Welcome to Science Saturday, where the Overnight News Digest crew, consisting of founder Magnifico, regular editors jlms qkw, maggiejean, wader, Oke, rfall, and JML9999, alumni editors palantir, Bentliberal, and ScottyUrb, guest editor annetteboardman, and current editor-in-chief Neon Vincent, along with anyone else who reads and comments, informs and entertains you with this week's news about science, space, and the environment.
Tonight, OND:SS resumes its regular programming, whatever that is.
This week's featured story comes from Scientific American.
All the Presidents’ fish: Five new species named after Obama, Clinton, Roosevelt, Carter and Gore
By Becky Crew
November 29, 2012
Getting a second term is pretty good, but getting your own fish is arguably pretty good too because Obamafish. Say it out loud, it’s great.More stories after the jump.
Five new species of colourful, freshwater fish called darters have been discovered in river drainages in eastern North America and named after four Presidents and a Vice. Darters are the smallest members of the perch family, and are named after their ability to zip around, under and into rocks and sediment on the beds of clean, fast-moving waterways.
The first of the new species to be described by the researchers in a paper to be published by the Bulletin of the Alabama Museum of Natural History is the spangled darter (Etheostoma obama), the males of which are resplendent in bright orange and iridescent blue spots, stripes and checks. Endemic to the Duck and Buffalo Rivers of the Tennessee River drainage, the males can grow up to 48 mm long, while the largest females reach just under 43 mm. Twenty-nine percent of the specimens observed had palatine teeth.
“We chose President Obama for his environmental leadership, particularly in the areas of clean energy and environmental protection, and because he is one of our first leaders to approach conservation and environmental protection from a more global vision,” says Layman regarding how he and Mayden chose its name.
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Science News on Vimeo: Computer model of brain eerily human
University of Waterloo scientist Chris Eliasmith describes the abilities of Spaun, a new computer simulation of the human brain, which is shown here performing a series of four tasks.Also read the article accompanying this video in the Psychology/Behavior section.
Credit: Chris Eliasmith et al.
NASA Television on YouTube: Two Picked For Year-Long Stay On ISS on This Week @ NASA
Astronaut Scott Kelly has been selected by NASA to begin a one-year mission aboard the International Space Station in 2015. Joining Kelly on the ISS will be Russian cosmonaut, Mikhail Kornienko. The pair will launch aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in spring 2015. Their 12-month stay aboard the world's only laboratory in microgravity will provide new data about how the human body reacts and adapts to the harsh environment of space. That information will help scientists assess crew performance and health, and develop better ways to reduce the risks of long-duration spaceflight. Also, Training Continues for Next Expedition Crew, NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft confirms water ice on Mercury, NASA Administrator visits Rocket Maker, J-2X tests continue, Curiosity Rover Report and more!
NASA Television on YouTube: ScienceCasts: Rock Comet Meteor Shower
The Geminid meteor shower peaks on Dec. 13th and 14th when Earth runs through a stream of debris from a strange object that some astronomers are calling a "rock comet."
NASA Television on YouTube: Wheaton Steps Up for NASA Spinoffs
Wil Wheaton, the actor who played Wesley Crusher on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," is host of a new public service announcement about how much of the technology we rely on daily was developed by NASA for space exploration and then adapted or enhanced for use here on Earth.Here are the other two PSAs.
Similar PSAs are hosted by William Shatner and June Lockhart, both of whom also portrayed space explorers on TV and the silver screen. Wheaton, who also has a large social media following, explains how many of these technologies have found their way into our schools, homes, cars, computers and American industry.
NASA Television on YouTube: William Shatner's NASA Spinoff PSA
Actor William Shatner, who portrayed "Star Trek's" Captain James Kirk on TV and in film, hosts a video highlighting how NASA's outstanding accomplishments in space are used to improve life on Earth.
NASA Television on YouTube: NASA Spinoffs Lauded by Lockhart
Actress June Lockhart hosts this public service announcement about how NASA's outstanding accomplishments in space are used to improve life on Earth.
Frozen material at the planet’s poles likely came from comet or asteroid impacts
By Tanya Lewis
Web edition: November 30, 2012
The sun-scorched surface of Mercury may be the last place you’d expect to find ice. But NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft has found the strongest evidence yet of frozen water — and carbon-rich material — on the planet closest to the sun.This was the top story until I ran into the Obamafish one.
While Mercury itself couldn’t support life, the findings provide clues about how water and other vital ingredients ended up on Earth, perhaps delivered by comets or asteroids. “Studying this stuff elsewhere in the solar system is really relevant for the origin of life,” says UCLA planetary scientist David Paige.
He and other scientists describe the findings in three studies published online November 29 in Science.
Nature: Small galaxy harbours super-hefty black hole
Over-massive black hole at the centre of NGC 1277 challenges theories about how galaxies evolved.
