‘spaceballs’ and computer program to decipher ancient text

Posted: July 26, 2010 in Uncategorized
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Stars reveal carbon ‘spaceballs’
By Victoria Gill
Science reporter, BBC News

The football-shaped molecules are the largest molecules ever found in space

Scientists have detected the largest molecules ever seen in space, in a cloud of cosmic dust surrounding a distant star.

The football-shaped carbon molecules are known as buckyballs, and were only discovered on Earth 25 years ago when they were made in a laboratory.

These molecules are the “third type of carbon” – with the first two types being graphite and diamond.

The researchers report their findings in the journal Science.
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This provides convincing evidence that the buckyball has… existed since time immemorial in the dark recesses of our galaxy”
Harry Kroto
Chemistry Nobel laureate

Buckyballs consist of 60 carbon atoms arranged in a sphere. The atoms are linked together in alternating patterns of hexagons and pentagons that, on the molecular scale, look exactly like a football.

They belong to a class of molecules called buckminsterfullerenes – named after the architect Richard Buckminster Fuller, who developed the geodesic dome design that they so closely resemble.

The research group, led by Jan Cami from the University of Western Ontario in Canada, made its discovery using Nasa’s Spitzer infrared telescope.

Professor Cami and his colleagues were not specifically looking for buckyballs, but spotted their unmistakable infrared “signature”.

“They oscillate and vibrate in lots of different ways, and in doing so they interact with infrared light at very specific wavelengths,” explained Professor Cami.

When the telescope detected emissions at those wavelengths, Professor Cami knew he was looking a signal from the largest molecules ever found in space.

“Some of my undergraduate students call me a world record holder,” he told BBC News. “But I don’t think there’s a record for that.”

The molecules were named after the developer of the geodesic dome

The signal came from a star in the southern hemisphere constellation of Ara, 6,500 light-years away.

Professor Cami said the discovery was perhaps not surprising, but was “very exciting”.

“Lots of scientists have expected that they would exist in space, because they are amongst the most stable and durable of materials,” he said.

“So once they’ve formed in space, would be very hard to destroy them.

“But this is clear evidence of an entirely new class of molecule existing there.”

The researchers now want to find out what fraction of the Universe’s carbon might be “locked up” in these spheres.

They also want to use the known properties of buckyballs to gain a better understanding of physical and chemical processes in space.

The discovery may even help shed light on other unexplained chemical signatures that have already been detected in cosmic dust.
Third way

Back on Earth, the discovery of buckyballs’ existence was also accidental. Researchers were attempting to simulate conditions in the atmospheres of ageing, carbon-rich giant stars, in which chains of carbon had been detected.

“The experiments were set up to make those long carbon chains, and then something unexpected came out – these soccer ball type molecules, which just looked weird,” said Professor Cami.

“And now it turns out that those conditions that were deliberately created in a laboratory actually occur in space too – we just had to look in the right place.”

Sir Harry Kroto, now at Florida State University in the US, shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of buckyballs.

He commented: “This most exciting breakthrough provides convincing evidence that the buckyball has, as I long suspected, existed since time immemorial in the dark recesses of our galaxy.

“It’s so beautiful that it’s been hiding from us and it took an experiment trying to uncover what was going on in stars to find it.”

He told BBC News: “All the carbon in your body came from star dust, so at one time some that carbon may have been in the form of buckyballs.”


Computers to translate world’s ‘lost’ languages after program deciphers ancient text

By Niall Firth
Last updated at 3:47 PM on 22nd July 2010

Scientists have used a computer program to decipher a written language that is more than three thousand years old.

The program automatically translated the ancient written language of Ugaritic within just a few hours.

Scientists hope the breakthrough could help them decipher the few ancient languages that they have been unable to translate so far.

Ugaritic was last used around 1200 B.C. in western Syria and consists of dots on clay tablets. It was first discovered in 1920 but was not deciphered until 1932.

The computer program was able to decipher many of the words that Ugaritic (pictured) has in common with Hebrew

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told the program that the language was related to another known language, in this case Hebrew.

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The system is then able to make assumptions about the way different words are formed and whether they consist of a prefix and a suffix, for example.
Etruscan – Repeated attempts to decipher this language have led little further than the numbers one to six.
The Rohonc Codex – Discovered in Hungary, it contains 10 times more symbols than any other known alphabet
Rongorongo – Discovered on Easter Island, scientists are not even sure if it is language
Linear A – An ancient Minoan script from Crete from around 1900-1800 BC
Vinca symbols – Believed to be the earliest ‘proto-language’ known to man, these symbols were found in Hungary in 1875. They date from around 4000 BC

Through repeated analysis, the program linked letters and words to map nearly all Ugaritic symbols to their Hebrew equivalents in a matter of hours.

The system looks for commonly used symbols in the two languages and gradually refines its mapping of the alphabet until it can go no further.

The Ugaritic alphabet has 30 letters, and the system correctly mapped 29 of them to their Hebrew counterparts.

Of the words that the two languages shared the program was able to correctly identify 60 per cent of them.

Science professor Regina Barzilay, who was leading the research, said: ‘Traditionally, decipherment has been viewed as a sort of scholarly detective game, and computers weren’t thought to be of much use.

‘Our aim is to bring to bear the full power of modern machine learning and statistics to this problem.’

Other researchers have expressed scepticism about the program and say that it is of little use because many of the undeciphered texts have no known ancestor to map against.

The program also assumes that the computer knows where one word begins and another ends, something which is not always the case

A clay tablet found at the ancient city of Ugarit, dating from around 1400 BC

But Professor Barzilay thinks the system can overcome this hurdle by scanning multiple languages at once and taking contextual information into account

She said: ‘Each language has its own challenges. Most likely, a successful decipherment would require one to adjust the method for the peculiarities of a language.’

But she points out the decipherment of Ugaritic took years and relied on some happy coincidences — such as the discovery of an axe that had the word “axe” written on it in Ugaritic.

‘The output of our system would have made the process orders of magnitude shorter,’ she says.

The system could also improve the reliability of translation software like Google Translate, the researchers believe.


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