Month: August 2010

Perseid Meteor Shower from Your Couch

This August was the annual Perseid Meteor shower (read more from DPR), and hopefully you had a chance to catch a flash, or two. However, if it was just too inconvenient for your schedule–yes, some of us do have to work in the morning!–or, if getting away from the city lights costs too much at the gas pump, then, thanks to the skills of many amateur astro-photographers (learn how to become one yourself), you may still view the shooting beauties from the comfort of your computer monitor.

Spaceweather.com presents a great photo gallery collection of images submitted from observers from all over the world [ VIEW ]. Here’s an amazing image from Jeff Berkes who was apparently on his honeymoon…

Perseid meteor over Poi Pu, Kauai from Jeff Berkes.

You may also review the Perseid 2010 report compiled by the International Meteor Organization [ VIEW ], which includes an interesting graph of reported observation rates.

And finally, photographer Henry Jun Wah Lee of Los Angeles and Evosia Photography, completed an interesting time-lapse videos of Perseid meteors with the inspiring backdrop of the galactic center of the Milky Way…

So, enjoy these great views of falling debris from previous near-passes of Comet Swift-Tuttle, and maybe consider planning a late evening or two next year far out from the city and try to catch a few memorable Perseids yourself.

How will Nanoparticles and Neurons Get Along?

Much of the predicted future of neurotechnology is grounded in the continuing success and development of nanotechnology. This field is broad, for sure, and is even a primary target of the US Federal Government (see the NNI).

A particularly critical aspect, however, considers the development of nanoparticles. A great deal of research is already underway on developing very tiny capsules that will one day float around in our bodies and drop off exact doses of drugs to a specific cell. Or, pint-sized nanobots with full on-board electronics will maneuver through our circulatory system looking for tissues to repair, cells to manipulate, and observations to report back to the host.

The prospects for this sort of technology might be exciting, and even a little scary. But, what is really important to think about right now is how will the human body actually get along with the nano-invaders? Will our immune system run in overdrive to try to stop the little buggers? Will we have to force an evolutionary leap to develop new symbiotic relationships with metallic pellets that are only just trying to be beneficial to our survival?

Three researchers from North Carolina State University are addressing this important issue that must be resolved before any real human trials of nano-particle infestations are implemented. Dr. Jim RiviereDr. Nancy Monteiro-Riviere, and Dr. Xin-Rui Xia are collaborating to figure out a way to pre-screen a nanoparticle’s characteristics in order to predict how it will behave once inside the body.

As soon as any foreign object slips into the human body, our sophisticated immune system kicks into high gear. Everything that is native to a body is essentially key-coded with a biological pass that tells any immune response that “I’m OK to be here, thank you!” If something inside isn’t coded properly, then a rapid kill response is launched through a biochemical cascade of the complement system (learn more), which attacks the surface of unrecognized cells and objects with a variety of binding proteins.

This is certainly a natural response that we would not want to occur if we were voluntarily injecting ourselves with nanobots. The brain might be able to consciously will our hands and feet to move as we see fit, but our species has not yet figured out how to mentally control our internal processes (or, can we?). Until thought-invoked immune suppression is possible, it will be more useful to clearly understand the biochemistry of the interactions between nanoparticles and our tissues, and use this characterization to correctly modify the nano-stuff to stay functional while surfing in the blood stream.

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“Predicting how nanoparticles will react in the human body” :: PhysOrg.com :: August, 15, 2010 :: [ READ ]

A Mobile Lab for the Amateur Scientist

Many of you who involve yourself in citizen science projects, or personal amateur research might dream of designing dedicated laboratory spaces in ones’ own home or garage. Sort of like the “man cave” (or, “woman cave”!) for the science geek. This luxury might not always be possible due to space requirements, zoning conflicts, or just having too many kid toys to stash in the only non-inhabited room in the house.

Steven Roberts Computing and Biking Across America

Steven K. Roberts of … somewhere in the United States … had his own related complications with personal lab space, and developed a plan to create a new lab that was mobile. Mr. Roberts, who developed some fame after biking 17,000 miles across America between 1983 to 1991 in a digitally tricked-out bicycle, had developed a life-long personal technology skill that gave him the means to design the ultimate solution for the roaming amateur scientist.

In a Make: Magazine four-part series, Mr. Roberts outlines his development of Polaris, a mobile lab space, complete with computers, Ham radio, solar battery power, a long-range Wi-Fi connection to the Internet, and a minimum, yet effective, collection of parts, tools and computing resources.

