News & Current Affairs

July 21, 2009

Asia set for total solar eclipse

Asia set for total solar eclipse

Total solar eclipse photographed in Egypt, 2006 (Darren Baskill)

Stargazers will travel long distances to see the eclipse

Millions of people in Asia will see the longest total solar eclipse this century on Wednesday as swaths of India and China are plunged into darkness.

Scores of amateur stargazers and scientists will travel long distances for the eclipse, which will last for about five minutes.

The eclipse will first appear in the Gulf of Khambhat just north of Mumbai.

It will move east across India, Nepal, Burma, Bangladesh, Bhutan and China before hitting the Pacific.

The eclipse will cross some southern Japanese islands and will last be visible from land at Nikumaroro Island in the South Pacific nation of Kiribati.

Elsewhere, a partial eclipse will be visible across much of Asia.

The previous total eclipse, in August 2008, lasted two minutes and 27 seconds. This one will last six minutes and 39 seconds at its maximum point.

Alphonse Sterling, a Nasa astrophysicist who will be following the eclipse from China, scientists are hoping data from the eclipse will help explain solar flares and other structures of the sun and why they erupt.

“We’ll have to wait a few hundred years for another opportunity to observe a solar eclipse that lasts this long, so it’s a very special opportunity,” Shao Zhenyi, an astronomer at the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory in China told the Associated Press news agency.

Solar scientist Lucie Green, from University College London, is aboard an American cruise ship heading for that point near the Japanese island of Iwo Jima, where the axis of the Moon’s shadow will pass closest to Earth.

“The [Sun’s] corona has a temperature of 2 million degrees but we don’t know why it is so hot,” she said.

“What we are going to look for are waves in the corona. … The waves might be producing the energy that heats the corona. That would mean we understand another piece of the science of the Sun.”

The next total solar eclipse will occur on 11 July next year. It will be visible in a narrow corridor over the southern hemisphere, from the southern Pacific Ocean to Argentina.

TOTAL SOLAR ECLIPSE
Infographic (BBC)
In the area covered by the umbra (the darkest part of the shadow), a total eclipse is seen
In the region covered by the penumbra (where only some of the light source is obscured) a partial eclipse is seen

solar

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July 20, 2009

Alarming Africa male gay HIV rate

Alarming Africa male gay HIV rate

HIV

The reports said more education was needed to combat HIV among gay men

HIV rates among gay men in some African countries are 10 times higher than among the general male population, says research in medical journal the Lancet.

The report said prejudice towards gay people was leading to isolation and harassment, which in turn led to risky sexual practices among gay communities.

But the risks are not limited to gay men, as many of the infected also have female sexual partners.

The report called for greater education and resources in the fight against HIV.

The Oxford University researchers found that the prevalence of HIV/Aids among gay men in sub-Saharan African has been “driven by cultural, religious and political unwillingness to accept [gay men] as equal members of society”.

Lead researcher Adrian Smith told the EXPRESS there was “profound stigma and social hostility at every level of society concerning either same-sex behaviours amongst men, or homosexuality”.

“This has the consequence that this group becomes extremely hard to reach,” he said.

Mr Smith said that gay male sex had always been acknowledged as being particularly dangerous in terms of contracting HIV/Aids.

But gay men were also more likely to be involved in other high-risk behaviours, including sex work, having multiple partners and being in contact with intravenous drug use, he said.

Education crucial

George Kanuma, a gay rights activist in Burundi, told the EXPRESS many men “hide their sexual orientation” to get married and have children, but continue to have sex with men.

“Most of them know that you can contract HIV/Aids or any infection when you are making sex with women, but not when you are having sex with another man,” he said.

Mr Smith said there was “a desperate need for delivering a basic package of prevention for HIV”, including ensuring supplies of condoms.

“There is also a need to sensitise, educate and train those involved in HIV, the interface with men who have sex with men, to educate those involved in care and prevention activities,” he said.

The United Nations Aids agency estimates that 33 million people in the world have HIV, of whom two-thirds live in sub-Saharan Africa.

Space station toilet breaks down

Space station toilet breaks down

Toilet (Nasa)

The $100bn ISS has been blighted by toilet trouble

The main toilet has broken down on the International Space Station (ISS), currently home to a record 13 astronauts, Nasa said.

Mission Control told the crew to hang an “out of service” sign until the toilet can be fixed.

The crew of the shuttle Endeavour is confined to using the craft’s loo. ISS residents are using a back-up toilet in the Russian part of the station.

