SUC logo
SUC logo

Knowledge Update

Astrophysicists detect superfast winds near supermassive black hole

Toronto, March 21 (IANS) Astrophysicists from York University have revealed the fastest winds ever seen at ultraviolet wavelengths near a supermassive black hole.

“We’re talking wind speeds of 20 percent the speed of light which is more than 200 million kms per hour. That’s equivalent to a category 77 hurricane,” said Jesse Rogerson who led the research as part of his PhD thesis in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at York. 

"We have reason to believe that there are quasar winds that are even faster," he added.

Astronomers have known about the existence of quasar winds since the late 1960s. At least one in four quasars have them. 

Quasars are the discs of hot gas that form around supermassive black holes at the centre of massive galaxies - they are bigger than Earth’s orbit around the sun and hotter than the surface of the sun, generating enough light to be seen across the observable universe.

“Black holes can have a mass that is billions of times larger than the sun, mostly because they are messy eaters in a way, capturing any material that ventures too close,” added associate professor Patrick Hall.

As matter spirals toward a black hole, some of it is blown away by the heat and light of the quasar. 

"These are the winds that we are detecting," Hall stated.

The team used data from a large survey of the sky known as the "Sloan Digital Sky Survey" to identify new outflows from quasars. 

After spotting about 300 examples, they selected about 100 for further exploration, collecting data with the Gemini Observatory’s twin telescopes in Hawaii and Chile, in which Canada has a major share.

"We not only confirmed this fastest-ever ultraviolet wind, but also discovered a new wind in the same quasar moving more slowly, at only 140 million kilometres an hour," says Hall. 

"We plan to keep watching this quasar to see what happens next, the authors noted in a paper which appeared in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Intricate visual tasks may lead to loss of touch

London, March 21 (IANS) Have you ever failed to notice your phone vibrating or have been pick-pocketed while searching for a friend's face in a crowded place? It is because you were so much engrossed in the visual task that you actually lost the ability to notice that your own wallet was being picked.

According to a new study, people's ability to notice the sense of touch is reduced when they are carrying out a demanding visual task.

The study pointed out an example of cars that now come fixed with tactile alerts and signals the driver when it begins to drift across lanes. 

However, the researchers said that the drivers are less likely to notice these alerts when engaging in demanding visual tasks such as searching for directions at a busy junction. 

"Our research is particularly important given the growing use of tactile information in warning systems,” said Sandra Murphy of Royal Holloway, University of London, in a paper detailed in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance.

For the study, the team asked volunteers to perform a letter search task of either low or high difficulty, as well as respond to the presence or absence of a brief vibration delivered simultaneously to either the left or the right hand. 

Their sensitivity to the clearly noticeable tactile stimulus was reduced when they carried out the more taxing visual search task, the authors reported.

How gut keeps bacteria from escaping

London, March 21 (IANS) A team of British researchers has discovered how the immune system stops bacteria in our gut from leaking into the blood stream that may help in treatment and prevention of life threatening infections.

If the bacteria escape from the gut into the bloodstream, they can cause infections elsewhere in the body that become deadly if left untreated.

"Gut barrier injury can lead to the often deadly disease known as sepsis, which is one of the biggest killers of critically-ill patients”," said Chengcan Yao from the University Of Edinburgh. 

"Our study reveals a new approach that could be exploited as a treatment to help prevent one of the common causes of sepsis," Yao added.

The study, published in the journal Science, also helps explain why we do not suffer more infections, despite the vast number of bacteria that are found naturally in our gut.

Their escape is triggered by an immune system failure that causes a massive inflammatory response. This damages healthy tissues and can lead to multiple organ failure.

They found that a small molecule called "PGE2" plays a crucial role by activating specialised immune cells called innate lymphoid cells. These cells help to maintain the barrier between the gut and the rest of the body.

If "PGE2" is blocked or doesn't function correctly, these cells are not activated and the gut barrier breaks down allowing bacteria to escape.

The findings could lead to new approaches for preventing whole-body infections which can be life threatening if they are not caught early.

