News Article | February 21, 2017
A combination photograph shows the beginning (top L) to the end (top L to bottom R) of a total solar eclipse as seen from the beach of Ternate island, Indonesia, on March 9, 2016. —Do you want to be a filmmaking star? Or at least make a film of a star? The University of California needs your help. As the clock ticks closer to this summer’s total solar eclipse, UC Berkeley and Google are partnering to carry out what they're calling the Eclipse Megamovie Project. By combining footage from over 1,000 cameras in the path of the eclipse, they hope to create a 90-minute “megamovie” that captures the phenomenon in a way no human being could alone. When the moon passes directly between the Earth and the sun on August 21, the center of its shadow will trace out a diagonal trail from Oregon to South Carolina. Observers located at the exact center of this “path of totality” may be able to see the total eclipse for as long as 2 minutes and 40 seconds as the shadow flies over the ground at up to 1,500 miles per hour. The Eclipse Megamovie Project hopes to choose and train over 1,000 volunteers to record as much of the eclipse as they are able, after which the terabytes of video data will be stitched together to generate a complete, high-resolution record of the eclipse as viewed from the ground. “We want everyone to know about the natural wonder, scientific importance and social impact of viewing a live total solar eclipse,” Laura Peticolas, a physicist who oversees the educational component of the Eclipse Megamovie Project, said in a press release. “It is truly a transformative, life-changing experience and we want to prepare people for that.” The Eclipse Megamovie Project will also release an app this summer that will let anyone contribute to the effort with their smartphone. This footage will be used to create a second, lower resolution video. While compiling the videos themselves is exciting, the team hopes to use them to answer some scientific questions, too. Of particular interest is the corona, the wispy filaments of plasma extending far beyond the solar surface. Generally hidden against the brilliance of the sun, the corona can normally be studied using a device called a coronagraph, which physically blocks out the sun’s disk. It turns out the moon makes a great natural coronagraph. Another point of interest is what’s called “Baily’s Beads,” little twinkles that appear around the rim of the moon as the sun shines through craters and gets blocked by peaks. Cellphone footage of these bright and dark spots can help astronomers map lunar features. The team will be putting the crowdsourcing system through its paces this week during an annular eclipse in Patagonia, and those who miss their chance to participate this summer may have a second shot during the next US total solar eclipse in April 2024. The Eclipse Megamovie Project is the latest in the recent trend of using so-called “citizen astronomers,” astronomy enthusiasts with little or no formal training who help the professionals sift through their data. Modern instruments often collect far more data than scientists can handle, and when it comes to many kinds of analysis, current computer programs still can’t beat good old-fashioned eyes and human attention. NASA recently invited citizen astronomers to help comb through images of nearby interstellar space to search for dim objects, such as an undiscovered planet or dwarf star, that might trick their computer software. “There are just over four light-years between Neptune and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, and much of this vast territory is unexplored,” lead researcher Marc Kuchner, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a press release. “Because there’s so little sunlight, even large objects in that region barely shine in visible light. But by looking in the infrared, WISE may have imaged objects we otherwise would have missed.” For any discoveries that lead to published work, the citizen astronomer will share credit, a point that can complicate the emerging field of collaboration between the public and scientists, as The Christian Science Monitor reported last fall: Citizen scientists interested in contributing their time and their cameras to the study of our sun and moon during this summer's eclipse can sign up for updates on the Eclipse Megavideo Project’s website.
