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Plant pathologists unpeel rumors of banana extinction

Will bananas really become extinct within the next decade? Not likely says a plant pathologist with the American Phytopathological Society (APS). The plant pathologist is speaking out in response to an article that recently appeared in New Scientist depicting possible extinction due to the impact of two diseases, Black Sigatoka and Panama disease, on the global production of bananas. "Diseases are, and will remain, major constraints to both export and subsistence production of banana, and there is no doubt that Black Sigatoka and Panama disease constitute the most important threats," said Randy C. Ploetz, Professor at the University of Florida's Tropical Research and Education Center. "However, it is unlikely that these problems will cause production to decrease greatly in the next decade, let alone that the crop will become extinct," said Ploetz.

'Blowtorch' risk to shuttle

If an impact from space debris was a factor in the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, NASA had been given ample warning. A report published in 1997 predicted a scenario that has disturbing parallels with what may have befallen the spacecraft. Written by an expert panel convened by the US National Research Council, Protecting the Space Shuttle from Meteoroids and Orbital Debris, warns that debris impacts that penetrate the leading edge or underside of a shuttle wing or fuselage might not be immediately critical or detectable.

Human lymph disease could tail off thanks to gecko

Many lizards shed their tails, and then regrow them, as a survival mechanism - and now researchers from the University of Adelaide in Australia believe understanding this act could also help them treat a lymphatic condition in humans. The University of Adelaide research team have had their findings summarised in the latest edition of New Scientist. They are examining how a lizard's lymphatic network responds when it loses its tail, and how this could be applied to the human condition of lymphoedema (the swelling of limbs due to the body's lymphatic system being impaired). Secondary lymphoedema is a common side effect associated with mastectomies and other similar forms of radical surgery.

Research that matters

New Scientist reports on a year-long study to find the world's funniest joke. The Internet-based project was coordinated by psychologist Richard Wiseman and colleagues at the University of Hertfordshire, U.K. and involved more than 2 million votes on 40,000 submissions. The goal was to identify universal aspects to humor, which could one day allow computers to devise truly funny jokes. Before we get to the winner, an interesting aside is that the team found in the process the world's funniest animal: the duck. "If you're going to tell a joke involving an animal, make it a duck," Wiseman says. Now to the ultimate rib-tickler, which folks from Asia to Africa, the States to Siberia all seemed to enjoy. A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn't seem to be breathing, his eyes are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps to the operator: "My friend is dead! What can I do?" The operator, in a calm soothing voice, says: "Just take it easy. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead." There is a silence, then a shot is heard. The guy's voice comes back on the line. He says: "OK, now what?" Thank you folks, I'll be here all week.

New worm a real bear

PC users of the world beware! A new worm called BugBear is making the rounds, and New Scientist says it reflects a worrying new trend in virus code. Instead of disabling your computer, or turning it into a denial of service pod to flood other machines with garbage, BugBear contains a Trojan horse program that can collect credit card details, passwords and other private information stored from a computer and send it to a hacker. "When run, the Trojan disables anti-virus programs running on your machine," New Scientists says. "It then installs a 'keyboard sniffing' program that remains in the background and copies every keystroke on your keyboard and saves them to a file. At some point later it opens a network connection and transmits the file to its creator, or bundles it up and sends it out as an email." One side effect of the worm is that it tries to mail itself to any other machines on your network, including printers. So if you see unexpected, long junk printouts spewing for the LaserJet, you ought to get checked for infection.

See also:
>>BugBear at Sophos

Worm slaps Penguin

It may be Microsoft's time to feel a little smug. For years Redmond has been the butt of jokes --- and curses --- for the vulnerability its systems seemed to have to viruses. Now Linux has fallen prey to a nasty bug of its own, one that has created a giant peer-to-peer attack network from thousands of infected Linux Web servers. Only computer systems running both Apache Web server software and the Linux operating system are vulnerable, New Scientist reports. But that's a heck of a lot of machines. Once installed on a machine, the Linux.Slapper.Worm tries to forward itself on to other computers. "But unlike many other worms, it also tries to establish connections with computers that have already been infected," the magazine reports. The bug was first identified Friday, and though characterized by computer security firms as slow-moving, has so far infected an estimated 3,500 machines. In a note accompanying the worm, the author says it was designed as a proof-of-concept for "educational" purposes and should not be used for destructive attacks.

A chip’s best friend

The good thing about using silicon in electronic components is that it is abundant and easy to dope with other materials to help control how electrons flow through it. The bad thing is that it becomes unstable at high temperatures, say above 150C. Diamonds are also pretty easy to dope, and can handle temperatures up to 400C with ease, but natural diamonds are lousy with impurities that can ruin electric flow. And man-made ones are comprised of many small crystals whose borders likewise interfere with a circuit's feng shui. But New Scientist reports today that researchers have developed a synthetic diamond film comprised of a single crystal that may be terrific for chips and such. "In the short term, the new diamond electronic components are likely to be too expensive to replace everyday silicon chips, which in any case work well for many applications. But diamond components may be useful in specialised applications," the magazine says. Likely uses include flat panel displays, big radar systems and space craft.

Sine o’ the times

Proving again that clever sloth trumps dull industriousness, a mischievous group of transistors at a British university has spontaneously converted itself into -- of all things -- a radio receiver. No word yet if the transistors are next planning to materialize as headphones or a graphic equalizer. New Scientist reports that the recreating of century-old technology occurred at the University of Sussex in Brighton during an experiment that was unusual in its own right. Researchers took transistors, added an evolutionary computer program and were expecting to end up with an oscillator -- a repeating sign wave signal. Instead of forming their own waves, though, the transistors utilized a part on a nearby circuit board as an antenna and began receiving the oscillations from an adjacent computer. Somewhere out in the ether, Guglielmo Marconi ought to be proud. And slackers everywhere, too.

U.S. got its e-bomb on

New Scientist says that a military attack on Iraq could see the first use of an e-bomb designed to destroy electronics but not harm people. U.S. intelligence reports that Iraq has moved much of its military infrastructure underground or beneath civilian buildings like hospitals. As such, the magazine says, the role of non-lethal and precision weapons would be a critical factor in any conflict. The U.S. reportedly has in its arsenal High Power Microwave (HPM) devices that produce an electromagnetic field so strong they can destroy electronic equipment in hardened command, control, communications and computer targets. One mechanism for achieving this sounds like something out of "Back to the Future": An explosive pumped flux generator. That device is essentially a bomb which with a combination of explosives and electronics, sends out an electromagnetic wave of up to tens of millions of Amps. By comparison, a typical lightning strike --- which can wreak plenty of damage on its own --- carries just 30,000 Amps.

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