Technology & Science

Canada sued over plans to build a Google “smart city” by civil rights group

Sidewalk Labs, which is owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, has proposed a high-tech ‘smart city’ community, after being commissioned in October 2017 to revitalise Toronto’s rundown waterfront. The proposed development would entail a myriad of sensors embedded in the infrastructure of several blocks of apartments, offices, shops, and a school on a 12-acre site, which would be the first step toward an eventual 800-acre development. Everything from street lights, stretches of pavement, heated roads to melt ice and snow on contact, and sensors to monitor traffic and pedestrians would be wired in.

Considering the series of privacy scandals at Google and Facebook, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) is suing the Canadian, local, and provincial governments over the invasion of privacy the smart city project would entail. A spokesman for Canada's infrastructure minister had said the development would be pursued in and "ethical and accountable" way but CCLA Executive Director Michael Bryant said, "Scientists profit from your behavioural data. Canada, Toronto, you are the lab rats." In a meeting two weeks ago, Sidewalk Labs admitted that although it is committed to protecting user identity, other businesses in the project may not be.

Critics of the project have complained since its inception that those behind it have shared few details about their plans and given little explanation for how data will be collected, kept, accessed, and protected. Last summer, an IBM security expert warned that cyber criminals could easily hack European cities in devastating attacks that could "cause loss of life".

Senior privacy expert and former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian recently quit the project saying that her privacy recommendations were ignored. She resigned over concerns that the "treasure trove" of data collected in the CAD $40 million smart city project could identify individuals and leave them open to a cyber attack. Ms. Cavoukian had worked on a privacy by design framework for the project to make sure that citizens' personal data would be protected and said “I felt I had no choice because I had been told by Sidewalk Labs that all of the data collected will be de-identified at source. I imagined us creating a Smart City of Privacy, as opposed to a Smart City of Surveillance.”

TechGirls Canada Founder Saadia Muzaffar also stepped down from her role on the Waterfront Toronto Digital Strategy Advisory panel citing "deep dismay" and “profound concern” that it had evaded questions about privacy and concerns over vulnerabilities that could be exploited by cyber criminals, which have become more widespread. In a letter dated October 4 to Waterfront Toronto and her fellow panel members, Ms. Muzaffar said her decision is due to project-backer Waterfront Toronto showing “apathy and a lack of leadership regarding shaky public trust” and dodging questions around privacy and intellectual property, including at a series of roundtables the organization has held to consult the public. “I have yet to see evidence that Waterfront Toronto shares the urgency and concern that has been raised in multiple for a. The most recent roundtable in August displayed a blatant disregard for resident concerns about data and digital infrastructure. Time was spent instead talking about buildings made out of wood and the width of one-way streets, things no one has contested or expressed material concern for in this entire process,” Ms. Muzaffar wrote.

Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System executive John Ruffolo has also resigned. Former BlackBerry chief executive Jim Balsillie called the project "a colonising experiment in surveillance capitalism" earlier this month and accused it of making irreversible decisions that will have major negative effect on all Canadians.

Einstein’s theory proven as astronomers capture the first photo of a black hole

Introduced in 1915, theoretical physicist Albert Einstein’s revolutionary theory of general relativity explains the laws of gravity and their relation to other natural forces. It says that matter warps or curves the geometry of space-time, and we experience that distortion as gravity. The existence of extremely massive black holes was one of the first predictions of Einstein’s theory, and even Einstein wasn’t sure that they actually existed.

Using a massive telescope network, scientists now have data in hand that could vastly broaden our understanding of gravity. Black holes are the most densely filled objects in the universe, giving them enormous gravitational pull. Stellar black holes, formed from the collapse of giant stars, can compact the mass of ten suns to the size of New York City. Supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies can have the mass of billions of suns. Their origin remains a mystery.

Even if the first images are still crappy and washed out, we can already test for the first time some basic predictions of Einstein's theory of gravity in the extreme environment of a black hole,” says radio astronomer Heino Falcke of Radboud University in Nijmegen in the Netherlands. Astronomers have only circumstantial evidence that black holes lie hidden at the heart of every large galaxy in the universe. “They are the ultimate endpoint of space and time, and may represent the ultimate limit of our knowledge,” says Mr. Falcke.

The first-ever photo of a black hole is a milestone in astrophysics and an achievement that validated the pillar of science put forward by Albert Einstein more than a century ago. The somewhat fuzzy photo of the black hole at the center of Messier 87, or M87, a massive galaxy residing in the center of the relatively nearby Virgo galaxy cluster, shows a glowing ring of red, yellow, and white surrounding a dark center.

The research was conducted by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) project, an international collaboration involving about 200 scientists begun in 2012 to try to directly observe the immediate environment of a black hole. Capturing the photos took years of planning and cooperation between international partners stretching from the tallest mountain in Hawaii to the frozen terrain of the South Pole to create an electronically linked network of eight observatories and a virtual telescope dish as wide as the planet. Known as the Event Horizon Telescope, the radio-dish network opened its eye on the heavens during a 10-day window that started on April 4.

Black holes, phenomenally dense and coming in various sizes, are extraordinarily difficult to observe by their very nature. A black hole's event horizon is the point of no return beyond which anything – stars, planets, gas, dust and all forms of electromagnetic radiation – gets swallowed into oblivion. The telescope zeroed in on two supermassive black holes: a beast as massive as four million suns called Sagittarius A, which lies at the heart of our Milky Way galaxy, and a black hole about 1,500 times heavier at the core of the nearby galaxy M87. The Event Horizon Telescope has probed the neighborhood of each of these behemoths before, but this is the first time the network has included the South Pole telescope and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), a group of 66 radio dishes in Chile. ALMA sharpens the Event Horizon Telescope’s acuity 10-fold, enabling it to spot objects as small as a golf ball on the moon—and thus image the surprisingly small event horizons of the two black holes.

Regulators target social media rules and tech start-ups amid another Facebook privacy leak

A new European Commission research paper titled 'Competition for the Digital Era' says American technology giants should be subject to stricter merger controls where a “heightened degree of control of acquisitions of small start-ups by dominant platforms” will prevent them from purchasing promising European start-ups and stifling competition.

The report suggested a new test could help decide whether mergers should be blocked if they give disproportionate power to the acquiring company over data or prevented the entry of new start-ups. It also suggested changing the revenue threshold for mergers and buyouts of European tech companies so that more deals would be scrutinised by the regulator.

Many of Britain’s hopeful technology start-ups have been bought by Silicon Valley firms, such as Bloomsbury AI bought by Facebook for USD $30 million and artificial intelligence company DeepMind acquired by Google for 400 million GDP in 2014. In the UK, the Government has proposed a new digital tax on the biggest technology firms, while Labour has proposed new regulations such as fines on companies which fail to remove hate speech.

