Saturn moon a step closer to hosting life

Image of a white ice moon with blue lines streaked across its surface and a small cluster of cratersImage copyrightNASA

Scientists have found complex carbon-based molecules in the waters of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

Compounds like this have only previously been found on Earth, and in some meteorites.

They are thought to have formed in reactions between water and warm rock at the base of the moon’s subsurface ocean.

Though not a sign of life, their presence suggests Enceladus could play host to living organisms.

The discovery came from data gathered by the Cassini spacecraft.

An image of Enceladus next to a satellite map of Great Britain. The moon spans from the top of Scotland to YorkImage copyright PRESS ASSOCIATION
Image captionSmall neighbourhood: Enceladus is just 500km wide

A new pale blue dot?

“These huge molecules contain a complex network often built from hundreds of atoms,” explains study author Dr Frank Postberg.

“This is the first ever detection of such complex organics coming from an extraterrestrial water-world.”

On Earth, these molecules are usually biologically created, but this does not have to be the case.

“They are a necessary precursor to life,” says Dr Postberg, “[but] we currently cannot tell if these organics are biologically irrelevant or signs of prebiotic chemistry or even life.”

What does life need?

  • Liquid water
  • Energy
  • Organics (compounds containing carbon)
  • A group of particular elements (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur)

Phosphorus and sulphur have not yet been measured on the moon, but it has all of the other ingredients.

What next?

The Cassini mission, which ended by plunging into Saturn’s cloud-tops last September, was never designed to detect life.

In fact, it was dispatched before scientists even knew about the peculiar jets of water emerging from the south pole of Enceladus.

Cassini first observed them in 2005, after its arrival in the Saturn system.

The technology to distinguish whether molecules like those detected are biological in origin already exists on Earth.

“The next logical step,” says Dr Postberg, “is to go back to Enceladus soon with a dedicated payload and see if there is extraterrestrial life.”

The $5bn tech boss who grew up without electricity

Stewart Butterfield is worth an estimated $650m

The BBC’s weekly The Boss series profiles a different business leader from around the world. This week we spoke to Stewart Butterfield, the founder of technology companies Flickr and Slack.

It is not the sort of upbringing you’d associate with one of Silicon Valley’s heavyweights.

But Stewart Butterfield spent the first five years of his life living on a commune in remote Canada after his father fled the US to avoid serving in the Vietnam War.

The young Mr Butterfield and his parents lived in a log cabin in a forest in British Columbia, and for three years they had no running water or electricity.

“My parents were definitely hippies,” says Mr Butterfield, whose mother and father had named him Dharma. “They wanted to live off the land, but it turns out there was a lot of work involved, so we moved back to the city.”

After the family relocated to Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, Mr Butterfield saw his first computer when he was seven, and taught himself to programme from that very young age.

An Apple II computerImage copyright GETTY IMAGES
Image caption A young Mr Butterfield learned to programme on an early generation Apple computer

Fast-forward to today and 46-year-old Stewart Butterfield – who founded both photo-sharing website Flickr, and business messaging service Slack – has an estimated personal fortune of $650m (£500m).

But perhaps in part due to his unusual upbringing he says he tries to live frugally.

“In truth I feel guilty spending too much money,” he says. “As a Canadian that world seems very strange and alien to me.”

Mr Butterfield also puts much of his success down to luck.

Mr Butterfield says that his seven-year-old self was fascinated by the first wave of personal computers.

“I was around seven in 1980, it must have been an Apple II or IIE that my parents bought,” he says. “I taught myself to code using computer magazines.”

Mr Butterfield – who changed his first name to Stewart when he was 12 – learned to make basic computer games.

However, he lost interest in computers while at high school, and ended up going on to study philosophy at the University of Victoria. From there he did a masters in the subject at Cambridge University in the UK.

In 1997 he was about to try to become a professor of philosophy when the internet “really started to take off”.

