You would be forgiven for not worrying about what might happen on September 25, 2135. Scientists are worried, though, since there’s a chance — albeit only 1 in 2,700, according to current calculations — that an asteroid taller than the Empire State Building and 1,664 times as heavy as the Titanic will hit the Earth. If it does, it’s estimated that the kinetic energy of the impact would be equivalent to 1,200 megatonnes — 80,000 times the energy of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima — so you would also be forgiven for being glad that you won’t be around for the fireworks. “The chance of an impact appears slim now, but the consequences would be dire,” said Kirsten Howley, a physicist at the California-based Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), which applies science and technology in the service of US national security. LLNL scientists are part of a “national planetary defence team,” including the US space agency Nasa, the National Nuclear Security Administration and Los Alamos National Laboratory, that has designed a conceptual spacecraft to deflect Earth-bound asteroids. The team has evaluated whether it would be able to knock off course 101955 Bennu — the massive asteroid that could strike in 2135. Nasa ranks Bennu among the most dangerous of the more than 10,000 near-Earth objects detected to date. To learn more about the potential killer rock, Nasa launched in 2016 the spacecraft OSIRIS-REx — an acronym of Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security–Regolith Explorer — to map it and return a sample. Costing about a billion dollars, it’s the first such mission by the US. Originally known as 1999 RQ36, the asteroid was renamed Bennu — after an ancient Egyptian deity usually depicted as a grey heron — by a 9-year-old American boy in a 2013 contest. Carbon-rich and thought to perhaps contain organic materials or molecular precursors to life, the space rock is about 500 metres in diameter, weighs some 79 billion kilograms and is circling the sun at a speed of more than 100,000 kilometres per hour. It comes close to the Earth every six years. OSIRIS-REx is expected to begin its approach in August before reaching Bennu in December. The spacecraft will use its five onboard instruments for remote sensing and scanning the surface of the asteroid to establish its composition. In 2020, it’s scheduled to collect between 60 grams and 2 kilograms of surface material with its robotic arm, and then return to Earth in 2023. Knowing Bennu’s physical and chemical properties will help scientists in developing a defence strategy against it if necessary. The spacecraft conceived by US scientists to possibly deflect Bennu – dubbed HAMMER, short for Hypervelocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response vehicle – is 9 metres tall, weighs 8.8 tonnes and features a modular design that would enable it to serve as either a ‘kinetic impactor’ — essentially a battering ram — or as a transport vehicle for a nuclear device. The preferred method, the US scientists say, would be to ram the asteroid off a collision course with Earth — but not so hard that it breaks apart. The nuclear deflection approach, unlike the portrayal in the 1998 US film Armageddon, would involve detonating a nuclear explosive some distance from the asteroid. In a paper published recently in the journal Acta Astronautica, the scientists note that if the decision was made to deflect Bennu, it would take at least 7.4 years to build the spacecraft, plan the mission and travel to the asteroid. Delay would greatly complicate mitigation, since the strength of the shove needed to sufficiently change Bennu’s trajectory increases the closer it gets to Earth. The scientists estimate that seven to 11 launches of single HAMMER impactors would be needed 25 years before a projected impact with Earth, compared with 34 to 53 launches for a 10-year lead time. While the scientists’ paper didn’t include simulations of nuclear deflection scenarios, which are to be published in the near future, they say their findings suggest that the more powerful, nuclear option may be required for larger objects like Bennu, as it can effect a greater change in speed and trajectory. Though Bennu could kill many living things on Earth, it may hold clues to how life got here in the first place. “We’re going to Bennu because we want to know what it has witnessed over the course of its evolution,” said Edward Beshore, deputy principal investigator for Nasa’s OSIRIS-REx mission. “Bennu’s experiences will tell us more about where our solar system came from and how it evolved. “Like the detectives in a crime show episode, we’ll examine bits of evidence from Bennu to understand more completely the story of the solar system, which is ultimately the story of our origin.” – DPA
When Mr Rogers told viewers of his beloved children’s TV show to “look for the helpers,” bonobos clearly weren’t paying attention. A new study of one of our closest living relatives finds that these docile apes prefer individuals who hinder over those who help. The findings, described in the journal Current Biology, could shed light on the origins of “prosocial” behaviour in human beings. “A preference for helpers over hinderers,” the study authors wrote, may have “played a central role in the evolution of human development and co-operation.” Bonobos, together with chimpanzees, are two of humans’ closest living relatives — and while they look fairly similar, there are many significant differences in their behaviours and social structure. Chimps have a tendency to engage in violent conflict; bonobos do not. Chimp social groups are male dominated, whereas bonobo groups are female dominated. Because bonobos appear to be more prosocial — that is, they act in ways that foster social bonds and benefit the larger social group — scientists have long wondered if they may share such characteristics with humans, a highly co-operative species. “As the most socially tolerant nonhuman ape, bonobos (Pan paniscus) provide a powerful phylogenetic test of whether this trait is derived in humans,” the study authors wrote. “Bonobos are more tolerant than chimpanzees, can flexibly obtain food through co-operation, and voluntarily share food in captivity and the wild, even with strangers. Their neural architecture exhibits a suite of characteristics associated with greater sensitivity to others.” So do bonobos value co-operative, prosocial behaviours in the way humans do? In humans, that preference starts young: Babies as young as 3 months old have been shown to favour people who they witness helping others. To find out, researchers from Duke University set up a series of four experiments to test semi-free-ranging bonobos at the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Half of the experiments involved animations of two-dimensional, cartoon-eyed shapes that helped or hindered each other. For example, in the first experiment bonobos watched videos of a circle (with eyes) trying to climb a steep hill, and failing. In one version, a triangle with eyes helped push the struggling circle up the hill. In another, a square with eyes shoved the circle back down. (The researchers also showed control versions of these films, in which a plain, eyeless circle was pushed up or down a hill.) A bonobo was then offered a choice between two slices of apple, each with a different paper shape on it. To their surprise, the researchers found that only two bonobos chose the helper shape on a majority of the trials; 11 of them chose the hinderer. “This finding suggests that bonobos can discriminate between prosocial and antisocial agents but that they do not show the human preference for prosocial agents,” the study authors wrote. The next two experiments involved live-action entertainment. Three humans acted out a little scene: One played with a toy and then dropped it; a second person picked it up and returned it, and a third person snatched the toy away. The helping and hindering humans then stepped forward, each presenting a fruit slice to the observing bonobo. Again, the bonobos largely preferred the offering from the hinderer, and not the helper. If bonobos are so tolerant and social, why do they seem to prefer antisocial individuals, whether animated or human? It may be that antisocial behaviour is associated with dominance — and dominance still plays a role in these apes’ lives. To test that, the researchers ran another animated experiment. This time, the videos presented two different scenarios. In the first, a cartoon-eyed trapezoid tried to enter a circle on the ground, and a cartoon-eyed pentagon repeatedly shoved it out, claiming the circle as its own. In the second, a square and triangle (both with eyes) took turns hanging out in the circle. Again, when presented with shape-covered fruit slices, the bonobos tended to go for the pushy pentagon. Theoretically, being a hindrance and being dominant are not inextricably linked; one could potentially be helpful and dominant, or antisocial and submissive. But differentiating between apes’ reactions those two distinct qualities will need to be sorted out in future work, the researchers said. This preference was only significant in the adult bonobos, and not the younger ones — to a certain point, given that none of the bonobos tested were under 4 years old. Because of that, the researchers couldn’t fully determine whether this antisocial/dominant preference existed in bonobo infants, or whether it developed later. Regardless, the findings could indicate that such a prosocial preference might be a particularly human trait, the study authors said. “Our results support the predictions of the dominance hypothesis and raise the possibility that the motivation to prefer prosocial individuals evolved in humans after their divergence from the other apes,” the scientists wrote. The next step is to study these behaviours in other species of apes, including chimpanzees, the researchers said. — Los Angeles Times/TNS Robots do chin-ups, push-ups and sit-ups for the sake of science By Amina Khan A team of Japanese engineers has designed robots that can perform pushups, do crunches, stretch and even sweat while doing so. The robots Kengoro and Kenshiro, described in the journal Science Robotics, can perform remarkably human-like movements — and could serve as a model to help scientists design better crash dummies and prosthetic limbs and to better understand the moving human body’s mysterious inner workings. Researchers have been developing humanoid robots for years, each becoming more advanced than the last — but there are still a number of kinks to work out, the study authors wrote. “A limitation of conventional humanoids is that they have been designed on the basis of the theories of conventional engineering, mechanics, electronics and informatics,” the study authors pointed out. That’s in part because conventional robots are often made of rigid, unforgiving parts, whereas human bodies (aside from their skeletons) are made of more pliant materials, such as skin and muscle and cartilage, giving them greater flexibility and adaptability to an unpredictable environment. Traditional robots, the study authors added, are usually built with a particular application in mind — to help with daily tasks or respond to disasters, for example. “By contrast, our intent is to design a humanoid based on human systems — including the musculoskeletal structure, sensory nervous system, and methods of information processing in the brain — to support science-oriented goals, such as gaining a deeper understanding of the internal mechanisms of humans,” the scientists wrote. Such a robot could help researchers better understand how our own bodies really work, by giving them a real-life model to experiment with. “The features crucial for improving humanoids are hidden behind the structure and motion processes of humans,” they wrote. “Hence, we incorporated elements that facilitate fidelity with the human musculoskeletal system.” To design Kenshiro and Kengoro, the scientists used human statistical data to give the robots more humanoid proportions, both in their mass distribution and in the size of each body part. They set up the skeletal structure and tendon-driven actuator systems that were meant to echo the