Blog Technology 11 August 2014
The iKnife in a demonstration as it sucks in the smoke from the cauterised tissue
MTI/AP/Sang Tan

And you thought that surgery was the biological equivalent of carpentry… Maybe, but it is getting more sophisticated.

When it comes to cancer surgery the goal is to remove the entire tumour, but no more. The difficulty is that at the edges of the tumour it is difficult to distinguish cancerous tissue from normal tissue, so after the operation the surgeon sends the tumour to the pathology lab for inspection under a microscope.

If the edges are not clean the patient often needs repeat surgery or additional radiation therapy. It is estimated additional surgery is needed in one of five cases after partial mastectomy to treat breast cancer.

Imperial College UK has developed an electrosurgical knife – known as the iKnife – that can determine whether the tissue being cut is cancerous.

The technology is a novel combination of two well established techniques. The first, developed in the 1920s and known as electrosurgery, uses a high frequency high voltage electric current to rapidly heat tissue, simultaneously cutting through it and sealing the blood vessels so that there is minimal blood loss. The second, developed in the early 1900s, is mass spectroscopy, an exquisitely sensitive means to identify proteins in samples.

The electrosurgical knife generates a smoke trail as it burns through the tissue. The iKnife rapidly sucks in the protein rich smoke and determines within three seconds whether there are protein traces unique to the cancer cells or not.

With this information, the surgeon can precisely remove just the right amount of tissue at the edges of the tumour to maximise the likelihood of eliminating the cancer without removing any more healthy tissue than is absolutely necessary. Bringing together two well-established technologies, the iKnife is another effective weapon in the war against cancer.

Blog Society 11 August 2014
Australian Academy of Science

Women in science often get little recognition for their work but the the Australian Academy of Science is hoping to change that this Thursday 14 August with a "wikibomb".

Participants will gather at the academy's HQ in Canberra and build pages for those Australian women in science who’ve made an outstanding contribution but have scant or no presence on Wikipedia.

"As well as publicly acknowledging their work, we want to inspire today’s children," the Academy says.

Registration is now closed unfortunately but you can follow the event on Twitter Follow us through Twitter on @Science_Academy #ozwomensci

Blog Technology 08 August 2014

IBM has unveiled a new kind of computer chip that mimics the way the human brain works, using a fraction of the energy of a conventional microprocessor. It's not as good at crunching numbers as a conventional chip, but much better at processing images, sound, and other sensory data, MIT Technology Review reports.

In a demonstration at IBM’s Almaden research center, MIT Technology Review saw one recognize cars, people, and bicycles in video of a road intersection. A nearby laptop that had been programed to do the same task processed the footage 100 times slower than real time, and it consumed 100,000 times as much power as the IBM chip. IBM researchers are now experimenting with connecting multiple SyNapse chips together, and they hope to build a supercomputer using thousands.

Named "SyNapse", the chip uses silicon transistors but processes information using a network of a million or so “neurons” and "synapses", which communicate with each another using electrical spikes in a similar way to real neurons. It doesn’t have separate memory and processing blocks, because its neurons and synapses combine the two functions.

The new processor requires an entirely new approach to programming, however, which the MIT Technology Review says could be a drawback to it becoming commercially viable.

IBM’s Dharmendra S. Modha, who heads up SyNapse, discusses the new approach, system architecture and programming in the video above.

Blog Mathematics 08 August 2014

Our friends over at RiAus have produced a great short video this week, which explains those mysterious traffic jams when everything stops dead but there is no accident or other visible reason for the hold-up. As with most things the answer lies with mathematics.

They also have some interesting links from their website to further information about the science of traffic jams, a discipline known as "jamology".

Blog Space 07 August 2014
Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 3 August from a distance of 285 km.
Close-up detail of comet 67P. The image was taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera and downloaded 6 August. The image shows the comet’s ‘head’ at the left of the frame, which is casting shadow onto the ‘neck’ and ‘body’ to the right.
Stunning close up detail focusing on a smooth region on the ‘base’ of the ‘body’ section of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The image was taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera and downloaded today, 6 August. The image clearly shows a range of features, including boulders, craters and steep cliffs. The image was taken from a distance of 130 km.

In a foretaste of the images to come, the European Space Agency's Rosetta, the first spacecraft to rendezvous with a comet has sent back these images – a closer view of a comet than we have ever seen before.

Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko and Rosetta are 405 million kilometres from Earth, about half way between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars, rushing towards the inner Solar System at nearly 55 000 kph.

The comet is in an elliptical 6.5-year orbit that takes it from beyond Jupiter at its furthest point, to between the orbits of Mars and Earth at its closest to the Sun. Rosetta will accompany it for over a year as they swing around the Sun and back out towards Jupiter again.

Blog Biology 07 August 2014
Index case... Cuba Gooding Jr., Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoffman in Outbreak. Was this where our recent obsession with mankind-destroying viruses began?
Warner Brothers

James Ball doesn't think so.

Since the Ebola outbreak began in February, around 300,000 people have died from malaria, while tuberculosis has likely claimed over 600,000 lives. Ebola might have our attention, but it’s not even close to being the biggest problem in Africa right now. Even Lassa fever, which shares many of the terrifying symptoms of Ebola (including bleeding from the eyelids), kills many more than Ebola – and frequently finds its way to the US.

He might have a point. As Cosmos reported in May, drug-resistant TB has become a public health emergency in South Africa with thousands of new cases being diagnosed. It's causing a dilemma for public health officials who, without any treatment options, are simply sending their patients back into the community with potentially disastrous results. Nor is that problem confined to Africa with drug-resistant reported in 92 countries.