News Article | March 2, 2017
—Computer engineers have created some amazingly small devices, capable of storing entire libraries of music and movies in the palm of your hand. But geneticists say Mother Nature can do even better. DNA, where all of biology's information is stored, is incredibly dense. The whole genome of an organism fits into a cell that is invisible to the naked eye. That's why computer scientists are turning to molecular biology to design the next best way to store humanity's ever-increasing collection of digital data. With every new app, selfie, blog post, or cat video, the hardware to store the world's vast archive of digital information is filling up. But, theoretically, DNA could store up to 455 exabytes per gram. In other words, you could have 44 billion copies of the extended versions of all three of The Lord of the Rings movies on the tip of your finger. (For reference, watching all those movies would take more than 164 million years.) George Church, a geneticist at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, first used DNA as storage for digital information in 2012, which he reported in a paper published in the journal Science. At the time, he revealed his success during an interview on the Colbert Report by showing Stephen Colbert a tiny piece of paper on which there was a small spot that contained millions of copies of Dr. Church's book, "Regenesis," in the form of DNA. Church and his colleagues were focused on proving that digital information could indeed be encoded in DNA at the time. But since then, teams of engineers and biologists have expanded on this proof-of-concept and worked to squeeze more and more data into DNA, eyeing the vast storage Church had predicted possible. A team at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) in Hinxton, Britain, reported that they had made the largest DNA archive ever in 2013, putting 739 kilobytes worth of computer files into DNA strands. (Church's book had required about 650 kilobytes.) In July 2016, a team of Microsoft and University of Washington researchers announced that they had reset that record, storing 200 megabytes of data in DNA. Now, researchers at the New York Genome Center and Columbia University have ramped up the density of data stored in DNA molecules. They were able to reach a density of 214 petabytes per gram of DNA, according to a paper published Thursday in the journal Science – which is over eight times as dense as previous work. "This is a huge leap forward," says Church, who was not involved in the new research. Although he had calculated that this high data density was possible in his own work, Church and his team hadn't actually made it work. "They've proven a hypothetical," he says in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. From DVDs to DNA: How does it work? Digital data in its simplest form is just 0s and 1s, Yaniv Erlich, lead author of the new study, explains in a phone interview with the Monitor. Any file, be it a computer program or a movie, is made up of a series of 0s and 1s. Similarly, DNA has its own series of letters, A, C, G, and T. Those letters represent the nucleotides – adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine – that are the basic structural units of DNA. So to convert digital data to DNA, Dr. Erlich's team and others have essentially translated 0s and 1s into As, Cs, Gs, and Ts. Then, the resulting DNA sequence is sent to a company that prints synthetic DNA, in this case San Francisco-based Twist Bioscience. What they receive back is a vial about half the size of a thumb that looks like it just has a little liquid in it. But there's actually DNA in there. To access the data stored in it, the team sequences the DNA and translates it back into 0s and 1s. In this case, the researchers encoded and then retrieved a full computer operating system, an 1895 French film, "Arrival of a train at La Ciotat," a $50 Amazon gift card, a computer virus, a Pioneer plaque, and a 1948 study by information theorist Claude Shannon. As one of the tests of the data, Erlich used the computer operating system to play the game Minesweeper. The genetic material is not extracted from any animal or plant. "DNA is just a hardware here," Erlich writes in a follow-up email to the Monitor. "It is not related to anything that is living and is not even derived from anything that was alive before. The synthesis, copying, and sequencing process are purely chemical." Turning digital data into DNA may seem as simple as coming up with a code for 0s and 1s, and As, Cs, Gs, and Ts. But it's a bit more complicated than that. First of all, Erlich says, not all DNA sequences are robust. For example, a string of all the same nucleotides, say, AAAAAAAAAAAA, is particularly fragile and difficult to read correctly. But the same isn't true for computer code. In addition, not all DNA molecules will survive the sequencing and retrieval process. And the scientists can't risk losing key pieces of the code. To resolve these problems, Erlich used what is known in computing as a fountain code to act as sort of gatekeeper that provided clues to the code rather than the code itself. Because DNA Fountain, as he calls the algorithm, can provide an unlimited amount of clues, if a few get lost in the process they will still be able to decode the DNA sequence in the end. In addition to this method to make the translation more robust, Erlich wanted to see if the data-filled DNA could be replicated without error. The process of sequencing the DNA includes removing some molecules from the sample. So to preserve the data and be able to access it, scientists have to be able to make copies, Erlich explains. So he made 25 copies, and copies of the copies, and copies of the copies of the copies, and so on nine times. And even in the most copied copies, he says, "we were able to perfectly retrieve this information. It's very robust." Are we entering the age of DNA-computers? Despite these strides to move digital data from hard drives to DNA and back, don't expect your next computer or smartphone to contain DNA. "This is still the early stages of DNA storage. It's basic science," Erlich says. "It's not that tomorrow you're going to go to Best Buy and get your DNA hard drive. And we don't envision that this will be in some hard drive that people will buy." "I think the more immediate use is for archiving," Church says. The method lends itself to archiving vast amounts of data that doesn't need to be accessed regularly, like video surveillance, for example, he says. Besides density, one reason DNA data storage would be advantageous over, say, a massive warehouse full of hard drives, Erlich says, is that it doesn't need to be kept cool. Furthermore, DNA doesn't degrade like other data storage tools. Paleoanthropologists have sequenced DNA from Neanderthals and other ancient humans, so Erlich isn't concerned about the longevity of this sort of data storage. The Microsoft researchers see the applications of DNA data storage more broadly. "Any organization or individual who needs long-term archival storage of large amounts of data would benefit from a DNA storage option," write Karin Strauss of Microsoft and Luis Ceze of the University of Washington in an email to the Monitor. "For example, hospitals need to store clinical information for all their patients for a long time, research institutions have massive amounts of data from research projects that need to be preserved, and the emerging virtual reality industry needs high-capacity storage solutions for very large video files. In addition, consumers could benefit from DNA storage via the cloud, especially following the advent of highly portable video cameras and the demand to store personal video online." Currently, the cost and time required for this process is somewhat prohibitive for consumer applications. It cost $7,000 to synthesize the DNA Erlich developed and another $2,000 to read it. The synthesis process took two weeks and the sequencing took about a day. That's not to say that DNA data storage won't touch consumers' everyday life. Church's team has worked with Technicolor to use the new data storage method to preserve the company's many old films. During a media tour in 2016, Jean Bolot, vice-president for research and innovation at Technicolor, showed off a vial containing a million copies of the 1902 French silent film "A Trip to the Moon." He said, "This, we believe, is what the future of movie archiving will look like." [Editor's note: An earlier version of this article erroneously suggested that the Columbia University researchers broke the Microsoft/University of Washington 200-megabyte milestone. An earlier version of the headline of this mistakenly conflated molecular biology with microbiology.]
