The Russian spacecraft Foton-M 4 has landed but the geckos are dead

The Russian spacecraft Foton-M 4 after its landing with Roscosmos technicians surrounding it (Photo courtesy Roscosmos. All rights reserved)

The Russian spacecraft Foton-M 4 after its landing with Roscosmos technicians surrounding it (Photo courtesy Roscosmos. All rights reserved)

The Russian space capsule Foton-M 4 has landed yesterday in the Orenburg region, at nearly 1,500 kilometers (almost 920 miles) south-east of Moscow, near the border with Kazakhstan. It spent about a month and a half in orbit. This small space biological laboratory contained various animals, who have gone through a quite difficult mission. Shortly after the recovery operations carried out by Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, it was announced that the geckos were dead.

The Foton-M 4 spacecraft is the latest in the Foton-M series. It’s a new version of the old Vostok project, to be clear the type of capsule used by Yuri Gagarin. Nothing fancy but relatively cheap and at least in theory reliable.

The Foton program started in the ’80s to conduct scientific research in orbit, the Foton-M 4 mission was intended to conduct mainly biological research. For this reason, on July 18, 2014 the spacecraft was launched on a Soyuz-2-1a rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome with various animals including geckos, fruit flies and silkworms eggs but also plants and fungi.

On the Foton M-4 there was also an experiment to evaluate the effects of microgravity on the growth of semiconductor crystals. The purpose was to study technologies to produce higher quality crystals to use in the electronics field. This type of research is potentially useful in the production of solar cells, LEDs, transistors and other electronic applications.

The Foton-M 4 mission was difficult. It was supposed to last two months but on July 24 it was revealed that communication with the on-board computer had been lost soon after launch. A burn of the spacecraft’s thrusters to adjust its orbit was missed, with consequences to be evaluated.

On July 26, Roscosmos announced that it managed to re-establish communications with the Foton-M 4 spacecraft. However, its orbit had remained elliptical while it was originally planned to be almost perfectly circular. The use of thrusters to fix it at that point would’ve interfered too much with the experiments already started. As a result, the Russian agency had to modify the mission.

The animals on the Foton-M 4 spacecraft were supposed to provide data on their reproduction in microgravity conditions. It’s possible that the temperature dropped to levels too low for geckos but we’ll have to wait for an analysis of the recorded data to figure out what exactly happened.



Posted in Technology | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia by Ursula Le Guin

The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia by Ursula Le Guin (Italian edition)

The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia by Ursula Le Guin (Italian edition)

The novel “The Dispossessed” – subtitle “An Ambiguous Utopia” – by Ursula Le Guin was published for the first time in 1974. It won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards as the best science fiction novel of the year.

Shevek is a physicist on the planet Anarres who is developing a new scientific theory. Frustrated by the difficulties he encounters on his planet, he leaves for Urras, the twin planet. His act is considered by someone a betrayal because Shevek leaves the anarchist society of Anarres to go to A-Io, a capitalist nation of Urras.

In A-Io, where for years he’s recognized as a great physicist, Shevek tries to continue his research but can’t help getting involved in social and political issues both local and international. Over time, he realizes he’s always controlled in order to limit to the minimum necessary his contacts with people of the lower classes. Shevek can’t help  wondering if he made a grave mistake by leaving Anarres.

“The Dispossessed” is part of the Hainish cycle. However, the events of this novel are autonomous from those of the rest of the cycle so it can be read independently from the others. It’s set in the Tau Ceti system, according to some unofficial estimates around the year 2300.

The novel follows the story of Shevek, a mathematician on the planet Anarres who goes to Urras, its twin planet. His effort isn’t just scientific aiming to develop a new theory but also political and social that aims to overcome the barriers created over time among the societies of the two planets.

“The Dispossessed” is first of all a political and social novel that, mailny through Shevek’s experiences, examines the anarchist society of Anarres and the capitalist – aristochratic one of A-Io, one of the most powerful nations of Urras.

Ursula Le Guin tells in alternating chapters Shevek’s story in his journey on Urras and his past on Anarres until he reaches his decision to go on the twin planet. Gradually, the reader can discover the characteristics of these societies and their dark sides.