Flickr's home screenImage copyright FLICKR
Image caption Mr Butterfield sold Flickr for just $25m

“People who knew how to make websites were moving to San Francisco, and I had a bunch of friends who were making twice as much, or three times as much, as what professors were making,” he says. “It was new and exciting.”

So Mr Stewart decided to give up academia and rekindle his love of computers.

After working as a web designer for several years he launched an online game in 2002 with future Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake, Mr Butterfield’s then-wife.

The game – called Game Neverending – failed to take off, and the pair were running out of cash. Frantically looking for a plan B they hit upon the idea of Flickr, going on to build the photo-sharing platform in just three months.

“The first camera phones were also coming out, and more and more households were getting internet connectivity, and then stuff happened so fast,” says Mr Butterfield.

Launched in 2004, Flickr was the one of the first websites to allow people to upload, share, tag and comment on photos.

Just a year later the founders sold the firm to internet giant Yahoo for $25m – although Mr Butterfield has since said this was the “wrong decision” as waiting longer could have meant a much bigger deal.

Nevertheless he moved on to bigger things with Slack.

A screengrab from a Slack chatImage copyrightSLACK
Image captionSlack allows colleagues to easily communicate as a group

It was 2009 and he and some partners had set up another online game, and again it failed. It did, however, spark a brainwave.

“As we were working on the game we developed a system for internal communication that we really loved,” says Mr Butterfield. “We didn’t think about it, it was very much in the background. But after a few years we thought maybe other people would like it too.”

It formed the basis for Slack, a service that today boasts eight million daily users, three million of whom pay for the more advanced features, and more than 70,000 corporate clients.

Slack enables employees to communicate and collaborate with each other in groups at work, and it has grown rapidly. IBM, Samsung, 21st Century Fox and Marks & Spencer are just a few big names to have signed up. Following a number of investment rounds Slack is now valued at $5.1bn.

Chris Green, a technology analyst at consultancy Bright Bee, says it is rare for an entrepreneur to create something successful out of the ashes of a failed project, and “almost unheard of to do it twice”.

“But if you look at Stewart’s career, it’s not just luck, he’s always been innovating in the background and looking for ways to bring order to chaos,” says Mr Green.

“That’s what Flickr and Slack have both done in their own ways.”

Slack's headquartersImage copyright SCOTT SCHILLER
Image caption Mr Butterfield says he would be happy for Slack to pay more in taxation

Slack does have competitors, though. Microsoft now offers a rival service for free with its Office 365 package, and start-up Zoom boasts a more expansive offering for about the same price.

“There is immense competition from some big well-funded companies so Slack will need to keep evolving,” Mr Green says.

Big tech firms have found themselves in the firing line for not paying enough tax – but Mr Butterfield says he would be happy for Slack to pay more taxes.

“I’d also like to see a more equitable tax policy. I have no problem paying tax. I don’t think companies are taxed enough, or critically, in the right way.”

Regarding the future, Mr Butterfield says that, unlike Flickr, he has no intention of leaving Slack.

“So many things had to go right get to this position – amazing luck was involved – and I am not so smart that I can just make it happen again,” he says.

“So if I ever wanted to see how far I could take it, this would definitely be the time to do that.”

1st century A.D. mosaics and paintings buried under volcano damage now being revealed and restored with X-ray technology

Featured image
An iron element map (right) made with new X-ray technology reveals the underlying craftsmanship hidden beneath a damaged portrait of a Roman woman (left). Photo credit: Roberto Alberti.

X-rays have allowed us to look at many wondrous things, but can they bring an ancient city back to life?

They can if it’s the city’s artwork.

In 79 A.D. the eruption of Mount Vesuvius near Naples destroyed Pompeii and its lesser-known neighbor, Herculaneum. The cities and their civilizations were lost under the deluge of mud, molten rock, and volcanic ash.

