Saturday, December 20, 2008

Obama Names 4 Top Members Of Science Team

In this Oct. 17, 2007 file photo, John Holdren, professor of Environmental Science and Public Policy in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University, speaks at the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy presentations in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

From Yahoo News/AP:

WASHINGTON – President-elect Barack Obama's selection Saturday of a Harvard physicist and a marine biologist for science posts is a sign he plans a more aggressive response to global warming than did the Bush administration.

John Holdren and Jane Lubchenco are leading experts on climate change who have advocated forceful government action. Holdren will become Obama's science adviser as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Lubchenco will lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees ocean and atmospheric studies and does much of the government's research on global warming.

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Why Does War Breed More Boys?

From PopSci:

Surge of male babies in wartime is due to a male gene, says evolution researcher

A curious shift occurs during and right after a war: more boys tend to be born than girls. It’s been documented for decades in many nations, especially during long conflicts with many troops deployed. The cause of this boy boom has long flummoxed thinkers and scientists. Ideas have veered from the theological—a divine call for new men to replace those lost in battle—to the coital—returning soldiers have lots of sex, and so will be more likely to fertilize at a time in their ladies’ cycle that’s ripe for making boy babies. A new study in the journal Evolutionary Biology rejects them all. Instead, it pins the “returning soldier effect” on a gene expressed by men only. It also shows how researching your family tree can help you place bets on the sex of your next kid.

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Reproduction Of 2,100-Year-Old Calculator Deepens Mystery

From Net Work World:

The model of the Antikythera Device is based on the latest discoveries of the mysterious mechanism

A new working model of the mysterious 2,000-year-old astronomical calculator, dubbed the Antikythera Device, has been unveiled, incorporating the most recent discoveries announced two years ago by an international team of researchers.

The new model was demonstrated by its creator, former museum curator Michael Wright, who had created an earlier model based on decades of study. He demonstrates how the more complete device works in a video originally created on the New Scientist Website. (It's part of an update story by Jo Marchant, author of Decoding the Heavens, an account not only of the device itself but also the century-old scientific quest to recover its meaning.)

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Is The Internet Going Down? Undersea Sub-Cables Have Just Broken

From Times Online/Tech Central:

Breaking news: something's happening to the internet, right now. We're just not quite sure what.

Interoute, the internet networks company, reports that three of the four internet sub-cables that run from Asia to North America have been damaged.

These carry more than 75 per cent of traffic between the Middle East, Europe and America. It's hard to gather what this actually means - is it that the internet is down or (more likely) significantly slower than usual between the Middle East and America? (If you're reading this, let's face it, the internet has not shut down altogether)

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Obama Team Raises New Questions About NASA’s Plans To Replace The Shuttle

From Discovery:

NASA officials have long pronounced themselves ready to move on from the aging space shuttles, which could be retired as soon as 2010, but the incoming Barack Obama administration has raised new doubts about what the next step should be. Last week, news reports surfaced that Obama’s transition team was questioning NASA about alternatives to the Ares I rocket that is currently under development as the shuttle’s replacement, and now transition team members are reportedly considering using modified military rockets instead. No decision has been made and the concept raises major technical, funding and policy issues. But in recent weeks, the transition team assigned to [NASA] has been asking aerospace industry officials about the feasibility of such a dramatic shift in priorities [The Wall Street Journal].

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Cosmic Rays Do Not Explain Global Warming, Study Finds

Changes in cosmic rays are not likely to contribute to climate change.
(Credit: iStockphoto)

From Science Daily:

ScienceDaily (Dec. 17, 2008) — A new study supports earlier findings by stating that changes in cosmic rays most likely do not contribute to climate change. It is sometimes claimed that changes in radiation from space, so-called galactic cosmic rays, can be one of the causes of global warming. A new study, investigating the effect of cosmic rays on clouds, concludes that the likelihood of this is very small.

A group of researchers from the University of Oslo, Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU), CICERO Center for Climate and Environmental Research, and the University of Iceland, are behind the study.

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Stealthy Cats' Achilles Heel Discovered

From Live Science:

The stealth and balance that cats are known for when they move comes at the expense of energy efficiency, a new study finds, showing that evolution isn't always about efficiency.