Despite new calls from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to introduce regulation on social media, the report does not appear to support this. These tech giants continue to be criticized for being platforms that spread misinformation and host discriminatory and abusive content. Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Amazon are among those that have come under increasing attention from regulators and politicians over their use of data and ability to combat harmful content.

The reports authors said treating technology companies like public utilities with strict regulations would not work and would stifle innovation, stating, “We do not envision a new type of 'public utility regulation' to emerge for the digital economy. The risks associated with such a regime – rigidity, lack of flexibility, and risk of capture – are too high.

Mr. Dorsey said, “It’s the job of regulators to ensure protection of the individual and a level playing field." In an opinion piece in the Washington Post last weekend, Mr. Zuckerberg called for government and regulators to have a “more active role.” He called for regulation in harmful content, elections, privacy, and data portability, and said rules should be drawn up to define political advertisements and more countries should adopt rules based on General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Mr. Zuckerberg is currently engaged in a criminal investigation into how political consultants used Facebook's system to improperly harvest data from 87 million people. This was made possible by tasking a developer to create a seemingly harmless personality test app, which when installed by Facebook users was granted access to the Facebook Application Programmer Interface (API) to pool their information, which was later sold to Cambridge Analytica.

Now, in another scandal for the company that has long profited from use of its users’ personal data, cyber security researchers have revealed 540 million Facebook records have been "exposed to the internet". According to Australian IT company UpGuard, two apps that Facebook allowed to access to its users’ data stored personal information on insecure servers without putting security measures in place.

Users’ Facebook IDs, passwords, friend lists, location check-ins, events, comments, likes, reactions, and account names were found on a database uploaded by Mexican digital publisher Cultura Colectiva which was discovered on Amazon Web Service (AWS) cloud servers, a popular storage product. A second database belonging to a now defunct Los Angeles-based social network app called The Pool Party which included names, email addresses, photos, friends lists and likes of 22,000 additional users was also found. Both Cultura Colectiva and At The Pool appear to have used Facebook's API to gather information.

Bezos divorce draws attention to possible Saudi hacking of private devices and personal information

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and wife MacKenzie have finalized their amicable divorce, whereby Mr. Bezos retains control over his USD $890 billion online marketplace. On January 9, Mr. Bezos announced the end of their 25-year marriage, the day before American tabloid the National Enquirer published details of his “months-long affair” with Lauren Sanchez.

Mr. Bezos told his top security chief of 22 years, former CIA and FBI agent Gavin de Becker, to “spend whatever is needed” to find the source who leaked the details of his new relationship. In February, Mr. Bezos published a blog post charging that the tabloid had attempted to blackmail him with intimate photographs that had been taken on his smartphone and allegedly sent to Ms. Sanchez unless the investigation was dropped.

Mr. de Becker’s investigation led him to accuse Saudi Arabia of hacking Mr. Bezos’ phone to obtain private information, including the photos and accompanying texts. “Some Americans will be surprised to learn that the Saudi government has been very intent on harming Jeff Bezos since last October, when the Post began its relentless coverage of Khashoggi’s murder,” Mr. de Becker wrote in an article for the Daily Beast.

After interviews with current and former executives from The National Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc (AMI), advisers to American President Donald Trump, associates close to those at the heart of Saudi Arabia's government, Middle East intelligence experts and cyber security specialists, Mr. de Becker concluded the hacking was a “key part of the Saudis’ ‘extensive surveillance efforts’”. Experts told Mr. de Becker about the Saudi government’s capability to “collect vast amounts of previously inaccessible data from smartphones in the air without leaving a trace - including phone calls, texts, emails.

In his article, Mr. de Becker suggested that Mr. Bezos became a target of the Saudi regime after the Washington Post, which he owns, criticized the country after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. United States intelligence officials said they believed that Mr. Khashoggi's killing, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, was ordered by the crown prince himself. This allegation was strongly denied by the Saudi government, and the Saudi government’s Minister of State for foreign affairs denied all accusations regarding Mr. Bezos, saying it had “absolutely nothing to do” with the National Enquirer’s story.

Mr. de Becker said some of the methods allegedly employed by the Saudi government to “attack” people, included creating artificially trending hashtags online. He claimed it had also used a “cyberarmy” of bots to attack Mr. Bezos.

The Saudi regime previously sent an operative to work for Twitter to gather information. Twitter later fired the suspected employee and later advised certain users that their accounts may have been targeted by state-sponsored actors.

Evidence from Mr. de Becker’s investigation has been turned over to federal officials, and he notes it is “unclear to what degree” AMI is aware of the Saudi government’s involvement.

Apple launches a new streaming service to compete with the likes of Netflix

On Monday, Apple announced its new TV streaming service called Apple TV Plus, as well as a revamped Apple TV experience that competes against the biggest streaming services. Apple CEO Tim Cook said, “This will be a different kind of event. We’ve developed world-class services, and that’s what today is all about.” The announcement is considered crucial for Apple as its iPhone sales flatten, and the company looks to its growing services division to make up for the revenue loss.

Apple TV+ was unveiled to “tell great stories,” as Mr. Cook put it. Among the creative partners introduced were Hollywood elites including Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, J.J. Abrams, and Oprah.

Despite being categorized as "streaming services," however, the new Apple TV Plus and its peers have distinctively differing features from each other. The new Apple TV Plus will have original content, streaming apps with an Apple TV device, the option to buy or rent content, the ability to watch purchased iTunes content with Apple TV or on other devices with the Apple TV app, including mobile devices, computers, some smart TVs, and some streaming devices, includes premium channels like HBO, Showtime, and Starz with Apple TV Channels, and will not contain ads.

What Apple TV will not offer are live TV, such as Hulu, since it is not its own cable provider. Apple did not announce pricing for Apple TV+, which will be available in the fall.

A new Apple TV app, called Apple TV Channels, offers TV shows, sports, movies, and children’s programming tailored for the user through machine learning of their habits. The app, available beginning in May, can be viewed through digital platforms like Samsung, Roku, and Amazon.com.

Apple News+ is now available. The first month is free, and USD $9.99 a month after. The company is revamping it by bringing more than 300 magazines such as Time, Vogue, Sports Illustrated, and the New Yorker.

The consumer market is embracing digital subscription services in record numbers, according to market researchers. More than two-thirds (69 percent) of American households have a video-streaming subscription service while 65 percent pay for traditional TV. According to Deloitte, this marks the first time streaming has overtaken traditional TV in the U.S. and with Apple’s entry, and the impending launches of services from Comcast ’s NBC and Disney, the shift is likely to accelerate.

Though iPhone sales dipped 15 percent in the December quarter, they still accounted for 62 percent of Apple’s USD $84 billion in total sales for the quarter. Services rose 19 percent and made up 13 percent of total quarterly sales.