When early researchers began uncovering Herculaneum in the 19th century, they found a treasure trove of mosaics and paintings preserved under that blanket. The problem was, the volcanic blanket had protective properties and once removed, the frescoes were exposed to weather and, even worse, air pollution. Decades of deterioration followed.

Now modern-day technology–the macro X-ray fluorescence instrument–is helping restore some of that ancient art. Researchers working in one of Herculaneum’s most art-rich locales, the House of the Mosaic Atrium, are using the portable instrument placed in close proximity to works of art to virtually peel back layers of contaminants and help reconstruct and even restore paintings.

The instrument helps map elements like iron and copper without doing damage. One analysis revealed the artist had sketched a young woman using an iron-based pigment. Highlights around her eyes had been done using a lead-based paint. Potassium signaled that her flesh was painted using an earth-based pigment.

By establishing the chemical elements in the painting, conservators can more safely choose cleaning solvents and stabilizers. And while they typically don’t paint over what remains, they can use what they learn to digitally re-create a work.

The art of Herculaneum is not the first use of the technique, but it is the first use in the original setting of the paintings. In carefully controlled museum settings, the instrument has been used to analyze work by Picasso, Van Gogh, and the Dutch masters.

 As for the original settings in the shadow of Vesuvius, much has been recorded about Pompeii, where volcanic material formed eerie molds around people who perished there. Relatively few human remains were found at Herculaneum.

Another key difference between Pompeii and Herculaneum is the compact mass of material that buried the latter city under more than 50 feet of crust; it made excavation difficult, preserving Herculaneum and staving off looting.

Even more significantly, special ground moisture conditions preserved wooden frameworks of houses, wooden furniture, the hull of a boat, fabric–and even food. Extra toasty loaves of bread remained preserved in Herculaneum’s ancient ovens.

Out of sight is often out of mind in ancient history, so over the years, the modern city Ercolano was built over the forgotten Herculaneum. And for many years, the latter-day residents had no idea of the treasures buried deep beneath their feet.

 It wasn’t until well diggers struck an underground wall in 1709 that Herculaneum was rediscovered. Tunnels were dug and treasure seekers did appear at that point, removing artifacts related to an ancient theater. Other excavations were undertaken, but when military engineer Karl Weber took over from 1750 to 1764, careful diagrams of the ruins were made, and artifacts were well documented. Weber logged an entire library of papyrus documents, recorded bronze and marble statues, and impressive paintings.

His work is considered among the earliest examples of what evolved into archaeology. The archaeology continued on and off under different oversight, but began in earnest again in 1927 with funding from Italy.

The work has also brought insight into the architecture and lifestyles of the ancient city of around 5,000 residents. The houses of nobles overlook the water, but the homes of middle class are interspersed nearby.

Public monuments uncovered include sports grounds, a large central swimming pool, and public baths.

In 1997, Pompeii, Herculaneum, and their sister, Torre Annunziata, which was also destroyed, were named UNESCO World Heritage Sites for their cultural importance. As such, they are protected by international treaty.

 Terri Likens

How Does Wi-Fi Work?

Binary Computer Code, Binary Code, Internet, Technology, Password, Data
© writerfantast/iStock.com

Wi-Fi has become an integral part of our fast-paced everyday lives. Thanks to Wi-Fi, we no longer have to be tethered to the Internet with cables. But have you ever stopped to wonder how it works?

Wi-Fi uses radio waves to transmit information between your device and a router via frequencies. Two radio-wave frequencies can be used, depending on the amount of data being sent: 2.4 gigahertz and 5 gigahertz. What does that mean, though? Well, a hertz is just a measurement of frequency. For example, let’s say you’re sitting on a beach, watching the waves crash to shore. If you measured the time between each wave crash, you’d be measuring the frequency of the waves. One hertz is a frequency of one wave per second. One gigahertz, on the other hand, is one billion waves per second. (Thank goodness beaches aren’t like that—it probably wouldn’t be too relaxing.) The higher the frequency, the greater the amount of data transmitted per second.

