Archive for April, 2009

A "Sadistic" Spider's Unusual Mating Habits Are Tough on the Female

By Eliza Strickland | April 30, 2009 4:24 pm

spider spikeMales of the spider species Harpactea sadistica have a violent way of increasing their odds of reproductive success. In the midst of a mating tussle, the male stabs his spiked copulatory organ (pictured) into the abdomen of the female, in order to deposit his sperm directly into the female’s ovaries.

This process, known as traumatic insemination, is common among many hermaphrodite species as well as some insects with separate sexes, most famously the bed bug. But it has never before been observed in other arthropods. “Now we have a very odd biological phenomenon in an unrelated taxonomic group…. It’s like finding a peacock’s tail in a non-bird species” [The Scientist], says Mike Siva-Jothy, who has observed the behavior in bed bugs.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

Watson, an IBM Supercomputer, Could Be the Next "Jeopardy!" Champion

By Rachel Cernansky | April 30, 2009 2:41 pm

3179711357_fa63bbd6cb.jpgA computer is being prepared to compete in the quiz show Jeopardy, and if its developers at IBM have their way, it could well become the next great contestant to beat. The computer, called Watson, will have to interpret the question, process puns and other word games, search through its database and determine the correct answer, all within less than a second—the reaction time of “Jeopardy” players [PCMag.com].

Its developers are aiming not at a true thinking machine but at a new class of software that can “understand” human questions and respond to them correctly. Such a program would have enormous economic implications [The New York Times]. Watson will not be connected to the Internet, and instead will have to rely on its own content database–just as a human contestant must rely on her own store of knowledge.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology

NASA May Scrap Plans for a Permanent Moon Base

By Eliza Strickland | April 30, 2009 1:00 pm

lunar baseNASA astronauts may not be assigned to a stint at a lunar base anytime soon. A statement by a NASA official suggested that the space agency is likely to scrap the idea of a permanent moon base, but could instead try to speed up other, more ambitious manned missions to explore our solar system.

NASA has been working towards returning astronauts to the moon by 2020 and building a permanent base there. But some space analysts and advocacy groups like the Planetary Society have urged the agency to cancel plans for a permanent moon base, carry out shorter moon missions instead, and focus on getting astronauts to Mars [New Scientist]. When the agency’s acting administrator, Chris Scolese, testified before a congressional subcommittee yesterday, he said that the agency probably won’t aim to build an outpost on the moon, suggesting that the agency may be following those advocates’ advice.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space

Business-As-Usual Will Bring a Global Warming Tipping Point in 40 Years

By Eliza Strickland | April 30, 2009 10:44 am

smokestacksIf the human race continues on its present industrial course, by 2040 we will have added more than 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide to the air–which will have caused an average global temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s the scenario described in two new studies, both published in Nature, that paint an ominous picture of global warming. A worldwide temperature rise of just a few degrees may not sound like much, but it would lead to wide-scale environmental disruptions including floods and droughts, and more than 100 nations support the goal of keeping temperature rise below 2C [BBC News].  

The studies, which used computer models, take a different approach than other research on figuring out how much carbon dioxide in the air is too much. Instead of the proportion of carbon dioxide in the air at any given time, they looked at the total amount spewed out over many decades to arrive at a tipping point of 1.1 trillion tons [AP]. As study coauthor Myles Allen explains, the analysis shows that humanity is hurtling towards that tipping point. Industrial activity since the mid-18th century has already emitted 500 billion tonnes of carbon, so we are halfway there. “But don’t let this fool you,” says Allen. “On current trends we’ll burn the next 500 billion in less than 40 years.” If we carry on regardless, we will exhaust what Allen calls the “carbon budget for the human race” by 2040 [New Scientist].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment

World Health Organization Ups Pandemic Alert Level for Swine Flu

By Eliza Strickland | April 30, 2009 9:27 am

swine flu optimismIn response to the continued spread of swine flu, which is now going by the more technical name H1N1, the World Health Organization raised its pandemic alert level from 4 to 5 yesterday, indicating that the virus is being spread between humans in at least two countries and that a global epidemic is imminent. Health officials stressed that now is the time for all countries to activate their pandemic preparedness plans, and to focus on mitigation strategies–namely, increased surveillance, early treatment for patients, and infection control in all health facilities.

“Containment is no longer a feasible option,” Dr. Keiji Fukuda, deputy director general of the World Health Organization, announced Monday night in Geneva after a meeting of the agency’s emergency committee on the spreading swine flu virus. “The world should focus on mitigation. We recommend not closing borders or restricting travel” [The New York Times]. In more recent comments addressing the U.S. decision not to close the border with Mexico, President Obama argued that such a move would be “akin to closing the barn door after the horse is out.”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

"World's Fastest Camera" Snaps 6 Million Pictures in a Single Second

By Eliza Strickland | April 29, 2009 6:09 pm

apple bulletOptics researchers have invented a camera that uses infrared lasers to bounce light off an object, and say the result should leave shutterbugs with a serious case of technology envy. Their device can take 6.1 million pictures in a single second, at a shutter speed of 440 trillionths of a second. Light itself moves just a fraction of a centimeter in that time…. “It’s the world’s fastest camera” [Wired], says study coauthor Keisuke Goda.