"It is usually assumed that efficiency is what matters in evolution," said evolutionary anthropologist Daniel Schmitt of Duke University. "We've found that's too simple a way of looking at evolution, because there are some animals that need to operate at high energy cost and low efficiency."

Namely, cats.

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Scientists Find Way To Turn Cheap Plonk Into Premium Wine

From The Daily Mail:

Scientists have found a quick way to turn cheap plonk into something pleasantly drinkable.

With a burst of electricity, a young acidic wine can be rapidly aged, creating something more mellow and aromatic.

So promising are the results, that no fewer than five wineries have invested in the technology which could allow them to get their wines into the shops faster and cut the costs of storage.

While inventors have come up with a variety of widgets to make the undrinkable drinkable without the wait, this one 'stands out from the rest', says New Scientist magazine.

'It is backed by a decade of research, the results have been published in a peer-reviewed journal and the end product has passed the ultimate test - blind tasting by a panel of wine experts,' says.

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Good News For Wind, Bad For Ethanol In Major Energy Study

From Ars Technica:

Growing concerns over climate change and energy security have kicked research on alternative energy sources into high gear. The list of options continues to expand, yet few papers have comprehensively reviewed them. And fewer still have weighed the pros and cons in as much depth as a new study published earlier this month in the journal, Energy & Environmental Science. The results are a mixed bag of logical conclusions and startling wake-up calls.

The review pits twelve combinations of electric power generation and vehicular motivation against each other. It is a battle royal of nine electric power sources, three vehicle technologies, and two liquid fuel sources. It rates each combination based on eleven categories. And it was all compiled by one man, Mark Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University.

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10 Things Science Says Will Make You Happy

From Reuters:

Daily habits can affect our well-being. Here are 10 simple actions that research has shown makes people feel good.

In the last few years, psychologists and researchers have been digging up hard data on a question previously left to philosophers: What makes us happy? Researchers like the father-son team Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener, Stanford psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, and ethicist Stephen Post have studied people all over the world to find out how things like money, attitude, culture, memory, health, altruism, and our day-to-day habits affect our well-being. The emerging field of positive psychology is bursting with new findings that suggest your actions can have a significant effect on your happiness and satisfaction with life. Here are 10 scientifically proven strategies for getting happy.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

One More Mystery To Think About

Mystery: Archeologists have uncovered a 100-year-old watch in a tomb believed to have been undisturbed for 400 years

Mystery As Century-Old Swiss Watch Discovered In Ancient Tomb sealed for 400 years -- Daily Mail

Archeologists are stumped after finding a 100-year-old Swiss watch in an ancient tomb that was sealed more than 400 years ago.

They believed they were the first to visit the Ming dynasty grave in Shangsi, southern China, since its occupant's funeral.

But inside they uncovered a miniature watch in the shape of a ring marked 'Swiss' that is thought to be just a century old.

The mysterious timepiece was encrusted in mud and rock and had stopped at 10:06 am.

Watches were not around at the time of the Ming Dynasty and Switzerland did not even exist as a country, an expert pointed out.

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"First Contact With Inner Earth": Drillers Strike Magma

A collapsed vent allows hot lava to peek through solidified rock at Hawaii's Kilauea volcano in an undated photo. For the first time on record, workers drilling at a geothermal plant near Kilauea accidentally hit a pocket of magma in its natural environment deep inside Earth. Announcing the find at a December 2008 meeting, one volcano expert likened the discovery to a paleontologist finding a dinosaur romping on a remote island. Photograph courtesy Hawaii Volcano Observatory

From National Geographic:

A drilling crew recently cracked through rock layers deep beneath Hawaii and accidentally became the first humans known to have drilled into magma—the melted form of rock that sometimes erupts to the surface as lava—in its natural environment, scientists announced this week.

"This is an unprecedented discovery," said Bruce Marsh, a volcanologist from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, who will be studying the find.

Normally, he said, volcanologists have to do "postmortem studies" of long-solidified magmas or study active lava during volcanic eruptions.

But this time they'd found magma in its natural environment—something Marsh described as nearly as exciting as a paleontologist finding a dinosaur frolicking on a remote island.