The two Wi-Fi frequencies are split into multiple channels so as to prevent high traffic and interference. When it comes to sharing the data across these channels, well, that’s when the magic—er, computer science—happens. The first step in the process is initiated by you (the user). When you access the Internet on your device, it converts the information you’ve requested into binary code, the language of computers. Everything computers do is based in binary code, a series of 1s and 0s. When you click on this article, your request is translated into a bunch of 1s and 0s. If you’re using Wi-Fi, these 1s and 0s are translated into wave frequencies by the Wi-Fi chip embedded in your device. The frequencies travel across the radio channels mentioned earlier and are received by the Wi-Fi router that your device is connected to. The router then converts the frequencies back into binary code and translates the code into the Internet traffic that you requested, and the router receives that data through a hardwired Internet cable. The process repeats itself until you have loaded this article—or anything that requires the Internet. All of this happens at an unbelievably fast rate; most routers operate at 54 Mbps (megabits per second), meaning that when such routers translate and transmit binary data, 54 million 1s and 0s are taken in or sent out in a single second.

WRITTEN BY:  Kate Lohnes 

The Amazon’s solar-powered river bus

Children on the solar canoe on their way to school
Image captionA school commute with a difference

How can you create public transport in the jungle without polluting it? The isolated Achuar peoples of Ecuador have created an ingenious solution.

A couple of hours before dawn in Kapawi, a village in a remote corner of the Ecuadorian Amazon, a group of men gather to drink litres of tea made from the guayusa plant. One by one they then disappear into the dark to vomit.

This ritual, known as guayusada, is designed to purge and energise and culminates in a sharing of dreams from the night.

It was during one of these ceremonies more than half a century ago that a dream was shared of a “canoe of fire”.

And this dream has recently been realised for the Achuar.

Ecuador's solar canoe in the Amazon

Since April 2017, a canoe powered solely by solar energy travels back and forth along the 67-km (42-mile) stretch of the Capahuari and Pastaza rivers that connect the nine isolated settlements that live along their banks.

The boat Tapiatpia – named after a mythical electric eel in the area – gives the Amazon its first solar powered public transport system.

A map of Achuar territory, South East EcuadorImage copyrightALDEA
Image captionAchuar territory, Ecuador

“The solar canoe is an ideal solution for this place because there is a network of interconnected navigable rivers and a great need for alternative transport,” says Oliver Utne, a US environmentalist who has been working with the community since 2011.

The community previously relied entirely on gasoline canoes, known as peque peques, but they are expensive to run and only owned by a few families per village.

The canoe costs passengers just $1 (71p) each per stop, whereas peque peques cost $5-10 in gasoline for the same journey. Gasoline costs five times more here than in the capital Quito because there are no roads and it needs to be flown in.

Solar technician, Oliver Utne
Image captionSolar technician, Oliver Utne

Of course there is an environmental impact too – the canoe means no pollution in one of the world’s richest areas of biodiversity.

With a roof of 32 solar panels mounted on a traditional canoe design of 16 x 2-metre (52 x 7-feet) fibreglass, Tapiaptia carries 18 passengers.

Its navigator, Hilario Saant, tells me how the canoe is changing lives.

Navigator and community elder, Hilario Saant stands on the solar canoe
Image captionNavigator and community elder, Hilario Saant

“We are helping the community when there are sick children. They call me on the radio and we take the children to the health centre,” he says.

Similarly, more children are now at school because it is more affordable, and there are more inter-community sports events too.

Suddenly, our conversation is interrupted by the excited scream of one of our fellow passengers as they spot a school of pink dolphins. Another advantage of the boat is that its relative quiet doesn’t scare the animals.

The solar canoe tied up at a village port
Image captionThe solar canoe tied up at a village port

Back on dry land Julián Ilanes, a leader of the Territory of the Achuar Nationality of Ecuador (NAE), tells me about the wider opportunities provided by the canoe.

