Forces behind earthquakes revealed: Research


It is very difficult to comprehend as to why certain areas are considered to be more earthquake-prone than the others. A team of professionals from the Stony Brook University has developed a numerical model that correlates the occurrence of earthquakes and the strong forces causing them.

The findings showed that stresses on the Earth’s tectonic plates are the principal driving forces of earthquakes. These stresses could result in earthquakes not only at the boundary regions but even in the internal portions of the plates.

“If you take into account the effects of topography and all density variations within the plates – the earth’s crust varies in thickness depending on where you are – if you take all that into account, together with the mantle convection system, you can do a good job explaining what is going on at the surface,” commented William E. Holt, Ph.D., a professor in the Geosciences Department at Stony Brook University.

According to the investigators, a system of plates floats on the Earth’s watery mantle that serves as a convection mechanism. Considering that the continents rest on them, when these plates collide with each other or sink, the plate boundary zones are also shifted in the process. This is apparently one of the reasons why collisions between continents often lead to drastic and powerful earthquakes.

Predicting the motion of plates accurately has been a hard nut to crack for scientists working on global dynamic models. In this analysis, the scientists accessed Global Positioning System (GPS) measurements to gauge the mobility of the planet’s core inside the moving plate boundary zones. A set of global seismometers incorporated in the model may provide an image of the Earth’s density variations in the interior.

The model could also measure the direction of the Earth’s stress field, which are developed from earthquake faults. As per the revelations, large-scale mantle flow patterns seemed to primarily influence the stresses and motion of the plates.

According to the analysts, the global computer model cannot accurately indicate the timing and region where earthquakes will occur in the short term. Nevertheless, the model could provide more insights on earthquake forecasting over long time frames.

The research is published in the journal, Science.

LHC gets an energy boost, brings Higgs boson closer to reality


For those who are not aware, Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the biggest energy particle accelerator in the world that was developed by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). As an important advancement on this front, CERN has reported that the LHC will operate with an energy beam of 4TeV in 2012.

This speed is apparently 0.5TeV higher than that observed in 2010 and 2011. The announcement has been made following a plan to deliver the largest possible amount of data by LHC. The team aims to achieve this before the accelerator is shut down for further energy enhancement.

“When we started operating the LHC for physics in 2010, we chose the lowest safe beam energy consistent with the physics we wanted to do. Two good years of operational experience with beam and many additional measurements made during 2011 give us the confidence to safely move up a notch, and thereby extend the physics reach of the experiments before we go into the LHC’s first long shutdown,” cited CERN’s Director for Accelerators and Technology, Steve Myers.

According to experts, the performance of LHC over the last 2 years has unleashed many clues on the presence of the God particle. However, to transform the hints into a proper discovery, professionals need more information. The LHC is slated to be closed down at the conclusion of 2012 to undergo optimization for running at an energy beam of approximately 7TeV.

Following the shutdown, the LHC is expected to restart at a later stage in 2014. It will begin functioning for physics with the newly attained energy beam by early 2015.

DARPA LS3 robot to aid army and marine troops


Presently, armies consider physical overload to be one of the major challenges in the war-fighting scenario. Researchers at DARPA have created a semi-autonomous legged robot dubbed the Legged Squad Support System (LS3), to be used by teams of soldiers or marines.

This robot has a built-in sensor that allows it to distinguish between inanimate objects like trees or rocks and human beings too. In the following 18 months, the team believes that the system could be used to support troops of soldiers.

The researchers are currently trialing the mechanism for its ability to withstand 400lbs on a 20-mile journey in a span of 24 hours without necessitating reactivation or refueling. The vision sensors incorporated into the device have to perform the task of identifying the barriers in the path and automatically decide the course of action thereafter.

“If successful, this could provide real value to a squad while addressing the military’s concern for unburdening troops. LS3 seeks to have the responsiveness of a trained animal and the carrying capacity of a mule,” shared Army Lt. Col. Joe Hitt, DARPA program manager.

According to the investigators, LS3 can carry heavy loads from dismounted members of the squad, follow them through tough conditions and execute the commands of the fighters naturally. It could serve just as an animal functioning along with a handler.

LS3 takes advantage of mobility technology promoted by DARPA’s Big Dog technology demonstrator. It is consistent with other robotic avenues that generated the sense of perception into the eyes and ears of the robot. The 18-month platform-refinement test phase to be conducted with the Army and Marine is expected to begin in summer.