"Sepsis is often difficult to diagnose and treat, therefore, better understanding of the immune mechanisms involved will help us to devise strategies to improve patient prognosis," added study co-author Rodger Duffin.​

Even bumblebees don't like to share expertise with newcomers

London, March 21 (IANS) You may compare this with human attitude to a certain extent but when it comes to well-qualified bumblebees, they do not like sharing their pollinating knowledge with the less experienced bees and even attack newcomers in the field, researchers report.

The study focused on whether bees can copy other bees' flower visitation sequences in the field to improve their foraging and to show how animals with relatively simple brains find workable solutions to complex route-finding problem.

"Like other pollinators, bees face complex routing challenges when collecting nectar and pollen. They have to learn how to link patches of flowers together in the most efficient way to minimise their travel distance and flight costs, just like in a travelling salesman problem," explained lead author Mathieu Lihoreau from thd Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) in Britain.

The findings, published in the journal PLOS ONE, revealed that though the newcomers tried to copy the choices of seasoned foragers, the more experienced bees really didn't appreciate being copied.

"We wanted to monitor the way bumblebees behave when they bump into each other at flowers -- would they compete, attack each other, or tolerate each other?" added Lars Chittka, one of the authors.

The team set up one of the largest outdoor flight cages ever used in bee research and installed a range of artificial flowers, fitted with motion-sensitive video cameras which had controlled nectar flow rates for the bees to visit. 

The researchers then allowed two bees in at a time: One more experienced resident, and one a newcomer. 

While the newcomers did try to copy the choices of seasoned foragers, the more experienced bees really didn't appreciate their behaviour and frequently attacked the newcomers and tried to evict them from flowers.

"Our study is the first to examine the foraging routes followed by multiple bees at the same time. Responses to intense initial competition between bees for nectar could explain how pollinators gradually learn to visit different patches of flowers across the landscape," Lihoreau commented. ​

New Mars gravity map reveals chilling details

New York, March 22 (IANS) Researchers have developed a new map of Mars' gravity with three NASA spacecraft that is the most detailed to date, providing a revealing glimpse into the hidden interior of the Red Planet.

“Gravity maps allow us to see inside a planet, just as a doctor uses an X-ray to see inside a patient," said Antonio Genova from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The new gravity map will be helpful for future Mars exploration, because better knowledge of the planet's gravity anomalies helps mission controllers insert spacecraft more precisely into orbit about Mars.

“Furthermore, the improved resolution of our gravity map will help us understand the still-mysterious formation of specific regions of the planet,” Genova added.

The improved resolution of the new gravity map suggests a new explanation for how some features formed across the boundary that divides the relatively smooth northern lowlands from heavily cratered southern highlands.

Also, the team confirmed that Mars has a liquid outer core of molten rock by analysing tides in the Martian crust and mantle caused by the gravitational pull of the sun and the two moons of Mars.

Finally, by observing how Mars' gravity changed over 11 years - the period of an entire cycle of solar activity - the team inferred the massive amount of carbon dioxide that freezes out of the atmosphere onto a Martian polar ice cap when it experiences winter.

They also observed how that mass moves between the south pole and the north pole with the change of season in each hemisphere.

The map was derived using data collected by NASA's Deep Space Network from three NASA spacecraft in orbit around Mars: Mars Global Surveyor (MGS), Mars Odyssey (ODY), and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

Like all planets, Mars is lumpy, which causes the gravitational pull felt by spacecraft in orbit around it to change.

For example, the pull will be a bit stronger over a mountain, and slightly weaker over a canyon.

The gravity field was recovered using about 16 years of data that were continuously collected in orbit around Mars.

"With this new map, we've been able to see gravity anomalies as small as about 100 kms across and we've determined the crustal thickness of Mars with a resolution of around 120 kms,” said Genova in a paper published in the journal Icarus.

The better resolution of the new map helps interpret how the crust of the planet changed over Mars' history in many regions.​

How dumb! Blondes are just as smart as others

New York, March 22 (IANS) The jokes about "dumb blondes" are, well, just jokes! Researchers have found that the average IQ of blondes may actually be slightly higher than those with other hair colours.

