An ear to outer space: The Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico has picked up mysterious "fast radio bursts" (FRBs) that possibly originate from the farthest reaches of space. The findings confirm space sounds previously picked up by the Parkes radio telescope in Australia.
An ear to outer space: The Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico has picked up mysterious "fast radio bursts" (FRBs) that possibly originate from the farthest reaches of space. The findings confirm space sounds previously picked up by the Parkes radio telescope in Australia.Courtesy Public domain via Wikipedia
Astronomers in Puerto Rico have now confirmed those mysterious and brief sound bursts first picked up by the Parkes radio telescope in 2012 as extragalactic, i. e. originating somewhere outside our galaxy, possibly as far as 9 billion light-years away.

The Arecibo radio telescope - located in the karst hills of Puerto Rico - has detected the same "fast radio bursts" (FRBs) coming from somewhere beyond the Milky Way. The FRBs, also known as "Lorimer bursts" are extremely short in duration occurring about every 10 seconds. The exact source of these FRBs is still up in the air - so to speak - but the new study indicates that at least they aren't coming from anywhere on Earth.

"Our result is important because it eliminates any doubt that these radio bursts are truly of cosmic origin,” said research team member, Victoria Kaspi, an astrophysics professor at McGill University in Montreal. "The radio waves show every sign of having come from far outside our galaxy – a really exciting prospect."

But what the space noises are exactly remains a mystery. Speculation includes all sorts of strange goings-on including evaporating black holes, a neutron star cannibalizing another neutron star, or magnetic pulses from magnetars, bizarre neutrons stars possessing super-powerful magnetic fields.

The study's co-author, James Cordes, a professor of astronomy at Cornell University posits that they could be "bursts much brighter than the giant pulses seen from some pulsars".

The study appeared in the July 10 issue of The Astrophsyical Journal.

Science Australia
Sky & Telescope

The U.S. Marines this week demonstrated their new robotic mule in training exercises in Hawaii. The walking robot can carry up to 400 pounds of gear up to 20 miles before needing to be refueled. The Marines are hoping the robot will be able to lighten the loads of ground forces. Pretty cool, huh?

And, of course, Dave Letterman has already come up with a Top Ten list for the robotic mule:

Stromatolites at Shark Bay: the living fossils are featured in NOVA's "Australia: First 4 Billion Years".
Stromatolites at Shark Bay: the living fossils are featured in NOVA's "Australia: First 4 Billion Years".Courtesy Paul J. Morris
NOVA's excellent 4-part documentary series "Australia: First 4 Billion Years" is scheduled to re-broadcast on July 16th, 23rd, 30th and August 6th. Check your local PBS schedule for times. But if the dates don't work for you, the entire series is (or at least was when I watched it) on YouTube. Here are the links:

Part 1: Awakening
Part 2: Life Explodes
Part 3: Monsters
Part 4: Strange Creatures

The series is beautifully put together with gorgeous high definition video shot in locations all over Australia. The host, biologist Richard Smith, explains the science in a thoughtful and comprehensible manner while introducing viewers to many of the continent's stunning topographical features, and the strange and wonderful lifeforms - both past and present - found there. It's well worth your time.


Hot tracks: Portions of the Firehole Lake Drive in Yellowstone National Park have melted from underground thermals that have released heat to the surface.
Hot tracks: Portions of the Firehole Lake Drive in Yellowstone National Park have melted from underground thermals that have released heat to the surface.Courtesy National Park Service
You don't go to Yellowstone National Park to look at the roads. The vast array of flora and fauna specimens to observe along with amazing geology make it one of our national treasures.

But the geology part is making it hard to see the bioiogical features of one section of the park. This week heat from underground thermals in the park's lower geyser basin has melted through the surface of the Firehole Lake Drive. And park staff has closed off that section of the park to foot traffic as well, noting that the stirring hot water and energy under the ground could be eroding away and the top surface just be "crust" covering vacant space below.

It's all just another reminder that we're just visitors to the natural forces at play in our wild word.


Indication of massive injury on Allosaurus foot bones: ; University of Wyoming Geological Museum, Laramie, WY.
Indication of massive injury on Allosaurus foot bones: ; University of Wyoming Geological Museum, Laramie, WY.Courtesy Mark Ryan
British paleontologist Phil Manning from Manchester University has been using 21st century technology to study prehistoric injuries on dinosaur bones.

Cathartes aura: archosaurian descendent of Allosaurus.
Cathartes aura: archosaurian descendent of Allosaurus.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Manning and his team of researchers employed a particle accelerator called a synchrotron rapid scanning X-ray fluorescence (SRS-XRF) to analyze and compare the chemical compositions of both healed and healthy bone of a 150 million-year-old Allosaurus fragilis, and those of a modern turkey vulture (Cathartes aura). Both animals are members of a group known as archosaurs that includes pterosaurs, and alligators and other crocodilians. The SRS-XRF directed intense beams of light ten billion times brighter than our sun onto areas of fossilized dinosaur bone that showed signs of injuries (pathologies) and healing that had occurred while the creature was alive. The same instrument was used previously to analyze the remains of both Archaeopteryx and Green River Formation fossils, revealing organic traces not detectible in visible light.

