This week's headlines:
|| Building a better mosquito repellent
|| Fake brain helps investigate age's intelligence decline
|| A new way to convert carbon dioxide into fuel
|| NASA hopes to put a garden on the moon
|| European satellites launched to eye Earth's magnetic field
|| New algorithm finds you, even in untagged photos
|| Find the ungoogleable with crowdsourced search engine
|Building a better mosquito repellent
December 05, 2013 |
IBTimes / Cell
|California scientists think they've found a new weapon in the war on
mosquitoes: hitting them where they sniff us out. Their discovery might
lead to rum raisin-scented bug sprays that mask you from mosquitoes, and
mint-scented traps that lure them far away from you.
Mosquitoes employ a two-staged targeting system in their quest to suck
our blood. First, they follow the trail of carbon dioxide in our exhaled
breaths back to us; then, when they get closer, they zero in on our
exposed, tempting flesh by sniffing out the odours of our skin.
Scientists have long wondered how exactly the mosquito is attracted to
skin scents alone. Researchers from the University of California say
they've found an important piece of the puzzle. It turns out that an
olfactory neuron in one of the mosquito's scent-detecting mouthparts
called cpA, already known to be a detector of carbon dioxide, is also
extremely sensitive to the compounds found in human skin odours.
The finding could lead to traps that mimic the scent of human skin,
which could be a much cheaper alternative to the lures currently in use.
The team think their work is the first step to introducing widespread
use of mosquito trapping in developing countries throughout the world.
The team has already identified several candidate chemicals that can
block or activate the mosquito's skin-sensing ability. Aethyl pyruvate,
a rum raisin-flavoured compound, inhibits cpA activity, while
minty-scented cyclopentanone turns out to be a powerful mosquito lure.
Both are already approved for use with people by US authorities.
|Fake brain helps investigate age's intelligence decline
December 03, 2013 |
New Scientist / Intelligence
|Dying cells may play only a small role in the brain decline that
accompanies ageing. That is the suggestion from the first computer
simulation of brain function that can solve intelligence tests almost as
well as university undergraduates. The model promises to reveal how our
brains and behaviour are affected by age, and might even offer a way of
testing drugs that compensate for cognitive decline.
Our ability to think through novel problems gradually declines with age.
However, the reasons for this decline aren't clear, because many
features of the brain change as we age. But researchers from the
University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, used a computer to simulate
the behaviour of about 35,000 individual brain cells wired together in a
biologically realistic way.
Just like a real brain, their model encoded information as a pattern of
electrical activity in particular sets of cells. The researchers set up
the system to solve a widely used intelligence test, which involves
predicting what abstract symbol comes next in a sequence. In repeated
trials the model got the correct answer on an average of 18.4 of the 36
problems on the advanced version of the test. The average university
undergraduate gets about 22 correct. Even when the model got one wrong,
it made the same kinds of reasoning errors that humans do.
The researchers then mimicked the effect of brain cell death during
ageing by randomly deleting up to 20% of the brain cells. This made
little difference and their cells only missed one or two more questions.
This suggests that other changes must be important in causing the
decline in thinking power. Eventually, researchers may be able to use
the model to test other potential causes of cognitive decline - and test
whether drugs that affect brain function might help compensate for it.
|A new way to convert carbon dioxide into fuel
December 04, 2013 |
TG Daily / Nature Communications
|Making carbon dioxide (CO2) by burning hydrocarbons is easy. A pair of
novel catalysts recently made by researchers at the University of
Illinois at Chicago could make it far more practical to do the reverse,
converting CO2 and water into fuel.
Because running this reaction normally requires large amounts of energy,
it has been economical only in rare cases. But if the process could be
done commercially, liquid fuels could be made from the exhaust gases of
fossil-fuel power plants.
The new work improves on a pair of catalysts discovered last year that
more efficiently turn CO2 into carbon monoxide (CO), which can then be
made into gasoline and other products. Those catalysts produce CO
slowly, however, and one is made of silver, so it is expensive. But the
researchers have demonstrated that it is possible to replace the silver
with relatively inexpensive carbon fibres while maintaining more or less
the same efficiency. The technique produces CO around 10 times faster.
