Monday, 31 May 2010

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

The Tragic Race to Be First to the South Pole

Posted: 28 May 2010 01:05 PM PDT

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NEW YORK CITY — In 1910, two men set out to be the first to reach the South Pole in a race that would be both heroic and tragic. The men had different reasons for their journeys, took different routes and made different decisions that would ultimately seal their respective fates, and those of their teams.

The American Museum of Natural History delves into this storied event to bring visitors as close as possible to this historic event and the people involved in their new exhibit, "Race to the End of the Earth," starting May 29. Artifacts, photographs, replicas and models give life to the two rivals and their treacherous 1,800-mile marches to the center of Antarctica.

Robert Falcon Scott set off from Wales on July 15, 1910 on what was originally intended to be a primarily scientific expedition, but which quickly morphed into a quest to make history on behalf of the British Empire.

Meanwhile, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, whose plan to reach the North Pole first had been thwarted by both Frederik Cook and Robert Peary, had secretly turned his sights on the South Pole. He left Oslo in June 3, 1910 with the intent of beating Scott to his goal.

In October, while docked in Melbourne, Australia, Scott received a telegram from Amundsen informing him simply that he was "proceeding to Antarctic." The race was on.

Scott's party carried on its plans to do scientific research on Antarctica, completing several geological expeditions and one arduous winter trek to collect Emperor Penguin eggs. On Oct. 24, 1911, the team began heading to the pole. In early January, Scott and four others left the rest of the group to make the final push. But when they reached the pole on Jan. 17, their celebration was ruined by the black flags Amundsen and his team had placed there about five weeks earlier.

The worst was yet to come for Scott, however. None of the the team of five that reached the pole would survive the return trip, succumbing to exceedingly harsh conditions they encountered on the way. But though he lost the race and his life, he won the hearts of his countrymen and inspired many throughout the world. Amundsen's accomplishment was tarnished by the perception that he had ruthlessly taken from Scott what was rightfully his and for which the English expedition paid the ultimate price.

Biologist Ross MacPhee, who curated the museum's exhibit, wrote in his beautifully written and illustrated accompanying book Race to the End, "Amundsen may have won the race, but the ensuing war of perception concerning who was the greater explorer continues to this day — was it Amundsen, the machinelike competitor who had but one goal in mind, or Scott, for whom scientific exploration was just as important as standing, for one brief moment, at 90 degrees S?" visited the "Race to the End of the Earth" exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History earlier this month as it was nearing completion. This gallery contains photos from this visit, images from earlier stages of the exhibit construction and historical photos of expeditions.

Scott's Sledge

Sledges (above) were crucial — they carried the men's food, fuel, clothing and sleeping bags. Unlike Amundsen, who used dogs exclusively, Scott's exploration and scientific teams usually man-hauled their heavily laden sledges, often over great distances. –AMNH

Image: AMNH/C. Chesek.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Congress, Obama Take Sudden Interest in Synthetic Biology

Posted: 27 May 2010 01:31 PM PDT

Congress explicitly took up the subject of synthetic biology for the first time Thursday during a hastily convened hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The Wired crowd has been talking about how to engineer biological machines for years, but Craig Venter's announcement last week that he's created a synthetic cell has drawn the attention of the very highest levels of government.

The hearing came shortly after President Barack Obama ordered a six-month review of synthetic biology by a panel of scientific stars.

The House committee members seemed primarily interested in the potential of synthetic biology to create micro-organisms that could effectively produce hydrocarbons that could be used to power the nation's transportation system.

"Synthetic biology also has the potential to reduce our dependence on oil and to address
climate change," said Henry Waxman, D-California, the chair of the committee. "Research is underway to develop microbes that would produce oil, giving us a renewable fuel that could be used interchangeably with gasoline without creating more global warming pollution. Research could also lead to oil-eating microbes, an application that, as the Gulf spill unfortunately demonstrates, would be extremely useful."

The committee heard testimony from an excellent panel of scientists composed of Venter himself, Berkeley's Jay Keasling, Stanford's Drew Endy, and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci.

Committee members did not seem overwhelmingly familiar with the state of the science, generally reading clunkily from prepared statements. The event did not have any of the sharp give-and-takes between representatives and panelists that they sometimes do.

In fact, the hearing was technically an oversight task, but it played out closer to a gee-whiz commercial for the new firms that are trying to commercialize the technology. Venter, Keasling and Endy all have ties to companies trying to make money from synthetic biological techniques.

Keasling made the smoothest transition from his scientific work, coming up with a way to produce the anti-malarial drug artemisinin in yeast, which could substantially reduce the cost of its distribution, to his sales pitch.

"Fortuitously, artemisinin is a hydrocarbon, a fundamental building block for fuel. We are
now re-engineering the artemisinin-producing microbes to produce drop-in biofuels," he said. "That is, through advances in synthetic biology, we can engineer these same safe, reliable, industrial microorganisms to produce biofuels that will work within our existing transportation infrastructure."

Only one witness, Gregory Kaebnick, a bioethicist at the Hastings Center, a nonprofit that studies the ethics of biotechnology, could be said to be an outside observer of the synthetic biology industry.

"I was the only one on the panel who didn't have a vested stake in it one way or the other. I think that's probably a mistake," Kaebnick told "The president's panel will take it up, and they'll probably bring in more perspectives."

Image: Venter's blue synthetic cells

See Also:

WiSci 2.0: Alexis Madrigal's Twitter, Tumblr, and forthcoming book on the history of green technology; Wired Science on Twitter and Facebook.

Video: Designing Bridges to Be Drivable After Quakes

Posted: 27 May 2010 08:37 AM PDT

RICHMOND, California — Sure, earthquake engineers can now make bridges safe during even the biggest earthquakes, but they're still rendered unusable in the key hours after a temblor.

Now, they have a new goal: building bridges that cars can keep driving over in the immediate wake of a quake. And they unveiled a set of technologies Wednesday at the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center that may be able to make cities more resilient in the wake of a disaster.

"Can we design bridges to not just be safe but remain open after an earthquake?" asked Stephen Mahin, the director of the center.

Recent earthquakes in China and Haiti showed how vulnerable poorly designed buildings are, but in the rich countries around the quake-prone Pacific Rim like the United States and Japan, earthquake engineers have solutions to the basic architectural problem of keeping a building standing under extreme forces. Seismic isolators allow buildings to slide around a bit as a way to dissipate the energy of an earthquake. New ways of making and reinforcing concrete keep columns from cracking.

Now, though, engineers want to keep buildings not only intact, but functional. In the video above, engineer Kenneth Ogorzalek, a graduate student in civil engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, built a test railroad bridge complete with tracks ona shake table. To simulate the weight of the real thing, he used every scrap of lead the engineering center could muster. The, the movements caused by several earthquakes like 1989's Loma Prieta quake were re-enacted by a series of actuators located underneath the floor of the experiment area.