In the current study. thin sections made from the toe bones of Allosaurus fragilis unearthed from the Cleveland-Lloyd quarry in Utah were prepared at a Temple University facility in Pennsylvania, and then sent to the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource in California for scanning. The Allosaurus sample was also analyzed at the Diamond Light Source (DLS) in Oxford, England.

During the analysis, a suite of trace-metal enzymes - copper, zinc, and strontium- all integral to the process of healing bone were detected. Copper plays a role in the strengthening the structure of collagen, zinc aids in ossification (the creation of new bone material), while strontium inhibits the break-down of bone cells. Enzymes composed from the same three elements are used for growth and repair in our own bones.
Normally when a bone suffers some kind of trauma, such as a fracture, the body repairs it by rebuilding new bone in much the same way it did when the skeleton first formed. Manning's fossil bone sections exhibited chemical ghosts of these essential elements in elevated amounts in the injured bone section than seen in the healthy bone surrounding it.

Allosaurus: ; University of Wyoming Geological Museum, Laramie, WY.
Allosaurus: ; University of Wyoming Geological Museum, Laramie, WY.Courtesy Mark Ryan
“It seems dinosaurs evolved a splendid suite of defense mechanisms to help regulate the healing and repair of injuries," Manning said. "It is quite possible you've got a reptilian-style repair mechanism combined with elevated metabolism, like that you'd find in alligators and birds respectively. So you've got a double whammy in a good way. If you suffer massive trauma, you've got the perfect set-up to survive it."

The SRS-XRF provides scientists with a superior method in analyzing and comparing the chemical processes involved with bone-building and healing that weren't discernible in the older histological examination methods used in studying thin sections, and could lead to further knowledge of how not only dinosaur bones - but our own - grow and repair themselves.

“The chemistry of life leaves clues throughout our bodies in the course of our lives that can help us diagnose, treat and heal a multitude of modern-day ailments. It’s remarkable that the very same chemistry that initiates the healing of bone in humans also seems to have followed a similar pathway in dinosaurs,” Manning said.

The study was published in a recent issue of the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

Science News story
Mother Nature Network story
Planet Earth Online story
Phil Manning research profile

Is walking on water possible?

by Anonymous on Jun. 28th, 2014

Not really (except for maybe magicians and hockey players). But what about us regular folks? Given half a chance, just about anyone can walk on a non-Newtonian fluid as shown in this intriguing Malaysian bank commercial.


Why not dig a dinosaur this summer?
Why not dig a dinosaur this summer?Courtesy Mark Ryan
After exploring the Ultimate Dinosaurs exhibit here at the Science Museum of Minnesota, you might say to yourself, "Gee, I wish I could be on one of those swell dinosaur digs."

Of course, the movies and other media have created the impression that working on a dinosaur dig is a romantic and thrilling endeavor full of excitement and constant discovery. In reality, it most likely involves long, sweaty hours with a shovel, removing tons of overburden, walking for miles and finding nothing or lying in the dirt, under a boiling hot sun, carefully uncovering crumbling fossil bones or wrapping them in a sticky concoction of burlap strips dipped in plaster. Afterwards you get to help lift several 3/4-ton blocks of encased bones and rock onto the back of a flatbed truck. If it happens to rain during your time in the field, you'll spend hours, maybe days, stuck inside a humid tent getting to know all about Larry from Cedar Rapids' chronic hip pain, and eating hard tack. Sounds like a blast, doesn't it?

So, if you're still interested, then you'll be happy to learn that there are lots of opportunities available out there to join an actual dinosaur dig. Here's a list of several organizations that will be more than happy to let you pay them to do their manual labor for them. Most are located out West where conditions and rock exposures are most ideal for dinosaur fossils but some digs originate with a museum or fossil related organizations in the East or Midwest.

Now that I think of it, it does sound like a blast. And who knows? Maybe, if you're lucky enough, you'll stumble upon something completely unknown like a Haplocanthosaurus skull or even the next, great "largest dinosaur ever found" (there seems to be a new one each month).

io9 story

Additional Digs
(PLEASE NOTE: Neither I nor the Science Museum of Minnesota endorse the above or following field trips. The links are offered only as a service. Readers are responsible in ascertaining that each organization listed is reputable before sending any money for deposit or downpayment.)
Judith River Dinosaur Institute
Baisch’s Dinosaur Digs, LLC
ZRS Fossils Field Trip
Frommer's suggested digs
Paleo World Research Foundation
Wild West Vacations & Travel
The Hideout in Shell, Wyoming
Prehisoric Planet
And for all the homebodies out there.