28 November 2012
A newly discovered black hole appears to be too big for its britches, contradicting a widely accepted view about the growth of galaxies. The finding, part of a study reported this week in Nature1, suggests that instead of growing in lockstep with its home galaxy, some of these gravitational monsters might have packed on the pounds earlier.
Although the newfound black hole tips the scales at the mass equivalent of 17 billion Suns, it lies at the centre of the compact galaxy NGC 1277, whose diameter is only about one-quarter that of the Milky Way, says study co-author Remco van den Bosch of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany.
The team used archival data from the Hubble Space Telescope and observations from the Hobby-Eberly Telescope in Fort Davis, Texas, which focused on the most massive galaxies in the nearby Universe, reveal that the black hole is about 59% as massive as the galaxy’s central bulge of stars, a much higher per centage than expected.
Scientific American: Solar System's Moons May Have Emerged from Long-Gone Planetary Rings
Ancient, Saturn-like ring systems may have acted as assembly lines for natural satellites
By John Matson
"If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch," as Carl Sagan once said, "you must first invent the universe." And if you wish to make a moon from scratch, according to new research, you must first create planets with rings (after inventing the universe, of course).
Earth’s moon may have emerged from a long-vanished ring system, much like the rings still encircling Saturn – and the same goes for many of the satellites orbiting the other planets. The bulk of the solar system’s regular satellites—those moons that stick close to their planets in roughly equatorial orbits—formed this way, rather than taking shape simultaneously with the planets as a direct result of planet formation, French astrophysicists have concluded. The researchers reported their findings in the November 30 issue of Science.
“It’s fundamentally the same process that gave birth to the moon and to the satellites of the giant planets, and that’s the spreading of rings,” says astrophysicist Aurélien Crida of the University of Nice–Sophia Antipolis and the Observatory of Côte d’Azur in France, who co-authored the study with Sébastien Charnoz of the University of Paris–Diderot.
Nature: Microsatellites aim to fill weather-data gap
Commercial network would use radio-sounding system.
28 November 2012
Some orbiting satellites look up at the stars. Most point down towards Earth. But the satellites of the Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere and Climate (COSMIC) look sideways, across the curving horizon. There, dozens of satellites that are part of the Global Positioning System (GPS) pop in and out of view at the edge of the planet. By tracking their radio signals, COSMIC can provide atmospheric data that enhance weather forecasts and climate models.
But the fleet, launched six years ago at a cost of US$100 million, is nearing the end of its life, with one satellite of the original six already defunct. At a three-day workshop last month at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, researchers hailed the US–Taiwanese COSMIC as a pioneer and discussed plans for a commercial successor: a network of 24 microsatellites dubbed the Community Initiative for Cellular Earth Remote Observation (CICERO). Researchers say that the programme could help to address a gap in atmospheric data as the United States struggles to meet a 2016 launch date for the first spacecraft in its expensive Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). The radio-sounding technique that both COSMIC and CICERO use is a “disruptive technology”, says Rick Anthes, a COSMIC scientist and former president of UCAR. “The impact is huge — especially the impact for the cost.”
GPS radio signals, picked up by Earth-bound receivers in everything from mobile phones to missiles, yield precise position information. But COSMIC puts them to a different use. The signals travel at a known rate, but skimming through the planet’s atmosphere and back out to space bends the signals and delays them; COSMIC uses the length of the delay to measure the atmospheric density, which can provide information on changing characteristics such as temperature and moisture levels (see ‘Bending for data’). It makes many hundreds of these radio-occultation measurements each day.
Science News: Genetic diversity exploded in recent millennia
Vast number of human DNA variants arose only in the past 5,000 years
By Tina Hesman Saey
Web edition: November 28, 2012
A new look at living people’s DNA reveals that the human genome just isn’t what it was in Neolithic times.
Most of the genetic quirks people carry today popped up within the last 5,000 years or so, researchers report online November 28 in Nature. Human populations exploded from no more than a few million to 7 billion, thanks largely to the rise of agriculture.
Researchers examined more than 15,000 genes in each of 6,515 people of European-American or African-American ancestry, looking for genetic variants. Previously, the team reported finding a plethora of rare genetic variants in a smaller sample. Now, the researchers have been able to date when most of the variants arose.
Michigan State University: Hardy organisms discovered in bitter-cold Antarctic brine
November 26, 2012
Where there’s water there’s life – even in brine beneath 60 feet of Antarctic ice, in permanent darkness and subzero temperatures.
While Lake Vida, located in the northernmost of the McMurdo Dry Valleys of East Antarctica, will never be a vacation destination, it is home to some newly discovered hardy microbes. In the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Nathaniel Ostrom, Michigan State University zoologist, has co-authored “Microbial Life at -13ºC in the Brine of an Ice-Sealed Antarctic Lake."
