Planetary scientist Pillinger dies

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Colin Pillinger with a model of Beagle 2

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“A man with a mission”. Pallab Ghosh reports on the life of Colin Pillinger

British planetary scientist Colin Pillinger, best known for his 2003 attempt to land a spacecraft on Mars, has died aged 70, his family have said.

Prof Pillinger was at his home in Cambridge when he suffered a brain haemorrhage and fell into a deep coma.

His family said he later died at Addenbrooke’s Hospital without regaining consciousness.

His death was “devastating and unbelievable”, they said in a statement.

Dr David Parker, the chief executive of the UK Space Agency, led the tributes.

He told the BBC that Prof Pillinger had played a critical role in raising the profile of the British space programme and had inspired “young people to dream big dreams”.

The Science Minister David Willetts called him a “delightful man and a free spirit”. And added: “His vision of space exploration and his dedication to it inspired the nation.”

And Prof Mark Sims, the mission manager on the 2003 Beagle-2 probe, recalled: “Colin was a top-rate scientist. You might not have agreed with him but he always went for what he believed in. It was a privilege to have known him and worked with him, both as a friend and colleague.”

‘Unfinished business’

Prof Pillinger was the driving force behind Beagle-2, which was built to search for life on Mars.

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With his bushy sideburns and Victorian air, he was a modern day Charles Darwin. He even named his spacecraft after Darwin’s research vessel HMS Beagle”

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The little craft was carried piggyback to the Red Planet on a European satellite, but vanished without trace after being dropped off to make its landing.

Prof Pillinger continued to push space agencies to complete what he called “unfinished business on Mars”, and was sometimes critical of the delays that have seen Europe’s follow-up rover mission, ExoMars, slip back to 2018.

Fans took to Twitter on Thursday to pay tribute to the scientist, with author Keith Mansfield calling him a “great advocate” for space and Mars.

Phil Ford, a writer on Dr Who, said: “Very sad to see Prof Colin Pillinger has died. A proper British boffin who will be fondly remembered for the Beagle Mars mission.”

Apollo samples

At the age of 62, Prof Pillinger was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which made it difficult for him to walk.

He said the illness would not diminish his research, and his motorised buggy was often seen racing around scientific conferences.

“Bloody-minded,” was how he described his own approach to life. “If I ever said as a child ‘I can’t do this’, my father would always say, ‘There’s no such thing as can’t',” he recalled on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs programme.

Pillinger with ApolloA young Pillinger analyses moon samples (top, near), and with Apollo 11′s Neil Armstrong (bottom)

With colleagues at the Open University, where he headed the Department of Physical Sciences until 2005, he was keenly looking forward to this year’s Rosetta mission.

The pan-European venture plans to put a lander on a comet this November, and an OU instrument will help investigate the object’s chemistry.

“It’s important to note that Colin’s contribution to planetary science goes back to working on Moon samples from Apollo, as well as his work on meteorites,” said Dr Parker.

“While we still don’t know for certain what happened to Beagle-2, I’d say that the project was a turning point in bringing together the space science and industrial communities in the UK – which didn’t used to speak with one voice. Beagle-2 wasn’t built in Colin’s backyard: it was the product of UK brains and hard-work in many companies and universities.”

Science advocate

For the British media, Prof Pillinger was often the go-to man for a comment when a new piece of space science was published.

The press appreciated his straight-talking, and the whiskers and the Bristolian accent just added to his appeal.

He had an especially sharp eye for a good headline, once demonstrating the relatively small scale of Beagle-2 by loading a replica into a supermarket trolley and wheeling it through the car park of the Open University. The footage was picked up by the satirical programme Have I Got News for You? ensuring that news of the mission reached a far wider audience.

On the publication of his biography in 2010, My Life On Mars, he recalled an event that made him realise that the lost probe would be his legacy.

“I pulled into the OU car park and there was this huge lorry, a guy delivering a load of bricks – a builder, obviously,” he told the BBC.

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I can think of nobody else who could have made Beagle-2 happen – he was so passionate, determined and thick-skinned”

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Prof John Zarnecki
OU colleague

“I looked at this guy and I thought ‘he’s going to take a while’, so I dashed in front of him in my car to get into the parking space. Well, the door opened on the lorry and this huge man got out – you could eat your dinner off his hands – and he started walking towards the car. And I thought, ‘Bloody hell, I’m going to get thumped’.

“Well, he stuffed this huge paw through the window and said, ‘You’re the man who launched Beagle-2, aren’t you? I want to shake your hand, mate’. And that to me says everything. There’s nobody in the UK I didn’t reach.”

Prof John Zarnecki, a colleague at the OU, remembered Colin Pillinger as “a boss, a friend, a rival, a confidant, a fellow football fan and many more”.

