Archive for February, 2009

Bad News for Teachers: Research Says Doodling Boosts Concentration

By Eliza Strickland | February 27, 2009 5:07 pm

doodleDoodling isn’t the distraction it’s commonly thought to be, researchers say–in fact, it aids concentration, and memory. A new study suggests that doodling takes up just enough attention to keep the brain from wandering further afield, explains lead researcher Jackie Andrade.

“If someone is doing a boring task, like listening to a dull telephone conversation, they may start to daydream. Daydreaming distracts them from the task, resulting in poor performance. A simple task, like doodling, may be sufficient to stop daydreaming without affecting performance on the main task” [BBC News], Andrade says.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain
MORE ABOUT: art, memory

A Rare Agreement Between Obama and Bush: Yes on the Moon, No on the Shuttle

By Eliza Strickland | February 27, 2009 2:39 pm

space shuttle sunsetThe new budget proposed by President Barack Obama boosts funding for NASA and shows the new president’s commitment to exploration of the moon and our solar system’s planets. Under the proposed budget, the agency would receive $18.7 billion in 2010. Combined with $1 billion in funding provided in an economic stimulus package signed into law last week, NASA would get $2.4 billion more than it did in 2008 [New Scientist].

Like his predecessor George W. Bush, Obama wants to return people to the moon and send robots further into space [Reuters]. But while the proposed funding boost pleases many in the space community, the budget disappoints “shuttle-huggers” who hoped that Obama would keep the space shuttle flying past the 2010 retirement date set by the Bush administration. Instead, the proposal instructs NASA to stick to that deadline, although it does offer one concession.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space

Bouncing, "Psychedelic" Fish Is Declared a New Species

By Eliza Strickland | February 27, 2009 10:01 am

psychedelic fishA bizarre fish discovered off the coast of an Indonesian island has officially been declared a new species, and given a name that researchers say celebrates its oddity: Histiophryne psychedelica. The creature, a type of frogfish, has beige and pink stripes swirling away from its eyes, and has leg-like fins on both sides of its body. But researchers writing in the journal Copeia say the psychedelic fish uses those fins in a form of locomotion never before seen in fish.

When the fish was first spotted by scuba divers off the coast of Ambon island last year, the divers described it moving away from them in a series of short hops, its pelvic fins pushing it off the sea bed with each bounce. “The overall impression” says the Copeia research paper, was of “an inflated rubber ball bouncing along the bottom” [BBC News].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

Moral Disgust May Have Evolved From the Response to Rotten Food

By Eliza Strickland | February 27, 2009 8:50 am

disgusted expressionBeing treated unfairly in a game triggers the same facial expression as stomach-turning tastes and images, a new study has found, suggesting that the brain mechanism of disgust evolved to help humans avoid not just rotten food, but also immoral behavior.

“Our idea is that morality builds upon an old mental reflex, said study co-author Adam Anderson…. “The brain had already discovered a system for rejecting things that are bad for it. Then it co-opted this and attached it to conditions much removed from something tasting or smelling bad” [Wired News].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins, Mind & Brain

1.5 Million Years Ago, Homo Erectus Walked a Lot Like Us

By Rachel Cernansky | February 26, 2009 9:01 pm

footprintThe ancestors to modern humans really hit their stride 1.5 million years ago. Fossilized footprints found in Kenya were made by hominids that share a common foot anatomy and walking stride with modern humans, researchers say.

Scientists are almost certain that the 1.5-million-year-old prints belong to Homo erectus and that the individuals had heels, insteps and toes almost identical to those in humans, and they walked with a long stride similar to human locomotion…. The prints helped explain fossil and archaeological evidence that erectus had adapted the ability for long-distance walking and running [The New York Times]. There is evidence of a heavy landing on the heel with weight transferred along the outer edge of the foot, progressing to the ball of the foot and lifting off with the toes [BBC].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins

New Telescope Could Reveal a Milky Way Packed With Habitable Planets

By Eliza Strickland | February 26, 2009 5:13 pm

exoplanet earth-likeWhile astronomers have found more than 300 planets beyond our solar system in the last 15 years, none of those “exoplanets” has been a likely candidate for extraterrestrial life. The exoplanets discovered thus far are all either too close to the hot sun or too far away and therefore too frigid to host life as we know it. But Alan Boss says it’s just a matter of time before we find Earth-like planets in the “Goldilocks zone”: he calculates that 100 billion of them may exist within our own Milky Way galaxy. And NASA’s Kepler satellite, which is expected to launch on March 5, may be the key to finding them, he says.

