping the microorganism from not only from freezing solid but protects it from the salty environment.

“I’m kind of proud of this bug. It comes from the Canadian High Arctic and is our cold temperature champion, but what we can learn from this microbe may tell us a lot about how similar microbial life may exist elsewhere in the solar system,” said research co-leader Nadia Mykytczuk.

The researchers agree concerned with one possibly troubling aspect of the microbe.  They think  the living microorganisms can harm the bitter cold environment of areas such as the high Arctic by increasing the amount of carbon dioxide emissions from the permafrost which is now melting due to what many scientists believe is global warming.

Humans’ Bat-Like Sonar Could Help the Blind

Posted May 21st, 2013 at 6:14 pm (UTC+0)
2 comments

Bats use echolocation to navigate in the dark when hunting prey (Steve Garner via Creative Commons/Flickr)

Bats use echolocation to navigate in the dark when hunting prey. (Steve Garner via Creative Commons/Flickr)

Humans have built-in biological sonar similar to bats and dolphins that could lead to a better quality of life for blind people and the visually impaired.

The international study suggests people have the ability to use echoes, or echolocation, a skill some animals  use to detect and find objects. Developing this ability could promote increased independence  for the blind and visually impaired.

The study, published in Hearing Research, looked at how the ability to hear echoes could help the blind with spatial awareness and navigation. Researchers also examined the impact hearing impairment has on echolocation as well as how to optimize a person’s echolocation capabilities.

Using a technique called virtual auditory space, which creates sounds that simulate movement, the researchers from the University of Southampton and the University of Cyprus, conducted a series of experiments with sighted and blind subjects.

“We wanted to determine unambiguously whether blind people, and perhaps even sighted people, can use echoes from an object to determine roughly where the object is located. We also wanted to figure out what factors facilitate and restrict people’s abilities to use echoes for this purpose in order to know how to enhance ability in the real world,” said Daniel Rowan, the study’s lead author.

The researchers found that, as long as they have good hearing, both those with and without sight have the potential to use echoes to locate objects, even if they have no previous experience with echolocation.  The study found that individuals must be able to hear high-frequency sounds – above 2 kHz – to effectively use echolocation.

Illustration of how a bat uses echolocation to find prey (Shung via Wikimedia Commons)

Illustration of how a bat uses echolocation to find prey (Shung via Wikimedia Commons)

“Some people are better at this than others, and being blind doesn’t automatically confer good echolocation ability, though we don’t yet know why,” said Rowan. “Nevertheless, ability probably gets even better with extensive experience and feedback.”

Rowan also adds, “We also found that our ability to use echoes to locate an object gets rapidly worse with increasing distance from the object, especially when the object is not directly facing us. While our experiments purposely removed any influence of head movement, doing so might help extend ability to farther distances. Furthermore, some echo-producing sounds are better for determining where an object is than others, and the best sounds for locating an object probably aren’t the same as for detecting the object or determining what, and how far away, the object is.”

The study authors plan to extend their research to explore the use of echolocation to find objects in three-dimensional spaces.

They also want to examine why some blind people appear to be better at using this technique than others, including people who can see.

Glitch Jeopardizes Planet Hunter’s Mission

Posted May 17th, 2013 at 7:14 pm (UTC+0)
1 comment

A malfunction could force an abrupt end to the Kepler Space Telescope’s planet-hunting mission.

Artist’s rendering of the Kepler space telescope. (NASA)

Artist’s rendering of the Kepler space telescope. (NASA)

NASA received the unwelcome news last Sunday after discovering Kepler had malfunctioned and is currently operating in a self-protective “safe-mode” as it also did earlier this month. The US space agency made the news public this past Wednesday.

It appears at least one of Kepler’s four reaction wheels―onboard devices that precisely aim its telescopic instruments―is not working properly. Kepler needs at least three of the positioning devices to keep its aim true, allowing it to continue its mission, according to NASA.

Launched in 2009, Kepler was designed specifically to hunt for Earth-like planets that may support life elsewhere in the Universe.  It has revolutionized the study of extrasolar, or exoplanets, and has discovered about 130 worlds circling distant stars. Nearly 2,700 potential planets are still awaiting confirmation.

NASA scientists and technicians are working on ways to either repair Kepler’s malfunctioning devices, or to develop alternate methods to keep the spacecraft properly oriented.  If their efforts are unsuccessful, Kepler’s mission could end far sooner than planned.

NASA officials insist they won’t give up on the space telescope until it can no longer perform useful science.

A photo of one of the reaction wheels aboard the Kepler spacecraft (Ball Aerospace & Technologies/NASA)

One of the reaction wheels aboard the Kepler spacecraft (NASA)

Unlike the days when it could simply dispatch a space shuttle mission whenever the Hubble Space Telescope needed repairs, NASA must make the repairs and correct the problem by remote control from Earth.

The reason is because, unlike Hubble which is in Earth Orbit, Kepler is in orbit with the Sun and is about 65 million kilometers from Earth, or about the distance to Mars. That distance makes it impossible to send a manned or even unmanned repair mission to fix the ailing spacecraft.

However, there are two possible ways to salvage the spacecraft, according to Scott Hubbard, a former NASA official who helped guide Kepler throughout much of its building stage and is now a consulting professor at Stanford University.

“One is that they could try turning back on the reaction wheel that they shut off a year ago,” he said. “It was putting metal on metal, and the friction was interfering with its operation, so you could see if the lubricant that is in there, having sat quietly, has redistributed itself, and maybe it will work.”

The other scheme, which has never been tried,  according to Hubbard, involves using thrusters and the solar pressure exerted on the solar panels to try and act as a third reaction wheel and provide additional pointing stability.