“Working with Colin was never easy or quiet! But our aims were the same – to do the best science that we possibly could. And with Colin, woe betide anybody or any organisation who got in the way of that objective,” he told me.

“Life was never dull – he never fired me (as most of my colleagues claim to have been) but I do remember a particularly fiery meeting at which he accused me of being a traitor (to what I’m not sure I remember).

“I can think of nobody else who could have made Beagle-2 happen – he was so passionate, determined and thick-skinned.

“He refused to work ‘by the rules’. Although it was a ‘long shot’, it definitely could have worked – and I committed myself to the extent of providing an instrument for Beagle-2. The Christmas Day we spent trying to make contact with Beagle-2 was so painful – and so much so for Colin who had invested his very soul – and more – into that effort. He bore it with great dignity.

“Our community will be that much poorer without Colin.”

Prof Pillinger was married to Judith with whom he had two children, Shusanah and Nicolas.

Colin PillingerProf Pillinger’s family said he died peacefully in hospital

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-27322166#sa-ns_mchannel=rss&ns_source=PublicRSS20-sa

Self-healing plastic mimics blood

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Self-healing systemHealing chemicals arrive via capillaries (the red and blue vertical lines) and form a gel that seals the gap

A new plastic that “heals itself” has been designed, meaning your cracked phone screen or broken tennis racquet could mend its own wounds.

The polymer automatically patches holes 3cm wide, 100 times bigger than before.

Inspired by the human blood clotting system, it contains a network of capillaries that deliver healing chemicals to damaged areas.

The new material, created by engineers at the University of Illinois, is described in Science journal.

For decades scientists have dreamed of plastics that heal themselves like human skin.

Cracks in water pipes and car bonnets would seal up. Satellites could repair their own damage. Broken electronic chips in laptops and mobile phones would spontaneously sort out their own problems.

Self-healing systemA timelapse of a broken area self-healing (left to right)

One of the first big breakthroughs came in 2001 at the University of Illinois. Prof Scott White and colleagues infused a polymer with microscopic capsules containing a liquid healing agent. When the material cracked, the chemicals were released and bridged the gaps.

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We filled regions exceeding 35mm within 20 minutes, and restored mechanical function within three hours”

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Prof Scott White
University of Illinois

More recently, concrete, water-resistant coatings, and even electrical circuits have been engineered with self-healing properties.

But even the best self-healing plastics and polymers can only repair small-scale damage, the Science magazine authors note.

“Although self-healing of microscopic defects has been demonstrated, the re-growth of material lost through catastrophic damage requires a regenerative-like approach,” said Prof White.

To fix larger breakages, he and his team have designed a new, vascular system – inspired by the arteries and veins of the human body.

A network of channels delivers a healing agent to the site of damage.

The chemicals arrive via two separate streams. They combine to seal the gap in a two-stage reaction. Initially, they form a gel scaffold across the hole. The gel then slowly hardens into a robust, solid structure.

“We filled regions exceeding 35mm within 20 minutes, and restored mechanical function within three hours,” the researchers wrote in Science.

Tests showed the material recovered about 62% of its original strength.

Self-healing systems
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Self healing materialsCapsules containing the healing agents and other chemicals are distributed throughout the material. If a breakage occurs, the capsules release their contents casuing a chemical reaction to “heal” the breakage.

Self healing materialsVascular systems use networks of refillable channels to deliver the healing agent and polymerisers to the breakage point.

Self healing materialsIntrinsic systems use the reversible nature of certain chemical bonds to incorporate healing properties directly into the material.

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The new material paves the way for future polymers that can recover from ballistic impacts, such as bullets, bombs or rockets.

Its design was praised by engineers Zhouzhou Zhao and Prof Ellen Arruda, of the University of Michigan.

“This innovative approach enables restoration of mechanical integrity to a damage volume that is roughly 100 times the largest defect previously healed in this manner,” they wrote in Science.

“Vascular systems can potentially eliminate fracture in materials by preventing small, noncritical cracks from propagating to critical sizes.”

However, future materials which are “truly regenerative” will require a much more flexible repair system, the scientists admit.

“When damage is unpredictable and uncontrolled, more complex and interconnected vascular networks will be necessary to provide sufficient vascular coverage and redundancy to circumvent channel blockage,” Prof White and his co-authors wrote.

While recent advances in self-healing are exciting, “the long-term performance of autonomously healed polymers has largely remained unexamined,” said Prof Arruda and Mr Zhao.

“Methods are also needed to assess and monitor the potential healing ability after multiple repair events.

“Here again, elegant examples that have evolved in nature can inspire solutions.”

Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-27296365#sa-ns_mchannel=rss&ns_source=PublicRSS20-sa

Lab bug extends ‘life’s alphabet’

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Artist illustration of DNA“All life that we know is encoded within four letters that form two base pairs”

Scientists have produced a semi-synthetic version of a bacterium that has an extended genetic code.

All Earth’s lifeforms use four chemical units, or bases, arranged in pairs within DNA, to drive their biology.

The modified E. coli bug produced at The Scripps Research Institute in California incorporates two more bases that were wholly designed in the lab.

The team tells Nature magazine that its altered bacterium could be used to make a range of novel drugs and materials.

Prof Floyd Romesberg and colleagues have been working towards this study result since the 1990s.

They had previously shown how the new bases – known as d5SICS and dNaM, or X and Y for simplicity – could be stably incorporated as a pair into the DNA molecule in vitro, in the “test tube”.

The latest advance sees them introduce this supplemented DNA into a living organism.

What is more, the modified E. coli bug is able to copy the extended DNA and pass it down the generations.

‘New complexity’

At the moment, the introduced base pair plays no active role in the bacterium’s biology. But Prof Romesberg’s team plans to change that in the future by giving X and Y some function.

In normal DNA, it is the sequence of the natural base chemicals – which pair adenine (A) with thymine (T); and cytosine(C) with guanine (G) – that encodes the genes.

And it is the genes that hold the recipes for cells to make chains of amino acids.

These chains are then folded into the protein molecules that build and maintain the organism – be that an animal, a plant, or even just a simple bacterium.

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Life has always been encoded in two base pairs, and now we have a third”

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Prof Floyd Romesberg
The Scripps Research Institute

With an extended DNA “alphabet”, it should, in principle, be possible to encode proteins from new, unnatural amino acids.

This would be a route to making novel therapeutics, plastics and other materials.

Engineered bacteria are already used to churn out a host of substances on an industrial scale, such as insulin for diabetics.

But the type of synthetic biology pursued by the Scripps team offers the promise of manufacturing more complex chemicals – and more precisely – that are beyond current technologies.

“All life that we know is encoded within four letters that form two base pairs,” Prof Romesberg told BBC Radio 4′s Inside Science programme.

“All the diversity, from the simplest bacterial cell up to the complexity of the human – all that diversity is encoded in a very simple genetic alphabet. And if you peer back through evolution, as far back as we can see, that’s always been the way it was; life has always been encoded in two base pairs. And now we have a third.”

‘Fail-safe system’

The scientists say the system they have produced is very safe in that its semi-synthetic bacterium cannot maintain its extended DNA unless it is kept in very particular conditions with a constant supply of their special triphosphate bases.

“If you spilled the flask on the ground and got them on your shoes and walked outside, the organisms would be out in the environment, but they would not have the triphosphates provided to them any longer and they wouldn’t be able to replicate DNA with the unnatural base pair,” Prof Romesberg explained.

“As a result, the semi-synthetic component of their genome would simply revert to natural. That’s a fail-safe against escape into nature.”

Prof Paul Freemont from Imperial College London said the research was an exciting step, helping to move synthetic biology principles from the test tube into living organisms.

And he also applauded the Scripps team’s approach to safety.

“What people are concerned about, and quite rightly so, is that if we are redesigning biological systems – what’s the chance of those redesigns getting taken up by natural systems? Clearly, that’s a worry for the whole field. And what this is potentially allowing us to do is to think about designing DNA as a synthetic code that would be very unlikely to be taken up by, or interface with, normal living biological systems,” he told the BBC.

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-27329583#sa-ns_mchannel=rss&ns_source=PublicRSS20-sa

Sentinel mission spies ice loss

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Austfonna Ice CapSentinel-1a’s new false-colour image of Austfonna Ice Cap (L). Ice drainage to the ocean has speeded up rapidly in recent years (R). The colours denote flow rates, from slow (dark blue) to fast (red).

One of the largest ice caps on Earth has experienced a dramatic speed-up, according to new satellite pictures.

Austfonna on Norway’s Svalbard archipelago covers just over 8,000 sq km and has been relatively stable for many years.

But the latest space imagery reveals a marked acceleration of the ice in its main outlet glacier to the Barents Sea.

The research was presented in Brussels on Thursday to mark the launch of the EU’s new Sentinel-1a radar spacecraft.

This satellite has been in orbit barely a month but is already being tasked with a range of science observations and other duties.

European Commission officials are keen to showcase the platform’s capabilities before it goes into full service, including what it can do at high latitudes.

Radar is particularly useful in these regions. It senses the surface whatever the weather conditions and even in the darkness of polar winter.

Scientists had suspected the Arctic’s Austfonna Ice Cap was losing substantially more ice through its major drainage glacier at Cap Mohn, and asked if Sentinel-1a could take some pictures.