"This is my Jurassic Park," he said at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

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Earth's Original Ancestor Was LUCA, Not Adam Nor Eve

From E! Science News:

Here's another argument against intelligent design. An evolutionary geneticist from the Université de Montréal, together with researchers from the French cities of Lyon and Montpellier, have published a ground-breaking study that characterizes the common ancestor of all life on earth, LUCA (Last Universal Common Ancestor). Their findings, presented in a recent issue of Nature, show that the 3.8-billion-year-old organism was not the creature usually imagined. The study changes ideas of early life on Earth. "It is generally believed that LUCA was a heat-loving or hyperthermophilic organism. A bit like one of those weird organisms living in the hot vents along the continental ridges deep in the oceans today (above 90 degrees Celsius)," says Nicolas Lartillot, the study's co-author and a bio-informatics professor at the Université de Montréal. "However, our data suggests that LUCA was actually sensitive to warmer temperatures and lived in a climate below 50 degrees."

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Astronomers Use Ultra-sensitive Camera To Measure Size Of Planet Orbiting Star

When the planet WASP-10b crosses the disk of its star, WASP-10, the brightness of the star decreases, allowing scientists to measure the precise size of the planet. (Credit: Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawaii at Manoa)

From Science Daily:

ScienceDaily (Dec. 17, 2008) — A team of astronomers led by John Johnson of the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy has used a new technique to measure the precise size of a planet around a distant star. They used a camera so sensitive that it could detect the passage of a moth in front of a lit window from a distance of 1,000 miles.

The camera, mounted on the UH 2.2-meter telescope on Mauna Kea, measures the small decrease in brightness that occurs when a planet passes in front of its star along the line-of-sight from Earth. These "planet transits" allow researchers to measure the diameters of worlds outside our solar system.

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Want A Retired Space Shuttle? They're Up For Grabs

From Yahoo News/AP:

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA's soon-to-be-retired space shuttles are up for grabs. The space agency said Wednesday it's looking for ideas on where and how best to display its space shuttles once they stop flying in a few years. It's put out a call to schools, science museums and "other appropriate organizations" that might be interested in showcasing one of the three remaining shuttles.

Beware: NASA estimates it will cost about $42 million to get each shuttle ready and get it where it needs to go, and the final tab could end up much more.

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Bright Future: LEDs Revolutionize Lighting

LEDs (light emitting diodes) are similar to regular light bulbs but have no filament. Their light is generated by electrons moving through a semiconductor material. They produce more light, less heat, and consume less energy than other types of lighting. Credit: NIST

From Live Science:

You might have noticed energy-efficient LED lights replacing the traditional holiday bulb lights on many store shelves this year. They're not cheap, but the sales pitch is they save energy, cut the risk of fire and last practically forever.

By all accounts, LED lighting has a very bright future, and the future is arriving rapidly as utility companies tout the benefits of LEDs, and individuals and businesses make the switch both for environmental reasons and to save money.

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Bringing Stem Cells to War: Meet the Blood Pharmers

(Photograph by Davies and Starr/Getty Images)

From Popular Mechanics:

New research from DARPA could open the door to on-demand blood-cell manufacturing on battlefields and in hospitals. All medics need is a machine that uses a nanofiber that mimics bone marrow to turn a handful of stem cells into gallons of blood. Who needs blood donations when you have blood pharming?

Fresher blood is better than stale: It carries more oxygen and, when transfused into patients, speeds recovery. Military medics are all too familiar with this problem in the field, where donated blood may take two or more weeks to reach soldiers who need it immediately. But medical researchers—also known as blood pharmers—are working on manufacturing the red stuff on the spot.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Aging Brains Allow Negative Memories To Fade

From E! Science News:

It turns out there's a scientific reason why older people tend to see the past through rose-coloured glasses. A University of Alberta medical researcher, in collaboration with colleagues at Duke University, identified brain activity that causes older adults to remember fewer negative events than their younger counterparts.

"Seniors actually use their brain differently than younger people when it comes to storing memory, especially if that memory is a negative one," said study author Dr. Florin Dolcos, an assistant professor of psychiatry and neuroscience in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.

The study, published online in December in the U.S.-based journal Psychological Science, found age-related changes in brain activity when participants with an average age of 70 where shown standardiz

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The Rise Of The Machines

From The IEEE Spectrum:

There are now 1 million industrial robots toiling around the world, and Japan is where they’re the thickest on the ground. It has 295 of these electromechanical marvels for every 10 000 manufacturing workers—a robot density almost 10 times the world average and nearly twice that of Singapore (169), South Korea (164), and Germany (163).