connections made by muscles and tendons in the human body. Finally, they tried to design the joints to mimic those in human bodies. Humans have 548 degrees of freedom at their joints, allowing for a remarkable and complex range of movement; if you leave out the face and hands, there are still a whopping 419 degrees of freedom, the authors said. Standard axial-driven humanoid robots, such as ASIMO (known for playing soccer with President Obama) or HRP-2 (which competed in the DARPA Robotics Challenge in Pomona in 2015), have far fewer joint degrees of freedom: around 27 to 55, the study authors wrote. But tendon-driven robots like Kenshiro and Kengoro, with their human-inspired musculoskeletal structures, have about double that, from 55 to 114 joint degrees of freedom. Kenshiro has 64 degrees of freedom, thanks to multiple spine joints (structured in a human-like S-curve) and a more humanoid knee joint. Kengoro has 114 degrees of freedom — or 174, if you include all the joints in its hands. Kengoro does have fingers and toes, but they still have a way to go to match the musculature of human digits, the study authors wrote. Given how important these “end effectors” are to human life, improving those is key, they said. “End effectors are quite important for humans in their daily lives,” the researchers said. “This suggests that it is essential to develop human mimetic end effectors to move humanoid robotics forward.” The researchers even designed Kengoro to sweat, developing an artificial perspiration system to release heat from the motors. The scientists say incorporating these kinds of humanoid characteristics could help reveal the invisible inner workings of human bodies — and find better ways to prevent and treat illness and injury. “One research group has suggested the possibility that a musculoskeletal humanoid can be used in medicine, such as to grow tissue grafts,” the scientists pointed out. “If a humanoid can replicate human movements, then the resulting muscle contribution analysis or sensory data obtained during motion will benefit athletes or sports trainers.” — Los Angeles Times/TNS
Morag Gates is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Sidra Medicine — a role she was appointed to in January 2016. Morag is responsible for overseeing Sidra’s project management office and various support services, including facilities management, biomedical engineering, facilities design and planning, procurement, activation management and patient experience among others. Morag was initially trained as a registered nurse and held various nursing posts within intensive care units in different hospitals in London before moving on to operational management and subsequently, into the management of large scale projects and portfolios in the healthcare sector. She has also carried out consultancy work in Europe, Australia, and the Middle East — mainly around the building and commissioning of new hospitals. Before coming to Qatar, Morag had overseen and worked with different hospital projects in the UK. She boasts rich experience in managing new hospital projects. Sidra Medicine, a member of Qatar Foundation for education, science and community development, represents the vision of Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, who is its chairperson. Community recently caught up with Morag to discuss the whole gamut of Sidra operations. Excerpts from the interview: Please share with us briefly your journey so far. I was born in Scotland. When I left school, I was trained as a nurse. I worked in a hospital in Glasgow for three years before I moved to London in 1985 to expand my career. I worked in an intensive care unit in London and mainly worked with children and adult patients having heart problems. I later worked with some of the world renowned hospitals in London with big heart and lungs transplantation units. I did a number of nursing jobs before moving on to project management. I started doing construction management of new hospital buildings in 1990, if I remember correctly. The first development project that I did was valued at £50 million. The second project that I did was estimated at £1 billion. The first building project had facilities to take care of patients with heart diseases, brain diseases, and cancer. The second project was a general hospital for both children and adults. I have one brother, who lives in London. I’m married to Russel Gates, who also works on a Sidra project. Russell and I met while doing a new hospital development project. We worked together for about eight years before we got married. What is the landscape of your achievements like? I have had really varied experience — from being a nurse to doing project management. The main reason for changing my career was that I did not know what I was going to do professionally. I was working in a hospital where construction work was going on to add another wing. There, I thought that I would go on to project management. I was working with the project for six months when the project director left and I had to oversee the work on the hospital wing. It was really a challenging job because the only way people spoke to each other was through their lawyers. One thing that I had learnt by virtue of being a nurse was how to speak to people. So I walked to the building site and I said it was ridiculous that we only spoke through our lawyers. I suggested we needed to keep legal arguments aside whilst working to deliver for the hospital. How do you see your job in Qatar? Is it different from what you had done in the UK? There are some similarities and there are major differences. It is another new hospital project. From the perspective of construction, you see all the same issues. But we’ve got 80 nationalities working here. It gives an interesting mix of experience. People from different cultures have been used to working in different ways in their own countries. We are developing a Sidra way of working. We hope to derive the best from all the people and give it to Sidra Medicine, and Qatar. What has been your experience so far about life in general in Qatar? We love living in Qatar. We find the Qatari people generous and welcoming. It is such a young and vibrant country. They have had a massive extension in infrastructure over a very short period of time. They recognised that there is a place for expatriates. Our job is to help them deliver the best healthcare facilities. Please give us an insight into Sidra Medicine. It is a hospital specifically, for children and women. It offers a beautiful facility. It will offer high quality care to both children and women by bringing in so many world class clinicians, researchers, and educationists together working with the Hamad Medical Corporation and other partners within Qatar. We have got a new building. We have got an amazing staff. We have got high tech equipment. We will have the facility to perform surgeries here. Previously, patients have gone out of the country for certain kind of surgeries such as heart surgeries for children. We will offer neonatal surgeries. We will have special neonatal intensive care unit with full multi-disciplinary team. We will also be taking care of high risk pregnancies here. Currently, we are open for only outpatients and we do day surgeries. The children needing a surgery come in the morning, will have the surgery, and will go back home in the afternoon. On January 14, we will be opening for referrals only. Patients should be coming here only if they have a referral. Our Emergency department will be opening later next year. Sidra includes an outpatient clinic, a main hospital and a research institution. It is also an academic medical centre. It will provide comprehensive specialist healthcare services for children and young people and maternity care for all women in Qatar, not just locals. The hospital will feature 140 clinic rooms, 10 operating theatres, 400 beds, 100 per cent single rooms with a private bathroom, a birthing centre and an Emergency department. It will employ 2,000 nurses, 600 doctors and 800 other healthcare professionals as well as administrative staff. Where do you want to see the hospital when you leave the project? When Qatar says we no longer need you! That will be my real achievement. I want to see it as an internationally recognised name. I would also like it to be known for high quality education. Our research is already known for its high quality. What are your personal future plans? When I leave Qatar, I want to retire and travel the world. If I work at all, I would like to work with vulnerable children. I would like to have an opportunity to do some kind of charity work. What advice will you like to give young medical practitioners? Working in a hospital is one of the greatest privileges you can have. To look after patients when they are sick and vulnerable and when parents hand over their child to you to care for them, it is a great privilege. It is one of the most rewarding things you can do. They should grab every opportunity they can. They should try and get different experiences in different hospitals. They should never lose track of what got them into the profession and they should never lose focus required for high quality care. How will Sidra Medicine operate? Sidra Medicine, a specialty children’s, young people and women’s healthcare organization, is preparing for the phased opening of its main hospital building on 14 January 2018. As an organization focusing on high-risk and specialty cases, Sidra Medicine will continue to see patients via referrals and by appointment only. Children, young people and women coming to Sidra Medicine must be referred by a physician from Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC) clinics and Primary Health Care Corporation (PHCC) centers. No walk-in or emergency services will be available at opening. The first inpatients for both children’s and women’s services for the main hospital have already been registered and scheduled. Admissions in the first few months will be through the Sidra Medicine Outpatient Clinic and in collaboration with HMC. Sidra Medicine will offer more inpatient services during the course of 2018. On 14 January 2018 and during the first weeks of opening, Sidra Medicine’s inpatient services include pediatric medicine (gastroenterology, endocrinology and adolescent medicine) and elective general surgery for children and young people while its women’s service will only be doing elective caesarian deliveries. All other deliveries (even for those currently registered and receiving their antenatal care at Sidra Medicine) will be at HMC until the women’s services is fully operational by mid-2018. Will the main Sidra Medicine hospital accept referrals from private healthcare institutions? No. At this stage, Sidra Medicine will not be accepting referral patients from other healthcare institutions apart from HMC and PHCC. Plans are underway to widen the referral network so that we can accept referrals from physicians from other healthcare institutions in the country. Sidra also has an international referrals office that reviews referrals from abroad. Can patients request to be referred to Sidra Medicine? Patients need to discuss their preferences with their primary or secondary physician who will refer them to the most appropriate provider based on individual assessment. At this stage, there will be no direct referrals of pregnant women (obstetric patients) from PHCC to Sidra Medicine. These referrals will be determined/ triaged at HMC by both Sidra Medicine and HMC doctors. How do women get referral to Sidra Medicine? What services do you provide? At this stage, there are no direct referrals of pregnant (obstetric) patients from PHCC to Sidra Medicine. PHCC and other care providers will continue to refer all pregnant women to HMC. These will then be reviewed and triaged by both Sidra Medicine and HMC doctors to either Sidra Medicine or HMC outpatient for care. Sidra Medicine’s women’s service will only be doing elective caesarian deliveries within the first weeks of opening. These patients are already registered. All other deliveries (even for those currently registered and receiving their antenatal care at Sidra Medicine) will be at HMC until the women’s service is fully opened in mid-2018.”