Cancer breakthrough: Scientists say immune system transplants mean 'future is incredibly bright'

Scientists have discovered a breakthrough treatment to fight cancer, claiming the disease will no longer be deadly for future generations. Researchers at the Francis Crick Institute in London believe it is possible to strengthen the body's defences by transplanting immune cells from strangers. Immunology expert Professor Adrian Hayday, group leader of the Immunosurveillance Lab at The Crick, said scientists and doctors could become more like engineers, upgrading the body rather than bombarding it with toxic chemotherapy. “Using the immune system to fight cancer is the ultimate do-it-yourself approach,” he said.

Professor Adrian Hayday said, “Even a few years ago the notion that any clinician would look at a patient and deliver a therapy which wasn’t going to directly affect the cancer in any way, shape or form, would have been pretty radical. But that’s what happening. We’re seeing impressive results with cells called natural killer cells. It’s very early days but there are patients receiving them in this next year and the year after, and the nice feature is, unlike other immunotherapy, these cells aren’t rejected. So you have the possibility of developing cell banks that could be used for anyone. It could be someone else’s immune system. You would have cell banks and you would call them up and deliver them to the clinic just hours before they were needed to be infused. We’re not quite there yet. But that’s what we’re trying now. There is every capability of getting cell banks like this established.”

Patients will begin to receive the new treatment next year, and the team now wants to establish ‘immune banks’ to store disease-fighting cells.  Until this year, scientists thought it would be impossible to import a stranger’s immune cells as the immunosuppresent drugs needed to ensure the body did not reject them, would cancel out the benefits. However, in 2018, scientists realised that immune cells are unlike other cells, and can survive well in another person, opening the door to transplants.

Radical advances over the past decade have seen the number of people surviving cancer for at least a decade rise to 50 percent and the team at The Crick want to make that 75 percent in the next fifteen years. Professor Charlie Swanton, of the Cancer Evolution and Genome Instability Laboratory, said the ability now to sequence tumours was heralding a new era of medicine tailor-made for a patient. He said, “It’s a very exciting time. The technology available to us now is just incredible. We’re able to sequence the genome of a tumour, understand its microenvironment, how it metabolizes, what cells are controlling the tumour, and how those can be manipulated. Using the body’s own immune cells to target the tumour is elegant because tumours evolve so quickly there is no way a pharmaceutical company can keep up with it, but the immune system has been evolving for over four billion years to do just that.”

Tumours evolve in a branched way, like trees, but scientist have recently found immune cells in their ‘trunks’ which could be crucial to battling the disease from the base up. Next year, Professor Swanton’s team begin trials to see if ramping up those specific cells could be effective in fighting lung cancer, saying “It’s personalised medicine taken to the absolute extreme. Each patient has a unique therapy, it’s pretty much impossible to have the same treatment because no two tumours are the same.”

The team is also studying a group of people known as ‘elite controllers’, who have genetic mutations which prevent them from developing cancer. In mice who have been genetically engineered to have the same mutations, it is almost impossible to induce skin cancer. “One of the pivotal breakthrough in HIV was the recognition of people with elite controllers who had mutations in receptors which rendered them resistant to infection and that changed the landscape utterly,” said Professor Hayday, “Bear in mind 30 years ago that was one in four so survival has doubled in my lifetime and I think it will double again over the next 30 years. The future is incredibly bright.”

He added, “We have a group in Sardinia who have a conspicuously low rate of cancers. Technology which allows you to sequence the genome opens the possibility to start looking at elite controllers and learn the pathways. There is every reason, despite the suffering that continues to plague the oncology wards, the family, the friends, the basis for optimism is extraordinary. I would go so far as to say that we might reach a point, maybe 20 years from now, where the vast majorities of cancers are rapidly treated diseases or long term chronic issues that you can manage. And I think the immune system will be essential in doing that. Between 1980 and 2010, 519,000 cancer deaths were avoided because of cancer research. If that’s not a note for optimism I don’t know what is.”

Solar storms could cause blackouts and leave Britain with £16 billion worth of damage, warns Oxford University

Earth is vulnerable to space weather events such as solar flares, or coronal mass ejection, which fling huge amounts of electromagnetic radiation at the planet, potentially causing severe disruption to power grids, air transport, and satellite communications. Experts at Oxford University in the United Kingdom (U.K.) have called for urgent updates to space weather forecasting satellites to prevent solar storms from causing Britain £16 billion worth of damage, as the first economic risk analysis has projected, which was published in Risk Analysis journal.

The inability to forecast and prepare for solar flare events could be catastrophic for the economy, Oxford University warned, due to the ripple effects on vital infrastructure, businesses, and homes. The most severe incident, known as ‘the Carrington Event’, occurred in 1859, shorting Telegraph circuits, starting fires, and causing the northern lights to dance in the sky as far south as Hawaii. In 1989, a geomagnetic disturbance caused a voltage collapse of Canada’s Hydro-Québec power grid, leaving six million inhabitants without power for nine hours. In 2005, X-rays from a solar flare disrupted the GPS system for about 10 minutes. More recently, a solar flare narrowly missed Earth during London’s 2012 Olympic Games. Oxford’s model suggests that blackouts would be likely in the northeast and north west of England, East Anglia, and Wales, where power supplies are most vulnerable and where transformers failed in the 1989 solar storm.

Dr. Edward Oughton of the Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium (ITRC), currently at the University of Oxford, said, “If the Earth were to experience a Carrington-sized event without upgrading our current forecasting capability, it could cost the UK up to £16bn in the most severe scenario. The ‘do nothing’ scenario where the UK fails to invest or invests minimally in replacing satellite monitoring capabilities means existing forecasting skill levels will decline. This increases the risk of critical national infrastructure failure because there may be little early warning that an event is taking place. There would be less time for infrastructure operators to implement mitigation plans.

A solar storm of the size which hit Earth during the Carrington Event is estimated to happen every 100 years, and the planet is already overdue such a catastrophe. If it happened today, researchers estimate there is a 71 percent chance the British power grid would be affected, while mobile phone reception could die, and airlines would be grounded without GPS.

Many of the satellites which currently monitor coronal mass ejections are nearing the end of their lives. The research authors, which include experts from The Met Office, are calling for a fleet of new spacecraft equipped with Heliospheric Imagers and Solar Coronagraphs, in different locations to monitor the Sun. Such a system would increase the current early warning system from a maximum of four days to up to a week ahead and would be more exact in predicting when the storm would hit Earth, narrowing the current window of six hours to four.