“We’ve observed Austfonna with various satellite radar datasets over the past 20 years, and it hasn’t done very much,” explained Prof Andy Shepherd from Leeds University, UK.

“But we’ve now looked at it again with the new Sentienl-1a spacecraft, and it’s clear it has speeded up quite considerably in the last two or three years. It is now flowing at least 10 times faster than previously measured.”

That previous measurement was done using the German national TerraSAR-X radar mission.

The speed of a glacier is judged by how far prominent features such as a big crevasse travel in time.

An “ice cap” is much smaller than an “ice sheet”, a term that more properly describes the huge frozen masses covering Greenland and Antarctica.

An ice cap does, however, share a similarity with its bigger cousin in that it too has glaciers flowing away in many directions.

The Earth’s ice caps and glaciers have become a key focus for scientists because these are the ice fields that appear to be experiencing the greatest change currently.

“Although ice caps and glaciers contain less than 1% of the world’s ice, they contribute around 50% of the sea-level rise due to ice melting,” explained Prof Shepherd.

A detailed report on Austfonna and the probable causes of the speed-up is being prepared for publication in a science journal.

Prof Shepherd’s team said the quality of the Sentinel data was very impressive, especially since the satellite was still in the process of drifting towards its final operational orbit.

It augured well for future studies of the cryosphere – research that will be boosted further when a carbon-copy Sentinel is launched in 18 months to hasten the acquisition of imagery.

The European Commission used Thursday’s event to highlight a variety of other scientific and operational applications for Sentinel-1a data.

These included making rapid charts for mariners to warn them of nearby icebergs, and keeping watch over the seas for illicit oil spills.

Europe has committed some 7.5 billion euros to the end of the decade to launch a fleet of environmental monitoring satellites.

They are all called Sentinels but will have specific roles, viewing the Earth using a range of observing techniques.

The spacecraft will gather scientific data but also information the European Commission needs to design and enforce community-wide policies.

The Sentinels and the applications that stem from their data fit within what the EC calls its Copernicus programme.

Its scope and financial outlay makes it the biggest civilian Earth observation project ever envisaged.

Oil platformsThe bright spots in the image are oil platforms off the coast of Norway. The black areas show where water is released by the platforms. This water is slightly oily, though not enough to be in violation of regulations

What is Copernicus?

Sentinel-1aSentinel-1a will be followed into orbit by a fleet of other sensors

  • EU project that is being procured with European Space Agency help
  • Pulls together all Earth-monitoring data, from space and the ground
  • Will use a range of spacecraft – some already up there, others yet to fly
  • Expected to be invaluable to scientists studying climate change
  • Important for disaster response – earthquakes, floods, fires etc
  • Data will also help design and enforce EU policies: fishing quotas etc

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-27330321#sa-ns_mchannel=rss&ns_source=PublicRSS20-sa

Rising carbon curbs crop nutrition

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wheatThe nutrient content of major crops like wheat is likely to be reduced by rising temperatures

Rising levels of CO2 around the world will significantly impact the nutrient content of crops according to a new study.

Experiments show levels of zinc, iron and protein are likely to be reduced by up to 10% in wheat and rice by 2050.

The scientists say this could have health implications for billions of people, especially in the developing world.

The report has been published in the journal Nature.

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“It is possibly the most significant health threat that has been documented for climate change”

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Dr Samuel Myers
Harvard School of Public Health

Researchers have struggled over the past two decades to design large scale field trials to accurately model the impacts of increased CO2 levels on the nutritional makeup of crops.

Now an international team has put together a global analysis based on experiments in Japan, Australia and the US.

They’ve grown 41 different varieties of grains and legumes in open fields, with levels of carbon dioxide expected in the middle of this century.

“It is possibly the most significant health threat that has been documented for climate change,” said lead author Dr Samuel Myers from the Harvard School of Public Health.

“We found significant reductions in iron, zinc and protein in rice and wheat, and we found significant reductions in iron and zinc in soybeans and field peas as well,” he said.

The researchers estimate that these reductions of up to 10% could have major health implications for millions of people around the world.

Around a third of the global population are already suffering from iron and zinc shortages, leading to some 63 million life years being lost annually as a result.

“We found that close to 2bn people are getting at least 70% of their iron and zinc from these grains and legumes. So reductions in those crops are potentially quite worrisome in terms of increasing those deficiencies,” said Dr Myers.

Eating more food to make up for these reductions in nutrients would not be a good solution, he said.

“The problem with that is that if you eat 5-10% more calories every day it would be a matter of months before we were morbidly obese and bumping into issues around metabolic diseases.”

rice Varieties of rice reacted differently to CO2, giving hope that new breeds can be developed that don’t lose their nutrition

The scientists are unsure of the mechanism through which levels of carbon dioxide of around 550 parts per million limit crop nutrition.

