Archive for June, 2009

Is the Whaling Ban Really the Best Way to Save the Whales?

By Aline Reynolds | June 26, 2009 4:34 pm

minke whale 2As the International Whaling Commission wound down this week with no progress made on the stalemate between pro-whaling and anti-whaling nations, some experts are beginning to question the commission’s central tool: the moratorium on commercial whaling established more than 20 years ago.Some experts wonder whether the ban is really protecting the world’s whale populations. Japan’s so-called “scientific whaling” program is a loophole in the ban, and the program is widely seen as a cover for commercial whaling. Japan catches more than 1,000 whales a year, and most cetacean researchers argue that whale populations exist at only a fraction of their former abundance and are far from large enough to sustain commercial harvesting for meat or oil — or even the culling of some 1,000 whales a year for science. Australia, a party to the IWC, campaigned this year to end any “scientific whaling” that involves the deliberate killing of whales [Science News].

A report released by the commission on Monday also states that a quarter of the whales harvested from the Antarctic Ocean in the last seven months by Japanese researchers were pregnant. To many, the destruction of these whales and their unborn calves makes a mockery of the moratorium on whaling, given that the goal of the ban is to preserve whale populations. However, the Japanese Whaling Association contends on its Web site that “No whales have ever been hunted to extinction, nor are they likely to be. . . . [And] there are species which are abundant enough that marine management is needed,” such as for the Antarctic and northwestern Pacific minke whales and northwestern Pacific Bryde’s whales [Science News].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World

Where Can You Contain An Explosive Molecule? In a Molecular Cage, of Course.

By Allison Bond | June 26, 2009 2:03 pm

cageScientists have found a way to safely store notoriously dangerous white phosphorus on the atomic scale: in a cage made of atoms that can only be unlocked by a specific molecule, according to a study published in the journal Science.Containing white phosphorus, a tetrahedral formation of phosphorus atoms, will be useful because the molecule readily reacts if it comes into contact with air.

It’s not surprising, then, that it is often used in military campaigns to create smokescreens to mask movement from the enemy, as well as an incendiary in bombs, artillery and mortars [ScienceDaily]. White phosphorus is also an essential ingredient in many plant fertilizers and weed killers, so the ability to safely transport and store the molecule would also be an asset for those industries.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math
MORE ABOUT: elements

Buzz Aldrin Speaks Out: Forget the Moon, Let's Head to Mars

By Eliza Strickland | June 26, 2009 10:08 am

Buzz AldrinAs the second man to ever walk on the moon (he stepped out of the lunar module about 15 minutes after Neil Armstrong), Buzz Aldrin knows a little something about space exploration, about bold ambitions and great risks. Now, Aldrin is speaking out about NASA, and declaring loudly that the space agency has lost its boldness. The next step in humanity’s exploration of space must be a bootprint on Mars, he says.

Says Aldrin: “As I approach my 80th birthday, I’m in no mood to keep my mouth shut any longer when I see NASA heading down the wrong path. And that’s exactly what I see today. The ­agency’s current Vision for Space Exploration will waste decades and hundreds of billions of dollars trying to reach the moon by 2020—a glorified rehash of what we did 40 years ago. Instead of a steppingstone to Mars, NASA’s current lunar plan is a detour” [Popular Mechanics].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space

To Read the Brain of a Pigeon, Scientists Outfit It With a "Neurologger"

By Eliza Strickland | June 26, 2009 8:39 am

pigeon neurologgerTo get inside the head of a homing pigeon as it navigates towards its roost, researchers turned a flock of pigeons into cutting-edge techno-birds. The scientists outfitted the birds with “neurologgers” consisting of an electroencephalograph (EEG) to read the bird’s brain waves and a GPS tracker to record its location; by matching a bird’s position to its brain activity, the researchers could determine the bird’s reaction to the landscape below it. They found that, just like humans, the pigeons use visual landmarks in their navigation.

How homing pigeons find their way back to a starting point is not completely known. Studies have shown that the birds variously use the position of the Sun and the Earth’s magnetic field as a compass, and sense of smell and visual cues as navigation aids. But the use of visual cues has been difficult to study, because if a bird flies over a landmark and doesn’t change its course, it’s impossible to know whether the bird has not perceived the cue or is ignoring it [The New York Times].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Mind & Brain

Why a Greyhound or a Racehorse Doesn't "Pop a Wheelie"

By Allison Bond | June 25, 2009 4:43 pm

greyhoundContrary to what scientists previously thought, it’s not only the power of a dog’s muscles that limits how fast the animal can accelerate; instead, it’s the need to keep those front paws on the ground and avoid doing a backflip. Although animals clearly don’t have wheels, the authors have branded this potential imbalance a quadrupedal “wheelie,” according to a study (pdf) published in the journal Biology Letters.

The ability to gain speed quickly is crucial for survival, but there’s a limit as to how rapidly an animal can accelerate. Researchers wondered whether the “wheelie” problem experienced by cars during a drag race could be a factor in four-legged animals’ ability to speed up. They came up with a simple mathematical model… to see how fast a quadruped could accelerate without tipping over backward. The model predicts that the longer the back is in relation to the legs, the less likely a dog is to flip over and the faster it can accelerate. Then the researchers tested the model by going down to the local track, London’s Walthamstow Stadium, and video-recording individual greyhounds as they burst out of the gate in time trials. The acceleration approached–but never exceeded–the limit predicted by the model [Science NOW]. That means that at low speeds, it’s the ability to keep his front end from pitching up that determines a dog’s maximum acceleration.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Physics & Math

Human Appetite for Sharks Pushes Many Toward Extinction

By Allison Bond | June 25, 2009 3:01 pm

sharkExtinction threatens four more species of deep-sea sharks and rays than a year ago, bringing the total species classified as “threatened” to 20 species, or nearly a third of the world’s 64 species, according to a report (pdf) released today by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Rays and sharks are already two of the most endangered fish groups, researchers say.

