Friday, January 2, 2009

Diamonds Offer 'Final Proof' That A Comet Wiped Out The Mammoth

From Times Online:

Sure, 2008 was bad. But for Americans it was nowhere near as bad as 11,000BC – according to research published in Science magazine yesterday.

At about that time, say scientists, a massive comet struck the atmosphere somewhere above North America, broke into pieces and rained down fire and death – wiping out the early Palaeo-Americans, also known as Clovis people, and making creatures such as the woolly mammoth, mastodon, short-faced bear, sabre-toothed cat, ground sloth and giant armadillo extinct. Not to forget the American camel and the American lion.

Although this theory first emerged a year ago and has been hotly debated ever since, the authors of the Science article present compelling evidence to support it – in the form of nanodiamonds.

These, which are so small they are barely visible even under the most advanced microscopes, have been found embedded in 13,000-year-old sediment in North America and Europe. The only plausible explanation for this, say the authors, is a planetary catastrophe of the sort that bade farewell to the dinosaurs about 65 million years earlier.

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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

LIFE Photo Archive Hosted By Google

From Google:

Search millions of photographs from the LIFE photo archive, stretching from the 1750s to today. Most were never published and are now available for the first time through the joint work of LIFE and Google.

My Comment: An incredible collection of Life photos that can be easily searched and/or browsed through.

The link is HERE.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Top 5 Incredible Science Discoveries of 2008

From Live Science:

Science is mostly an incremental process, a slow peeling of the onion to offer small glimpses of understanding. But over time, scientists remove enough layers to expose stunning truths about nature.

This year offered some intriguing revelations along these lines. Below are the top 5.

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The Top 10 Green-Tech Breakthroughs Of 2008

From Wired News:

Green technology was hot in 2008. Barack Obama won the presidential election promising green jobs to Rust Belt workers. Investors poured $5 billion into the sector just through the first nine months of the year. And even Texas oilmen like T. Boone Pickens started pushing alternative energy as a replacement for fossil fuels like petroleum, coal and natural gas.

But there's trouble on the horizon. The economy is hovering somewhere between catatonic and hebephrenic, and funding for the big plans that green tech companies laid in 2008 might be a lot harder to come by in 2009. Recessions haven't always been the best times for environmentally friendly technologies as consumers and corporations cut discretionary spending on ethical premiums.

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If Climate Didn't Doom Neanderthals, Did Humans?

A map of Europe and part of the Middle East depicts the approximate range of the Neanderthals as provided by Richard Klein. The illustration below demonstrates some of the differences in the skulls between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons. Illustration copyright Richard Klein (Image from National Geographic)

From Wired News:

Neanderthals could handle the weather, but they couldn't handle us, concludes a new analysis of late-Pleistocene hominid habitation.

Soon after modern humans arrived in Western Europe, plenty of temperate, food-rich habitat existed for our evolutionary near-brothers — but their settlements dwindled, and modern human settlements spread.

These patterns suggest that one of modern anthropological history's great mysteries had a harsh ending: a competition in which Neanderthals, for reasons still unknown, were doomed.

"Neanderthals didn't end up being the champion lineage that emerged from the end of the Pleistocene," said study co-author A. Townsend Peterson, a Kansas University evolutionary biologist. "Wouldn't it be fascinating to understand that weird point in human history, when there were two lineages of Homo, in the same region?"

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One World, Many Minds: Intelligence In The Animal Kingdom


From Scientific American:

We are used to thinking of humans as occupying the sole pinnacle of evolutionary intelligence. That's where we're wrong

* Despite cartoons you may have seen showing a straight line of fish emerging on land to become primates and then humans, evolution is not so linear. The brains of other animals are not merely previous stages that led directly to human intelligence.
* Instead—as is the case with many traits—complex brains and sophisticated cognition have arisen multiple times in independent lineages of animals during the earth’s evolutionary history.
* With this new understanding comes a new appreciation for intelligence in its many forms. So-called lower animals, such as fish, reptiles and birds, display a startling array of cognitive capabilities. Goldfish, for instance, have shown they can negotiate watery mazes similar to the way rats do in intelligence tests in the lab.