News Article | February 14, 2017
—Live birth: Most mammals do it, some lizards and snakes do it, but archosaurs – a reptilian group that includes crocodiles and birds – don't... or so biologists thought. When a long-necked, marine archosauromorph died some 245 million years ago in what is now China, she was pregnant, according to a paper published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications. And now paleontologists are hailing this fossil as evidence that archosaurs might not have always been strict egg-layers. "We commonly think of these aspects of animal biology as static or 'fixed' throughout evolutionary time, and cases like this demonstrate just how labile the evolution of animal form and biology can be," Dr. Nathan Smith, an associate curator at the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, who was not involved in the study of this new specimen, writes in an email to The Christian Science Monitor. Egg-laying, or oviparity, is thought to be the ancestral reproductive strategy, with live birth, or viviparity, evolving later in some lineages. Viviparity isn't just the placenta-nourished embryonic development of mammals. It has also frequently evolved independently among lizards and snakes in a variety of forms, sometimes with babies hatching from eggs incubated inside their mothers. So viviparity was known in mammals and lepidosaurs (the vertebrate group including lizards and snakes), explains study co-author Michael Benton, a paleontologist at the University of Bristol in Britain. But "nobody had ever discovered, in any of the living or fossil forms, any evidence that archosaurs could adopt live birth." When the new specimen was first discovered and the researchers saw the small bones preserved within the larger animal's ribcage, they didn't want to jump to any conclusions. After all, this could have simply been this animal's last meal. As the team examined the fossil, they realized that the two animals were indeed the same species. But it still could have been a case of cannibalism, Dr. Benton says in a phone interview with the Monitor. The researchers are pretty sure that Dinocephalosaurus, as this animal is called, fed on fish because it has a small mouth and a long, thin neck, perfect for gulping down the long, slippery bodies of fish. Swallowing a chunky baby of its own species would have been quite the feat. Not only that, but the little bones didn't display any evidence of acid digestion, as would be expected for such a meal. Furthermore, what Benton says is "quite strong evidence" against cannibalism is the position of the little animal within the bigger one. The big Dinocephalosaurus likely would have had to swallow the baby head first so it went down easily, but the little animal is oriented the wrong way. Finding a little version of the bigger animal in the abdominal region "is about as close as you can get in the fossil record to direct evidence of reproductive mode," Christian Sidor, a paleobiologist at the University of Washington who was not involved in the research, says in a phone interview with the Monitor. Daniel Blackburn, a biologist at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., whose own research has focused on viviparity in reptiles, is convinced. "Based on the state of development of the embryo and its position in the body of the adult, it almost certainly is a developing fetus," he writes in an email to the Monitor. "Given the absence of any trace of an eggshell, as well as its advanced state of development, the embryo seems unlikely to be laid as an egg. Thus, the adult specimen is almost certainly a pregnant female with a developing fetus." "Viviparity has previously been documented in only a few groups of extinct reptiles, notably ichthyosaurs, the giant mosasauroid lizards, and plesiosaurs," Dr. Blackburn says. "The authors' analysis extends live-bearing habits to an entirely new reptilian group, one in which it had not previously been suspected." That may not be entirely true, says Xiao-chun Wu, a palaeobiologist at the Canadian Museum of Nature who was not involved in the new research. In 2010, Dr. Wu and colleagues reported evidence of viviparity in a choristoderan reptile. But there has been some debate around whether the choristoderans are lepidosauromorphs or archosauromorphs, he explains. And Wu asserts that these reptiles actually belong among the archosaurs. Still, Wu says, this finding is significant because it increases the diversity of reproductive patterns among this group of reptiles. And, Dr. Sidor says, even if choristoderan reptiles are viviparous archosaurs, Dinocephalosaurus is still the oldest example of live birth in an archosauromorph, as the choristoderans lived tens of millions of years later. This pregnant Dinocephalosaurus could help corroborate a dominant idea about what makes a reptile stop laying eggs and start birthing live young: that viviparity is an adaptation necessary for reptiles to move to a fully aquatic lifestyle. "Because eggs of reptiles (and birds) cannot be laid in water, aquatic reptiles have two choices: they either must come to land to lay their eggs (like sea turtles) or they must be viviparous (like ichthyosaurs and certain sea snakes)," Blackburn explains. "Dinocephalosaurus is highly specialized for aquatic life and probably could not come onto the land to lay its eggs." "It's nice to see that we've got a pattern developing," Sidor says. According to that pattern, it fits that Dinocephalosaurus gave birth to live young. "It's nice to see that the fossil record is giving us glimpses of what we expected," he says. And, Sidor adds, "it's nice to see a fossil like this come along that reminds us that evolution has developed this feature many times, and it's not something that is particularly special to [placental and marsupial] mammals." Benton expects this discovery of live birth in archosauromorphs to open up many broad questions about why some groups have evolved to lay eggs and others give birth to live young. This might even lead to questions like why don't humans lay eggs, he says with a laugh.
