Archive for October, 2008

Geologists Find One Cataclysmic Tsunami in Every 600 Years of Thai Dirt

By Eliza Strickland | October 29, 2008 5:40 pm

tsunami sedimentsTwo groups of geologists have found evidence that the Indian Ocean tsunami that devastated coastal towns in Southeast Asia in 2004 wasn’t the first massive wave to pummel those shores, but the last tsunami of equivalent size occurred about 600 to 700 years ago. That long gap might explain how enough geological stress built up to power the huge undersea earthquake that launched the killer waves four years ago, researchers said [AP].

One group of researchers took sediment samples on a barrier island off the west coast of Thailand, while the other group dug into the soil in a northern region of Sumatra. The surge of a tsunami brings with it a great deal of sediment that rushes inland; the bigger the tsunami, the deeper and further inland the layer of sediment it leaves behind. In locations where those deposits aren’t disturbed by wind or running water, they can be used as a historical record of tsunami after more layers are added later [BBC News].

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Yes, T. Rex Had a Bad-Ass Sniffer. But Was It a Bad-Ass Hunter?

By Eliza Strickland | October 29, 2008 4:13 pm

Tyrannosaurus rexResearchers have used a CT scanner to peer inside the hollow, fossilized skulls of a group of meat-eating dinosaurs that dominated the Jurassic Period, and found that the Tyrannosaurus rex had another advantage besides its size, speed, and pointy teeth–it also had an excellent sense of smell. Study coauthor Darla Zelenitsky says the scans show the impressions left on the skull by different brain regions, and says the T. rex had the biggest olfactory bulb, which regulates the sense of smell.

Zelenitsky says the findings suggest that the T. rex relied on smell extensively. “It’s probably fairly significant, because the sense of smell was likely used for foraging or searching for food,” Zelenitsky said. “And as well, it could have been used for patrolling relatively large home ranges. So, in that respect, it would have been a significant part of the biology and daily activities of the animal” [Calgary Herald].

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MORE ABOUT: dinosaurs, senses, smell

Elephant-Lovers Worry About Controversial Ivory Auctions in Africa

By Eliza Strickland | October 29, 2008 10:06 am

elephant tuskYesterday, 7.2 metric tons of elephant tusks were auctioned off to ivory buyers from China and Japan, bringing in a total of $1.1 million for the seller, the Namibian government. The controversial sale was the first of four auctions that will be carried out over the next few weeks in a program approved by CITES, the international watchdog group that monitors trade in endangered species. The sales are intended to let southern African countries dispose of their ivory stockpiles, and CITES hopes that releasing legal ivory onto the market will decrease the demand for poached ivory.

However, some conservation groups worry that the sale will have the opposite effect, and may allow black market ivory dealers to label their goods as products from the legal auction. Says a spokesman for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Michael Wamithi: “By permitting legal trade in ivory, we are only encouraging the laundering of stocks by poachers, thereby increasing illegal hunting activities…. The situation is very clear: More ivory in the market place equals many more dead elephants’’ [The New York Times blog].

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In the Dark and the Cold, the Mars Phoenix Lander Begins to Shut Down

By Eliza Strickland | October 29, 2008 8:42 am

Mars Phoenix Lander armThe cold, dark winter is fast descending on Mars, and now it’s time for NASA’s Mars Phoenix Lander, which has conducted five months of (literally) groundbreaking research near the Martian north pole, to begin slowly shutting down. Phoenix’s Earth-bound managers announced yesterday that the lander’s solar panels are generating less power from the decreasing sunlight, while at the same time the craft’s heaters require more energy to keep the lander operational as temperatures drop.

NASA‘s engineers were prepared for this inevitability, and say they’ll now begin to shut down some of its systems to save power for the lander’s main camera and meteorological instruments. “If we did nothing, it wouldn’t be long before the power needed to operate the spacecraft would exceed the amount of power it generates on a daily basis,” said Phoenix Project Manager Barry Goldstein…. “By turning off some heaters and instruments, we can extend the life of the lander by several weeks and still conduct some science” [The Tech Herald].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology

Fooled by an Illusion, Tennis Refs Make Wrong "Out" Calls

By Nina Bai | October 28, 2008 5:55 pm

tennis ballTennis referees are far more likely to make wrong “out” calls than wrong “in” calls, according to a new study. A quirk of our visual perception system, which helps us anticipate the motion of an object, seems to bias our perception of where a speeding tennis ball stops moving. “This is not a problem with referees,” says study co-author David Whitney…. “It’s a consequence of human visual processing … a visual illusion caused by a mechanism that allows the system to localize a moving object” [Scientific American].

The idea to study this visual illusion in a real-world context came to Whitney during a Wimbledon match as he watched a player challenge and overturn a referee’s call. For the study, published in Current Biology [subscription required], the researchers used Hawk-Eye technology, a system of high-speed cameras that is often used for contested calls in tennis matches. Three scientists independently reviewed video and instant replay of 4,457 randomly selected points from the 2007 Wimbledon championships. Of the 83 calls that the video and instant replay showed were wrong, 70 were “out” calls [Scientific American]. Without the visual bias, there should have been the same number of wrong “out” calls as “in” calls.

