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Why zero gravity is bad for our brains | 2020-01-16

NASA has made a commitment to send humans to Mars by the 2030s. This is an ambitious goal when you think that a typical round trip will last anywhere between three and six months and crews will be expected to stay on the red planet for up to two years before planetary alignment allows for the return journey home. It means that the astronauts have to live in reduced (micro) gravity for about three years – well beyond the current record of 438 continuous days in space held by the Russian cosmonaut Valery Polyakov. In the early days of space travel, scientists worked hard to figure out how to overcome the force of gravity so that a rocket could catapult free of Earths pull in order to land humans on the Moon. Today, gravity remains at the top of the science agenda, but this time we’re more interested in how reduced gravity affects the astronauts’ health – especially their brains. After all, we have evolved to exist within Earths gravity (1 g), not in the weightlessness of space (0 g) or the microgravity of Mars (0.3 g).
So exactly how does the human brain cope with microgravity? Poorly, in a nutshell – although information about this is limited. This is surprising, since we’re familiar with astronauts’ faces becoming red and bloated during weightlessness – a phenomenon affectionately known as the “Charlie Brown effect,” or “puffy head bird legs syndrome.” This is due to fluid consisting mostly of blood (cells and plasma) and cerebrospinal fluid shifting towards the head, causing them to have round, puffy faces and thinner legs. These fluid shifts are also associated with space motion sickness, headaches and nausea. They have also, more recently, been linked to blurred vision due to a build-up of pressure as blood flow increases and the brain floats upward inside the skull – a condition called visual impairment and intracranial pressure syndrome. Even though NASA considers this syndrome to be the top health risk for any mission to Mars, figuring out what causes it and – an even tougher question – how to prevent it, still remains a mystery.
So where does my research fit into this? Well, I think that certain parts of the brain end up receiving way too much blood because nitric oxide – an invisible molecule which is usually floating around in the bloodstream – builds up in the bloodstream. This makes the arteries supplying the brain with blood relax so that they open up too much. As a result of this relentless surge in blood flow, the blood-brain barrier – the brain’s “shock absorber” – may become overwhelmed. This allows water to slowly build up (a condition called oedema), causing brain swelling and an increase in pressure that can also be made worse due to limits in its drainage capacity. Think of it like a river overflowing its banks. The end result is that not enough oxygen gets to parts of the brain fast enough. This a big problem that could explain why blurred vision occurs, as well as effects on other skills including astronauts’ cognitive agility (how they think, concentrate, reason and move).
To work out whether my idea was right, we needed to test it. But rather than ask NASA for a trip to the moon, we escaped the bonds of Earth’s gravity by simulating weightlessness in a special airplane nicknamed the “vomit comet”. By climbing and then dipping through the air, this plane performs up to 30 of these “parabolas” in a single flight to simulate the feeling of weightlessness. They last only 30 seconds and I must admit, it’s very addictive and you really do get a puffy face! With all of the equipment securely fastened down, we took measurements from eight volunteers who took a single flight every day for four days. We measured blood flow in different arteries that supply the brain using a portable doppler ultrasound, which works by bouncing high-frequency sound waves off circulating red blood cells. We also measured nitric oxide levels in blood samples taken from the forearm vein, as well as other invisible molecules that included free radicals and brain-specific proteins (which reflect structural damage to the brain) that could tell us if the blood-brain barrier has been forced open. Our initial findings confirmed what we anticipated. Nitric oxide levels increased following repeated bouts of weightlessness, and this coincided with increased blood flow, particularly through arteries that supply the back of the brain. This forced the blood-brain barrier open, although there was no evidence of structural brain damage. We’re now planning on following these studies up with more detailed assessments of blood and fluid shifts in the brain using imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance to confirm our findings. We’re also going to explore the effects that countermeasures such as rubber suction trousers – which create a negative pressure in the lower half of the body with the idea that they can help “suck” blood away from the astronaut’s brain – as well as drugs to counteract the increase in nitric oxide. But these findings won’t just improve space travel – they can also provide valuable information as to why the “gravity” of exercise is good medicine for the brain and how it can protect against dementia and stroke in later life.

DATA: Robinhood users are really bad at portfolio diversification | 2019-12-04

Can Robinhood users actually call themselves Robin Hoods, or is it just another tool for the rich to rob the average Joe? In this series we’re diving deep into Robinhood’s public data to uncover insights on its users’ activity. Welcome to part two, where we’ll combine Robinhood’s data with other public sources to quantify the level of risk Robinhood users are taking, specifically in relation to how well (or poorly) diversified their portfolios seem to be.
At the start of November, we downloaded the full Robintrack database, which records how many Robinhood users hold a particular stock over time. While the public data doesn’t contain total share-buying volumes, it still provides us with a wealth of information — even more so when combined with other readily available data about these publicly listed companies.
Diversification across multiple stocks/ETFs Robinhood currently has approximately 6 million users. According to Robintrack’s data, there exist just over 12 million unique holdings, meaning that the average Robinhood user owns stocks in two different publicly listed companies or ETFs.

