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Science News

U.S. Political Scientists Relieved That Coburn Language Is Gone

CoburnJeffrey Mervis

The 2014 spending bill that the U.S. Congress passed last week renders moot part of Justin Esarey’s recent grant application to the National Science Foundation (NSF). But Esarey, an assistant professor of political science at Rice University in Houston, Texas, couldn’t be happier.

Esarey was one of hundreds of researchers who tweaked their pending proposals to accommodate a directive from Congress that any awards made by NSF’s division of political science must foster national security or economic development. The language, crafted by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), was adopted last March as an amendment to a bill setting out NSF’s 2013 budget. (Like most policy “riders” to appropriations bills, it applied only to that fiscal year.)

In response, NSF canceled a grants competition planned for last summer, delayed making any new awards, and in November notified researchers that anyone seeking funding in the next competition should explain “[t]he relationship of the proposed research to these [two] goals.” The letter said NSF would also continue to apply its two traditional criteria—intellectual merit and broader impacts.

'Placebo Sleep' Can Improve Cognitive Skills

If you tell people they slept better than they did, they are likely to perform better on math and word association tests.
Sweet Dreams - Wikimedia CommonsBy Douglas Main

If you can't get real sleep, perhaps you can make up for it with placebo sleep. Or such is the suggestion of a new study that found that people did better on cognitive tests after being told that they got a high proportion of REM sleep, even if they didn't. Researcher Eric Horowitz describes the study in his blog, "Peer-Reviewed By My Neurons":
In an initial experiment participants were given brief lesson on the relationship between sleep quality and cognitive functioning, and told the normal proportion of REM sleep was between 20% and 25%. Participants were then hooked up to a machine and told it would measure their pulse, heart rate, and brain frequency, after which a program would use the data to calculate the amount of REM sleep they had had the night before. (Very few participants reported having suspicions about the [fake] machine.) Some participants were told they got 16.2% REM sleep (below average sleep quality) and some were told they got 28.7% REM sleep (above average sleep quality.)
Study participants were also asked to self-report how well their sleep went.

Technology News

Facebook Spreads—and May Die Out—Like a Disease

FacebookAdrian Cho

The thought has probably run through your head on some fruitless afternoon when you find yourself clicking on Facebook for the ninth time in 15 minutes: Facebook is a disease. That characterization might be particularly apt, according to two graduate students at Princeton University. Using a simple epidemiological model, they argue that use of the hegemonic social networking site has spread like a contagion. Moreover, their model suggests that, just like the Myspace site before it, Facebook will suffer a colossal fall within the next few years. Other researchers caution that's not a sure bet.

It's no surprise that an epidemiological model can be applied to a social phenomenon like use of a website. After all, infectious diseases often spread through person-to-person contact, making them social phenomena. At the same time, for an individual, interest in an idea or service can come and go like a disease, dissipating after he or she grows bored.

A Mirror Held Together by Lasers

MirrorMarcus Woo

Imagine a space telescope the size of a football field that weighs as much as a few slices of bread. Researchers have taken a step toward that goal by creating a small mirror out of tiny polystyrene particles, held together by lasers. Without any weight constraints, telescopes could be much more powerful than previously thought possible.

When it comes to space telescopes, bigger is better. Telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope use large mirrors to gather light, and the bigger the mirror, the more light they can collect, enabling them to see the faintest and most distant galaxies. But big, heavy mirrors are costly to manufacture and launch into space. So scientists have been trying to figure out a way to go big without going heavy.

In 1970, physicist Arthur Ashkin of Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey, realized that laser beams could hold tiny particles in place. Since then, scientists have used lasers to trap atoms, molecules, and other small particles. Using these so-called optical tweezers, for example, biologists have been able to probe viruses, cells, bacteria, and DNA.

Environmental News

Changing Climate: How Dust Changed the Face of Earth

Polarstern. In spring 2010, the research icebreaker Polarstern returned from the South Pacific with a scientific treasure -- ocean sediments from a previously almost unexplored part of the South Polar Sea. (Credit: Martin Schiller, Alfred Wegener Institute)Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research

Jan. 23, 2014 — In spring 2010, the research icebreaker Polarstern returned from the South Pacific with a scientific treasure -- ocean sediments from a previously almost unexplored part of the South Polar Sea. What looks like an inconspicuous sample of mud to a layman is, to geological history researchers, a valuable archive from which they can reconstruct the climatic history of the polar areas over many years of analysis. This, in turn, is of fundamental importance for understanding global climatic development.

With the help of the unique sediment cores from the Southern Ocean, it is now possible to provide complete evidence of how dust has had a major influence on the natural exchange between cold and warm periods in the southern hemisphere. An international research team under the management of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven was able to prove that dust infiltrations there were 2 to 3 times higher during all the ice ages in the last million years than in the warm phases in climatic history.

Earth Won't Die as Soon as Thought

End of the EarthPuneet Kollipara

Take a deep breath—Earth is not going to die as soon as scientists believed. Two new modeling studies find that the gradually brightening sun won’t vaporize our planet's water for at least another 1 billion to 1.5 billion years—hundreds of millions of years later than a slightly older model had forecast. The findings won’t change your retirement plans but could imply that habitable, Earth-like alien worlds are more common than scientists thought.

