Game on: gamers beat scientists at modelling proteins

Stand back scientists: gamers have beaten highly qualified crystallographers, undergraduates and even computer algorithms at creating an accurate model on a protein, based on its biochemical data.
A team of scientists in America pitted the participants of the study against each other. In one corner, two highly trained crystallographers, in another, 61 undergraduate students using computer modelling programs, in the third, two computer algorithms, and in the last corner, 469 gamers playing a game called Foldit.
All they had to do was create a model of…

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Mapping the stars

The biggest ever map of the sky has been created. It includes the location and brightness of 1,142,000 stars, and two million of these also have their motion across the sky mapped.

Pictures from ESA’s Gaia satellite have been compiled by a team of 450 scientists and software engineers. The satellite is half way through its five year mission to collect data on billions of stars in the Milky Way, just 1% of all the stars in the galaxy. The pictures come from the first 14 months of the mission.

Soon, the team will…

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One equation to rule them all? This new equation might be able to link the two biggest theories describing the universe

ER = EPR. It doesn’t look like much. In fact, it doesn’t look like anything at all. But this is the equation that could unite the two most successful theories describing the universe.

We’ve all heard of quantum mechanics and general relativity. They both explain a range of complicated phenomena exceedingly well, but if you tried to combine them, you would find that the maths just doesn’t work out.

Enter ER = EPR. This new equation…

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Magic material: the textiles which can heal themselves

How long does a piece of clothing last you before you have to throw it away and get a new one?

Clothing designers are beginning to use a technology from all sorts of applications, from mechanical engineering to buildings, to improve the lifetimes of clothing. In small electrical components and large buildings alike, fractures and cracks can be catastrophic. In many cases, it is simply too hard to detect all of these problems, so scientists make the problems solve themselves! Using materials which can self-heal – that is, repair themselves with no external influence – can make designs last much longer and prevent many disasters.

Self-healing fabrics provide a way for clothing to become more durable, and increasingly…

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A lumpy model for a lumpy universe

Computer models are used for all sorts of applications, from designing cars to predicting the weather. They are even used to simulate the whole universe, to work out how it was born, and what might happen next. Until now, the universe has been modelled using numerical simulations, which are quick and simple, but limited by the assumptions they make and their use of Newtonian gravity instead of Einstein’s general relativity.

A typical numerical simulation assumes that the universe is isotropic and homogeneous, meaning that all of its matter is distributed evenly throughout. This is true on a large scale, but on smaller scales the matter is gathered into clusters of galaxies and dark matter, and the rest of space is empty. This means that expansion of the universe occurs at different rates in different places – spots dense with matter will be pulled closer together by their gravity and expand slower, and empty spaces will expand unhindered (28% faster than the average rate of expansion!).

Two sets of code have now been written independently using…

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Helium shortage solution: we finally have a way to predict where to find supplies of Helium

More helium is used each year than we produce. That sounds strange, since helium is the second most abundant element in the universe. Unfortunately though, it doesn’t stay on earth long – it’s so light that it just floats away. We can only obtain it from reserves found by chance during oil and gas drilling, and supplies are being depleted fast.

This is a problem for all sorts of industries. Helium is spectacularly good at keeping things cool, and that’s useful from scientific research (to freeze out complicating factors in experiments) to spacecraft. It’s used to cool telescopes, the fuel used in the Apollo space vehicles, nuclear reactors, the Large Hadron Collider, and most prominently MRI machines, which take up a fifth of the global use of helium. Helium’s low density also means it makes balloons float, from party balloons to enormous airships, and it can be used in lasers to scan barcodes at supermarket checkouts amongst many more.

As the known reserves of helium are being depleted and becoming privatised, helium’s prices fluctuate massively, and the price of helium has gone up 500% in the last 15 years. Well, not any more…

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Alive and dead and in two places at once: the mystery of Schrodinger’s cat

We all know the story of Schrodinger’s cat – the unlucky beast that spends its days both living and dead in a box until someone lets it out. Well, now it can get out, sort of. Scientists have shown that the cat can be alive and dead, and can also be in two boxes at once.

Originally, the cat was the protagonist in a story used to explain the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. He (or she) is sealed in a box along with a radioactive particle, which could decay at any time, and a vial of poison gas, which will break if the particle does decay. Schrodinger argues that until we open the box and find out if the cat is alive or dead, it is both, in what theoretical physicists like to call a “superposition of states”. In short…

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A Super Computer for a Super-long Proof

Some maths is just too hard or complicated for humans. Some would just take too long. A new proof for the Boolean Pythagorean triples problem is too long even to be read by a human. At 200TB (or 46,600 DVDs worth!) it is the longest mathematical proof ever – even the shortened version (still a hefty 68 GB) would take 30,000 hours for a computer to process.

The Boolean Pythagorean triples problem asks whether it is possible to assign all of the natural numbers (positive integers) a colour of either blue or red, so that the numbers in no Pythagorean triple are all the same colour. A Pythagorean triple is a set of three integers that satisfies the condition a2 + b2 = c2. This equation is useful for finding the lengths of the sides of a right angled triangle.

The problem is harder than it looks. Some integers are part of…

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Four names for four elements

A week ago, the four new elements of the periodic table discovered in December 2015 were named: Nihonium, Moscovium, Tennessine and Oganesson, with the respective symbols Nh, Mc, Ts and Og respectively. These are elements 113, 115, 117 and 118, the final elements required to complete the table’s seventh row.

The names were proposed by the discoverers and accepted by IUPAC, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. They are now open for public review, to ensure that there are no chemicals currently given these names or symbols. This review is open for five months, until November 2016, and then the names will be formally approved by IUPAC. Elements can be named after a mythical concept, a mineral, a country, a property or a scientist. The associated symbol has to be completely unique and not be used for any other element, molecule or material.

Nihonium was discovered by a Japanese team at…

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Meteorites solve a mystery of life?

In the lab, two chemical products are normally made. The product is a racemic mixture, meaning that it is composed of molecules which are structurally identical, but which are mirror images of each other. Mysteriously, in biological processes, only one of these mirror images is made.

The pair of mirror molecules are called enantiomers, and arise from the chirality of the molecule. If a molecule is chiral, its mirror image is not superimposable onto the original molecule. A reaction gives one or both mirror images, which are labelled right handed (D enantiomers) or left handed (L enantiomers). In nature, normally only the right handed version of any sugars, and the left handed enantiomer of any amino acids is made, allowing the reactions within the body to be so selective.

But where does this homochirality come from? Analysis…

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