It had been thought that crops would substitute carbohydrates for nutrients as the gas increased. But the new research was inconsistent on this point.

Breeding difficulties

The authors did find that within some species such as rice, there are considerable differences in response to CO2 which gives them hope to overcome these reductions.

“What we speculate is that this could produce a basis for breeding programmes to produce rice that was less sensitive to CO2. We are not proving that this is possible but we are just saying there may be a genetic basis for doing it,” said Dr Myers.

“These breeding programmes all sound good on paper but you can produce a cultivar and the yield is reduced or it just doesn’t taste good. It’s complicated.”

The impact of carbon on nutrient levels is another blow to global food production. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), crop yields are also set to suffer as a result of rising temperatures.

Their recent summary on the impacts of global warming stated that the production of maize, wheat and rice will go down over the course of this century.

Follow Matt on Twitter.

Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-27308720#sa-ns_mchannel=rss&ns_source=PublicRSS20-sa

Paralysed person ‘to walk’ at World Cup

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Artist's impression of demo

On 12 June, the Arena Corinthians stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, will play host to not one, but two historic events.

The first is the opening of the biggest international contest in football, the World Cup.

The other is the debut of cutting edge technology that scientists hope could one day transform the lives of millions of people.

The World Cup curtain-raiser will see the first public demonstration of a mind-controlled exoskeleton that will enable a person with paralysis to walk.

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We are going to work out how to get the technology into people’s hands. It is going to be within our time”

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Dr Gordon Cheng
Technical University of Munich

If all goes as planned, the robotic suit will spring to life in front of almost 70,000 spectators and a global audience of billions of people.

The exoskeleton was developed by an international team of scientists as part of the Walk Again Project and is the culmination of more than a decade of work for Dr Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian neuroscientist based at Duke University in North Carolina.

In 2003, Dr Nicolelis showed that monkeys could control the movement of virtual arms on an avatar using just their brain activity.

Since November, Dr Nicolelis has been training eight patients at a lab in Sao Paulo, in the midst of huge media speculation that one of them will stand up from his or her wheelchair and deliver the first kick of this year’s World Cup.

“That was the original plan,” the Duke University researcher told the BBC. “But not even I could tell you the specifics of how the demonstration will take place. This is being discussed at the moment.”

Speaking in Portuguese from Sao Paulo, Miguel Nicolelis explained that all the patients are over 20 years of age, with the oldest about 35.

“We started the training in a virtual environment with a simulator. In the last few days, four patients have donned the exoskeleton to take their first steps and one of them has used mental control to kick a ball,” he explained.

“So we have realised our objectives: The exoskeleton is being controlled by brain activity and it is relaying feedback signals to the patient.”

Robotic exoskeletonThe robotic suit uses hydraulics and its battery allows for around two hours of use

A cap placed on the patient’s head picks up brain signals and relays them to a computer in the exoskeleton’s backpack that decodes the signals and sends them to the legs. The robotic suit is powered by hydraulics and a battery in the backpack allows for approximately two hours of use.

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It is a way of telling civil society, that pays for science around the world, that we have the possibility to dream”

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Dr Miguel Nicolelis
Duke University

“The basic idea is that we are recording from the brain and then that signal is being translated into commands for the robot to start moving,” explained Dr Gordon Cheng, at the Technical University of Munich, who has been working with Dr Nicolelis and researchers in France to build the exoskeleton.

“I am more on the engineering and technical side, and one of the key technologies we are contributing is a sensor that is the state-of-the-art in artificial skin sensing,” Dr Cheng told the BBC.

The sensors on the artificial skin of the robot can sense the environment in a similar way to humans.

“When the foot of the exoskeleton touches the ground there is pressure, so the sensor senses the pressure and before the foot touches the ground we are also doing pre-contact sensing. It’s a new way of doing skin sensing for robots,” Dr Cheng said.

“The sensor also provides temperature and vibration information and sends all that to a single skin unit.”

ExoskeletonThe suit is able to sense the ground before the foot touches it

Dr Nicolelis explained that “when the exoskeleton starts to move and touches the ground, this signal is transmitted to an electronic vibrator on the arm of the patient. The vibrator stimulates the skin of the patient”.

“What happens when you practice for a long time is that the brain starts associating the movements of the legs with the vibration in the arm. So the patient starts developing the sensation that he has legs and that he is walking.”

The components of the skeleton were built by “many, many different companies”, Dr Cheng told the BBC.

“We are using a lot of 3-D printing technology, which uses materials like very strong plastics, some stronger than metal and very light and, of course, we are using standard aluminium parts. But to reduce the weight and to speed up the development we are using a lot of 3-D printing technology.”

Some critics have questioned whether the exoskeleton demonstration could wrongly create an impression that the technology will be available in the near future.