A dye absorbing blue light from a laser pointer
A dye absorbing blue light from a laser pointerCourtesy OMSI
Dye-sensitized solar cell ready to be tested
Dye-sensitized solar cell ready to be testedCourtesy OMSI
Did you know that you can make small solar cells out of things like berries, tea, and doughnuts – yum! Berries and teas have dyes (organic molecules that absorb light) that give them color. Instead of using berries, there are researchers synthesizing dyes to use in solar cells. These solar cells are called dye-sensitized solar cells - DSSC for short. DSSCs convert sunlight energy into electrical energy. They work like this. Love that Scottish accent!

Most commercial solar panels are made with silicon because silicon absorbs much of the light spectrum in sunlight. Silicon solar cells absorb a wider range of the light spectrum than DSSCs currently do. The best silicon solar cells are about 20% efficient. The best DSSCs are about 11% efficient. Why use dyes instead of silicon to make solar cells? Dyes are much cheaper and less resource intensive to make. Most silicon cells are made from purified single-crystal silicon. About 40% of the crystal is lost as it is sliced into thin wafers.

I recently met scientists at Portland State University (PSU) in Portland, Oregon who are working on making dye-sensitized solar cells more efficient. Alex Rudine has been manipulating porphyrin dyes to get them to absorb more of the light spectrum. The advantage of using porphyrins is that they absorb light well and their structure is versatile and relatively easy to manipulate.

In a DSSC, as sunlight hits the dye, an electron is excited and moves to an electron acceptor. An electron flows from the electron donor to fill the hole, creating an electrical current. One of the challenges of DSSCs is that a wet solution of iodide is the typical medium for the electron donor. There are labs working on synthesizing a solid state medium. Carl Wamser’s lab at PSU in Portland, Oregon is one of those. They have synthesized a porphyrin with a nanofiber structure with a very high surface area. A high surface area means there are more places where the energy conversion can happen.

One of the things limiting more wide-spread use of solar energy is the higher set-up costs of solar panels compared to fossils fuels. If researchers can develop a commercially successful DSSC, it would be a cheaper, more sustainable source of solar energy. Unlike burning fossil fuels which releases heat-trapping gases, solar is a clean energy source that doesn’t contribute to global warming. Enough sunlight falls on the Earth in one hour that if we could collect it, we could power for one year all the machines on Earth. That’s an amazing amount of potential clean energy we could tap into.

Researchers at PSU also have a pretty cool experiment running that combines silicon photovoltaic panels with green roofs. Click here to find out more.

Sources and Links

To read this article click here:
Walter, Michael G. and Carl C. Wamser. Synthesis and characterization of electropolymerized nanostructured aminophenylporphyrin films. Journal of Physical Chemistry C 2010: 114, 7563 -7574.

To read this article click here:
Walter, Michael G., Alexander B. Rudine, and Carl C. Wamser. Porphyrins and phthalocyanines in solar photovoltaic cells. Journal of Porphyrins and Phthalocyanines 2010; 14: 759 -792.

Get the ark ready

by Anonymous on Jun. 22nd, 2014

Minnehaha Falls: Recent heavy rains have made the Minneapolis attraction even more attractive.
Minnehaha Falls: Recent heavy rains have made the Minneapolis attraction even more attractive.Courtesy Mark Ryan
The effects of the recent spells of hard rain will still be felt this week as flood conditions persist in Minnesota. The old single day record for rainfall at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport was shattered last Thursday (June 19, 2014) when 4.13 inches fell. On a personal level, we've never had water in our basement in the 20 we've lived in our Minneapolis home until after last Thursday's deluge. The seemingly constant rainfall has prompted me to make several trips to one of Minneapolis's favorite landmarks: Minnehaha Falls. Normally a tame, relative trickle during the summer season, it has been a roaring torrent of late, making it quite the spectacle to see and hear. And if just the sight of it doesn't blow your hair back, you can do like this Tennessee wild man and go over the falls in a kayak! But that's just crazy - and dangerous - so I'm not really suggesting you do it. Plus it's probably illegal. Local rivers will continue to rise for the next several days so who knows what it will look like later this week.

Star Tribune story

Evolution prevails: The teaching of creationism in science classrooms has been banned in the UK.
Evolution prevails: The teaching of creationism in science classrooms has been banned in the UK.Courtesy Mark Ryan
The government of the United Kingdom has banned the teaching of creationism as science in all academies and public schools. This is good news for the kids of Great Britain. In the newly added clauses, the UK government identifies creationism as:

"[A]ny doctrine or theory which holds that natural biological processes cannot account for the history, diversity, and complexity of life on earth and therefore rejects the scientific theory of evolution. The parties acknowledge that creationism, in this sense, is rejected by most mainstream churches and religious traditions, including the major providers of state funded schools such as the [Anglican] [Catholic] Churches, as well as the scientific community. It does not accord with the scientific consensus or the very large body of established scientific evidence; nor does it accurately and consistently employ the scientific method, and as such it should not be presented to pupils at the Academy as a scientific theory.“

Unfortunately, despite several court victories, evolution proponents here in the good, old USA continuously have to battle against a constant barrage of anti-science legislation that creationists keep trying to insert into public school science classrooms in several US states. This really needs to change.

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