You can see two systems at work in the video. First, there is a series of a new type of isolator called a "triple pendulum." The isolator reduces the amount of force the bridge experiences by slowing down its acceleration. The triple pendulums are like nested bearings, so the bridge can respond appropriately to different-size quakes.

The other innovation is a way of coupling the sections of the bridge together. The idea is to make sure that even if the segments of a bridge move a little after a quake, they still form a straight line that can be used. The Segmental Displacement Control Isolation System was tested for the very first time Wednesday.

The new technology probably won't be used for years, but Mahin said that his group was "doing research now to support what policymakers will want to do in 10 or 15 years."

See Also:

WiSci 2.0: Alexis Madrigal's Twitter, Tumblr, and forthcoming book on the history of green technology; Wired Science on Twitter and Facebook.

The Science of Horror-Movie Screams

Posted: 26 May 2010 01:45 PM PDT

As horror-flick titles go, Night of the Living Chaos and Rosemary's Nonlinearity aren't the catchiest. But filmmakers know that chaos — the mathematical kind — is scary. Now scientists know it too.

sciencenewsFilmmakers use chaotic, unpredictable sounds to evoke particular emotions, say researchers who have assessed screams and other outbursts from more than 100 movies. The new findings, reported May 25 in Biology Letters, come as no surprise, but they do highlight an emerging if little-known area of study, says cognitive biologist W. Tecumseh Fitch of the University of Vienna in Austria, who was not involved in the study.

"The classic example would be a screaming baby on an airplane," says Fitch, "the kind you can't ignore and makes your life hell."

Cries are harder to ignore when they become irregular and chaotic, recent research suggests. Scientists think that these noises, uttered or roared when an animal is really worked up, have a crucial role in communication: They frantically demand attention.

By exploring the use of such dissonant, harsh sounds in film, scientists hope to get a better understanding of how fear is expressed, says study co-author Daniel Blumstein of the University of California, Los Angeles.

"Potentially, there are universal rules of arousal and ways to communicate fear," says Blumstein, who typically studies screams in marmots, not starlets.

Blumstein and his co-authors acoustically analyzed 30-second cuts from more than 100 movies representing a broad array of genres. The movies included titles such as Aliens, Goldfinger, Annie Hall, The Green Mile, Slumdog Millionaire, Titanic, Carrie, The Shining and Black Hawk Down.

Not unexpectedly, the horror films had a lot of harsh and atonal screams. Dramatic films had sound tracks with fewer screams but a lot of abrupt changes in frequency. And adventure films, it turns out, had a surprising number of harsh male screams.

"Screams are basically chaos," Fitch says.

Filmmakers have long been deliberately distorting sounds for dramatic effect, says musicologist James Wierzbicki of the University of Sydney. In Hitchcock's classic The Birds, the only true avian sounds are heard near the beginning of the movie, in a pet shop. The calls of the demented, attacking birds were all electronically generated.

A true, harsh scream "is not a trivial thing to do," Fitch says. In fact, capturing a realistic, blood-curdling cry is so difficult that filmmakers have used the very same one, now found on many websites, in more than 200 movies. Known as the Wilhelm scream, it is named for the character who unleashed it in the 1953 western The Charge at Feather River.

Image: deeleea/Flickr

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Origin of Milky Way Clouds Revealed

Posted: 26 May 2010 11:03 AM PDT

Mysterious clouds of gas hovering above the plane of the Milky Way may be the fractured remnants of superbubbles blown by stellar winds and exploding stars.

"There's a fundamental, interesting connection between gas far away from the Milky Way and the amount of star formation below it in the galactic plane," F. Jay Lockman of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory told Wired Science in a phone interview. The results could provide insight into how heavy elements traverse the galaxy and get incorporated into later generations of stars, planets and, perhaps, life.

The bulk of the matter in the Milky Way, including stars, hot star-forming regions and the gas and dust between stars called the interstellar medium, lies in a relatively flat disk called the galactic plane.

"It's a flattened system, kind of like a pierogi," Lockman said today at the American Astronomical Society in Miami.

The Milky Way also has a gaseous halo that extends above and below the galactic pastry. For years, astronomers expected the density of that gas to get thinner as it got farther from the Milky Way, the way Earth's atmosphere thins out at high altitudes. But earlier observations Lockman made at the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia showed dense clouds hundreds of times more massive than the sun floating between the disk and the halo, hundreds to thousands of light-years above the galactic plane.

"This turned my whole conception of what was going on upside down," he said. "It's very much like seeing, all your life, a distant hillside that's covered in green fuzz. Then one day you get a pair of binoculars and you look and say, 'My God, there's trees!'"

To investigate these clouds further, Lockman and colleagues used data from the Parkes Observatory radio telescope in Australia of two regions of the Milky Way, one on either side of the galactic center from Earth's point of view.

Individual clouds in both regions looked about the same, Lockman said — on average they were 600 times the mass of the sun and spanned 30 to 40 light-years. But the region on the "northern" side, to the left of the galactic center, had three times as many clouds as the "southern" region.

"I thought we would see a difference between north and south, but I thought it would be pretty subtle," Lockman said. "It's not subtle at all."

It turned out the northern region included part of the bar of the Milky Way. A new survey of hydrogen gas in the galaxy that was presented at the same meeting confirmed this region is an active stellar nursery.

"At the end of the galactic bar emanating from the galactic center, there is a huge complex of star forming regions," said Tom Bania of Boston University.

The southern region, by contrast, fell between two spiral arms, "not particularly associated with anything at all," Lockman said.

Lockman and his colleagues concluded that the gas clouds were blown away from the galactic plane by stellar winds from these intense star-forming regions. When the more massive of these stars die, they explode as supernovas, blowing enormous bubbles of gas "like supersonic lava lamps," Lockman said. These bubbles pop like soap after they rise, leaving behind the mysterious clouds.

"There are still lots of questions," Lockman said. "But I think we've finally solved the question of their origin."

These clouds could also be responsible for transporting heavy elements around the galaxy. All elements heavier than hydrogen and helium are built in nuclear reactions inside stars, and are blown off into the interstellar medium when stars explode as supernovas. That material later condenses into new, metal-rich stars — and ultimately planets.

"When our galaxy formed, planets like the Earth could not form," Bania said. "Put the Earth in a blender and you've got silicon, magnesium, the stuff that's formed in supernovas."

If the clouds are in fact the remnants of supernova bubbles, Lockman said, then "it's quite possible that these clouds as they fall back to the Milky Way are the way that metals get mixed in through the disk, and this controls the overall evolution of the interstellar medium and the next generation of stars."