Disney+ accounts are being stolen and sold online | 2019-11-20

Scarcely a week after the service debuted, Disney+ accounts area already being hacked en masse. Users report their accounts being hacked within hours of creation, and now those same accounts are being sold online.The reported account theft goes about how you expect: the malicious party logs into the account and changes the email address and password, effectively nabbing the account for themselves. ZDNet conducted a dark web investigation and found hundreds of accounts for sale, some for as little as $3. Depending where you looked, you might find some given away for free. The BBC later corroborated those findings with their own. The average going price for a Disney+ account appears to be slightly less than a subscription fee.
Disney+ has not had the most stable launch — highly disappointing, considering the money and time Disney obviously invested in it. The app was plagued by technical difficulties, often refusing to work entirely on some devices. For many, the lack of customer service support compounded the issue — many users report being hung up on or left on perpetual hold. It is not as though the platforms success should come as a surprise, given that it already has over 10 million subscribers a week after launch.
A Disney spokesperson told the BBC that the fault was not on its end: “Disney takes the privacy and security of our users data very seriously and there is no indication of a security breach on Disney+.” It is possible this is all down to bad security practices on the part of the individual users. But still, the platform does not much help matters by not having something like two-factor authentication — and you can not remove devices from the account. So if someone steals your account and logs it into enough devices that you hit the limit, then you are out of luck.
So to anyone who is feeling a little paranoid about the security of their account, the best advice we can offer at the moment is to change your password into something you are not using elsewhere — just to be safe.

New-wave nuclear power | 2019-11-02

Advanced fusion and fission reactors are edging closer to reality.
New nuclear designs that have gained momentum in the past year are promising to make this power source safer and cheaper. Among them are generation IV fission reactors, an evolution of traditional designs; small modular reactors; and fusion reactors, a technology that has seemed eternally just out of reach. Developers of generation IV fission designs, such as Canada’s Terrestrial Energy and Washington-based TerraPower, have entered into R&D partnerships with utilities, aiming for grid supply (somewhat optimistically, maybe) by the 2020s.
Small modular reactors typically produce in the tens of megawatts of power (for comparison, a traditional nuclear reactor produces around 1,000 MW). Companies like Oregons NuScale say the miniaturized reactors can save money and reduce environmental and financial risks.

The UK will send its first lunar rover, to be built by start-up firm SpaceBit, to the Moon in 2021. | 2019-10-22

The rover will scuttle across the surface taking measurements and collecting exploration data that can be analysed for scientific and exploration purposes. It will also have two cameras that will allow it to take “selfies”.SpaceBit founder Pavlo Tanasyuk, said: “Our goal is to go there and see what is available there for all humanity to explore.”
He added that, unlike rovers with wheels or tracks, this robot with its four legs would provide an opportunity for “something a little bit like a human” to explore the lunar surface. Only three other countries have put a rover on the Moon: the US, Russia and China. The fourth will hopefully be the UK.
In January, China became the first country to land a probe on the far side of the Moon for use in low-frequency observation in radio astronomy. The Moon’s other side has far less interference from Earth-based radio signals. Astrobotic was awarded millions of dollars to carry up to 14 Nasa instruments to the Moon as well as 14 payloads from other partners.
SpaceBit will be one of those partners, sending the rover to the surface inside Astrobotics Peregrine lander. The rover can withstand temperatures ranging from 130°C to -130°C at night and will explore for the duration of a lunar day. Tanasyuk added: “It will spend up to 10 days on the Moon before going into the night and basically freezing forever.”

Analogue quantum computers: Still wishful thinking? | 2019-08-19

Many challenges lie ahead before quantum annealing, the analogue version of quantum computation, contributes to solve combinatorial optimization problems. Traditional computational tools are simply not powerful enough to solve some complex optimization problems, like, for example, protein folding. Quantum annealing, a potentially successful implementation of analogue quantum computing, would bring about an ultra-performant computational method.Many challenges lie ahead before quantum annealing, the analogue version of quantum computation, contributes to solve combinatorial optimisation problems.
Traditional computational tools are simply not powerful enough to solve some complex optimisation problems, like, for example, protein folding. Quantum annealing, a potentially successful implementation of analogue quantum computing, would bring about an ultra-performant computational method. A series of reviews in this topical issue of EPJ ST, guest-edited by Sei Suzuki from Saitama Medical University, Japan, and Arnab Das from the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, Kolkota, India, focuses on the state of the art and challenges in quantum annealing. This approach, if proven viable, could greatly boost the capabilities of large-scale simulations and revolutionise several research fields, from biology to economics, medicine and material science. A Canadian company called D-Wave has been commercialising what it claims are two quantum annealers of 100 qubits, since 2011, and 500 qubits, since 2013. "Unlike a bit in a traditional computer, which can take values either 0 OR 1, a quantum bit (qubit) in a quantum computer can take values which are superimpositions of 0 AND 1, like a switch in a state of being on and off simultaneously," explains Das. The trouble, Suzuki explains, is that "computation using the quantum mechanics is technically difficult and was thought to be unrealistic until recently." Before the advent of the D-Wave machines, realising and manipulating such a superimposed state in real hardware beyond the size of a few (< 10) qubits seemed to be a daunting task. Interaction with the environment rapidly decays such strange superposition states into ordinary 0 OR 1 states, according to Das. As Suzuki notes: "This is because of the insufficiency of techniques that control and protect microscopic elements against disturbances.." There have been speculations from the science community as to whether the D-Wave technology actually delivers quantum annealing. "The reviews of our latest issue show that the performances of the D-Wave machines as quantum computers, while noteworthy, have remained essentially inconclusive," explains Das, "and scientists have not been able to definitively ascertain that such a device qualifies as a true quantum object."
The above story is based on materials provided by Springer Science+Business Media. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

FIA and PTA Summoned Over Objectionable Content on Social Media | 2019-08-01

National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Information Technology and Telecommunication has asked the FIA, PTA, and other relevant authorities to give a briefing on objectionable media posted on the social networks.
The committee held a meeting with Ali Khan Jadoon in the chair. It was informed about the National Technology Fund, the criteria for awarding a contract to a company for the construction of an IT Park in Chak Shahzad, and National Incubation Centers (NICs).