The degree of gender equality in the country a woman lives in may affect her cognitive functioning in later age, new research has found. “This research is a first attempt to shed light on important, but understudied, adverse consequences of gender inequality on women’s health in later life,” said Eric Bonsang of Columbia University in New York, who is lead author of the study published in the journal Psychological Science. “It shows that women living in gender-equal countries have better cognitive test scores later in life than women living in gender-unequal societies. Moreover, in countries that became more gender-equal over time, women’s cognitive performance improved relative to men’s,” added Bonsang, who is also affiliated with University Paris-Dauphine in France. The researchers had noticed that the differences in men’s and women’s scores on cognitive tests varied widely across countries. In countries in northern Europe, for example, women tend to outperform men on memory tests, while the opposite seems to be true in several southern European countries. “This observation triggered our curiosity to try to understand what could cause such variations across countries,” Bonsang said. While economic and socioeconomic factors likely play an important role, the researchers wondered whether sociocultural factors such as attitudes about gender roles might also contribute to the variation in gender differences in cognitive performance around the globe. They hypothesised that women who live in a society with more traditional attitudes about gender roles would likely have less access to opportunities for education and employment and would, therefore, show lower cognitive performance later in life compared with men of the same age. The researchers analysed cognitive performance data for participants between the ages of 50 and 93, drawn from multiple nationally representative surveys. Together, the surveys provided data for a total of 27 countries. Overall, the data showed considerable variability in gender differences in cognitive performance across countries. In some countries, women outperformed men – the female advantage in cognitive performance was highest in Sweden. In other countries, however, men outperformed women – the male advantage was highest in Ghana. The researchers found that women in countries with less traditional attitudes were likely to have better cognitive performance later in life relative to women in more traditional countries. “These findings reinforce the need for policies aiming at reducing gender inequalities as we show that consequences go beyond the labour market and income inequalities,” Bonsang said. – IANS
Driscoll’s is so secretive about its robotic strawberry picker it won’t let photographers within telephoto range of it. But if you do get a peek, you won’t see anything humanoid or space-aged. AgroBot is still more John Deere than C-3PO – a boxy contraption moving in fits and starts, with its computer-driven sensors, graspers and cutters missing 1 in 3 berries. Such has been the progress of ag-tech in California, USA, where despite the adoption of drones, iPhone apps and satellite-driven sensors, the hand and knife still harvest the bulk of more than 200 crops. Now, the $47 billion agriculture industry is trying to bring technological innovation up to warp speed before it runs out of low-wage immigrant workers. California will have to remake its fields like it did its factories, with more machines and better-educated workers to labour beside them, or risk losing entire crops, economists say. “California agriculture just isn’t going to look the same,” said Ed Taylor, a University of California at Davis rural economist. “You’re going to be hard-pressed to find crops grown as labour-intensively as they are now.” Driscoll’s, which grows berries in nearly two dozen countries and is the world’s top berry grower, already is moving its berries to table-top troughs, where they are easier for both human and machines to pick, as it has done over the last decade in Australia and Europe. “We don’t see – no matter what happens – that the labour problem will be solved,” said Soren Bjorn, president of Driscoll’s of the Americas. That’s because immigrant farmworkers in California’s agricultural heartlands are getting older and not being replaced. After decades of crackdowns, the net flow across the US-Mexico border reversed in 2005, a trend that accelerated through 2014, according to a Pew Research Center study. And native-born Americans aren’t interested in the job, even at wages that have soared at higher than average rates. “We’ve been masking this problem all these years with a system that basically allowed you to accept fraudulent documents as legal, and that’s what has been keeping this workforce going,” said Steve Scaroni, whose Fresh Harvest company is among the biggest recruiters of farm labour. “And now we find out we don’t have much of a labour force up here, at least a legal one.” Stated bluntly, there aren’t enough new immigrants for the state’s nearly half-million farm labour jobs – especially as Mexico creates competing manufacturing jobs in its own cities, Taylor said. He has calculated that the pool of potential immigrants from rural Mexico shrinks every year by about 150,000 people. Not surprisingly, wages for crop production have climbed 13 percent from 2010 to 2015 – a higher rate than the state average, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of Labor Department data. Growers who can afford it have begun offering savings and health plans more commonly found in white collar jobs. And they’re increasingly turning to foreign guest workers, recruiting 11,000 last year, which is a fivefold jump in just five years, The Times found. None of that will solve the problem, economists say. Changing what they grow and how they grow it is all that’s left. Response has been uneven, at best. Vast areas of the Central Valley have switched from labour intensive crops such as grapes or vegetables to almonds, which are mechanically shaken from the tree. The high-value grape industry has re-engineered the bulk of its vineyards to allow machines to span the vines like a monorail and strip them of grape clusters or leaves. Fresno’s raisin industry, however, has a tougher problem to solve on a tighter profit margin. To fully mechanise, it may have to change not just its vineyard design, but the grape variety itself, much like the tomato industry developed a tough skinned Roma to withstand mechanical harvesters. When labour shortages and price shocks hit in the early 2000s, growers altered vineyards so that machines could shake partially withered Thompson seedless grapes onto paper trays, a method that can slash more than 80 percent of labour costs, according to UC Davis researchers. Eliminating trays entirely, however, requires a grape that can dry slowly on the vine before September rains hit. Thompsons mature too late. The Sunpreme, developed by a retired USDA plant scientist in California’s Central Valley, may soon be widely available, said Matthew Fidelibus, a UC co-operative extension adviser. It may be too late to mechanise asparagus. The crop, among the most labour-intensive in the state, has gradually shifted to Mexico since trade barriers made it cheaper to grow there, casting a nostalgic pall over Stockton’s asparagus festival. Last year, farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta area harvested only 8,000 acres of the signature spear, which is depicted on water tanks and town emblems throughout the region. In 2000, they harvested 37,000 acres, according to the US Department of Agriculture. “We’re headed toward zero pretty soon,” said Cherie Watte Angulo, executive director of the California Asparagus Commission. Grown on perennial beds that last a decade or so, asparagus must be selectively harvested every day during its 90-day season. Machines have utterly failed to duplicate human judgment and dexterity. This season, a grower’s co-operative in the Stockton area tested a prototype harvester from Washington state that uses sensors to select only the mature stalks. “I’ll keep it simple: the machine didn’t work,” said Bob Ferguson, who hosted the machine on his 162 acres of asparagus beds. “He took it back up to Washington.” Even Driscoll’s AgroBot, among the more advanced prototypes in California fields, was picking only a bit more than half the ripe berries in its trials this spring in Camarillo. “We think we are very close, but every day we try to make the next step. We see new things we need to solve,” said Juan Bravo, the Spanish inventor who is counting on Driscoll’s continued backing for his 10-year endeavour. So far, the Watsonville, Calif., company is into AgroBot for the long-haul, said Michael Christensen, Driscoll’s research and development director, who watched Bravo tinker with the machine’s three dozen arms before setting it to another crawl. Vertical rods slid left and right, guiding four-fingered graspers to precise coordinates set by a camera and computer. Soon, a stream of ripe berries emerged on a conveyor, mixed occasionally with green-tipped fruit. –TNS
When it comes to ancient human migration, it’s all in the timing. Scientists studying a corridor that could have allowed ancient American settlers to pass the glaciers separating Alaska from the rest of the continent might not have been viable at the right time window to allow some of the earliest human migrations through. The findings, published in the journal Nature, offer an unprecedented profile of one possible migration route while deepening the mystery around how some of the first people actually made it south into America. Scientists have long thought that humans passed from what is now Siberia to present-day Alaska via the Bering land bridge (a strip of land that today is covered in ocean) but then had to wait for the ice sheets across present-day Canada to recede before continuing southward. Then, about 15,000 to 14,000 years ago, two retreating glaciers (the Laurentide and Cordilleran ice sheets) opened up a corridor to the rest of the continent. At first, it seems like that corridor’s appearance might mesh well with the appearance of early settlements in North America, such as the Clovis in New Mexico, who were south of the massive walls of glacial ice by 13,400 years ago. But the earliest humans in South America appear to have set up shop about 14,700 years ago. Keep in mind, the glacial corridor opened up only 15,000 years ago at the earliest. So unless those intrepid humans in what was known as Beringia were able to traverse North, Central and South America in a mere 300 years, it’s very unlikely that any humans who might have passed through the glacial corridor were the ones to first settle in the Americas. That’s not to mention that the corridor was not some stroll in the park: It was about a 930-mile journey, which means there had to be enough food to hunt or gather along