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Nearest rocky planet outside solar system confirmed

Planet HD 219134b, seen in a painting, is the nearest rocky exoplanet found to date outside our solar system. The planet is 1.6 times the size of Earth. Scientists predict it would have a rocky, partially molten surface with geological activity, including possibly volcanoes.
We've just learned of a new neighbour — scientists say they have confirmed the discovery of a rocky planet outside our solar system that is closer to Earth than any ever found before.
"Most of the known planets are hundreds of light-years away. This one is practically a next-door neighbour," said Lars A. Buchhave, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in a statement today. Buchhave is the co-author of a paper about the planet accepted for publication in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. The study was led by Ati Motalebi at the Geneva Observatory in Switzerland.
HD 219134b is a super-Earth just 21 light years away. It orbits an orange star that is a little smaller and cooler than our sun, in the constellation Cassiopeia, visible in the night sky near the North Star. It is not in the star's habitable zone – it's too close and too hot for liquid water, or life as we know it, to exist on its surface. Scientists predict that its surface is rocky and partially molten, and might have volcanoes on its surface.
HD 219134b nearest rocky planet
HD 219134b is very close to its star, orbiting once every three days. During each orbit it 'transits' or passes in front of its star, as seen in this artists's conception. Planets that do this are much easier to study. ( NASA/JPL-Caltech)
The planet was first discovered by the HARPS-North, the University of Geneva's planet-hunting device on the3.6-metre TelescopioNazionale Galileo in the Canary Islands. Data from HARPS-North showed it has a mass 4.5 times that of Earth and sped around its star once every three days.
HARPS-North and its sister instrument HARPS in Chile look for planets by precisely measuring the colour of a star. The gravity of a planet tugs on a star as it orbits, pulling it toward and away from a distant observer on Earth. That movement, in turn, slightly changes the colour of the star as seen from Earth due to the Doppler effect.
Follow-up studies using NASA's Spitzer telescope showed that the new planet has a diameter 1.6 times that of Earth. Based on its mass and diameter, it has the density of a rocky planet.

Closest 'transiting' planet

The researchers also discovered that the planet passes in front of its star, as viewed from Earth, each time it orbits. That makes it a "transiting planet" — a type of planet that is much easier to study with other telescopes. Based on changes in the colours of light detected by telescopes each time that happens, astronomers hope to be able to learn about the chemicals in the planet's atmosphere, if it has one. So far, it is by far the closest transiting planet ever found.
The planet is part of a system that includes three other planets:
  • A small one with a mass 2.7 times that of Earth a little farther from the star, orbiting once every 6.8 days.
  • A Neptune-like planet with a mass nine times that of the Earth, which orbits once every 47 days.
  • A giant planet with 62 times the mass of the Earth, orbiting about twice as far from its star as the Earth is from the Sun, once every 1,190 days.
HD 219134b may be the closest known rocky planet to Earth, but another planet has been discovered that's even closer. GJ674b is 14.8 light-years, but scientists don't know whether it is gaseous or rocky.

