space is the place
Q&A: The First-Ever Expedition to Turkmenistan’s “Door to Hell”
Explorer George Kourounis describes his descent into a fiery, gas-fueled crater
PUBLISHED JULY 16, 2014
The Darvaza Crater, more commonly known as the Door to Hell, still burns today, a surreal feature in an otherwise barren landscape.
Details on the origin of the sinkhole are sketchy, but the story goes that Soviet scientists set it on fire to burn off noxious gases after the ground under a drilling rig gave way. Perhaps the scientists underestimated the amount of fuel that lay below—Turkmenistan has the sixth largest natural gas reserves in the world.
In November 2013, explorer and storm chaserGeorge Kourounis, on an expedition funded partly by National Geographic, set out to be the first person to plumb the depths of the crater, which is 225 feet (69 meters) wide and 99 feet (30 meters) deep.
At the bottom he collected soil samples, hoping to learn whether life can survive in such harsh conditions—and perhaps shedding light on whether life could survive similar conditions elsewhere in the universe.
His harrowing plunge is featured on the National Geographic Channel series Die Trying, which airs tonight, July 16, at 10 p.m. EDT. Kourounis, who’s based in Toronto, talked with National Geographic about his experience in Turkmenistan.
Tell me how this project got started.
The place has always fascinated me. The story behind how it came into existence has been sort of shrouded in mystery, and there’s no other place like it on Earth. It is very unique, in that there’s no other place where there is this pit of burning methane that’s being ejected from the ground at high pressure. It’s fascinating, it’s visually stunning, and there’s a lot that we can learn about this place.
What did you do to prepare for the expedition? How did you protect yourself?
There was about a year and a half of preparation and planning. Getting permission, getting all the logistics in order, getting the team assembled, getting the [National Geographic] Expeditions Council on board. In order to prepare, there was a lot of practice at first. We set up [a] rope-rigging system over a local river gorge and practiced out there several times, including with the full apparatus I was wearing: a heat-reflective suit, self-contained breathing apparatus, the climbing harness that I’m wearing. We had to get it custom-made out of Kevlar, because a regular climbing harness would just melt under the extreme heat.
I even went as far as to hire a stunt coordinator who does movie stunts for Hollywood films to light me on fire several times, in order to sort of prepare myself for not panicking being up close around flame.
read more from Nat Geo
Researchers have pioneered a revolutionary new way to digitally navigate three-dimensional images. The new technology, called Virtual Finger, allows scientists to move through digital images of small structures like neurons and synapses using the flat surface of their computer screens. Virtual Finger’s unique technology makes 3D imaging studies orders of magnitude more efficient, saving time, money and resources at an unprecedented level across many areas of experimental biology. The software and its applications are profiled in this week’s issue of the journal Nature Communications.
Most other image analysis software works by dividing a three-dimensional image into a series of thin slices, each of which can be viewed like a flat image on a computer screen. To study three-dimensional structures, scientists sift through the slices one at a time: a technique that is increasingly challenging with the advent of big data. “Looking through 3D image data one flat slice at a time is simply not efficient, especially when we are dealing with terabytes of data,” explains Hanchuan Peng, Associate Investigator at the Allen Institute for Brain Science. “This is similar to looking through a glass window and seeing objects outside, but not being able to manipulate them because of the physical barrier.”
In sharp contrast, Virtual Finger allows scientists to digitally reach into three-dimensional images of small objects like single cells to access the information they need much more quickly and intuitively. “When you move your cursor along the flat screen of your computer, our software recognizes whether you are pointing to an object that is near, far, or somewhere in between, and allows you to analyze it in depth without having to sift through many two-dimensional images to reach it,” explains Peng.
Scientists at the Allen Institute are already using Virtual Finger to improve their detection of spikes from individual cells, and to better model the morphological structures of neurons. But Virtual Finger promises to be a game-changer for many biological experiments and methods of data analysis, even beyond neuroscience. In their Nature Communications article, the collaborative group of scientists describes how the technology has already been applied to perform three-dimensional microsurgery in order to knock out single cells, study the developing lung, and create a map of all the neural connections in the fly brain.
“Using Virtual Finger could make data collection and analysis ten to 100 times faster, depending on the experiment,” says Peng. “The software allows us to navigate large amounts of biological data in the same way that Google Earth allows you to navigate the world. It truly is a revolutionary technology for many different applications within biological science,” says Peng.
Hanchuan Peng began developing Virtual Finger while at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus and continued development at the Allen Institute for Brain Science.