Ostrom was part of a team that discovered an ancient thriving colony, which is estimated to have been isolated for more than 2,800 years. They live in a brine of more than 20 percent salinity that has high concentrations of ammonia, nitrogen, sulfur and supersaturated nitrous oxide – the highest ever measured in a natural aquatic environment.
“It’s an extreme environment – the thickest lake ice on the planet, and the coldest, most stable cryo-environment on Earth,” Ostrom said. “The discovery of this ecosystem gives us insight into other isolated, frozen environments on Earth, but it also gives us a potential model for life on other icy planets that harbor saline deposits and subsurface oceans, such as Jupiter’s moon Europa.”
Reuters via Scientific American: Brought in ballast, aggressive seaweed spreads along East Coast
By Jason McLure
LITTLETON, New Hampshire (Reuters) - An invasive Asian seaweed that likely was brought to the New England coast from Europe has spread across more than 400 miles of Atlantic coastline since it was first discovered in U.S. waters off Rhode Island in 2009, biologists say.
The Red Asian seaweed is creating problems for the fishing industry as it gums lobster traps and fishing pots while displacing marine creatures that feed on native seaweed varieties.
"It's outcompeting them," said Matt Bracken, a Northeastern University biologist who is studying the spread of the plant known scientifically as Heterosiphonia japonica.
"It's better at taking up nutrients, it grows more readily and is not eaten as readily by animals like snails and small crustaceans," he said in an interview on Friday.
Reuters via Scientific American: Strandings of endangered sea turtles on rise in Massachusetts
By Daniel Lovering
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (Reuters) - Endangered sea turtles are becoming stranded on Massachusetts' Cape Cod shores so frequently that they are on track to break records and wildlife conservation workers scrambled on Friday to cope with the influx.
In the past four days, some 67 sea turtles suffering from hypothermia have been brought to the New England Aquarium's Animal Care Center care facility near Boston, said aquarium spokesman Tony LaCasse. They are among 120 sea turtles who arrived since early November.
Turtle strandings in Cape Cod Bay typically begin in November during the annual winter migration back to the Gulf of Mexico, LaCasse said. In early summer, the reptiles will migrate back up the eastern seaboard to forage for crab, he said.
Science News: Immune disease an added blow to fungus-ridden bat populations
Rare immune complication previously seen only in people devastates animals that had appeared to evade white nose syndrome
By Janet Raloff
Web edition: November 30, 2012
Some North American bats leave hibernation with little sign of the devastating effects of white-nose syndrome, a fungal epidemic that has claimed the lives of some 5 million bats since it first emerged in winter 2005. But even though those bats seem to have survived the fungal disease, their immune systems reactivate and can then inexplicably — and devastatingly — kick into overdrive, a new study reports.
These animals appear to have what immunologists call immune reconstitution inflammatory syndrome, or IRIS. The discovery of the condition in bats “is the first potential example of IRIS that has ever been seen outside a human patient,” observes wildlife pathologist Carol Meteyer of the U.S. Geological Survey in Madison, Wis. Until now, most IRIS victims have been HIV patients treated with medicines to restore flagging immune systems.
Together with Daniel Barber and Judith Mandl at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md., Meteyer describes the bats’ IRIS-like disease in the Nov. 15 Virulence.
Science News: Blue whales’ diet and exercise rolled into one
Marine predator performs underwater acrobatics for best chance at catching a meal
By Susan Milius
Web edition: November 28, 2012
To catch a skittish lunch, blue whales roll their massive bulk over and do a belly-up lunge if that’s what it takes.
Video cameras and high-tech tags stuck to whales’ backs revealed the underwater acrobatics that let the world’s largest living predators survive on some of the tiniest prey, says Jeremy Goldbogen of the Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, Wash.
Scientific American: Outbreak Specialists Track Down Recent Coronavirus
Health officials are trying to figure out if the virus is moving from person to person
By Helen Branswell
Maria Zambon was having déjà vu. Earlier this fall, she found out about a new coronavirus that had come seemingly from nowhere to kill a Saudi man in Jeddah in June and seriously sicken another. The survivor had been flown from Qatar to a London hospital. His lungs were overwhelmed with infection, his kidneys failing. Virologists at Erasmus Medical Center (EMC), in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, were already working on an isolate from the Saudi man to decode the virus's genetic sequence. They named the virus HCoV-EMC, short for human coronavirus and the institution's initials.
The situation reminded Zambon, director of reference microbiology for Britain's Health Protection Agency, of the SARS outbreak of 2003, which spread from China to as far as Toronto and killed 916 people. Fortunately, the recent coronavirus appears to be emerging more slowly than SARS did (also a coronavirus). To date, only seven cases have been reported—five in Saudi Arabia and two in Qatar. Three of the infections have been fatal. The fear, however, is that the virus will start spreading from person to person, fanning out more broadly to infect people around the globe.