the way. And developing a rich ecosystem from the ground up, featuring plenty of edible plant and animal life, takes time. “Understanding the postglacial emergence of an unglaciated and biologically viable corridor between the retreating Cordilleran and Laurentide ice sheets is a key part of the debate on human colonisation of the Americas,” the study authors wrote. So when would the corridor have become viable for human travel? To find out, an international team of scientists led out of the University of Copenhagen pulled nine cores of lake deposits from the Peace River drainage area in western Canada. They focused on a “bottleneck” area in the corridor that was the last to thaw, pulling out fossils, pollen, plant remains and all kinds of DNA from urine, feces and tissue embedded in the earth. They analysed the deposits and reconstructed a profile of the environment through time using the deposits, which were up to 12,900 years old. The pollen remains hint that there were only a few grasses and sedge before 12,700 years ago. But by 12,600 years ago, the landscape had changed to steppe grassland akin to today’s prairies, able to feed grazing bison. Two centuries later, hares and voles show up in the record, followed by mammoths, elk and bald eagles. “The presence of bison and mammoths is important because they are known to have been hunted by early Americans, and the presence of a top predator such as the eagle indicates a productive food web,” Suzanne McGowan of the University of Nottingham, who was not involved in the research, wrote in a commentary on the paper. Around 10,000 years ago, that corridor probably closed up — though with trees instead of ice. The coniferous forest that took over the grasslands would probably not have supported large animals like bison, which humans would have needed to survive that journey. Based on these dates, this corridor was probably not a viable route for those humans who reached the Americas south of the continental ice sheets by 14,700 years ago, the study authors wrote, or for the ancestors of the Clovis, who arrived by 13,400 years ago. “More broadly, although Clovis people may yet be shown to represent an independent migration separate from the peoples present here by 14,700” years ago, the authors wrote, “they must have descended from a population that entered the Americas via a different route than the ice-free corridor.” One possible alternative is the Pacific-migration hypothesis; early Americans may have travelled either by land via the shore’s ice-free margins or by sea, paddling down the coastal waters. But for now, the answers remain unclear — especially given that recent research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which looked at DNA from different bison populations, argues that the corridor would have been habitable during an earlier period of time. “Resolving this debate might require further consideration of whether the absence of steppe pollen and ancient DNA in the earliest sediments from the corridor region constitutes proof of absence of the species of interest,” McGowan wrote, “because depositional conditions in proglacial lake environments are often unstable, leading to sediment reworking and degradation.” Either way, she added, the new DNA research “has provided a window onto ancient worlds.” —Los Angeles Times./TNS
Have you ever noticed why your favourite pack of nut chocolate tastes so delicious? Yes, it is because of the fine tempered chocolate but also because of the nuts that many chocolate makers add to make it delicious. I am talking about hazelnut, which has recently been adopted by not only chocolate manufacturers but also other food manufacturers and has been used to make their products delicious and healthy at the same time. Hazelnut, as the name denotes is a small delicious nut originating in the Southern Europe and Turkey. Taste-wise, hazelnut is sweet and incredibly nutritious kernel from the birch tree family. It is also known as “Filberts,” because in Europe they are ready for harvest on August 22, which is celebrated as St. Philbert’s Day. Sometimes they are also denoted as “Cobnuts” in United States, where it is widely cultivated as an important commercial crop. However Turkey is the largest producer of these nuts. Hazelnut tree begins producing fruits about three years after plantation. During each spring season, the tree bears attractive inflorescence consisting of clusters of flowers arranged closely along its central stalk, which subsequently develop into fruits by autumn. Hazel appears in clusters and each nut is inside a leafy enclosure covering about three quarters of the kernel. The shape of the kernel is roughly spherical to oval in shape and they are 1.5cm to 2cm long and 1.2- 2cm broad, featuring a light scar at its base. These tasty nuts are highly prized by culinary professionals for their easy to crack shells and small sweet kernel. They are used in soups, entrees and desserts. Their subtle and delicate flavour blends with most of the food items and thus compliments them. Mostly you’ll find them in confectionery products as an addition to chocolates, biscuits, cakes and sweets. Hazelnut butter is particularly popular among people who are allergic to peanuts and is less salty and tastier than peanut butter. You can eat them plain, roast them, salt them or sweeten them as per your choice. The selection and storage of hazelnut is an easy affair. They are available in the market all the year round. You can get them from stores in various forms like shelled, unshelled, salted, sweetened or ground. Try to buy unshelled raw nuts instead of processed ones. The nuts should feature bright brown yellow colour, compact shape, uniform size and heavy in hand. They should be free from any cracks, moulds and spots and free from rancid smell. You can store unshelled hazels for years, however the shelled ones need to be stored in air tight container in refrigerator to avoid them turning rancid. Benefits of hazelnuts Hazelnuts are energy powerhouse and are loaded with numerous health benefiting nutrients that are essential for overall optimum health and wellbeing. They are rich in mono unsaturated fatty acids and essential fatty acids that help lower the bad cholesterol and helps boost the level of good cholesterol, which helps in avoiding coronary artery disease. These nuts are a rich source of dietary fibre, vitamins and minerals. They are exceptionally rich in folate, which is a unique feature to these nuts. Each 100gm of hazelnuts have 113mg of this vitamin, about 28% of the recommended daily intake. Hazelnuts are also a good source of vitamin E, with just 100 grams giving you the 100% of recommended daily intake for the vitamin. Hazelnut oil has a nutty aroma and has excellent astringent properties. It helps keep the skin well protected from dryness and flakiness. This oil has also been used in cooking and as base oil for medicines in massage, aromatherapy and cosmetic industry. I often get requested by a lot of readers for more baking recipes, so I present this classic recipe of chewy cookies, which are one of my favourite tea time cookies. Chewy Hazelnut Cookies Ingredients Refined flour 250 gm Oats 100 gm Unsalted butter 200 gm Castor sugar 100 gm Brown sugar 150 gm Salt ½ tsp Baking soda ½ tsp Egg 2 no Hazelnut 200 gm Cinnamon powder ½ tsp Vanilla extracts ½ tsp Method Crush the oats and add sifted flour, cinnamon powder, salt and baking soda and keep aside. Cream butter with castor sugar, brown sugar till the sugar dissolves. Gradually add eggs and vanilla extract while creaming. Now add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and combine well so that there are no lumps. Rest the prepared dough in refrigerator for 30 minutes to allow it to be firm. Divide the dough into tennis ball sized portions and place them 1 inch apart in the baking tray, do not flatten the dough. Pre-heat the oven to 160 degree Celsius and line baking tray with parchment paper. Bake in the oven for about 15 minutes or until the cookies are golden in colour. Allow the cookies to cool down and cool completely, the cookies can be stores in air tight containers.
AFP/ Paris Planet Earth could be at higher risk of a space rock impact than widely thought, according to astronomers who suggested Tuesday keeping a closer eye on distant giant comets. Most studies of potential Earth-smashers focus on objects in the asteroid belt roughly between Mars, Earth's outside neighbour, and Jupiter on its other flank, said the researchers. But they noted that the discovery in the last two decades of hundreds of giant comets dubbed centaurs, albeit with much larger orbits, requires expanding the list of potential hazards. These balls of ice and dust, typically 50-100 kilometres (31-62 miles) wide, have unstable, elliptical orbits that start way beyond Neptune, the most distant planet from the Sun. Their paths cross those of the giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, whose gravity fields occasionally deflect a comet towards Earth -- once about every 40,000-100,000 years. As they draw closer to the Sun, the comets would gradually break up, which is what causes the trademark cometary debris tail -- "making impacts on our planet inevitable". "The disintegration of such giant comets would produce intermittent but prolonged periods of bombardment lasting up to 100,000 years," the research team wrote in the Royal Astronomical Society journal, Astronomy and Geophysics. And they argued that "assessment of the extraterrestrial impact risk based solely on near-Earth asteroid counts, underestimates its nature and magnitude." They noted that a single centaur contains more mass than the entire population of Earth-crossing asteroids discovered to date. "In the last three decades, we have invested a lot of effort in tracking and analysing the risk of a collision between the Earth and an asteroid," said co-author Bill Napier of the University of Buckingham. "Our work suggests we need to look beyond our immediate neighbourhood too, and look out beyond the orbit of Jupiter to find centaurs. "If we are right, then these distant comets could be a serious hazard, and it's time to understand them better." Scientists believe a comet bombardment may have kickstarted life on Earth by bringing water and organic molecules. A comet strike is also a leading contender for having ended the reign of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The team said no risk was "known to be imminent", although cometary encounters were largely unpredictable. "A centaur arrival carries the risk of injecting, into the atmosphere... a mass of dust and smoke comparable to that assumed in nuclear winter studies," wrote the researchers, referring to the hypothesised climate effects from the soot that would be released by firestorms caused in an atomic war. "Thus, in terms of magnitude, its ranking among natural existential risks appears to be high," they said.