If repairs fail, Apollo-era urine collection bags are on hand, Nasa said.

“We don’t yet know the extent of the problem,” flight director Brian Smith told reporters, adding that the toilet troubles were “not going to be an issue” for now.

Bad plumbing?

The main toilet, a multi-million-dollar Russian-built unit, was flown up and installed on the US side of the space station last year.

ISS, July 17 (Nasa)

It had broken down once before, requiring a rush delivery of a replacement pump by the shuttle Discovery in 2008.

And another toilet-related row broke out earlier this year, when a Russian cosmonaut complained that he was no longer allowed to use the US toilet because of billing and cost issues.

Despite the latest housekeeping setback, astronauts managed to transfer spare parts from the shuttle Endeavour to the ISS on Sunday, the second day of a planned 11-day mission.

Nasa was also investigating why Endeavour’s tank shed an unusually large amount of insulating foam during its launch.

July 19, 2009

New images of Moon landing sites

Filed under: Latest — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 5:25 pm

New images of Moon landing sites

Apollo 14 (Nasa)

Apollo 14: Science instruments (circled left) and the lunar module descent stage (circled right) are connected by a footprint trail

A US spacecraft has captured images of Apollo landing sites on the Moon, revealing hardware and a trail of footprints left on the lunar surface.

The release of the images coincides with the 40th anniversary of the first manned mission to land on the Moon.

The descent stages from the lunar modules which carried astronauts to and from the Moon can clearly be seen.

The image of the Apollo 14 landing site shows scientific instruments and an astronaut footpath in the lunar dust.

It is the first time hardware left on the Moon by the Apollo missions has been seen from lunar orbit.

The pictures were taken by Nasa’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft, which launched on 18 June.

Buzz Aldrin in front of lunar module

The Apollo 11 mission touched down on the Moon on 20 July 1969

The spacecraft is carrying three cameras on board: one low-resolution wide-angle camera and two high-resolution narrow-angle cameras mounted side-by-side.

These are known collectively as the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) instrument.

“The LROC team anxiously awaited each image,” said the instrument’s principal investigator Mark Robinson of Arizona State University.

“We were very interested in getting our first peek at the lunar module descent stages just for the thrill – and to see how well the cameras had come into focus. Indeed, the images are fantastic and so is the focus.”

Astronaut trail

The camera instrument was able to capture five of the six Apollo sites, with the remaining Apollo 12 site expected to be photographed in the coming weeks.

Future LROC images from these sites will have two to three times greater resolution.

Long shadows from a low sun angle make the locations of the lunar modules’ descent stages particularly evident.

Apollo 11 (Nasa)

A long shadow is cast by the Apollo 11 descent stage

The image of the Apollo 14 landing site had a particularly desirable lighting condition that revealed additional details.

The Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package, a set of scientific instruments placed by the astronauts at the landing site, is discernable, as are the faint trails between the module and instrument package left by the astronauts’ footprints.

The LRO satellite reached lunar orbit on 23 June and captured the Apollo sites between 11 and 15 July.

Though it had been expected that LRO would be able to resolve the remnants of the Apollo missions, these first images were taken before the spacecraft had reached its final mapping orbit.

“Not only do these images reveal the great accomplishments of Apollo, they also show us that lunar exploration continues,” said LRO project scientist Richard Vondrak of Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, US.

“They demonstrate how LRO will be used to identify the best destinations for the next journeys to the Moon.”

Although the pictures provide a reminder of past lunar exploration, LRO’s primary focus is on paving the way for the future.

Data returned by the mission will help Nasa identify safe landing sites for future explorers, locate potential resources, describe the Moon’s radiation environment and demonstrate new technologies.

July 17, 2009

Tiny lizard falls like a feather

Filed under: Latest — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 6:07 pm
Tiny lizard falls like a feather

The lacertid lizard Holaspis guentheri

Not one to free fall

A tiny species of lizard is so light that it falls to the ground like a feather, scientists have discovered.

Outwardly, little of the animal’s body seems adapted to flying, gliding or moving through the air in any way.

But a slow-motion camera has revealed that when the lizard jumps from a height, it can slow the rate of its descent and land gently on the ground.

The lizard’s surprising aerial ability might help explain how some animals became true gliders.

Details of the little lizard’s talents are published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Controlled descent

Active flight, powered by the flapping of wings, has evolved in three living lineages of animals: birds, bats and insects.

But at least 30 different types of animal have evolved the ability to control their aerial descent, by parachuting or gliding to ground.

