Archive for the ‘New Scientist’ Category


Workflow for 3D face scan processing, including the A) original surface, B) trimmed to exclude non-face parts, C) reflected to make mirror image, D) anthropometric mask of quasi-landmarks, E) remapped, F) reflected remapped, G) symmetrized and H) reconstructed.

By Philip Ross

Could a single hair be used to make an accurate 3D model of a criminal suspect’s face? Researchers from the U.S. and Belgium have developed a computer program that renders a crude genetic “mugshot” from a small sample of DNA.

Forensics can already predict eye and hair color relatively easily. Io9 notes that criminal investigators can even use maggots to extract a victim’s DNA from their unidentifiable body or find hidden faces by zooming into hi-res photos of eyes. But the face is a complex structure that’s more difficult to map from just one DNA sample.

According to New Scientist, researchers used a stereoscopic camera to make 3D images of roughly 600 volunteers with mixed European and West African ancestry. They identified more than 7,000 distinct points on the face to see how sex and racial ancestry affect the position of these points. The variations were used to develop a statistical model that reconstructs the overall shape of a person’s face.

The team also isolated 24 genetic variants, called single nucleotide polymorphisms, which play a role in shaping a face, such as those that shape the head during embryonic development. Lastly, researchers had volunteers rate the 600 faces on perceived ethnicity as well as on a scale of masculinity and femininity.

The new study, published in the journal PLOS Genetics, says this process could allow investigators to make computer-generated mugshots from genetic material left at a crime scene.

“We show that facial variation with regard to sex, ancestry, and genes can be systematically studied with our methods, allowing us to lay the foundation for predictive modeling of faces,” the authors note. “Such predictive modeling could be forensically useful; for example, DNA left at crime scenes could be tested and faces predicted in order to help to narrow the pool of potential suspects. Further, our methods could be used to predict the facial features of descendants, deceased ancestors, and even extinct human species. In addition, these methods could prove to be useful diagnostic tools.”

Any 3D renderings created using the new technology wouldn’t be used in a court of law – any person identified via the DNA mugshots would still have his DNA compared to the crime scene sample – but it could at least narrow the search for a suspected criminal. And there are still a few kinks to work out in the process before the technology is ever used in the field.

“I believe that in five to 10 years’ time, we will be able to computationally predict a face,” Peter Claes of the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium told New Scientist.

http://www.ibtimes.com/dna-mugshot-how-crime-fighting-computer-sketch-program-can-predict-face-your-genes-1563049

Thanks to Da Brayn for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

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universe

Is our universe merely one of billions? Evidence of the existence of ‘multiverse’ revealed for the first time by a cosmic map of background radiation data gathered by Planck telescope. The first ‘hard evidence’ that other universes exist has been claimed to have been found by cosmologists studying new Planck data released this past June. They have concluded that it shows anomalies that can only have been caused by the gravitational pull of other universes.

“Such ideas may sound wacky now, just like the Big Bang theory did three generations ago,” says George Efstathiou, professor of astrophysics at Cambridge University.”But then we got evidence and now it has changed the whole way we think about the universe.”

Scientists had predicted that it should be evenly distributed, but the map shows a stronger concentration in the south half of the sky and a ‘cold spot’ that cannot be explained by current understanding of physics. Laura Mersini-Houghton, theoretical physicist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Richard Holman, professor at Carnegie Mellon University, predicted that anomalies in radiation existed and were caused by the pull from other universes in 2005. Mersini-Houghton will be in Britain soon promoting this theory and, we expect, the hard evidence at the Hay Festival on May 31 and at Oxford on June 11.

Dr Mersini-Houghton believes her hypothesis has been proven from the Planck data that data has been used to create a map of light from when the universe was just 380,000 years old. “These anomalies were caused by other universes pulling on our universe as it formed during the Big Bang,” she says. “They are the first hard evidence for the existence of other universes that we have seen.”

Columbia University mathematician Peter Woit writes in his blog, Not Even Wrong, that in recent years there have been many claims made for “evidence” of a multiverse, supposedly found in the CMB data. “Such claims often came with the remark that the Planck CMB data would convincingly decide the matter. When the Planck data was released two months ago, I looked through the press coverage and through the Planck papers for any sign of news about what the new data said about these multiverse evidence claims. There was very little there; possibly the Planck scientists found these claims to be so outlandish that it wasn’t worth the time to look into what the new data had to say about them.

“One exception,” Woit adds, “was this paper, where Planck looked for evidence of ‘dark flow’. They found nothing, and a New Scientist article summarized the situation: ‘The Planck team’s paper appears to rule out the claims of Kashlinsky and collaborators,’ says David Spergel of Princeton University, who was not involved in the work. If there is no dark flow, there is no need for exotic explanations for it, such as other universes, says Planck team member Elena Pierpaoli at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. “You don’t have to think of alternatives.'”