Nicolelis emphasises that “this is just the beginning”.

He adds: “Our proposal was always to demonstrate the technology in the World Cup as the first, symbolic step of a new approach in the care of patients with paralysis.

“This is the way science advances. You have to demonstrate and test the concept. It is a way of telling civil society, that pays for science around the world, that we have the possibility to dream with this reality because it is already working experimentally.”

So what is the key message that the Brazilian scientist would like to convey to millions of people on the 12 June?

CapA signal from the brain is translated into commands for the robotic legs

“The main message is that science and technology can be agents of social transformation in the whole world, that they can be used to alleviate the suffering and the limitations of millions of people.”

Dr Nicolelis’ idea of science as an agent for social change is one of the founding principles behind the research facility he established in 2005 on the outskirts of Natal, in northeastern Brazil, one of the poorest regions in the country.

The Edmond and Lily Safra International Institute of Neuroscience of Natal, ELS-IINN, not only houses research facilities, but also has a science school serving 1.500 children and a clinic providing free pre-natal care with 12.000 consultations each year.

Dr Cheng shares Dr Nicolelis’ vision, but says there are many misconceptions surrounding robotics: “I think this exoskeleton is a very beautiful usage. That’s what we want to teach children with the outreach that we’ve been trying to do, to bring the message of science and engineering coming together to make a big difference in society.”

“After the demonstration we will continue and then we are going to work out how to get the technology into people’s hands. It is going to be within our time. I still have another 20 years before I retire, it’s going to be before that.”

Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-27316027#sa-ns_mchannel=rss&ns_source=PublicRSS20-sa

Pfizer ‘cannot use UK as tax haven’

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Vince Cable speaking in Parliament

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Vince Cable: “We see the future of the UK as a knowledge economy, not as a tax haven”

Business Secretary Vince Cable has told MPs the government will not let Pfizer use the UK as a tax haven and promised to secure British science jobs.

The move comes after concerns were raised by MPs about the proposed takeover of UK pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca by its US rival Pfizer.

Mr Cable was called to answer urgent questions in the House of Commons earlier.

He said he was “alive” to national interest concerns over the deal.

Mr Cable said: “We see the future of the UK as a knowledge economy, not as a tax haven. Our focus is on what is best for the UK – securing great British science, research and manufacturing jobs and decision-making in the life sciences sector.”

He added the government was committed to “ensuring the UK remained at the forefront of life sciences, research and development”.

The government may also consider expanding its public interest test powers, the Business Secretary said.

“This would be a serious step and not one that should be taken lightly. I am open-minded about it, but should stress that we are operating within serious European legal constraints,” he added.

The public interest test gives ministers the power to intervene in takeover deals and mergers in a limited number of instances.

These include national security concerns, media company mergers and banks.

The current test does not give the government scope to address concerns about jobs or research and development investment raised by the potential Pfizer takeover.

But on Sunday Mr Cable said he was considering all options, including reviewing the terms under which the public interest test could be applied, to protect Britain’s scientific research base.

Praying Mantis

Earlier on Tuesday, the former chief executive of AstraZeneca told the BBC’s business editor Kamal Ahmed he feared Pfizer would act like a “praying mantis” and “suck the lifeblood” out of AstraZeneca.



AstraZeneca

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Sir David Barnes was chief executive of AstraZeneca until 2000 and deputy chairman until 2002.

Sir David said tax was “one of the key drivers ” behind the Pfizer offer for AstraZeneca, rather than a long-term commitment to research and development.

“That is a very narrow basis on which to base such a massive task,” Sir David told the BBC.

“The risk is that the past history of Pfizer has shown that they tend to extract destructive synergies, they have done that in the past.

“I have a great concern that they will act like a praying mantis and suck the lifeblood out of their prey.”

Pfizer offered £63bn for the UK pharmaceutical giant on Friday.

If the deal were to go ahead, it would be the biggest takeover in UK corporate history.

graphic about company size

The offer – the second Pfizer has made for AstraZeneca – was immediately rejected by the board of the UK pharmaceutical firm, which said Pfizer continued to “significantly undervalue” the company.

MPs are preparing to investigate the proposed takeover deal.

Two parliamentary select committees – the Business Select Committee and the Science and Technology committee – have said they intend to summon the bosses of both companies to answer questions.

The Business Committee hearing is likely to happen “quite soon” and possibly within the next week, the BBC has learned.

‘Serious concern’

Science and technology committee chair Andrew Miller said that there was “serious concern – to say the least” about the proposed takeover.

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I have a great concern that [Pfizer] will act like a praying mantis and suck the lifeblood out of their prey”

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Former AstraZeneca chief executive
Sir David Barnes

The committee “wants a lot more information” about the effect of the deal on UK science and intellectual property, he said.