For example, gliding frogs use huge webbed feet, flying squirrels use long flaps of skin between their legs, and flying fish use their fins to glide.

Other animals have less obvious morphological adaptations.

Gliding snakes flatten and undulate their bodies, which helps to slow their fall while some species of ant are so tiny they can jump out of trees and freefall gently to lower on the trunk without hurting themselves.

So Bieke Vanhooydonck of the University of Antwerp became extremely interested when she read some old scientific papers reporting anecdotal evidence that a relatively ordinary species of lizard might also be able to glide from tree to tree.

Holaspis guentheri belongs to a group of lizards known as lacertids, which live in the Old World.

The lacertid lizard Holaspis guentheri

A slender, flat build helps

Though colourful, they do not stand out in terms of their behaviour, morphology or ecology.

“Also, compared to other gliding lizard species, it does not have any conspicuous morphological adaptations to an aerial lifestyle, ie no cutaneous flaps, webbed feet etc,” says Vanhooydonck.

“It made me very curious about whether these animals were really able to ‘glide’ and if so, how they were accomplishing it.”

Leaping platform

So Vanhooydonck and colleagues in Belgium and France filmed individual lizards leaping from a platform two metres above ground.

They compared the performance of H.guentheri with a rock-dwelling lizard (Podarcis muralis) that never takes to the air, and a highly specialised leaping gecko (Ptychozoon kuhli) that has a range of skin flaps that it uses to parachute to the ground.

For each, they examined the duration of each species’ descent, the horizontal distance it covered and at what speed.

Both the rock-dwelling lizard and H.guentheri landed 50 centimetres from the base of the platform, while the gecko landed up to 1m away. But H.guentheri fell for longer, and more slowly than its rock-dwelling competitor.

“Much to our surprise, H. guentheri is able to slow down its descent and has low impact forces upon landing,” says Vanhooydonck.

In fact, the lizard weighs just 1.5g, which is one third of the rock-dwelling lizard’s weight and one-tenth of the gecko’s.

Once weight was factored in, the researchers found that H.guentheri landed 20cm further away that it should have done had it fallen like a stone.

Leaping gecko (Ptychozoon kuhli)

The leaping gecko P. kuhli is a true glider

“Also its wing loading, the ratio of mass to surface area, is extremely low and in the same range as that of the gekko.”

However, the two species achieve this aerial ability in different ways. As a result of its webbed feet and body flaps, the gecko achieves a low wing loading by having a large surface area.

H. guentheri has a low wing loading too, but by being so light.

X-ray scans of the lizard’s body revealed its bones are packed full of air spaces.

Although the lizard’s light weight and ability to fall gently are linked, it is still unclear whether its air-filled bones are an adaptation for parachuting, or whether they evolved for another reason.

It is also unclear whether H.guentheri glides from tree to tree to escape predators or move about more efficiently.

“Because of [the lizards’] secretive lifestyle, it is very hard to observe them in the wild, but it seems plausible they use it as an escape response,” says Vanhooydonck.

And that could be just how other gliding animals took the first evolutionary steps towards an aerial lifestyle, she says.

July 16, 2009

New element named ‘copernicium’

Filed under: Latest — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 5:19 pm

New element named ‘copernicium’

Periodic Table (Science Photo Library)

The Periodic Table will be one element longer

Discovered 13 years ago, and officially added to the periodic table just weeks ago, element 112 finally has a name.

It will be called “copernicium”, with the symbol Cp, in honour of the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus.

Copernicus deduced that the planets revolved around the Sun, and finally refuted the belief that the Earth was the centre of the Universe.

The team of scientists who discovered the element chose the name to honour the man who “changed our world view”.

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) will officially endorse the new element’s name in six month’s time in order to give the scientific community “time to discuss the suggestion”.

Scientists from the Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Germany, led by Professor Sigurd Hofmann, discovered copernicium in fusion experiments in 1996.

“After IUPAC officially recognised our discovery, we agreed on proposing the name (because) we would like to honour an outstanding scientist,” said Professor Hofmann.

Copernicus was born 1473 in Torun, Poland. His finding that the planets circle the sun underpins much of modern science. It was pivotal for the discovery of gravity, and led to the conclusion that the stars are incredibly far away and that the Universe is inconceivably large.

Under IUPAC rules, the team were not allowed to name the element after a living person. But when asked if, rules aside, he would have liked to have “hofmanium” added to the periodic table, Professor Hofmann told News: “No, I think copernicium sounds much better.”

July 4, 2009

Self-help ‘makes you feel worse’

Filed under: Health and Fitness, Latest — Tags: , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 1:31 pm

Self-help ‘makes you feel worse’

Psychologist and patient

Self-help mantras are a common therapeutic technique

Bridget Jones is not alone in turning to self-help mantras to boost her spirits, but a study warns they may have the opposite effect.

Canadian researchers found those with low self-esteem actually felt worse after repeating positive statements about themselves.

They said phrases such as “I am a lovable person” only helped people with high self-esteem.

The study appears in the journal Psychological Science.

A UK psychologist said people based their feelings about themselves on real evidence from their lives.

The suggestion people should “help themselves” to feel better was first mooted by Victorian Samuel Smiles 150 years ago.

Repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, such as individuals with high self-esteem, but backfire for the very people who need them the most
Joanne Wood
University of Waterloo

His book, called simply “Self Help”, sold a quarter of a million copies and included guidance such as: “Heaven helps those who help themselves”.

Self-help is now a multi-billion pound global industry.

‘Contradictory thoughts’

The researchers, from the University of Waterloo and the University of New Brunswick, asked people with high and low self-esteem to say “I am a lovable person.”

They then measured the participants’ moods and their feelings about themselves.

In the low self-esteem group, those who repeated the mantra felt worse afterwards compared with others who did not.

However people with high self-esteem felt better after repeating the positive self-statement – but only slightly.

The psychologists then asked the study participants to list negative and positive thoughts about themselves.

They found that, paradoxically, those with low self-esteem were in a better mood when they were allowed to have negative thoughts than when they were asked to focus exclusively on affirmative thoughts.

Writing in the journal, the researchers suggest that, like overly positive praise, unreasonably positive self-statements, such as “I accept myself completely,” can provoke contradictory thoughts in individuals with low self-esteem.

Such negative thoughts can overwhelm the positive thoughts.

If people are instructed to focus exclusively on positive thoughts, negative thoughts might be especially discouraging.

Real life

The researchers, led by psychologist Joanne Wood, said: “Repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, such as individuals with high self-esteem, but backfire for the very people who need them the most.”

However, they say positive thinking can help when it is part of a broader programme of therapy.

Simon Delsthorpe, a psychologist with Bradford District Care Trust and spokesman for the British Psychological Society, said self-esteem was based on a range of real life factors, and that counselling to build confidence – rather than telling yourself things are better than they are – was the solution.

“These are things like, do you have close family relationships, a wide network of friends, employment and appearance.

“If you’re not close to your parents, don’t have many friends, are unemployed and are unhappy with your appearance, it might be hard to have high self-esteem.

“But if your experience is the reverse of that it would be much easier to say ‘I’m OK’ and believe that.”

September 10, 2008

Fusion power seeks super steels

Fusion power seeks super steels

Jet (EFDA)

The JET lab has helped pioneer fusion

Scientists say an understanding of how the Twin Towers collapsed will help them develop the materials needed to build fusion reactors.

New research shows how steel will fail at high temperatures because of the magnetic properties of the metal.

The New York buildings fell when their steel backbones lost strength in the fires that followed the plane impacts.

Dr Sergei Dudarev told the British Association Science Festival that improved steels were now being sought.

The principal scientist at the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) said one of the first applications for these better performing metals would be in the wall linings of fusion reactors where temperatures would be in a similar range to those experienced in the Twin Towers’ fires.

‘Not melting’

The key advance is the understanding that, at high temperatures, tiny irregularities in a steel’s structure can disrupt its internal magnetic fields, making the rigid metal soft.

“Steels melt at about 1,150C (2,102F), but lose strength at much lower temperatures,” explained Dr Sergei Dudarev, principal scientist at the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA).

Atoms in steel (UKAEA)

Iron atoms in steel: Black balls show irregularities that disrupt magnetic fields, weakening steel

At room temperature, the magnetic fields between iron atoms remain regular, but when heated, these fields are altered allowing the atoms to slide past each other, weakening the steel.

“[The steel] becomes very soft. It is not melting but the effect is the same,” said Dr Dudarev.

He said blacksmiths had exploited this property for hundreds of years – it allows iron to become pliable at temperatures much lower than its melting point.

The peak in this pliability is at 911.5C, but begins at much lower temperatures, at around 500C (932F) – a temperature often reached during building fires.

The steel backbone of the Twin Towers was probably exposed to temperatures close to this, when insulating panels – meant to protect the buildings’ structural frame – were dislodged by the impacts of the hijacked planes.