New documents link Huawei to suspected front companies in Iran and Syria

The United States (U.S.) court case against Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Meng Wanzhou of China’s Huawei Technologies, who was arrested in Canada last month, centers on the company’s suspected ties to two obscure companies. One is a telecom equipment seller that operated in Tehran, and the other is that firm’s owner, a holding company registered in Mauritius. U.S. authorities allege Ms. Wanzhou deceived international banks into clearing transactions with Iran by claiming the two companies were independent of Huawei, when in fact Huawei controlled them. Huawei has maintained the two are independent: equipment seller Skycom Tech Co Ltd and shell company Canicula Holdings Ltd.

Corporate filings and other documents found by Reuters in Iran and Syria show that Huawei, the world’s largest supplier of telecommunications network equipment, is more closely linked to both firms than previously known. The documents reveal that a high-level Huawei executive appears to have been appointed Skycom’s Iran manager, and show that at least three Chinese-named individuals had signing rights for both Huawei and Skycom bank accounts in Iran. A Middle Eastern lawyer said Huawei conducted operations in Syria through Canicula.

The previously unreported ties undermines Huawei’s claims that Skycom was merely an arms-length business partner. Huawei, U.S. authorities assert, retained control of Skycom, using it to sell telecom equipment to Iran and move money out via the international banking system. As a result of the deception, U.S. authorities say, banks unwittingly cleared hundreds of millions of dollars of transactions that potentially violated economic sanctions Washington had in place at the time against doing business with Iran.

Meng was released on CAD $10 million bail on December 11, 2018 and remains in Vancouver while Washington tries to extradite her. In the U.S., Meng would face charges in connection with an alleged conspiracy to defraud multiple financial institutions, with a maximum sentence of 30 years for each charge. The exact charges have not been made public.

Meng’s arrest on a U.S. warrant has caused an uproar in China. It comes at a time of growing trade and military tensions between Washington and Beijing, and amid worries by U.S. intelligence that Huawei’s telecommunications equipment could contain “backdoors” for Chinese espionage. The firm has repeatedly denied such claims. Nevertheless, Australia and New Zealand recently banned Huawei from building their next generation of mobile phone networks, and British authorities have also expressed concerns.

Europe is dropping Huawei amid growing security concerns

For months, the United States (U.S.) has been pushing governments to block Huawei Technologies Co. from telecom networks with the concern that China’s government could use Huawei’s equipment for spying. Espionage concerns with Huawei, run by a former military engineer, are not new but the company has always maintained that it’s independent and doesn’t give the government access to its equipment. European officials and companies were initially slow to act on the U.S. warnings but are now increasingly distancing themselves publicly from Huawei.

CEO of telecom consultant Northstream Bengt Nordstrom said the continent’s biggest carriers will now be “extra cautious” of buying equipment from Huawei and “It’s been a week of negative announcements and indications from the biggest markets in Europe -- the U.K., Germany and France.” Telecom, media, and technology analyst at Mirabaud Securities Ltd. Neil Campling said, “Reputational damage for Huawei will be significant whatever the outcome. It seems likely that Huawei will lose significant share in the next three years.”

The development of 5G, which will boost speeds and reduce the latency of connections to bring online a wave of new gadgets, from devices in cars to manufacturing facilities, has security and government officials worried that networks carrying sensitive data will be at greater risk of hacking.

We recognize the concerns about security with the introduction of new 5G networks, and those are concerns we share,” said Vincent Pang, the president of Huawei Western Europe, in a statement. “We think the answer lies in global cooperation and collaboration to ensure that networks are as secure as possible.”

As a member of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, the United Kingdom (U.K.) was the first major market in Europe to publicly raise doubts about the security of Huawei’s equipment in the run-up to 5G. The head of Britain’s spy agency MI6 said last week that the government needs to decide whether to allow Huawei as a 5G supplier. BT Group Plc pledged to rip out some of the company’s equipment.

France is pushing for significantly tighter regulation and has safeguards in place for critical parts of its telecom networks. The country is now considering adding items to its ‘high-alert’ list that tacitly targets Huawei and France’s National Agency for the Security of Information Systems (Anssi) is demanding full access to potential suppliers’ technology. Huawei hasn’t submitted its equipment for vetting to become certified for critical components, and Orange SA said it won’t use Huawei gear to build fifth-generation wireless networks.

In Germany, officials have become uncomfortable with Huawei’s participation in 5G and have been reviewing the issue. Last week Deutsche Telekom AG raised the prospect of dropping Huawei, followed by the Norwegian government saying they are weighing concerns with using suppliers from countries with which there’s no security policy cooperation, an explicit reference to China.

The developments in Europe come after bans of Huawei equipment in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. and follow the arrest of its Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Meng Wanzhou, the 46-year-old daughter of founder Ren Zhengfei.  Ms. Meng is accused by the U.S. of defrauding banks to mask violations of sanctions on sales to Iran, and after being arrest in Vancouver last week was granted bail by a Canadian court and she now awaits a possible extradition to the U.S.

Satellites warn African farmers of pest infestations

Researchers from the United Kingdom (U.K.) have developed an early warning system to prevent the crops of African farmers from being devastated. The Pest Risk Information Service (Prise) combines temperature data and weather forecasts with computer models and then sends farmers a mobile phone alert so that they can take precautions. It is hoped that the system will boost yields and increase farm incomes by up to 20 percent.

Prise is being used in Kenya, Ghana, and Zambia and will be rolled out soon in other parts of the world. Prise is an upgrade of a highly successful U.K. Aid scheme run by the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International development charity (CABI). It uses a network of so called "plant doctors" and clinics to advise farmers when pests or diseases destroy their crops.

Satellites can provide accurate land temperature information, which is one of the most important drivers of pest infestations. This, combined with weather data and computer models, can be used to give farmers enough time to spray pesticide and take other precautions. The ‘doctors’ draw on a database using an app to help them to diagnose the issue and then prescribe the right pesticide and other measures. So far, the scheme has helped 18.3 million farmers, in thirty-four countries across Africa, Asia, and the Americas. On average, farm incomes and yields are 13 percent higher for those using the service.

Professor Charlotte Watts, chief scientific adviser for the U.K.'s Department for International Development, which funds the plant doctor scheme, says a new initiative with CABI and the U.K. Space Agency (UKSA) will use the network to prevent, rather than just mitigate infestations. She says the idea is to use satellite data collected by the UKSA to develop a system that is able to predict when pest infestations will strike a week or more in advance. Early indications are that the system is working, says Professor Watts, "Farmers are completely dependent on crops and the predictability of having a good yield to survive and also to send their kids to school. So, if we can reduce the impact of pests, if we can enable them to get better yields - which we are already seeing - it will mean that we can help them move out of poverty."

Scientists identify vast underground ecosystem containing billions of micro-organisms

Researchers at the Deep Carbon Observatory say the diversity of the ecosystem below the Earth’s surface is twice the size of world’s oceans and bears comparison to the Amazon or the Galápagos Islands. Unlike those places, the underground environment is still largely pristine because people have yet to probe most of the subsurface. Despite extreme heat, no light, minuscule nutrition and intense pressure, scientists estimate this subterranean biosphere is teeming with between 15 billion and 23 billion tonnes of micro-organisms, hundreds of times the combined weight of every human on the planet.

