News from Space: Mysterious Radio Waves Detected…

auriga_nebulaAccording to a story published on July 10 in The Astrophysical Journal, a radio burst was detected that may have originated outside of our galaxy. Apparently, these split-second radio bursts have heard before, but always with the same telescope – Parkes Observatory in Australia. Given that only this observatory was detecting these signals, there was debate about whether they were coming from inside our galaxy, or even from Earth itself.

However, this time the radio signals were detected by a different telescope – the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico – which concluded that the bursts are coming from outside the galaxy. This is also the first time one of these bursts have been found in the northern hemisphere of the sky. Exactly what may be causing such radio bursts represents a major new enigma for astrophysicists.

Victoria Kaspi, an astrophysics researcher at McGill University who participated in the research, explained:

Our result is important because it eliminates any doubt that these radio bursts are truly of cosmic origin. The radio waves show every sign of having come from far outside our galaxy – a really exciting prospect.

arecibo_arrayFast radio bursts are a flurry of radio waves that last a few thousandths of a second, and at any given minute there are only seven of these in the sky on average, according to the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy. Their cause is unknown, and the possibilities range from black holes, to neutron stars coming together, to the magnetic field of pulsars (a type of neutron star) flaring up.

The pulse was detected on Nov. 2, 2012, at the Arecibo Observatory – a National Science Foundation-sponsored facility that has the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. While fast radio bursts last just a few thousandths of a second and have rarely been detected, the international team of scientists reporting the Arecibo finding estimate that these bursts occur roughly 10,000 times a day over the whole sky.

MaxPlanckIns_radiowavepulseThis astonishingly large number is inferred by calculating how much sky was observed, and for how long, in order to make the few detections that have so far been reported. Laura Spitler, a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany and the lead author of the new paper, was also the first person to note the event. As she explained:

The brightness and duration of this event, and the inferred rate at which these bursts occur, are all consistent with the properties of the bursts previously detected by the Parkes telescope in Australia.

The bursts appear to be coming from beyond the Milky Way, based on measurement of an effect known as plasma dispersion. Pulses that travel through the cosmos are distinguished from man-made ones by the effect of interstellar electrons, which cause radio waves to travel more slowly at lower radio frequencies. The burst detected by the Arecibo telescope has three times the maximum dispersion measure that would be expected from a local source.

Four_antennas_ALMAEfforts are now under way to detect radio bursts using radio telescopes that can observe broad swaths of the sky to help identify them. Telescopes under construction in Australia and South Africa as well as the CHIME telescope in Canada have the potential to detect fast radio bursts. Astronomers say these and other new facilities could pave the way for many more discoveries and a better understanding of this mysterious cosmic phenomenon.

For those hoping this was a possible resolution to the Fermi Paradox – i.e. that the radio bursts might have been extra-terrestrial in origin – this news is a little disappointing. But in truth, its yet another example of the deeper mysteries of the universe at work. Much like our ongoing research into the world of elementary particles, every answer gives rise to new questions.

Sources: universetoday.com, kurzweilai.net

Ending World Hunger: Insect-Based “Power Flour”

insect_flourIt has long been understood that if we, as a species, are going to deal with overpopulation and hunger, we need take a serious look at our current methods of food production. Not only are a good many of our practices unsustainable – monoculture, ranching, and overuse of chemical fertilizers being foremost amongst them – it is fast becoming clear that alternatives exist that are more environmentally friendly and more nutritious.

However, embracing a lot of these alternatives means rethinking our attitudes to what constitutes food. All told, there are millions of available sources of protein and carbohydrates that aren’t being considered simply because they seem unappetizing or unconventional. Luckily, researchers are working hard to find ways to tackle this problem and utilize these new sources of nutrition.

HULT-PRIZE-large570One such group is a team of McGill University MBA students who started the Aspire Food Group, an organization that will produce nutritious insect-based food products that will be accessible year-round to some of the world’s poorest city dwellers. Recently, this group won the $1 million Hult Prize for the development of an insect-infused flour that offers all the benefits of red meat – high protein and iron – but at a fraction of the cost.

The team – which consists of Mohammed Ashour, Shobhita Soor, Jesse Pearlstein, Zev Thompson and Gabe Mott – were presented with the social entrepreneurship award and $1 million in seed capital back in late September. The presentation was made by former U.S. president Bill Clinton in New York City at the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting.

world_hungerThe Hult Prize Foundation runs an annual contest open to teams of four or five students from colleges and universities from around the world. Their task is to develop ideas for social enterprises – organizations that use market-based strategies to tackle social or environmental problems. This year’s challenge, selected by Clinton, was to tackle world hunger.

Over 10,000 students entered, and the McGill team was one of six which reached the final stage, where they pitched their idea Monday to judges that included Clinton, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus and Erathrin Cousin, CEO of the World Food Program. The $1 million was provided by the family of the Swedish billionaire Bertil Hult, who made his fortune with the venerable EF Education First company.

insect_flour1Mohammed Ashour explained the process behind the insect flour in an interview to CBC News:

We are farming insects and we’re grinding them into a fine powder and then we’re mixing it with locally appropriate flour to create what we call power flour. It is essentially flour that is fortified with protein and iron obtained from locally appropriate insects.

What is especially noteworthy about the product, aside from its sustainability, is the fact that it delivers plenty of protein and iron in an inexpensive package. These nutrients, the team noted, are in short supply in the diets of many people in developing nations, but can be found in high amounts in insects. For example, they note, crickets have a higher protein content per weight than beef.

???????????????????????????????And while the idea of eating insects might seem unappealing to many people living in the developed world, Soor pointed out that people in many of the countries they are targeting already eat insects. In addition, the type of insect used to produce the flour for a local market would be chosen based on local culinary preferences. As she put it:

There really isn’t a ‘yuck’ factor. For example, in Mexico, we’d go with the grasshopper. In Ghana, we’d go with the palm weevil.

The insects would also be mixed with the most common type of local flour, whether it be made from corn, cassava, wheat or something else. Thus, the product would not only provide nutrition, but would be locally sourced to ensure that it is accessible and beneficial to the local market.

Developed-and-developing-countriesIn addition, the team has already held taste tests in some markets. In one test, they offered people tortillas made from regular corn flour, corn flour containing 10 per cent cricket flour and corn flour containing 30 per cent cricket flour. As Ashour indicated, the reviews were met with approval:

Amazingly enough, we got raving reviews for the latter two… so it turns out that people either find it to be tasting neutral or even better than products that are made with traditional corn flour.

The team hopes to use the prize money to help them expand the reach of their organization to the over 20 million people living in urban slums around the world by 2018. And I can easily foresee how flours like this one could become a viable item when teamed up with 3D food printers, tailoring edible products that meet our nutritional needs without putting undue strain on the local environment.

And be sure to enjoy this video of the McGill students and their prize-winning flour, courtesy of CBC news:


Source: cbc.ca