Scientists Just Made the First Super-Secure Quantum Video Call

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Scientists Just Made the First Super-Secure Quantum Video Call

Image: Screenshot/Youtube

A “quantum satellite” sounds at home in the James Bond franchise, but there really is a satellite named Micius with some truly quantum assignments. In this case, it helped the president of the Chinese Academy of Science make a video call. A quantum-safe video call.

The Micius satellite has made the news several times this year, thanks to its role in some crazy-sounding science like setting quantum teleportation andentanglement records. The satellite is doing some potentially important, real-life work, however, allowing the Chinese government to set up more secure communications lines with the help of quantum mechanics. Now, the Chinese Academy of Sciences reports the first quantum-safe video call between its president, Chunli Bai, and President Anton Zeilinger of the Austria Academy of Sciences in Vienna.

Essentially what’s going on to make this super safe call happen is rooted in the laws of quantum mechanics, entanglement, and superposition. Individual particles act as both specks and waves simultaneously, with a list of possible properties. If you make these particles interact with one another, the mathematics of quantum mechanics requires that you describe them using the same equation—even if you separate them over large distances. If you entangle a pair of light particles and separate them, measuring one automatically implies what the other one should be.

This is often described as “spooky action at a distance,” but it’s not really that spooky, especially considering how it was used here: to share encryption keys to ensure no one was eavesdropping on the call. Entangling photons over a long distance means that you share a link—but if there’s an eavesdropper on the communications line, then the laws of quantum mechanics causes these particles to lose their spooky connection. The scientists use this link to set up a secure line.

Basically, Micius sends entangled photons to two stations, one in Austria and the other into China, encoded with specific polarizations (the direction of the light wave’s wobble) as the security check. The scientists make measurements of the polarizations and then send back their measurement information, which the satellite reviews to ensure that there hasn’t been a collapse of the entanglement. It then creates the security keys, which the stations can use to encrypt and decrypt the data contained in the video call, according to an Austrian Academy of Sciences press release.

It’s sort of a single-use pad deal solely for the data in the video call, but generated via quantum mechanics.

So, again, no teleporting and nothing that crazy if you think about it, but the move is an important one symbolically. These quantum key distribution systems are meant to be unhackable if done right—though of course, there’s worry one could still find a way to hack such communications.

Anyway, the Micius satellite continues to plow ahead—and it might not be too long before you are sending journalists government document links with a quantum key.

[Austrian Academy of Sciences]

What the Hell Is a Quantum Computer and How Excited Should I Be?

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What the Hell Is a Quantum Computer and How Excited Should I Be?

Image: liquidtransistorresonancyvalley by artist Brenna Murphy. Used with permission.

They will never sit on your desk, and they will most certainly never fit in your pocket. Today, they’re fragile, and need to be kept at temperatures close to absolute zero. Quantum computers aren’t much like the desktop PCs we’re all so familiar with—they’re a whole new kind of machine, capable of calculations so complex, it’s like upgrading from black-and-white to a full color spectrum.

Lately, you’ve been hearing a lot about quantum computing. There are news stories about how it “could change the world” and “open new dimensions.”Universities are hyping up their quantum microchip prototypes,demonstrations of quantum mechanical ideas in silicon, and other devices andtheories. But come on, how does it work? What does it do? Who’s doing it? And, most importantly, why should you care?

Despite what you’ve heard, right now, quantum computing is more or less in the era that classical computing was in the ‘50s, when room-sized hulks ran on vacuum tubes. But it could revolutionize computing. Potentially. Maybe.

Before you learn what a quantum computer is and why it matters, let’s break down the mathematical theory of quantum mechanics. It may sound esoteric, but the rules of quantum mechanics govern the very nature of the particles that make up our universe, including those of your electronics and gadgets.

When one thing is two things at the same time

In our universe, we are used to a thing being one thing. A coin, for example, can be heads, or it can be tails. But if the coin followed the rules of quantum mechanics, the coin would be flipping midair. So until it lands and we look at it, we don’t know if it’s heads or tails. Effectively, it’s both heads and tails at the same time.

We do know one thing about this coin. There is a probability for the flipping coin to be either heads or tails. So the coin isn’t heads, it’s not tails, it’s—for example—the probability of 20% heads and 80% tails. Scientifically speaking, how can a physical thing be like this? How do we even begin describe it?

The most mind-boggling part of quantum mechanics is that for some reason, particles like electrons seem to act like waves, and light waves like particles. Particles have a wavelength. The most basic experiment demonstrating this fact is the double slit experiment:

If you put a pair of parallel slits in a partition between a beam of particles and a wall, and put a detector on the wall to see what happens, a strange pattern of stripes appear. It’s called an interference pattern.

Image: Fu-Kwun Hwang and Francisco Esquembre

Like waves, the particles-waves that travel through one slit interfere with those that travel through the other slit. If the peak of the wave aligns with a trough, the particles cancel out and nothing shows up. If the peak aligns with another peak, the signal in the detector would be even brighter. (This interference pattern still exists even if you only send one electron at a time.)

If we were to describe one of these wave-like particles (before they hit the wall) as a mathematical equation, it would look like the mathematical equation describing our coin (before it hits the ground and lands on heads or tails).

These equations can look kind of scary, like this:

But all you need to know is that this equation lists the particle’s definite properties but doesn’t say which one you’ll get. (We don’t know that yet.) You can use this equation to find the probabilities of some of the particle’s properties.

And because this math involves complex numbers—those containing the square root of -1, or i—it doesn’t just describe the probability of a coin being heads or tails, it describes an advanced probability, which could include the way the face of the coin will be rotated.

From all this crazy math, we get a couple of crazy things. There’s superposition—the midair coin being heads and tails at the same time. There’s interference—probability waves overlapping and cancelling each other out. And there’s entanglement, which is like if we tied a bunch of coins together, changing the probability of certain outcomes because they’re, well, entangled now. These three crazy things are exploited by quantum computers to make whole new kinds of algorithms.

How a quantum computer works

“In some sense we’ve been doing the same thing for 60 years. The rules we use to compute have not changed—we’re stuck with bits and bytes and logic operations,” Martin Laforest, Senior Manager of Scientific Outreach at the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo in Canada, tells Gizmodo. But that is all about to change. “Quantum computers turn the rules of computers on their heads.”

Traditional computers do their computation using bits, which can be stored as electrical charges in processors or even tiny pits drilled into CDs. A bit only has two choices, which we represent as one and zero. Anything with two choices you can pick from is a bit. All computing is done via setting and relating bits, with operations like “if this bit is a zero and this bit is a one, make this third bit a one, otherwise make it a zero,” and so on and so forth.

The qubit, short for quantum bit, is like a regular bit, but it’s both a zero and a one at the same time (before you look at it). It’s that coin flipping in midair. A quantum computer is like flipping multiple coins at the same time—except while these coins are flipping, they obey the wacky rules of superposition, interference and entanglement.

The quantum computer first bestows the qubits with this quantum mechanical version of probability of what will happen once you actually peep the qubit. (Once you peep the mysterious qubit though, it stops being mysterious and becomes a defined bit.) Quantum mechanical computations are made by preparing the qubits (or adding weights to a coin before you flip it to manipulate the probability of the outcome), then interacting them together (or flipping a bunch of entangled coins at once) and then measuring them (which causes the coins to stop flipping and produces the final value). If done properly, all of this mid-air interaction should result in a best answer (the value) to whatever question you’ve asked the computer.

Quantum computing is special. As we said before, because its math uses complex numbers, it computes a special version of probabilities—not just heads vs. tails but also the orientation of the coin. So as you throw these coins up in the air, they bump into each other with their different sides and orientations, and some of this bumping changes the probability of the side revealed by the outcome. Sometimes they bump into each other and cancel each other out, making certain outcomes less likely. Sometimes they push each other along, making certain outcomes more likely. All this is interference behavior.

“The idea with a quantum computer is that you take this phenomenon and exploit it on a massive scale,” said Scott Aaronson, theoretical computer scientist at the University of Texas, Austin. “The idea is to choreograph a pattern of interference” so that everything cancels out except for the answer you were looking for. You want the coins to interfere in the air.

To the observer, the answer just looks like the output of regular bits. The quantum mechanics happens in the background.

What you can do with it, from chemistry to encryption

It was famous physicist Richard Feynman who’s credited as dreaming up the first quantum computer in a 1982 paper—a computer that could use quantum mechanics to solve certain problems. But it was like first coming up with a new way of notating music, but no instrument to play it on and no compositions written. It wasn’t until mathematicians began devising algorithms for this computer to use that it became a more reasonable dream to pursue. Theorists wrote the compositions (the algorithms), while physicists worked on building the instruments (the physical quantum computers).

But okay, now you just have these weird quantum bits whose output you can’t guess beforehand. Now you have to figure out how you can use them. Today, there are several places where researchers think using a quantum computer could solve certain problems better than a classical computer.

Most obviously, you can use these quantum bits to create simulations of other things that follow the crazy rules of quantum mechanics: namely, atoms and molecules. Scientists can use qubits to model entire molecules and their interactions. This could help drug companies devise new medicines, or create new materials with desired properties, before ever setting a foot into a lab.

The caffeine molecule.

Scientists have already been able to model these molecules using classical computing, but quantum mechanics offers a huge speedup. Fully representing the behavior of the caffeine molecule, including the relevant quantum mechanical rules of its individual particles, might take 160 qubits, explained Robert Sutor, vice president of Cognitive, Blockchain, and Quantum Solutions at IBM. Doing so with a classical computer to that level of detail would require around the same number of bits (10^48) as there are atoms on planet Earth (between 10^49 and 10^50).

IBM has already modeled the far lighter beryllium hydride molecule using a six qubit quantum computer. Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory determined all of the energy state of a hydrogen molecule with their own two qubit quantum computer.

There are other algorithms that researchers think might provide some sort of speedup over classical computers. Grover’s algorithm, for example, can help optimize searching. Some are working on using quantum computing in artificial intelligence, or in optimization problems such as “find the biggest mountain in this mountain range” and “find the fastest route between these two points separated by several rivers crossed by several bridges.”

But perhaps the most talked-about quantum computer algorithm is something called Shor’s algorithm, which could change the way almost all our data in encrypted.

Devised by Peter Shor in 1994, its purpose is to factor numbers into primes. I literally mean the factoring you learned in elementary school, the way that you can break 15 into its factors, 3 and 5. Multiplying numbers together is a simple computational task, but breaking big numbers into their factors takes a far longer time. Modern cryptography is based on this knowledge, so lots of your data is, in its most simplified form, encrypted “securely” by converting things into numbers, multiplying them together and associating them with a “key”—instructions on how to factor them. RSA encryption is used almost everywhere, from passwords to banking to your social media. But if a quantum computer can come along that can run Shor’s algorithm and break the encryption, then that old encryption method is no longer secure.

According to everyone I spoke with, breaking RSA encryption is decades away, but scientists are well on their way looking for post-quantum cryptography, new math that can be used for encoding data. The idea is that encryptionbased on these new ideas would be based on mathematics not easier to run with a quantum computer. Meanwhile, other researchers are scrambling to break the popular RSA encryption system with quantum computers before a hacker does.

“I suppose on that level, it’s like the Cold War,” said Stephan Haas, University of Southern California theoretical physicist. “You’re getting nuclear weapons because the other guy is getting nuclear weapons.”

Here’s a physical qubit

Scientists needed transistors, teeny electrical switches, to store bits and make regular computers. Similarly, they need hardware that can store a quantum bit. The key to producing a quantum computer is finding a way to model a quantum system that folks can actually control—actually set the probabilities and orientations of those flipping coins. This can be done with atoms trapped by lasers, photons, and other systems. But at this point, most everyone in the industry who’s presented a quantum computer has done so with superconductors—ultra-cold pieces of specially-fabricated electronics.

They look like teeny microchips. Except these microchips get placed into room-sized refrigerators cooled to temperatures just above absolute zero.

An 8-qubit quantum processor from Lawrence Berkeley National Labs. Photo: Ryan Mandelbaum/Gizmodo.

These superconducting qubits stay quantum for a long time while performing quantum computing operations, explained Irfan Sidiqqi from the University of California, Berkeley. He said that other types of systems can stay quantum for longer, but are slower.

There are three kinds of qubits made from these electronics. They’re called flux, charge, and phase qubits, differing by the specifics of their constructions and their physical properties. All of them rely on something called a Josephson junction in order to work.

A Josephson junction is a tiny piece of non-superconducting insulator placed between the superconducting wires, places where electrons travel without any resistance and begin to show off obvious quantum effects in larger systems. Manipulating the current through the wires allows physicists to set up qubits in these systems. As of today, these systems are very fragile. They fall apart into classical bits through any sorts of noise. And every additional qubit adds more complexity. The biggest quantum computers today have less than 20 qubits, with an exception, the D-Wave computer, whose 2,000 qubits operate on a separate, more specific principle that we’ll dig into later.

Actually performing calculations with these qubits can be a challenge. Regular computers have error correction, or built-in redundancies, places where multiple bits perform the same function in case one of them fail. For quantum computers to do this, they need to have extra qubits built into their system specifically to check errors. But the nature of quantum mechanics makesactually doing this error correction more difficult than it does in classical computers. It could take around two thousand physical qubits working in tandem, in fact, to create one reliable “error-corrected” qubit resistant to messing up. But we’re getting closer. “There’s a lot of healthy progress that wouldn’t have been imaginable two years ago,” said Debbie Leung on the faculty at the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo.

“A quantum computer will always have errors,” said Laforest. Thankfully, modeling molecules doesn’t need quite the same level of accuracy, said Siddiqi, which is why researchers have plowed forward with these types of simulations in few-qubit systems.

Better qubits and further research continue to bring us closer to the threshold where we can construct few-qubit processors. “Now we’re at the junction where the theoretical demand versus the reality of experiments are converging together,” said Laforest.

Who’s doing it

Universities, national labs, and companies like IBM, Google, Microsoft and Intel are pursuing qubits set-ups in logic circuits similar to regular bits, all with less than 20 qubits so far. Companies are simultaneously simulating quantum computers with classical computers, but around 50 qubits is seen as the limit—IBM recently simulated 56 qubits, which took 4.5 terabytes of memory in a classical computer.

Each company we spoke to has a slightly different approach to developing their superconducting machines. Sutor from IBM told Gizmodo the company is taking a long-term approach, hoping to one day release a general-purpose quantum computer that classical computers rely on, when needed, through the cloud. Intel has just entered the race with their 17-qubit processor released in October. Microsoft showed off their consumer-facing software suite to Gizmodo, and described a similar long-term goal for quantum computing involving scalable hardware.

Rumors are swelling that before the end of this year, Google will unleash a quantum computer that will achieve “quantum supremacy” with 49 or 50 qubits. Quantum supremacy simply means finding one single algorithm for which a quantum computer always win, and for which a classical workaround can’t be found to solve the same problem. This is just one milestone, though.

“It will probably be a contrived task, something not classically important,” said Aaronson. Still, he said, “I think at that point it raises the stakes for the skeptics, for the people who have said and continue to say that it’s a pipe dream.” The other companies seemed to agree and stressed their long-term goals for quantum computing. Google did not respond to a request for comment.

While 2017 seems to be a year amidst a sort-of quantum boom, everyone I spoke to was realistic about just how far from a consumer-facing product quantum computing is. “Looking at 2020, 2021 we’ll start seeing the advantage for real users, corporations, and scientific research,” Sutor said.

But one controversial company, D-wave, is instead doing a different kind of quantum computing called adiabatic quantum computing. Rather than just a dozen to a few dozen qubits, they’ve announced a computer with 2,000. And rather than rely on quantum logic circuits like the rest of the pack, their computer solves one type of problem—optimization problems, like finding the best solution from a range of okay solutions, or finding the best taxi route from point A to point B staying as far as possible from other taxis. These kind of problems are potentially useful in finance.

Unlike the competitors, D-wave doesn’t need its qubits to be error-corrected. Instead, it overcomes the error correction by running the algorithm many times per second. “Is it a general purpose machine that could run any problem? No,” Bo Ewald, D-Wave’s president, told Gizmodo. “But there aren’t any computers that can run these problems anyway.”

At this point, people agree that D-Wave’s computer is a quantum computer, but are unsure if it’s better than a classical computer for the same problem yet (some of its users report beating classical algorithms, said Ewald). But Ewald just wanted to get quantum computers in front of people now. “If you want to get started with real-world quantum computing today, this is how you do it. NASA, Google, and Los Alamos National Labs have all purchased models or computing space,” said Ewald.

The outlook

Everyone, even Ewald at D-Wave, agrees that we’re far from seeing quantum computers used in everyday life—there’s a lot of excitement but we’re still in the early days. There are hordes of challenges, like error correction. Then comes the related problem of transmitting quantum information between distant computers or storing quantum information long term in memory.

I asked Aaronson whether he thought some startup or some secret effort might come along from out of nowhere and present a super advanced model—he said probably not. “We know who the best scientists are and we’d expect them to be vacuumed up the way physicists were in the Manhattan project,” he said. “I think it remains a very healthy field, but at the same time it’s true that actually building a useful quantum computer is a massive technological undertaking.” You can’t just build one in your garage.

So no, you cannot own a quantum computer now, nor is it likely that you will ever own a quantum computer. It’s more likely that when your classical computer needs quantum help, you won’t notice it working. You may hear about some benefits of quantum computing in the next few years, like biochemical advances, but other advantages could be 20 years down the line. And overall, there’s no proof a quantum computer is any better than a classical computer. Yet.

Warm Water Has Existed on Saturn’s Moon Enceladus for Potentially Billions of Years

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Warm Water Has Existed on Saturn’s Moon Enceladus for Potentially Billions of Years

Enceladus. (Image: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

If you were to fly over Enceladus’ southernmost regions, you’d witness a remarkable sight. With surprising frequency, this ice-covered moon spurts a plume of water into space—a telltale sign that a global ocean lies underneath. Scientists have struggled to explain how such a tiny moon could sustain enough energy to maintain a liquid ocean, but new research shows that a porous core could do the trick, and that Enceladus has been wet for billions of years—a potential sign of habitability.

New research published in Nature Astronomy is the first to show how Saturn’s moon Enceladus is able to produce sustained hydrothermal activity along its rocky core and maintain a warm subterranean global ocean. Remarkably, the 3D models used for the study indicate that this process, which requires a wet, porous core, has been ongoing for potentially billions of years, an observation that bodes well for astrobiologists in search of microbial alien life.

Enceladus measures about 310 miles (500 km) across and it’s completely covered in an icy shell. At its thickest, this ice runs about 12 to 15 miles (20-25 km) deep, but it thins to just a few miles over the southern polar region. It’s in these southern areas where Enceladus’ geysers can be found, spewing jets of water vapor and icy grains (some containing simple organics) through cracks in the ice.

Enceladus’ plumes. (NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

This moon is literally blowing its ocean into space, and thanks to the Cassini probe, we know this vapor includes salt and silica dust. But for these ingredients to exist, the temperature at the bottom of the ocean must be exceptionally hot. Because of what Cassini uncovered, we know there are some serious chemical reactions happening along the boundary that separates the moon’s liquid ocean from its warm, rocky core.

“In order to explain these observations, an abnormally high heat power (>20 billion watts) is required, as well as a mechanism to focus endogenic activity [i.e. processes within the core] at the south pole,” write the authors in the new study.

Exactly where Enceladus gets all this crazy amount of energy isn’t immediately obvious. The heat required is about 100 times more than what would be expected through the natural decay of radioactive elements within the core’s rocks. More plausibly, a major part of the process has to do with the moon’s host: Saturn. Enceladus spins around its gas giant along an elliptical orbit, where the constant gravitational pushing and pulling creates a tidal effect. At the core, this tidal effect produces friction, and by consequence warmth. Yet this is still not enough energy to counterbalance the heat bleeding off the ocean. By all accounts, this moon should’ve frozen over after about 30 million years, according to scientists.

But it hasn’t, and because Enceladus is still extremely wet and active, something else must be going on. To find out, a team from the US and Europe, led by Gaël Choblet from the University of Nantes in France, ran a series of 3D simulations to see what’s going on inside this moon.

“Where Enceladus gets the sustained power to remain active has always been a bit of mystery, but we’ve now considered in greater detail how the structure and composition of the moon’s rocky core could play a key role in generating the necessary energy,” says Choblet in a statement.

Interior of Enceladus. (ASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute; interior: LPG-CNRS/U. Nantes/U. Angers)

According to the models, the only way for Enceladus to maintain a liquid ocean is by having a core made up of unconsolidated, easily deformable, porous rock. With a highly permeable rocky core featuring upwards of 20 to 30 percent empty space, cool liquid water can rush in and get warmed by the tidal friction (temperatures at the core can reach as much as 363 Kelvin or 90 degrees Celsius). When the water gets hotter than its surroundings, it rises and gets flushed out of the core via narrow cracks, similar to hydrothermal vents at the bottom of Earth’s oceans. This process repeats itself creating a hydraulic cycle of sorts; every 25 to 250 million years or so, the entire volume of Enceladus’ ocean goes through the moon’s core. Incredibly, this activity can be maintained for billions of years, according to the models.

This study, says NASA Astrobiology Institute scientist Christopher Glein, provides a solution to an important problem: how to make hydrothermal systems inside a small icy moon.

“We are closer than before at bridging observations and theory, and chemistry and physics to arrive at a more complete understanding of how Enceladus works,” explained Glein, who wasn’t involved in the new study, in an email to Gizmodo. “I am very excited by the potential for hydrothermal systems on a world beyond Earth to provide energy and nutrients that could support a form of life. This study advances the case that Enceladus is one of the hottest destinations for this century of space exploration.”

Indeed, in addition to having warm water, organic molecules, and other “building blocks” of life, it’s had an ocean for potentially billions of years—enough time (at least in theory) for simple microbial life to emerge. But we’ll only know by exploring this moon even further.

“These scientists have done great work,” Jonathan Lunine, an astronomer at the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science (also not involved in the new study) told Gizmodo. “Tidal heating in a heavily fractured wet core makes sense and enhances ocean heating.”

Likewise, Hunter Waite, the program director for NASA’s Space Science and Engineering Division, says the research makes sense, pointing to a study he co-authored earlier this year. “Dissipation of tidal heating within the rock is an important factor in hydrothermal activity and hydrogen production as discussed in our Science paper on molecular hydrogen production,” he told Gizmodo.

The new study, while it explains Enceladus’ liquid global ocean, internal heating, thinner ice at the south pole, and hydrothermal activity, doesn’t explain why the northern polar region features ancient ice covered in craters. The models predict thinning at both poles, so something else is going on that still needs to be studied.

[Nature Astronomy]

Outbreak in Uganda: What Is the Marburg Virus?

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Outbreak in Uganda: What Is the Marburg Virus?

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Outbreak in Uganda: What Is the Marburg Virus?

Credit: CDC/ Frederick Murphy

Three people in Uganda and Kenya have died from an extremely rare and deadly disease caused by the Marburg virus, the World Health Organization reported today (Nov. 7).

The Marburg virus is related to another notorious virus, the Ebola virus, according to WHO. Both viruses are members of the “filovirus” family and have high fatality rates. The fatality rate for the disease caused by the Marburg virus can be as high as 88 percent.

The Marburg virus is transmitted to people from a type of fruit bat calledRousettus aegyptiacus, or the Egyptian fruit bat, WHO says. Once a human is infected, however, the virus can be spread to other humans via direct contact with bodily fluids, or by coming into contact with surfaces and materials that have been contaminated with these fluids. [The 9 Deadliest Viruses on Earth]

The amount of time it takes for symptoms to appear after a person is infected with the virus — known as the incubation period — can vary from two to 21 days, WHO says. But when symptoms begin, they begin abruptly, and can include muscle aches and pain. About three days after symptoms begin, a person can develop gastrointestinal symptoms, including nausea, vomiting and severe diarrhea that can persist for a week. WHO describes patients at this phase of the infection as “ghost-like,” with drawn features, deep-set eyes, expressionless faces and extreme lethargy.

Like the Ebola virus, the Marburg virus causes a condition called severe hemorrhagic fever, which includes symptoms such as a high fever and dysfunction in the body’s blood vessels, which can result in profuse bleeding. These hemorrhagic symptoms often begin between five and seven days after the onset of symptoms, according to WHO. Blood may be found in vomit and feces, and patients may also bleed from the nose, gums and, for women, the vagina. Bleeding at injection sites during medical treatment can be “particularly troublesome,” according to WHO.

The virus can also cause problems with the central nervous system, leading to confusion, irritability and aggression, WHO says.

In fatal cases, death occurs between eight and nine days after the symptoms begin, usually due to severe blood loss and shock, according to WHO.

In the current outbreak, which was declared on Oct. 19, the three people who died came from the same family in the Kween District in Eastern Uganda, according to WHO. One of the individuals traveled to Kenya prior to his death. Because only three people have been infected thus far, and all three died, the current outbreak has a fatality rate of 100 percent.

Originally published on Live Science.

Pew-Pew! Laser Weapons May Arm Air Force Fighter Jets

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Pew-Pew! Laser Weapons May Arm Air Force Fighter Jets

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Pew-Pew! Laser Weapons May Arm Air Force Fighter Jets

A research plane equipped with a powerful, weaponized laser

Credit: U.S. Air Force

U.S. Air Force fighter jets may soon be able to instantly disable enemy targets using invisible, energized beams of light shot from a small, compact laser cannon. The laser-equipped vehicles might call to mind the heavily armed “helicarriers” from Marvel’s “Captain America” films.

Yesterday (Nov 6), the U.S. Air Force Research Lab signed a $26.3 million contract with Lockheed Martin to develop high-energy laser weapons that are lightweight and compact enough to be mounted on fighter jets. Lockheed Martin is a defense, aerospace and technology company headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland.

There’s nothing new about laser weaponry, but most laser systems that are powerful enough to be effective are too heavy and bulky to be carried by a plane. Rather, most of these lasers are limited to ground and sea use. But now, that’s changing. Lockheed Martin conducted flight tests in 2015 with laser-equipped research planes to determine whether mounting powerful lasers on planes was feasible.

“Earlier this year, we delivered a 60-kW [kilowatt]-class laser to be installed on a U.S. Army ground vehicle,” Rob Afzal, a senior fellow of laser weapon systems at Lockheed Martin, said in a statement. “It’s a completely new and different challenge to get a laser system into a smaller, airborne test platform. It’s exciting to see this technology mature enough to embed in an aircraft.” [7 Technologies That Transformed Warfare]

The new contract is part of the LANCE program, or Laser Advancements for Next-generation Compact Environments, which seeks to develop a high-power laser that can disable military targets without weighing down the plane carrying the weapon. LANCE, along with research developing targeting and cooling systems, falls within the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) initiative.

Unlike the colorful, bullet-like lasers that fly back and forth between Stormtroopers and Rebel soldiers in the “Star Wars” films, real-life laser weapons are invisible and travel to their targets at the speed of light. The weapons can be used to destroy or disable rockets, drones and vehicles, sometimes without leaving any external sign of the damage — although some lasers can burn holes into their targets.