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Most Extreme News Stories Of 2008

From New Scientist:

It's been a year of extremes for science and technology. From camera footage of the deepest living fish, swimming some 5 miles beneath the surface of the Pacific ocean, to the creation of the smoothest ever surface - a lead and silicon film.

Here are eight more extremes that New Scientist brought you in 2008.

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Researchers Unlock Secrets Of 1918 Flu Pandemic

Policemen in Seattle wearing masks made by the Red Cross, during the influenza epidemic in a National Archives photo dated December 1918. (National Archives/Handout/Reuters)

From Yahoo News/Reuters:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Researchers have found out what made the 1918 flu pandemic so deadly -- a group of three genes that lets the virus invade the lungs and cause pneumonia.

They mixed samples of the 1918 influenza strain with modern seasonal flu viruses to find the three genes and said their study might help in the development of new flu drugs.

The discovery, published in Tuesday's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could also point to mutations that might turn ordinary flu into a dangerous pandemic strain.

Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin and colleagues at the Universities of Kobe and Tokyo in Japan used ferrets, which develop flu in ways very similar to humans.

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Christmas Star Mystery Continues

The fabled Star of Bethlehem (shown above in a conceptual photo) may have been a series of events with great meaning for ancient skywatchers or a single planetary conjunction, astronomers suggest. Photograph by Thomas Nebbia/NGS

From National Geographic:

In the Bible, a celestial beacon now known as the Star of Bethlehem led the Magi, or wise men, to Jesus's manger.

Astronomers have been debating for centuries whether the star existed and, if so, what it might have been. Comets, meteor showers, and supernovae have all been proposed, but in recent years two main theories have come to dominate the discussion.

The first relates to a singular planetary gathering, or conjunction, of the bright planets Venus and Jupiter. A particularly striking conjunction occurred in June 17, 2 B.C.

It makes for a probable Christmas star, some astronomers say, because the two bright planets appeared so close in the evening sky that they would have seemed to merge.

"There is no doubt that for skywatchers at the time it looked like a massive, single starlike object in the western evening sky," said Ed Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, California.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

Julia Roberts Was Born With A Beautiful Smile

The study found faking a smirk is innate. True smiles like Roberts’ toothsome grin cause the eyes to twinkle and narrow and the cheeks to rise. Munawar Hosain / Getty Images file

From MSNBC/Live Science:

Study finds facial expressions are genetic — not learned

From sneers to full-blown smiles, our facial expressions are hardwired into our genes, suggests a new study.

The researchers compared the facial expressions from more than 4,800 photographs of sighted and blind judo athletes at the 2004 Summer Olympics and Paralympic Games.

The analyses showed sighted and blind individuals modified their expressions of emotion in the same way in accordance with the social context. For example, in the Paralympics, the athletes competed in a series of elimination rounds so that the final round of two athletes ended in the winner taking home a gold medal while the loser got a silver medal.

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Lessons For Other Smokers In Obama's Efforts To Quit

Franklin D. Roosevelt smoked cigarettes, and John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton occasionally smoked cigars. Gerald R. Ford preferred a pipe. (Clockwise from top left: AP; Henry Griffin/AP; AP; Mark Wilson/A)

From International Herald Tribune:

Will one of President-elect Barack Obama's New Year's resolutions be to quit smoking once and for all?

His good-humored waffling in various interviews about smoking made it plain that Obama, like many who have vowed to quit at this time of year, had not truly done so.

He told Tom Brokaw of NBC several weeks ago, for example, that he "had stopped" but that "there are times where I've fallen off the wagon." He promised to obey the no-smoking rules in the White House, but whether that meant he would be ducking out the back door for a smoke is not known. His transition team declined to answer any questions about his smoking, past or present, or his efforts to quit.

Anti-smoking activists would love to see Obama use his bully pulpit to inspire others to join him in trying to kick the habit, but he has not yet taken up their cause.