News Article | February 13, 2017
The cockeyed squid Histioteuthis heteropsis, also known as the 'strawberry' squid for its pink color and smattering of seed-like photophores, has evolved a mismatched set of eyes: one large eye for seeing the shadows of fellow sea creatures above, and a second small eye for spotting bioluminescent flashes below. —The deep sea has its fair share of quirky creatures equipped with odd features, and the “cockeyed” squid, sporting two different sized eyes, likely doesn't stand out too much among other bottom ocean dwellers. But scientists have never before been able to pinpoint a reason for its two vastly different eyes. But now, researchers from Duke University may have finally nailed down an answer, according to a study published Monday in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. The cockeyed squid, officially known as Histioteuthis heteropsis, has long puzzled researchers. While the species is born with eyes of the same size, its left eye grows rapidly, becoming tube-shaped and sometimes twice the size of its right eye. "You can't look at one and not wonder what's going on with them," Duke University biologist and study co-author Kate Thomas said in a press release. Researchers watched more than 150 videos of the squids swimming in the Monterey Submarine Canyon in Monterey Bay, Calif., which were recorded over the past three decades, observing as they swam in an unconventional upside-down position. While doing so, the squids’ larger, left eyes continuously looked up, while their smaller right eyes were fixed downward. Observation and light simulations revealed that the large eye seems to search for shadows of different fish swimming overhead, while the small eye scans the ocean floor for signs of light emitted by other marine organisms. While the left eye's field of vision picks up shadows from sun shining into the water, that's not an option for the downward-facing eye, scientists concluded. Instead, they detect bioluminescence, the kind of chemically-produced light that comes from living organisms such as fireflies or deep sea fish. That requires a different kind of eye structure than is needed for ambient light. Bigger isn't better when it comes to spotting glowing fish, the researchers found, but larger eyes are better at detecting sunlight. So while the cockeyed squid’s design might look odd at first glance, it actually allows the squids to navigate their complex environment. "The eye looking down really only can look for bioluminescence," Sönke Johnsen, the study's senior author and a professor of biology at Duke University, said in a statement. "There is no way it is able to pick out shapes against the ambient light. And once it is looking for bioluminescence, it doesn't really need to be particularly big, so it can actually shrivel up a little bit over generations. But the eye looking up actually does benefit from getting a bit bigger." Overall, squid species are faring well among their deep sea neighbors. A 2016 study revealed that squid numbers have continuously boomed for six decades, while climate change and warming waters have spelled trouble for some other species. While that marks good news for cephalopods for now, some wonder what long-term implications for aquatic life the trend could have – particularly for the creatures they eat. "We're seeing a new world here, one we haven't seen before. Any time you push an ecosystem into a different state, there's greater uncertainty in how it will behave, and how it will respond to future changes. Frankly, I think that should make people really worried," Ben Halpern, a biology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara's Bren School of Environmental Science and Management and the director of the school's Center for Marine Assessment and Planning, told The Christian Science Monitor last year. "More squid and octopus to eat may seem like a good thing, and in the short run maybe it is. But I'm more worried about the long run," he said.