Scientific American: Outbreaks of Foodborne Illnesses Are Becoming Harder to Detect
New diagnostic tests inadvertently undercut surveillance abilities of public health officials
By Clare Leschin-Hoar
New diagnostic tests for common foodborne pathogens such as Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Escherichia coli may hinder the ability of public health officials to detect multistate outbreaks. The problem is an inability to trace contamination to its source.
In 2009 Alicia Cronquist, an epidemiologist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment noticed that several rural clinics in her state had switched from traditional laboratory tests that relied on growing a culture to rapid nonculture tests. In the past, when patients were suspected of having certain foodborne illnesses, doctors routinely sent a stool sample to a laboratory, which detected a range of potential bacterial culprits. (Some foodborne infections, like Listeria, are diagnosed with blood tests.) An isolate, or sample of the bacterial colony at fault, would then be forwarded to local, state or federal officials, who had the DNA tested to determine the organism's specific strain. The telling DNA sequence, or "fingerprint," was entered into the PulseNet system so that public health officials could see if samples from other newly diagnosed patients matched the information in the database. Analysis of when and where people contracted an infection of that specific strain can help lead to the source of contamination, allowing investigators to remedy the situation.
But, Cronquist says, over the course of a year, a clear shift in the types of tests being run in local labs had resulted in much less information being shared with her department. "We saw our surveillance data changing, and by 2010, almost 15 percent of total case reports were using the nonculture tests," she says.
The new tests do have a lot going for them. They provide quicker results to the physician and patient. They are often less expensive and, in some cases, may not require a stool sample at all. What is more, some of them can spot pathogens that the culture-based tests do not and diagnose more infections.
Rising temperatures, persistent drought and depleted aquifers on the southern Great Plains could set the stage for a disaster similar to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, scientists say
By Melissa Gaskill
A cool October broke a 16-month streak of above average temperatures across the Lower 48, but temperatures are projected to remain above normal across most of the western half of the country in the coming months. In addition, the latest climate change projections put future temperature gains on the high side of various models.
As of November 6, 59.5 percent of the contiguous U.S. was experiencing persistent drought conditions that are most severe in the Great Plains—North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado—where drought is expected to persist or intensify in the foreseeable future. On October 17–18 those drought conditions combined with high winds to create a large dust storm across Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Wyoming, closing major highways.
To Katharine Hayhoe, professor and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, this heralds big changes for agriculture on the Great Plains. "In a nutshell," Hayhoe says, "we're seeing major shifts in places and times we can plant, the types of crops we can grow and the pests and diseases we're dealing with. If you talk to seed companies, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and even farmers, they tell you we can modify our way out of this, that we can overcome all these problems with technology. There's no question we can adapt to some of the change, but whether we can adapt to all of it is a very open question."
Reuters via Scientific American: Drought Drops Lake Michigan Water to Near Record Low
By Sam Nelson
CHICAGO (Reuters) - The worst drought in the United States in over a half century slashed crop output, snarled river transportation and is now drawing down water in the U.S. Great Lakes, particularly Lake Michigan.
The low water was exposing broad expanses of shoreline to owners of lakeside property, but so far no significant impact has been reported by commercial shipping interests, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said this week.
The water level in Lake Michigan is within two inches of its December record low set 48 years ago. The lake is one of the five lakes that make up the Great Lakes, which cover 94,000 square miles and straddle the United States and Canadian border.
The water level on Lake Michigan may fall to record lows over the winter unless heavy rains fall soon or large snowstorms blanket the area surrounding the Lakes.
Scientific American: Flame Retardants on the Rise in Furniture
Couches and household textiles remain a major source of retardants, which can build up in our bodies and the environment. Some of the semi-volatile chemicals have been linked to cancer and altered hormones in children
By Brett Israel and Environmental Health News
Flame retardants in U.S. furniture are on the rise, with a new study finding them in nearly all couches tested.
The findings, published today, confirm that household furniture remains a major source of a variety of flame retardants, some of which have been building up in people’s bodies and in the environment.
In the new tests, three out of every four couches purchased before 2005 contained the chemicals, with a now-banned compound in 39 percent. For newer couches, 94 percent contained flame retardants, nearly all next-generation compounds with little known about their potential health effects.
Scientific American: Dryland Farmers Work Wonders without Water in U.S. West
A generation of extremely efficient farmers increasingly sees irrigation as a non-viable alternative while mulling over a switch from water-intense cotton and wheat to rain-fed sorghum and grains
By Bruce Dorminey and DailyClimate.org
SEATTLE – In the long rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains, where dryland wheat farmers have eked out livings for more than a century, climate change is very much an issue of the present.
The rain gauge is always in the back of the mind for Mike Nichols, a wheat farmer cultivating 20,0000 acres across two counties in south-central Washington state.