Love song sung by Jurassic cricket recreated


Not many of us are aware that male crickets croon a love song to entice female counterparts and repel those of the same gender. One such mating song possibly sung by an extinct cricket nearly 165 million years back has been unleashed by scientists at the Bristol University.

This song is probably the most primitive track documented up till now. It has been reconstructed from the microscopic wing attributes on a fossil uncovered in North East China. Audiences now have an opportunity to listen to acoustics that would have been once heard by dinosaurs and other primates roaming through Jurassic forests during night time.

The researchers stumbled upon an extremely detailed bushcricket fossil hailing from the Mid Jurassic era. The wing features were apparently well-conserved which allowed for precise exploration of its stridulating organs. The latter are those which primarily produce sounds by rubbing of specific parts together.

The team dubbed this fossil as Archaboilus musicus and probed into its song producing instruments. This musical apparatus was pitted against a set of 59 live bushcricket species. The team concluded that this breed would have generated musical songs with pure and single frequencies.

Professor Daniel Robert, expert in the biomechanics of singing and hearing in insects, commented, “Singing loud and clear advertises the presence, location and quality of the singer, a message that females choose to respond to – or not. Using a single tone, the male’s call carries further and better, and therefore is likely to serenade more females. However, it also makes the male more conspicuous to predators if they have also evolved ears to eavesdrop on these mating calls.”

The investigators could reconstruct the songs sung by Archaboilus via detailed morphology. They believed that musicus’ every wave of singing may have continued for 16 seconds at a tone fine-tuned at 6.4kHz. This seemed to give the scientists a fair idea of the song after which they recreated it.

The findings are published in the journal, PNAS.

Butterfly tactics could help in developing flying robots

Micro Air Vehicle

Every creature on the Earth possesses some unique attributes that professionals aim to see in their robots. Researchers at Johns Hopkins have stepped into designing airborne robots which can replicate the maneuvers of butterflies.

The team is aiming to develop bug-size flyers for undertaking search and rescue operations and environmental missions without putting human lives in danger. These instruments are called aerial vehicles or MAVs. By accessing high-end imaging, the scientists analyzed the wing tactics of butterflies. They came to a conclusion that alterations in moment of inertia contributes primarily to insect flight. This property is observed in ice skaters and divers as well.

“Ice skaters who want to spin faster bring their arms in close to their bodies and extend their arms out when they want to slow down. These positions change the spatial distribution of a skater’s mass and modify their moment of inertia; this in turn affects the rotation of the skater’s body. An insect may be able to do the same thing with its body and wings,” commented Tiras Lin, a Whiting School of Engineering undergraduate who has been conducting the high-speed video research.

The team found that the wings of the butterfly carry very less mass as compared to other portions of the insect’s body. Scientists believe that this investigation is crucial because it seeks to discover critical aspects of biology with respect to insect flight. Moreover, they could also resolve many complications related to bio-inspired design of MAVs.

The findings could enlighten MAV designers working on insect flight dynamics.

NASA launches Space Race Blastoff multiplayer game on Facebook

NASA Logo 01

Those not adequately abreast of the happenings in the galaxy may just want to stay updated. That’s because NASA has introduced a multiplayer Facebook game dubbed Space Race Blastoff which provides users with a quizzing scenario.

Questions such as ‘Who was the first man to set foot on the moon?’ and ‘Who introduced the first liquid-run rocket?’ may be an active part of the game. Essentially, the title tests users’ awareness with respect to NASA’s working and history. It also tries gamers for their knowledge on the technology, science and pop culture relating to NASA.

Upon questions being answered correctly, players earn virtual badges presenting NASA astronauts, space objects and spacecrafts. They are also entitled to additional badges for finishing sets and laying hands on premium badges.

“Space Race Blastoff opens NASA’s history and research to a wide new audience of people accustomed to using social media. Space experts and novices will learn new things about how exploration continues to impact our world,” commented David Weaver, NASA’s associate administrator for communications.

The agency chose Facebook to gain access to a large sphere of people and for enabling users to compete with each other. Solo games can also be played with this facility. As part of the gameplay, players have to opt for an avatar after which they can try to answer an array of 10 questions. While each correct answer awards the users 10 points, the player who answers first gets bonus points. The person winning the bonus round will be awarded a badge.

A team comprising Scott Hanger, Todd Powell and Jamie Noguchi from NASA’s Internet Services Group in the Office of Communications, is behind the development of Space Race Blastoff.