“I haven’t investigated it,” Hubbard said, “but my impression is that it would require sending a lot more operational commands to the spacecraft.”

Discovered in 2011 this is an artist's concept of Kepler-22b, a planet known to comfortably circle in the habitable zone of a sun-like star. (Image: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

Artist’s concept of Kepler-22b, a planet known to circle in the habitable zone of a sun-like star, which was discovered in 2011. (NASA)

There seems to be little possibility that Kepler could continue to make useful observations of the cosmos, conducting experiments that perhaps wouldn’t depend on it having to precisely aim its instruments

“People have asked about using it to find near-Earth objects, or asteroids,” Hubbard said. “Kepler carries a photometer, not a camera, that looks at the brightness of stars, and so its optics deliberately defocus light from stars to create a nice spread of light on the detector, which is not ideal for spotting asteroids.”

Hubbard said that since the space telescope wasn’t built as a camera, using Kepler as an asteroid detector will need to be studied.

“I would say that I’m skeptical,” he said.  “That said, certainly between Ames Research Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, they’ve got the best people in the world working on it.”

Meanwhile as repair and workaround solutions are being sought, the Kepler team’s priority right now is to complete preparations to put the spacecraft into a resting state similar to hibernation that minimizes fuel usage while providing a continuous X-band downlink.  The X-band is a set of microwave frequencies and portions of it have been set aside to be used exclusively for deep space telecommunications.

The software required to do this was uploaded to the spacecraft last week.

Laughter Triggers Different Parts of Brain

Posted May 10th, 2013 at 6:33 pm (UTC+0)
1 comment

(Garry Wilmore via Creative Commons/Flickr)

(Garry Wilmore via Creative Commons/Flickr)

Laughter can be a valuable communications tool; it can indicate ridicule, humor, joy or maybe just a physical response to being tickled.  German scientists have found these different laugh responses are  handled by different networks in our brains, depending on the specific context of the laughter.

The different patterns of brain connectivity brought on by the various forms of laughter may play an important role in influencing cognitive functions regarding health and disease.

The study’s findings could eventually lead to treatments for people with anxiety or other similar conditions, according to a blog by Brett Smith.

“Laughing at someone and laughing with someone leads to different social consequences,” said Dirk Wildgruber from the University of Tuebingen “Specific cerebral connectivity patterns during perception of these different types of laughter presumably reflect modulation of attentional mechanisms and processing resources.”

Did you know that animals also laugh? But their laughter is a way to socially bond with each other and is based on a primitive reflex similar to tickling.  Human laughter has evolved beyond those simple roots, according to the researchers.

A little boy can’t stop laughing as his Mom tickles him (Sean Dreilinger via Creative Commons/Flickr)

(Sean Dreilinger via Creative Commons/Flickr)

While most people do laugh when tickled, so called social laughter in humans can also be used to convey happiness, derision or other conscious messages to those around us. The researchers involved with this study focused on  participants’ neural responses when they listened to three different kinds of laughter: ones that reflected joy, taunting and tickling.

They found that when people heard sounds of happy or teasing laughter, regions of the brain that process more complex social information were activated. However, those same brain regions were not stimulated by laughter triggered by tickling.

Tickling laughter triggered regions of the brain that are more sensitive to a higher degree of acoustic complexity.

Researchers found the dynamic changes brought on by  various kinds of laughter activated and connected with different regions of the brain.

Flash Could Allow Scientists to Witness Birth of a Black Hole

Posted May 7th, 2013 at 6:50 pm (UTC+0)
2 comments

A computer-generated image of the light distortions created by a black hole. (Credit: Alain Riazuelo, IAP/UPMC/CNRS)

A computer-generated image of the light distortions created by a black hole. (Credit: Alain Riazuelo, IAP/UPMC/CNRS)

A cosmic flash generated by a dying star might allow scientists to see something they’ve never witnessed before – the birth of a black hole.

A black hole is a celestial object that is so dense not even light can escape its intense gravitational pull. This phenomenon occurs when a dying star runs out of fuel and collapses under the weight of its own gravity.

A dying star that produces a black hole normally does so without a bang or flash, seeming to simply disappear from the sky in an event some scientists call an “un-nova.”

“You don’t see a burst,” said Tony Piro, a postdoctoral scholar at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). “You see a disappearance.”

Some dying stars do explode as powerful gamma-ray bursts before becoming black holes, but scientists say that’s quite rare and requires very unusual conditions.

“We don’t think most run-of-the-mill black holes are created that way,” said Piro.

But, according to his new analysis published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, a dying star might emit a cosmic flash which could alert researchers that a black hole is about to be formed.

That flash would bright enough to be seen in nearby by galaxies, according to Piro.

“That flash is going to be very bright, and it gives us the best chance for actually observing that this event occurred,” he said. “This is what you really want to look for.”

Piro says astronomers working with sky surveys should be able to observe one of these cosmic flashes about once a year.

About Science World

Science World

Science World is VOA’s on-air and online magazine covering science, health, technology and the environment.

Hosted by Rick Pantaleo, Science World‘s informative, entertaining and easy-to-understand presentation offers the latest news, features and one-on-one interviews with researchers, scientists, innovators and other news makers.

Listen to a Recent Program

Listen Sidebar

Broadcast Schedule

Broadcast Schedule

Science World begins after the newscast on Friday at 2200, Saturday at 0300, 1100 and 1900 and Sunday at 0100, 0400, 0900, 1100 and 1200.

Science World may also be heard on some VOA affiliates after the news on Saturday at 0900 and 1100. (All times UTC).

Contact Us

E-Mail
science@voanews.com

Postal Mail
Science World
Voice of America
330 Independence Ave., SW
Washington, DC 20237
USA