Numerous territorial wars have severed the connection between the Achuar in Ecuador and their cousins over the border in Peru. Mr Ilanes hopes to re-establish trade between the two, something that has thus far been economically impossible due to the distance and the cost of gasoline.

“We can bring clothes and rubber from Peru, and they need green bananas, chicken, and peanuts from us,” he explains.

Presentational grey line

The Achuar

An Amazonian community who span the Ecuador-Peru border, numbering around 19,000 people in total

Their culture centres on the importance of dreams and visions and they believe in Arutam – the spirit of the rainforest

Semi-nomadic until the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 1940s, they now live in small villages, sustaining themselves through hunting, fishing, and arable farming

Their remote location has allowed them to preserve their lifestyle

Presentational grey line

And the canoe helps strengthen the community’s resilience against the construction of roads.

“Having no roads helps us to maintain our culture, to have the wisdom not to forget what the Achuar culture really is,” says René Canelos, a 27-year-old from Sharamentsa, one of the villages served by the canoe.

René Canelos, resident of Sharamentsa village
Image captionRené Canelos, resident of Sharamentsa village

The arrival of roads in indigenous communities in the north of Ecuador and in Peru has led to development and oil exploration, and with it, deforestation.

Ecuador’s government has argued that roads will improve the Achuar’s access to health care and education, so the canoe helps the community prove they can manage without them.

“The neighbours who let the oil companies in not only saw how this destroyed their forests, but also how it created a lot of internal conflicts because not everyone knew how to take advantage of the money that came in,” says Felipe Borman, a traditional canoe manufacturer.

Mr Borman has come to work with the Achuar on a new prototype of the boat because its current engine, originally designed in Germany, is struggling with the Amazon’s hot sandy stick-strewn waters.

The solar canoe cruising the wide rivers in Achuar territory

The ultimate dream for Mr Utne and Mr Saant is a whole network of sustainable solar canoes navigating these ancient Amazonian highways.

“We really think this can be a model for the rest of the Amazon, and also other places around the world where there is difficulty in accessing gasoline, where there is no road network, and there’s ecosystems that the local people are working to preserve,” says Mr Utne.

But he says the key element is that it was designed first and foremost to work locally.

“Personally, I think that large-scale solutions disconnect us, and I think we get to where we are precisely because we are disconnected.”

“What we need is to create local solutions, and if they work, replicate them in other places,” he says.

Members of the Achuar in Sharamentsa village

At the local level, at least, the difference is palpable.

“I love my boat… it’s a dream come true for the Achuar,” says Mr Saant proudly.

“I’m never going to abandon it, I’m going to continue working for the canoe until I die.”

This BBC series was produced with funding from the Skoll Foundation

Canada’s vital role in the communications revolution

I carefully framed the iceberg over my left shoulder and snapped the perfect selfie. A few taps of my phone later, the image was soaring through cyberspace from my location in St John’s, Newfoundland, to my various social media channels and followers around the world.

I smiled, wondering if, when Guglielmo Marconi stood on this spot in December 1901 to receive the world’s first wireless transatlantic transmission, he had any idea of where his success would lead. Would Marconi have taken a selfie on this spot?

Signal Hill in St John’s, Newfoundland, is where the first wireless transatlantic transmission was received (Credit: Credit: Wayne Barrett & Anne MacKay/Getty Images)

Signal Hill in St John’s, Newfoundland, is where the first wireless transatlantic transmission was received (Credit: Wayne Barrett & Anne MacKay/Getty Images)

I was on Signal Hill, a massive piece of bedrock about 140m above the Atlantic Ocean on Canada’s eastern shore. It’s a dramatic spot where the ocean merges into St John’s Harbour, creating a waterway appropriately called The Narrows. Fishing boats and trawlers pass through each morning just as the sun begins to illuminate the route, and again in the early evening hours to bring seafood to the local restaurants and canneries.