The work is still in early stages and it will be necessary to produce
larger amounts of the catalysts and find a way to incorporate them into
a membrane that helps keep them stable over long periods of time -
development work that will require industrial partners.
|NASA hopes to put a garden on the moon
December 03, 2013 |
|Neil Armstrong may have made a giant leap forward for mankind when he
landed on the moon more than 40 years ago, but scientists at NASA's Ames
Research Center in California are looking out for plantkind. The Lunar
Plant Growth Habitat project is hoping to put some basil, flowers and
turnips on the moon in late 2015.
NASA is planning to hitch a ride to the moon with one of the private
spacecraft companies currently competing for Google's Lunar X Prize. The
competition is awarding more than USD 40m in prize money to any company
that can successfully land on the moon.
The lunar garden won't resemble your backyard flowerbed or the planters
hanging on your windowsill. When the garden lands on the moon, it will
automatically trigger a small reservoir to squirt water on nutrient-rich
filter paper. The dissolved nutrients will trickle down to the seeds,
prompting the seeds to start growing. NASA will photograph the seeds'
progress to see what happens to the plants as they grow with less
gravity and increased radiation.
In addition to the goal of an ever-so-slightly greener moon, NASA is
also looking to make this an educational opportunity. The agency also
has plans to send replica habitats to schools across the country so that
the experiment can be repeated in the classroom.
|European satellites launched to eye Earth's magnetic field
November 22, 2013 |
|The European Space Agency on Friday launched three satellites it hopes
will help understand why the magnetic field that makes human life
possible on Earth appears to be weakening.
The satellites, comprising ESA's Swarm project, were launched from
Russia's Plesetsk Cosmodrome and were placed in near-polar orbit at an
altitude of 490 kilometres about 91 minutes later.
Data that Swarm is due to collect for the next four years will help
improve scientists' relatively blurry understanding of the magnetic
field that shields life on Earth from deadly solar radiation and helps
some animals migrate.
Scientists say the magnetosphere is weakening and could all but
disappear in as little as 500 years as a precursor to flipping upside
down. It has happened before - the geological record suggests the
magnetic field has reversed every 250,000 years, meaning that, with the
last event 800,000 years ago, another would seem to be overdue.
While the effects are hard to predict, the consequences may be enormous.
Satellites, essential among others for communications, could be more
exposed to solar wind, and the oil industry uses readings from the
magnetic field to guide drills.
|New algorithm finds you, even in untagged photos
December 03, 2013 |
|A new algorithm designed at the University of Toronto has the power to
profoundly change the way we find photos among the billions on social
media sites such as Facebook and Flickr. The search tool uses tag
locations to quantify relationships between individuals, even those not
tagged in any given photo.
Imagine you and your mother are pictured together, building a sandcastle
at the beach. You're both tagged in the photo quite close together. In
the next photo, you and your father are eating watermelon. You're both
tagged. Because of your close 'tagging' relationship with both your
mother in the first picture and your father in the second, the algorithm
can determine that a relationship exists between those two and quantify
how strong it may be.
In a third photo, you fly a kite with both parents, but only your mother
is tagged. Given the strength of your 'tagging' relationship with your
parents, when you search for photos of your father the algorithm can
return the untagged photo because of the very high likelihood he's
The nimble algorithm, called relational social image search, achieves
high reliability without using computationally intensive object- or
facial-recognition software. Currently the algorithm's interface is
primarily for research, but the team aim to see it incorporated on the
back-end of large image databases or social networks.
|Find the ungoogleable with crowdsourced search engine
December 04, 2013 |
|Google is fine for straightforward searches but it can't put a name to a
face or suggest a non-smoking, dog-friendly holiday apartment close to a
pub with an open fire. Ask several thousand humans and you'll get your
answer in minutes. DataSift is new kind of search engine that uses
crowdsourced human intelligence to answer vague, complex or visual
questions, even when the users are not sure what they are searching for.
DataSift, developed at the University of Illinois, works by breaking
down a query into components that can be answered easily and quickly by
human workers on crowdsourcing sites such as Amazon's Mechanical Turk.
Humans are much better than machines at answering questions based on
images, complex language or that are ambiguous.
If you were looking for a new flat that was pet-friendly and within
walking distance of a train station, for example, your internet search
would take a few hours at least. By contrast DataSift will give you
results in 20 minutes, according to its developers.
But humans are unreliable. That's why DataSift runs a web search on
every human answer. Say a user asks the software to identify the
building in an image. Humans make suggestions, the software runs a web
search to checks these suggestions and then feeds the search results
back for a new set of humans to confirm. This confirmation step means
that in a crowd of thousands, the majority can be wrong and DataSift
will still filter the correct answers to the top.