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Earth’s Magnetic Field Has Massive Breach - Scientists Baffled

(Click To Enlarge)

Watts Up With That:

I know. This sounds like a plot of a 1950’s scifi movie. But it is real. From my view, our localized corner of the solar system is now different than it used to be and changes in the magnetic interactions are evident everywhere. First we have the interplanetary magnetic field that took an abrupt dive in October 2005 and has not recovered since and remains at very low level:

Then we have the recent discovery that the ionosphere has dropped in altitude to unexpected and unexplained low levels.

We have a solar cycle 24 (driven by the solar magnetic dynamo) which can’t seem to get out of the starting gate, being a year late with forecasts for activity from it being revised again and again.

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Leaks Found In Earth's Protective Magnetic FieldI

A close-up of a solar flare taken with the Transition Region and Coronal Explorer (TRACE) spacecraft in Sept. 2005. Credit: NASA

From Live Science:

Scientists have found two large leaks in Earth's magnetosphere, the region around our planet that shields us from severe solar storms.

The leaks are defying many of scientists' previous ideas on how the interaction between Earth's magnetosphere and solar wind occurs: The leaks are in an unexpected location, let in solar particles in faster than expected and the whole interaction works in a manner that is completely the opposite of what scientists had thought.

The findings have implications for how solar storms affect the our planet. Serious storms, which involved charged particles spewing from the sun, can disable satellites and even disrupt power grids on Earth.

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Over 2T Tons Of Ice Melted In Arctic Since '03

In this July 19, 2007 file photo, an iceberg melts off Ammassalik Island in Eastern Greenland. More than 2 trillion tons of land ice in Greenland, Antarctica and Alaska have melted since 2003, according to new NASA satellite data that show the latest signs of what scientists say is global warming. (AP Photo/John McConnico)

From Yahoo News/AP:

WASHINGTON – More than 2 trillion tons of land ice in Greenland, Antarctica and Alaska have melted since 2003, according to new NASA satellite data that show the latest signs of what scientists say is global warming.

More than half of the loss of landlocked ice in the past five years has occurred in Greenland, based on measurements of ice weight by NASA's GRACE satellite, said NASA geophysicist Scott Luthcke. The water melting from Greenland in the past five years would fill up about 11 Chesapeake Bays, he said, and the Greenland melt seems to be accelerating.

NASA scientists planned to present their findings Thursday at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco. Luthcke said Greenland figures for the summer of 2008 aren't complete yet, but this year's ice loss, while still significant, won't be as severe as 2007.

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Can Nuclear Power Compete?

From Science America:

Newly approved reactor designs could reduce global warming and fossil-fuel dependence, but utilities are grappling with whether better nukes make market sense

On an August afternoon in Washington, D.C., typically miserable for its heat, humidity and stillness, reporters gathered at a downtown hotel not known for its air-conditioning. Stuffed inside a windowless conference room that was being heated still further by the television people’s lights, we waited for Michael J. Wallace, who had been trying, in fits and starts, to unveil nuclear power’s second act.

On arrival, Wallace, a meticulous manager not known for ad-libbing, looked out over the sweating reporters and smiled. “It’s days like today that highlight the real need for new, emissions-free, baseload power,” he said. Unless we get started soon, he added, rolling blackouts could become the norm.

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'Death Map' Shows Heat A Big Hazard To Americans

From Reuters:

WASHINGTON, Dec 16 (Reuters) - Heat is more likely to kill an American than an earthquake, and thunderstorms kill more people than hurricanes do, according to a U.S. "death map" published on Tuesday.

Researchers who compiled the county-by-county look at what natural disasters kill Americans said they hope their study will help emergency preparedness officials plan better.

Heat and drought caused 19.6 percent of total deaths from natural hazards, with summer thunderstorms causing 18.8 percent and winter weather causing 18.1 percent, the team at the University of South Carolina found.

Earthquakes, wildfires and hurricanes combined were responsible for fewer than 5 percent of all hazard deaths.

Writing in BioMed Central's International Journal of Health Geographics, they said they hoped to dispel some myths about what the biggest threats to life and limb are.