AFP/ San Francisco Researchers in physics, mathematics and life sciences were awarded a total of $22 million in the third Breakthrough Prize Awards funded by key Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. The prizes aimed at giving glamour and star power to scientific research were awarded at a glitzy event Sunday in Mountain View, California, attended by film stars including Kate Beckinsale, Cameron Diaz and Benedict Cumberbatch. "By challenging conventional thinking and expanding knowledge over the long term, scientists can solve the biggest problems of our time," said Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, one of the backers of the program along with Google co-founder Sergey Brin and Alibaba's Jack Ma. "The Breakthrough Prize honors achievements in science and math so we can encourage more pioneering research and celebrate scientists as the heroes they truly are." In life sciences, five prizes of $3 million each were awarded in Sunday's ceremony to Edward Boyden of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Karl Deisseroth of Stanford University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute; John Hardy of University College London; Helen Hobbs of University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Howard Hughes Medical Institute; and Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. The life sciences awards recognize advances toward understanding living systems and extending human life, with one prize dedicated to work helping the understanding of Parkinson's disease and neurodegenerative disorders. In physics, the prizes recognizing advances beyond the standard model of particle physics went to five research teams: the Daya Bay Reactor Neutrino Experiment at University of California, Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; the KamLAND Collaboration at Iwate Prefectural University, Japan; K2K and T2K at Japan's High Energy Accelerator Research Organization; the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory at Queen's University, Canada; and the Super-Kamiokande Collaboration at several Japanese universities and research center. The mathematics prize was awarded to Ian Agol of the University of California at Berkeley and Institute for Advanced Study. Additional prizes went to junior researchers in physics and mathematics and a new "junior challenge" award was given to Ohio high school student Ryan Chester. The program was founded by Brin and his former wife Anne Wojcicki; Jack Ma and Cathy Zhang; Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner and Julia Milner; and Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan.
AFP/ Miami On the hunt for alien worlds that might support life, NASA's unmanned Cassini spacecraft has survived its closest-ever dive through the icy spray coming from Saturn's moon Enceladus. The flyby took place Wednesday at 11:22 am (1522 GMT), NASA said. The probe skimmed 30 miles (49 kilometers) above the moon's southern polar region, sampling and collecting data on the spray that is believed to emanate from a subterranean ocean. While the spacecraft is not equipped to detect life, scientists hope that the pass will give them a better understanding of what is contained in the icy spray, how much there is, and if conditions might be hospitable to life. The first images are expected in the next 24-48 hours, NASA said. "Mission controllers established two-way communication with the spacecraft this afternoon and expect it to begin transmitting data from the encounter this evening," NASA said in a statement late Wednesday. The tiny moon orbiting the sixth planet from the sun stunned scientists when they discovered it had an icy plume in 2005. After years of observations, NASA announced earlier this year that Enceladus definitely has a subterranean ocean, widening the search for alien life in our solar system. The $3.26 billion mission is a joint project by the US space agency, European space agency and Italian space agency. Cassini is the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn, and it has been circling the planet since 2004.
AFP/ Washington A mysterious star located about 1,500 light-years from the Earth has stirred controversy due to unusual fluctuations of light, leading some to theorize that an alien civilization could have been found. Not so fast, said NASA. "The mysterious star, KIC 8462852, does have an odd light curve," said Steve Howell, a US space agency scientist working on the Kepler space telescope's planet-hunting mission, which launched in 2009 but lost its key orientation abilities in 2013. "It does not look like a normal exoplanet or binary star light curve. However, I think that saying that it immediately is alien is a bit of a stretch," Howell said in an email to AFP. A paper recently authored by Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoctoral student at Yale University, and several citizen scientists, described the planet as having a unusual light pattern, and suggested that it appeared to have matter circling it. The paper was published in October in a British journal called the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. "We'd never seen anything like this star," Boyajian was quoted as saying in The Atlantic magazine. "It was really weird." Kepler observes distant planets and stars by observing transits, or the dimming of light when another celestial body passes in front. The light from this strange world was seen to dim from 15 to 22 percent at irregular intervals. A planet could not be the cause, because even if it were the size of Jupiter -- the largest planet in our solar system -- the light from the star would dim only about one percent when it passed in between the star and the telescope. Boyajian's paper explored various natural scenarios, including defects with the Kepler space telescope, an asteroid pile-up or an impact that created a sea of comet debris. But another astronomer, Jason Wright, Penn State University, is preparing his own paper that interprets the light pattern as being the sign of an extraterrestrial civilization. Wright theorizes that a "swarm of megastructures," perhaps on the order of alien solar energy panels, are to blame. "When (Boyajian) showed me the data, I was fascinated by how crazy it looked," Wright told The Atlantic. "Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build." His theory took off on the Internet, but was swiftly debunked. Howell pointed out that another star, known as KIC 4110611, was previously found to have an odd light curve. "But after a few years of working to find out why, it turned out to be a five star system. Yes, perhaps unique, but not alien structures," he said. "I think we as scientists will make additional observations of the mysterious star and eventually, more than likely, find out it too is an odd but stellar signal."
EPIC JOURNEY: Kris Kelvin inside the space station in a still from Solaris.By Anand HollaAs a film genre, science fiction, or say space sci-fi in particular, has increasingly become a vehicle for awe-inspiring entertainment than elaborate exploratory forays into mankind’s new leaps in outer space. While recent films such as Interstellar and Edge of Tomorrow have managed to pack in both substance and swagger, a close look at some of the classics that spawned the genre was certainly what the cinephile ordered. Over the weekend, the Doha Film Institute (DFI) hosted a special programme of films and master classes “that explore the representation of spaceships in cinema” at Katara Drama Theatre to eager film-lovers. “Since the early days of cinema, spacecraft have regularly featured in films of all genres,” the DFI said, explaining their showcasing of a selection of films depicting spacecraft.The schedule featured Stanley Kubrick’s path-breaking 2001: A Space Odyssey, Yakov Protazanov’s Aelita: Queen of Mars, a Director’s Cut of Ridley Scott’s sophomore feature Alien, Star Trek: The Motion Picture by Robert Wise, and the last film of the programme, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which was screened on Saturday night.Now regarded as epic, Solaris is a 1972 Russian sci-fi art film adaptation of Polish author Stanis?aw Lem’s novel Solaris (1961). The meditative psychological drama directed by the Russian auteur Tarkovsky uses the fictional planet Solaris to find out more about ourselves and what we know. Psychologist Kris Kelvin, played by Donatas Banionis, is sent to a space station orbiting Solaris, so as to discover what has caused the crew of three scientists aboard to lose their minds. But he, too, would undergo the same emotional upheaval that they have endured.Often called Tarkovsky’s response to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris demands a lot of patience as it unfolds at a languid pace, slowing down the very process of how we intake cinema. The great Roger Ebert, in his review of Solaris, pointed out the underlying similarity and difference in the two classics. “Both films involve human space journeys and encounters with a transforming alien intelligence, which creates places (2001) or people (Solaris) from clues apparently obtained by reading minds. But Kubrick’s film is outward, charting man’s next step in the universe, while Tarkovsky’s is inward, asking about the nature and reality of the human personality,” wrote Ebert.Just as Solaris dissects the minds of the scientists aboard the space station and turns some of their memories real, Kelvin, too, must deal with a prototype of his late wife Hari, who is exactly the same except for her memories.As Ebert points out, Hari isn’t simply a physical manifestation; she has intelligence, self-consciousness, memory, and lack of memories. This Hari is unaware that the original Hari committed suicide and keeps questioning Kelvin so as to discover who she is. Unfortunately, it seems that since she is a product of Kelvin’s memory, her being is limited by how much he knows about her – Solaris can know only what Kevin knows.Ebert goes on to masterfully explain this point that rests at the heart of the film: “When we love someone, who do we love? That person, or our idea of that person? Some years before virtual reality became a byword, Tarkovsky was exploring its implications. Although other persons no doubt exist in independent physical space, our entire relationship with them exists in our minds. When we touch them, it is not the touch we experience, but our consciousness of the touch. To some extent, then, the second Hari is as ‘real’ as the first, although different.”After the screening of the film, Richard Pena, Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University who earlier in the day helmed the masterclass, went through the finer points of Solaris and answered questions from the audience. Pena said that the film explores the core idea of what journey is. “We are both outside in some world and yet inside. We have taken a journey across space. We have taken a journey into ourselves,” he said, “Solaris (the planet) reads people’s conscience in a way. It sends them a projection of their desires, fears, what they want, what they don’t want.” In the end, the film, Pena said, makes a point that the greatest journey that we could possibly take would be to know ourselves. Solaris premiered at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival and won the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury and was nominated for the Palme d’Or. In 2002, Steven Soderbergh wrote and directed an American adaptation of Solaris, which starred George Clooney.
