Science Briefs: New void pushing Milky Way discovered

The Milky Way galaxy is passing through the Universe at more than 2 million kmh in speed.
The Milky Way galaxy is passing through the Universe at more than 2 million kmh in speed.PHOTO: NASA, ESA AND HUBBLE HERITAGE TEAM

New void pushing Milky Way discovered

It may not feel like it but the Milky Way galaxy is barrelling through the Universe at more than 2 million kmh.

Astronomers said they had discovered a void in deep space that helps explain the direction in which our galaxy is headed and the speed.

It turns out our galaxy is not only being pulled by galactic forces but is also pushed, they wrote in the journal Nature Astronomy.

The Earth spins on its axis at about 1,600kmh and around the Sun at about 100,000kmh.

The Sun, in turn, travels at 850,000kmh as it orbits the centre of our galaxy, zipping through the expanding Universe.

But how?

For a long time, scientists have assumed a dense region of the Universe was drawing the Milky Way towards it through gravitational pull.

In the 1980s, suspicion fell on the Great Attractor - an area of half-a-dozen galaxy clusters about 150 million light years from the Milky Way.

"But the direction (of the attraction) was not quite right," said study co-author Daniel Pomarede of France's Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission.

So astronomers turned their attention about 600 million light years beyond the Great Attractor to an area of more than two dozen galaxy clusters called the Shapley Concentration. This still did not sufficiently explain the Milky Way's speed or direction.

Dr Pomarede and a team said they had found the missing link: Our galaxy is not only being pulled but is also pushed.

By constructing a 3D map of the flow of galaxies through space, they discovered a previously unknown, large region mostly devoid of galaxies which they believe is repelling the Milky Way and its neighbouring galaxy Andromeda. They have called it the Dipole Repeller.


Young women 'unfazed' by multitasking test

Are women really better at multitasking?

A study said a tricky brain-teaser throws off men's walking gait but leaves most women unfazed, reopening an age-old debate about mental gender differences.

On a treadmill, men - and women over the age of 60 - started swinging their right arm less while grappling with a complicated language test, researchers found. Language function and right arm swing are both thought to be controlled mainly by the brain's left hemisphere.

"Women under 60 seemed to be resistant to this effect as they were able to perform the verbal task with no change in arm swing," said study co-author Tim Killeen, a neuroscientist from the University Hospital Balgrist in Switzerland.

The findings were published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

The team used infrared cameras to record the treadmill walking patterns of 83 healthy people, aged 18 to 80.

The participants were asked to walk normally at first and then while performing a verbal task called the Stroop test.

Developed in the 1930s, the test involves printing the name of a colour - such as red, green or blue - in a non-matching colour, then asking a person to say the colour of the ink, not the word.

Does this prove women are better multitaskers?

Dr Killeen said: "I think this shows that younger women may be able to resist interference of these two fairly specific behaviours."

Whether this might apply to other compound activities - such as driving and talking or walking and texting - has yet to be shown.

The fact that women over the age of 60 lose the capacity may provide a clue as to its origin, the researchers said.

Brain receptors of the female hormone oestrogen may get a bigger boost in younger women, who have more of it.

"Alternatively, women are often shown to have somewhat better verbal skills than men" and may find the Stroop test easier, Dr Killeen said.


New finding could help reverse Rett Syndrome

Researchers have uncovered 30 genes that could, one day, serve as therapeutic targets to reverse Rett Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that affects only girls and is a severe form of an autism spectrum disorder.

The study, led by scientists at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle, was published in US journal Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences.

There are no treatments specific to Rett Syndrome, which affects about 350,000 people around the world.

Girls with the syndrome are born healthy and seem like any other baby up to one or two years of age. But then they start missing milestones in development.

"They have this period of normal development and then it's taken away from them," said Dr Antonio Bedalov, who led the study and is a clinical researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre.

The disorder is tied to a genetic defect in the MeCP2 gene, which is carried on the X chromosome. Girls have two copies of this chromosome but one X is silenced in every cell.

Even though, on average, half of a girl's cells will produce the healthy version of this X-linked gene, the mutation in the other half of the cells is enough to trigger the disorder's symptoms.

Using adult mouse cells, Dr Bedalov and his colleagues identified a way to partially reawaken the "inactive X", the X chromosome that is silenced in every cell. The researchers were also able to reactivate the normal copy of the MeCP2 gene.

Dr Bedalov emphasised that the findings are still in the pre-clinical stage and that therapeutics are a long way off.

The approach leads to the reactivation of the entire chromosome and could also apply to other similar disorders that involve the X chromosome.

Compiled by Samantha Boh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 03, 2017, with the headline 'Science Briefs'. Print Edition | Subscribe