News Article | February 20, 2017
Members of the scientific community, environmental advocates, and supporters demonstrate on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017, in Boston, to call attention to what they say are the increasing threats to science and scientific research under the administration of President Trump. —As temperatures climbed above the 50 degrees F., on Sunday, many Bostonians enjoyed the February weekend outdoors on the city’s bike trails and waterfronts. But for those who gathered in Copley Square downtown, the unseasonable warmth was just the latest evidence of their cause for concern. “Climate change is not a controversy,” read one sign at yesterday’s “Rally to Stand Up for Science,” which drew hundreds to the historic downtown plaza. Other slogans were more lighthearted, arguing that “Trump’s team are like atoms – They make up everything.” Whether the signs provoked laughs or stoked outrage among onlookers, the rally’s attendees shared a sense of concern for the future of scientific research in the United States – particularly climate science – under President Trump. Sunday's protest added to the growing movement of scientists across the country who are voicing activist views on the Trump administration's emerging policies. "We're really trying to send a message today to Mr. Trump that America runs on science, science is the backbone of our prosperity and progress," said Geoffrey Supran, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, who studies renewable energy, to the Associated Press. This sentiment has spread after Trump, who once dismissed climate change as a “hoax,” won the presidential election in November. In the months that followed, Trump and his transition team have requested the names of Energy Department climate scientists, nominated fossil-fuel advocate Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency, and reduced that agency’s representation at a recent Alaska environmental conference. Federal agencies generally endure some shake-up during presidential transitions, as The Christian Science Monitor has reported on previously. But the speed and breadth at which Trump is settling his new policies into place have spurred many scientists to leave the neutrality of lab benches to voice their alarm through activism. This trend first gained momentum at December’s American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco, where earth scientists staged a climate rally. With hundreds of scientists convening in Boston last week for the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference, activists saw another ripe opportunity for a public rally. A “March for Science” is being planned for Earth Day (April 22) in Washington, D.C. In addition to holding rallies, scientists and their supporters are also taking more practical steps to preserve their research and funding. Last week, the Monitor reported that an all-day “hackathon” at the University of California, Berkeley, “managed to collect and archive the majority of NASA and Department of Energy earth science data,” keeping it safe from possible deletion. Meanwhile, 314 Action, a newly formed political action committee, aims to support scientists running for office. In the Feb. 13 focus story for the Monitor magazine, "For scientists, this time feels different" Henry Gass and Zack Colman report that: The same held true for the attendees at the Boston rally. “It would be great to live in a world where evidence speaks for itself,” Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told The Boston Globe. “But we’re mobilizing because that’s not happening.”
News Article | February 28, 2017
A new body outline of the bird-like, feathered dinosaur Anchiornis, using laser-stimulated fluorescence data. Colored areas represent different fossil specimens and black areas are approximated reconstructions. —The combination of dinosaurs and lasers may sound like the next blockbuster science fiction movie. But for paleontologists, the two together might mean finding hard evidence of what the prehistoric beasts actually looked like. Dinosaur fossils are mostly bone because that's what preserves best over millions of years, but the dinosaurs themselves were also flesh, blood, skin, and feathers when they lived. Now, scientists are pointing laser beams at fossils to flesh out our view of the long-extinct animals. "This is a new way to actually see the dinosaur, besides the bone. If you want to see one, we can show you one," says Thomas Kaye, who pioneered this technique for analyzing fossils. The powerful lasers actually make the fossils glow, allowing scientists to snap pictures of the specimens that contain more detail than can be spotted with the naked eye or other existing techniques, and reveal the fleshy body outline of the animal. In a new study, Mr. Kaye and a team of paleontologists have turned their lasers on the fossils of a four-winged, feathered dinosaur that sits in a key evolutionary position among the early relatives of birds. "Anchiornis is especially suited for this study because its contribution to understanding avian and flight origins has not been fully realized," the scientists write in a paper published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications. The new laser-created snapshots of Anchiornis revealed that the animal once had drumstick-shaped legs, a slender tail, and birdlike arms. The lasers also revealed that remarkably birdlike footpads were also well-preserved in some of the 160-million-year-old specimens. These key similarities suggest that paleontologists aren't wrong to draw comparisons between modern birds and the fossil specimens, Kaye explains in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. One big question about Anchiornis is whether it could fly or glide – or neither. Although that question is still far from settled, the lasers did reveal an intriguing clue. In modern birds, a flap of flesh in the elbow of their wings, called the propatagium, is thought to be necessary for flight. The lasers lit up flesh in just that spot in the Anchiornis fossils. This "drives home just how bird-like some of these feathered dinosaurs were," Stephen Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh who was not involved in the research, writes in an email to the Monitor. "But at the same time, the wings were slightly different – the feathers were arranged more chaotically instead of in an ordered fashion," Dr. Brusatte adds. "So it seems like Anchiornis had a somewhat more primitive wing than modern birds. Maybe that type of wing was an intermediate stage in the evolution of the modern bird wing, or maybe it was a totally separate experiment in dinosaur flight," he says Although the propatagium wasn't visible without the lasers, the new technology just confirmed what paleontologists expected to see. "They're not changing our view or our understanding of avian evolution or the evolution of flight," says Peter Makovicky, associate curator of dinosaurs at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, who