Anarres is a planet where with harsh climatic conditions and about 150 years before the events of “The Dispossessed” a group of anarchists led by their leader Odo colonized it. The Odonians created an anarchist society of the collectivist kind and the relationship with Urras are almost non-existent as the most powerful nations are A-Io, a capitalist nation, and Thu, a communist regime considered a betrayal of the Odonian principles.

The Odonian society is anarchist so in theory there are neither authority nor laws. As a consequence everything is decided collectively by its members. Even the language of Anarres, the pravic, was artificially designed to reflect the foundations of utopian anarchism. However, Shevek realizes that in fact there are power structures and that the individual is crushed by the collective.

In his work as a physicist, Shevek works with Sabul, the most important physicist on Anarres. Thanks to his prestige, Sabul actually exercises power, something theoretically impossible on Anarres. In an egalitarian society, Sabul is more equal than the others and his decisions are accepted without question.

Shevek, who continues to question everything, has problems in his work as a physicist but things can get much worse for artists. Art can be too genuinely anarchic for the majority of Odonians, who ostracize artists who demonstrate excessive inventiveness. In essence, the Odonians are mostly sheep who have strayed from true anarchy to embrace conformism.

On Urras, Shevek can clearly see the contradictions of the A-Io society, connected to a system in which there are various inequalities. Those of the Odonian society are more subtle, connected to the pettiness and shortsightedness of the majority of its members.

It’s for this reason that Ursula Le Guin gave his novel the subtitle “An ambiguous Utopia”. The Odonian society was created to try to achieve the anarchist utopia but the line between utopia and dystopia is sometimes very thin. In the end, it seems that the anarchist utopia, or at least that collectivist kind, is impossible to achieve.

The result is a truly extraordinary novel. The political and social analysis is the basis of “The Dispossessed” but the characters are also well developed. This reinforces the story because the reader gets the impression that the examined societies are formed by real people with understandable desires and motivations.

“The Dispossessed” is a novel of reflection and introspection that can be a great food for thought. Inevitably, the pace is generally slow. Even the occasional moments of action are intended to stimulate reflections illustrating some political and social themes.

For its themes, “The Dispossessed” is a novel that keeps on being analyzed and discussed forty years after its publication. Its fame has gone far beyond the science fiction genre and even beyond literature becoming a source of discussion in various fields.

In my opinion, the fame of “The Dispossessed” is well deserved and it’s one of Ursula Le Guin’s masterpieces. It’s a must-read novel to reflect about it, especially because it allows everyone to get a personal impression of the themes it covers.



Posted in Literature | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The memory of the Mars Rover Opportunity will be formatted

The Mars Rover Opportunity at the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility in 2003 (photo NASA/JPL/KSC)

The Mars Rover Opportunity at the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility in 2003 (photo NASA/JPL/KSC)

NASA’s Mars Rover Opportunity mission control team announced that the rover’s computer flash memory will be formatted. This decision was taken after a series of computer  resets that have been occurring with increasing frequency. Every time Opportunity has fully returned to work but those events cause loss of time and interfere with its mission activities so it was deemed necessary to try a permanent solution.

The Mars Rover Opportunity uses a flash memory similar to those used in smartphones and digital cameras to record the data it collects. The individual cells in a flash memory can be corrupted due to a prolonged use but also because due to external causes related to the harsh Martian environment. In the case of Opportunity, which has been on Mars for more than 10 Earth years and a few weeks ago set the record for the distance traveled by a human vehicle in another world, it’s difficult to determine the cause.

Problems of this type already happened in the past in other space missions and even to other rovers. The flash memory of Spirit, Opportunity’s twin, was formatted five years ago to correct some data loss. Last year, even the much newer Mars Rover Curiosity had some problems and in that case probably the cause was in some cosmic ray that hit its computer.

The formatting process is delicate, because at the moment its distance is about 200 million kilometers (about 125 million miles) from Earth, but involves limited risks. All the data in the flash memory of the Mars Rover Opportunity will be downloaded to NASA’s r computers on Earth and when that task is finisched the rover will be placed in a mode that doesn’t use that memory. At that point, they can proceed with the formatting and any corrupted cells will be tagged so that they are no longer used.

Opportunity’s team’s mission is also changing the communication protocol to use a lower transmission rate. This should help to complete the preparation for formatting even in case of further resets. The operation should be carried out in early September.