The researchers said their discoveries were made possible by two technical advances: drills that can penetrate far deeper below the Earth’s crust, and improvements in microscopes that allow life to be detected at increasingly minute levels. The scientists have been trying to find a lower limit beyond which life cannot exist, but the deeper they dig the more life they find. There is a temperature maximum – currently 122 degrees Celsius – but the researchers believe this record will be broken if they keep exploring and developing more sophisticated instruments.

Associate professor at the University of Tennessee Karen Lloyd said, “It’s like finding a whole new reservoir of life on Earth. We are discovering new types of life all the time. So much of life is within the Earth rather than on top of it.” The team combines 1,200 scientists from 52 countries in disciplines ranging from geology and microbiology to chemistry and physics and a year prior to the conclusion of their ten-year study, they will present an amalgamation of findings to date before the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting opens this week.

Ms. Lloyd added, “The strangest thing for me is that some organisms can exist for millennia. They are metabolically active but in stasis, with less energy than we thought possible of supporting life.” Samples were taken from boreholes more than 5 kilometres deep and undersea drilling sites to construct models of the ecosystem and estimate how much living carbon it might contain. The results suggest 70 percent of Earth’s bacteria and archaea exist in the subsurface. One organism found 2.5 kilometers below the surface has been buried for millions of years and may not rely at all on energy from the sun. Instead, the methanogen has found a way to create methane in this low energy environment, which it may not use to reproduce or divide, but to replace or repair broken parts.

Rick Colwell, a microbial ecologist at Oregon State University, said the timescales of subterranean life were completely different, where some microorganisms have been alive for thousands of years, barely moving except with shifts in the tectonic plates, earthquakes, or eruptions. “We humans orientate towards relatively rapid processes – diurnal cycles based on the sun, or lunar cycles based on the moon – but these organisms are part of slow, persistent cycles on geological timescales,” he said.

Underworld biospheres vary depending on geology and geography. Their combined size is estimated to be more than 2 billion cubic kilometres, but this could be expanded further in the future.

China launches a lunar probe to explore the dark side of the moon

Chang’e-4, which includes a lander and rover, lifted off early Saturday morning from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China’s Sichuan Province to explore the moon that always faces away from Earth, known as the ‘dark side of the moon’. After a journey of almost four weeks, Chang’e-4 is set to land on the Aitken Basin of the south pole region, one of the largest and deepest impact craters in the Solar System at around 2,500 kilometers in diameter and 12 kilometers deep.

Executive Director of the Chang’e-4 project, Zhang He, said, “The soft landing and exploration of the far side, which has never been done before, will result in first-hand information about the terrain and lunar soil components and other scientific data. It will help enrich our understanding of the moon and the universe.

The dark side of the moon has a clean electromagnetic environment, according to Zou Yongliao, head of the moon and deep-space exploration department under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which makes it an ideal place for the study of low-frequency radio. According to the China National Space Administration, the probe includes the first lunar low-frequency radio astronomy experiment.

Astronomers believe the research will lead to new discoveries about solar eruptions, star formation and how galaxies evolve. The probe will also study the environment of the moon’s dark side, including landforms, mineral composition, surface structure, and radiation conditions.

The country’s first lunar probe, Chang’e-1, was launched in 2007, making China the fifth country to develop and launch a lunar probe on its own. Chang’e-2, launched in 2010, created a full lunar map with a resolution of 7 meters, as well as images of the Sinus Iridum, or the Bay of Rainbows, with a resolution of 1.5 meters, showing the details of the proposed landing site of Chang’e-3. Chang’e-3, launched in 2013, was the first Chinese spacecraft to soft-land on and explore an extraterrestrial object.

Shungite, the Healing Stone

Health Benefits

In 1706, Russian Tsar Peter the Great ordered Shungite to be brought to his Summer Palace and wanted it placed inside his water fountains because of its reputation for healing and purification. In 1719, Peter the Great founded the first healing mineral spa in Russia, Marsial Waters, in Petrozavodsk, Karelina, where the water flowed over Shungite deposits, giving the water its marvelous healing qualities. The Tsar visited the spa personally on three separate occasions and swore by its powers. He also ordered his soldiers to carry a piece of Shungite and use it to purify their drinking water during military campaigns.

Found only in the northern Russian district of Karelia, Shungite was formed about two billion years ago. Shungite is composed of all the elements of the Periodic Table. Though it is commonly known that not all chemical elements are beneficial to life forms, a surprising feature of this mineral is that water only absorbs its health-giving components. Moreover, experts have reason to believe that water contained in Shungite deposits gave birth to life, because its natural structures and complexes are similar to those of a living cell.

Scientists who have investigated this phenomenon have unanimously declared it a miracle. Shungite is the only mineral only Earth that contains fullerenes. Named after the great architect, Buckminster Fuller, fullerenes are found in very minute quantities in nature, usually formed by lightening charges. The importance of the discovery of fullerenes in Shungite is highlighted by the fact that the three scientists who discovered fullerenes were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Shungite absorbs and eliminates everything that imposes a hazard to life, up to 98 percent of electromagnetic radiation, but concentrates and restores all that is beneficial. It cures, purifies, protects, normalizes, induces recovery, and promotes growth in living organisms. As a natural source of fullerene molecules, which absorb free radicals and shield the body from electromagnetic radiation, Shungite is believed to heal and protect our body’s electromagnetic field, improve memory, and relive stress. It clears and purifies surrounding environments from free radicals. Positive emotional and psychological effects may be due to the fullerene’s crystalline matrix, by creating fullerene-like cages within the molecular water matrix.

 

Why We Need Shungite

Scientists at the Tula Research Institute in Russia discovered that Shungite’s shielding properties diminish the effects of electromagnetic radiation. Specifically, its fullerene structure makes Shungite suitable as a shielding screen against the pathogenic influence of electromagnetic radiation (EMF).

In our modern digital world, one of the most serious threats to our health is electromagnetic (EM) radiation emitted by different electronic devices, which has a long-term detrimental effect on our health. Children are more vulnerable to EMF because they’ve been exposed to it since birth, much longer than their parents and grandparents. Children are considered to be especially vulnerable to the EMF since their brain, nervous and immune system are still developing. They do not have enough energetic strength yet to protect their growth and development. All of the internal systems of a child’s body are focused on steady and harmonious development and have no capability to combat external negative influence, including EMF.

Since we cannot avoid the sources of EMF, wearing Shungite jewelry is an extremely efficient shield blocking any negative impact of the external environment.

