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Rain really does move mountains, study finds

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Oct. 16 (UPI) — Scientists have finally shown that precipitation and erosion rates influence the movement of mountains. Researchers detailed the breakthrough in a new paper, published Friday in the journal Science Advances.

The role that rain — and climate — plays in the evolution of mountain changes has been debated for decades. It seems intuitive that rain erodes mountains, altering a range’s topography, and even its tectonics, but the link has been difficult to prove.

“Previously, many papers have brought together large datasets and found relationships ranging from a strong correlation to no correlation between rainfall and erosion rate,” Byron Adams told UPI in an email.

“The problem with the studies that suggested there was a strong correlation was that they did not provide a physical mechanism for why rainfall would affect erosion,” said Adams, earth scientist and research fellow at the University of Bristol.

To establish a connection between climate patterns and erosion rates, researchers precisely dated and mapped quartz sand grains across the slopes of the central and eastern Himalaya in Bhutan and Nepal.

Researchers used a novel dating technique that relied on the precise measurement of a rare element, Berllyium-10, in quartz samples.

“Berllyium-10 is produced within quartz when cosmic radiation, mostly neutrons, from outer space travels through the atmosphere and strikes the nucleus of an Oxygen-16 or Silicon-28 atom in the mineral,” Adams said. “When this interaction occurs, the atom breaks apart, or spalls, and new elements are formed including Berllyium-10.”

Berllyium-10, or Be10, is a very rare form of Berllyium, so scientists can be confident that its presence in quartz is a measure of what’s called “cosmogenic spallation.”

“Because we know the flux of cosmic radiation and the production rate of 10Be in quartz, we can use this technique to keep track of time,” Adams said.

In other words, by counting Be10 atoms, scientists can measure how long quartz sands have been exposed to the heavens in any given place on mountain sides and in river valleys.

“To make our erosion rate measurements we need to extract very small amount of Berllyium-10 from river sands and measure it very precisely with mass spectrometers,” Adams told UPI.

For the study, researchers combined their precise erosion rate measurements with precipitation and elevation data, and then used sophisticated numerical models to make sense of it all.

The analysis allowed the research team to isolate the influence of rainfall on erosion rates. The breakthrough helped researchers improve the accuracy of simulations for mountain tectonics.

“We found that if we used our new understanding of how the rivers are responding to rainfall, we could more accurately constrain the geometry and velocity of the active faults in Bhutan,” Adams said.

While researchers were able to confirm the influence of precipitation on erosion and local tectonic activity in the Himalayas, Adams suggests there is more work to be done to understand the true scope of this phenomena.

“The question that remains is: Is this a big enough change to drive crustal flow?” he said.

Researchers are currently working to expand their analysis across the entirety of the Himalayas and to use their findings to update risk models for landslides, dam breaches and fault slips.



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Scientists program robot swarm to count penguins

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Oct. 28 (UPI) — Penguins occupy ecosystems increasingly vulnerable to climate change. Tracking their abundance and distribution is vital to the project of tracking global warming’s ecological effects — but counting penguins is difficult work.

To make the task of tallying the size of penguin colonies a bit easier, researchers recruited the assistance of not one robot, but a whole swarm of bots.

“The idea actually grew out of a conversation at my sister-in-law’s wedding,” Mac Schwager, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University, told UPI in an email. “I met our co-author Annie Schmidt at the wedding, and learned that she studies penguin populations in Antarctica, and one of their key challenges was counting the penguins.”

“I told her I worked with autonomous groups of drones that could be used to take images for counting the penguins,” Schwager said. “At that point, it was clear that we had a great research synergy.”

Researchers typically use a single drone to conduct aerial surveys of penguin colonies, but the process is slow and requires a lot of time, effort and skill from the drone pilot.

In collaboration with Schmidt and her team of biologists, Schwager and Stanford grad student Kunal Shah programmed a swarm of drones to autonomously survey penguin colonies.

The team of scientists described their novel solution in a new paper published Wednesday in the journal Science Robotics.

“Our main technical innovation is our path planning algorithm, the computer program that decides where each drone should go and when,” Schwager said. “Existing methods typically plan paths like a lawnmower, or a vacuum cleaner, going back and forth over the survey area.”

“It turns out, other paths can be much more effect, in the sense that they can take the same images while requiring less back-tracking, and while making sure that the drone is close enough to the base camp to make it back safely with the remaining battery life.”

Previously, it took scientists three days to survey Antarctic penguin colonies using a solitary, hand-piloted drone. The robot swarm programmed by Schwager and his colleagues completed surveys in just two to three hours.

Time is precious in Antarctica, where animals are often on the move and weather can quickly take a turn for the worse. But speed isn’t the swarm’s only advantage. The self-piloted robots also offer reliability.

“If one drone fails, the other drones can take up the slack and still finish the survey,” Schwager said.

For now, Schwager’s swarm of drones only take pictures. The counting is done back at base after the survey has been completed and the photographs downloaded onto computers. But in the future, Schwager said the drones could use artificial intelligence to count penguins as they go.