FOUNDER: Norrie Daroga is the founder and CEO of iDAvatars. By Guy BoultonThe company’s vision initially seems fanciful:Create applications for healthcare featuring animated characters that can understand language in all its complexity, from context to regional idioms, detect emotion and recognise facial expressions, perceive differences in personalities, and on top of all that, constantly learn.To make all this seem even more far-fetched, put the company’s base in the second floor of a modest office building in suburban Milwaukee.Yet iDAvatars is among the companies that have set out to create applications based on one of the most advanced computer systems in the world — IBM’s Watson. And IBM has taken note.“They are one of the most innovative companies we work with,” said Lauri Saft, who oversees IBM’s partnerships with companies developing applications for the Watson system. “I’ve seen very few that have moved as quickly as they have.”IDAvatars also has put together a team of about 20 people scattered around the world.Tom Meyer, who oversees technology, lives in Pune, India. Ozlem Ulusoy Chavez, who oversees project management, lives in Istanbul. Antonio Saraiva, a “game master” who works as a contract employee, lives in Lisbon, Portugal. Jerry Brown, who oversees design, lives in the San Diego area.Several of them contacted iDAvatars after hearing about the company.“The fact that you are a small company doesn’t give you an excuse not to be global,” said Norrie Daroga, iDAvatars’ founder and chief executive officer.In the case of iDAvatars, it also is a necessity — the company would have a much harder time finding people with comparable experience in its own backyard.Founded in 2013Daroga, the former chief administrative officer of Metavante Corp., founded iDAvatars in 2013. So far, the company has won contracts from the Department of Veterans Affairs, Intel and Bayer AG.The company, which has raised $3.4 million from investors, projects revenue of $1 million this year and is close to breaking even, Daroga said.It is one of more than 350 companies that have or are building applications using the technology underlying IBM’s Watson — the computer system commonly known for its appearance on the quiz show “Jeopardy!”Watson understands context — IBM uses the example of “we feel blue because it is raining cats and dogs” — and can discern meaning from syntax. It also can learn patterns and trends.IBM contends the technology — which it calls “cognitive computing” — will change how people interact with computers.The system, the result of decades of work, started with one so-called application programming interface, API, for questions and answers, said Saft, vice president of IBM Watson Ecosystem. It now has 28, such as one that analyses the tone of a conversation.The application programming interface is the way companies such as iDAvatars connect with the Watson system.“We help them every step of the way,” Saft said.IBM also has a $100 million fund that it plans to invest in early-stage companies.The relationship with IBM has an additional advantage: It can open a lot of doors.“We will go put them in front of large clients,” Saft said.Accessible ApplicationsAt the same time, IBM recognises that it will never know all the ways the technology can be used.“They have the technology, but they need people like us who know what to do with it,” said Jerry Brown, iDAvatars’ designer, whose clients have included IBM, Chrysler and Lenovo.The goal is to develop applications for healthcare that are more accessible and effective.For example, when someone says his or her pain is a 10, on a scale of 1 to 10, yet the person’s facial expression or tone doesn’t show any pain, the animated character, or “avatar,” can ask follow-up questions.IDAvatars’ tagline is “The Art of Empathy,” and the company has set out to create empathetic avatars.“Other companies create a technology product,” Brown said. “What we create is a character on a technology platform.”That requires the skill of a playwright or television writer, said Brown, who started out as a copy writer in New York. Thousands of lines of dialogue, gestures and facial expressions all have to be scripted.For the VA project, iDAvatars is creating two avatars — a receptionist at a registration desk and a virtual medical assistant.The VA gave the company 2,000 questions, each that can be asked in five, 10, 15 different ways. The application has to recognise slang, for instance, used in different parts of the country and by people from different backgrounds.“It’s an enormous challenge,” Brown said. “For me it’s a chance to use everything I’ve ever learned in one job.”Some of the technology hasn’t been perfected. But Daroga, iDAvatars’ founder, points to the improvement in voice technology.“See how much change has happened in two years,” said Daroga, who has undergraduate and master’s degrees in engineering as well as a law degree.IDAvatars, he said, has two business models.One is to develop mobile applications for hospitals, managed care organisations and health insurers who would pay a monthly fee for each user. The other is to develop applications for patients in clinical research trials.Last month, Daroga took three trips to Silicon Valley, meeting with Intel, Samsung and IBM. The company’s key employees also met with IBM in Boston.The meeting with Samsung came after the company heard about iDAvatars and contacted Daroga. It later asked if he could give a one-hour demonstration for company executives from Korea.It’s an example of the interest in what iDAvatars has set out to do — and it suggests that the company has overcome one challenge.“When you first hear about it,” Daroga said, “it’s too bizarre.” —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/TNS
AT WORK: Scientists Annette Bombosch, left, and Alex Cowan, right, measure a melt pond on the ice sheet at the North Pole. By Ulf MauderIt took 100 excited tourists to get German marine biologist Annette Bombosch to the North Pole. She and other budget-conscious scientists tagged along on with a sight-seeing cruise on a Russian ice-breaker to see what’s troubling the climate and wildlife in the Arctic Sea. “The ice is an important ecosystem for polar bears, walruses and other species and it is changing rapidly. The melting ice from global warming deprives them of a crucial habitat,” said Bombosch, 32.She travelled to the Pole on the 50 Let Pobedy (50 Years of Victory), a nuclear-powered vessel that displaces 25,000 tons.Chartered from the Russian nuclear authorities by the Poseidon cruise line for 52,000 euros a day, the giant ship crashed through metre-thick ice to bring the large group of sightseers and handful of researchers to the top of the Earth in the northern summer.The biologist and her colleagues earned their keep by giving lectures to passengers from 21 countries on the five-day outward voyage before they could get down to business.With the Arctic now heating up twice as fast as other parts of the globe, Bombosch, formerly of Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar Research, warns against ever greater hazards for the delicate ecological balance.“There is also ocean acidification, which is harmful for calcium carbonate skeleton organisms,” she says, referring to the ongoing decrease in the pH of the Earth’s oceans, caused by the uptake of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, a process that is magnified in polar conditions.“Cold water especially absorbs carbon dioxide, becomes acidic and so destroys calcium carbonate skeletons,” Bombosch says. This threatens many animals like mussels or snails that are essential to the food chain and sustenance of larger denizens of the Arctic like polar bears and walruses.Above all, plans of Russia and other countries to expand operations to extract huge reserves of oil and gas in the region’s seabed cause concern, and not just because of the risks of pollution from spillage. Noisy production platforms and increasing container ship traffic can massively disrupt communication among whales and their search for feeding grounds, warns the biologist.Bombosch, who has a doctorate in whale research, saw plenty of polar bears on the voyage, but also bowhead whales, Balaena mysticetus, which are a rarity in the Barents Sea.“We record these sightings and send them to Arctic research institutes so they can be collated into sightings maps in international databases,” she says.Two polar research colleagues on the icebreaker, Briton Alex Cowan and American Lauren Farmer, used the voyage to gather data for a research project on the composition and strength of sea ice. Working also directly at the North Pole, the team for the University of Alaska in Fairbanks is studying the size and depth of melt ponds that form on the ice and freeze over again in early autumn.“We complement the data gathered by satellite and by hand at the site,” says Farmer, who gauges the thickness of the floes using the measuring line painted on the side of the hull as the ship crashes through the ice.From helicopters the scientists also gain an overview of the ice carpet, which is full of holes and cracks and dotted with the melt ponds. Seen as bright blue blobs on a white sheet, the ponds show that the ice layer in these locations is two to three years old, while darker spots indicate fresh and thin ice, Farmer says.The project looks at how the ice melts in the warmer months, breaks up and forms again, and how the Arctic Ocean absorbs the sun’s heat and light, because the melt ponds absorb much more heat than the ice around them.2012 was the summer with the least ice since the study began, the researchers say. The consequences are dire, because many micro-organisms and small fish that feed the larger animals live beneath the ice. Polar bear are especially now drawn in larger numbers to the islands when their icy hunting ground vanishes.The geologist Cowan sees the cause of the massive ice melt in the emission of greenhouse gases that heat up the atmosphere. There are now fears that the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in the summer within the next few decades — around 2040.Meanwhile, the cruise passengers who pay 27,000 euros apiece for this trip of a lifetime, also help the scientists measure and collect data. Cowan advocates involving polar tourists more intensely in scientific surveys.“I think there is a market for research cruises,” he says, adding that the scientific community alone cannot afford the high costs of mounting such expeditions. But if tourism is more involved, says the Briton, then databases can be developed to give early warning of changes at the poles.However, this may have been the last tourist voyage of the 50 Let Pobedy. Moscow is said to have now assigned this and Russia’s other icebreakers to the exclusive task of clearing the sea lanes to the oil and gas installations, and expanding the northern shipping routes for container traffic from Asia to Europe. —DPA