 

Shungite Water

Elite Shungite, also known as Noble Shungite, is distinguishable by its silvery metallic surface. It is even more rare, only 1 percent of total Shungite deposits and can be used to make Shungite water. Elite Shungite contains a higher percentage of fullerene molecules, of which Shungite is the only naturally occurring source, and contains up to 98 percent organic carbon, giving it powerful filtrating and curative properties. In water, Elite Shungite absorbs more than 95 percent of pollutants, and mineralizes it with protective and healing properties, because within its composition, fullerenes can hold a tremendous amount of hydrogen. Shungite has been documented to have a high oxidative and reductive capacity, and Shungite water is known for its antioxidant effects.

Shungite purifies water with healing energy from its powerful energetic field and can neutralize numerous forms of negative energy. Shungite water gently cleanses and rejuvenates at the cellular level, induces recovery, and promotes growth in living organisms. Research indicates Shungite water decreases inflammation and histamine in the bloodstream. For example, health benefits include decreased allergy symptoms, improved skin elasticity of the skin and heals skin conditions and wounds and relieves gastro-intestinal ailments.

How to make Shungite water

 

The Nobel Prize

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1996

Robert F. Curl Jr., Sir Harold Kroto, Richard E. Smalley

Award Ceremony Speech

Presentation Speech by Professor Lennart Eberson of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

Translation of the Swedish text

 

“Majesties, Your Royal Highness, Ladies and Gentlemen,

 

We like to think that everything worth knowing about the chemical elements is already known, and that carbon - one of our most thoroughly researched elements - could not possibly yield further important discoveries. Carbon has been known since prehistoric times as soot, coal and charcoal. By the late 18th century, graphite and diamonds had been shown to be different forms of the element carbon. We employ carbon in countless ways: the large-scale burning of coal as a fuel; the use of coke in steel production; the use of graphite in lubricants, pencils, brake linings, etc. That rare form of carbon known as a diamond has many applications, aside from its aesthetic function. An ordinary automobile tire contains 3 kilograms of carbon black, and activated carbon is highly useful in a wide variety of fields. Carbon is the basis of life processes; it is extremely important to all of us.

 

It was therefore a first-class scientific sensation when this year’s Laureates in Chemistry - Robert Curl, Harold Kroto and Richard Smalley - together with graduate students James Heath and Sean O’Brien, reported in 1985 that they had discovered a new, stable form of carbon in which sixty carbon atoms are arranged in a closed shell. They named this new carbon molecule buckminsterfullerene after the American architect R. Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the “geodesic dome”, a building perhaps internationally best known from the United States pavilion at the 1967 world’s fair in Montreal. To understand how the carbon atoms in buckminsterfullerene are connected to each other, we need only recall the pattern on the surface of a soccer ball, or European football. This ball is stitched together from 12 black pentagons and 20 white hexagons, in such a way that no pentagon comes into contact with another pentagon. The result is a highly symmetrical structure with sixty corners. If we now imagine that we place a carbon atom at each one of these 60 corners, we know how buckminsterfullerene looks. Although it is 300 million times smaller than a soccer ball!

 

The discovery of buckminsterfullerene - or C60 - was made by using an advanced instrument, in which a laser vaporized a very small quantity of carbon in one five billionth of a second. When the hot carbon gas condensed, it formed clusters containing different numbers of carbon atoms. The one with 60 carbon atoms was the most common. Many of these various carbon molecules were shown to have the same stability as C60 and were therefore also assumed to be closed; the collective name for such clusters was fullerenes It was also possible to produce fullerenes that enclosed a metal atom inside, for example potassium or cesium.

 

The problem with these experiments was that fullerenes were available in such small quantities that their postulated structure could not be rigorously verified. The years from 1985 to 1990 were filled with scientific disputes, in which the stubbornness, ingenuity and enthusiasm of the fullerenes’ discoverers kept their hypothesis alive despite rather severe criticism. Only in 1990 were physicists Donald Huffman and Wolfgang Krätschmer able to produce gram-sized quantities of C60 using a method that could be quickly and inexpensively duplicated in any laboratory. This made it possible to apply the whole battery of structural determination methods and show that C60 really had the structure its discoverers had hypothesized. Chemists now quickly went to work studying the chemistry of fullerenes. They were able to try out various applications of the chemistry and physics of fullerenes.

 

So why are the fullerenes so interesting? To understand this, we must look at the structure of other forms of carbon. Graphite consists of carbon atoms attached together in very large flat networks that are piled on top of each other, whereas diamonds consist of carbon atoms bound into endless three-dimensional networks. Both are examples of what we usually call polymers. The chemistry that can be done using these forms of carbon is rather limited - and not entirely inexpensive, in the case of diamonds! A fullerene, on the other hand, has a closed, low-molecular structure that can be chemically processed and modified in an almost infinite number of ways.

 

This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry has implications for all the natural sciences. The seeds of the discovery were sowed by a desire to understand the behavior of carbon in red giant stars and interstellar gas clouds. The discovery of fullerenes has expanded our knowledge and changed our thinking in chemistry and physics. It has given us new hypotheses on the occurrence of carbon in the universe. It has also led us to discover small quantities of fullerenes in geological formations. Fullerenes are probably present in much larger amounts on earth than previously believed. It has been shown that most sooty flames contain small quantities of fullerenes. Think of this the next time you light a candle!

 

The symmetry concept has played an important role in the history of ideas and the natural sciences. Ideas of symmetry dominate many important theories and comprise a strong driving force behind scientific thinking. We are fascinated by the beautiful structure of C60 - and this feeling has existed ever since humans began to reflect on natural phenomena. In the Timaeus dialogue, Plato described his theory of the four elementary particles for fire, earth, air and water:

 

”And next we have to determine what are the four most beautiful bodies which are unlike one another, and of which some are capable of resolution into one another; for having discovered thus much, we shall know the true origin of earth and fire and of the proportionate and intermediate elements. And then we shall not be willing to allow that there are any distinct kinds of visible bodies fairer than these...”

 

He went on to describe four of the five regular polyhedrons - the tetrahedron (fire), the cube (earth), the octahedron (air) and the icosahedron (water). The dodecahedron represents the cosmos because it is closest to that most perfect of forms, the sphere. Plato would certainly have found the structure of C60 - an expanded dodecahedron, which is about as close to a sphere as you can get - to be an unusually beautiful body.

 

Professors Curl, Kroto and Smalley,

 

 You have been awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for your discovery of a new form of the element carbon, the fullerenes. It is a privilege and a great pleasure for me to congratulate you on behalf of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and I now ask you to receive your Nobel Prizes from the hands of His Majesty the King.

— From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1996, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1997

Massive Impact Crater Found Under Greenland’s Ice

Radar scans and sediment samples indicate a large meteorite blasted through the ice sheet in Greenland between 3 million and 12,000 years ago. Meteorite hits are difficult to find on Earth because the atmosphere limits the size of space rocks that actually crash, and erosion and rainfall often erase traces of ancient impacts. However, some depressions survive, and researchers have now found one of the largest ever impacts discovered trapped beneath the ice of Greenland’s Hiawatha glacier.

Signs of the crater were first detected by NASA’s Operation Icebridge, an airborne mission that has spent three years using radar to track changes in ice on Greenland’s ice sheet. Researchers from the University of Copenhagen who examined the publicly available data noticed an anomaly underneath the ice of Hiawatha that appeared to be a 19-mile-wide, 1,000-foot-deep crater. If confirmed, it will be one of the top twenty-five largest craters known on Earth and the first to be found under the ice. The researchers also collected sediment samples from channels washing out of the crater, which included bits of shocked quartz that can only be formed during a high-energy impact. They conclude that there is a crater locked beneath the ice, as they reported in their study published in the journal Science Advances.

In a press release at the Center for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, lead research author Kurt H. Kjær said, “The crater is exceptionally well-preserved, and that is surprising, because glacier ice is an incredibly efficient erosive agent that would have quickly removed traces of the impactBut that means the crater must be rather young from a geological perspective. So far, it has not been possible to date the crater directly, but its condition strongly suggests that it formed after ice began to cover Greenland, so younger than 3 million years old and possibly as recently as 12,000 years ago—toward the end of the last ice age.”

It’s believed to have been a massive global event, that to create the crater, the iron meteor that struck Greenland would have to be half a mile to a mile across and would have had the force of a 700-megaton warhead. Such an impact would have been felt hundreds of miles away, would have warmed up that area of Greenland and may have rained rocky debris down on North America and Europe.

Some researchers believe it could have had an even more significant impact. About 12,800 years ago toward the end of the last ice age, the world was steadily warming up. Then, abruptly, the paleoclimate record shows that temperatures plummeted back to ice age norms for about 1,000 years, a cooling period called the Younger Dryas that has no definite explanation. According to one theory, a comet impact in Greenland would have melted ice and diluted the ocean current that transports warm water through the Atlantic, causing a re-freeze. Some have even suggested such an event could have led to massive forest fires in Europe and North America, leading to the end of megafauna like the mastodon and the human communities that hunted them, which also disappear from the record around this time. “It’s a very speculative idea, but if this does turn out to be [the link], it would have had an outsize impact on human history,” Joseph MacGregor, a glaciologist with NASA, told Brian Clark Howard at National Geographic.

NASA predicts a long cold space winter due to decreased solar activity

NASA said sunspot activity on the surface of our galaxy’s sun has diminished so much that record low temperatures could soon hit space. The result is cooler space weather which does not affect the Earth's climate. Martin Mlynczak at NASA’s Langley Research Center clarified that there was no relationship between temperatures in space and that on Earth, saying "There is no relationship between the natural cycle of cooling and warming in the thermosphere and the weather/climate at Earth’s surface.

We see a cooling trend,” said Mr. Mlynczak, “High above Earth’s surface, near the edge of space, our atmosphere is losing heat energy … If current trends continue, it could soon set a Space Age record for cold.” He went on to describe how solar minimum can enhance the effects of space weather, disrupt communications and navigation, and even cause space junk to "hang around".

Mr. Mlynczak and his colleagues recently introduced the "Thermosphere Climate Index" (TCI), which measures how much heat nitric oxide (NO) molecules are dumping into space. The results come from the SABER instrument onboard NASA’s TIMED satellite, that monitor infrared emissions from carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitric oxide (NO). By measuring the infrared glow of these molecules, SABER can assess the thermal state of gas at the very top of the atmosphere, a layer researchers call “the thermosphere”. When the thermosphere cools, it shrinks, making the radius of the Earth's atmosphere smaller. This means it can delay the natural decay of space junk, resulting in a more cluttered environment around Earth.

Mr. Mlynczak said, “SABER is currently measuring 33 billion Watts of infrared power from NO. That’s 10 times smaller than we see during more active phases of the solar cycle,” and “The thermosphere always cools off during Solar Minimum. It’s one of the most important ways the solar cycle affects our planet.”

Investigation is launched into 'monstrous' claims a Chinese scientist genetically edited humans

In a YouTube video posted Monday, He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China said his goal was to give the babies a natural ability to resist HIV when he altered embryos for seven couples during fertility treatment, which had led to the birth of twins earlier this month. The Chinese university has launched an investigation into He’s claims, saying that He has been on unpaid leave since February and warned the research was a “serious violation of academic ethics and norms.” A joint statement from a group of 100 scientists in China criticized the project, calling it “a great blow” to the country’s reputation.

He posted five videos altogether Monday, saying he used the gene editing technology known as Crispr to rewrite the DNA of twin girls and claimed the experiment had "worked safely as intended" and that the girls were "as healthy as any other babies.” In the videos, the scientist defended his work, saying in one, "I understand my work will be controversial, but I believe families need this technology. And I’m willing to take the criticism for them." Despite providing no evidence or documentation to back up the claims, He said he plans to share data about the trial at a scientific forum this week in Hong Kong and promised his results would be submitted for peer review and published.

Feng Zhang, one of the inventors of gene editing technology Crisp called for a global moratorium, saying he was “deeply concerned” by the lack of transparency. The issue of genetic editing is deeply controversial, and though scientists in Britain and the United States (U.S.) have experimented with genetic editing in human embryos, but it is currently illegal to implant them. Last September, scientists at Sun Yat-sen University, China used an adapted version of gene-editing to correct a disease-causing mutation in human embryos, but they were destroyed after a few weeks of fertilisation.

Director of Human Genetics Alert Dr. David King said, “If these claims are true, the world has changed – it’s a day that I and many others have dreaded. But it underscores the need for an immediate global ban on the cloning and genetic engineering of human beings.

Professor Julian Salulescu, an expert in medical ethics from Oxford University said that in most other countries he would be facing jail. “If true, this experiment is monstrous,” he said. “These healthy babies are being used as genetic guinea pigs. This is genetic Russian Roulette. It exposes healthy normal children to risks of gene editing for no real necessary benefit and contravenes decades on ethical consensus and guidelines on the protection of human participants in research. In many other places in the world, this would be illegal punishable by imprisonment.”

Facebook increasingly used for human trafficking and illegal animal trading

In yet another scandal for Facebook, a seventeen-year-old child bride from South Sudan was just sold through Facebook to become a man’s ninth wife, and Facebook only took the post down two weeks after the auction had taken place. The girl was sold by her family to a man three times her age following a bidding war with “at least four other men” including “the state’s deputy governor” in exchange for “Five hundred cows, two luxury cars, $10,000, two bikes, a boat and a few cell phones.”