was not involved in the research. But the new research does contribute something vital, he says in a phone interview with the Monitor. "Those things went from being inferences to being observations now, which is very important." Like hard evidence to convict a suspect in a crime, Kaye adds, paleontologists need physical proof, and the lasers are revealing it. How exactly do lasers shine a new light on these old bones? The technique, called laser-stimulated fluorescence (LSF) imaging, harnesses the intensity of lasers to get fossils to fluoresce. Photons, or light particles, interact with different atoms and molecules differently. When a photon hits a molecule, it is re-emitted in a different color depending on the make-up of that molecule. It's kind of like bouncing a ball against the ground, Kaye explains. Different rocks, dirt, flooring, cement, or other materials will make the ball bounce back at different speeds. In a fossil, different types of preserved tissue will cause the laser's light to re-emit at different wavelengths, making it glow in spectacular colors. So the scientists point a laser at a fossil in a dark room, use a specially-outfitted camera to snap a picture, then look to see where the fossil is glowing in different colors. "It doesn't tell you exactly what it is," Kaye says, "but it tells you that it's different," identifying a spot in the fossil where paleontologists can take a closer look using other techniques. "It's a technical leap forward," Dr. Makovicky says. Paleontologists have bathed fossils in normal ultraviolet light to try to find intriguing fluorescence for more than a century, he says, "but these guys have taken it to the next level by applying a laser and gotten even more signal out of the data than we could before." Brusatte agrees that LSF takes this kind of analysis of fossils to the next level. "It's like if there was a new type of Mars Rover with an ultra-powerful camera that can take the best images of Mars that we've ever seen," he says. "That's the equivalent here with dinosaurs." Kaye has been working with lasers for years, but says the technology to use them on fossils has only recently emerged. Lasers were initially in red light, which wasn't powerful enough to make the specimens glow. Then they became green light, then blue, and now violet, he says, so now they're ready to be added to paleontologists' toolboxes. Currently, Kaye and colleagues are working their way through specimens that have already been collected and are exceptionally preserved. "It's pretty cool," he says. "We actually walk through a museum at night with the lasers. Very sci-fi." The researchers shine their lasers at fossils through glass cases and see what lights up. If anything looks intriguing, they'll ask curators to take a closer look. The next step, Kaye says, is to set up the lasers for fieldwork. "We're going to fly one on a drone pretty soon," he says.
News Article | February 27, 2017
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket disappears into clouds after it lifted off on a supply mission to the International Space Station from historic launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. on Feb 9. —Two private citizens have booked a trip around the moon scheduled for 2018, according to a SpaceX announcement Monday afternoon. Yes, you read that right. The commercial spaceflight company that has yet to fly any crewed missions into space plans to send two non-astronauts beyond Earth's orbit next year. Is that really possible? "My guess is that 2020 is more realistic," Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, says in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. There's still a lot that has to be done before the space tourists can depart on their adventure. First, the equipment needs to be tested. According to SpaceX's announcement, the two space travelers will ride in the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft, or version 2 of its current Dragon capsule that carries supplies to the International Space Station. But the Crew Dragon isn't scheduled for an initial uncrewed test flight until later this year, with the goal of launching its first crewed test flight by mid-2018. And the rocket that Crew Dragon is supposed to fly atop, Falcon Heavy, hasn't been tested yet either. It's due for a test launch this summer. It's not impossible to shoot the SpaceX craft around the moon and back on that timeline, Dr. McDowell says, but one small delay could throw it all off. And there are always delays, he says. SpaceX has been criticized before for failing to leave room for such delays in its "punishing schedule," as Scott Pace, a former NASA official and director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, put it in an interview with The New York Times in September 2016. This criticism came after one of SpaceX's semi-reusable rockets exploded during a routine test. Dr. Pace expressed concern that people working for the company might be run ragged by the demands, leading to human errors. That's a significant concern when talking about sending millions of dollars of equipment up to the International Space Station, but the stakes become much higher with humans, especially non-astronaut humans, on board. The lunar mission isn't the only major SpaceX mission set for 2018. The company aims to send an uncrewed spacecraft to Mars the same year as part of its long-term goal of colonizing the Red Planet. Having a circumlunar piloted flight by 2020 would be "an impressive achievement," McDowell says. That's not to say it won't happen, he says. "SpaceX has a great record of doing exactly what they say they're going to do but always several years later than they said they were going to do it. So I have full confidence that this will happen, but on 'Elon time'," McDowell says, referring to SpaceX's chief executive officer and founder Elon Musk. The passengers' trip would take about a week and they would travel about 300,000 to 400,000 miles, The Verge reported. The spacecraft would zoom by the surface of the moon, fly out farther into deep space, and then loop back to Earth. This would be the first time ever that space tourists fly beyond Earth's orbit, McDowell says. American businessman Dennis Tito, was the first private citizen to buy a ticket to the great unknown. On April 28, 2001, he flew aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station. SpaceX isn't the only spaceflight organization considering a flight to the moon. NASA, too, has been considering a next generation rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), to send a capsule on a trip around the moon. Although the path would be similar, NASA's capsule would not contain people and the goal would be for it to fly in 2019. If SpaceX can meet the goal of sending a crewed capsule around the moon in 2018, beating NASA, McDowell points out, this could change the dialogue at the space agency from whether to build their own vessels or just to pay SpaceX for a ride.