It has to be: Nichols doesn't irrigate, and with less than six inches of precipitation a year, his wheat crop is already on the edge of what's considered possible for dryland farming. When drought hits or if, as expected, the West gets drier, his operation will be in trouble.
"The last eight years have been pretty good," said Nichols. "But we are putting some [cash] aside, because down the line we know we're going to go through another drought."
Reuters via Scientific American: Wood stoves, extreme cold blight air at Alaska's "North Pole"
By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Santa may need more than Rudolph's bright nose to get through the grimy North Pole atmosphere.
North Pole, Alaska - the Fairbanks suburb, not the spot at the top of the globe - has posted some of the nation's worst air-quality readings in recent days, thanks to high levels of wood smoke streaming into stagnant cold air.
Concentrations of particulates have made North Pole's air "very unhealthy," meaning children, the elderly and other vulnerable people should stay indoors and all residents should refrain from prolonged exercise, according to local government officials.
The "very unhealthy" classification was given in the past few days. A search of airnow.gov - the government portal which monitors air quality - did not reveal any other U.S. community currently with such poor quality air.
Reuters via Scientific American: Grand Canyon May Be as Old as Dinosaurs
By Caroline Humer
(Reuters) - New research suggests the Grand Canyon, one of the seven wonders of the world, may have a far more interesting and ancient history than previously thought, a U.S. study said on Thursday.
Instead of being shaped by the Colorado River 5 or 6 million years ago, a new analysis of the minerals in the 280-mile (450-km) gorge suggests it was formed by a much older river likely frequented by the dinosaurs that roamed North America some 70 million years ago.
The research, published in the journal Science, adds a new component to 150 years of wrangling over the exact age of the mile-deep canyon in Arizona, according to University of Colorado Assistant Professor Rebecca Flowers.
Science News: Simulated brain mimics human quirks
Model doesn't just calculate but turns decisions into actions
By Laura Sanders
Web edition: November 29, 2012
A new computer simulation of the brain can count, remember and gamble. And the system, called Spaun, performs these tasks in a way that’s eerily similar to how people do.
Short for Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network, Spaun is a crude approximation of the human brain. But scientists hope that the program and efforts like it could be a proving ground to test ideas about the brain.
Several groups of scientists have been racing to construct a realistic model of the human brain, or at least parts of it. What distinguishes Spaun from other attempts is that the model actually does something, says computational neuroscientist Christian Machens of the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon, Portugal. At the end of an intense computational session, Spaun spits out instructions for a behavior, such as how to reproduce a number it’s been shown. “And of course, that’s why the brain is interesting,” Machens says. “That’s what makes it different from a plant.”
Scientific American: People Use Same Brain Regions to Read Alphabetic and Logographic Languages
Whether reading Chinese characters or French words written alphabetically, the same areas light up in our brains, an insight that could inform learning strategies for literacy
By Philip Ball and Nature magazine
Learning to read Chinese might seem daunting to Westerners used to an alphabetic script, but brain scans of French and Chinese native speakers show that people harness the same brain centers for reading across cultures. The findings are published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Reading involves two neural systems: one that recognizes the shape of the word and a second that assesses the physical movements used to make the marks on a page, says study leader Stanislas Dehaene, a cognitive neuroscientist the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Gif-sur-Yvette, France.
But it has been unclear whether the brain networks responsible for reading are universal or culturally distinct. Previous studies have suggested that alphabetic writing systems (such as French) and logographic ones (such as Chinese, in which single characters represent entire words) writing systems might engage different networks in the brain.
Yesterday, we wrote about a story that's been making the rounds across the blogosphere: that North Korea discovered the lair of a Kirin (or Qilin), a mythical creature often associated with the Western unicorn. However, while North Korea's claim is about a place called Kiringul, which translates to "Kirin's Grotto," the government wasn't claiming to have found proof of the existence of the mythical beast. But what they are claiming still raises a few archaeological eyebrows.annetteboardman is taking the night off.
Sixiang Wang, a PhD student at Columbia University whose focus is Korea-China relations from the 13th to the 16th centuries, wrote in to provide some context for the announcement. North Korea actually announced this discovery in 2011, but only recently released the announcement in English. The English release poorly translated the name of a historical location, Kiringul, as "Unicorn Lair," a very evocative name for Westerners. But in Korean history, the name Kiringul has a rather different significance. Kiringul is one of the sites associated with King Tongmyong, the founder of Koguryo, an ancient Korean kingdom. The thrust of the North Korean government's announcement is that it claims to have discovered Kiringul, and thus to have proven that Pyongyang is the modern site of the ancient capital of Koguryo.
Now there are links between King Tongmyong and the myth of Kirin; folkloric stories include tales of the ruler riding a Kirin. But Wang notes that it's important to distinguish historical associations with Kiringul from mythological ones. He likens the association of Kiringul with Kirin to the association of Troy with the mythological aspects of the Trojan war, pointing out that archaeological discoveries surrounding the historical city of Troy don't result in claims that the warrior Achilles was half-immortal. Today, the name Kiringul is simply regarded as a colorful name, much like "Devil's Peak" or "Phoenix, Arizona."