Despite these problems, at NASA they’re confident they can quickly resume the Mars Rover Opportunity’s normal work. The continuation of the mission isn’t entirely certain due to budgetary issues but at NASA they believe that they can keep on exploring Mars with this rover as well.



Posted in Technology | Tagged | Leave a comment

Fishes learned to walk on land

Speciman of gray bichir, also known as the Senegal bichir or Cuvier's bichir, formally Polypterus senegalus senegalus

Speciman of gray bichir, also known as the Senegal bichir or Cuvier’s bichir, formally Polypterus senegalus senegalus

The research on the evolution of the fish that gave rise to the tetrapods gradually adapting to life on land are generally carried out by examining fossils such as the Tiktaalik roseae, a species dating back to the Devonian period, about 375 million years ago. Instead, a study published in the journal “Nature” was conducted by three scientists from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, studying modern fishhes, the gray bichir, also known as the Senegal bichir or Cuvier’s bichir (scientific name Polypterus senegalus) (photo ©Zhyla), studying their behavior on land.

The bichirs are fishes that belong to the genus Polypterus and live in lakes and rivers, in shallow waters and muddy or sandy bottoms. In addition to having gills, they have primitives lungs that allow them to survive out of the water, breathing the oxygen in the air. The bichirs are the last remaining of an ancient family of fishes and have retained some characteristics that makes them interesting to better understand the transition between water and land.

Some features of the gray bichir makes it reminiscent of the Tiktaalik. The bichirs use their front fins to lift the head and the front part of their trunk from the ground. Subsequently, they push the rear part of their trunk to move forward. It’s possible that the Tiktaalik moved in a similar manner.

The gray bichir generally spends little time on land, preferring water, in which it moves much more smoothly. The biologists at McGill wondered what would have happened if they had forced the bichir to grow on land. Eight bichirs were grown in a terrarium for eight months, with a mister that kept their skin moist.

The result was that eight months on land caused significant changes in the bichirs. Over the months they learned to walk in a more efficient way, planting fins in the ground for less time with shorter steps. Initially they flapped their fins sideways but over time they started placing them under their body. The result was that they slipped less.

In part, the bichirs have probably learned how to walk better because they were forced to always live on land but that also caused changes in their bodies. Comparing the bones of these bichirs with those of other individuals that grew normally in water the differences in bone development were significant.

In particular, in the shoulders region some of the connections between the bones have become less tight. Thanks to this type of development, the bichirs on land could better thanks to the fact that their fins could swing more. At the same time, the bones corresponding to modern clavicles have become bigger and stronger. This allowed the bichirs to lift their bodies higher.

This ability to develop in different ways in different conditions is known as plasticity. It could be a fundamental factor in evolution, allowing organisms that find themselves in a different environment to adapt to it. At that point, subsequent mutations and natural selection determine its later evolution.

Emily Standen, who led the research, wants to go ahead keeping the bichirs in a terrarium for even longer periods. The ideal would be to continue the research for several generations of fishs to assess their changes. It would still be a short period in evolutionary terms but it could already show clearly the changes that led ancient fishes to become land or at least amphibian tetrapods.



Posted in Biology | Tagged | Leave a comment

IBM launches Watson Discovery Advisor to help researchers

IBM Watson Solutions VP Stephen Gold interacts with the system (Photo courtesy IBM. All rights reserved)

IBM Watson Solutions VP Stephen Gold interacts with the system (Photo courtesy IBM. All rights reserved)

IBM announced Watson Discovery Advisor, a cloud service that uses the technology of the Watson artificial intelligence system devoted to research. The purpose is to assist researchers in testing their hypotheses and draw conclusions to accelerate their work. Watson’s ability to analyze massive amounts of data will find patterns and connections very quickly.

In recent years, IBM is developing the Watson system to use it in different fields. This artificial intelligence is designed to learn and interact with humans. For that reason, a little over a year ago, the company launched Watson Engagement Advisor, another service that uses Watson, in this case for customer service.

The Watson system can understand the nuances of a natural language, Watson Discovery Advisor can understand the language of science. Already at the beginning of 2013 test were carried out using Watson at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in decisions regarding the treatment of lung cancer. Now this artificial intelligence will be used to help scientific innovation.