While jokes about blondes may seem harmless to some, they can have real-world implications, said study author Jay Zagorsky from The Ohio State University in the US.

"Research shows that stereotypes often have an impact on hiring, promotions and other social experiences," Zagorsky said.

"This study provides compelling evidence that there shouldn't be any discrimination against blondes based on their intelligence," Zagorsky pointed out.

The study involved 10,878 US women. Data from the study came from the US National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 (NLSY79), a national survey of people who were between 14 and 21 years old when they were first interviewed in 1979.

In 1980, participants in the NLSY79 took the Armed Forces Qualification Test, or AFQT, which is used by the Pentagon to determine the intelligence of all recruits. 

The overall AFQT score is based on word knowledge, paragraph comprehension, math knowledge and arithmetic reasoning.

The resulting findings showed that blonde-haired White women had an average IQ of 103.2, compared to 102.7 for those with brown hair, 101.2 for those with red hair and 100.5 for those with black hair.

Blonde women were slightly more likely to be in the highest IQ category than those with other hair colors, and slightly less likely to be in the lowest IQ category, the findings showed.

The study, published in the journal Economics Bulletin, could not say whether there are any genetic relationships between hair colour and intelligence, but Zagorsky did find one fact that could at least partially explain why blondes showed slightly higher intelligence -- they grew up in homes with more reading material than did those with any other hair colour.

"If blondes have any slight advantage, it may simply be that they were more likely to grow up in homes with more intellectual stimulation," he said.

"I don't think you can say with certainty that blondes are smarter than others, but you can definitely say they are not any dumber," Zagorsky pointed out.​

New drug for prostate cancer found promising

New York, March 22 (IANS) Researchers, including one of Indian-origin, have created a new molecule for prostate cancer that has shown great efficacy when tested in mice.

The findings suggest that the new therapeutic might be a viable treatment for prostate cancer in humans too if it is found effective the future clinical trials.

The treatment was designed to inhibit the activity of a protein called PAK-1, which contributes to the development of highly invasive prostate cancer cells.

"PAK-1 is kind of like an on/off switch," said study co-author Somanath Shenoy, associate professor at University of Georgia College of Pharmacy in the US.

"When it turns on, it makes cancerous cells turn into metastatic cells that spread throughout the body," Shenoy noted.

The researchers developed a way to package and administer a small molecule called IPA-3, which limits the activity of PAK-1 proteins.

The findings were published in the journal Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology and Medicine.

The researchers enveloped the IPA-3 molecule in a bubble-like structure called a liposome and injected it intravenously. 

The liposome shell surrounding IPA-3 ensures that it is not metabolised by the body too quickly, allowing the inhibitor enough time to disrupt the PAK-1 protein.

The researchers found that this molecule significantly slowed the progression of cancer in mice, and it also forced the cancerous cells to undergo apoptosis - a kind of programmed cell death.

"The results of our experiments are promising, and we hope to move toward clinical trials soon, but we must figure out what side effects this treatment may have before we can think about using it in humans," Shenoy said.

Smaller species may go extinct without fossil trace

New York, March 22 (IANS) Many of the species now perishing due to the ongoing sixth mass-extinction event -- especially the smaller ones -- may vanish without a permanent trace, says researchers.

The fossil record is much more durable than any human record, said one of the researchers Roy Plotnick, professor of earth and environmental sciences at University of Illinois at Chicago, US.

"There are species going extinct today that have never been described," Plotnick said.

"Others are going extinct that are known only because someone wrote it down," Plotnick noted.

All such species would thus be unknown in the far future, he said, if the written historical record is lost -- as it might well be.

Animals least likely to be found as fossils are "the small, cute and fuzzy ones, like rodents and bats", Plotnick said. 

"Body size is an obvious factor -- bigger things tend to leave a fossil record, as do things with larger geographical ranges," he pointed out.

For the study, the researchers compared the "Red List" of endangered species with several ecological databases of living species and three paleontological databases of catalogued fossils. 

