Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The underestimated power of plants

Linkoping University's Laboratory of Organic Electronics has already proven it is possible to build a functioning electronic circuit within a rose bush. (Supplied/Eliot Gomez)

Antony Funnell 

Imagine a future full of solar rose gardens that generate electricity and robot-tree hybrids that grow into whatever shapes we need. Antony Funnell ventures to the frontiers of plant science to meet researchers who believe the power of botanical organisms has long been underestimated.

By his own admission, Magnus Berggren has killed an awful lot of roses in his quest to turn simple flowers into a source of power.

'Most of the materials for the devices that we injected into the plants actually were so toxic, the plants didn't survive,' says Berggren, a professor of organic electronics at Linkoping University in southern Sweden. 'But now we have chosen materials that we know cope well with plants.'

Those materials include a type of conductive liquid polymer capable of passing through the vascular system of the rose, effectively hard-wiring it.

'What we have focused on in our science is to make conducting wires, batteries or capacitors inside a stem,' he says.

'We have done electrodes in the leaves and step by step we are distributing components, electrodes and wires into the plant, so we basically approach a situation where we start, maybe, to connect a solar-to-electricity conversion system inside a plant.'

The ultimate goal, according to Berggren, is to create a system which siphons off some of the power generated by the plant during the natural process of photosynthesis. But while he and his team have already proven that it is possible to build a functioning electronic circuit within a rose bush, the dream of going further and creating an energy-producing solar garden is still many years away.

'We are talking about an application scenario that lies maybe 20, 30 years ahead,' says Berggren.

'What I think we could actually do is generate electricity inside the plants to power, for instance, a sensor or some other device that regulates the growth process in a plant. Or we could perhaps power up our mobile phone or something like that. But that's more on the demonstration or prototype level.

'What this will end up with in the end, to be honest I'm too naive to speculate on that. What we are trying to do in our group is to see how far we can stretch the idea.

'If we can use this as an energy conversion system in large scales in the future it will depend very much on the performance we can achieve. We have to remember that the solar cell that we have on the roof today, they have a power conversion efficiency of around 20 or 30 per cent. So we have to do this in a very efficient way if it's going to compete with that. But it's an interesting idea, and it certainly opens up a new pathway where electronics can end up in the future, that's for sure.'

 Robotic devices fixed to plants could alter their growth and enable architectural uses (Getty Images)

Robots interacting with plants as they grow

In the German city of Paderborn, computer scientist Heiko Hamann has also been exploring ways of using technology to modify and regulate plants.

Professor Hamann is one year into a four-year project called flora robotica, which is funded by Horizon 2020, the European Union's Framework Programme for Research and Innovation.

The focus of flora robotica is to develop 'symbiotic robot-plant bio-hybrids'—essentially a system of small robotic devices fixed to a plant that interact with it as it grows.

Hamann sees applications for such technology in agriculture, where robotic sensors could be used to help farmers respond more accurately to a plant's needs and therefore speed up growth. But he also sees potential for creating what he calls bespoke 'architectural artefacts'.

'What we have in mind is more like having robots interact with plants and have them grow in different ways to what we see right now,' he says.

'We want to extend the natural growth processes to some artificial growth processes by imposing different stimuli on the plants and then grow certain shapes, for example. And that's where architecture comes in as an application. The idea is that some human user can input a desired shape and then we would use our robots to direct the growth of the plants and to actually grow that particular shape.'

The ability to grow trees into desired shapes, says Hamann, could have associated environmental benefits.

'Until now we grow our trees and then, with a lot of waste energy, we cut them and transport them. We think: what if you just grow wood in the shape that you require for your construction, maybe even at the spot? You have a house that is growing along with your needs.

'These robots are, we believe, the best way to interact with plants and also to gain a better understanding. Basically our robots can serve as a communication channel between plants and human beings.'

'We are not the only living systems who are smart'

The notion of plant-human communication in such a context might seem entirely functional: a new way for humans to once again exercise their dominance over the natural environment. However, a growing number of researchers believe the potential power and sophistication of plants have long been underestimated.