System design of successive ‘Hayabusa’ asteroid explorer begins: NEC

NEC Logo

‘Hayabusa’ is a robotic spacecraft developed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) aiming to deliver a specimen from an asteroid namely, 25143 Itokawa, to Earth for further research. Now NEC has begun a new system design of an asteroid explorer for JAXA’s ‘Hayabusa 2 Project’.

The company is responsible for the system formulation along with the subsystem designs inclusive of the Ka-band communication subsystem and intermediate-infrared camera. Both of these have to be incorporated in the asteroid explorer as per JAXA guidelines. While the former is a communication subsystem with apparently high-capacity transmission, the latter is an imaging camera for noting down the temperature and surface conditions on the asteroid.

This successive version of the aforesaid spacecraft is expected to be launched in 2014 by JAXA. According to the schedule, the new asteroid explorer will reach the asteroid ‘1999 JU3’ in the mid period of 2018 and then head back to Earth by the conclusion of 2020.

The explorer’s principal objective is to assemble and return specimens from asteroid ‘1999 JU3’ to the Earth. These samples may unravel the mysteries of the evolution and beginning of the solar system. They may also aid in analyzing the raw materials of living creatures by means of hydrated minerals and organic matter.

Starting from the launch of the ‘OHSUMI’ satellite in 1970, the company has produced and developed over 60 satellites and explorers. NEC will continue to spearhead scientific revelations via this new asteroid explorer. This is also likely to have an effect on the experience of round-trip operations undertaken by the original ‘Hayabusa,’ while returning samples from a small near-Earth asteroid, Itokawa.

New magnetic soap will help recovery from oil spills: Research

Magnetic Soap

With magnets entering almost every other sphere of technology, ever wondered how would they look as soap controller? Professionals from the Bristol University have created a soap that can apparently be regulated by magnets to be used in recovery from oil spills at sea.

This soap constitutes iron rich salts dissolved in water that are responsive to magnetic fields when kept in a solution. The team created this soap by dissolving iron in a series of insert surfactant materials made of chloride and bromide irons, just like those observed in daily mouthwash or fabric conditioners.

The iron involved in the composition is apparently responsible for the creation of metallic centers inside the soap particles. In a trial, a magnet was inserted into a test tube comprising the new soap lying under a less dense organic fluid. As the magnet was introduced, the soap apparently combated both the gravity and surface tension between water and oil, by elevating across the organic solvent and reaching the region of magnetic field.

Hand Held Magnet

Dr Isabelle Grillo, responsible for the Chemistry Laboratories at Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL), commented, “The particles of surfactant in solution are small and thus difficult to see using light but are easily revealed by SANS which we use to investigate the structure and behavior of all types of materials with typical sizes ranging from the nanometer to the tenth of micrometer.”

The scientists highlighted a technique called small angle neutron scattering (SANS) which affirmed that clumping of iron-rich surfactant is responsible for its magnetic traits. The investigators are of the opinion that this soap could have an array of applications in industrial settings with respect to pH and temperature or pressure of a system.

The research is published in Angewandte Chemie.

Ancient tulip-shaped marine creature uncovered in Canada

Tulip Fossil

Burgess Shale found in the Canadian Rockies is an ancient fossil bed that has helped professionals unearth several primitive species. Well, this study by scientists from the University of Toronto examines a new marine creature found in Burgess Shale that apparently lived in the oceans approximately 500 million years ago.

The bizarre creature in question seemed to resemble a tulip flower and was as long as 20cm. It has been named officially as Siphusauctum gregarium. Notably, this marine animal appeared to have possessed a unique filter feeding system. It had a long stem with a bulbous cup-like structure called calyx, around the upper surface that enfolds a different kind of gut and filter feeding system.

This animal would presumably have filtered out substances from water that reached its calyx via small holes. A small disc present at the end of the stem would have secured the critter to the seabed. Moreover, this being seemingly lived in big groups, as indicated by the presence of over 65 individual samples.

“Most interesting is that this feeding system appears to be unique among animals. Recent advances have linked many bizarre Burgess Shale animals as primitive members of many animal groups that are found today, but Siphusauctum defies this trend. We do not know where it fits in relation to other organisms,” commented lead author, O’Brien.

The team unraveled these fossils from a new Burgess Shale location in Canada, which is currently carrying the nickname, ‘The Tulip Beds.’ According to the researchers, this discovery has shed light on the complex form of animals which were prevalent during that time span.

The findings are published in the January 18 issue of the journal, PLoS ONE.

Search and rescue robots inspired by snakes: Research

Scalybot 2

The reptilian-science fusion seems to be the hottest agenda for scientists currently, especially with regards to robotic technologies. More recently, Georgia Tech experts designed a new robotic machine that apparently utilizes less energy and is touted to perform search and rescue jobs. This build was inspired by observing the locomotion of a snake.

