Archive for November, 2009

An Acidic Brain Leads to Panic; A Deep Breath Can Fix That

By Andrew Moseman | November 30, 2009 3:25 pm

BrainWhen people breathe in carbon dioxide, they start to panic. It happens in mice and other animals, too, as the body responds to the threat of suffocation. Now, in a study in Cell, researchers have connected a particular gene to that response in the brain.

The gene, called ASIC1a, is connected to a protein found in abundance in the amygdala, the area scientists believe to be the brain’s fear center. In their new study … the researchers show that mice lacking this gene don’t freeze in place–a commonly used indicator of rodent fear–to the extent that normal mice do when the team pumped CO2 into their enclosure. But when Wemmie and colleagues injected a virus containing the ASIC1a gene into the amygdala of the mice, they acted like normal mice, freezing up when exposed to elevated CO2 [ScienceNOW Daily News].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain

Throwing Out Your Leftover Turkey? You're Part of the Wasted Food Problem

By Brett Israel | November 30, 2009 1:35 pm

tday-fridge-webKeep an eye on all that leftover squash casserole and sweet potato souffle in the fridge. It would be a shame if it went bad, because Americans waste a staggering amount of food every year. Nearly 40 percent of the food supply is wasted in the United States alone, according to a new study, published in the journal PLoS ONE.

Researchers Kevin Hall and Carson Chow analyzed average body weight in the United States from 1974 to 2003 and figured out how much food people were eating during this period. Hall and Chow assumed that levels of physical activity haven’t changed; some researchers think that activity has decreased, but Hall and Chow say their assumption is conservative. Then they compared that amount with estimates of the food available for U.S. consumers, as reported by the U.S. government to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The difference between calories available and calories consumed, they say, is food wasted [ScienceNOW Daily News]. They dubbed the difference the “missing mass of American food,” and say it’s the equivalent to each person in the United States wasting 1,450 calories-worth of food per day.

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MORE ABOUT: agriculture, food

LHC Beam Zooms Past 1 Trillion Electron Volts, Sets World Record

By Andrew Moseman | November 30, 2009 9:57 am

lhcwide425Long hyped as the largest science experiment ever built, the Large Hadron Collider now has a world record for doing something: accelerating particles with more energy than any accelerator ever has.

On Sunday evening, at 6:44 p.m. eastern time in the United States, engineers at the Switzerland-based accelerator increased the energy of this “pilot beam”, reaching 1.18 trillion electron volts…. The previous record of 0.98 trillion electron volts has been held by the Tevatron accelerator since 2001 [BBC News].

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The 4 Ways Raptors Use Their Talons to Smite Prey

By Andrew Moseman | November 27, 2009 11:03 am


You’d think something with as much awesome power as the talons on birds of prey would be among the better-understood appendages in the animal kingdom. Not so, say the authors of a new in PLoS One, but they’ve rectified the situation by analyzing 24 different birds to reveal the evolution and use of talons by the owl, osprey, falcon, and more.

They describe how accipitrids, which include hawks and eagles, have two giant talons on their first and second toes [as in pictures A and B]. These give them a secure grip on struggling game that they like to eat alive, “so long as it does not protest too vigorously. In this prolonged and bloody scenario, prey eventually succumb to massive blood loss or organ failure, incurred during dismemberment” [].

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New Map Suggests Huge Ocean Once Dominated Mars' Northern Hemisphere

By Andrew Moseman | November 27, 2009 8:05 am

marsocean425Scientists have long suspected that Mars was once a wet place, and that water helped to shape the geography we see there today. Now, thanks to a study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, we don’t have to simply imagine what a watery Mars might have looked like long ago—geographers have created this new map of the Red Planet covered in blue water.

This new research addresses the longstanding question of whether surface water carved features, or whether other processes like groundwater sapping could’ve been involved. The new map, created by a computerised analysis of satellite data, shows that some regions of Mars had valley networks almost as dense as those on Earth. ”It is now difficult to argue against runoff erosion as the major mechanism of Martian valley networks,” said Professor Wei Luo, from Northern Illinois University in the US, who led the research [The Telegraph]. Instead, he argues, there must have been rivers on Mars long ago to create such dense networks.

