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IFA 2018: Acer announces Chromebook 514 with premium features, $349 price tag

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Acer Chromebook 514

Adding to the list of Chromebook announcements at this week’s IFA trade show in Berlin, Acer is launching the 514 Chromebook to join new units from Dell and Lenovo. Like Dell’s new Inspiron Chromebook 14 and Lenovo’s Yoga Chromebook, Acer’s model is a “premium” Chromebook, with touches that give it less of a budget feel than the platform is typically known for.

That’s not to say that the 514 is going to approach Google’s luxury Pixelbook in either price or performance. Instead, it looks to provide a slightly sturdier build quality for a slightly higher price than its $199 competitors.

For instance, rather than a plastic chassis, the 514 is made from aluminum with a mere 6mm bezel. It comes with a full HD (1,920×1,080) 14-inch display instead of a lower-resolution screen, and features a touchpad made from Gorilla Glass. You also get a pair of the latest USB-C ports, including one with charging capabilities.

Acer has been stingy with other specs, however. While it is claiming 12-hour battery life for the 514, it hasn’t revealed the processor managing that battery life (or the RAM or storage amounts). Given the $349 starting price, the 514 shouldn’t be expected to possess a high-powered Intel Core CPU like the Pixelbook, but with the low overhead requirements of the Chrome OS, it doesn’t necessarily need to.

Acer says there will be a touchscreen option for the 514, which suggests multiple configurations and possibly a number of processor choices. We’ll find out more about the full specs when the Chromebook goes on sales next month.

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Oldest DNA yet sequenced shows mastodons once roamed a warmer Greenland

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Enlarge / An attempt to reconstruct what northern Greenland looked like about 2 million years ago.

When once-living tissue is preserved in a cold, dry environment, fragments of its DNA can survive for hundreds of thousands of years. In fact, DNA doesn’t even have to remain in tissue; we’ve managed to obtain DNA from the soil of previously inhabited environments. The DNA is damaged and broken into small fragments, but it’s sufficient to allow DNA sequencing, telling us about the species that once lived there.

In an astonishing demonstration of how well this can work, researchers have obtained DNA from deposits that preserved in Greenland for roughly 2 million years. The deposits, however, date from a relatively warm period in Greenland’s past and reveal the presence of an entire ecosystem that once inhabited the country’s north coast.

A different Greenland

Over the last million years or so, the Earth’s glacial cycles have had relatively short warm periods that don’t reach temperatures sufficient to eliminate the major ice sheets in polar regions. But before this time, the cycles were shorter, the warm periods longer, and there were times the ice sheets underwent major retreats. Estimates are that, around this time, the minimum temperatures in northern Greenland were roughly 10° C higher than they are now.

During this period, a set of deposits called the Kap København Formation was put in place in what was likely to be an estuary environment. Some of the layers of this deposit are likely to be sediments that washed into the area from a land-based environment, and other layers are sandy and were likely laid down by salt water.

Studies of these deposits have found pollen from various plant species and a handful of animal fossils. These indicate that more species were present in this past ecosystem than are presently found in northern Greenland, but it’s unclear how representative the finds are. Pollen can travel long distances, for example, and only a fraction of the animals are likely to be preserved.

The same area today, as researchers gather samples while avoiding contamination.

The same area today, as researchers gather samples while avoiding contamination.

NOVA, HHMI Tangled Bank Studios & Handful of Films

So, a large international team decided to find out whether they could learn more about the ecosystem using environmental DNA. While Greenland remained warm for some time after these deposits, it was only relatively warm; winter lows were still well below freezing. And, for hundreds of thousands of years, the area has generally been about as cold as you would expect an area near the border between the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans would be.

The researchers then attempted to figure out just how old these deposits are. Based on a magnetic field reversal that occurred as the Kap København Formation was being laid down, they concluded that it was deposited either 1.9 or 2.1 million years ago—reasonably close to past estimates of 2.4 million years. They then plugged that age and the local climate conditions into software that estimates the amount of damage the DNA should accumulate. This suggested that there should only be a tiny fraction of the damage the DNA would have picked up in a warmer climate—damage was likely down by more than 700-fold.

The researchers argue that the minerals in the deposit interact with DNA, pulling it out of a solution and protecting it from any environmental enzymes.

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New kilonova has astronomers rethinking what we know about gamma-ray bursts

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Enlarge / Artist’s impression of GRB 211211A. The kilonova and gamma-ray burst is on the right.

Aaron M. Geller/Northwestern/CIERA

A year ago, astronomers discovered a powerful gamma-ray burst (GRB) lasting nearly two minutes, dubbed GRB 211211A. Now that unusual event is upending the long-standing assumption that longer GRBs are the distinctive signature of a massive star going supernova. Instead, two independent teams of scientists identified the source as a so-called “kilonova,” triggered by the merger of two neutron stars, according to a new paper published in the journal Nature. Because neutron star mergers were assumed to only produce short GRBs, the discovery of a hybrid event involving a kilonova with a long GBR is quite surprising.

“This detection breaks our standard idea of gamma-ray bursts,” said co-author Eve Chase, a postdoc at Los Alamos National Laboratory. “We can no longer assume that all short-duration bursts come from neutron-star mergers, while long-duration bursts come from supernovae. We now realize that gamma-ray bursts are much harder to classify. This detection pushes our understanding of gamma-ray bursts to the limits.”

As we’ve reported previously, gamma-ray bursts are extremely high-energy explosions in distant galaxies lasting between mere milliseconds to several hours. The first gamma-ray bursts were observed in the late 1960s, thanks to the launching of the Vela satellites by the US. They were meant to detect telltale gamma-ray signatures of nuclear weapons tests in the wake of the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union. The US feared that the Soviets were conducting secret nuclear tests, violating the treaty. In July 1967, two of those satellites picked up a flash of gamma radiation that was clearly not the signature of a nuclear weapons test.