After examining and recording the motion of 20 distinct snakes, the team developed Scalybot 2. The latter is a robot that supposedly mimics the rectilinear form of mobility observed in snakes. Considering that snakes use very little energy while moving across large distances, the investigators tried to design the robot in a similar way.

Hamid Marvi, a Mechanical Engineering Ph.D. candidate at Georgia Tech, commented, “By using their scales to control frictional properties, snakes are able to move large distances while exerting very little energy.”

According to the team, Scalybot 2 can automatically alter the angle of its scales as it reaches different locations and slope. The adjustment encountered in the process enables the robot to fight or create friction. This 2-link robot is regulated by a remote controlled joystick that can move backward or forward by utilizing 4 motors.

While a snake moves in rectilinear motion, it does not bend its body laterally to reach a different point. These creatures lift the ventral scales and push their bodies forward by transmitting a muscular wave from the head to the tail.

One of the scientists expressed that this research shows how snakes can also be helpful to the public. Scalybot 2 was unveiled at the Society for Integrative & Comparative Biology (SICB) annual meeting in Charleston, S.C this month.

Carbon dioxide may harm brains of fish

Seawater Fish

The harmful effects of carbon dioxide are well known by all, but are they restricted to just human beings? Answering this question, scientists from the University of Oslo have revealed that carbon dioxide emissions are apparently harming the central nervous system of fishes in seawater and this is threatening their survival.

The scientists found that higher levels of carbon dioxide in the water appeared to interfere with the GABA-A receptor, which is a principal molecule in the brain. This receptor is supposedly responsible for the sensory and behavioral capabilities of fishes.

“CO2 concentrations predicted to occur in the ocean by the end of this century will interfere with fishes’ ability to hear, smell, orient and evade predators,” cited Professor Goran Nilsson from the Department of Molecular Biosciences.

Previous studies have shown that higher proportions of carbon dioxide in the sea may expose fishes to predators, as they are not able to locate a reef and smell the peril awaiting them properly. Considering that the aforesaid receptor is universally present, the findings should be a cause for concern.

The involved team is of the opinion that fishes which breathe more of oxygen in the water are at greater risk, as a larger portion of their gills are exposed to the sea. Fishes like tuna and mackerel fall under this category. Also, fishes with dysfunctional GABA-A receptors appeared to lose their innate intuition to keep to the left or right, which could easily bring them to the notice of predators.

By far, the assumption that acidification alone leads to destruction of marine wealth may not be true. This study suggests that the mere presence of carbon dioxide could harm the nervous systems of fishes. The article titled, ‘Near-future CO2 levels alter fish behavior by interfering with neurotransmitter function’ is published in the journal, Nature Climate.

New particle can cool the planet, claims study

New Molecule

Amidst global warming concerns storming the planet, can the natural ecosystem itself be of any help? In what seems like a major breakthrough, scientists from the University of Manchester and the University of Bristol have stumbled upon a molecule in the Earth’s atmosphere that has the potential to cool the planet, thereby lessening the impact of global warming.

These invisible molecules are claimed to be strong oxidizers of pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide that are generated by combustion. The team believed that these particles have the potential to tidy up the planet naturally.

These chemical intermediates were first considered as part of a hypothesis in 1950, but they have now been discovered in this research. In the analysis, the team utilized acute, tunable light coming from the synchrotron that enabled them to distinguish the formulation and separation of a unique isomeric species.

These molecules called the Criegee biradicals, appear to work actively in the atmosphere by instigating rapid formation of sulphate and nitrate. The compounds consequently get transformed into aerosol that finally leads to formation of clouds, thereby cooling the planet in the process.

“Criegee radicals have been impossible to measure until this work carried out at the Advanced Light Source. We have been able to quantify how fast Criegee radicals react for the first time. Our results will have a significant impact on our understanding of the oxidising capacity of the atmosphere and have wide ranging implications for pollution and climate change,” cited Dr Carl Percival, Reader in Atmospheric Chemistry at The University of Manchester and one of the authors of the paper.

Notably, the formation of the aforesaid particles takes place all through day and night, as it does not rely on sunlight. Moreover, an important ingredient necessary for the development of Criegee biradicals are supposedly given out by plants. Therefore, natural ecosystems may aid in combating global warming to a certain extent.

The research is published in the journal, Science.