Image: Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF

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Video: The Butterfly Effect on the Sun’s Surface

Posted: 25 May 2010 04:11 PM PDT

New data from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory shows that on the sun, little changes can have big consequences. High-resolution images of layers of the sun's surface show how small flares can trigger larger flares and coronal mass ejections hundreds of thousands of miles away.

"We are in essence watching the butterfly effect on the sun," said W. Dean Pesnell of NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center at a press briefing at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Miami on May 25.

The images were taken with SDO's Atmospheric Imaging Assembly, which takes images of the full disk of the sun at eight different temperatures from 10,000 to 36 million degrees Fahrenheit. They show a small flare in the right part of the screen, which sets off a magnetic instability that cascades across the surface of the sun at hundreds of thousands to millions of miles per hour. This wave builds as it travels, culminating in a flare that triggers a large loop of hot, charged plasma at the top left of the sun's disk.

"For the first time, we're beginning to be able to see these connections," said Alan Title of the Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center. "We still don't know how far these cascades go. AIA is showing us that these cascades in fact exist."

Video: SDO/NASA/AIA consortium

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Black Hole Found in Unexpected Place

Posted: 25 May 2010 04:08 PM PDT

Detailed Hubble images reveal a single supermassive black hole wandering away from its host galaxy's center where it belongs. The misplaced black hole is probably the result of a merger between two smaller black holes, but could also have been pushed by a jet of matter extending from the galaxy's core.

Nearly every galaxy has a supermassive black hole — millions to billions of times more massive than our sun — nestled in its center. Astronomers think galaxies frequently collide and merge to make bigger galaxies. When the galaxies merge, the theory goes, so do their black holes. Previous observations have caught such mergers in the act — but always when the black holes were thousands of light years apart, before they merged.

"This is the first time we have seen the merger after it has happened," said Eric Perlman of the Florida Institute of Technology at a press conference at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Miami on May 25. The results will also appear in a paper in an upcoming issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Perlman and colleagues analyzed images of the largest local galaxy, M87, taken with the Hubble Space Telescope's highest-resolution camera, the Advanced Camera for Surveys. Black holes by nature are invisible, but the mass of gas and dust that heats up as it falls onto the guzzling giant, called an active galactic nucleus, can glow brightly and give away its location. The team located this bright nucleus, and found that it was 22 light-years away from the galaxy's center.

"The supermassive black hole is not where it is expected to be," said Daniel Batcheldor of the Florida Institute of Technology at the same press conference, but it's "a very slight, subtle offset."

The researchers came up with four possible explanations for the wayward black hole. First they thought it could be one of a pair of black holes spiraling in toward a merger. But the second black hole, which would have to be around the same size as the first, was nowhere to be found.

"It would be very very difficult for nature to mask such a large mass in that galaxy," Batcheldor said.

The researchers also dismissed the idea that the black hole was nudged aside by the combined gravitational tugs of other galaxies and globular clusters in M87's immediate neighborhood, the Virgo Cluster. All that mass would be enough to move the black hole just 0.3 light-years.

A more realistic possibility is the jet of material extending more than 5,000 light years from M87 could have pushed the black hole away from the center of the galaxy. The jet is massive enough to provide only a soft push on galactic scales, but it could be sufficient to move the black hole if the jet were 100 million years old or older. The jet would also have had to be much more massive in the past for this scenario to work, Batcheldor said.

"We don't rule this out as an offset mechanism because we do not know the history of accretion in M87 very well," he said. "It's very possible that in the past … there was more jet power that could have produced the offset."

The most likely solution is that the black hole is the product of a merger between two smaller black holes. Theory states that when two black holes merge, they emit gravitational waves that can give the resulting large black hole a "kick" of momentum, sending it flying through the galaxy. Because many galaxies are similar to M87, wandering black holes could be common in the universe.

"We expect there to be displaced black holes in the universe due to gravitational wave recoil," commented Julie Comerford of the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved in the study. "This work shows that the black hole in M87 is a compelling candidate for a recoiling black hole."

Regardless of how M87's black hole left home, Batcheldor said, astronomers should rethink how black holes and galaxies normally fit together.

"It could well be that we need to shift the standard supermassive-black-hole paradigm that black holes are at the centers of galaxies, and revise it slightly to say that they're near the centers of galaxies," he said.

Image: NASA

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New Flu Vaccines Could Protect Against All Strains

Posted: 25 May 2010 02:55 PM PDT

A new vaccine may be able to provide some protection against all strains of influenza.

Current immunizations create antibodies that target a specific piece of a molecule on the surface of the virus that researchers call its "head." That piece of the hemaglutinin protein evolves very quickly, which is why you have to get a different flu shot each year as new types of flu develop.

The next-generation vaccine causes antibodies to go after a piece of the hemaglutinin that changes less often and that is present in many influenza strains. Researchers are calling them "headless HA" vaccines, and they could be the key to a universal flu shot.

Mice immunized with the new vaccine survived a flu that killed unprotected mice.

"Our results suggest that the response induced by headless HA vaccines is sufficiently potent to warrant their further development toward a universal influenza virus vaccine," Peter Palese of Mt. Sinai Medical School, who led the effort, said in a press release. "Through further development and testing, we predict that a single immunization with a headless HA vaccine will offer effective protection through several influenza epidemics."

The early research appears in the new open access journal mBio. In a commentary accompanying the paper, two Italian researchers suggested that many other types of disease that currently require multiple vaccines may soon have broader solutions.

"Is influenza the only disease that warrants approaches for universal vaccines? Clearly it is not," wrote Antonio Cassone of the Instituto Superiore di Sanità in Rome and Rino Rappuoli of Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics.

See Also:

WiSci 2.0: Alexis Madrigal's Twitter, Tumblr, and forthcoming book on the history of green technology; Wired Science on Twitter and Facebook.

Video: Kamikaze Comet Dives Into Sun’s Lower Atmosphere

Posted: 24 May 2010 05:03 PM PDT

NASA's twin sun-observing spacecraft tracked a comet further than ever before as it dove into the sun.

The video above is a compilation of images from the two STEREO spacecraft that orbit with the Earth, one ahead of the planet and the other behind. The configuration allows for nearly full, continuous coverage of the sun, increasing the chance of witnessing something like the kamikaze comet that they spotted in March.

Seeing comets and other small objects approach the sun is difficult because the objects are overwhelmed by the sun's brightness. Scientists were able to track this one closer to the sun than ever, before it it burned up in the sun's lower atmosphere.

"We believe this is the first time a comet has been tracked in 3-D space this low down in the solar corona," Claire Raftery of the University of California, Berkeley said in a press release. The images were presented at the American Astronomical Meeting in Miami May 24.

Video: NASA, UC Berkeley

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Planetary Bullies Make Astronomers Rethink the Habitable Zone

Posted: 24 May 2010 03:22 PM PDT


Exoplanet orbits that seem just right for life could be bent out of shape by pushy neighbors. New simulations of extrasolar planetary systems may mean the definition of "habitable" planets needs to be completely overhauled.

When astronomers talk about the "habitable zone," they mean the shell around a star where the temperatures are right for liquid water. Any closer, and oceans will boil. Any farther, and the planet will freeze. But this definition assumes that most planets have roughly circular orbits, like the Earth and most other planets in the solar system.

"What we know from studying exoplanets is that that is definitely not the rule," said Rory Barnes of the University of Washington at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Miami. Many of the 454 exoplanets discovered to date have highly elliptical orbits, meaning the planets are not always the same distance from their parent star. Thanks to this uneven geometry, the planet spends more time closer to its star, which tends to make for warmer planets.

Adding another planet, especially a bullying Jupiter-sized planet, can mess with orbits and make a once-hospitable planet move in and out of the habitable zone over time. Using computer simulations of several hypothetical planetary systems, Barnes showed that a giant neighbor can pull an Earth-like planet's orbit like a rubber band, shifting it from circular to elliptical and back to circular again in as little as a few thousand years.

"It's a very stable, repetitive process," Barnes said.

The Earth's orbit actually does feel similar nudges from Jupiter, known as Milankovitch Cycles. But luckily for us, these orbital shape shifts are subtle.

Barnes' simulations predicted more-dire consequences for extrasolar planets near the edge of their habitable zones, though. If the planet is on the cooler edge of the habitable zone, it could go through cycles of freezing and thawing. If it's on the warmer side, the temperature could fluctuate from comfy to boiling from one millennium to the next.

"The inner edge is much more dangerous," Barnes said. All the water could boil off and be lost forever, or the warming planet could experience a "runaway greenhouse" effect and end up a scorched wasteland like Venus.

But it's not all bad news. Barnes suggests that some planets we might dismiss as snowballs could just be going through an eccentric phase.

"Our own Earth has gone through stages of glaciation — we call them snowball Earth phases — and we managed to pull out of it," he said. "On a planet like that, on the outer edge, you will have reservoirs of life, and there will be habitats that will persist."

For planets around dim, low-mass stars, which have to be especially close to be in the habitable zones, neighboring giant planets could wreak havoc with the length of the day, and the gravitational pull could cause cycles of volcanic activity and earthquakes interspersed with relative calm.

"These are fascinating worlds to think about," Barnes said. "It will do lots of interesting things as far as how climates might evolve and how evolution might happen on such a planet."

The results suggest that the current definition of "habitable zone" may be too simplistic. Astronomers may have to consider the whole family of exoplanets in a system before determining if one is habitable or not.

"One of the things that this new work is emphasizing is that one needs to be very careful about defining habitability," commented Phil Armitage of the University of Colorado, Boulder. "Those ideas about terrestrial planet formation and habitability of terrestrial planets will need to be re-evaluated from scratch."

Image: NASA

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Testosterone Makes People Suspicious of One Another

Posted: 24 May 2010 02:47 PM PDT

A dose of testosterone might be enough to save gullible types from being ripped off, a new study reveals.

Testosterone is linked to aggression, competition and social status. Now scientists have found that the hormone also reduces naive individuals' confidence in others.

"Testosterone reduces trust just enough to make people vigilant and careful," said psychologist Jack van Honk of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, who led the study published May 24 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In the study, a few dozen females received half a milligram of testosterone under the tongue — enough to increase hormone levels tenfold. The women viewed pictures of faces and judged how trustworthy they looked. The drug decreased ratings by about half, and the effect was only strong for females who are normally easily fooled.

Van Honk speculates that the effect does not occur in cautious individuals, because the hormone would make them so paranoid that they would become socially disabled.

"I think that people are going to see that testosterone has beneficial effects on social behaviors and carries properties that might be important for applications in certain psychiatric diseases, one of them being social anxiety disorder," he said

"It's interesting work that fits nicely with recent work suggesting that testosterone influences social motivation and perception," said Pranjal Mehta, a psychologist at Columbia University who was not involved in the study. Future studies should test whether testosterone decreases trust in all individuals in more competitive situations, he said. "It's absolutely critical to test the effect of the hormone in real-world social contexts," he said.

Previous studies have found that oxytocin, a hormone involved in bonding, increases faith in others. The two hormones together may keep trust at an optimal level, van Honk said. In future studies, he would like to determine which brain circuits regulate trust through these hormones.

Image: flickr/an untrained eye

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Monday, 24 May 2010

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Photo: WISE Telescope Captures Heart Nebula

Posted: 24 May 2010 08:52 AM PDT

Heart and Soul Nebula as seen by WISE

WISE, NASA's newest infrared observatory, has heart. This new mosaic captures the Heart and Soul nebulas, so named because of their resemblance to hearts–both the Hallmark card and the blood-pumping variety.

"One is a Valentine's Day heart, and the other is a surgical heart that you have in your body," said Ned Wright of the University of California, Los Angeles, who presented the image May 24 at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

Since its launch on December 14, 2009, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer has been circling the Earth in a polar orbit and snapping images every 11 seconds. As of yesterday, it has captured 953,880 frames and mapped about 75 percent of the sky, Wright said.

The new image is stitched together from 1,147 individual frames. The exposure took a total of 3 and a half hours spread over 11 days in February to complete. The nebulas are located in the constellation Cassiopeia, about 6,000 light years away from Earth.

The image is color-coded to make sense to human eyes, which are blind in the infrared. Blue and cyan represent the shortest wavelengths WISE is sensitive to, 3.4 and 4.6 micrometers, and highlight places where stars are being born. Green light shows small grains of dust that have been heated by starlight and glow at the 12 micrometer band. The longest wavelength, 22 micrometers, is shown in red, capturing larger dust grains.

The bright spot at the top right of the image is an active star-forming region called W3, which Wright studied with a four-pixel balloon-borne telescope for his PhD thesis in the 1970s. Wright marveled at the difference between the sketched-out contour map he made then and the glowing portrait captured by WISE.

"It's been an amazing progress in IR astronomy, with cameras growing by a factor of a million in power in just a few decades," he said.

Image: NASA. Full-size 26 megabyte version available.

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Sunday, 23 May 2010

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

White-Light Solar Flares Finally Explained

Posted: 21 May 2010 03:49 PM PDT


The flashes of white light accompanying some solar flares are caused by the sun's acceleration of electrons to speeds greater than half the speed of light.

The phenomenon's new explanation derives from data recorded from a 2006 solar flare. The presence of high-energy X-rays in the same spot that scientists saw visible light tipped them off that some kind of non-thermal process was generating the light.

"These explosions are particle accelerators," said Säm Krucker, of the Space Science Laboratories at the University of California, Berkeley. "The whole surprising thing with these flares' light is that it could simply be heat. But that's not the case."

Solar flares occur when the sun's magnetic field lines rearrange and reconnect, releasing tremendous amounts of energy. There are different types of flares, which can generate geomagnetic storms of Earth, and only some of them are accompanied by the white light flares. These were first observed in 1859 by astronomer Richard Carrington, but no one really knew how they were produced until the new observations by the Japanese satellite Hinode and the NASA SMEX mission RHESSI.

Now, it looks as if the extremely powerful electromagnetic fields somehow deliver enormous amounts of energy into particles in the sun's photosphere. It's not unlike what humans do at a much, much smaller scale in particle accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider.

"As opposed to the LHC where you accelerate a few particles, it would be like accelerating the whole building basically," said Hugh Hudson, also of Berkeley's Space Science Laboratories, who worked with Krucker.

Astronomers haven't figured out how exactly the sun works as a particle accelerator just yet. "It's being done by electromagnetic effects that are not really understood," Hudson admitted.

It's possible that as the sun eases into a more active state over the next year, scientists will have more opportunities to study the flares.

A paper on the new work, with Kyoko Watanabe of Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency as lead author, appeared May 20 in The Astrophysical Journal.



Citation: "G-band and Hard X-ray Emissions of the 2006 December 14 Flare Observed by Hinode/SOT and RHESSI," by Kyoko Watanabe, Säm Krucker, Hugh Hudson, Toshifumi Shimizu, Satoshi Masuda, Kiyoshi Ichimoto. The Astrophysical Journal, No.715, pp. 651-655, 2010.

See Also:

WiSci 2.0: Alexis Madrigal's Twitter, Tumblr, and forthcoming book on the history of green technology; Wired Science on Twitter and Facebook.

Congress Opens Investigation Into Genetic Testing Companies

Posted: 21 May 2010 12:43 PM PDT


A Congressional committee opened an investigation of three direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies this week.

The House's Committee on Energy and Commerce sent requests to the CEOs of 23andme, Navigenics and Pathway Genomics for a wide array of information about the companies' services.

The letters, co-signed by Henry Waxman (D-California), Joe Barton (R-Texas), Bart Stupak (D-Michigan), and Michael Burgess (R-Texas), ask for all documents dating from January 1, 2007 to the present.

First, the committee wants "a chart listing the conditions, diseases, consumer drug responses, and adverse reactions" for which the companies' test and "all policy documents, training manuals, or written guidance" about their counseling policies. They also requested all documents related to how the companies identify the risk to consumers based on their genomic profiles, and how they process and use individual DNA samples.

Add it all up and the documents could be the starting point for a wide-ranging investigation, if the committee decides to go down that road.

The companies have until June 4 to return all the requested documents to the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, chaired by Stupak.

The moves appear to be a response to media reports that Pathway Genomics hoped to sell its genetic testing kits in retail locations like Walgreens, "despite concern from the scientific community regarding the accuracy of the test results." The House committee letter cited two New York Times stories about the plans.

Requests for comment from 23andme, Navigenics, Pathway Genomics and the House committee were not answered. Personal genomics company 23andme released a short statement but would not answer questions.

"We will comply with the Committee on Energy and Commerce's request for information," the statement reads. "We look forward to sharing information detailing what individuals can learn about their own bodies through personal genetic testing and how our company is facilitating important scientific research in the field."

The direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies briefly found themselves in hot water with state regulators in New York and California in the summer of 2008. After they resolved those situations, they've had a relatively free ride from regulators, which appears to be ending.

Beyond the Congressional inquiry, the Food and Drug Administration recently went after Pathway for its retail plan. That spooked the would-be retailers, who decided offering genetic tests on their shelves was not such a good idea.

"We think this would be an illegally marketed device if they proceed," Alberto Gutierrez, director of the FDA's office of in-vitro diagnostics told the Washington Post. "They are making medical claims. We don't know whether the test works and whether patients are taking actions that could put them in jeopardy based on the test."

While many industry watchers have long suspected regulators would eventually pay more attention to the industry, but so far, it's unclear what Congress or the FDA have in store for the genetic testing companies.

Image: flickr/Drew Olanoff

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WiSci 2.0: Alexis Madrigal's Twitter, Tumblr, and forthcoming book on the history of green technology; Wired Science on Twitter and Facebook.

First Hints of Comets Circling Other Stars

Posted: 21 May 2010 10:40 AM PDT


A flying observatory has taken the first ultrasharp images of rings of cold debris around sunlike stars. The doughnut-shaped rings appear to be extrasolar analogues of the Kuiper belt, the outer solar system's reservoir of comets and other frozen bodies.

sciencenewsThe newly observed rings are either left over from the planet-making process or were generated when planets collided. Astronomers used the European Space Agency's infrared Herschel Space Observatory, which sports the largest light-collecting mirror in space and is exquisitely sensitive to cold, sand-grain-sized dust, to photograph the belts.

"The Herschel images are the highest resolution far-infrared measurements ever made for debris disks" like the Kuiper belt, says infrared astronomer George Rieke of the University of Arizona in Tucson, who was not involved in the study.

René Liseau of the Chalmers Institute of Technology in Sweden, Carlos Eiroa of the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid in Spain and their colleagues posted their findings on debris belts surrounding two sunlike stars online May 19 and reported evidence of belts around more stars May 20. Some of their findings will also appear in an upcoming Astronomy & Astrophysics.

One of the sunlike stars, called q1Eridani or HD 10647, lies 57 light-years from Earth and has a Jupiter-sized planet orbiting it at about twice Earth's distance from the sun. The bright ring surrounding the star is a frigid 30 kelvins, lies an average of 85 astronomical units from the star (1 AU is the Earth-sun distance) and is about 40 AU wide. In comparison, the solar system's Kuiper belt, which lies beyond the orbit of Neptune, resides about 30 to 55 AU from the sun.

Strong infrared emissions from q1Eridani, recorded as far back as 1983 with the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, had already indicated the presence of an infrared-emitting belt of debris. Although expected, "it's nonetheless lovely to see" an actual belt, says Alycia Weinberger of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C. "Herschel is the first telescope to have the spatial resolution and sensitivity" at an infrared wavelength of 100 micrometers to resolve infrared emissions into bona fide belts or disks, she adds.

A much fainter belt appears to surround the star Zeta2 Reticuli, about 39 light-years from Earth, Liseau and his colleagues report. The belt lies at an average distance of 100 AU from the star, which is not known to harbor a planet.

Weinberger says the existence of this second belt is on shakier ground. "The high level of asymmetry [of the imaged belt], very cold temperature of the dust and possibility of confusion with a background object all give me an uneasy feeling," she says.

Nonetheless, the Herschel images provide the best estimate of the amount of mass in a debris disk and the size of the grains that populate it, says Weinberger. The observatory also has the best chance of glimpsing a tenuous, far-away Kuiper belt similar to the solar system's, Weinberger adds.