Starting with an empty utility trailer, Mr. Roberts steps through the process of designing mounting racks, ceilings, lighting, and locking drawer systems. Of course, a personal mobile lab must be tailored to the interests of the individual, so he tries to outline a range of tips and ideas on what he found useful while designing his own perfect lab.

Mobile Lab designed by Steven Roberts; Courtesy Make: Magazine

If you are sitting on the couch just pouting that you have no space to build your own personal lab space, or just don’t want to limit the re-sale value of your home, then Mr. Roberts has the outline of the solution that will make your science cave come true.

After developing your own mobile (or static) lab space, please submit your photos, tips and stories to Dynamic Patterns Research to help others follow their geeky science dreams.

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“Make it anywhere with a mobile lab” :: Make: Magazine, online, 4-part series May – August, 2010 :: [ READ ]

Nomadic Research Labs

The Open Source Virtual Brain

A screenshot view of The Whole Brain Catalog software; from the WBC Wiki

The Open Source movement has been an integral part of software development for many years now, and it is starting to explode into the science world. The latest project might even transform brain science communication and understanding to a new level as the new Whole Brain Catalog is now available for anyone to access.

The brain is complicated. The brain is designed with a biological network of connected cells so intricate that a complete visualization or map of the system has yet to be developed. Neuroscientists have been trying to determine a way to create this map for many years, and advances in brain imaging has helped inch us closer toward this realization. The Whole Brain Catalog, from researchers at UC San Diego, is the latest attempt at constructing this map, and they are taking a little inspiration from Google.

The software integrates imaging data and models from anyone who is able to contribute. There is still so much to discover about the structure and function of the brain, and amassing this sort of information from everyone in an organized and visually integrated way could really bring about a revolution in the fundamental understanding of the human brain.

Researchers generating data can provide 2D images, 3D reconstructions, cellular morphologies, and even functional simulations that will all be integrated into the system’s catalog. Users, which may be anyone from other neuroscience professionals to the interested citizen scientists, can explore through actual imagery of slices of the brain and wander around 3D models of brain regions all the way down to molecular structures.

A future goal of the WBC is to integrate their extensive data with the National Institute of Health’s Neuroscience Information Framework (NIF), which currently is a growing online database of all web-based neuroscience resources. Anyone can register today with this open-source program through Neuinfo and search the extensive collection of neuroscience information.

Although the WBC sounds wonderful and exciting, the software is very much in an early, beta-testing stage. We have been trying to install the program here at Neuron News on a Dell laptop running an Intel Celeron 2 GHz, 2 GB RAM, which is just below the minimum computing system for the software (view system requirements). So, the software has loaded up, but quickly took everything this little computer had to offer and crashed it down hard.

If you have the computing resources to try out the latest release of The Whole Brain Catalog (download now), please comment here to let us know about what interesting images and simulations you discover. And, we would also appreciate if you could share your screenshots with Neuron News.

What this sort of software and world-wide open collaboration could also foster is a Zooniverse-inspired citizen science project. The team that started the Galaxy Zoo interface is continuing to help citizen scientists look “upward” with new projects to look at the Moon, Mars, galaxies, solar storms, and more. It would be also exciting to offer the opportunity for people to look “inward,” and enable citizen scientists to help identify and discover new things out of the deluge of data coming from the neuroinformatics and neuroimaging fields. In fact, the interest in participation might exponentially increase from the Zooniverse’s current 300,000-plus world-wide volunteers, since it might be more broadly considered that trying to figure out more about ourselves is paramount to watching for a dark black hole so many light years away.

It is likely that some group has already begun the initial considerations for developing a citizen science-lead, at home discovery interface for the human brain. If not, then we would like to formally propose the idea here on Neuron News, and find out what you think about the possibility of creating an open platform allowing anyone to explore the human mind and help make scientific observations and discoveries by sifting through the increasing collection of brain images and models.

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“3-D brain model could revolutionize neurology” :: MSNBC.com :: July 30, 2010 :: [ READ ]

Citizen Scientists discover new pulsar with Einstein@Home

You must be quite familiar with what happens when you toss a pebble into a pond. You might describe the simple event as a massive rotating object splashing into a deformable fluid. Or, you might… not. However, astronomical bodies are like these pebbles sloshing around in a deformable fluid, called space-time, and this interaction, too, can produce those expected waves extending out from where the pebble drops.

So claimed Albert Einstein in 1916 when he hypothesized that the universe is filled with special waves, called gravitational waves, that are the rippling effects from stars, pulsars, and black holes… all of which are the massive pebbles in our little pond of the Universe.