Glacier cores might reveal centuries old weather conditions in eastern Alps

Paolo Gabrielli We know that with passing time the planet has been witnessing a gradual change in weather conditions, which some debate, are getting warmer. Getting an insight into what conditions each region experienced centuries ago might help in deciphering the present day changes in the climate and the causes of the same. A team of scientists from the Ohio State University along with some European colleagues, have began an analysis of ice cores drilled to bedrock from a glacier in the eastern European Alps.

This research might disclose information about past environmental and climatic changes in this region for the several centuries gone by. The team believes that it may even reveal data about as much as the last 1000 years. They are also hoping to unearth bits and pieces about early human activity in the region like atmospheric byproducts of smelting metals.

“This glacier is already changing from the top down in a very irreversible way. It is changing from a ‘cold’ glacier where the ice is stable to a ‘temperate’ glacier where the ice can degrade. The entire glacier may transition to a temperate state within the next decade or so,” remarked expedition leader Paolo Gabrielli, a research scientist at Ohio State’s Byrd Polar Research Center.

Scientists working on this project have retrieved four cores from a glacier which can be found on Mount Ortles. This is a 3,905-meter or 12,812-foot high peak in the northeastern region of Italy. Three of these were 75 meters long, while one was 60 meters. This analysis might also tell more about the climate in the nearby region during the Medieval Warm Period as well as the Little Ice Age.

Other members involved in this research included scientists from the University of Venice, the Russian Academy of Sciences, the University of Innsbruck, the University of Padova, the University of Pavia and the Autonomous Province of Bolzano.

World’s smallest vertebrate title now goes to a frog

World's Tiniest Vertebrate

The last we heard, the title of the smallest vertebrate in the world was claimed by a fish. But it seems to have changed recently. Discovered by a team from the Louisiana State University, a member of a newly recognized species of frog is being called the tiniest vertebrate on planet Earth.

The team, which included LSU graduate student Eric Rittmeyer and others from the United States made this discovery during a three-month long expedition to the island of New Guinea, which is also known for being the tallest and largest tropical island in the world.

The frog is said to measure approximately 7.7 millimeters or just one-third of an inch in size. The species to which this vertebrate belongs is known as Paedophryne amanuensis. Another diminutive frog species discovered on this expedition is the Paedophryne swiftorum, which is just slightly larger than the aforementioned one.

“It was particularly difficult to locate Paedophryne amauensis due to its diminutive size and the males’ high pitched insect-like mating call,” conveyed Christopher Austin, associate professor of biological sciences at the Louisiana State University and curator of herpetology its Museum of Natural Science. “But it’s a great find. New Guinea is a hotspot of biodiversity, and everything new we discover there adds another layer to our overall understanding of how biodiversity is generated and maintained.”

The title earlier belonged to a fish from the family Paedocypris progenetica and it was discovered in Indonesia. The recorded size of this fish is 8 millimeters. Also, from among the more than 60,000 vertebrates known to man, the claim of the largest one in the world belongs to the blue whale which measures about 75 feet or 25 meters.

This work was published in the Public Library of Science One journal on January 11.

Study blames excess mercury influx for the late Permian extinction

University of Calgary Logo The late Permian extinction, which happened over 250 million years ago, is considered to be one of the most massive annihilation events on earth till date. The occurrence is blamed on certain factors like severe climate changes, extreme volcanic activities, and others. However, a recent study has put forth that excessive mercury influx in the eco-system might be one of the basic causes of the extermination.

Apparently, this is the first study which links mercury to the extinction event which wiped out almost all marine life, and a major section of land dwelling ones. It says that the natural buffering system in the ocean was congested with mercury during that period and this accounts for 95 percent of the living species lost at sea. Hamed Sanei, lead author of this study, points out that algae works towards burying mercury in sediments and reduces the harm done to the ocean. But in this case, the amount was too huge to be managed by algae.

“No one had ever looked to see if mercury was a potential culprit. This was a time of the greatest volcanic activity in Earth’s history and we know today that the largest source of mercury comes from volcanic eruptions,” said Dr. Steve Grasby, research scientist at Natural Resources Canada and an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary. “We estimate that the mercury released then could have been up to 30 times greater than today’s volcanic activity, making the event truly catastrophic.”

Another theory about this annihilation suggests that it was a result of carbon dioxide and some more toxins. This is said to have happened when volcanic eruptions burned though coal beds. The team involved in this study also points out that these emissions have to be much more than the man-made production of the chemicals we witness today, considering the damage that has been done.

The findings of this study have been published in the journal, Geology.