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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Kepler Finds a Very Wobbly Planet 


February 4, 2014

Imagine living on a planet with seasons so erratic you would hardly know whether to wear Bermuda shorts or a heavy overcoat. That is the situation on a weird, wobbly world found by NASA's planet-hunting Kepler space telescope.

The planet, designated Kepler-413b, precesses, or wobbles, wildly on its spin axis, much like a child's top. The tilt of the planet's spin axis can vary by as much as 30 degrees over 11 years, leading to rapid and erratic changes in seasons. In contrast, Earth's rotational precession is 23.5 degrees over 26,000 years. Researchers are amazed that this far-off planet is precessing on a human timescale.

Kepler 413-b is located 2,300 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus. It circles a close pair of orange and red dwarf stars every 66 days. The planet's orbit around the binary stars appears to wobble, too, because the plane of its orbit is tilted 2.5 degrees with respect to the plane of the star pair's orbit. As seen from Earth, the wobbling orbit moves up and down continuously. Kepler finds planets by noticing the dimming of a star or stars when a planet transits, or travels in front of them. Normally, planets transit like clockwork. Astronomers using Kepler discovered the wobbling when they found an unusual pattern of transiting for Kepler-413b.

"Looking at the Kepler data over the course of 1,500 days, we saw three transits in the first 180 days -- one transit every 66 days -- then we had 800 days with no transits at all. After that, we saw five more transits in a row," said Veselin Kostov, the principal investigator on the observation. Kostov is affiliated with the Space Telescope Science Institute and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. The next transit visible from Earth's point of view is not predicted to occur until 2020. This is because the orbit moves up and down, a result of the wobbling, in such a great degree that it sometimes does not transit the stars as viewed from Earth.

Astronomers are still trying to explain why this planet is out of alignment with its stars. There could be other planetary bodies in the system that tilted the orbit. Or, it could be that a third star nearby that is a visual companion may actually be gravitationally bound to the system and exerting an influence. "Presumably there are planets out there like this one that we're not seeing because we're in the unfavorable period," said Peter McCullough, a team member with the Space Telescope Science Institute and Johns Hopkins University. "And that's one of the things that Veselin is researching: Is there a silent majority of things that we're not seeing?"

Even with its changing seasons, Kepler-413b is too warm for life as we know it. Because it orbits so close to the stars, its temperatures are too high for liquid water to exist, making it inhabitable. It also is a super Neptune -- a giant gas planet with a mass about 65 times that of Earth -- so there is no surface on which to stand.

NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., is responsible for the Kepler mission concept, ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., developed the Kepler flight system and supports mission operations with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore archives, hosts and distributes Kepler science data. Kepler is NASA's 10th Discovery mission and was funded by the agency's Science Mission Directorate.

[OK, not a chance in hell of life here but….. WEIRD! What a strange Galaxy it is out there. No matter what SF writers come up with I bet that Nature can come up with stranger yet!]

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Antibiotic resistance: World on cusp of 'post-antibiotic era'

By James Gallagher

Health editor, BBC News website

19 November 2015

The world is on the cusp of a "post-antibiotic era", scientists have warned after finding bacteria resistant to drugs used when all other treatments have failed. They identified bacteria able to shrug off the drug of last resort - colistin - in patients and livestock in China. They said that resistance would spread around the world and raised the spectre of untreatable infections. It is likely resistance emerged after colistin was overused in farm animals. Bacteria becoming completely resistant to treatment - also known as the antibiotic apocalypse - could plunge medicine back into the dark ages. Common infections would kill once again, while surgery and cancer therapies, which are reliant on antibiotics, would be under threat. Chinese scientists identified a new mutation, dubbed the MCR-1 gene, that prevented colistin from killing bacteria.

The report in the Lancet Infectious Diseases showed resistance in a fifth of animals tested, 15% of raw meat samples and in 16 patients. The resistance was discovered in pigs, which are routinely given the drugs in China. And the resistance had spread between a range of bacterial strains and species, including E. coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. There is also evidence that it has spread to Laos and Malaysia. Prof Timothy Walsh, who collaborated on the study, from the University of Cardiff, told the BBC News website: "All the key players are now in place to make the post-antibiotic world a reality. If MCR-1 becomes global, which is a case of when not if, and the gene aligns itself with other antibiotic resistance genes, which is inevitable, then we will have very likely reached the start of the post-antibiotic era. At that point if a patient is seriously ill, say with E. coli, then there is virtually nothing you can do."