This man’s scalp was expanded like a balloon for groundbreaking surgery which used the method to repair his scalp after the removal of a tumour from the crown of his head. A bag was inserted and gradually filled with fluid until it was the size of a grapefruit, providing enough skin to repair the site. Read more at
through Irregular Anatomist
Deadliest ever outbreak of Ebola virus: What you need to know
At least 759 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia have been infected by Ebola since its symptoms were first observed four months ago, according to the World Health Organization. 467 of them have died. That’s a 61.5 percent mortality rate.
The WHO says “drastic action is needed” to contain the virus, which has spread from rural areas to cities in West Africa. It has dispatched teams of experts to the region and is holding talks this week with the health ministers from 11 countries about what to do next.
Why does Ebola generate such fear?
"It is a highly infectious virus that can kill up to 90% of the people who catch it, causing terror among infected communities," it says.
There is also no vaccination against it.
Of Ebola’s five sub-types, the Zaire strain — the first to be identified — is considered the most deadly.
The WHO said preliminary tests on the Ebola virus in Guinea in March suggested that the outbreak there was this strain, although that has not been confirmed.
What is Ebola?
The Ebola virus causes viral hemorrhagic fever (VHF), whichaccording to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), refers to a group of viruses that affect multiple organ systems in the body and are often accompanied by bleeding.
The virus is named after the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), where one of the first outbreaks occurred in 1976. The same year there was another outbreak in Sudan.
The WHO says there are five different strains of the virus — named after the areas they originated in. Three of these have been associated with large outbreaks of hemorrhagic fever in Africa.
These are the Bundibugyo — an area of Uganda where the virus was discovered in 2007 — Sudan and Zaire sub-types.
Ebola scientist: ‘It’s spectacular’ Ebola epidemic ‘out of control’ Fighting Ebola in urban Africa Inside Guinea’s ebola crisis There has been a solitary case of Ivory Coast Ebola. This subtype was discovered when a researcher studying wild chimpanzees became ill in 1994 after an autopsy on one of the animals. The researcher recovered. Finally, Reston Ebola is named after Reston in the U.S. state of Virginia, where this fifth strain of the Ebola virus was identified in monkeys imported from the Philippines. The CDC says while humans have been infected with Ebola Reston, there have been no cases of human illness or death from this sub-type. What are Ebola’s symptoms?
Early symptoms of the Ebola virus include sudden onset of fever, weakness, muscle pain, headaches and a sore throat. These symptoms can appear two to 21 days after infection. The WHO says these non-specific early symptoms can be mistaken for signs of diseases such as malaria, typhoid fever, meningitis or even the plague. MSF says some patients may also develop a rash, red eyes, hiccups, chest pains and difficulty breathing and swallowing. The early symptoms progress to vomiting, diarrhea, impaired kidney and liver function and sometimes internal and external bleeding. Ebola can only be definitively confirmed by five different laboratory tests. How is it treated? There are no specific treatments for Ebola. MSF says patients are isolated and then supported by health care workers. “This consists of hydrating the patient, maintaining their oxygen status and blood pressure and treating them for any complicating infections,” it says.
There have been cases of healthcare workers contracting the virus from patients and the World Health Organization has issued guidance for dealing with confirmed or suspected cases of the virus. Carers are advised to wear impermeable gowns and gloves and to wear facial protection such as goggles or a medical mask to prevent splashes to the nose, mouth and eyes. MSF says it contained a 2012 outbreak in Uganda by placing a control area around its treatment center. An outbreak is considered over once 42 days — double the incubation period of the disease — have passed without any new cases.
read more from CNN
Surgeons removed a man’s tumour and rebuilt his body using leg muscles and tissue they had removed and attached to his arm to keep alive.
"It’s not easy for a surgeon to tell a patient that they haven’t done this particular procedure before."
Brain Control in a Flash of Light
A fiber optic system developed by Dr. Karl Deisseroth can trigger activity within the brain of a free-moving mouse. Read more about Deisseroth and other scientists who have been working on a way to turn brain cells on and off using genetic engineering and light from nytimes.
And check out a video from the QUEST archives to learn how his research could help treat depression.
Kidney Stone Under Microscope
Scanning electron micrograph of a kidney stone (nephrolithiasis). Kidney stones form when salts, minerals and chemicals in the urine (for example calcium, oxalate and uric acid) crystallise and solidify. Small kidney stones are often passed naturally but larger stones can sometimes get lodged in the kidney or other parts of the urinary tract. Size of stone is 2 mm.
Image Credit: Kevin Mackenzie, University of Aberdeen/Wellcome Images
More images from the Wellcome Image Awards 2014: http://is.gd/gR8BuV
from Hashem AL-ghaili