Talk about a long trip. An exploding star‘s burst of light traveled 13 billion years, from the early days of the universe to the present day, before being detected by astronomers here on Earth. Researchers say this exploding star is the most distant blast ever seen.
The light from the distant explosion, called a gamma-ray burst, first reached Earth on April 23 and was detected by NASA’s Swift satellite. Gamma-ray bursts are thought to be associated with the formation of star-sized black holes as massive stars collapse. Within hours, telescopes around the world were turned on the burst — the most violent explosions in the universe — observing its fading afterglow to glean clues about its source and location [SPACE.com].
Federal experts believe that a major earthquake could trigger fires at Los Alamos National Laboratory, releasing radioactive materials and endangering lives. The rupture of a seismic fault that runs underneath the lab would shake the ground more than scientists previously thought, according to a new report (PDF). A natural disaster here would be bad news, since the lab, just west of Santa Fe, is the main plutonium factory in the United States, believed to hold thousands of pounds of plutonium for use in nuclear weapons (the actual amount is classified).
Researchers study plutonium inside glove boxes—a Hollywood movie staple, consisting of a sealed enclosure with gloves so that someone outside the box can work on dangerous materials inside. A major earthquake would shake the ground enough to topple the glove boxes, says the new study. Some glove boxes are enormous and even contain furnaces to cast and mold plutonium. If one of these were to crash, the resulting fire would be uncontrollable and would create a vaporized plutonium cloud that could drift outside of the lab, says the safety report. In a worst-case scenario, a fire could release so much airborne plutonium that a person on the boundary of the lab would get a dose of radiation—potentially many thousands of times greater than a chest X-ray—that could be fatal in weeks, according to individuals knowledgeable about the study [Los Angeles Times].
This morning, NASA’s experimental Ares I-X rocket blasted off a Florida launch pad and roared through the atmosphere, successfully executing the first test flight of the rocket that may carry astronauts to the International Space Station and beyond once the space shuttle is retired. However, debate over the direction of NASA’s manned space flight program means that the rocket’s future is far from certain.
The prototype rocket took off through a few clouds from a former shuttle launch pad at 11:30 a.m., 3 1/2 hours late because of bad weather. Launch controllers had to retest the rocket systems after more than 150 lightning strikes were reported around the pad overnight. Then they had to wait out interfering rain clouds, the same kind that thwarted Tuesday’s try [AP].
Engineers had been concerned that if the rocket took off through rain clouds, the moisture might cause a phenomenon called triboelectrification. This occurs when the rocket encounters water or ice droplets in the clouds. As these collide with the rocket they cause a static charge to build up on its skin, creating interference with radio signals. This is a problem for the 1-X team, which needs clear signals to gather data from 700 sensors wired throughout the vehicle, which are designed to collect flight data [BBC News]. Luckily, the late morning provided a relatively cloud-free window for takeoff.
Lord Nicholas Stern, the British economist who produced an influential report on the potential costs of global warming, is strongly urging the British public to go vegetarian in order to slow the accumulation of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere. Said Stern: “Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases. It puts enormous pressure on the world’s resources. A vegetarian diet is better” [The Times]. Stern also suggested that climate change legislation that makes it more expensive to generate greenhouse gases could soon force meat producers to raise prices, which might lower consumption.
In a 2006 report, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) concluded that worldwide livestock farming generates 18% of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions. By comparison, it said, all the world’s cars, trains, planes and boats accounted for a combined 13% of greenhouse gas emissions [BBC News]. The gases are produced by each step of livestock production. Take cows, for example. First forested land is cleared for cattle grazing or for agricultural operations that generate livestock feed, then there’s the methane emitted by burping cows and the nitrous oxide in their manure, and finally there are the energy costs associated with slaughtering the cows and transporting the meat.
Not everyone is calling for the drastic measure of eliminating meat entirely from our diets. Many experts agree that we could make a good start merely by dropping meat one day a week. This is what the citizens of the Belgian city of Ghent have been doing, voluntarily, all this year, without noticeable ill effects [The Times].
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Image: flickr / Cathy, Sam, Max and Mai
Phantom limb syndrome is an eerie condition, in which amputees have the physically painful sensation that their missing limbs are still present. Now, a small new study has shown that people can twist those ghostly limbs in anatomically impossible ways, while still feeling that the limb is real and present. In essence, each amputee’s brain reshaped his understanding of where his body was. The findings show that the brain can alter how we perceive our bodies all by itself, without input from our senses [Reuters].