Professor Paco Calvo at the University of Murcia in Spain is one of the co-founders of a multi-functional research institute called the MINT Lab, one of the first centres of its kind, designed to further the relatively new field of plant neurobiology, the study of plant 'intelligence'.

'The easiest way to get into plant neurobiology is by thinking of the cognitive sciences in comparison,' says Calvo.

'Go back to the '70s, the '80s, and when we were talking about cognitive science we wouldn't talk about psychology or neuroscience or linguistics or anthropology, we were talking about the sum of all those disciplines. It was an attempt to better understand what cognition consists of by putting together the methodologies, and a little bit the same happens with plant neurobiology.'

In that vein, the MINT Lab brings biologists together with philosophers to explore what forms of intelligence plants exhibit, and in turn, what a better understanding of their capacities and capabilities might mean for the future.

'I'm not quite that happy with trying to provide the definition of intelligence, of plant intelligence, but maybe because I don't even know what animal intelligence is. I mean, as soon as you provide the definition somebody is going to show up a dozen counter-examples. I'd rather talk about particular capacities, competencies, and then we might discuss whether that deserves the label of intelligence or not.

'Think of sensory motor coordination, as we know happens in animals, or perceptual capacities, or goal oriented behaviour, basic forms of learning, of memory, decision-making, problem-solving. If animals can do all those things we're happy with the label intelligence, right? We say animals are intelligent.

'When plants do it, it seems we are in a whole different business. Why? Plants are able to do that, to make decisions, solve problems, learn, memorise. Well, let's deal with it. We are not the only living animals who are smart or living systems who are smart.'

According to the mycorrhizal symbiosis theory, plants can communicate through the various forms of fungi that grow around their roots (Getty Images) 

The social side of plants

Forest ranger Peter Wohlleben has been something of a media hit in Germany with his best-selling book The Hidden Life of Trees, in which he spells out his belief that trees are social entities that not only grow together but communicate with each other in different ways.

It's a controversial idea on the surface, but he's not alone in coming to that conclusion. One who shares his belief is Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia. Simard has spent many years studying what's called mycorrhizal symbiosis: the theory that various forms of fungi that grow around the roots of trees act as a sort of pathway for communication, almost like neurons in an animal brain.

'These mycorrhizae function by growing through the soil and picking up nutrients and water and bringing them back to the tree. It's a symbiosis because they live together in a root tip, and it's mutualistic because the tree provides photosynthate in return for these nutrients and water that the fungi gather up from the soil.

'The reason that we say that the trees can communicate is that these fungi, some of them can actually link trees together. So a fungus that is associated with one tree can grow through the soil and link up with another tree, provided that fungus is compatible with both of those trees. Even if the trees are of a different species, if they have a compatible mycorrhizal fungus, they can link up.'

According to Simard's research, trees use their mycorrhizal networks to exchange a whole range of biochemical information, from how much photosynthate they have to how rich they are in nutrients.

'I consider it communication because there is behaviour adjustment. There are changes in the trees before they send the communication, the ones that are sending the communication, and then it results in a behaviour change by the trees that receive that piece of information. When you have those kinds of responses and effects and there's an information transfer that results in these big behaviour changes, to me that is communication.'

Crucially, argues Simard, there is also evidence of intent. 'We often reserve that word for human beings, where we have intention of changing some sort of pattern or behaviour, but in this case the trees, you could say that they also have intent in the sense that the trees that are sending the messages are conveying that there is some kind of environment or occurrence that is affecting their behaviour and that they need to, or have a want to, send that information to their neighbours.

'We know that big old trees—we call them mother trees—will communicate with seedlings that are their kin or their kids and make room for those kids compared to seedlings that are strangers, and they are doing this through their mycorrhizal networks.

'In that sense the mother trees are providing a favourable environment for the regeneration of their own kin, their own genes. That is one example of forests behaving like a family. There's other experiments where we've shown if we injure that mother tree experimentally that she will also send defence signals out to other seedlings around her.'