The last president to smoke more than occasionally was Gerald Ford, who was quite fond of his pipes. Jimmy Carter and both Presidents George Bush were reportedly abstainers, but Bill Clinton liked cigars from time to time - though he may have chewed more than he smoked.

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Satellites Unearthing Ancient Egyptian Ruins

Photo: The enclosure wall of the Great Aten temple in Egypt, as seen from the QuickBird satellite.

From CNN:

(CNN) -- Archaeologists believe they have unearthed only a small fraction of Egypt's ancient ruins, but they're making new discoveries with help from high-tech allies -- satellites that peer into the past from the distance of space.

"Everyone's becoming more aware of this technology and what it can do," said Sarah Parcak, an archaeologist who heads the Laboratory for Global Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "There is so much to learn."

Images from space have been around for decades. Yet only in the past decade or so has the resolution of images from commercial satellites sharpened enough to be of much use to archaeologists. Today, scientists can use them to locate ruins -- some no bigger than a small living room -- in some of the most remote and forbidding places on the planet.

In this field, Parcak is a pioneer. Her work in Egypt has yielded hundreds of finds in regions of the Middle Egypt and the eastern Nile River Delta.

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Burning Coal At Home Is Making A Comeback

Kyle Buck of Sugarloaf, Pa., fills a stove with anthracite coal as his wife, Kelly, plays with their daughter Lila. Laura Pedrick for The New York Times

From The New York Times:

SUGARLOAF, Pa. — Kyle Buck heaved open the door of a makeshift bin abutting his suburban ranch house. Staring at a two-ton pile of coal that was delivered by truck a few weeks ago, Mr. Buck worried aloud that it would not be enough to last the winter.

“I think I’m going through it faster than I thought I would,” he said.

Aptly, perhaps, for an era of hard times, coal is making a comeback as a home heating fuel.

Problematic in some ways and difficult to handle, coal is nonetheless a cheap, plentiful, mined-in-America source of heat. And with the cost of heating oil and natural gas increasingly prone to spikes, some homeowners in the Northeast, pockets of the Midwest and even Alaska are deciding coal is worth the trouble.

Burning coal at home was once commonplace, of course, but the practice had been declining for decades. Coal consumption for residential use hit a low of 258,000 tons in 2006 — then started to rise. It jumped 9 percent in 2007, according to the Energy Information Administration, and 10 percent more in the first eight months of 2008.

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European Neanderthals Had Ginger Hair And Freckles

The gene known as MC1R suggests the Neanderthals had
fair skin and even freckles like redheads.

From The Telegraph:

Neanderthals living in Europe were fair skinned, freckled and had ginger hair, a study has revealed.

In a major breakthrough, Spanish scientists have discovered the blood group and two other genes of the early humans who lived 43,000 ago.

After analysing the fossil bones found in a cave in north-west Spain, the experts concluded they had human blood group "O" and were genetically more likely to be fair skinned, perhaps even with freckles, have red or ginger hair and could talk.

The investigating team from Spain's government scientific institute, CSIC, used the very latest forensic techniques to remove the bones for analysis to prevent them getting contaminated with modern DNA.

Carles Lalueza, an evolutionary biologist with the investigation, said: "What we were trying to do was to create the most realistic image of the Neanderthals with details that are not visible in the fossils, but which form part of their identity."

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Natural Disasters 'Killed Over 220,000' In 2008

From Yahoo News/AFP:

BERLIN (AFP) – Natural disasters killed over 220,000 people in 2008, making it one of the most devastating years on record and underlining the need for a global climate deal, the world's number two reinsurer said Monday.

Although the number of natural disasters was lower than in 2007, the catastrophes that occurred proved to be more destructive in terms of the number of victims and the financial cost of the damage caused, Germany-based Munich Re said in its annual assessment.

"This continues the long-term trend we have been observing. Climate change has already started and is very probably contributing to increasingly frequent weather extremes and ensuing natural catastrophes," Munich Re board member Torsten Jeworrek said.

