SciTech Briefs

Europe observatory discovers biggest black hole blast

Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory have observed one of the largest black hole explosions ever known. The blasts, known as quasars, are very bright galactic centers powered by supermassive black holes. The newly discovered quasar is at least five times more powerful than the one previously observed to be the largest.

Some scientists believe that these quasars can help them understand the enigmas of the universe, such as the lack of large galaxies and how a galaxy’s mass is related to the mass of its central black hole.

Nahum Arav, an astronomer from Virginia Tech, stated, “I’ve been looking for something like this for a decade, so it’s thrilling to finally find one of the monster outflows that have been predicted!”

Source: Astronomy magazine

2012 rates among hottest years in past 160 years

This year ranks as one of the nine hottest years in 160 years, confirming the trend toward a warmer planet. According to the World Meteorological Organization, average temperatures between January and October were 0.45°C above the average from 1961 — 90. A rise of 1°C is enough to increase the frequency of extreme weather, according to some scientists.

The rate at which the Arctic ice melted last summer was higher than that of any previous year. In September, the ice area shrank to just over half its size from the previous year, the smallest it has been since records began. In addition, recent unusual weather events show links to global warming.
Michel Jarraud, head of the World Meteorological Organization, cited the extreme heat wave that occurred in Russia in 2010, and stated that “without climate change, this episode would have been extremely unlikely.”

Source: The New York Times

SARS-like virus in Mideast kills two Jordanian men

Experts with the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that a new SARS-like coronavirus has killed two people in Jordan. The deaths make a total of nine confirmed cases of the virus, with five fatalities, since it was initially contracted by a Saudi Arabian man. Cases have occurred so far in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan.

Scientists are looking into the possibility of the virus being communicable, although the virus is probably not nearly as deadly as SARS. “Even if the cases in Jordan were human-to-human spread — and we don’t know that — it wasn’t sustained,” said WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl. Two clusters of the diseases lead some to believe it is conagious, and medical and public health workers are being told to stay vigilant to unexplained cases of pneumonia as possible links to the new virus.

Source: NPR

Music theory helps develop synthetic materials’ strength

Experiments led by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tufts University, and Boston University revealed that knowledge from music theory can strengthen spider silk, one of the strongest known materials in the natural world.

The research team — consisting of mathematicians, music composers, and engineers — constructed detailed computer models of the underlying protein structures that make the silk so flexible and strong. After studying patterns within the structures, the team found that the structure of silk could be described in a similar manner of a musical piece: by range, pitch, dynamics, and tempo.

The researchers are now working to design biosynthesized materials by piecing the proteins together as a musical composition might be pieced together. This method of synthesizing materials could signal the building blocks for tissue engineering and could ultimately lead to replacement organs, skin, or new materials for civil engineering.

Source: Science Daily

Health problems rise in aftermath of Sandy in New York

As New York City faces the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, residents struggle with increased health problems. Although a majority of the city has power and heating restored, there are still over 12,000 residents in unheated homes. As a result, the rate at which people contract hypothermia is three times the normal rate of previous years. During the week of the storm, the carbon monoxide exposure rate was 10 times higher than expected. There were six times as many cases as usual the next week.

Lack of heating could lead to other health problems such as depression, anxiety, and the worsening of heart and lung problems. Officials worry over the approaching winter, as long periods of exposure to environments below room temperature could be fatal. Officials recommend that residents without heat should avoid using gas or ovens to protect themselves from carbon monoxide, and should wear loose-fitting, dry layers of clothing.

Source: The New York Times

Computer simulation mimics that brain

The computer simulation SPAUN — Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network — has been programmed to think in a similar manner to the human brain. What sets SPAUN apart from other simulations is its ability to inform the user of its thought process: After answering a question, it prints out how it reached that answer.
Input is given in the form of a written question, with SPAUN “seeing” the query; the information sorts through the system until SPAUN decides what to do with it. Eventually, it prints detailed instructions on how to solve the problem.

While the creators of SPAUN believe it is a breakthrough that will help scientists understand the brain, some of its obvious limitations — like not being able to learn new information — come to the attention of its critics. “It is not a brain model,” said Henry Markram of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.