Ancient dolphin-like ichthyosaurs may have been wiped out by climate change

Ichthyosaurs became extinct roughly 90 million years ago in the Late Cretaceous period
Andrey Atuchin

By Rachel Sullivan

Climate change sealed the fate of ichthyosaurs, marine reptiles that ruled the oceans for 157 million years, suggests an analysis of fossils. 

The dolphin-like animals died out some 30 million years before the mass dinosaur extinction at the end of the Cretaceous 66 million years ago.

Vertebrate palaeontologist Dr Valentin Fischer, who led the research, published today in Nature Communications, said that the extinction of ichthyosaurs, which were extremely well adapted to oceanic life, was a long-standing enigma.

A number of hypotheses have previously been proposed to explain the ancient marine reptiles disappearance, including increased competition from other marine reptiles and fish and the decline of their main food source, squid-like belemnites, said Dr Fischer of the University of Oxford.

Over time, these pressures would have reduced species diversity, allowing relatively minor events to tip them into extinction.

"These theories were at odds with the recent understanding of the ichthyosaur fossil record, which suggests they were actually quite diverse prior to their extinction," he said.
"We wanted to analyse this extinction thoroughly and look for possible alternative drivers."

Analysis of teeth and newly discovered fossils

The researchers analysed teeth from museum collections as well as a number of newly discovered fossils from Russia.

They then correlated their results with geological evidence of sea surface temperatures and other environmental indicators to estimate ichthyosaur diversity over a 150-million year period.

"We found they were in fact very diverse during the last part of their reign; their extinction was thus a profound, rather abrupt event in the history of a successful group," said Dr Fischer.

Instead, their demise was associated with strong fluctuations in sea levels and temperatures during what is known as the Cenomanian stage of the upper Cretaceous period, 100 million to 94 million years ago.

"It seems that a large part of the marine biosphere was affected by an event or a series of rapid events that profoundly modified marine ecosystems," he added.

"These events coincided with profound climatic changes: fast-moving continents, intense volcanism, ice-free poles and episodes of anoxia (lack of oxygen) on the sea floor."

During this turbulent period, Dr Fischer said ichthyosaurs failed to take advantage of the novel opportunities presented by their rapidly changing world, by evolving new species.

Changes in food availability, migratory routes, competitors, or the lack of safe birthing places may all have contributed to their downfall.

"Some groups evolved to take advantage of these new, highly fluctuating conditions while others, like ichthyosaurs, did not."

'Sampling incomplete in geography and time'

But Australian ichthyosaur researcher Dr Benjamin Kear was cautious about the study's conclusion, which was based on the description of various new ichthyosaur species, mainly from European deposits.

"While this taxonomic proliferation does infer periods of higher diversity, it is restricted by the relatively small area of globally explored outcrops, especially in the southern hemisphere," said Dr Kear, who is currently the curator of vertebrate palaeontology at Uppsala University's Museum of Evolution.

"This means that our sampling is very incomplete, both in terms of geography and time — which limits clarity of the results.

"Having said that, this research opens an exciting new line of inquiry that will fuel further investigations into the ichthyosaur extinctions and the emergence of modern marine predators such as sharks and bony fish during the Cretaceous," said Dr Kear, who was not involved in the study.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Risen -- Tom Felton

Roman military tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) remains set in his ways after serving 25 years in the army. He arrives at a crossroad when he's tasked to investigate the mystery of what happened to Jesus (Cliff Curtis) following the Crucifixion. Accompanied by trusted aide Lucius (Tom Felton), his quest to disprove rumors of a risen Messiah makes him question his own beliefs and spirituality. As his journey takes him to places never dreamed of, Clavius discovers the truth that he's been seeking.

Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple - The Sixth Door!

Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple is a famous Hindu temple dedicated to god Vishnu maintained by the erstwhile Travancore Royal Family and located inside East Fort in the city of Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala state, South India. The temple is considered to be one of 108 Divya Desams (Holy Abodes), which are principal centres of worship in Vaishnavism. The date of the temple is unknown, but the temple is mentioned in the writings of the Alvars (6th-9th centuries AD), and renovations are thought to have taken place until the 18th century.

The principal deity, Padmanabhaswamy, is a form of Vishnu in "Ananta-sayanam" (Vishnu in the eternal sleep of Yoga-nidra on the serpent Ananta) posture. Padmanabhaswamy Temple is a very ancient temple and the city of Thiruvananthapuram ("Abode of Lord Ananta") derives its name from the name of serpent Ananta.

In July 2011 a review of the temple's underground vaults, by a seven-member panel appointed by the Supreme Court of India, was begun. Estimates suggested that the temple could be the richest in the world; unofficial estimates on the sixth day of the inventory placed the value of contents at close to Indian Rupee symbol.svg100,000 crore (US$22.3 billion). The local rulers (more recently the Travancore Maharajahs) sealed immense riches within the thick stone walls and vaults of the temple, over at least a millennium, as offerings to Lord Padmanabhan.


This chamber is being considered by the Trust members and other learned Astrologers of India, as highly mysterious, sacred and risky and dangerous to unveil it. Because the steel door of the Chamber-B is having two big COBRA PORTRAITS on it and this door as no nuts, bolts or other latches. 

It is considered to be fixed to the secret chamber with the ‘NAGA BANDHAM’ or ‘NAGA PAASAM’ ‘MANTRAS’ by the then ‘SIDDA PURASHAS’ who lived during the reign ofKING MARTHANDAVARMA in the 16th CENTURY.

A door of such a secret vault can be opened by a highly erudite ‘SADHUS’ or‘MANTRIKAS’ who are familiar with the knowledge of extricating ‘NAGA BANDHAM’ or‘NAGA PASAM’ by chanting a ‘GARUDA MANTRA’; So except in this way, the door can’t be opened by any means by anyone. At present NO WHERE IN INDIA or in the WORLDsuch a highly sacred and powerful ‘SIDDHAPURSHAS’ or ‘Y0GIS’ or ‘MANTRIKAS’ who does know how to execute highly sacred ‘GARUDA MANTRA’ are EXISTING.

If any human attempts are made with man-made technology to open the mysterious Chamber-B other than by chanting highly sacred and powerful ‘GARUDA MANTRAS’ by a highly sacred ‘SADHUS’ or ‘MANTRIKAS’, catastrophes are likely to occour in and around the Temple premisis or through out India or even through out the world according to VEDIC ASTROLOGERS OF INDIA, who also revealed their inability to open the door by chanting the secret ‘GARUDA MANTRA’.

If ‘GARUDA MANTRA’ is chanted by any powerful ‘SADHU’ or ‘YOGI’ or ‘MANTRIKA’the door proceeds to automatically open and no human effort is needed toopen it in any other way.


In earlier years Padmanabhaswamy Temple and its properties were controlled by eight powerful Nair feudal lords known as Ettuveetil Pillamar (Lords of the Eight Houses) under the guidance of the Council of Eight and a Half. Later, King Marthanda Varma, the founder of Travancore, successfully suppressed the Ettuveetil Pillais and his cousins. The last major renovation of the Padmanabhaswamy temple was also done by Marthanda Varma. He virtually "dedicated" the kingdom of Travancore to Padmanabha, the deity at the temple, and pledged that he and his descendants would "serve" the kingdom as Padmanabha Dasa, meaning "Servant of the Padmanabha".

The insignia of the Padmanabha, Valampiri Shankhu or Dextral Conch-shell, served as the state emblem of Travancore and it can still be seen on the emblem of Kerala state. Padmanabha is still regarded as regional deity of erstwhile Travancore.