News Article | February 20, 2017
Michelin. The name has become synonymous with fine dining (and tires). And if a recent mix-up is any indication, it still exerts tremendous pull for gourmands near and far. Last week, Bouche à Oreille, a café in Bourges, central France, found itself suddenly in possession of a Michelin star. The eatery, which serves hearty dishes of beef bourguignon and lasagna to its clientele of locals, was taken aback by the arrival of swarms of new visitors. “Suddenly, we were rushed off our feet,” café owner Véronique Jacquet told The Telegraph. “Reporters were coming in … I had regulars and friends phoning up and asking why I hadn’t told them we’d won a Michelin star.” But the star, it turned out, had actually been intended for a different Bouche à Oreille – an upscale Paris restaurant that offers dishes like calf’s head and lobster flan. Thanks to their identical names, and eerily similar street addresses, the Michelin website had listed the Bourges café on its website by mistake. (The error did not appear in the print Michelin guide or on the mobile app.) In the two days it took to correct the mistake, diners from near and far had flocked to Bourges. Though the two proprietors took the mixup in stride, reportedly sharing their amusement in a phone call, the Michelin ratings are no laughing matter for many chefs and foodies. That’s particularly true in France, where brothers André and Edouard Michelin founded the guide in 1900. Originally intended for motorists, it became a gourmand’s Bible, making Michelin stars a holy grail of sorts for aspiring top chefs. As the case of Bouche à Oreille demonstrated, a star can make a tremendous difference to an establishment’s popularity. “When you get your first star, your second star, your third star, your life changes, your customer base changes,” Michael Ellis, the international director of Michelin guides, told Vanity Fair in 2015. Michelin ratings focus on food, but also take a restaurant’s atmosphere into account. With that in mind, some French chefs concerned about maintaining their ratings have begun to crack down on the phenomenon of photographing restaurant food. Heavy social media use, they told The Christian Science Monitor, negatively impacts the ambiance and interferes with the traditional French dining experience, which UNESCO in 2010 named one of the intangibles of world cultural heritage. Recommended: 14 great books for foodies, recommended by the James Beard Foundation The photos themselves may also sway critics – and not for the better, chefs worry. “The photos are not professional, have terrible lighting, and make the food look bad,” François Pasteau, chef at Epi Dupin, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris, told the Monitor. “They go onto the Internet and stay there forever. This can contribute to a poor critique of the restaurant.” Though gourmet remains the name of the game in France, American influence is growing. On the streets of Paris, chefs prepare everything from burgers to artisanal tacos. Tastes are changing in restaurants, too, Monitor correspondent Sara Miller Llana observed in 2014: The evolution has raised the question: Can Michelin keep up? To critics, Michelin’s army of full-time anonymous testers place too much emphasis on consistency and traditional French presentation, which they complain can lead to staid predictability. “It’s basically robotic cuisine; they cannot afford to change, because that was the winning formula,” chef Daniel Boulud told Vanity Fair. His restaurant, Daniel, lost one of its 3 stars in 2014 for a perceived lack of consistency. “Emotionally, I’m going to want to cook something else than what I’ve done.” Bourges’ Bouche à Oreille may never win a star in its own right. But heart – which Penelope Salmon, the café’s cook, identified as the key to her dishes – may play a growing role in Michelin’s formula. In 2016, the Michelin guide awarded a star to two Singaporean street food stalls, where a meal costs around $2. “In terms of the quality of the ingredients, in terms of the flavors, in terms of the cooking techniques, in terms of just the general emotions, that they are able to put in their dishes ... that is something that I think is really unique to Singapore,” Mr. Ellis said, according to PRI. Become a part of the Monitor community
News Article | January 17, 2017
For the first time, a huge, bow-shaped wave was seen in the Venusian atmosphere’s highest regions, another source of wonder for astronomers and fresh insights into what lies below. The planet is enveloped in a thick cloud layer, stretching some 40 miles above the surface. The atmosphere shields Venus from view and makes it difficult to understand it. However, an image captured by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency caught the mysterious structure when the Akatsuki spacecraft arrived there in December 2015. Through infrared and ultraviolet imaging, the team found a prominent curved wave in the upper atmosphere, where winds blow in excess of 200 miles per hour, and any feature in the vicinity should easily get carried along. The wave, however, remained firmly planted and lasted for at least four days. The wave is described to cover over 6,000 miles, stretching almost from pole to pole and accompanied by a bit warmer air in the upper atmosphere of Venus some 40 miles above the surface. It is fairly common to find such a huge feature, but it is practically unheard of for it to not move. The atmosphere on the planet is in super-rotation, which means it outpaces the planet itself. Compare this to Earth, where winds move only up to 20 percent the speed of the planet. This