Researchers had patients with “vivid phantoms” try to move their wrists in a physically impossible way—a 360 degree spin of the wrist around the long axis of the forearm—and found that 4 of the 7 patients could move their wrists this way. Some patients that were able to move their wrists later reported that their phantom hands were now more difficult to move from side to side because of changes in their phantom arms’ shapes.
The naked mole rat is a species with a long list of peculiarities. The mole rat is about the same size as the more hirsute wild mouse, but lives seven times as long, sometimes reaching the ripe old age of 28. The creatures almost never poke their noses beyond the snug confines of their burrows and tunnels, and instead live out their lives underground in the dark. They’re also the only mammals who have a social structure that resembles an ants’ nest or beehive, where only one dominant female mates and reproduces.
Finally–and this is the part that most interests researchers–naked mole rats never get cancer.
A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences probed the mole rats’ robust good health, and determined how they beat cancer. The naked mole rat’s cells hate to be crowded, it turns out, so they stop growing before they can form tumors…. Normal human and mouse cells will grow and divide in a petri dish until they mash tightly against one another in a single, dense layer–a mechanism known as “contact inhibition.” Naked mole rat cells are even more sensitive to their neighbors, the researchers found. The cells stop growing as soon as they touch [ScienceNOW Daily News]. Researchers hope that the mechanism can one day lead to novel treatments for cancer, where cancerous cells won’t stop multiplying and form tumors.
Before one species of jumping spider, known as Evarcha culicivora, goes trolling for a mate, it firsts look to feast on blood-fattened mosquitoes. What happens next seems like something out of a bad video game: The delicacy gives the spider a special power–a sweet smell that the opposite sex finds irresistible.
In a new study, which will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers exposed E. culicivora specimens to the odors of others raised on blood-fed female mosquitoes and on three other diets: sugar-fed females, males and lake flies…. [The] tested spiders of both sexes were most strongly attracted to the odor of spiders reared on blood-fed female mosquitoes. But the attraction was only for spiders of the opposite sex [The New York Times]. Spiders would hang around blood-fattened spiders of the opposite sex four times longer than they would linger around those fed on another diet. The blood perfume effect might only be triggered by a gender specific hormone, the researchers suggest.
The creaky old electrical grid that carries power around the United States is inefficient, outmoded, and perilously prone to failures. To make a start at remedying the situation, President Obama will announce today the 100 utility projects that will share $3.4 billion in federal stimulus funding to speed deployment of advanced technology designed to cut energy use and make the electric-power grid more robust. When combined with funds from utility customers, the program is expected to inject more than $8 billion into grid modernization efforts nationally, administration officials said. “We have a very antiquated system that we need to upgrade,” said Carol Browner, energy coordinator for the Obama administration [The Wall Street Journal].
The projects include the installation of “smart meters,” which are more advanced than typical electricity meters. They use digital technology to deliver detailed usage data both to the customer and the utility, as well as adding displays in homes that tell customers about their electricity use [The New York Times]. This allows for real-time monitoring of electricity use so that customers can adjust their usage, for example by turning off devices during peak hours when electricity is most expensive.
Federal stimulus money will also go to projects that improve the efficiency of power lines and electric substations, and for next-generation transformers that can wirelessly communicate their condition, so that power plant operators get a warning before a part fails. Other projects will set the stage for the smooth introduction of large amounts of electricity from wind or solar sources into the transmission system [AP].
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Image: flickr / srqpix
A new discovery about how mantis shrimp process light could give rise to new and more powerful consumer electronics, according to a new study. Mantis shrimp possess the animal kingdom’s most complicated eyes, capable of distinguishing between 100,000 colors — 10 times as many as humans — and seeing circular polarized light, or CPL, which can’t be detected by any other creature [Wired.com]. Circular polarized light is one of two forms of polarized light, or light waves that travel in a specific plane.
The specialized CPL detecting cells in shrimp eye are similar to the optical detectors found in DVD players; each can convert polarized light into other forms so it can be stored or processed. However, shrimp eyes can do this with all colors of circular polarized light across the spectrum, according to the study in Nature Photonics. The detectors in DVD and CD players can only recognize circular polarized light in a few colors. The research team thinks that in the future, optics devices might be beefed up by chemically engineered crystals that could mimic the light polarizing cells of the mantis shrimp eye.