The two annual festivals of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple culminate in a grand procession, in which the three deities (Padmanabha, Narasimha and Krishna) are carried on flower-deck and aesthetically decorated Garuda Vahanas to Shankumugham Beach, for "arattu" (sacramental ablution). The arattu days are declared as local public holidays in Thiruvanathapuram. The Idol is made of Kadusarkkara Yogam, an ayurvedic mixture, with Vishnu sleeping on the serpent Ananta with his head pointing towards south, facing east.

Goseck Circle: The Oldest Known Solar Observatory

In 1991, inspectors from the German government took aerial photographs of a small German town called Goseck and saw something strange.  On the ground, there appeared to be a giant circular ridge hidden beneath a field.  It would take archaeologists 12 years to realize that this ridge was the remains of an ancient solar observatory.  Archaeologists also found the remnants of ritual fires and human bones with cut marks on them indicating that the circle was not just for star gazing but also for human sacrifice.  Curiously, a 3,600 year old bronze disc was discovered just 25 kilometers away from the site and is considered to be the oldest concrete representation of the cosmos.  It shares a striking similarity with Goseck Circle.

Goseck Circle – A Neolithic henge
Goseck Circle or Goseck Henge, is an early Neolithic Henge structure with entrances orientated to the rising and setting solstices.  It was apparently created by Europe's first civilization, long before the cultures of Mesopotamia and the pyramids of Egypt.  Dubbed the German Stonehenge, the structure has been radiocarbon dated to 4900 BC.  Hundreds of similar wooden circular ridges just like it were built during a 200 year period around the same time.  It is one of the best studied of the more than 250 ring ditches identified by aerial surveys throughout Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Croatia.  Previously, archaeologists had thought that these henges might have simply been ancient fortifications.

Constructed by a mysterious culture
The people who built Goseck Circle are known only as the Stroke-Ornamented Ware Culture from the fragments of pottery they left behind.  Various pottery shards belonging to this culture were dug out from the site and date back to around 4700 B.C.  The discovery of the shards also suggests that the site was functional for a period of 200 years and then abandoned.  They represent a transition from Neolithic linear pottery to Stroke-Ornamented Ware Culture.  The jars and bowls had their decorations jabbed into the soft clay with a kind of fork to form zig-zag lines.  Archaeologists know nothing about the appearance or language of the people who built Goseck and can only surmise what their religious beliefs might have been.  Some claim the circle was a calendar that told ancient farmers in the area when it was time to begin counting the days until spring planting.  However, excavations of the 6,000 square-meter site have also found the remains of headless skeletons, human and animal bones, decapitated oxen and ritual fires all pointing towards burial rituals or human sacrifice.


Connection with the Nebra Sky DiskOne of the most interesting aspects of Goseck Circle is the fact that the roughly 100 degree span between the solstice gates corresponds with an angle on a bronze disk unearthed 25 kilometers (15 miles) away, near the town of Nebra, Germany.  The Nebra Sky Disk, measuring 32 centimeters in diameter, dates from 1600 BC and is the oldest portable representation of the cosmos found to date.  It depicts a crescent moon, a circle that was probably a full moon and a cluster of seven stars interpreted to be the Pleiades constellation as it appeared 3,600 years ago (almost 2,000 years after the Goseck Circle).  Scattered on the object are other stars, three arcs, all picked out in gold leaf from a violet-blue background.

The striking connection between Goseck and the Nebra Sky Disk is the fact that angle formed between the midsummer and midwinter sunrise at Goseck is 82 degrees, exactly the same angle as the horizon lines marked on the Nebra Disk.  Two opposing arcs run along the rim of the disk.  The lowest points are 97.5 degrees apart and signify the sunrise and sunset on the winter solstice in central Germany at the time.  Likewise, the uppermost points mark the sunrise and sunset on the summer solstice.  The sun's position at solstice has shifted slightly over the past millennia, notes Wolfhard Schlosser of the Ruhr University in Bochum, so that the angle between sunrise and sunset is now slightly farther apart than when the Nebra disk and the Goseck circle were made (by 1.6 and 2.8 degrees, respectively).