led researchers, discussing their findings in the journal Nature Geoscience, to deem the massive structure a result of “gravity waves,” which are a phenomenon in a planetary atmosphere caused by winds that collide with features on the surface. Note, however, that these are not the elusive gravitational waves or distortions in space-time that are likely produced by the most extreme events, such as the collision of black holes or two huge celestial bodies. In Venus, the mountainous characteristics on the surface are potentially forcing winds into the upper atmosphere, a place where they slow down to form a persistent wave. The bulge is in fact located above the continent-sized highland region called Aphrodite Terra. The bow wave disappeared a month later when researchers revisited the mission, but scientists have previously observed gravity waves in the same upper atmosphere, where the Venus Express of ESA discovered similar cloud shapes over the Ishtar Terra in 2014. This wave, however, is far more humungous than those ones. “But because Venus Express had a different orbit where it got lots of images of the poles but not of the low latitudes, it never saw a feature like this,” said atmospheric scientist Colin Wilson, who worked on Venus Express data, in a Christian Science Monitor interview. “It never got these beautiful images which this Japanese spacecraft has now revealed.” For Makoto Taguchi, a coauthor of the recent Japanese paper, these Y-shaped structures sometimes resembling a bow are always spotted and imaged, but all move with the background westward wind. "This is the first evidence of gravity wave propagation from the lower atmosphere to the middle atmosphere,” Taguchi said, explaining that lower atmospheric conditions may impact the higher atmosphere’s dynamics “by momentum transfer” of such waves. Given these findings, scientists can potentially prove the lower and middle Venusian atmosphere through a look at the cloud tops — a piece of the puzzle that is Venus and its thick atmosphere. The Japanese orbiter was expected to enter the planet’s orbit back in December 2010, but glitches involving one of its thrusters led it to orbit the sun for five years before finally entering the planet’s orbit. The spacecraft has started beaming data to JAXA. © 2017 Tech Times, All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.
News Article | March 1, 2017
A new technique harnessing high-powered lasers is probing dinosaur fossils and helping unmask the prehistoric creature’s transition from being a small feathered dinosaur into an actual flying bird. Scientists used the method on fossils of the dinosaur Anchiornis, a four-winged, feathered dino that was located in China around 160 million years earlier. The laser beams fleshed out a novel view of the long-extinct animals, revealing their drumstick-shaped legs, bird-like arms, and a long and slender tail. This Jurassic creature is not exactly classified as a bird, but it maintained a number of skeletal and soft tissue qualities found in bird and lived around the time birds diverged from their closely resembling dinosaur predecessors. The Archaeopteryx, lived around 150 million years ago, has been long deemed the earliest-living bird. The technique, known as laser-stimulated fluorescence (LSF), directed high-powered laser at the fossils in a dark place to bring out a glow in concealed soft tissues such as skin. It successfully created the first detailed body figure of the dinosaur — a “real landmark in our understanding of avian origins,” said co-lead author and University of Hong Kong paleontologist Michael Pittman in a Reuters report. Dinosaur fossils are largely made up of bones, which are the ones best preserved over millions of years. But the fossil analysis method offered a new possibility. “This is a new way to actually see the dinosaur, besides the bone,” reported the technique’s pioneer, Thomas Kaye. Light particles or photons interact with atoms and molecules in different ways. Once they hit a molecule, they are emitted back in a different color based on the molecule’s makeup. In the case of fossils, various fossilized tissue types will cause laser light to re-emit at different wavelengths, producing a glow in varying colors. Kaye said the glow does not dictate what the exact part is, but clearly notes that it is different — paleontologists can then investigate more closely using other methods. Apart from the animal’s leg and arm characteristics, the laser-initiated probe also showed astoundingly bird-like footpads as well as a shallow site of soft tissue fronting the elbow, known as the propatagium. The latter is important in bird flight, thus it is a piece of the puzzle of whether the Anchiornis could fly, glide, or neither. “So it seems like Anchiornis had a somewhat more primitive wing than modern birds,” Kaye told Christian Science Monitor. “Maybe that type of wing was an intermediate stage in the evolution of the modern bird wing, or maybe it was a totally separate experiment in dinosaur flight.” For the authors, the creature probably maintained some aerodynamic ability. Some scientists thought it could glide, while other disagreed due to its flight feathers not being well-suited for flight. While the new findings may not necessarily change scientists’ current view of avian evolution, Kaye believes that they provided new observations from actual physical evidence. The next step for them, he shared, is to fly the lasers on a drone for new discoveries. The findings were discussed Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications. © 2017 Tech Times, All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.