From left: WRO 2015 organisers, Dr Theodore Chiasson, Dean of IT at CNA-Q; Fawziya al-Khater, Director of the Education Institute at SEC; Lewis Affleck, Managing Director of Maersk Oil Qatar; and Dr Ken MacLeod, President of CNA-Q at the launch yesterday. By Anand Holla In less than a month from now, Qatar, for the first time, will host the 12th World Robot Olympiad (WRO). Maersk Oil Qatar and College of the North Atlantic Qatar (CNA-Q), in partnership with the Supreme Education Council (SEC), officially launched the 2015 WRO to much excitement yesterday. Following the Qatar National Robot Olympiad (QNRO) finals scheduled for October 30 and 31, the 2015 WRO – featuring 3,000 of the world’s brightest robotics students from Qatar and around 55 other countries – will unfold at the 6,000sq m Al Shaqab Indoor Arena from November 6 to 8.Last week, Community did a cover story on the training in the use of robotics programming being taken by hundreds of teachers in Qatar, in preparation of the championship. With the launch, Dr Theodore Chiasson, Dean of Information Technology at CNA-Q, spoke about what’s in store.What is the most challenging part with the world coming down to Qatar for the WRO?Any event of this size would have its challenges. Our biggest challenge was to find a big enough venue. So, last November, we heard about the Al Shaqab equestrian facility and took a tour of it. It’s actually kind of perfect for the event. They have an indoor arena that’s 100m by 60m and it has sand on it. But they scrape it down to the bare concrete to host events that aren’t related to horses. We decided to rent the venue for 11 days and holding our national finals on one weekend and then the world finals on the following weekend. So we will do all the set-up for the national finals and use it as a dry run for the world finals so as to get rid of any problems out of the venue that we may encounter during our national finals. So the venue is well-suited to hold a robotics event of this scale?The venue is beautiful. They have stringent light control that’s really helpful for robotics. As they carry out a lot of live, HDTV filming in the venue, the original design had slots in the roof where the sun could come in. Those slots are now covered and we, therefore, have a very controlled lighting environment that has ambient light coming in but no direct sunlight. The conditions are just right for robotics. It’s very exciting. In three years since its launch, the GO ROBOT programme has reached more than 8,000 students in Qatar and more than 1,000 teachers have participated in robotics training sessions. Does the same upward curve apply for QNRO, which is the culmination of GO ROBOT?This is the fifth year of QNRO, and each year, it has grown. From 69 teams to 110 to 155 to 217 to nearly 400 teams that have signed up for this year’s event. When things double in size, they more than double in logistics. Just the QNRO finals are a challenge. Then, we have the WRO. What sort of competitions has been specially devised for the WRO?Since we are the host country, we design the games that are used throughout the world for the local, regional, national competitions, and then the world finals. The theme for 2015 WRO is Robot Explorers. Of the various levels of competition, the elementary category is called Pearl Diving, in tune with Qatar’s history and for this, robots must dive into the water and get back up within 30 seconds with pearls. The middle school has Treasure Hunt and the High School has Mountaineering. In the open category, students participate in a booth where they present a project. How will WRO coming to Qatar change things for robotics in this country?First off, we get to send more than 30 teams into the WRO finals because we are the hosts. We also have the potential for everybody to look around and see what’s happening. When nearly a dozen top teams of Qatar went to various WRO finals, their appreciation for the level of competition of the WRO finals grew. For instance, one team here solved the challenge completely in 1.10 minutes when they had 1.20 to solve it. They thought they had done well. In WRO finals, the top team solved it in 45 seconds. So it really opens their eyes to what can be done with robotics.
AFP/ Stockholm Sweden's Tomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich of the United States and Aziz Sancar, a Turkish-American, won the 2015 Nobel Chemistry Prize on Wednesday for work on how cells repair damaged DNA. The three opened a dazzling frontier in medicine by unveiling how the body repairs DNA mutations that can cause sickness and contribute to ageing, the Nobel jury said. "Their systematic work has made a decisive contribution to the understanding of how the living cell functions, as well as providing knowledge about the molecular causes of several hereditary diseases and about mechanisms behind both cancer development and ageing," the panel said. DNA -- deoxyribonucleic acid -- is the chemical code for making and sustaining life. Cells divide, or replicate, billions of times through our lifetime. Molecular machines seek to copy the code perfectly, but random slipups in their work can cause the daughter cells to die or malfunction. DNA can also be damaged by strong sunlight and other environmental factors. But there is a swarm of proteins -- a molecular repair kit -- designed to monitor the process. It proof-reads the code and repairs damage. The three were lauded for mapping these processes, starting with Lindahl, who identified so-called repair enzymes -- the basics in the toolbox. Sancar discovered the mechanisms used by cells to fix damage by ultraviolet radiation. Modrich laid bare a complex DNA-mending process called mismatch repair. - Eternal life? - "The basic research carried out by the 2015 Nobel laureates in chemistry has not only deepened our knowledge of how we function, but could also lead to the development of lifesaving treatments," the Nobel committee said. With cells able to repair themselves, one could ponder the dizzying possibility that humans could go on living forever. "No, I don't believe in eternal life," Lindahl, who is based in Britain, told reporters by telephone at the prize announcement, saying winning the prestigious honour was "a surprise". He said scientists were increasingly turning their attention away from curing diseases such as cancer and instead looking for chronic treatments. "We are getting away a little bit (from) trying to find a cure for everything, and convert diseases to something we can live with," he said. "It's difficult to cure diabetes but we have good ways of treating diabetic patients, and I think with regard to DNA damage that will be an increasingly important aspect." DNA repair researcher Nora Goosen of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands told AFP targeted attacks on cancer were one possible practical application of the prizewinning research. "The same mechanism by which cells repair DNA damage can also make them resist the effects of chemotherapy. By understanding how the cell repair system works, doctors hope they will one day be able to instruct cancerous cells not to fight against treatment, thus making chemotherapy more effective," she explained. Other scientists heaped praise on Lindahl for his pioneering work. They included Britain's prestigious Royal Society, of which he is a fellow, and British biochemist Sir Tim Hunt, who was a co-winner of the 2001 Nobel for cell duplication. "This is wonderful news!" Hunt told the Science Media Centre (SMC) in London. "Tomas was my boss for almost 20 years, a real scientists' scientist... (a) richly-deserved prize." - Chose studies over football - It is the seventh time DNA research has been honoured with a Nobel prize. The first was in 1962, for the discovery of the structure of DNA. Lindahl, Modrich and Sancar share the prize sum of eight million Swedish kronor (around $950,000 or 855,000 euros). Lindahl, 77, is the emeritus director of Cancer Research UK at Clare Hall Laboratory in Britain. Modrich, born in 1946, is a professor of biochemistry at Duke University in the US. Sancar, 69, was born in the small Turkish town of Savur. He could have become a professional football player -- Turkey's national junior team courted him to become their goalkeeper -- but he chose to focus on his academic studies instead. After working as a doctor in the countryside, he resumed his biochemistry studies at the age of 27, and then went to the University of Texas in Dallas. He is now a professor of biochemistry and biochemics at University of North Carolina in the US. He told the Nobel Foundation he was stunned by his win. "I have just gotten a call half an hour ago. My wife took it and woke me up. I wasn't expecting it at all. I was very surprised," he said, adding: "I tried my best to be coherent." The Nobel awards week continues with the announcements for the two most closely-watched prizes: on Thursday the winner of the literature prize will be announced, followed by the peace prize on Friday. The economics prize wraps up this year's Nobel season on Monday.