The possibilities are a lot. Medicine is just one of the areas where Watson Discovery Advisor’s potential can be used. Pharmaceutical research is a field in which the investments are estimated at $600 billion a year but developments are very slow. Today, drug development has become very slow because it’s very sophisticated so new treatments can take 10-15 years to reach their commercial phase. Watson could radically change this situation.



For human researchers, it’s become impossible to read all the scientific material available because every day new articles are published in their field. An artificial intelligence system such as Watson Discovery Advisor was also designed to examine those massive amounts of information to find those relevant to a specific research.

The analysis of large amounts of data can be extremely useful in other fields as well, such as finance and law, in which having the relevant information contained in large volumes of documents can allow to do close much better deals. Even governments could use Watson for the analysis of national security thanks to the analysis of large amounts of data from intelligence and other sources.

IBM has already been working with various companies and even some hospital to test the capabilities of Watson Discovery Advisor with positive results. The potential is really huge and in a few years the results may be such as to change the world. It’s no exaggeration if we only think of the possibilities to accelerate development in the medical / biological and technological fields.

IBM Watson Solutions created a video that briefly illustrates Watson Discovery Advisor.

Posted in Technology | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Wishing Well by Trevor Baxendale

Wishing Well by Trevor Baxendale

Wishing Well by Trevor Baxendale

The novel “Wishing Well” by Trevor Baxendale was published for the first time in 2007.

Nigel Carson and his friends Ben and Duncan Seddon Goode are digging a tunnel to reach a treasure. They’re discussing how to spend the money they think they can find but Carson is more interested in the power that comes from that treasure. He clutches a strange stone that speaks to him telepathically.

The Tenth Doctor and Martha Jones are walking through the woods in England in the 21st century. They find a sign indicating that Creighton Mere is a mile away when a strange guy warns them to avoid the village. The two travelers don’t follow his advice and fiund a passage from an elderly lady who lives in the area. In the village there’s an old well that is at the center of legends but behind the legends sometimes there’s an element of truth.

“Wishing Well” is part of a series of novels connected to the new “Doctor Who” series. They’re targeted to a wide audience by being linear enough to be appreciated even by very young readers but sophisticated enough to interest more mature readers.

The basic concept of “Wishing Well” is more typical of horror stories that science fiction ones, meaning that there’s an old well in a village at the center of some local legends with the discovery that there really is an evil presence at its bottom. Being “Doctor Who”, the story is developed with science fiction elements.

The setting is of a typical English village where the only attraction is this old well that according to legend hides a treasure. No one has ever found anything but three people are digging a tunnel to reach the place where they think it’s buried. One of the three is driven by a telepathic contact and is looking for a different kind of treasure.

From the beginning, I had the impression that “Wishing Well” was bringing to the extreme the style of Russell T Davies’s management of new “Doctor Who” series, with stories much more focused on the characters and their relationships that on the plot. In the first third of the novel really little happens: mostly there are characters who talk to each other with the Doctor and Martha meeting various inhabitants of the village one after another.

Generally, the novels in this series have a fast pace, instead “Wishing Well” is really slow in its first part. It’s devoted to a remarkable job of setting and especially character building. The novels related to the new “Doctor Who” series set on Earth often include other well-known characters besides the Doctor and his companion. In this novel, along with the protagonists of the show there are various inhabitants of the village of Creighton Mere, who are well developed also telling their back stories.

The pace of the story starts rising only in the second part of the novel, when the Doctor, having investigated the well, discovers what lies at its bottom and starts facing the problem. The plot is thin and the book ends on page 239 while generally the ones in this series reach around page 250.

A plot of this kind was perhaps more suited to the “Quick Reads” series, which consists of books that reach 100 pages. It’s clear that in that case Trevor Baxendale coudn’t have developed the characters but could have cut some unnecessary dialogue.

Having a plot so simple also makes it predictable in many ways. The evil presence and the way in which the Doctor confronts it aren’t exactly original. Trevor Baxendale had at his disposal some more pages to add some variation in the plot, instead that’s almost an excuse to talk about the characters.

Personally I have no problem with slow-paced stories but I prefer them to have some substance in the plot. For this reason, I found “Wishing Well” a bit boring so I think it’s a novel suitable for people who prefer stories that are very character-oriented or for “Doctor Who” fans.



Posted in Literature | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments