600 million little pieces
Super computer de-shreds STASI spy documents
In 1989, as East Germany collapsed, the country's long-feared State Security Service (STASI) attempted to systematically destroy tens of millions of confidential documents in order to guard the secrets of the communist regime. Around 45 million A4 pages had to be torn by hand due to shredders being unable to cope with the sheer number of files.
The result was almost 600 million pieces filling more than 16,000 bags, which were later recovered by the West German authorities and have been kept until today. While a small number of these documents -- about 300 bags -- has been successfully reconstructed by hand, it is reckoned that it would take 30 people 800 years to piece them all together.
However, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology (IPK) have developed a computer software system that can solve this colossal jigsaw puzzle automatically. The underlying 'virtual puzzling technique' has already been demonstrated.
"Virtual puzzling follows the logic of manual puzzling," according to Fraunhofer IPK's Dr Bertram Nickolay. As humans would do, the software analyses certain features such as the shape of the pieces, their colour and their surface features. However, the virtual puzzling process, using a cluster of 16 computers, is able to analyse for 25 separate features in order to greatly reduce the number of possible reconstructions, explains Dr Nickolay.
Before this process can take place, each fragment of the STASI documents must be scanned on both sides and digitally stored. As this in itself is a time-consuming process, an initial pilot project is being carried out on a fraction of the total documents. This would also allow the system to improve with time. "It learns as it processes," as Dr Nickolay notes.
But modern-day shredders beware. If you are trying to hide anything from the taxman, you should note that researchers at the IPK have already advanced the technology from reconstructing manually torn documents to reconstructing machine-shredded ones. A bag of shredded documents was recently reconstructed for the German tax authorities! -Rashida Ahmad
Fitter mosquitoes may help fight malaria
Could breeding mosquitoes that are themselves resistant to malaria be the answer to eradicating the disease among humans? Having discovered a gene that can protect the insects against malaria-carrying parasites, scientists are attempting to establish the malaria-resistant mosquitoes in the wild. But the genes will spread only if they confer higher fitness on the mosquitoes than is found in the natural population. And researchers at John Hopkins University have recently presented evidence that the resistant gene does indeed spread to 70% of the mosquito population in laboratory experiments, thus proving that the protective gene has a clear evolutionary advantage. However, the question remains whether the experiment can be successfully replicated in the wild. And, there are more pressing concerns as to the ethical and ecological consequences of releasing genetically modified organisms into the wild on a scale such as would be required to eradicate malaria completely.
Pluto is not the largest dwarf
Poor Pluto has been downgraded again. The "planet that is no longer a planet" is not even the largest of our solar system's so-called dwarf planets. It is smaller than the recently discovered dwarf planet Eris, according to evidence published in Science magazine last month. Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope scientists from the California Institute of Technology recently found that Eris, discovered in 2005, is 27 percent more massive than Pluto or about half the size of Earth's moon. Discovered in 1930, Pluto was considered our solar system's ninth planet until August 2006, when the International Astronomical Union declared it a dwarf planet, a term referring to lesser spherical bodies orbiting the sun found mostly in an outer region of the solar system called the Kuiper Belt.
Having kids may alter your brain!
Mouse mothers show a much stronger brain response to the distress calls of infant mice than virgin mice do, new research shows. In the study, both mother and father mice showed a much greater interest in these high-pitched squeals than other sounds of similar tone. In contrast, virgin females paid equal attention to both types of sounds, while bachelor males paid no attention to either. Robert Liu of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, then recorded nerve cell activity while a series of pup cries were played through loudspeakers. The brain recordings revealed that nerve activity peaked fastest in the maternal mice and took sound-processing brain cells in the virgin mice nearly 50% longer to reach peak signalling strength, suggesting that the maternal brain has an improved capacity to tune in to babies' cries. But any mother could have told you that for nothing!
Tropical flu doesn't spread 'out'
That flu epidemics start in areas of high population density and spread outwards may not hold true for the tropics, hints a study from Brazil. In that country new research by the Fogarty International Center (FIC) for Advanced Study in the Health Sciences reveals that flu starts in the less densely populated north and moves towards cities in the south. This indicates that climate, rather than population density, plays a bigger part in the spread of the disease, which could have implications for how flu is managed in the tropics. Nobody really understands how seasonal influenza epidemics start, but human behaviour is thought to play a major role. In temperate climates, as autumn arrives people tend to gather together inside and children return to school, creating more crowded conditions in which disease is easily transmitted -- leading to the winter flu season. Airports and other major transport links compound the problem by helping illness to spread. In the tropics, flu seasons are less well defined.