Archive for March, 2009

The Misunderstood Crustacean: Study Suggests They Do Feel Pain

By Rachel Cernansky | March 27, 2009 3:37 pm

crab.jpgCrabs and other crustaceans not only feel pain, new research has found, but they remember it—and use the experience to try to avoid future shock. For the study, published in Animal Behavior, researchers Robert Elwood and Mirjam Appel looked at how hermit crabs reacted to small electric shocks. Using wires, they delivered the shocks to the abdomens of the hermits who take shelter inside other mollusks’ abandoned shells, and found the crabs would scamper out of the shells after being shocked, “indicating that the experience is unpleasant for them,” the scientists concluded; unshocked crabs stayed put [LiveScience].  The researchers say their study proves that this response is not just a reflex, but that central neuronal processing takes place [CNN].

The role of pain, according to Elwood, is to allow an individual to be “aware of the potential tissue damage” while experiencing “a huge negative emotion or motivation that it learns to avoid that situation in the future” [Discovery News]. Prior research had shown that crabs can detect and withdraw from harmful stimuli, but it was not certain whether that was a simple reflex mechanism, disassociated from the feeling humans recognize as pain.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World
MORE ABOUT: crustaceans, ocean, senses

New "Nanogenerator" Could Power Your iPod With Your Own Movements

By Eliza Strickland | March 27, 2009 3:20 pm

nano power hamsterThe mechanical energy produced when your body moves could be harnessed to power electronic gadgets thanks to what researchers are calling a “nanogenerator.” The nanotech device is made of tiny zinc oxide nanowires, which have piezoelectric properties–meaning that they generate a tiny electrical pulse when they’re bent, stretched, or otherwise subjected to mechanical stress. According to Zhong Lin Wang, lead researcher, the device could be used to charge gadgets such as iPods and BlackBerrys as well as having a impact on defence technology, environmental monitoring and biomedical sciences. “This technology can be used to generate energy under any circumstances as long as there is movement,” he said [Financial Times].

In a video demonstration, Wang attached a single nanowire to the back of a hamster and then hooked it up to an oscilloscope. As the rodent … scurried around, it generated 70 millivolts [the equivalent of .o7 volts]. When the critter stopped to lick itself, the power levels decreased [Wired].

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Tesla Unveils a "Mass Market" Electric Car, but It's a Long Way From the Sales Lot

By Eliza Strickland | March 27, 2009 10:05 am

Tesla sedanThe Silicon Valley startup that’s seeking to revolutionize the automobile industry has unveiled the prototype for its all-electric sedan, which the company, Tesla Motors, describes as the first mass market all-electric car. But the cars won’t be rolling off the assembly line any time soon–because the company hasn’t built the assembly lines yet. Tesla couldn’t build a factory for the sedan, called the Model S, until it rounded up more money, which became more difficult over the last year as the economic climate worsened.

Elon Musk, Tesla’s founder, says he hopes the first cars will be delivered to customers in 2011. The company plans to produce 20,000 cars a year. However, Tesla has yet to secure finance for the project. It says it is confident of negotiating a $350 million US government loan from the $25 billion bailout package approved by the Department of Energy last year. The government fund is intended primarily to help struggling carmakers to make more fuel-efficient cars [Times Online].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology

A Fishy Critical Mass Makes Millions of Herrings Swim Together

By Eliza Strickland | March 27, 2009 8:57 am

shoal formationHow do hundreds of millions of fish decide to join ranks and take a swim together? That’s the question researcher Nicholas Makris and his colleagues set out to answer in the shallow waters of Georges Bank, about 60 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. It was already known that on autumn evenings herrings emerge from the deep waters where they safely spend their days, form a massive shoal, and venture into the shallows to spawn. The fish congregate en masse to find mates more easily and to protect against predators [New Scientist].

Now, watching that shoal form in real time with an advanced new acoustic technology, researchers have discovered that the shift from a disorganized scattering of fish to a highly synchronized shoal takes place in mere seconds when the fish reach a critical mass; the signal spreads rapidly through the ranks to form a shoal that can be 12 miles across. Says Makris: “It’s not gradual; it’s — BANG” [Science News].

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MORE ABOUT: fish, look at this, ocean

"Expert" But Bad Financial Advice Turns Off Decision-Making in the Brain

By Rachel Cernansky | March 26, 2009 3:37 pm

wallstreet.jpgWhen people are given “expert” financial advice, the decision-making parts of the brain shut down, a small new study has found. Brain scans of 24 volunteers showed that claims of expertise were found to suppress activity in the neural circuit linked to decision-making [Telegraph]. “It’s almost as if the brain stops trying to make a decision on its own” [CNN], said lead researcher Gregory Berns.

In the study, college students connected to MRI scanners were asked to choose between taking a guaranteed payment and gambling for a higher payoff. Some made the decision on their own, while others were given written advice that they were told came from an economist who counsels the U.S. Federal Reserve. The advice was intentionally poor, and urged students to accept the guaranteed small payments rather than gamble with good odds for a much higher return. When thinking for themselves, students showed activity in their anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — brain regions associated with making decisions and calculating probabilities. When given advice from [the economist], activity in those regions flat lined [Wired]. The students who received the advice tended to follow it.