The New Republic, meanwhile, has republished online an article from 1995 in which Malcolm Gladwell sets out to discover the "unscientific origins of our obsession with viruses" and whether our fears of an unstoppable strain that will wipe out humanity are justified.

Gladwell's article was published while the Zeitgeist obsessed with the likelihood of the emergence of a previously unknown, mystery killer disease. It was, after all, the year of the blockbuster movie Outbreak, starring Dustin Hoffman, which imagined how a deadly infectious disease could enter the United States from abroad and sweep across the country. The same year Richard Preston's book The Hot Zone, which describes how close the US came to a major epidemic of the Ebola virus in 1989, was published with a blurb written by horror writer Stephen King and spent months on The New York Times best-seller list. Gladwell was sceptical about whether we should be so worried, however.

How can we be worse off than we were at a time when the average American lived only...
Blog Space 06 August 2014
August 6th is a big day for European comet-chasing space probe Rosetta. It’s the day the craft should finally catch up with its quarry, comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, after a 10-year chase.

At 09:00 GMT, (7pm Australian Eastern Standard Time), Rosetta will fire her thrusters for 6 minutes and 26 seconds to finally enter into orbit around 67P. But watchers on the ground will then have a tense 22 and a half minute wait – the time it currently takes a message to travel from Rosetta to Earth – to find out if the manoeuvre has been successful.

And that message will arrive first in Australia. At that time, because of Earth’s orientation in relation to the space probe, it will be an Australian deep-space station, at New Norcia in WA, which is tracking the probe.

You can follow the live rendezvous here

Blog Biology 06 August 2014
Spiders produce different types of silk in different glands. Here, we show six types of silk, the name and location of the gland that produces it, and what the spider uses it for.
Pete Guest via The Guardian

New research published in PLOS Biology aims to help us understand some of the mystery behind our silk-spinning friends.

Scientists are already familiar with the precise site at which spiders form their various types of silk. However, details of spider silk production beyond that have been more elusive—until now.

In order to make spider silk, silk proteins known as spidroins must change from dissolved proteins to solid fibres, and the transformation has to happen at high speed as the spider dances from branch to branch spinning its web. These changes occur as the spidroins travel from one end of a silk gland to the other end, where we get silk in the spider’s spinning duct - but how the transformation took place was unknown.

The researchers have proposed the idea of a “lock and trigger” model for silk formation. They discovered a steep acidity gradient within the silk gland, which causes dramatic structural changes to the ends of each spidroin. These ends first “lock” neighbouring spridoins together to form networks, then triggers these networks to rapidly polymerise into long fibres.

This mechanism helps us understand how spiders form silk so rapidly and effortlessly, and it could one day help us produce biomimetic spidroin fibres – our own “spider silk”, lightweight yet stronger than steel. The work may even help us fight diseases like Alzheimer’s, where amyloid fibrils present in the brain have structures similar to the clustered spidroin fibres.

Blog Archaeology 05 August 2014
H. floresiensis is shown in three different views to illustrate facial asymmetry. From the left: Rhe first photo is the actual specimen, the middle photo is the right side doubled at the midline and mirrored, and the last photo is the left side doubled and mirrored. Differences in left and right side facial architectures are apparent, and illustrate growth abnormalities of the skeleton.
A, E. Indriati, B&C, D.W. Fraye

The latest research on controversial hominid species Homo floresiensis points to a new hypothesis on its origins. The research says that the fragmented skeletal remains of the species – also known as “the hobbit” – are not a separate species of early human, just a modern human with Down's syndrome.

Since its discovery in 2004 on the Indonesian island of Flores, H. floresiensis has been at the centre of a bitter dispute among scientists regarding its unique characteristics. These characteristics comprise of an unusually small skull, shortened thigh bones and an assortment of other small clues. Some scientists believed that the skeleton suffered from a congenital disorder based on the relatively recent evolutionary timeframe in which it lived – about 18,000 years ago. Other scientists believed the evidence suggested island dwarfing.

But a team of researchers has spent nearly a decade working on the skeletal remains and have offered up a new story. What they have found out is that the original data on the skull volume and stature were underestimated. Once the skull had been cleaned out, the skull’s volume increased significantly, and the shortened thigh bones do not necessarily point to island dwarfing since this can be indicative of Down's syndrome as well.

In addition, there were left-right facial disparities, known as craniofacial asymmetry, which are characteristic of developmental disorders. And in the DNA extracted from the skeleton, only sequences of modern human type has been found.

Published in two papers by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the new evidence forms a strong case for the diagnosis of Down syndrome.

Blog Society 05 August 2014

If you’d like to find out, all you have to do is ask them.

A recent series of experiments has found out how easy it is to identify narcissistic people by simply asking someone this exact question:

To what extent do you agree with this statement: “I am a narcissist.”

Depending on how the participants rated themselves on a scale of 1 (not very true of me) to 7 (very true of me), the researchers found that the participants’ answers correlated with their scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI).

The study was published in PLOS ONE, and when asked why narcissistic people so openly embrace their narcissism, the researchers pointed out that narcissistic people don’t consider narcissism to be a bad thing. In fact, they are practically proud of it.

However, the researchers aren’t suggesting that we can throw away all other types of narcissistic tests now. The Single Item Narcissism Scale, or SINS, is meant to be another tool researchers can use if they need to identify narcissists quickly and efficiently. NPI and other tests offer more detail regarding an individual’s personality and the type of narcissism they may have.

You can take the test yourself...