Resistance to colistin has emerged before. However, the crucial difference this time is the mutation has arisen in a way that is very easily shared between bacteria. "The transfer rate of this resistance gene is ridiculously high, that doesn't look good," said Prof Mark Wilcox, from Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust. His hospital is now dealing with multiple cases "where we're struggling to find an antibiotic" every month - an event he describes as being as "rare as hens' teeth" five years ago. He said there was no single event that would mark the start of the antibiotic apocalypse, but it was clear "we're losing the battle".

The concern is that the new resistance gene will hook up with others plaguing hospitals, leading to bacteria resistant to all treatment - what is known as pan-resistance. Prof Wilcox told the BBC News website: "Do I fear we'll get to an untreatable organism situation? Ultimately yes. Whether that happens this year, or next year, or the year after, it's very hard to say."

Early indications suggest the Chinese government is moving swiftly to address the problem. Prof Walsh is meeting both the agricultural and health ministries this weekend to discuss whether colistin should be banned for agricultural use. Prof Laura Piddock, from the campaign group Antibiotic Action, said the same antibiotics "should not be used in veterinary and human medicine". She told the BBC News website: "Hopefully the post-antibiotic era is not upon us yet. However, this is a wake-up call to the world." She argued the dawning of the post-antibiotic era "really depends on the infection, the patient and whether there are alternative treatment options available" as combinations of antibiotics may still be effective.

New drugs are in development, such as teixobactin, which might delay the apocalypse, but are not yet ready for medical use. A commentary in the Lancet concluded the "implications [of this study] are enormous" and unless something significant changes, doctors would "face increasing numbers of patients for whom we will need to say, 'Sorry, there is nothing I can do to cure your infection.'"

[Well it appears that not only are our politics moving back to the Middle Ages (complete with Crusades!) but our medicine is going that way too. It appears that the best thing to do in decades to come is not to get ill and definitely not to have any unnecessary surgery. Let’s hope (at least until we’re ready for it) that the whole Black Death thing holds off for a while longer….]

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Just Finished Reading: Hope and Glory – Britain 1900-1990 by Peter Clarke (FP: 1996)

Despite the difficulty of rendering 90 years of 20th century British history into a mere 404 pages I do enjoy the efforts made and appreciate the resultant overview that I can fill in at a later date confident in knowing a seal about the background. Books such as this provide the map, the territory, into which (God like) we can focus our attention on a particular incident (the 9 days wonder of the 1926 General Strike for example) or on a particular person (Winston Churchill, Lloyd George, Asquith, Chamberlin, Thatcher and a hundred other political giants of the age) in later follow up books now knowing that such events and such people shaped the world we live in today.

Of course, as with any work such as this much is left out. This volume is an unapologetic political history of Britain with only short confined forays into cultural history (there are very fine chapters on the growth of mass communication - the BBC etc and the rise in prominence of women in British society) and, to be honest is far more focused on England than its UK neighbours in Wales and Scotland. Ireland is mentioned somewhat more but only, by and large, as an English problem rather than an Irish history per se. But none of this came as any great surprise (or disappointment) as the author had already laid his cards clearly on the table for all to see.

What I did find odd (and a tad confusing/disconcerting) is how the author broke up the 90 years under review. He certainly didn’t arbitrarily divide things, as they are often divided, into decades but into political chunks of time often delineated by elections won or lost. So we have a chapter covering 1900-1908 and another (oddly that it covers WW1) 1916-1922. It took a little getting used to I admit although it did fit admirably into the authors narrative flow. Another thing that helped move things along was the author’s humour which seemed at times to be delightfully irreverent especially coming from a professional historian – from Cambridge! I guess that there have been enough historic events and characters (in the full sense of the word) for provide humourist grist for the historian’s mill and this author certainly found his fair share.

Overall the theme of the book was a challenge to the idea of (inevitable) decline from the 19th and early 20th centuries of glory and empire. Yes, after WW2 the British Empire basically went into a tailspin but it was a managed withdrawal handled far better than (for instance) the French withdrawal from Algeria and South East Asia. It is also unarguable that the Commonwealth was no Empire but it was never intended as a faux substitute. In one sense British power (or more accurately firepower) did decline substantially after WW1 but what we lost in one area we more than gaining in another – in the financial impact of London and our cultural impact which has long been well above what might be expected from a small island off the coast of Western Europe.

I admit that this was a dull read at times. Much like my history course in college this volume dwelt too much on who won what election by how many seats. Such things interest me hardly at all. However, apart from these rather narrow trips down our political history I found this book very interesting indeed and it has, rather inevitably, given me some ideas to follow up in future. Much more British history to come.  

[2015 Reading Challenge: A book written by an author with your same initials– COMPLETE (29/50)]