The threat facing pelagic sharks and rays stems largely from overfishing; in many parts of the world, shark meat is considered a delicacy, and some animals  become ensnared in fishing nets intended to catch tuna or swordfish. The report also urges governments to halt shark “finning,” the slicing of fins from captured sharks which are then tipped back into the sea to die, which it says is a growing industry providing ingredients for the Asian delicacy, shark fin soup. Although finning bans have been declared in most global waters, little effort is made to enforce them, said the IUCN [Reuters].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

Green Makeover Aims to Cut Sears Tower Electricity Use by 80%

By Eliza Strickland | June 25, 2009 2:29 pm

Sears TowerWhen Chicago’s Sears Tower was completed in 1973 the 110-story building was the tallest in the world, and it offered a bold example of the human potential to build towards the clouds. Now, although the tower lost the title of tallest building to other skyscrapers in the 1990s, the tower hopes to dazzle the world anew with a fresh vision of urban architecture: The building will soon receive a $350 million environmental retrofit, with wind turbines, solar panels, and gardens all added to the building’s staggered rooftops.

The 5-year project would reduce the tower’s electricity use by 80 percent and save 24 million gallons of water a year, building owners and architects said…. “Our plans are very ambitious,” said John Huston of American Landmark Properties, who represents the building ownership. “Our plans to modernize and transform this icon will re-establish Sears Tower as a leader, a pioneer” [AP].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology

Ultra-Low Surface Tension Holds Together "Droplets" of Sand

By Eliza Strickland | June 25, 2009 11:14 am

glass bead dropletsThe sand that runs through an hourglass may look like a smooth and regular stream of particles, but if you had a big enough hourglass and a fancy enough camera, you’d see that those grains of sand behave in strange ways, not like a regular solid. In fact, the stream of grains begins to look more like a liquid as it falls, with the particles clustering together to form “droplets.”

For the study, published in Nature, researchers created a stream of tiny glass beads, each about the width of a human hair. The team dropped an $80,000 high-speed camera in free fall with the glass to capture still pictures of the same three-centimeter-long section of the grain flow [Science News], and watched as the stream separated into distinct droplets over the course of falling three feet. In another experiment, researchers examined two individual beads under an atomic force microscope, and found that the attraction between the two can be explained by an extremely weak surface tension in the beads. Previously, scientists thought grains did not display surface tension, or if they did, the effects were too small to change the flow of the particles. “But this experiment says that if we look very carefully, we find surface tension is almost zero, but it is not exactly zero” [Science News], says study coauthor Heinrich Jaeger.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math
MORE ABOUT: materials science

Does Enceladus, Saturn's Geyser-Spouting Moon, Have Liquid Oceans?

By Eliza Strickland | June 25, 2009 9:18 am

EnceladusSaturn’s moon Enceladus got humanity’s attention in 2005 when surprised astronomers detected jets of ice and gas spraying out from the moon’s icy surface, and since then researchers have eagerly investigated the possibility that the jets might emanate from liquid oceans beneath the frozen crust. A moon with liquid water would be of great interest, because it would be more likely to host extraterrestrial microbes. Now, two new studies with somewhat contradictory results have deepened the mystery of what lies beneath Enceladus’s shell of ice.

Both groups of researchers were looking for sodium near Enceladus; one found it, the other didn’t. Sodium is interesting because it indicates that deep under the ice, liquid water has been in contact with rocks, which leach salts [ScienceNOW Daily News]. The dissolved sodium, along with water, would be shot into space in the geysers, and some of the sodium would be trapped in ice crystals as they formed. The first research group found sodium traces in Saturn’s E ring, a wide band of ice particles that is believed to be replenished by Enceladus’s jets. “Those salty grains provide our current best smoking (or steaming) gun pointing to present-day liquid water near the surface of Enceladus” [Wired.com], wrote space scientist John Spencer in an essay accompanying the findings.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space

World's Oldest Flute Shows First Europeans Were a Musical Bunch

By Allison Bond | June 24, 2009 5:44 pm

bird bone fluteA 35,000-year-old flute made of vulture bone found in a cave in southwestern Germany is the world’s oldest known musical instrument. The artifact suggests music may have been one advantage our ancestors had over their cousins, the now-extinct Neanderthals, according to a report published in the journal Nature.

The five-holed flute, which is fully intact and made from a griffon vulture’s radius bone, was discovered with fragments of other flutes crafted out of mammoth ivory. The bird-bone instrument was found in a region in which similar instruments have popped up lately, says lead author Nicholas Conard, but this flute is “by far the most complete of the musical instruments so far recovered from the caves.” … Until now the artifacts appeared to be too rare and not as precisely dated to support wider interpretations of the early rise of music [The New York Times]. To make sure the newly discovered instruments were dated correctly, samples were tested independently and using different methods at facilities in England and Germany. Both found the bone to be at least 35,000 years old, during the Modern Paleolithic era.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins
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