Scientific American: Supersymmetry Fails Test, Forcing Physics to Seek New Ideas
With the Large Hadron Collider unable to find the particles that the theory says must exist, the field of particle physics is back to its "nightmare scenario"
By Natalie Wolchover and Simons Science News
As a young theorist in Moscow in 1982, Mikhail Shifman became enthralled with an elegant new theory called supersymmetry that attempted to incorporate the known elementary particles into a more complete inventory of the universe.
“My papers from that time really radiate enthusiasm,” said Shifman, now a 63-year-old professor at the University of Minnesota. Over the decades, he and thousands of other physicists developed the supersymmetry hypothesis, confident that experiments would confirm it. “But nature apparently doesn’t want it,” he said. “At least not in its original simple form.”
With the world’s largest supercollider unable to find any of the particles the theory says must exist, Shifman is joining a growing chorus of researchers urging their peers to change course.
Nature: Super gas meets with no resistance
Atomic gas superfluid mimics its superconducting cousins for the first time, and could help scientists to model the early cosmos in the lab.
28 November 2012
Superfluid gases that defy friction now have another 'superpower' to add to their arsenal. Quantum physicists have shown for the first time that atoms in these ultracold gases can also conduct without experiencing any resistance1. The experimental set-up might one day help to solve a long-standing mystery about superconductivity, and could even be used to model the early Universe in the lab.
Atoms within superfluids, which were first discovered2 in the 1930s, do not experience resistance as they exploit quantum effects to band together. This means that they can perform bizarre feats, such as flowing up the walls of their containers. In theory, these atoms should also easily be able to conduct through a narrow channel, without feeling any resistance caused by the confined space — just as electrons in a superconductor move unhindered by electrical resistance. But until now, nobody had been able to demonstrate this in the lab.
“It always annoyed me that this defining feature — conductance without resistance — that had been used to discover superconductivity had never been shown in an atomic gas superfluid,” says Tilman Esslinger, a quantum physicist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich.
Discovery News: DNA 'LEGOs' Build a Mini Space Shuttle
Analysis by DNews Editors
Fri Nov 30, 2012 08:40 AM ET
A tiny space shuttle made out of DNA "LEGO bricks" shows how scientists could someday build new technologies on the smallest scales.
Single DNA strands became "LEGO bricks" that could assemble together by themselves into 102 individual 3D shapes. Harvard researchers manipulated the DNA coding of the bricks so that they could form solid shapes such as the tiny shuttle, honeycomb structures, and even "written" features on a solid base such as numbers and letters of the English alphabet.
"Once we know how to compile the correct code of complex shapes and add it to the synthetic DNA strands, everything else is simple and natural," said Yonggang Ke, a chemist at Harvard University. "Those DNA strands are like smart LEGO bricks that know exactly where to go by themselves."
DNA bricks offer a powerful new tool for building structures in the tiniest detail, according to Ke and his colleagues in their study detailed in the Nov. 29 online edition of the journal Science. The work could lead to tiny medical devices for delivering drugs inside the human body or next-generation computer circuits.
Discovery News: Coated Sapphire Is Invisible to Infrared Cameras
Analysis by Jesse Emspak
Thu Nov 29, 2012 03:32 PM ET
Infrared dectors are used to see objects otherwise hidden under cover of darkness. The dectors pick up the heat given off by living bodies, warm buildings and vehicles and reveal them as glowing objects when viewed through infrared goggles or cameras. If a building, body or vehicle is cold, the detector typically can't visualize it.
Now new technology from researchers at Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences could turn infrared detection on its head. The technique not only makes hot objects appear cold to infrared detectors -- which could help hide soliders from their enemies at night -- but it can be also used to make an infrared camera so sensitive that even cold objects would look relatively bright.
The researchers coated a millimeter-thick sheet of sapphire with a 180-nanometer layer of vanadium dioxide, which is used as an insulator. Next, they heated the layered material to 154 degrees Fahrenheit (68 degrees Celsius). At that temperature, the crystal structure of the vanadium dioxide became altered, changing it from an insulator to a metallic conductor.
When the scientists shone infrared light onto the altered material, they found it was a near-perfect absorber, soaking up 99 percent of the infrared light that hit it.
Reuters via Scientific American: U.S. Launches New Project to Develop Electric-Vehicle Batteries
By Ayesha Rascoe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration launched a fresh $120-million research project Friday, aimed at developing cheaper batteries for electric vehicles, a sector that has faltered despite billions of dollars of prior government investment.
The Energy Department will dole out the money over five years to establish a research hub for batteries and energy storage, backed by five national laboratories, five Midwestern universities and four private firms.