7 scientists who are helping us understand how the world works

Andrew Shields and his colleagues successfully transmitted secure QKDs through the fibers used for traditional telecommunications creating a safer way to send confidential data over long distances.
Even within concrete sciences like math and physics, there are plenty of discoveries to be made.
From a physicist who is creating a hacker-proof way to transmit information to a mathematician developing a new type of alegbraic geometry, we've highlighted seven people who are changing the landscapes of math and physics.
All of these scientists also appeared on our list of groundbreaking scientists who are changing the way we see the world.
1. Andrew Shields is creating a better system for keeping hackers out of confidential information.
Last spring, Andrew Shields and his colleagues successfully transmitted secure quantum key distributions (QKDs) through the fibers used for traditional telecommunications, such as computers and telephones, creating a safer way to send confidential data over long distances.
Traditional data-encryption systems use a standard "key" of 1s and 0s, leaving their messages vulnerable to hackers. But when QKDs are intercepted, the act of eavesdropping on the key automatically changes it, making it impossible for hackers to use it to gain access to the information and alerting the senders of a security breach. While other teams had successfully transmitted QKDs in protected lab environments, Shields' team is the first to find a way to use the technology in real-world settings.
Shields is a quantum physicist at Toshiba Research Europe in Cambridge, England.
2. Francis Halzen helped discover what happens inside black holes and supernovas — some of the most powerful cosmic sources in the universe.
To study neutrinos — tiny, subatomic particles that fly through all matter — Francis Halzen helped build the largest particle physics detector ever, known as the IceCube Neutrino Observatory.
In 2013, the Antarctica-based observatory finally discovered cosmic neutrinos, the highest-energy neutrinos ever observed. The discovery gives astronomers a unique look at what happens at the core of many powerful cosmic sources, such as black holes and supernovas.
Halzen is a physicist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
3. Jacob Lurie is rewriting how mathematicians understand complicated geometric objects.
Jacob Lurie is changing how mathematicians understand complicated geometric objects. He is a specialist in the field of algebraic geometry — the study of curves, surfaces, and their higher-dimensional counterparts intimately linked to the solutions of algebraic equations. Lurie has developed a radical new framework for this field called "derived algebraic geometry" that combines concepts from algebraic geometry and the related field of topology.
This new way of looking at the interplay between equations and shapes promises to lead to a much deeper understanding of geometry, and could also lead to breakthroughs in other areas of mathematics. Lurie is also a MacArthur fellow and recipient of the 2014 Breakthrough Prize in mathematics, and his work has been published in two books, "Higher Topos Theory" and "Higher Algebra," and numerous other journals and papers.
Lurie is a professor at Harvard University in the department of mathematics.
4. Jeremy England developed a new theory about the origins of life.
Regarded by some as the “brightest young scientists” they know, Jeremy England has a controversial new theory about the origins of life.
England’s mathematical theory, he says, does not contradict Darwinian evolution. Instead, Darwin’s theory is a special case of England’s much broader theory, which describes life at the level of genes and populations (instead of species) and suggests that the first life on Earth was an inevitable result from the fundamental laws of nature and not just random chance.
England is an assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
5. Maryam Mirzakhani is explaining the complicated mathematical relationships that govern twisting and stretching surfaces.
In 2014, Maryam Mirzakhani was one of only four people to receive a Fields Medal, which is regarded as the most prestigious award in mathematics since there is no Nobel Prize for math. She's also the first woman to ever receive the award.
She studies shapes and surfaces in several fields of abstract mathematics including hyperbolic geometry. Mirzakhani tackles important questions in these fields — like "how many simple closed geodesics shorter than some given length can there be on a particular Riemann surface" — by taking novel approaches to the problems that other mathematicians have said is nothing short of "truly spectacular." 
Mirzakhani is a mathematics professor at Stanford University.
6. Michio Kaku is helping us understand the nature of the universe.
Michio Kaku is credited as one of the cofounders of string theory, which predicts that the most fundamental components of the universe are made up of one-dimensional strings.
If proven, string theory could solve some stubborn problems in physics that have been puzzling scientists for decades, such as whether a universal theory of quantum gravity actually exists, and if it does, how it works and helps govern the behavior of our universe.
Unlike the stereotypical, introverted theoretical physicist, Kaku is an outspoken popularizer of science. He has nearly half a million Twitter followers and has appeared in radio, TV, and films that explore some of the wackiest cosmic mysteries like whether wormholes exist and most fundamental philosophical question, like is there such a thing as free will? In 2014, Kaku published his third New York Times best-seller, "The Future of the Mind."
Kaku is a professor of theoretical physics at the City College of New York.
7. Yitang Zhang solved a 150-year-old mathematic mystery.
Before solving one of the most outstanding mathematical mysteries of the last 150 years, Yitang Zhang was unrecognized for his genius, unknown in the mathematical community, and spent years working odd jobs at places like Subway.
But in 2013, all of that changed when he submitted a groundbreaking paper to one of the most prestigious journals in mathematics that discussed the unique patterns of prime numbers. There's something called a prime gap, which is the distance between prime numbers. For example, the prime gap for 5 and 7 is 2. No one knew if prime gaps just got larger and larger, out to infinity. However, Zhang provided a mathematical proof that there was a limit on the distance between primes: 70 million.
Since then, mathematicians have advanced and revised the number. Meanwhile, Zhang has been featured in media outlets like Quanta, The New York Times, The New Yorker and has received such prestigious awards as the Ostrowski Prize, the Cole Prize, the Rolf Schock Prize, and a MacArthur fellowship. He has spent the last two years giving talks around the world.
Zhang is a professor of mathematics and physics at the University of New Hampshire.

3D Color Images Of The Brain Reveal Its Glorious Unseen Detail

The human brain remains one of the most mysterious organs in the human body. However, an imaging technique developed by a group of researchers including from Harvard, MIT, and Boston University, may bring them one step closer to understanding its intricacies. Their results were published yesterday in the journal, Cell.
The approach will allow scientists to see the brain’s beautifully layered 3D structure on the nanoscale with different colors to separate and distinguish cell types. They first created the 3D structure by combining electron microscope (EM) images of the brain structure together. Then, they achieved the color differentiation using VAST, an annotation tool--developed at Harvard by a co-author of this study--that allows users to manually add color to EM images. This is the first time VAST was used to create color images of the brain.
The point of this study was simply to see what could be learned from seeing the brain, anatomized into its parts using different colors. But going forward, the researchers think this tool could be used to see what a neurological disorder actually looks like in the brain and how the human brain differs from that of other animals as well as how individual human brains differ from each other.
To see if the application would actually work, the researchers chose to visualize parts of a mouse’s neocortex--the area of the brain that receives sensory information from mouse whiskers, which are even more sensitive than human fingertips. They first took EM images of the structure, combined them, then, using VAST, they assigned different colors to piece apart the individual structures and cell types, allowing them to see each type individually and how they come together to create the brain structures. In the video below, they use color coordination to reconstruct the structures that surround two dendrites--the tree-like branches of a neuron that receive sensory information from other neurons. The objects are initially shown as they would appear in the brain. Then, they are sorted by category--axonal, dendritic, or glial--then further by functional type--excitatory or inhibitory for axons and dendrites and when applicable, by type of glial cell.

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"The complexity of the brain is much more than what we had ever imagined," saidNarayanan Kasthur, ian assistant professor at Boston University School of Medicine and lead author of the study, in the press release.
Here's a breakdown of the color-coordinated brain structures in .gif form:
However, despite the beauty of the finished product, whether or not the technique will actually be put to use is still up in the air. During their testing, the researchers found that the sheer magnitude of neuronal connections that make up the brain imposed a huge challenge--one that the authors conclude in their study made them question whether the finished product justifies its use. They write that their effort “ lays bare the magnitude of the problem confronting neuroscientists who seek to understand the brain.” They also used a mouse’s brain and note that a human brain has far more neuronal complexity. But despite the brain’s so-called near impossible-to-understand intricacies, they remain hopeful: “In the nascent field of connectomics there is no reason to stop doing it until the results are boring.”


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