Astronomers believe the solar system's Kuiper belt formed several billion years ago, when some of the outer planets, then packed tightly together, were suddenly hurled into the path of existing planetary debris, pushing the debris outward and sculpting it into a ring-shaped reservoir. By comparing the many examples of Kuiper belts that Herschel is expected to find with the locations of massive outer planets around sunlike stars, astronomers may learn if a similarly violent story unfolded in other planetary systems, Weinberger says.

Image: Liseau et al. Portrait of a ring of debris around the sunlike star q1Eridani was taken at an infrared wavelength of 160 micrometers by the Herschel Space Observatory.

Citation: "Resolving the cold debris disc around a planet-hosting star: PACS photometric imaging observations of q1 Eri (HD10647, HR506)" Posted on Arxiv.

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Friday, 21 May 2010

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

EPA Orders BP to Use Less-Toxic Oil Dispersant

Posted: 20 May 2010 02:32 PM PDT


The Environmental Protection Agency ordered British Petroleum to change the type of dispersant the company is using to keep oil from reaching American shores.

The EPA gave the company 72 hours to switch to a less toxic chemical for use in breaking up oil slicks. Persistent questions about the toxicity of Corexit 9500 have plagued BP over the last several weeks. But the company continued to purchase and use the chemical.

On May 5, Wired Science reported on EPA data showing that a competitive product, U.S. Polychemical's Dispersit, appeared to be less toxic and perform better. Corexit is manufactured by Nalco, which has senior management from the major oil companies.

"The reality is, we blow them out of the water. But Corexit is the Exxon product, the 800-pound gorilla," U.S. Polychemical's Bruce Gebhardt told Wired Science two days later. "We've never been able to move off the shelves. We were never successful in getting them to switch stockpiles. The Coast Guard expressed interest, but it's a big expense, and you don't do it unless you're in pain. Now they're in pain."

Now, while BP has not announced how it will comply with the EPA order, U.S. Polychemical told The New York Times it had "received a large order from BP" for Dispersit and could ramp up production to 60,000 gallons a day.

Image: A Coast Guard plane spraying dispersant./ U.S. Coast Guard.

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WiSci 2.0: Alexis Madrigal's Twitter, Tumblr, and forthcoming book on the history of green technology; Wired Science on Twitter and Facebook.

Lightning May Cause Hallucinations

Posted: 20 May 2010 01:05 PM PDT


Talk about a flash of insight. Lightning strokes could stimulate people's brains and cause them to hallucinate bright blobs of light the same way a medical procedure that applies magnetic fields to the brain does, two physicists propose. The findings could help explain some reports of "ball lightning," mysterious floating orbs that have been reported for centuries but are poorly understood. A paper describing the idea will appear in Physics Letters A.

sciencenews"We don't claim to have a solution for the mystery of ball lightning," says study co-author Alexander Kendl, a plasma physicist at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. "But this is a possible hypothesis."

Lightning forms when electrical charges become physically separated in a storm cloud and build up electrical potential between them, which is then discharged in the sudden bolt. Strokes typically come in clusters. In some cases, Kendl says, they can come extremely rapidly: something like 20 to 60 lightning strokes, each on the order of 100 milliseconds long, raining down over the course of several seconds.

These rare repetitive strokes, Kendl's team found, generate magnetic fields that are very similar — in strength and in how they rise and decay over time — to those used in a brain-stimulation technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS.

TMS applies magnetic fields to the brain to treat neurological and psychiatric conditions like stroke and depression. While the stimulation is being applied to the visual cortex, some patients report seeing blobs of light in their field of vision. Such experiences, of seeing light when light is not actually entering the eye, are known as phosphenes. (The patterns of light you see when you rub your closed eyes hard are another type of phosphene.)

Working with Innsbruck graduate student Josef Peer, Kendl calculated that repetitive lightning strokes would trigger phosphenes "astonishingly well." A person would need to be within about 200 meters of the lightning to experience the effect.

But Thomas Kammer, a TMS expert at the University of Ulm in Germany, isn't convinced. Patients report seeing many different kinds of TMS-induced phosphenes, but they don't generally mesh with descriptions of ball lightning. "I cannot imagine that long-lasting visual phenomena as described with ball lightning might be based on induced phosphenes," Kammer wrote in an e-mail.

Scientists have proposed before that ball lightning reports could be ascribed to visual hallucinations, but the new study is the first to quantify the phenomenon in such detail and relate it to a known phenomenon. In 2008, researchers in Sweden proposed that magnetic fields associated with lightning could affect neurons in the part of the brain known as the occipital lobe, setting off epileptic seizures and inducing visions later described as ball lightning.

"Evidence is mounting that most, if not all, of ball lightning observations are created by the interaction of lightning-generated magnetic fields with the human brain," says a co-author of that study, electricity expert Vernon Cooray of Uppsala University in Sweden.

Scientists have struggled for centuries to explain ball lightning, in part because reports of it are so varied. It is often described as a yellowish ball that hovers around eye height for a couple of seconds before vanishing. But other reports describe ball lightning of various colors moving rapidly, fizzling or even exploding; some say it is accompanied by a sharp smell or sound.

The diversity of descriptions, Kendl says, suggests ball lightning may be a catchall term describing many different types of experience.

Image: Ball Lightning, 1886./G. Hartwig, NOAA Photo Library collection.

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Hubble Watches as Star Slowly Devours Planet

Posted: 20 May 2010 11:39 AM PDT


Six hundred light-years from Earth, a huge exoplanet circling close to its home star is slowly, inexorably being devoured.

WASP 12B orbits just 2 million miles from its star, which means the surface of the planet reaches temperatures over 2,800 Fahrenheit. The sun's gravitational pull is stronger on the front surface of the planet than on the back, so the planet has been pulled into a football shape. If you were floating on the gaseous planet, and looking heavenward, the sun would take up nearly the entire sky.

And in the next 10 million years, the star that so dominates the planet will destroy it, according to a paper published in May in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

It's not exactly the kind of solar system that human beings anticipated finding in the great beyond.

"All sorts of things that we would never expected to find we're finding," said Carole Haswell, an astronomer at The Open University in Great Britain and the lead author on the new paper. "Our preconceptions about what planetary systems might look like were shaped by what our own solar system looked like, particularly Star Trek," she joked.

She and her team used the Hubble Space Telescope's Cosmic Origins Spectrograph to investigate the planet by looking in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum.

"The near ultraviolet is a very sensitive probe to the presence of stuff and that allows you to deduce an effective radius for the planet," she said.

WASP 12B has a puffed up atmosphere that its star is siphoning off. That observation happily matches theoretical predictions made just a few months ago by astronomer Shu-lin Li at Peking University, Beijing. The confirmation shows yet again that exoplanetology, particularly the study of other solar systems not just individual planets, is advancing at a breakneck pace.