The four companies joining the project are Dow Chemical Co, Applied Materials Inc, Johnson Controls Inc and Clean Energy Trust.
Science, Space, Environment, and Energy Policy
Reuters via Scientific American: Pledges to Fight Global Warming Inadequate, U.S. Off Track: Study
By Alister Doyle and Marton Kruppa
DOHA (Reuters) - Major nations' policies are inadequate to limit global warming and the United States is off track even in carrying out its weak pledge to limit greenhouse gas emissions, a scientific scorecard showed on Friday.
The Climate Action Tracker report, issued on the sidelines of talks among almost 200 countries in Doha about climate change, said a toughening of policies was still possible to avert damaging floods, heat waves and rising seas.
Major emitters China, the United States, the European Union and Russia all got "inadequate" ratings for their plans to help limit global warming to an agreed U.N. ceiling of below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6F) above pre-industrial times, it said.
Adding up all national pledges and taking account of rising emissions, the world was headed for a warming of about 3.3 degrees Celsius (6F), it said.
"We are off track and the United States is not likely to meet its pledge," said Niklas Hoehne of research group Ecofys, which compiles the tracker with Climate Analytics and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
Scientific American: Growth of Ethanol Fuel Stalls in Brazil
The nation's shortages are a sobering lesson for a biofuels pioneer
By Claudio Angelo and Nature magazine
"A new moment for mankind." That was how Brazil's former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, described his country's biofuel boom in March 2007. Back then, Brazil was the poster child of ethanol fuel, its output second only to that of the United States. Fermenting the sugars in the country's abundant sugar cane produced a motor fuel that lowered carbon dioxide emissions, and many saw Brazil as a model for how the world could shed its addiction to oil, creating jobs along the way.
Five years on, Lula's vision has tarnished. Biofuels are falling from grace around the world as critics charge that devoting millions of hectares of agricultural land to fuel crops is driving up food prices and that the climate benefits of biofuels are modest at best. But the fall has been hardest in Brazil, where government policies have compounded the effects of the global economic downturn.
Brazil's ethanol roller coaster is a sobering example of what can happen when climate and energy planning clash with economic decision-making. It began with the 2008 economic crisis, which staunched new investments in the sector just as it was expanding rapidly, and deep in debt. Rather than developing new plantations, the industry fell back on harvesting cane from older, less-productive sites, and average yields plummeted from 115 tons per hectare in 2008 to 69 tons this year. Combined with two bad harvests, this has forced Brazil to import some 1.5 billion liters of maize (corn) ethanol from the United States over the past 2 years.
Reuters via Scientific American: AAA calls for suspension of E15 gasoline sales
By Edward McAllister
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Leading road travel group AAA on Friday called on the U.S. government to suspend the sale of gasoline with a higher blend of ethanol fuel, the latest opposition against increasing the use of biofuels in transport.
A lack of public awareness about the risks of using 15 percent ethanol, known as E15, in older cars could cause problems for motorists, according to an AAA study published Friday. The current standard is 10 percent, or E10.
The Environmental Protection Agency approved E15 in 2011 for cars and light trucks made since model year 2000, spurring opposition from auto-makers, service station owners and oil refiners who fear it may damage older engines, leaving them exposed to legal action from motorists.
Only about 5 percent of the 240 million light duty vehicles on U.S. roads today are approved by manufacturers to run on the E15, AAA said.
Reuters via Scientific American: Senators push Obama to propose clean gasoline rules
By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A group of Democratic senators on Thursday will urge the Obama administration to propose rules to cut smog-forming emissions from gasoline, regulations opposed by many Republicans.
The lawmakers, led by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand from New York, want the Environmental Protection Agency to propose rules that would slash the sulfur content in gasoline this year and to finalize them next year.
"Tier 3 will substantially reduce harmful pollutants that are responsible for health-related ailments such as heart attacks, premature death, asthma attacks and other chronic lung diseases," Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a letter obtained by Reuters that will be sent to President Barack Obama later on Thursday.
The rules, which had been expected to be proposed early in 2012, would require the sulfur content of gasoline to be cut to 10 parts per million, down from the current 30 ppm standard. Republican lawmakers have opposed the rules saying they would add costs to refiners and put jobs at risk.
Scientific American: Washington State Declares War on Ocean Acidification
The state, a leading U.S. producer of farmed shellfish, has launched a $3.3-million, science-based plan to address this growing problem for the region and the globe
By Virginia Gewin and Nature magazine
Washington state, the leading US producer of farmed shellfish, today launched a 42-step plan to reduce ocean acidification. The initiative — detailed in a report by a governor-appointed panel of scientists, policy-makers and shellfish industry representatives — marks the first US state-funded effort to tackle ocean acidification, a growing problem for both the region and the globe.