Just a couple of months ago, multiple space-based detectors picked up a powerful gamma-ray burst passing through our solar system, sending astronomers worldwide scrambling to train their telescopes on that part of the sky to collect vital data on the event and its afterglow. Dubbed GRB 221009A, it was the most powerful gamma-ray burst yet recorded and likely could be the “birth cry” of a new black hole.

There are two types of gamma-ray bursts: short and long. Classic short-term GRBs last less than two seconds, and they were previously thought to only occur from the merging of two ultra-dense objects, like binary neutron stars, producing an accompanying kilonova. Long GRBs can last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours and are thought to occur when a massive star goes supernova.

This Gemini North image, superimposed on an image taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, shows the telltale near-infrared afterglow of a kilonova produced by a long GRB.
Enlarge / This Gemini North image, superimposed on an image taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, shows the telltale near-infrared afterglow of a kilonova produced by a long GRB.

Int’l Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/NASA/ESA

Astronomers at the Fermi and Swift telescopes simultaneously detected this latest gamma-ray burst last December and pinpointed the location in the constellation Boötes. That quick identification allowed other telescopes around the world to turn their attention to that sector, enabling them to catch the kilonova in its earliest stages. And it was remarkably nearby for a gamma-ray burst: about 1 billion light-years from Earth, compared to around 6 billion years for the average gamma-ray burst detected to date. (Light from the most distant GRB yet recorded traveled for some 13 billion years.)

“It was something we had never seen before,” said co-author Simone Dichiara, an astronomer at Penn State University and a member of the Swift team. “We knew it wasn’t associated with a supernova, the death of a massive star, because it was too close. It was a completely different kind of optical signal, one that we associate with a kilonova, the explosion triggered by colliding neutron stars.”

As two binary neutron stars begin circling into their death spiral, they send out powerful gravitational waves and strip neutron-rich matter from each other. Then the stars collide and merge, producing a hot cloud of debris that glows with light of multiple wavelengths. It’s the neutron-rich debris that astronomers believe creates a kilonova’s visible and infrared light—the glow is brighter in the infrared than in the visible spectrum, a distinctive signature of such an event that results from heavy elements in the ejecta which block visible light but lets the infrared through.

When neutron stars merge, they can produce radioactive ejecta that powers a kilonova signal. A recently observed gamma-ray burst turned out to signal a previously undetected hybrid event involving a kilonova.
Enlarge / When neutron stars merge, they can produce radioactive ejecta that powers a kilonova signal. A recently observed gamma-ray burst turned out to signal a previously undetected hybrid event involving a kilonova.

Dreamstime

That signature is what subsequent analysis of GRB211211A revealed. And since the subsequent decay of a neutron star merger produces heavy elements like gold and platinum, astronomers now have a new means of studying how these heavy elements form in our universe.

Several years ago, the late astrophysicist Neil Gehrels suggested that longer gamma-ray bursts could be produced by neutron star mergers. It seems only fitting that NASA’s Swift Observatory, which is named in his honor, played a key role in the discovery of GRB 211211A and the first direct evidence for that connection.

“This discovery is a clear reminder that the Universe is never fully figured out,” said co-author Jillian Rastinejad, a Ph.D. student at Northwestern University. “Astronomers often take it for granted that the origins of GRBs can be identified by how long the GRBs are, but this discovery shows us there’s still much more to understand about these amazing events.”

DOI: Nature, 2022. 10.1038/s41550-022-01819-4  (About DOIs).

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Ex-Theranos exec Sunny Balwani sentenced to nearly 13 years in prison

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Enlarge / Former Theranos COO Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani and his legal team leave the Robert F. Peckham Federal Building on July 7, 2022 in San Jose, California. Balwani was found guilty on 12 counts of conspiracy and fraud for allegedly engaging in a multimillion-dollar scheme to defraud investors.

A federal judge has sentenced Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, 58, to nearly 13 years in federal prison for fraud related to the defunct blood-testing startup Theranos, which promised to perform more than 200 medical tests with just a few drops of blood despite its technology never working properly.

Balwani, who served as Theranos’ chief operating officer, was convicted of all 12 counts of fraud in a unanimous verdict in July. Unlike Holmes, Balwani was convicted of defrauding investors and patients. Holmes’ conviction on four counts of fraud only related to defrauding investors; she was acquitted of counts related to defrauding patients.

Holmes and Balwani, who were previously romantic partners, were co-conspirators in Theranos’ fraud and were indicted together four years ago. However, US District Judge Edward Davila in San Jose, California, separated their cases in 2020.

During Holmes’ trial, she testified that she suffered sexual, physical, and emotional abuse from Balwani. The two met in 2002 during a language-immersion program in China, while Holmes was an 18-year-old senior in high school and Balwani was in his late 30s pursuing a master’s degree. Their subsequent decade-long relationship occurred in the background as they started Theranos.

Last month, Holmes was sentenced to 11 years and three months for her role in the fraud. Last Friday, she filed notice that she was appealing her case, despite legal experts saying she has slim chances of overturning her conviction.

Federal prosecutors had sought 15 years for Balwani and an order that he pay $804 million in restitution. Balwani’s legal team, meanwhile, requested that he only get probation.

In the sentencing today, Davila found that Theranos’ premise was promising, but Balwani knew of its lies and fraud and chose to go forward with the deception.

Davila sentenced Balwani to 155 months—12 years and 11 months—in federal prison with three years of probation. He is ordered to surrender to the US Bureau of Prisons on March 15, 2023.

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