These waves of space-time, however, have never yet been directly observed. So, the phenomena, although it might seem reasonable, remains only a hypothesis. This is where the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, or LIGO, comes into play.

Operated by CalTech and MIT, the LIGO device is a giant interferometer, which uses lasers bouncing off mirrors to try to detect changes in the interference patterns of superimposing waves. In this case, LIGO is looking for interference patterns in gravitational waves. For example, let’s imagine two neutron stars far far away that have been stably orbiting one another for a really long time. One day, they fall into one another and merge into a single massive body. That’s a really big pebble splashing into the space-time pond, and the result might be sinusoidal ripples pouring outward from the collision. Eventually, these ripples–which apparently don’t diminish much as they traverse through space-time–come rolling toward Earth, like a tsunami of space-time.

The waves, then, will pass through the LIGO interferometer detectors, which are zapping laser beams back-and-forth and precisely measuring the intensity and time of travel of the beams, and temporarily alter the local structure (or flow) of space-time thereby altering both the physical and temporal paths taken by the high-precision lasers. The detectors record an unexpected time of travel between laser reflections, and so something must of happened to space-time! (Learn more about how LIGO actually works.)

Now, a whole lot of data comes out of this sort of detector. We’re talking 24/7/365 measurements of precision-timed instruments that are looking for a nearly random event that could occur at any instant in time; at time which would be nearly impossible to predict and prepare for. So, you might image that analyzing a constant stream of dense data such as that from LIGO would require a great deal of computation time and resources.

And, this is where the mighty citizen scientist comes into play. Since 2005, citizen scientists have had the opportunity through Einstein@Home to help process all of this data collected from the LIGO gravitational wave detector in addition to radio signals from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. By simply installing a convenient interface program on the computer, the system quietly cranks through all of the radio data and interferometric information, and looks for signs of astronomical pebbles that might be the source of gravitational waves.

Constructed image of gamma rays from the Vela pulsar, spinning at 11 times per second. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Currently, the Einstein@Home analysis is largely focused on the radio data from Arecibo. The idea with this focus is to first detect interesting pulsar systems that can be later used for directly tuning into for dedicated gravitational wave detection. Pulsars are rather exciting massive astronomical pebbles (dense neutron stars) that have extremely large magnetic fields and actually spin at crazy fast rates. These stars are typically 1 1/2 to 2 times the mass of our sun, but about 60,000 times smaller in size. They spin at high rates thanks to the conservation of angular momentum; the large spinning star shrinks in size, so the spinning speeds up, just like the ice skater pulling in her arms to gain speed (view a demonstration).

As recently as last month, and just published in Science Express (read the abstract), the Einstein@Home team and their participating citizen scientists had their first major discovery. With the analysis from the computers of an American couple, Chris and Helen Colvin, of Ames, Iowa,  and a German, Daniel Gebhardt, of Universität Mainz, Musikinformatik, along with the important “ah-ha!” moment from a dedicated graduate student, Benjamin Knispel, a new, and interesting pulsar was discovered.

The pulsar is cleverly named PSR J2007+2722, and is special because it apparently rotates at a whopping 41 times per second, it has an unusually low magnetic field, and it spins alone. Most pulsars discovered to date exist with a companion neutron star orbiting about one another. J2007+2722 likely once had a partner, but it may have escaped or blew up in an unpleasant breakup.

Einstein@Home discovery plot. Left: significance as a function of DM and spin frequency (all E@H results for the discovery beam). Right: the pulse profile at 1.5 GHz (GBT). The bar illustrates the extent of the pulse. Courtesy AEI Hannover.

The discovery was taken from a five minute segment of Arecibo radio data recorded in 2007, but the candidate event was just realized last month after it had made its rounds through the Einstein@Home computer network. Subsequent observations were taken by other observatories, and the candidate pulsar was quickly confirmed. The results having been published in just a little over one month, this discovery is not only an example of a wonderful connection between citizen scientists and professionals, but also demonstrates incredible–and maybe a little rare–efficiency in the science discovery-to-press timeline.

The ultimate goal at this point for the Einstein@Home team is to discover a pulsar orbiting another object with a fast period, say, less than one hour. With this astronomical laboratory tagged, they would be able to closely monitor the system with many observatories at the same time collecting a dense array of information, which could then all be used to test Einstein’s general theory of relativity and his predicted gravitational waves. The second goal is to find a pulsar orbiting a black hole allowing the scientists to explore the unknown space-time directly around the black hole, and thereby having a rather direct look into the mysterious dark pit that defies so much common sense and gives us extreme wonder as to the incredible nature of our Universe.