“Dark Flow” sounds like a new SciFi Channel series. It’s not! The dark flow is controversial because the distribution of matter in the observed universe cannot account for it. Its existence suggests that some structure beyond the visible universe — outside our “horizon” — is pulling on matter in our vicinity.

Back in the Middle Ages, maps showed terrifying images of sea dragons at the boundaries of the known world. Today, scientists have observed strange new motion at the very limits of the known universe – kind of where you’d expect to find new things, but they still didn’t expect this. A huge swath of galactic clusters seem to be heading to a cosmic hotspot and nobody knows why.

Cosmologists regard the microwave background — a flash of light emitted 380,000 years after the universe formed — as the ultimate cosmic reference frame. Relative to it, all large-scale motion should show no preferred direction. A 2010 study tracked the mysterious cosmic ‘dark flow’ to twice the distance originally reported. The study was led by Alexander Kashlinsky at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

“This is not something we set out to find, but we cannot make it go away,” Kashlinsky said. “Now we see that it persists to much greater distances – as far as 2.5 billion light-years away,” he added.

Dark flow describes a possible non-random component of the peculiar velocity of galaxy clusters. The actual measured velocity is the sum of the velocity predicted by Hubble’s Law plus a small and unexplained (or dark) velocity flowing in a common direction. According to standard cosmological models, the motion of galaxy clusters with respect to the cosmic microwave background should be randomly distributed in all directions. However, analyzing the three-year WMAP data using the kinematic Sunyaev-Zel’dovich effect, the authors of the study found evidence of a “surprisingly coherent” 600–1000 km/s flow of clusters toward a 20-degree patch of sky between the constellations of Centaurus and Vela.

The clusters appear to be moving along a line extending from our solar system toward Centaurus/Hydra, but the direction of this motion is less certain. Evidence indicates that the clusters are headed outward along this path, away from Earth, but the team cannot yet rule out the opposite flow.

“We detect motion along this axis, but right now our data cannot state as strongly as we’d like whether the clusters are coming or going,” Kashlinsky said.

The unexplained motion has hundreds of millions of stars dashing towards a certain part of the sky at over eight hundred kilometers per second. Not much speed in cosmic terms, but the preferred direction certainly is: most cosmological models have things moving in all directions equally at the extreme edges of the universe. Something that could make things aim for a specific spot on such a massive scale hasn’t been imagined before. The scientists are keeping to the proven astrophysical strategy of calling anything they don’t understand “dark”, terming the odd motion a “dark flow”.

A black hole can’t explain the observations – objects would accelerate into the hole, while the NASA scientists see constant motion over a vast expanse of a billion light-years. You have no idea how big that is. This is giant on a scale where it’s not just that we can’t see what’s doing it; it’s that the entire makeup of the universe as we understand it can’t be right if this is happening.

The hot X-ray-emitting gas within a galaxy cluster scatters photons from the cosmic microwave background (CMB). Because galaxy clusters don’t precisely follow the expansion of space, the wavelengths of scattered photons change in a way that reflects each cluster’s individual motion.

This results in a minute shift of the microwave background’s temperature in the cluster’s direction. The change, which astronomers call the kinematic Sunyaev-Zel’dovich (KSZ) effect, is so small that it has never been observed in a single galaxy cluster.

But in 2000, Kashlinsky, working with Fernando Atrio-Barandela at the University of Salamanca, Spain, demonstrated that it was possible to tease the subtle signal out of the measurement noise by studying large numbers of clusters.

In 2008, armed with a catalog of 700 clusters assembled by Harald Ebeling at the University of Hawaii and Dale Kocevski, now at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the researchers applied the technique to the three-year WMAP data release. That’s when the mystery motion first came to light.

The new study builds on the previous one by using the five-year results from WMAP and by doubling the number of galaxy clusters.

“It takes, on average, about an hour of telescope time to measure the distance to each cluster we work with, not to mention the years required to find these systems in the first place,” Ebeling said. “This is a project requiring considerable followthrough.”

According to Atrio-Barandela, who has focused on understanding the possible errors in the team’s analysis, the new study provides much stronger evidence that the dark flow is real. For example, the brightest clusters at X-ray wavelengths hold the greatest amount of hot gas to distort CMB photons. “When processed, these same clusters also display the strongest KSZ signature — unlikely if the dark flow were merely a statistical fluke,” he said.