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Lifeline For Renewable Power

Photo: Green lines: Tapping energy from remote wind and solar farms will require more high-voltage transmission lines like these, near Yermo, CA, which link southern Nevada with Los Angeles. Credit: Ewan Burns

From Technology Review:

Without a radically expanded and smarter electrical grid, wind and solar will remain niche power sources.

Push through a bulletproof revolving door in a nondescript building in a dreary patch of the former East Berlin and you enter the control center for Vattenfall Europe Transmission, the company that controls northeastern Germany's electrical grid. A monitor displaying a diagram of that grid takes up most of one wall. A series of smaller screens show the real-time output of regional wind turbines and the output that had been predicted the previous day. Germany is the world's largest user of wind energy, with enough turbines to produce 22,250 megawatts of electricity. That's roughly the equivalent of the output from 22 coal plants--enough to meet about 6 percent of Germany's needs. And because Vattenfall's service area produces 41 percent of German wind energy, the control room is a critical proving ground for the grid's ability to handle renewable power.

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Why Isn't The Darkest Month Of The Year Also The Coldest?

From Slate:

Sunday marked the winter solstice—both the official start of winter and the shortest day of the year. But December is rarely as cold as January. Why isn't the month with the least sunlight also the one with the lowest temperatures?

Because water retains heat. Between 70 percent and 75 percent of the Earth's surface is covered in oceans, rivers, and lakes. (There's even more water vaporized in the air or stored in the ground.) During seasons of longer days and more sunlight, these geographical features are able to store up and retain heat over long periods of time, before emitting it as the days get shorter. A body of water is far more effective as a space heater than, say, a big field of rocks: The water holds on to five times as much heat per gram.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Humans And Chimps Register Faces By Using Similar Brain Regions

Photo: Chimpanzee. Chimpanzees recognize their pals by using some of the same brain regions that switch on when humans register a familiar face. (Credit: iStockphoto)

From Science Daily:

ScienceDaily (Dec. 27, 2008) — Chimpanzees recognize their pals by using some of the same brain regions that switch on when humans register a familiar face, according to a report published online on December 18th in Current Biology, a Cell Press publication. The study—the first to examine brain activity in chimpanzees after they attempt to match fellow chimps' faces—offers new insight into the origin of face recognition in humans, the researchers said.

"We can learn about human origins by studying our closest relatives," said Lisa Parr, a researcher at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University. "We can discover what aspects of human cognition are really unique and which are present in other animals."

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2009 To Arrive Not A Second Too Soon

From Yahoo News/Space:

Wait a second. The start of next year will be delayed by circumstances beyond everyone's control. Time will stand still for one second on New Year's Eve, as we ring in the New Year on that Wednesday night. As a result, you'll have an extra second to celebrate because a "Leap Second" will be added to 2008 to let a lagging Earth catch up to super-accurate clocks.

By international agreement, the world's timekeepers, in order to keep their official atomic clocks in step with the world's irregular but gradually slowing rotation, have decreed that a Leap Second be inserted between 2008 and 2009.

The extra second, ordered by the world's nominal timekeeper, the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service, will be marked officially at the stroke of midnight on Wednesday in Greenwich, England, the home of what is popularly known as Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) – Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) to the more technically inclined – the standard time for the planet.

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Half Of The USA Is Covered In Snow

From Watts Up With That?:

This is something you don’t see every day. We recently heard that Canada had a white Christmas EVERYWHERE, the first time in four decades. Here we see that the USA has an increased albedo (surface reflectivity) for about 1/2 of it’s land area. The increased albedo combined with low sun angle this time of year conspires to keep ice and snow unmelted.

Look for a long and extended winter weather pattern as we head towards the spring equinox, which can’t get here fast enough.

Here is a more colorful view of snow depth on Dec 25th from the National Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center:

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Scientific Illiteracy All The Rage Among The Glitterati

Kate Moss, who believes diet can detox your body. GETTY IMAGES

From The Independent:

When it comes to science, Barack Obama is no better than many of us. Today he joins the list of shame of those in public life who made scientifically unsupportable statements in 2008.

Closer to home, Nigella Lawson and Delia Smith faltered on the science of food, while Kate Moss, Oprah Winfrey and Demi Moore all get roastings for scientific illiteracy.