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MORE ABOUT: geography, Mars, water

iPhone Worms Move From Harmless (Rickroll) to Nasty (Stolen Bank Info)

By Andrew Moseman | November 26, 2009 11:59 am

iphone-webIt started off innocently enough, with a Rickroll—when the first iPhone worm turned up in Australia two weeks ago, it changed its victim’s wallpaper to a portrait of “Never Gonna Give You Up” signer/Internet sensation Rick Astley. But now iPhone worms have turned malicious.

But by this week, some iPhones were victimized by the “Duh” worm, which steals personal banking info. Like the rickrolling original, the new malicious code targets only jailbroken iPhones—those on which that the owner has circumvented the Apple operating system to hack the phone. It is specifically targeting people in the Netherlands who are using their iPhones for internet banking with Dutch online bank ING. It redirects the bank’s customers to a lookalike site with a log-in screen [BBC News]. An iPhone could spread the worm to others that use the same wi-fi hotspot.

As for Apple’s response to the growing iPhone threats? Don’t hack your phone, genius. Apple spokesperson Natalie Harrison says, “As we’ve said before, the vast majority of customers do not jailbreak their iPhones, and for good reason. These hacks not only violate the warranty, they will also cause the iPhone to become unstable and not work reliably” [The Loop].

Only a small percentage of iPhone users hack the device, so relatively few people are susceptible to this latest attack. Yet some researchers say the worm confirms that attacks against mobile users are evolving, and that cybercriminals are targeting the personal and financial information kept on portable devices. The ability to communicate with a central command-and-control server–a characteristic more commonly associated with hijacked PCs–also makes such software more dangerous [Technology Review].

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Image: flickr / William Hook

MORE ABOUT: hackers, iPhone

Is the Once-Stable Part of Antarctica Starting to Melt?

By Andrew Moseman | November 26, 2009 8:33 am

antarctica-glacierClimate change doesn’t affect all places equally, and while Greenland and West Antarctica’s glaciers have started slipping into the sea at an alarming rate, East Antarctica was actually gaining ice. But now that could be changing, as a Nature Geoscience study done with data from NASA’s gravity-measuring satellites called GRACE suggests that the area could now be losing mass.

East Antarctica is far too cold, even in summer, for any appreciable melting to happen. And since a warmer world means more precipitation, any extra snow that falls on East Antarctica stays there indefinitely. But, starting in 2006, GRACE began to detect lower gravity over East Antarctica, suggesting that the ice sheet was getting less massive [TIME].

The scientists note that there is a huge uncertainty in their numbers: GRACE data suggests a 57 billion-ton-per-year loss, plus or minus 52 billion tons. (The reason is that the bedrock beneath Antarctica could be bouncing back slightly with less ice to weigh it down, which would cross up GRACE’s readings.) Some researchers are not convinced that the continent is losing mass, since the margins for error in the team’s analysis range between 5 and 109 billion tonnes of ice loss per year [New Scientist].

While the amount of East Antarctica ice loss remains in doubt, you can’t miss the huge chunks of Antarctic ice that have floated up near New Zealand this week and posed dangers for shipping. This is only the second time in 78 years that large Antarctic icebergs have been sighted so far north. The previous occasion was in late 2006 when icebergs could be seen from the eastern coast of New Zealand’s South Island, even from the hills around Christchurch [CNN].

Related Content:
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80beats: Antarctica is Definitely Feeling the Heat from Global Warming
DISCOVER: Grace in Space looked at the Grace satellites in detail
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Image: flickr / giladr


Help a Needy Astronomer—Play the "Cosmic Slot Machine"

By Brett Israel | November 25, 2009 12:00 pm

galactic-mergersAstronomers want you… to help them match pictures of cosmic collisions, which are known as “galactic mergers.” Studying these mergers could explain why the universe has the mix of galaxy types – from those with wound-up spiral arms to compact balls of stars – that it does. And it turns out that the human eye is much better than a computer at matching up images of real mergers with randomly-selected images of simulated mergers []. So naturally, astronomers want to enlist the eyes of Internet users to help them.