And, all of these grand adventures probing some of the most fundamental issues of all of physics can be experienced and directly influenced by the citizen scientist. If you would like to participate in basic physics research, simply download the BOINC computing platform, and register (for free) with Einstein@Home. With a little luck, and a lot of background computing time, maybe you, too, can personally contribute the needed resources to discover the next game-changing observation in astrophysics.

NSF interview with Prof. Bruce AllenProf. Jim Cordes and the citizen scientists, Chris and Helen Colvin and Daniel Gebhardt.

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“Einstein@Home ‘citizen scientists’ discover a new pulsar in Arecibo telescope data” :: PhysOrg.com :: August 12, 2010 [ READ ]

Einstein@Home Press Release Information :: [ READ ]

Einstein@Home :: Scientific Background Information (pdf)

“Pulsar Discovery by Global Volunteer Computing” :: arXiv:1008.2172v1 [astro-ph.GA] :: published in Science Express on Aug 12, 2010:: [ READ PRE-PRINT RESEARCH ARTICLE (pdf) ]

Jellyfish Reporting by Citizen Scientists in Malta

The upside-down jellyfish is an uncommon species recently found around the Maltese Islands; from Spot the Jelly Fish

Growing up in the Midwest of the United States, and taking several trips over my lifetime to an Atlantic or Gulf of Mexico beach, I recall the vague consideration of the floating jellyfish. Maybe it’s hard to see them, but they will hurt a lot of you touch one of their venomous cells. And, there were certainly few horror stories that need not be transcribed here. Watching the Pixar classic “Finding Nemo” provides a daunting realization–albeit digitally conceived–of the beauty and the devastation of the jellyfish bloom.

Apparently, the jellyfish population in the Mediterranean Sea is of considerable concern to scientists, tourism officials, and beach combers alike. So much so, the Island of Malta has established a citizen science program to track the common and not-so-common jellyfish populations that surround their little paradise (visit). Lead by the University of Malta and the IOI-Kids of the International Ocean Institute, the “Spot the Jellyfish” program engages children, teachers, parents, and tourists to keep a keen eye out for the gelatinous monsters.

An incredible array of species have already been identified all around the islands, including the the surface-dwelling blue button (Porpita porpita), the cigar jellyfish (Olindias phosphorica), the comb jellies (ctenophores), the mauve stinger (Pelagia noctiluca), and the jelly-like invertebrate, the Portuguese_Man_o’_War.

Portuguese Man-O-War (Physalia physalis); Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

If you stare at images of these amazing creatures long enough, you might start considering that you live on another planet or are from a very different epoch of Earth’s history. They are such interesting creatures, yet they don’t seem to make much sense with their transparent, floating-with-the-current routine. Despite this thought, the species are numerous and they flourish in their blooming communities around the entire globe. So, somewhere along the time line, evolution found them to be stable, useful organisms.

An interactive map of the identified jellies around Malta–including those with and without stingers–is presented online (view) with reporting from within the previous twenty-four hours. Not only, then, can this be a vital research tool for better understanding the population dynamics of jellyfish species in the region, but it can also be used by tourists and locals wanting to take a break in the waves as to what sort of species have been recently observed.

In addition, the dynamic nature of the jellyfish blooms with respect to ocean climate, is not fully understood. Claudia E. Mills of the University of Washington has been studying these little buggers for over three decades, and is trying to determine what sort of impact regional ecological changes are having on species of jellies. With populations exploding in some areas and decreasing in others, a sort of species filtering might be underway. However, a better understanding of the connection between the local ecologies and the species must be developed first to predict the future of the jelly fish. Organized citizen science activities certainly can support this sort of research, and the Maltese program would provide a thorough template for a successful outreach to the public and their mass data collection efficiencies.

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“Jellyfish campaign reports uncommon species” :: TimesOfMalta.com :: July 30, 2010 :: [ READ ]

Spot the Jellyfish – An IOI-Kids Initiative :: [ VISIT ]

“Jellyfish blooms: are populations increasing globally in response to changing ocean conditions?” Mills, C. E., Hydrobiologia 451: 55–68 (2001) [ DOWNLOAD and READ pdf ]

:: UPDATE August 25, 2010 ::
TIME Magazine online featured a nice review report of Jellyfish citizen science activities in the Mediterranean:
“Stinging Season: Can We Learn to Love the Jellyfish?” :: TIME Magazine :: August 20, 2010 :: [ READ ]

Last updated April 5, 2020