Humans are warming the planet by emitting heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide. But behind the scenes, a far slower, deadlier warming process is unfolding. The sun is getting brighter and hotter over time. As it does, more water evaporates from Earth’s surface into the atmosphere, where it traps additional heat from the planet. This water-driven greenhouse effect will keep going long after people have stopped burning fossil fuels that now add CO2 to the atmosphere. Eventually, Earth’s greenhouse effect will spin out of control, vaporizing all of our planet’s water and ending life as we know it.

Medical News

Potential Drug Targets for Early Onset Glaucoma

The glaucoma-associated olfactomedin domain of myocilin in straight fibrils common to many amyloids (left) and a disease causing variant forming large circular fibrils (right). (Credit: Hill, et al., 2013.)Georgia Institute of Technology

Jan. 23, 2014 — Using a novel high-throughput screening process, scientists have for the first time identified molecules with the potential to block the accumulation of a toxic eye protein that can lead to early onset of glaucoma.

Glaucoma is a group of diseases that can damage the eye's optic nerve and cause vision loss and blindness. Elevated eye pressure is the main risk factor for optic nerve damage.

Researchers have implicated a mutant form of a protein called myocilin as a possible root cause of this increased eye pressure. Mutant myocilin is toxic to the cells in the part of the eye that regulates pressure. These genetically inherited mutants of myocilin clump together in the front of the eye, preventing fluid flow out of the eye, which then raises eye pressure. This cascade of events can lead to early onset-glaucoma, which affects several million people from childhood to age 35.

Timing Is Everything: How the Brain Links Memories of Sequential Events

This cross-section of the hippocampus shows island cells (green) projecting to the CA1 region of the hippocampus. (Credit: Takashi Kitamura)Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Jan. 23, 2014 — Suppose you heard the sound of skidding tires, followed by a car crash. The next time you heard such a skid, you might cringe in fear, expecting a crash to follow -- suggesting that somehow, your brain had linked those two memories so that a fairly innocuous sound provokes dread.

MIT neuroscientists have now discovered how two neural circuits in the brain work together to control the formation of such time-linked memories. This is a critical ability that helps the brain to determine when it needs to take action to defend against a potential threat, says Susumu Tonegawa, the Picower Professor of Biology and Neuroscience and senior author of a paper describing the findings in the Jan. 23 issue of Science.

"It's important for us to be able to associate things that happen with some temporal gap," says Tonegawa, who is a member of MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. "For animals it is very useful to know what events they should associate, and what not to associate."

Space News

Light from Ancient Quasar Reveals Intergalactic Web

Astronomers say it's the first direct imaging of the long-sought gas filaments stretching between galaxies
The quasar UM 287 (bright spot at the centre) shines light on the largest gas cloud ever seen in the Universe. Image: S. CantalupoBy Ron Cowen and Nature magazine

Astronomers have discovered the largest known gas cloud in the Universe. The mammoth nebula may be the first imaged filament of a spidery arrangement of galaxies, gas and dark matter that traces the large-scale structure of the cosmos. The team used a brilliant quasar, seen as it appeared when the Universe was less than 3 billion years old, to illuminate the faint gas in the beacon’s neighborhood.

The flood of light from the quasar (one of a class of intensely bright galaxy cores, thought to be black holes going through a spurt of growth) prompts hydrogen atoms in the gas to emit a characteristic wavelength of ultraviolet radiation. As the Universe expands, the radiation subsequently stretches into longer wavelengths, becoming visible light. Astronomers Sebastiano Cantalupo and Xavier Prochaska of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and their colleagues recorded that light using the Keck Observatory atop Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano. The Keck images reveal a gas cloud that is 460,000 parsecs (1.5 million light years) in length — or more than ten times the diameter of our own Milky Way galaxy. It is the first detection of radiation from a cloud “on scales far beyond a galaxy”, Prochaska says. The researchers describe the discovery online today in Nature.

Massive Asteroid Spurts Plumes of Water Vapor

The origin of Ceres' intermittent plumes is unclear
Ceres: Water vapor detected from the largest object in the asteroid belt could be from a number of sources including cryovolcanoes and solar radiation. Image: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)By Sid Perkins and Nature magazine

Ceres, the largest dwarf planet in the inner Solar System, is spurting water into space. The most likely sources of the sporadic vapor plumes, which astronomers have observed using an orbiting telescope, are two relatively dark areas in the orb’s mid-latitude regions. What triggers the wisps is not yet clear, but a NASA mission scheduled to arrive at Ceres early next year could solve the puzzle — and help to explain how water has been distributed throughout the solar system, including Earth.

Previous studies spotted signs of hydrated minerals on the surface of Ceres, and traces of neutral hydroxyl (OH, a breakdown product of water) in space around it, says Michael Küppers, a planetary scientist at the European Space Agency (ESA) in Villanueva de la Cañada, Spain. Hydroxyl strongly suggests the presence of water, he notes, but the measurements could not be confirmed during subsequent, more sensitive observations.

Odd News

Ohio Man Questioned over Google Glass in Theater

Associated Press

Columbus, OH (AP) — Federal authorities say they questioned an Ohio man they suspected of recording a movie in a theater with his Google Glass computer-in-eyeglass device.

The government says no action was taken after the man confirmed the Google Glass was also a pair of prescription glasses with the recording function inactive.

The man was watching "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" at an AMC theater in Columbus on Saturday. Authorities did not identify him.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Khaalid Walls says the man voluntarily answered questions from officers with ICE Homeland Security Investigations.

Earthrise, 45 years ago

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