Mr Miller confirmed he would be urging his committee to call senior executives from both companies.



Ed Miliband

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Labour leader Ed Miliband: “David Cameron should stop being a cheerleader for this takeover”

Earlier, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said the deal had been discussed in Cabinet, and that both David Cameron and Mr Cable were in “complete agreement” over the government’s approach to the Pfizer proposal.

Downing Street added the government was sticking to a policy of “active engagement” with both Pfizer and AstraZeneca, while not interfering with what was ultimately a decision for shareholders.

Inquiry

The PM’s spokesman said it was “significant that Pfizer has sought engagement… to understand the government’s views and the approach”.

The spokesman added it was “entirely a matter for the companies, their boards and their shareholders”. But the government still wanted “engagement” regarding scientific research and development.

At the weekend, Labour leader Ed Miliband called for an inquiry into the proposal.

“We need a proper, independent assessment of whether this [deal] is in our national interest,” Mr Miliband told the BBC.

No 10 denied Labour allegations that it was acting as a “cheerleader” for the deal, saying it was fighting for British jobs and British science.



UK Chancellor George Osborne

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UK Chancellor George Osborne: “No apologies for fighting for national, economic interests”

AstraZeneca employs more than 51,000 staff worldwide, with 6,700 in the UK. Pfizer has a global workforce of more than 70,000, with 2,500 in the UK.

AstraZeneca’s management team is holding a presentation for investors and analysts on Tuesday to promote its own achievements and to demonstrate the firm’s “excellent growth prospects”.

In a shareholder update on Tuesday, it forecast annual revenues of greater than $45bn (£26.6bn) by 2023. The company had revenues of $25.7bn in 2013.

Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-27291162#sa-ns_mchannel=rss&ns_source=PublicRSS20-sa

Mars rover drills for rock sample

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WindjanaThe upper hole is the new sample site; the lower hole was the test that was drilled last week

Nasa’s Curiosity rover has drilled a hole in a Martian rock with the intention of taking a powdered sample for its onboard laboratories to study.

It is nearly 12 months since the power tool was last deployed for the purpose.

Pictures downlinked from the planet on Tuesday revealed a neat hole had been hammered in a rock dubbed “Windjana”.

It is hoped this sandstone can yield insights on the geochemical processes that have helped shape the landscape at the bottom of Mars’ Gale Crater.

The sample acquisition manoeuvre comes a week after the rover drilled a small test hole in the same rock slab.

The new hole, just a few centimetres to the side, is noticeably deeper.

By going further into the rock, tailings will have been forced up and into the tool’s collection chamber.

Scientists and engineers must now decide whether this material has the right properties to pass to the CheMin and SAM instruments that live inside the vehicle’s belly.

If the “go” is given, just a pinch of the powder will be dropped into the labs’ analytical bays.

Project scientist John Grotzinger said his team was seeking further information on the role played by water in fixing the sediments that make up many of the rocks on the crater floor.

“We’re most interested to find clues as to the aqueous geochemistry which resulted in cementation of the sedimentary rocks,” he told the BBC this week.

“These have all turned out to be much harder than we expected, and if we could get a sense of their mineralogy and chemistry, we might better understand the composition and history of groundwater in the region – also an important type of potentially habitable environment.”

Arm reaches to drill in WindjanaA low “hazard camera” views the robotic arm reaching out to drill the new hole

In its 21 months on Mars, Curiosity has already established that the conditions in Gale billions of years ago could have very comfortably supported micro-organisms – had they been present.

This assessment followed the drilling and analysis of samples from fine-grained mudstones. They suggested the crater once held a lake.

And the many rounded pebbles the rover saw as it rolled towards the site of the mudstones hinted at the action of the water streams that may have fed that lake.

One immediate and obvious difference with the new sandstone hole compared with those earlier mudstone acquisitions is the colour of the tailings. The Windjana material is markedly darker.

“Obviously the mineralogy and chemistry will have to wait until we have all the CheMin and SAM data, but the team is excited to have seen a darker colour,” said Prof Grotzinger.

GaleAlready, Curiosity has shown the ancient lake environment in Gale would have been habitable

Curiosity will have been on Mars for two Earth years on 6 August.

Its original aim in that time was to make for – and study – the foothills of the big mountain that dominates the centre of Gale Crater.

But such have been the geological treasures on the “road” to Mount Sharp that the robot has been greatly delayed in its travels. And it is months away still from arriving at the primary investigation site.

US space agency officials seem relaxed about the slower than anticipated roving because Curiosity has already achieved its main scientific goals.

Nonetheless, there are some boxes yet to be ticked.

One concerns the unambiguous detection of organic (carbon-rich) molecules in Gale’s sediments.

Although not a direct indicator of past life, organics certainly play into any discussion about the potential for biology.