The Celebrities and Science Review 2008, prepared by the group Sense About Science, identifies some of the worst examples of scientific illiteracy among those who profess to know better – including top politicians.

Mr Obama and John McCain blundered into the MMR vaccine row during their presidential campaigns. "We've seen just a skyrocketing autism rate," said President-elect Obama. "Some people are suspicious that it's connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it," he said.

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2008 Was The Year Man-Made Global Warming Was Disproved

Polar bears will be fine after all Photo: AP

From The Telegraph:

Looking back over my columns of the past 12 months, one of their major themes was neatly encapsulated by two recent items from The Daily Telegraph.

The first, on May 21, headed "Climate change threat to Alpine ski resorts" , reported that the entire Alpine "winter sports industry" could soon "grind to a halt for lack of snow". The second, on December 19, headed "The Alps have best snow conditions in a generation" , reported that this winter's Alpine snowfalls "look set to beat all records by New Year's Day".

Easily one of the most important stories of 2008 has been all the evidence suggesting that this may be looked back on as the year when there was a turning point in the great worldwide panic over man-made global warming. Just when politicians in Europe and America have been adopting the most costly and damaging measures politicians have ever proposed, to combat this supposed menace, the tide has turned in three significant respects.

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Dino Extinction May Have Been Caused By ‘Magnetic Chaos’


Washington, Dec 13: A new theory has suggested that the mass extinction event that killed the dinosaurs 250 million years ago, was caused by the Earth’s magnetic field going into complete disarray, exposing the planet to a shower of cosmic radiation.

According to a report in Discovery News, the theory has been put forward by Yukio Isozaki of the University of Tokyo.

The Permian-Triassic mass extinction event happened 250 million years ago, snuffing out 90 percent of life on the planet.

Now, the new theory by Isozaki suggests that the catastrophe was set in motion 15 million years earlier, deep in the Earth.

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Your Brain Sees $$$ More Clearly Than You Know

Photo: Visual areas of the brain that responded more to valuable objects in a study that shows our brain may recognize value better than our conscious mind. Credit: John Serences, UC San Diego

From Live Science:

When you see something of value, your brain essentially sees dollar signs, a new study finds.

The effect occurs even if you don't consciously realize the object's worth.

Researchers scanned the brains of subjects who were presented with choices of constantly changing red and green objects that represented 10 cents or nothing, with good choices in a game leading to potential winnings of $10.

Upon seeing objects that had been of value previously, brain activity lit up in several areas, including a part of the cortex known as V1, which is associated with representing basic features such as edge orientations and color.

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NASA Looks Forward Beyond 2008 Successes

Photo: TS-126 spacewalker Heide Stefanyshyn-Piper rides the International Space Station's Canadarm2 to space shuttle Endeavour's payload bay, 18 Nov 2008

From Voice Of America:

At NASA, 2008 will be remembered for shuttle missions, discoveries on Mars, and mysteries revealed across the solar system and beyond. While looking back at the U.S. space agency's 2008 successes, VOA looks at the agency's uncertain future and its plans to bring humankind to Moon.

NASA's Constellation project is accelerating, with engineers building and testing rockets and capsules that will be the primary vehicles for human space exploration after the shuttle fleet is retired in 2010.

The core of NASA's current activities is a return to the moon, with astronauts landing there by 2020.

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Regenerate Your Brain? -The Science Says It's Possible

From Daily Galaxy:

Contrary to popular belief, recent studies have found that there are probably ways to regenerate brain matter.

Animal studies conducted at the National Institute on Aging Gerontology Research Center and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, for example, have shown that both calorie restriction and intermittent fasting along with vitamin and mineral intake, increase resistance to disease, extend lifespan, and stimulate production of neurons from stem cells.

In addition, fasting has been shown to enhance synaptic elasticity, possibly increasing the ability for successful re-wiring following brain injury. These benefits appear to result from a cellular stress response, similar in concept to the greater muscular regeneration that results from the stress of regular exercise.

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