Schwager has previously programmed robotic swarms to track the movement of people and cars on the ground in order to analyze pedestrian and vehicular traffic patterns, and he thinks similar algorithms could be adopted to track animal movements.

“The system could also be used to survey forests and other landscapes for wildfire risk, a problem that is very close to home right now for us at Stanford,” he said. “We could also use the drones to survey construction sites, mining sites, agricultural fields, to assess damage after a natural disaster, or to help find lost hikers.”

Biologists and study co-authors Schmidt and Grant Ballard are currently testing the drone aerial survey system in Antarctica. Meanwhile, Schwager and his colleagues at Stanford continue to make tweaks to the system to help the drones make better in-flight decisions and avoid collisions with birds or drones that have gone astray.

“We are passionate about using teams of autonomous drones to help us to understand and take care of the natural environment around us,” Schwager said.



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Fight judges favor aggression over skill, study shows

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Oct. 28 (UPI) — Often to the chagrin of fans and competitors, wrestling matches, boxing bouts, mixed martial arts and other types of combat competitions are frequently decided by judges.

That’s bad news for competitors that rely more on skill than vigor. New research suggests judges are more likely to award victory to aggressive fighters than skilled fighters, all else being equal.

For the study, published this week in the journal Biology Letters, researchers analyzed data collected from 550 men’s and women’s mixed martial arts contests organized by the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

The data included the percentage of strikes that landed firmly and accurately, a measure of skill, as well as the number of strikes attempted per second, a measure of vigor or aggression.

Regardless of the match conclusion, whether decided by knockout or judges’ decision, the data showed the victor was the more vigorous fighter. However, the correlation between vigor and victory was strongest for matches decided by the scores of the judges.

Fighting skillfully wasn’t entirely discounted. The data showed addition of skill enhanced the advantage of vigor, but the research showed vigor was the most important factor for fights decided by the judges.

“MMA is a fast paced sport and one of the suggestions from our research would be that judges may find vigor easier to assess than skill,” lead author Sarah Lane, postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Plymouth, said in a news release. “That, in turn, leads them to overvalue it when making their decisions, especially in longer fights where one fighter tires more quickly and the disparity in vigor is easier to spot.”

“The advance of technology such as instant replays could potentially counter this, but until they are employed more regularly rate of attack is likely to remain the most important performance trait for victory by decision,” Lane said.

The research was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which supports studies focused on the role of skill in animal contests.

Most of Lane’s time is spent studying hermit crab fighting, but the authors of the latest paper suggest their analysis of human fights could have implications for understanding physical competitions among animals.

There aren’t typically knockouts in fights between rival animals. Often, males joust and tussle to demonstrate their physical dominance to would be rivals and mates. Like in boxing, a competitor’s performance is subjective.

“Human combat sports provide a unique scenario in which to explore how performance traits such as skill and vigor are perceived, both by participants and observers,” said study co-author Mark Briffa.

“However, because of the obvious communication issues, very little is known about the accuracy with which fighting animals more widely judge the abilities of their rivals,” said Briffa, a professor of animal behavior at Plymouth.



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Graphene-based memory resistors could pave the way for brain-based computing

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Oct. 29 (UPI) — Researchers have created a new computer component capable of toggling between 16 possible memory states — the kind of computing versatility provided by brain synapses.

The new component, called a graphene field effect transistor, described Thursday in the journal Nature Communications, could pave the way for advances in brain-inspired computing.

Modern computers are exclusively digital, featuring two states: on-off or zero and one. Engineers at Penn State University are working to build a computer that replicates the brain’s analog nature, capable of hosting many different states.

If a digital computer’s information processing components work like a light switch, toggling only between on and off, then an analog computer is like a light dimmer.

Scientists have been investigating the potential of brain-based computing for decades, but analog computers have been overshadowed by the advances in traditional computing power. However, the rise of big data and smart devices like self-driving cars has highlighted the need for more computing efficiency.

“We have powerful computers, no doubt about that, the problem is you have to store the memory in one place and do the computing somewhere else,” lead researcher Saptarshi Das, an assistant professor of engineering science and mechanics at Penn State, said in a news release.

All the movement of information required by the bifurcation of memory to logic in modern computers puts a strain on speed. It also requires more spaces. Das and his research partners estimate that their graphene field effect transistor can help eliminate this bottleneck.

“We are creating artificial neural networks, which seek to emulate the energy and area efficiencies of the brain,” said study first author Thomas Shranghamer.

“The brain is so compact it can fit on top of your shoulders, whereas a modern supercomputer takes up a space the size of two or three tennis courts,” said Shranghamer, a doctoral student in the Das group.

Brain synapses can be quickly reconfigured to create a variety of neural network patterns. Likewise, the new graphene field effect transistor, formed by a one-atomic-thick layer of carbon atoms, can be used to control 16 possible memory states.

Researchers were able to reconfigure the transistor, effectively toggling between memory states, by applying a brief electric field to the graphene layer.

“What we have shown is that we can control a large number of memory states with precision using simple graphene field effect transistors,” Das said.

Das and his research partners are now looking to work with semiconductor companies to attempt to scale-up the production of the new technology.



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