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MORE ABOUT: senses, sports, vision

Controversial Study Says Dams Aren't Killing Off the Pacific Salmon

By Eliza Strickland | October 28, 2008 5:53 pm

Pacific salmonIn a new study that’s already generating controversy, researchers tracked more than 1,000 young Pacific salmon on their first journey to the sea, and found that those battling dams on the Columbia River fared no worse than the young fish with an easier path to the sea on Canada’s free-flowing Fraser River. The findings seem to contradict many previous studies about dams: Conservationists have blamed these obstacles for a large share of the shrinking salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest, and engineers have spent billions trying to make the dams less damaging to salmon [Science News].

The study used implanted transmitters to follow the juvenile salmon, called smolts, on their trips downriver, and found that only about 25 percent of smolts in both the Columbia and the Fraser survived the voyage and made it to the ocean. But environmentalists and several salmon biologists pounced on the study, suggesting that industry funding might have biased the results. These critics question the value of comparing the two rivers and say that the study doesn’t even address what many think is the dams’ biggest effect: stressed smolts dying after they reach the ocean [Nature News].

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NASA's Latest Worry: Ares Rocket Could Slam Into Launch Tower

By Eliza Strickland | October 28, 2008 2:22 pm

Ares I rocket liftoffA new technical problem with NASA‘s next generation Ares I rocket is causing headaches for the space agency, and could leave engineers scrambling to keep the project on time and on budget. Rumors are flying that this new glitch, in addition to other technical issues that have cropped up in the past few years, may cause the agency to abandon the design altogether. A former Florida congressman and current lobbyist told state officials that NASA’s next rocket is “on the chopping block” and that a new administration may abandon the Ares I as successor to the space shuttle. The next president may look instead to use military rockets to launch NASA astronauts [Orlando Sentinel blog].

After the space shuttles retire, NASA expects to complete work on the Ares I rocket and its matching Orion crew capsule, with hopes of resuming manned flights by 2015. But the Ares I has already been criticized for lacking lift power, and then for a vibration problem that could dramatically shake up astronauts. The latest concern arises from computer models showing that the Ares I could crash into the launch tower during liftoff.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology

From Yellowstone's Hills to Walden Pond's Woods, Evidence of Global Warming

By Eliza Strickland | October 28, 2008 10:25 am

Yellowstone pondsTwo different studies separated by more than 1,700 miles hammer home the same point: evidence of global warming is everywhere. In Yellowstone National Park, researchers found that amphibian populations have declined dramatically over the past 15 years as some of their pond habitats have dried up and disappeared. Meanwhile, in Massachusetts’ Walden Pond, botanists discovered that more than a quarter of the plant species observed by Henry David Thoreau have disappeared since the author went to the woods to “live deliberately” in the 1850s.

The two studies, which both appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [subscription required], show that changes to the planet’s flora and fauna are already well underway. The Yellowstone study compared data from an amphibian survey done in 1992 and 1993 to data from a new survey conducted over the last three summers; researchers looked at the park’s “kettle” ponds, which are re-filled in spring by groundwater and snow melt running down from the hills [BBC News]. The researchers found that the number of permanently dry ponds had quadrupled, and even in the ponds that remained, amphibian populations had plummeted.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World

This Could Be a Find of Biblical Proportions: King Solomon's Copper Mines

By Eliza Strickland | October 28, 2008 8:45 am

copper mine SolomonResearchers say they have found the copper mines ruled over by the biblical king Solomon, bolstering the position of scholars who argue that Solomon was a historical figure and not a mythological one. In a controversial find, a team of archaeologists has dated charcoal samples from a copper ore smelting operation, and says the oldest samples date from the 10th century B.C. when the Bible says Solomon ruled Israel and Judah. “We can’t believe everything ancient writings tell us,” [lead researcher Thomas] Levy said. “But this research represents a confluence between the archaeological and scientific data and the Bible” [Telegraph].

The existence of Solomon 3,000 years ago has been questioned by some scholars over the last two decades because of the paucity of archaeological evidence supporting the biblical record and the belief that there were no complex societies in Israel or Edom capable of building fortresses, monuments and other sophisticated public works, such as large mines, in the 10th century BC. “This is the most hotly debated period in biblical archaeology today” [Los Angeles Times], said Levy.

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Found: Planet Vulcan? Spock's Home Star May Have Earth-Like Planets

By Nina Bai | October 27, 2008 5:30 pm

eridaniThe nearest planetary system to our own has two asteroid belts in addition to a previously known ice belt, according to the latest observations by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. The location and structure of the asteroid belts relative to the system’s central star, Epsilon Eridani, suggests the existence of earth-like planets. “We certainly haven’t seen it yet, but if its solar system is anything like ours, then there should be planets like ours,” says astronomer Massimo Marengo of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics [USA Today].

The Epsilon Edidani system has long been of interest to astronomers and science fiction fans alike because of its proximity (10.5 light-years) and resemblance to our solar system. The newly discovered asteroid belts give the system an appearance even more like our own. The inner asteroid belt looks identical to ours in terms of material, and it orbits at 3 astronomical units (AU) from Epsilon Eridani — the same distance between the sun and the rocky asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. (An astronomical unit equals the average Earth-sun distance of 93 million miles, or about 150 million km.) Epsilon Eridani’s second asteroid belt is 20 AU from the star, or about where Uranus is in relation to our sun, and it is crowded with as much mass as Earth’s moon [Science News]. The outer asteroid belt was captured directly by Spitzer’s infrared cameras and the inner asteriod belt, though too far from the cameras, was indicated by the thermal energy from its infrared emissions.

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