"It is a really nice example of theorists predicting something and we'd already observed something close to what they predicted," Haswell said.

To date, 455 exoplanets have been discovered.

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WiSci 2.0: Alexis Madrigal's Twitter, Tumblr, and forthcoming book on the history of green technology; Wired Science on Twitter and Facebook.

Scientists Create First Self-Replicating Synthetic Life

Posted: 20 May 2010 11:32 AM PDT

Figure 1

Man-made DNA has booted up a cell for the first time.

In a feat that is the culmination of two and a half years of tests and adjustments, researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute inserted artificial genetic material — chemically printed, synthesized and assembled — into cells that were then able to grow naturally.

"We all had a very good feeling that it was going to work this time," said Venter Institute synthetic biologist Daniel Gibson, co-author of the study published May 20 in Science. "But we were cautiously optimistic because we had so many letdowns following the previous experiments."

On a Friday in March, scientists inserted over 1 million base pairs of synthetic DNA into Mycoplasma capricolum cells before leaving for the weekend. When they returned on Monday, their cells had bloomed into colonies.

"When we look at life forms, we see fixed entities," said J. Craig Venter, president of the Institute, in a recent podcast. "But this shows in fact how dynamic they are. They change from second to second. And that life is basically the result of an information process. Our genetic code is our software."

Coaxing the software to power a cell proved harder than expected.

Figure 5 [Converted]After the Venter Institute announced in early 2008 that it had assembled a synthetic Mycoplasma genitalium genome, the assumption was that it would be running cells in no time. But this particular cell type, despite its minimal size, was not an ideal research partner. One problem was speed.

"We had to deal with the fact that M. genitalium had an extremely slow growth rate," Gibson said. "For every experiment that was done, it took more than a month to get results."

Moreover, transplanting the code into recipient cells was failing. So researchers cut their losses and called in a substitute, opting for the larger, speedier and less finicky Mycoplasma mycoides. The choice was a good one.

"Over the last five years the field has seen a 100-fold increase in the length of genetic material wholly constructed from raw chemicals," said synthetic biologist Drew Endy of Stanford University. "This is over six doublings in the max length of a genome that can be constructed."

Plunging costs of synthesis allowed a leap past the 1 million base-pair mark, from code to assembly. "Imagine doubling the diameter of a silicon wafer that can be manufactured that much, going from 1 cm to 1 meter [fabrications] in just five years," Endy said. "That would have been an incredible achievement."

"They rebuilt a natural sequence and they put in some poetry," said University of California at San Francisco synthetic biologist Chris Voigt. "They recreated some quotes in the genome sequence as watermarks."

It's an impressive trick, no doubt, but replicating a natural genome with a little panache is also the limit of our present design capabilities.

Researchers, for instance, figure yeast can handle the assembly of 2 million base pairs, but they're not sure about more. And an energy-producing cyanobacteria that sequesters carbon, Gibson says, is still several years off.

The ultimate goal, of course, is a brand-new genome from the ground up. Now, Voigt said, "what do you do with all that design capacity?"

Images: 1) Schematic demonstrating the assembly of a synthetic M. mycoides genome in yeast./Science/AAAS. 2) Images of the phenotype of the JCVI-syn1.0 and WT strains./Science/AAAS.

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Video: An Artificial Butterfly Takes Flight

Posted: 19 May 2010 12:49 PM PDT

A tiny artificial butterfly takes flight in a new high-speed video.

Engineers Hiroto Tanaka and Isao Shimoyama of Harvard University and University of Tokyo, respectively, created the tiny butterfly to try to understand the biomechanics of butterfly flight.

But the tiny machine may not teach us too much about how butterflies actually row through the air, said Robert Dudley, a physiologist at the University of California, Berkeley, co-author of the research to be published May 20 in the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.

"As a technical accomplishment, this work is impressive, but there are a number of aerodynamic and biological issues that need further attention," Dudley wrote in an e-mail to

Butterfly flight is somewhat mysterious because it's roughly the opposite of "as the crow flies." Butterflies flit about rather than flying in a straight line. That actually costs them more energy, Dudley said, so scientists assume their looping flying serves some evolutionary purpose.

"The advantage is that it's thought to be an anti-predator behavior," Dudley said. "The claim is that irregular flight paths are a permanent signal of prey unprofitability."

Would-be predators presumably take one look at the chaotic, loopy butterfly flight and decide to go after easier to predict snacks.

The Japanese researchers somewhat capture this oscillating type of flight with their plastic-winged flyer, but Dudley argued that the differences between the bot and a real butterfly are so great as to invalidate the biological lessons the researchers try to draw.

"There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this approach but it severely limits any claims to the biology," Dudley said.

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WiSci 2.0: Alexis Madrigal's Twitter, Tumblr, and forthcoming book on the history of green technology; Wired Science on Twitter and Facebook.

Argonaut Octopus Mystery Solved

Posted: 19 May 2010 11:58 AM PDT


After centuries of speculation, biologists have documented one way a strange group of octopus-like creatures use their seashell-shaped cases.

sciencenewsFemale argonauts, a group of four species that are close cousins of octopuses, grow delicate white shell-like cases. Biologists have found argonauts with air bubbles in their cases, and now it turns out the animals use the trapped air to float at a comfortable depth, says Julian Finn of Museum Victoria in Melbourne, Australia.

In the first reports from scuba observations of wild argonauts, Finn maneuvered Argonauta argo females so air escaped from their cases. The animals flailed as if struggling to maintain their orientation and quickly jetted to the water surface.

Once at the surface, argonauts rocked their cases and took on air, he says. Then they positioned body parts to seal in some of the air and jetted downward, leaving behind a trail of bubbles.

When the argonauts stopped several meters below the surface, water pressure compressed the remaining air inside the case enough that it counteracted the animals' weight, leaving the argonauts floating neutrally buoyant at a chosen depth.

"Argonauts are fantastic animals to dive with," Finn says, though he does acknowledge that "when they really got going, I couldn't keep up with them."

People have mused about the function of argonauts' striking shell-like structures at least since Aristotle suggested that the animals sail or row them like boats.

Argonauts in the wild aren't easy to find, and previous studies of captive argonauts, which raised the possibility that bubbles were bad for the animals, may have been muddled by the effects of keeping the creatures in aquaria, say Finn and Mark Norman, also of the Museum Victoria. Those tanks were probably too shallow to allow biologists to see the animals' full behavior, the researchers say in their new analysis, posted online in Proceedings of the Royal Society B the week of May 17.

The idea that argonauts use their shells for buoyancy sounds plausible, says cephalopod biologist Michael Vecchione, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist based at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. "I wonder how it would function during a storm at sea — and maybe it doesn't," he says.

Bubble trapping, however, may not be the only function of the shell-like case, he says. Female argonauts tuck masses of tiny eggs into spare space in the structure, Vecchione notes, much as bottom-dwelling octopuses protect their eggs in rock crevices.