"Comparing the current biodiversity crisis, often called the 'sixth extinction,' with those of the geological past requires equivalent data," Plotnick pointed out.

They ran a statistical analysis to indicate which threatened species were most likely to disappear with no mark of their existence.

The researchers were shocked to find that more than 85 percent of the mammal species at high risk of extinction lack a fossil record. 

And those at highest risk have about half the probability of being incorporated into the fossil record compared to those at lower risk, the researchers said.​

What spurred the production of pottery in last Ice Age?

London, March 22 (IANS) An international team of archaeologists have revealed that culture played a major role in the significant increase of pottery production at the end of the last Ice Age.

Invented in Japan around 16,000 years ago, production of pottery increased vastly 11,500 years before, coinciding with a shift to a warmer climate. 

Increase in production of pottery was previously attributed to changing climate, resurgence in forests and increase in vegetation and animals, which led to new food sources becoming available.

As a result, ancient Japanese developed different cooking and storage techniques for the wider variety of foodstuffs available. The thinking goes that their shifting eating habits demanded new pottery.

However, the results of the study showed that the pottery was used largely for cooking marine and freshwater animal species - a routine that remained constant despite climate warming and new resources becoming available.

"Here, we are starting to acquire some idea of why pottery was invented and became such a successful technology. Interestingly, the reason seems to be little to do with subsistence and more to do with the adoption of a cultural tradition, linked to celebratory occasions and competitive feasting, especially involving the preparation of fish and shellfish,” said one of the researchers Oliver Craig, director at University of York in Britain.

This functional resilience in pottery use, in the face of climatic changes, suggested that cultural influences rather than environmental factors are more important in the widespread uptake of pottery, the researchers maintained in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The team analysed 143 ceramic vessels from Torihama, an ancient site in western Japan and performed molecular and isotopic analysis of lipids extracted from these vessels, which spanned a 9000-year period.

The findings showed that the hunter-gatherer survived mostly on different types of marine and freshwater animal species -- fish and shellfish.

Only a little evidence of plant processing in pottery, or cooking of animals such as deer was found.

"The preservation of lipids on ceramic material of this antiquity is remarkable. The analysis provides the first insights into how pottery use changed during massive climate change at the end of the last Ice Age," said first author Alexandre Lucquin, research associate at the York University.

"The findings prompt a new phase of ceramic research in East Asia, highlighting the need for widespread organic analysis of our long, rich and varied pottery records," said Shinya Shoda, a visiting research fellow from Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties who participated in the study. 

The last Ice Age peaked about 21,000 years ago and ended around 11,500 years ago.​

Social media used to exchange knowledge on rare diseases

London, March 22 (IANS) Using social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook can be beneficial for helping people to exchange knowledge with rare medical diseases and build communities, says a new study.

According to researchers, people often seek medical knowledge from social media platforms rather than traditional medical sources to find information on and discuss health issues -- particularly where patient experiences and medical advice are both equally valued.

"This project shows the potential of online communication tools for isolated patient communities and the extent to which patients' experiential knowledge is becoming a point of reference for other patients, together with - or sometimes in isolation from - traditional medical sources,” said Stefania Vicari from University of Leicester's department of media and communication in the Britain.

"These forms of organisationally enabled connective action can help to build personal narratives that strengthen patient communities, the bottom-up production of health knowledge relevant to a wider public and the development of an informational and eventually cultural context that eases patients' political action,” added Vicari in the paper published in the journal Information, Communication and Society.

The study examined online interactions in rare disease patient organisations in order to interpret how and to what extent patient organisations exploit online networking structures to provide alternative platforms for people to find information on and discuss health issues.

The findings suggests that digital media eases one-way, two-way and crowd-sourced process of health knowledge sharing -- provides personalised routes to health-related public engagement, creates new ways to access health information - particularly where patient experiences and medical advice are both equally valued.

"Not only is patients' knowledge valuable for peer support within patient communities, it has the potential to add to traditional medical knowledge, especially in cases where this is limited - such as in the case of rare diseases," Vicari stated.​