By Steff GaulterIf you were awake in the early hours of Monday morning and looked up at the sky, you may have seen a dramatic sight. Our moon looked strangely large and was lit up an eerie red colour. This mysterious spectacle was created by the intricate way that the sun, the earth and the moon all travel around each other.A huge red moon, such as the one seen on Sunday night, is called a supermoon lunar eclipse. It’s the combination of three things happening at the same time: the moon passing close to the earth, a full moon and an eclipse. Individually, none of the events are particularly unusual, but it is far more rare when they all happen at the same time.It may surprise you to hear that the moon isn’t always the same distance away from the Earth. Its path is elliptical, rather than a perfect circle. At its closest point the centre of the moon is 363,396km (225,804 miles) from the centre of the earth, whereas at its furthest it is 405,504km (251,968 miles). Most of the time, we don’t even notice how far the moon is away from us, but there a few times when it becomes more obvious.The moon reaches its point closest to the earth just under once a month. If you live near the ocean, you may notice that the tides are higher than usual at these times. However, no matter where you live, the size of a moon can give away how far it is away from the Earth, especially if its closest point coincides with a full moon.The apparent increase in size of the full moon when it is at its closest point to Earth led to it being known as a supermoon. The opposite, when a full moon occurs when the moon is at its further point from the Earth, is known as a micro moon. For those of you thinking that a supermoon doesn’t sound particularly scientific, you’d be right. The technical term is perigee-syzygy, which is certainly not as catchy. Whatever you choose to call it, the large full moon looks about 7% bigger than an average full moon, or 14% larger than a micro moon and 30% brighter.The huge moon that was visible on the night of September 27 was a supermoon. This explains its size and brightness. However, its red tinge is due to something else entirely. The colour was due to a lunar eclipse.In order for us to see a full moon, the sun has to be shining from behind the earth onto the moon. This means the earth has to be in between the sun and the moon. Normally the three bodies don’t line up exactly, and we see the moon fully illuminated. However, on certain occasions they do line up perfectly, allowing the moon to move into the shadow of the Earth. This plunges the moon into the darkness we call a lunar eclipse.When the moon is in the shadow of the Earth, however, the moon isn’t completely black. This isn’t too much of a surprise, given that when we look at our own shadow on the pavement, it’s not completely black either. However, unlike our shadows, the light on the moon during a lunar eclipse has a reddish colour.The red hue is due to the Earth’s atmosphere. Our atmosphere only extends 80 kilometres (50 miles) above the Earth’s surface, but this tiny slither of air allows us to breathe, creates our weather and even dictates the colour of a lunar eclipse.You probably remember from science at school that white light is made up of light of all the colours of the rainbow. As the sun’s rays hit our atmosphere, some of the light is separated into the individual colours. The different colours are scattered different amounts; purples and blues are scattered most, which is why the sky is blue, and red is scattered least, which is why sunsets are red.When the sun shines directly overhead, the sunlight passes through as little of our atmosphere as possible. However, when the sun sets and it is close to the horizon, it passes through a greater portion of the atmosphere. This allows more light to be scattered, and leaves only the red shades.A similar process happens during a lunar eclipse. The sun’s rays are blocked by the Earth, but they can still pass around the edges, through the slither of our atmosphere. The atmosphere scatters the light, but as red is scattered least, this is the colour that we see on the moon. Interestingly, the more pollution there is in the air, the more scattering takes place and the redder the moon will appear. This means you can never be sure exactly how red the moon will be.For those of you who missed the spectacle, and are now keen to see a huge red moon, then I’m sorry to say that we have a bit of a wait before we can see another one. The next supermoon lunar eclipse isn’t scheduled until 8 October 2033, and I’m not sure my diary quite extends that far!
AFP/WashingtonSkygazers were treated to a rare astronomical event Monday when a swollen "supermoon" and lunar eclipse combined for the first time in decades, showing Earth's satellite bathed in blood-red light. The celestial show, visible from the Americas, Europe, Africa, west Asia and the east Pacific, was the result of the sun, Earth and a larger-than-life, extra-bright moon lining up for just over an hour. Images from France, Argentina and the United States, among others, capture the progression of the lunar eclipse to a striking red finale. In Brooklyn, New York, crowds of people gathered on plazas and sidewalks, gazing up at the sky and trying to take photos with their smartphones -- though in other cities, including Washington, cloud cover hid much of the spectacle. While the phenomenon was not visible in any major Indian cities, stargazers equipped with telescopes were able to catch a glimpse of the eclipse in the country's remote northeast. The event also led to speculation about an impending apocalypse among certain followers of the Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The fears are believed to have been stoked by a statement from Mormon author Julie Rowe, who regularly speaks to audiences about upcoming worldwide calamities. Church officials were forced to issue a statement warning against panic, saying that while members should be "spiritually and physically prepared for life's ups and downs" they should avoid "being caught up in extreme efforts to anticipate catastrophic events". The "blood moon" -- which so far has had no apocalyptic consequences -- appeared in stages across the planet as the satellite reached its closest orbital point to Earth, called perigee, while in its brightest phase. The resulting "supermoon" appeared 30 percent brighter and 14 percent larger than when at apogee, the farthest point -- which is about 31,000 miles (49,900 kilometers) from perigee. Unusually, the Earth took position in a straight line between the moon and the sun, blotting out the direct sunlight that normally makes our satellite glow whitish-yellow. But some light still crept around the planet's edges and was filtered through its atmosphere, casting an eerie red light that creates the blood moon. For people younger than 33, this was their first-ever chance to see a "super blood moon". The last, only the fifth recorded since 1900, was in 1982, according to the NASA space agency, and the next will not be until 2033. On top of the wow factor, the event was also of great interest for researchers. Over a 24-day cycle, the temperature on the surface of our satellite normally varies between highs of about 121 degrees Celsius (250 degrees Fahrenheit) in direct sunlight, and lows around minus 115 C in the dark. These changes help researchers study the composition of the crust, as rocks warm and cool slower than sand-like dust. But on Monday, the eclipse saw that temperature shift happens much faster, allowing scientists to make detailed observations of the moon's uppermost surface.
By Doreen FiedlerWhite-backed vultures are the guests at India’s first Vulture Restaurant in the Phansad wildlife sanctuary near Murud in the western state of Maharashtra.The dish of the day is laid out on stony ground at the centre of a clearing right next to the drinking trough for the mammals. There are large trees for the birds (Gyps bengalensis) to alight on.“We put out a carcase every three or four days,” says Sunil Limaye, the senior state game warden in the city of Pune who is responsible for the Phansad sanctuary. The vultures are fed cattle, sheep or goats.“So far the results are good. The vultures are laying eggs,” Limaye says, expressing the hope that similar projects will be launched in Maharashtra and further afield across India.South Asia’s vulture population needs all the help it can get since farmers began using the anti-inflammatory painkiller diclofenac in the 1990s. The birds are unable to break down the drug, which was initially developed for use in humans but causes renal failure in vultures.Numbers of white-backed vultures — once the most common large raptor in the world — have collapsed by more than 99 per cent across the Indian subcontinent.The species is now threatened by extinction in India, Nepal and Pakistan, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The Indian vulture and the slender-billed vulture have seen similar population crashes.Indian biologist Vibhu Prakash has been campaigning to save the vultures for decades, taking a different approach to that of the Indian state authorities.His Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) is backing a breeding programme. “We catch young birds and rear them to adulthood. We then incubate their fertilised eggs and will soon start to release this new generation into the wild,” he says.Prakash remains unimpressed by the state’s feeding programme. “There is adequate habitat, no real enemies and sufficient food for the vultures — both wild and domesticated animals,” he says.Even if carrion becomes scarce in one area, the birds can easily fly hundred of kilometres with wingspans that can exceed two metres. “The real problem is that diclofenac continues to be used.”While the drug has been banned for veterinary use since 2006, it continues to be sold in pharmacies in multiple units that would be sufficient for cattle if taken together.The BNHS has tested livestock carcases across the country and discovered that 6 per cent of the carcases contained diclofenac intended for human use - half the number before the ban, but still too high for vulture populations to recover.“But we don’t find birds that have starved to death,” Prakash says.The Maharashtra authorities have set up a number of cameras to observe vulture nests in cooperation with the Ela conservation organisation. Of the 15 chicks observed, seven have died because they were not fed, says ELA ornithologist Satish Pande.He notes that there are much fewer livestock carcases than previously, since Indian farmers have been compelled to bury their dead animals or to spray them with pesticide. This has made the vulture restaurants essential in his view.German bird protection expert Lars Lachmann also sees feeding the vultures as a good idea, as the carcases offered are free of diclofenac. “In this way a few birds can be saved that might otherwise have eaten poisoned meat,” he says.Lachmann notes that Spain has a similar programme in which carcases are laid out at pre-determined spots. But concerns about European vultures are rising since diclofenac was licensed for use in Spain and Italy in 2013. —DPA
A reconstruction of Homo naledi’s head by paleoartist John Gurche, who spent some 700 hours recreating the head from bone scans. Photo: Mark Thiessen/National Geographic AFP/ MaropengThe fossilised bones of 15 bodies from a previously unknown human species have been discovered in a cave in South Africa, it was announced Thursday, in what scientists hailed as a breakthrough in evolution research. About 1,500 fossils were found deep in a cave system outside Johannesburg, hidden in a deep underground chamber only accessible via several steep climbs and rock cavasses. Experts are uncertain how the "Homo naledi" remains got there, or even how old they are, but the discovery could shed fresh light on the origin of the mankind. The bones were first discovered in 2013 by Witwatersrand University scientists and volunteer cavers in the Cradle of Humankind, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, 50 kilometres (30 miles) northwest of Johannesburg. "I am pleased to introduce you to a new species of human ancestor," Lee Berger, research professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, told reporters at the site. Ancient human remains have been found in the area since excavations begun in the 1920s. "The discovery of so many fossils belonging to at least 15 individuals is remarkable," said Professor Chris Stringer, from the Natural History Museum in London, one of the lead analysts on the discovery. The find highlighted "the complexity of the human family tree and the need for further research to understand the history and ultimate origins of our species," Stringer added. "The deep cave location where the bones were found suggests that they may have been deposited there by other humans, indicating surprisingly complex behaviour for a 'primitive' human species." Scientists say the hands, wrists and feet of the bodies were similar to modern humans, but the brain size and upper body were much more like the earliest humans. "H. naledi had a tiny brain, about the size of an average orange, perched atop a very slender body," said John Hawks, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a senior author on the academic paper detailing the new species. Homo naledi stood approximately 1.5 metres (about 5 feet) tall and weighed about 45 kilogrammes (almost 100 pounds). The first expedition to the cave chamber in 2013 lasted for 21 days and involved more than 60 specialist cavers and scientists working in dangerous underground conditions.