Life as we know it trades on carbon chemistry, and so finding these complex molecules would add an extra dimension to the quest to establish the habitability of Gale in Mars’ distant past.

The problem is that any organics near the surface of the planet are quickly broken down and destroyed by the space radiation that constantly rains down on the planet.

The trick is to find locations that have been exposed only very recently by the erosive action of the wind. The Curiosity team believes Windjana to be just such a location.

Mini test holeThis colour shot was acquired by the rover after it had drilled last week’s test hole

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-27298907#sa-ns_mchannel=rss&ns_source=PublicRSS20-sa

Former Astra boss attacks Pfizer bid

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Astrazeneca

The former chief executive of AstraZeneca has attacked the attempted takeover of the UK pharmaceuticals firm by its US rival Pfizer.

Sir David Barnes was chief executive of AstraZeneca until 2000 and deputy chairman until 2002.

He told the BBC’s business editor Kamal Ahmed he feared Pfizer would act like a “praying mantis” and “suck the lifeblood” out of AstraZeneca.

Pfizer offered £63bn for the UK pharmaceutical giant on Friday.

The offer – the second Pfizer has made for AstraZeneca – was immediately rejected by the board of the UK pharmaceutical firm, which said Pfizer continued to “significantly undervalue” the company.

It comes as MPs are to probe the planned takeover of AstraZeneca by Pfizer.

Two parliamentary select committees – the Business Select Committee and the Science and Technology committee – have said they intend to summon the bosses of both companies to answer questions at the hearing.

The Business Committee hearing is likely to happen “quite soon” and possibly within the next week, the BBC has learned.

‘Serious concern’

Science and technology committee chair Andrew Miller said that there was “serious concern – to say the least” about the proposed takeover.

Continue reading the main story

Start Quote

I have a great concern that [Pfizer] will act like a praying mantis and suck the lifeblood out of their prey”

End Quote
Former AstraZeneca chief executive
Sir David Barnes

The committee “wants a lot more information” about the effect of the deal on UK science and intellectual property, he said.

Mr Miller confirmed he would be urging his committee to call senior executives from both companies.

Business Secretary Vince Cable will also make a statement to MPs about the proposed takeover in the House of Commons at 15:30.

Earlier, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said the deal had been discussed in Cabinet, and that both David Cameron and Mr Cable were in “complete agreement” over the government’s approach to the Pfizer proposal.

Downing Street added the government was sticking to a policy of “active engagement” with both Pfizer and AstraZeneca, while not interfering with what was ultimately a decision for shareholders.

Inquiry

The PM’s spokesman said it was “significant that Pfizer has sought engagement… to understand the government’s views and the approach”.

The spokesman added it was “entirely a matter for the companies, their boards and their shareholders”. But the government still wanted “engagement” regarding scientific research and development.

At the weekend, Labour leader Ed Miliband called for an inquiry into the proposal.

“We need a proper, independent assessment of whether this [deal] is in our national interest,” Mr Miliband told the BBC.

No 10 denied Labour allegations that it was acting as a “cheerleader” for the deal, saying it was fighting for British jobs and British science.

Tax

Sir David said “tax was one of the key drivers ” behind the Pfizer offer for AstraZeneca, rather than a long-term commitment to research and development.

“That is a very narrow basis on which to base such a massive task,” Sir David told the BBC.

“The risk is that the past history of Pfizer has shown that they tend to extract destructive synergies, they have done that in the past.

“I have a great concern that they will act like a praying mantis and suck the lifeblood out of their prey.”

AstraZeneca’s management team is holding a presentation for investors and analysts on Tuesday to promote its own achievements and to demonstrate the firm’s “excellent growth prospects”.

In a shareholder update on Tuesday, it forecast annual revenues of greater than $45bn (£26.6bn) by 2023. The company had revenues of $25.7bn in 2013.

Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-27291162#sa-ns_mchannel=rss&ns_source=PublicRSS20-sa

US climate impacts ‘far reaching’

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Climate change is having significant financial, ecological and human health impacts across the US according to a new report.

The third National Climate Assessment, released by the White House, says the number and strength of extreme weather events have increased over the past 50 years.

Infrastructure is being damaged by sea level rise, downpours and extreme heat.

The report says these impacts are likely to worsen in the coming decades.

The study, compiled by hundreds of scientists, is set to guide President Barack Obama’s action on climate in his last two years in office.

The assessment warns that current efforts to implement emissions cuts and to adapt to changes are “insufficient to avoid increasingly negative social, environmental, and economic consequences”.

According to the White House, climate and weather disasters cost the US more than $100bn in 2012, the country’s warmest year on record.

Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-27296417#sa-ns_mchannel=rss&ns_source=PublicRSS20-sa

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