The roaring fire mid-way up the building heated the steel struts, and once temperatures rose above 500C the structure became elastic, and collapsed under the force of the floors above.

Tuning up

The interest of Dr Dudarev and the UKAEA is to find steels that can withstand the intense heat of being inside a a fusion reactor.

UKAEA has helped pioneer fusion power – deriving energy by forcing together atomic nuclei – at Europe’s JET lab in Oxfordshire; and is now assisting the development work on the world first large-scale experimental reactor known as Iter.

The extended periods over which Iter will run means the reactor must have robust materials built into the vessel where the fusion reactions will occur.

Dr Dudarev said it should be possible to tune the properties of suitable new steels by adding a mix of other elements.

“We need to look at the magnetic properties of steel, [and] vary their chemical composition in a systematic way in order to get rid of this behaviour,” he suggests.

September 9, 2008

Hugging benefits fractious chimps

Hugging benefits fractious chimps

Chimps at Chester Zoo (Orlaith Fraser)

The consoling arm of a good friend

If you have just had a big falling out with a colleague, there is nothing better than the comforting and consoling arm of a good friend.

Chimps, it seems, feel the same way, according to a study at Chester Zoo.

The research is said to provide the first evidence that consolation in primates, such as hugging and stroking, can reduce stress levels after a fight.

The behavior could indicate some level of empathy, Dr Orlaith Fraser told the British Association Science Festival.

“We can’t actually say what’s going on in a chimpanzee’s mind; we can only deduce from their behavior what’s going on,” the Liverpool John Moores University researcher said.

“Because this behavior is actually reducing stress levels and it’s being offered by a valuable partner, it seems likely that this is an expression of empathy.”

A bit of sympathy

Dr Fraser and colleagues spent 18 months observing 22 adult chimps at Chester Zoo.

They watched closely what happened immediately after the animals had a scrap – perhaps a fight over food, a mate or simply where to sit.

In about 50% of cases, the victim in the fight would be consoled by another member of the group. The soothing was always done by a valuable – or best – friend, a chimp with whom the victim would routinely play or share food.

Chimps at Chester Zoo (S.P.Hill)

Feeling better after a kiss

The consolation usually took the form of a kiss or embrace, a grooming session or even play.

The scientists could see that this activity had the effect of reducing stress levels, indicated by the return to the animals’ normal activities of self-scratching and self-grooming.

“Sympathetic concern” has also been observed in gorillas, bonobos, dogs and even rooks – but it is the calming effect that it had on the Chester Zoo chimps which is said to be a new observation.

“If these chimpanzees are actually motivated by empathy to console victims of aggression, they must first of all be able to recognize that the victim is distressed and then they must know what to do in order to act appropriately to respond to this distress,” said Dr Fraser.

“This is something often thought to be a unique trait to humans, so understanding the link between consolation and stress reduction in chimpanzees is an important step towards understanding whether or not chimpanzees are capable of this level of empathy.”

The results of the Chester Zoo study were recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Declaring love boosts sex appeal

Declaring love boosts sex appeal

attraction

The secret to successful flirting is letting someone know how you feel

Telling someone you fancy ‘I really like you’ could make him or her find you more attractive, research suggests.

Making eye contact and smiling have a similar effect, says Aberdeen University psychologist Dr Ben Jones.

His study, involving 230 men and women, found such social cues – which signal how much others fancy you – play a crucial role in attraction.

The work will appear in Psychological Science and will be presented at the BA Festival of Science in Liverpool.

Romantic success

Dr Jones said singletons could use his findings to help prevent wasting time chatting up people who were clearly not interested.

“Combining information about others’ physical beauty with information about how attracted they appear to be to you allows you to allocate your social effort efficiently,” he said.

In other words, avoid wasting time on attractive individuals who appear unlikely to reciprocate.

Maybe one of the ways you learn your level of attractiveness is through how other people behave towards you
Dr Lynda Boothroyd, a psychologist at the University of Durham

In the study, 230 men and women were asked to look at flash cards picturing a face with different expressions – making eye contact or not and smiling or not.

The volunteers were then asked to rate how attractive the faces were.

The preference for the attractive face was much stronger when people were judging those faces that were looking at them and smiling.

Dr Lynda Boothroyd, a psychologist at the University of Durham, said: “We like it when attractive people seem to be behaving positively towards us.

“And we seem to end up with people who are on our level in terms of attractiveness.

“Maybe one of the ways you learn your level of attractiveness is through how other people behave towards you.”


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