The state governor Christine Gregoire, says she will allocate $3.3 million to back the panel's priority recommendations.
“Washington is clearly in the lead with respect to ocean acidification,” says Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Reuters via Scientific American: Lawmakers cry "fowl" over move to help lesser prairie chicken
By Ros Krasny
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A move by U.S. authorities to consider placing a small grassland bird native to parts of the oil and gas belt on the Endangered Species List has drawn the ire of some Western lawmakers.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Friday announced a plan to consider having the lesser prairie chicken listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.
The lesser prairie chicken is a medium-sized, gray-brown grouse, smaller and paler than the greater prairie chicken, its close relative.
Once found in abundant numbers across much of Southeastern Colorado, Eastern New Mexico, the Texas Panhandle, Western Oklahoma and Western Kansas, the lesser prairie-chicken's historical range of native grasslands and prairies has been reduced by an estimated 84 percent, the service said.
Reuters via Scientific American: Judge temporarily blocks wolverine trapping in Montana
By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - A judge on Friday put the brakes on the start of trapping season in Montana for wolverines - ferocious but rare members of the weasel family - until at least the outcome of a hearing early next year on whether a longer-term moratorium should be imposed.
Conservationists filed suit in October seeking to end trapping and snaring of wolverines in the only one of the lower 48 states that permits licensed harvesting of the elusive carnivore, estimated to number fewer than 300 in the Northern Rockies and Cascades.
The temporary restraining order issued by the Montana judge presiding over the case came one day before the state's wolverine season was set to open.
Examiner.com: University of Michigan leads 2012 AAAS Fellows with nineteen
By Vince Lamb, Detroit Science News Examiner
Nineteen University of Michigan faculty members have been elected AAAS Fellows for 2012, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) announced Friday. This is the most of any institution in the United States, the Columbus Dispatch confirmed a day in advance of the AAAS announcement.In case you're wondering, the professor whose photograph I used to illustrate my article was the only one I knew. In fact, the term paper I wrote for his class eventually became the basis for my Ph.D. dissertation. I consider singling him out among all the nineteen scientists to be a delayed thank you.
The Columbus Dispatch also reported that The Ohio State University came in second with 18 new AAAS Fellows, followed by the University of California, Davis, and Vanderbilt University, which tied for third with 17 each.
The AAAS also recognized faculty at Michigan's two other major research universities. Michigan State University gained four new Fellows, while Wayne State University now has three more, for a total of 26 new AAAS Fellows from the Great Lakes State.
In all, the names of 701 AAAS Fellows were released yesterday. They are being honored for their efforts toward advancing science applications that are deemed to be distinguised either scientifically or socially. They will be recognized for their contributions to science and technology at the Fellows Forum to be held on February 16, 2013 during the AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston, Massachusetts.
Science Writing and Reporting
Science News: BOOK REVIEW: Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Everending Earth
By Craig Childs
Review by Sid Perkins
Web edition: November 29, 2012
The world could end any number of ways — and in a sense it already has, many times, in mass extinctions that paved the way for new life.
In chapters packed with vivid descriptions and lyrical language, Childs tells tales not merely of droughts and ice ages, but of globe-swallowing deserts and planet-freezing cold spells during which equatorial oceans were awash with slush. Chronicling Childs’ jaunts from Greenland to Mexico to a forbidding island in the middle of the Bering Sea, this thoroughly enjoyable book is a fascinating travelog of an excitable, seething and perilous planet where catastrophes are frequent, at least when measured on a geological timescale.
Science News: BOOK REVIEW: The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World
By Sean Carroll
Review by Alexandra Witze
There have been other excellent popular books about the Higgs, but Carroll’s benefits by being able to include the recent discovery. He also serves as a superb armchair guide to the science. One warning: Theory discussions come fast and furious, punctuated by name after name of the eminent scientists who built the foundation for understanding the Higgs. Carroll then moves on to explore more broadly the symmetries of nature and the meaning of humankind’s quest for pure discovery.
All this hard-core science is leavened by Carroll’s chatty, conversational tone. This is surely the only book about the Higgs boson that also references the hip-hop duo Insane Clown Posse.
Science is Cool
Reuters via Scientific American: Ford Fusion wins 2013 "Green Car of Year" award
By Nichola Groom and Bernie Woodall
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co, which has emphasized boosting the fuel economy of its lineup to attract car buyers, won a top "green car" award for its Fusion midsize sedan, making it the least expensive model yet to earn the title.
In the past, sales of green vehicles have been hampered by their relatively high price tags.
The Fusion, which starts at $21,700 for the gas-powered base model, won because it is offered in a wide range of powertrains, said Ron Cogan, editor of Green Car Journal, which gives out the annual award to recognize leadership in cutting emissions.
"It won by virtue of the fact that it offers an array of choices," Cogan said after announcing the award during the LA Auto Show on Thursday. "This is huge.