Boss, an astrophysicist and author of the new book “The Crowded Universe: The Search for Living Planets,” says that if any of the billions of Earth-like worlds he believes exist in the Milky Way have liquid water, they are likely to be home to some type of life. “Now that’s not saying that they’re all going to be crawling with intelligent human beings or even dinosaurs,” he said. “But I would suspect that the great majority of them at least will have some sort of primitive life, like bacteria or some of the multicellular creatures that populated our Earth for the first 3 billion years of its existence” [CNN].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space

Suicide Aphids Repair Homes With Bodily Fluids — & Their Own Bodies

By Eliza Strickland | February 26, 2009 2:04 pm

aphid gooIf aphids could recite Shakespeare, they might favor this rousing cry: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; or close the wall up with our [aphid] dead.” Researchers have discovered that the social insects send soldiers to repair holes in the plant tissue where they make their homes, and that some of the soldiers never return from these “suicide missions.”

Some aphids cause their plant hosts to form hollow swellings called galls within which the larvae mature. A hole in the gall’s wall threatens the larvae’s cozy and protected home, and causes soldier aphids to rush to the spot. There they excrete body fluids that represent about two-thirds of their body mass, and mix the fluids with their legs to form a scab that patches the hole. Many of the soldier aphids, of the species Nipponaphis monzeni, die from the significant loss of body mass. Many others get stuck in the viscous fluid and fail to escape. Like workers on the Great Wall of China, they simply become a physical part of the building work [BBC News].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World
MORE ABOUT: altruism, evolution, insects

Planetary Pinball Accounts for Asteroid Belts and Gaps

By Eliza Strickland | February 26, 2009 10:53 am

asteroid beltThe distinctive belt of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter may have been shaped during a game of planetary pinball almost 4 billion years ago. A new study suggests that the migration of the mighty gas giant planets tugged some asteroids into a ringed formation, and sent others spinning off. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, are thought to have been born close together before gravitational interactions with numerous pieces of rocky debris changed their trajectories. Their movement then caused the rocky debris to scatter like bowling pins, potentially explaining what battered the Earth, Moon, and Mars with so many craters some 3.8 billion years ago [New Scientist].

Astronomers have long wondered about the uneven distribution of debris within the asteroid belt, which has zones where there are far fewer asteroids than expected…. Some of those gaps, called Kirkwood gaps, are in zones where Jupiter or Saturn’s gravitational influence destabilises the asteroids so much that they are ejected from the belt, but many are in areas that are currently stable [Cosmos]. Researchers decided to test the theory that planetary migrations caused the gaps in the solar system‘s early days.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space
MORE ABOUT: asteroids, solar system

Bloodstained Tools From 13,000 Years Ago Found in a Suburban Backyard

By Eliza Strickland | February 26, 2009 8:50 am

tools ColoradoThe tools found in Colorado resident Patrick Mahaffy’s backyard weren’t the typical collection of weed whackers and shovels. Instead Mahaffy’s yard hosted a collection of chipped stone knives and axes that date from the time of the Clovis people, who are believed to have been among the first inhabitants of America around 13,000 years ago. “The idea that these Clovis-age tools essentially fell out of someone’s yard in Boulder is astonishing,” [anthropologist Douglas Bamforth] said. “But the evidence I’ve seen gives me no reason to believe the cache has been disturbed since the items were placed there for storage about 13,000 years ago” [LiveScience].

The prehistoric tool cache was turned up when landscapers were digging a hole for a fishpond in Mahaffy’s backyard, and struck stone. The collection contains 83 knives, axes, and smaller pieces of flint, and a chemical analysis of blood residue left on the blades revealed that the tools had been used to butcher extinct types of North American camels and horses, and well as bears and sheep.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins

Researchers Say Fish Fossils Reveal the Earliest Known Erection

By Eliza Strickland | February 25, 2009 9:51 pm

armored fishPrehistoric fish had sexual reproduction figured out 380 million years ago, a new fossil study has confirmed. Researchers examined the fossil of one species of armored placoderm fish and realized that the fossil showed a 2-inch-long embryo within the fish’s body cavity, indicating internal fertilization, or sex as we know it. Palaeontologist Zerina Johanson says: “We expected that these early fishes would show a more primitive type of reproduction, where sperm and eggs combine in the water and embryos develop outside the fish. This discovery is incredibly important because evidence of reproductive biology is extremely rare in the fossil record” [Telegraph].

Researchers originally thought the tiny bones within the fossil were the remains of the fish’s final meal, but they decided to reexamine the 380-million-year-old fossil after discovering embryos in the fossilized remains of another species of ancient fish last year. A closer look revealed that the placoderm also had a bun in the oven, says lead researcher John Long. “We could see that the new specimens had the same bone structure as the previous embryos, were the same species as the adult, they did not have any broken or stomach-etched features (from digestive acids or from being chomped) and that they were at the same stage of growth as the previous embryos,” Long wrote in an email. “All of these facts proved they were embryos, not prey items” [LiveScience].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World
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