They, too, make vivid images to share on social media.

A paved trail from downtown St John’s follows the harbour shoreline to the bottom of the hill before winding around and up via a series of switchbacks and steps that make the hike an energetic workout. When I explored on a Saturday afternoon, the hillside was dotted with picnickers, dog walkers and people enjoying the beauty of the day. Two wedding parties with photographers in tow were taking advantage of this exceptional setting as a backdrop for their special day.

But its popularity was not what brought Marconi to Signal Hill. Indeed, the number of visitors was a concern as he considered the needs for his experiment.

Signal Hill is not the most eastern point in North America, but it’s protected from North Atlantic storms (Credit: Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/Contributor/Getty Images)

Signal Hill is not the most eastern point in North America, but it’s protected from North Atlantic (Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/Contributor/Getty Images)

The child of a wealthy family in Bologna, Italy, Marconi was well-educated, and from an early age was fascinated with science, specifically the transmission of electromagnetic waves through the air. He was the first to discover that by grounding a transmitter and receiver, and raising the height of an antenna, he could extend a signal’s range.

That was big news in 1894. But few in Italy were impressed, so Marconi moved to Great Britain where he patented the invention and found investors to continue his work. The big question of the day was whether a long-distance radio wave could follow the curvature of the Earth or whether it just shot out into space.

Marconi scoured several locations on North America’s eastern seaboard for this experimental, transatlantic transmission. His first choice was a rocky outcropping in Wellfleet on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, but a series of storms on both sides of the ocean that battered antennae and other equipment eventually led him further north.

Marconi needed to use balloons and kites to help keep his antennae upright (Credit: Credit: Hulton Deutsch/Contributor/Getty Images)

Marconi needed to use balloons and kites to help keep his antennae upright (Credit: Hulton Deutsch/Contributor/Getty Images)

Signal Hill is not the most eastern point in North America; that would be Cape Spear, a little further south. But Signal Hill is slightly more protected from the North Atlantic’s furious storms by a natural recess in the coastline. On a clear day, you feel as though you could shout a greeting to someone on England’s rocky coast, about 3,500km to the east.

Marconi had already chosen his ideal location on the other side of the Atlantic: Poldhu on the Lizard Peninsula in South Cornwall. Although the original transmission station is gone, a monument and visitors centre today marks the spot and interprets what was going on here while Marconi and team worked on the other side of the ocean.

The transmission was sent from Poldhu, South Cornwall, where a monument to Marconi now stands (Credit: Credit: incamerastock/Alamy)

The transmission was sent from Poldhu, South Cornwall, where a monument to Marconi now stands (Credit: incamerastock/Alamy)

Those in England worked in isolation, struggling with weather conditions of their own, not knowing at all what was transpiring in Newfoundland. It had been weeks since they had communicated with Marconi and team.

For several days, at an appointed time each day, the scientists at Poldhu transmitted three simple dots – the Morse code signal for the letter ‘s’. Marconi was battling against the violently cold and windy winter up here, and needed to use a series of balloons and kites to help keep his antennae upright. But each day, at the designated time, he donned headsets and listened.

Finally, on 12 December 1901, it happened. Dot-dot-dot.

It was one of Marconi’s radios that received wireless transmissions from the sinking RMS Titanic (Credit: Credit: Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

It was one of Marconi’s radios that received wireless transmissions from the sinking RMS Titanic (Credit: Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Marconi was instantly a name known around the world, comparable today perhaps to Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. He made millions from his inventions and received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1909.

Marconi was instantly a name known around the world

Signal Hill is now a National Historic Site. And about 64km south is Cape Race, the first permanent Marconi station in North America. It was here on a cold night in April 1912 that wireless transmissions from the RMS Titanic were received and shared with the rest of the world.

Both places are worthy of a selfie, thanks to Guglielmo Marconi.

By Diana Lambdin Meyer  2 September 2017