"According to our results, the answer is heat," Susan Cutter and Kevin Borden of the University of South Carolina wrote in their report, which gathered data from 1970 to 2004.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

'Peak Oil Theory' Demands Energy Alternatives

Oil workers operate a rig in Midland County, Texas, in June 2008. AFP/Getty Images

From NPR:

Plummeting gasoline and diesel prices have given consumers relief at the pump. But oil pessimists believe the current slump in demand will pass. And when it does, the world will be in the same fix it was before the global recession. The era of easy oil is behind us. According to those who believe in what's called "peak oil theory," world oil production has already peaked, or flattened, and in the foreseeable future, the declining resource will inevitably change the way we live.

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Wisdom: We Still Don't Get It

"The Thinker" is a sculpture by Rodin. Credit: Dreamstime

From Live Science:

There is more information than ever at our fingertips, yet we’re none the wiser it seems.

And many old people are wise, as most of them will tell you, but sometimes they can’t remember your name, so how smart is that?

It’s paradoxes like these that lie at the heart of a new $2 million research project called Defining Wisdom. Based at the University of Chicago, the four-year initiative, supported by the Templeton Foundation, has enlisted 23 scholars ranging from historians to economists to psychologists to computer scientists to examine the idea of wisdom, with the aim of cultivating it and better understanding its nature.

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Google Says It Still Stands By Net Neutrality

From Yahoo Finance/AP:

Google denies Wall Street Journal claim that it's giving up on `Net neutrality'

NEW YORK (AP) -- Google Inc. denied that it had reversed its stance on the issue of "Net neutrality" and dismissed a story in Monday's edition of The Wall Street Journal on the subject as "confused."

Citing undisclosed sources, the newspaper reported that Google had been in talks with major cable and phone companies about getting preferential treatment for traffic to and from its sites.

That would conflict with the principle of Net neutrality, under which carriers traditionally give the same treatment to traffic from different sites. The Federal Communications Commission has voiced support for the principle, and sanctioned Comcast Corp. this year for slowing some types of file-sharing traffic. Google has been a vocal supporter of Net neutrality.

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Google Wants Its Own Fast Track On The Web

From The Wall Street Journal:

The celebrated openness of the Internet -- network providers are not supposed to give preferential treatment to any traffic -- is quietly losing powerful defenders.

Google Inc. has approached major cable and phone companies that carry Internet traffic with a proposal to create a fast lane for its own content, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Google has traditionally been one of the loudest advocates of equal network access for all content providers.

At risk is a principle known as network neutrality: Cable and phone companies that operate the data pipelines are supposed to treat all traffic the same -- nobody is supposed to jump the line.

But phone and cable companies argue that Internet content providers should share in their network costs, particularly with Internet traffic growing by more than 50% annually, according to estimates. Carriers say that to keep up with surging traffic, driven mainly by the proliferation of online video, they need to boost revenue to upgrade their networks. Charging companies for fast lanes is one option.

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Doctor's Advice: Leave the Toilet Seat Up

From Live Science:

One of the longest-running spousal debates may now be settled in favor of men and for the sake of little boys.

Leave the toilet seat up, some British doctors now say. The reason: a rising trend for heavy wooden and ornamental toilet seats to fall down onto the penises of unsuspecting (and just potty-trained) toddlers.

Dr. Joe Philip and his colleagues of Leighton Hospital, Crewe, in England detail such penis-crush injuries in the December issue of the journal BJU International. The team reports on four boys between the ages of 2 and 4 who were admitted to hospitals with injuries serious enough to require an overnight stay.

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NASA Chief Grumbles About Obama

From Foreign Policy Blog:

Overall, Bush administration officials deserve credit for making this transition as painless and drama-free as possible. One notable exception is NASA Administrator Mike Griffin:

Tensions were on public display last week at the NASA library, as overheard by guests at a book party. According to people who were present, Logsdon, a space historian, told a group of about 50 people he had just learned that President John F. Kennedy’s transition team had completely ignored NASA.

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Google Admits That Its Staff Picks And Chooses What Appears In Its Search Results

From The Register:

Manufacturing isn't dead - it just went to Mountain View

Google this week admitted that its staff will pick and choose what appears in its search results. It's a historic statement - and nobody has yet grasped its significance.

Not so very long ago, Google disclaimed responsibility for its search results by explaining that these were chosen by a computer algorithm. The disclaimer lives on at Google News, where we are assured that:

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