In addition, the team, which now also includes Alastair Edge at the University of Durham, England, sorted the cluster catalog into four “slices” representing different distance ranges. They then examined the preferred flow direction for the clusters within each slice. While the size and exact position of this direction display some variation, the overall trends among the slices exhibit remarkable agreement.

The researchers are currently working to expand their cluster catalog in order to track the dark flow to about twice the current distance. Improved modeling of hot gas within the galaxy clusters will help refine the speed, axis, and direction of motion.

Future plans call for testing the findings against newer data released from the WMAP project and the European Space Agency’s Planck mission, which is also currently mapping the microwave background.

Which is fantastic! Such discoveries force a whole new set of ideas onto the table which, even if they turn out to be wrong, are the greatest ways to advance science and our understanding of everything. One explanation that’s already been offered is that our universe underwent a period of hyper-inflation early in its existence, and everything we think of as the vast and infinite universe is actually a small corner under the sofa of the real expanse of reality. Which would be an amazing, if humbling, discovery.

The image at the top of the page shows the most distant object we have ever observed with high confidence, according to Wei Zheng, the leading astronomer of the team at Johns Hopkins University who that noticed the galaxy on multiple images from both the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes. At 13.2-billion years old, we are technically seeing this galaxy when it was very young, but its light is only reaching Earth now.

http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2013/10/is-our-universe-one-of-billions-new-planck-data-has-anomalies-caused-by-unknown-gravitational-pull-t.html

skull

An unusual cluster of Stone Age skulls with smashed-in faces has been found carefully separated from the rest of their skeletons. They appear to have been dug up several years after being buried with their bodies, separated, then reburied. Although collections of detached skulls have been dug up at many Stone Age sites in Europe and the Near East – but the face-smashing is a new twist that adds further mystery to how these societies related to their dead.

Juan José Ibañez at the Spanish National Research Council in Barcelona says the find may suggest that Stone Age cultures believed dead young men were a threat to the world of the living.

No one knows why Neolithic societies buried clusters of skulls – often near or underneath settlements. Some think it was a sign of ancestral veneration. “When people started living together [during the Neolithic period], they needed a social cement,” says Ibañez. Venerating ancestors might have been a way of doing this. But the violence demonstrated towards the skulls in the latest cluster suggests a different story.

The 10,000-year-old skulls were found in Syria. Like those found in other caches, they have been cleanly separated from their spines, suggesting they were collected from dead bodies that had already begun to decompose. Patterns on the bone indicate that some had been decomposing for longer than others, making it likely that they were all gathered together for a specific purpose.

Most of the skulls belonged to adult males between 18 and 30 years old. One – belonging to a child – was left intact; one was smashed to pieces; the remaining nine lacked facial bones. “There was a pattern,” says Ibañez. “The top of the skull and the jaw were there, but they were missing all of the bones in between.” His team believes the facial bones were smashed out with a stone and brute force. “There were no traces of cutting,” he says (American Journal of Physical Anthropology, DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.22111).

Ibañez reckons Stone Age people believed they would receive some benefit – perhaps the strength of the young men the skulls once belonged to – by burying them near or beneath their settlements. Why the faces were smashed in invites speculation.

It may have been an act of spite or revenge, says Ibañez. Or the skulls may have been brought together to create a “community of the dead”, perhaps in order to spiritually interact with the living.

“The post-mortem violence suggests young men were seen as carrying a particular threat,” says Stuart Campbell at the University of Manchester, UK. Destroying their facial structures may have been a way of destroying the individuals’ identities, he says.

Liv Nilsson Stutz at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, says the act could have helped deal with grief. “Taking away facial identity could be a way of separating the dead from the living,” she says.

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21528784.400-stone-age-skullsmashers-spark-a-cultural-mystery.html

snow-rabbitNeanderthals1

Neanderthals became extinct as they were unable to adapt their hunting skills to catch small animals like rabbits, a new study has claimed.

For the study, John Fa of Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in Trinity, Jersey, and his colleagues counted skeletons of animals that were found in three excavation sites in Spain and southern France.

The team found that up until 30,000 years ago, the skeletons of larger animals like deer were plentiful in caves.

But around the same time, coinciding with Neanderthals’ disappearance, rabbit skeletons became more abundant.

The team postulated that humans succeeded far more at switching to capturing and eating rabbits than Neanderthals, New Scientist reported.

Fa said that it is still not clear as to why Neanderthals had trouble changing their prey.

He said that maybe the Neanderthals may have been less able to cooperate and rather than using spears, early humans probably surrounded a warren and flushed out rabbits with fire, smoke or dogs.

http://www.phenomenica.com/2013/03/inability-to-catch-rabbits-may-have-led-to-demise-of-neanderthals.html