When Facebook finally responded two weeks after the auction had taken place, they claimed it had permanently suspended the account that made the auction post. “Any form of human trafficking — whether posts, pages, ads or groups is not allowed on Facebook. We removed the post and permanently disabled the account belonging to the person who posted this to Facebook,” stated a Facebook spokesman, “We’re always improving the methods we use to identify content that breaks our policies, including doubling our safety and security team to more than 30,000 and investing in technology.” Plan International’s South Sudan Country Director George Otim declared, “This barbaric use of technology is reminiscent of latter-day slave markets. That a girl could be sold for marriage on the world’s biggest social networking site in this day and age is beyond belief.”

This is not the first time Facebook has had problems with human trafficking on its platforms. In October, four Indonesians were arrested after they allegedly sold babies on Facebook-owned Instagram, on an account that gained over seven hundred followers. The Vice-Chairman of the Indonesian Child Protection Commission, Rita Pranawati, claimed that some people attempt to buy babies when they want to adopt, but do not meet the adoption criteria and that children have also previously been bought for “underage sex work.”

Facebook’s policies clearly prohibit the sale of live animals, pets, livestock, and pelts on their platform, however, the website’s Marketplace has been used to trade drugs, weapons, sex, and humans before the social network eventually discovered such listings and shut them down. Both Facebook and Instagram have also been used by the black market for illegal animal trading, including endangered animals which are banned from sale internationally. Over 1,500 illegal animal listings were discovered on twelve Facebook groups in one month, including animals such as the Eurasian otter, the black spotted turtle, the helmeted hornbill, the Siamese crocodile, the Asiatic black bear, the palm civet, and the slow loris — the most common listing. “Facebook does not allow the sale or trade of endangered species or their parts, and we remove this material as soon as we are aware of it,” said a Facebook spokesman.

Dying star could unleash a powerful gamma-ray burst in our galaxy

Published in the academic journal Nature Astronomy, an international team of researchers reveals their findings on a star system 8,000 light-years from Earth, called Apep. They believe Apep contains a start that will one day produce one of the most powerful explosions in the universe, known as a gamma-ray burst.

Gamma-ray bursts have been observed in other galaxies, but never in our own. These powerful explosions come in two types: long-duration and short-duration. They can give off more energy in a few seconds than our sun will in its entire lifetime. They are so powerful, that it's believed a gamma-ray burst could be behind an extinction event on Earth about 450 million years ago.

In 2012, astronomer Joe Callingham, then working on his Ph.D at the University of Sydney, booked time on the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile where he discovered a beautiful pinwheel. It's believed that the curved tails of Apep form as the two stars orbiting at the centre throw dust into the expanding winds, almost like a rotating lawn sprinkler.

The researchers suggest at the heart of the pinwheel are two massive Wolf-Rayet stars with winds that collide in the centre and produce dust. They calculate the winds are travelling at almost 12 million kilometres an hour, or one per cent of the speed of light. One of the stars is at the end of its life, and will undoubtedly die in a powerful explosion, called a supernova. Wolf-Rayet titan stars are the size of more than 20 times that of Earth’s sun but live only a few million years, compared to stars like our solar system’s, which live for 10 billion years.

Start-up Cora Ball aims to reduce plastic pollution from laundry synthetic microfibres

Rachael Miller, who studied marine archaeology and has devoted herself to keeping plastics from reaching the ocean, believes her invention, called the Cora Ball, could reduce a significant amount of microfibre pollution. Miller claims if just 10 percent of American households used Cora Ball it would keep the equivalent of 30 million water bottles from washing into public waterways a year.

Four inches (ten centimeters) in diameter and made from recycled and recyclable plastic, the Cora Ball imitates the structure of coral in the ocean. While it doesn't catch everything, the company says it captures between a quarter and a third of microfibres in every wash. Customers on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter have pre-ordered 15,500 of Miller’s Cora Balls, which capture tiny bits of synthetic microfibres that come off our clothes in the wash. Up to 700,000 microfibres can shed from a typical thirteen pounds (six kilograms) household load, says Imogen Napper, a postdoctoral marine science researcher at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom. Many of these fibres, which can be as small as three microns, a thirteenth the width of a human hair, are too small for water treatment plants to remove. Despite being so small, organic pollutants in the oceans, like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane (DDT), can stick to them, creating an amalgam.

There can be as many as 100,000 microplastics in a cubic metre of ocean, researchers say, which are then eaten by marine creatures. Ghent University's Lisbeth Van Cauwenberghe says we could be ingesting eleven thousand pieces of plastic a year just through eating shellfish. More than two thirds of fish species in California markets have microfibres in them, says Chelsea Rochman, an aquatic ecology professor at the University of Toronto.

In Denmark, 60 percent of all sewage sludge is "getting used in agriculture," says Lars Monster from the KD Group, a wastewater tech company in the southern Danish town of Vejle. These solid remnants from waste water treatment are distributed on farmland as fertiliser, but microplastics in the sludge then enter the food chain.

Most wastewater treatment plants don't aim to remove microfibres, largely because regulations don't require them to. Mr. Monster's company has developed a new filtration technology that can remove 90 percent of microplastics, he claims, and hopes to get the figure up to 96 percent. The ultimate aim is to recycle all the removed plastics, says Mr. Monster, to "get to the point where microplastics are a resource".

The Millennium Seed Bank hits a snag in preserving the world’s seed banks of endangered plant species

The Millennium Seed Bank was set up by the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew as the world’s largest and most diverse genetic ‘ark’, on track to have collected 25 percent of global species by 2020 as part of a wider scheme with institutions around the world to store the world’s plants in seed banks to prevent them from extinction. According to Kew scientist John Dickie, "Ex-situ conservation of plants is more critical than ever, with many threats to plant populations including climate change, habitat conversion and plant pathogens, we need to make sure we're doing all we can to conserve the most important and threatened species.

However, a new study published in Nature Plants presents research by scientists that found the seeds of over a third of critically endangered species cannot be frozen because they cannot survive the process of drying and deep freezing and produce ‘recalcitrant seeds’, which die in the dying process. 27 percent of endangered species produce these seeds that cannot be banked, along with 35 percent of plants considered to be "vulnerable" to extinction.

The study suggests this is a particular problem for trees, with 33 percent of all the world's species producing seeds that do not survive the drying process. In tropical moist forests, such as rainforests or cloud forests, as many as half the species of trees which create the canopy can be unsuitable for preserving in seed banks. The researchers warn it may be ‘somewhat naive’ to assume it is possible to conserve tropical plants and trees outside of their natural habitats and say protecting entire forests may be the only way of saving certain species. Kew, along with other banks around the world, aim to conserve 75 percent of the threatened species outside of their natural habitat by 2020.