Conventional digital cameras use charge-coupled devices (CCDs) to take a picture. The devices contain semiconducting chips that … produce electrons in response to light. The electrons are read off the chip and their signals are then electronically amplified and encoded as a digital image [Nature News]. But that process has its limits. Top-notch conventional cameras top out at about 30 frames per second, while the fanciest scientific instruments can take about one million frames per second. For Goda and his colleagues, that just wasn’t fast enough.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology
MORE ABOUT: cameras, lasers, light

Obama Moves to Undo Bush-Era Environmental Policies

By Rachel Cernansky | April 29, 2009 4:20 pm

mountaintop_removal_3.jpgThe Obama administration is once again working to reverse the path of former president Bush in another series of environmental policy changes, with two moves in particular looking to some like a crackdown on the coal industry. The Justice Department announced this week that it will challenge Bush’s mountaintop coal mining rules, the EPA has withdrawn a permit for a coal power plant scheduled to be built on Navajo land, and the Interior Department has strengthened endangered species rules.

On Monday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asked a federal court to abandon a rule approved during the final days of the Bush administration that allows coal mining companies to dump their waste near waterways. Prior to the change, regulations in place since 1983 have barred mining companies from dumping waste within 100 feet of streams if the disposal would diminish water quality or quantity [AP]. However, the Interior Department’s move didn’t go far enough for some environmentalists, who oppose this method of coal mining in general, regardless of the proximity of waste dumping to streams. In mountaintop removal operations, miners blast away large areas of a mountain in order to expose the buried coal seams. A spokeswoman for environmental law firm Earthjustice notes that Salazar’s move won’t halt the practice of mining itself, and says that reverting to the status quo is not enough because it won’t prevent coal companies from filling valleys with mine waste. “That’s not helping the communities concerned with mountaintop removal” [AP].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment

Two Studies Make Progress Probing the Genetic Roots of Autism

By Eliza Strickland | April 29, 2009 3:35 pm

autism geneticsResearchers have taken significant steps towards determining the mysterious causes of autism, with the discovery that two-thirds of autistic people have a genetic variant that influences how neurons connect with each other. An additional study found a link between autism and small “mistakes” in another DNA segment involved with cell communication. Both reports add weight to the idea that autism is related to problems with the way brain cells connect [Los Angeles Times].

The two studies were made possible by improved technology that allowed researchers to compare the genomes of thousands of autistic people to those of thousands of people without the disorder, looking for genetic differences between the two groups. Previous studies that have identified several genes that are implicated in autism, but … they are extremely rare and account for a very small proportion of autism [New Scientist]. The two studies, both published online by Nature, won’t lead immediately to new treatments, but they open up important new avenues of research.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

New Study Casts Doubt on the Asteroid Strike Theory of Dino Extinction

By Eliza Strickland | April 29, 2009 10:50 am

Chicxulub impactThe enormous meteor that smashed into Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago didn’t deal a death blow to the dinosaurs, a new study declares. Based on a close examination of sediment layers from that epoch, a team of researchers led by Gerta Keller has previously argued that the Chicxulub impact happened 300,000 years before the mass extinction known as the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event. Now, Keller has found supporting evidence that the impact had little immediate effect on the planet’s biome. Says Keller: “It didn’t kill the dinosaurs. In fact, it didn’t cause much damage that we can determine from the geological record” [The Scientist].

Since the 112-mile-wide Chicxulub crater was discovered in 1978, many researchers have come to believe that the massive impact caused clouds of dust to shroud the earth, cooling the planet and killing the dinosaurs along with many other species. But Keller’s new study, to be published in the Journal of the Geological Society, offers a serious challenge to that theory.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

First U.S. Death From Swine Flu Is Reported as Outbreak Spreads

By Eliza Strickland | April 29, 2009 8:50 am

swine flu mapA 23-month-old Mexico child who was staying with relatives in Texas has become the first casualty of swine flu within U.S. borders, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced today. “I can confirm the very sad news out of Texas that a child has died of the H1N1 virus,” the CDC’s Dr. Richard Besser said [CNN], although officials later added that the child had preexisting health problems. California is also investigating whether a man died from the viral infection. There are now 71 confirmed cases of swine flu in the United States, the CDC reports, and new cases are being investigated across the country, from Los Angeles to Chicago to Orlando, Florida.

At the epicenter of the outbreak, Mexico, 159 people have died and at least 1,600 people have been sickened by the flu. But although the virus has been spread by air travelers to other countries, only a handful of patients in the United States and elsewhere outside Mexico have been hospitalized, and severe complications have been relatively rare. “We still do not have a good explanation for why the pattern of cases in other countries appear relatively mild while the pattern of cases in Mexico appear to be much more severe,” said Keiji Fukuda of the World Health Organization [Washington Post].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
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