Only female argonauts grow the shell-like structures, but males have very different bodies, presumably with different buoyancy issues. Males grow to about the size of the eye of a full-grown female and mate by sacrificing a detachable arm specialized for one-time delivery of sperm. Biologists at first mistakenly classified the remnant male arms as some kind of parasite that occasionally infected females' encased body.

Image: Julian Finn, Museum Victoria

30-Year Time-Lapse: Mount St. Helens Recovery From Space

Posted: 18 May 2010 03:33 PM PDT

The eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980 has a special place in the evolution of our scientific understanding of volcanoes. Though it won't go down in the record books as the biggest, longest or deadliest eruption, it is one of the best-studied eruptions in history and the only major volcanic explosion in the continental United States since geologists and seismologists became equipped with modern technology to analyze such an event.

In the three decades since the eruption, the mountain has been an incredible place for scientists to study how life recovers from a catastrophe and recolonizes the landscape. Some of this can be seen in the time-lapse video above, which combines photo-like images from the Landsat series of satellites, run by the USGS and NASA, from 1984 through 2009. Prior to 1984, the Landsat satellites didn't have the ability to see blue wavelengths of light, and consequently images appear red, such as the ones below of the mountain before the eruption in 1979 and shortly after in 1980.


The area around the mountain was devastated by the collapse of the northern flank of the mountain in what amounted to one of the largest landslides ever recorded, which buried 24 square miles of land under as much as 600 feet of debris. The nine-hour eruption blew 520 million tons of ash over 230 square miles and knocked down 14 billion board feet of timber. Fifty-seven people died, including one geologist, and more than $1 billion in damage (1980 dollars) was done, making it the most destructive eruption in U.S. history. Video of a few minutes of the eruption can be seen below.

In the time-lapse above, you will first notice some recovery in the northwestern part of the blast zone, away from the volcano. Then the area around Spirit Lake becomes greener in the late 1990s. In the most recent images, the only area that still appears to be desolate is known as Pumice Plain. Research on the ground has found the first signs of life in recent years as flowers, insects and small animals have begun to reinhabit the plain. But these changes can't yet be seen from space.

Videos: Fernando Cardoso,


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Foucault’s Pendulum Dented in Museum Mishap

Posted: 18 May 2010 12:03 PM PDT


The cable holding a model of Foucault's pendulum snapped last month at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris, sending the 60-pound ball crashing to the ground. It was permanently dented in the fall.

Léon Foucault's 1851 experiment remains a mesmerizing evidence that the Earth does, in fact, rotate. Scientists were aware of this, but the fact that the pendulum swings through many degrees of a circle over the course of a day provides tangible proof that we are on a planet spinning in space. (The actual number of degrees that the Earth rotates underneath the pendulum is equal to the Earth's rotation rate multiplied by the sine of the pendulum's latitude; a Foucault's pendulum installed at the poles would move through 360 degrees, while in Paris, only three-quarters of a revolution (270 degrees) occurs in a 24-hour period.)

The Umberto Eco novel, Foucault's Pendulum, made the mid-19th-century physics demonstration famous. The novel even opens at the Musée des Arts et Métiers. The pendulum played a key role in the high-literary conspiracy involving the Knights Templar at the heart of the novel.

Via Geoff Brumfiel at Nature News

Photo: Graham Chandler/Flickr

WiSci 2.0: Alexis Madrigal's Twitter, Tumblr, and forthcoming book on the history of green technology; Wired Science on Twitter and Facebook.

Dementia Caregivers More Likely to Also Get the Disease

Posted: 18 May 2010 10:42 AM PDT


Elderly people who care for a spouse who has dementia are at increased risk of developing dementia themselves, a study finds. The stress of attending to a mentally incapacitated spouse may somehow contribute to the added risk, scientists report in the May Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

sciencenewsPrevious studies have shown that chronic stress leads to increased levels of the hormone cortisol in the body, which can suppress immunity, says study co-author Peter Rabins, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore who teamed with researchers at Utah State University in Logan to do this study. "It's long been thought that this might have adverse outcomes psychologically and physiologically."

Taking care of a spouse with dementia takes a toll in other ways as well, Rabins says. "Caregivers often complain that they lose their friends," he says, because they don't have time to socialize. But the biological mechanisms that might link these challenges to heightened dementia risk remain unclear.

In the new study, the researchers assessed the mental status of 1,221 Utah couples who had agreed to be part of a community-wide health study that started in 1995. The men averaged age 76 and the women 73 at that point, and 95 percent had been married for more than 20 years. Researchers tracked these couples' mental status with up to four exams over the next decade with a median followup of 3.3 years. No participants in this analysis had dementia at the start.

During the followup years, 229 people found themselves caring for a spouse with dementia. The caregivers were six times more likely to develop dementia themselves compared with people whose spouses did not develop dementia. The researchers accounted for differences between the couples in age, education, socioeconomic status and the presence of variants in the APOE gene that can increase risk of Alzheimer's disease.

While this is the first study to look at actual dementia risk in spousal caregivers, other research has documented an array of physical and mental problems associated with caregiving. These include depression, sleep problems, less exercise and unhealthy diet, says Peter Vitaliano, a psychologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, writing in the same issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. All these conditions may be risk factors for dementia, he notes.

In the new study, the authors point out that some of the increased risk of dementia in caregivers may be due to shared environment. The couples had been married on average for 49 years upon enrollment in the study. But what those shared environmental risk factors might be remains unknown.

One other possible contributor to this dementia risk could be the tendency of people who are prone to distress or mental illness to find and marry one other, Rabins says.

Bruce McEwen, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University in New York City, says that in the future researchers might do well to investigate whether caregiver spouses who have less social support — or who are just more isolated — might be at the most risk.

Photo: Up Your Ego/Flickr

Judge Issues Legal Opinion in Brooklyn fMRI Case

Posted: 17 May 2010 05:36 PM PDT


The judge in a recent Brooklyn case in which brain scan evidence was offered has delivered an opinion on why he ultimately excluded the fMRI data.

In Judge Robert H. Miller's written opinion, obtained by, he decided that under the Frye test, which is slightly different from the Daubert standard used in federal court, lie detection evidence contravenes a jury's key right to decide the credibility of witnesses.

The plaintiff in Miller's case had attempted to establish a key witness was telling the truth.

"Since credibility is a matter solely for the jury and is clearly within the ken of the jury, plaintiff has failed to meet this key prong of the Frye test and no other inquiry is required," Miller wrote. "However, even a cursory review of the scientific literature demonstrates that the plaintiff is unable to establish that the use of the fMRI test to determine truthfulness or deceit is accepted as reliable within the relevant scientific community."

The rest of the short opinion is embedded below.

Image: flickr/Katherine Kenney

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