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Countdown to Nuclear Fusion: National Ignition Facility Warms Up

By Eliza Strickland | March 26, 2009 2:24 pm

NIF fuel capsuleResearchers in California are preparing to fire 192 lasers at a minuscule pellet of fuel to create their first nuclear fusion reaction, the same reaction that takes place in the center of the sun. Within two to three years, the researchers at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) expect to be creating fusion reactions that release more energy than it takes to produce them. If they’re successful, it will be the first time this has been done in a controlled way–in a lab rather than a nuclear bomb, that is–and could eventually lead to fusion power plants [Technology Review].

Earlier this month, technicians test fired all 192 lasers at once, concentrating their beams on a single focal point in the middle of the chamber. For the test, the chamber was empty. But when real experiments begin within the next few months, the target will be a tiny gold capsule the size of an extra-strength Advil. The goal is to mash the contents of the capsule, a BB-size pellet of hydrogen frozen to nearly absolute zero, until the hydrogen atoms fuse into helium and release a gush of energy [Forbes Magazine].

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Male Circumcision Cuts Risk of HIV, Herpes, and HPV Transmission

By Eliza Strickland | March 26, 2009 10:36 am

circumcisionResearchers now have solid evidence that male circumcision protects against three viral sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and say their findings should encourage parents around the world to circumcise their infant boys. A large study in Uganda involving 5,534 men found that those who underwent circumcision as adults were 25 percent less likely to become infected with herpes and more than 30 percent less likely to catch human papillomavirus (HPV) than their uncircumcised peers…. Previous research has shown that circumcision reduces a man’s risk of acquiring HIV by as much as 60 percent [Scientific American].

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, says that the area beneath the foreskin of an uncircumcised male provides the “perfect breeding ground for viruses and bacteria.” It can tear and develop sores easily, and if it becomes inflamed, he said, “it gives you much more fertile ground for HIV to be transmitted” [Scientific American], as well as the herpes and HPV viruses. However, the study did not show protection against syphilis, a bacterial STD.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Fish Are on Antidepressants, Allergy Meds, and a Host of Other Pharmaceuticals

By Eliza Strickland | March 26, 2009 8:49 am

pills medicationThe fish living in rivers around American cities are being medicated, like it or not. A broad new study of fish in five metropolitan areas has shown that fish are contaminated with a cocktail of prescription medications, including pharmaceuticals used to treat depression, bipolar disorder, allergies, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. Researchers say this new form of pollution, a consequence of our medicated society, may have environmental or health consequences that aren’t yet understood.

Pharmaceuticals end up in drinking water—and in fish—when people take medications and residue passes through their bodies into the sewers. Conventional sewage and drinking water treatment filters out some substances, or at least reduces the concentrations [Chicago Tribune]. But pharmaceutical traces make it through the sewage processing and end up in river water. When fish take in the water through their gills, the chemicals accumulate in their livers and other tissue.

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Scientists Pick Up the Pieces (Literally) of an Asteroid Spotted Last October

By Eliza Strickland | March 25, 2009 6:21 pm

meteoriteThey saw it coming, and they got what was coming to them. For the first time, researchers not only detected an asteroid in space, but also tracked its progress and then collected its debris after it crashed to Earth [Science News].

Astronomers won the space lottery last October when they spotted a small, car-sized asteroid headed straight for Earth 19 hours before it reached our planet, and were able to study it as it plunged towards the atmosphere. When the rock exploded about 23 miles above the Nubian Desert in northern Sudan, many astronomers thought that was the end of an already remarkable story. But researcher Peter Jenniskens decided to see if any fragments had reached the Earth’s surface, and  joined forces with a team of Sudanese scientists and students to comb the desert.

Small asteroids like 2008 TC3 are fairly common, with about one asteroid impacting Earth each year. But these small asteroids are usually not spotted until they enter the Earth’s atmosphere. “It’s like when bugs splatter on the windshield. You don’t see the bug until it’s too late,” says physicist and study coauthor Mark Boslough [Science News]. Researchers got lucky with this asteroid–it was spotted by chance by an observatory in Arizona.

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Nature vs Solar Power: Environmentalists Clash Over the Mojave Desert

By Rachel Cernansky | March 25, 2009 5:31 pm

desert.jpgThe Mojave Desert has become a battlefield for how President Obama’s clean energy goals should be moved forward, and conservationists and renewable energy advocates, usually natural allies, are now pitted against each other. California Senator Dianne Feinstein proposed legislation last week that would designate more than 800,000 acres of desert land a national monument, putting it off-limits to energy projects.

The area of concern to Feinstein is between the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park…. The area includes desert tortoise habitat, wildlife corridors, cactus gardens and the Amboy Crater [Los Angeles Times]. While many believe that the desert is an ideal location to establish solar and wind farms, conservationists say that such projects would destroy the ecosystem. David Myers, head of the Wildlands Conservancy, says, “How can you say you’re going to blade off hundreds of thousands of acres of earth to preserve the Earth?” [The New York Times].

Myers stands firmly on one side, while other environmentalists are working with the state on its renewable energy plans for the desert. “We have to accept our responsibility that something that we have been advocating for decades is about to happen. My job is to make sure that it happens in an environmentally responsible way” [The New York Times], says Johanna Wald of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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