Lockheed Martin said that it envisions that lasers, once they become more commonplace and lightweight, better equipping soldiers to disable new threats that didn’t exist a few years ago. For instance, lasers could help U.S. armed forces target small, cheap drones or explosives that are hard to hit with traditional guns and defense systems. The company refers to those traditional systems as kinetic weapons, because they launch physical projectiles, such as bullets or missiles.

“I really see laser weapons and kinetic weapons being side by side on the battlefield, and together providing the defense that our forces need against traditional threats — kinetic weapons — emerging, inexpensive proliferated threats — laser weapons,” Iain McKinnie, the business development lead for laser sensors and systems at Lockheed Martin said in a video the company produced about laser weaponry.

“This advanced turret design will enable tactical aircraft to have the same laser-weapon-system advantages as ground vehicles and ships,” Doug Graham, the vice president of missile systems and advanced programs at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, said in a statement after the 2015 test flights.

Under the terms of the contract, Lockheed Martin plans to test a high-energy laser weapon mounted on a fighter jet by 2021.

Original article on Live Science.

Here’s What Happens in the Brain When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep

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Here’s What Happens in the Brain When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep

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Credit: pathdoc/Shutterstock

After a sleepless night, you likely feel sluggish the next morning, and a small new study suggests why: Your brain cells feel sluggish, too. And when those brain cells are tired, you may be more likely to be forgetful and get distracted more easily, the research found.

In the study, the researchers found that sleep deprivation makes it difficult for brain cells to communicate effectively, which, in turn, can lead to temporary mental lapses that affect memory and visual perception.

In other words, the findings offer clues as to why a sleepless night makes it so hard to think and concentrate the next day. [The Spooky Effects of Sleep Deprivation]

“We discovered that starving the body of sleep also robs neurons of the ability to function properly,” senior study author Dr. Itzhak Fried, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), said in a statement. “This paves the way for cognitive lapses in how we perceive and react to the world around us.”

To study the effects of sleep deprivation, the researchers recruited 12 patients with epilepsy who, as part of a preparation for surgery unrelated to the study, had electrodes implanted into their brains.These electrodes allowed the researchers to monitor hundreds of individual brain cells.

The people in the study then had to stay up for an entire night. During this time, the researchers measured the participants’ brain activity as they carried out certain tasks. For example, the patients were asked to categorize various imagesof faces, places and animalsas fast as possible. Each image caused cells in areas of the brain to produce distinctive patterns of electrical activity. Specifically, the researchers focused on cell activity in the temporal lobe, which regulates visual perception and memory.

The researchers found that as the patients got tired, it became more challenging for them to categorize the images, and their brain cells began to slow down.

“We were fascinated to observe how sleep deprivation dampened brain cell activity,” lead study author Yuval Nir, a sleep researcher at Tel Aviv University in Israel, said in the statement. “Unlike the usual rapid reaction, the neurons responded slowly, fired more weakly and their transmissions dragged on longer than usual.”

In addition, the researchers found that sleep deprivation affects some areas of the brain more than others. Regions of the brain that experienced sluggish brain cell activity also exhibited brain activity normally seen whena person is asleep, the researchers said.

“This phenomenon suggests that select regions of the patients’ brains were dozing, causing mental lapses, while the rest of the brain was awake and running as usual,” Fried said.

In addition, the findings suggest that a lack of sleep can interfere with the ability of neurons in the brain to encode information and translate visual input into conscious thought, the researchers said. For example, when a sleep-deprived driver sees a pedestrian stepping in front of his car, it may take longer for the driver to realize what he or she is seeing because “the very act of seeing the pedestrian slows down in the driver’s overtired brain,” Nir said.

The researchers compared the effects of sleep deprivation to those of drunk driving.

“Inadequate sleep exerts a similar influence on our brain as drinking too much,” Fried said. “Yet no legal or medical standards exist for identifyingovertired drivers on the road the same way we target drunk drivers.”

The study was published yesterday (Nov. 6) in the journal Nature Medicine.

Originally published on Live Science.