The website, Galaxy Zoo Mergers, features a new game that bears (it must be said) only a mild resemblance a Vegas slot machine, with a real galactic merger image in the middle and eight randomly selected images of simulated mergers in the slots around it. Players pick out the best matches and can even manipulate the number of stars they see or an image’s orientation to make a better match. Says researcher Chris Lintott: “By randomly cycling through the millions of simulated possibilities and selecting only the very best matches, they are helping to build up a profile of what kinds of factors are necessary to create the galaxies we see in the universe around us – and, hopefully, having fun, too” [].

This is the latest project from Galaxy Zoo to rely on crowdsourcing. Over the past two years, Galaxy Zoo has enlisted 250,000 Internet users to classify hundreds of thousands of galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey – an effort that so far has resulted in 15 scientific papers, either submitted or published [MSNBC]. This new project will focus on 3,000 merger images, including some new ones taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The researchers say their attempts to understand the dynamics of a galactic merger is like trying to understand a car crash– they hope to find out what caused it, and what the final outcome will be for the galaxies involved.

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Image: Galaxy Zoo


Baguettes and Saboteurs From the Future Defeated: LHC Smashes Particles

By Brett Israel | November 25, 2009 11:40 am

Neither baguette-dropping birds nor future sabatoge schemes could stop the LHC this week. And no, the world was not sucked into a black hole, as you may have noticed. Shortly after flinging the first proton beams around the collider, the first particle collisons were recorded. After 14 months of repairs, Cern engineers have got the Large Hadron Collider to smash particles together far sooner than anyone dared hope. For the time being the collisions are low energy, around 450 billion electronvolts per beam, which is around half the energy of what remains, for now, the world’s most powerful particle collider: the Tevatron at Fermilab on the outskirts of Chicago [Guardian]. The LHC’s Atlas detector snapped an image of two counter-rotating proton beams that collided head-on.

Scientists are hopeful that this first collison will lead to smoother operations in the future, but they are being cautious considering the LHC’s laundry list of past failures. The European collider is intended to eventually collide proton beams at an energy of seven trillion electron volts. The first experiments in the LHC are scheduled to take place in early 2010, when researchers will smash subatomic particles into each other at high speeds in order to break them down and allow the discovery of smaller, more fundamental particles [CBC News]. CERN has an image gallery of the LHC’s first run here.

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Cosmic Variance: First Collisions in the LHC!
Cosmic Variance: Collisions!
80beats: LHC Flings Protons Once Again; Scientists Celebrate With Caution
DISCOVER: A Tumultuous Year at the LHC
Discoblog: LHC Shut Down by Wayward Baguette Dropped by Bird Saboteur
Discoblog: While LHC Scientists Were Drinking Champagne, Hackers Were Attacking

Image: CERN


Do Hot, Dry Conditions Cause More African Civil Wars?

By Andrew Moseman | November 25, 2009 9:00 am

drought dry mud flatWe’ve covered industries and species that climate change will affect, but is more war the next side effect of a warming world? A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences ties warmer temperatures to higher incidence of civil wars in Africa. The scientists  warn that the continent could see 54 percent more armed conflict—and almost 400,000 more war deaths—by 2030 if climate projections prove true.

Why would war and temperature be connected? Because war and food are connected. Says research leader Marshall Burke: “Studies show that crop yields in the region are really sensitive to small shifts in temperature, even of half a degree (Celsius) or so…. If the sub-Saharan climate continues to warm and little is done to help its countries better adapt to high temperatures, the human costs are likely to be staggering” [BBC News].

For the study, Burke’s team checked local temperature and rainfall measurement between 1981 and 2002, and cross-checked that against what areas saw wars that killed at least 1,000 people. They found that combat was about 50 percent more likely in exceptionally warm years. However, not everyone agrees with Burke’s analysis. Political scientist Cullen Hendrix points out that some countries were destabilised when the superpowers withdrew aid to African dictators as the Cold War ended. “This is probably going to wind up being the first salvo in a pretty significant debate,” he says [New Scientist]. Burke’s team maintains that the temperature-war link looks robust, even when controlling for other factors like a country’s wealth or political system.

In the study, Burke and his coauthors suggest expanding irrigation in Africa and taking other steps to help area agriculture withstand temperature extremes, which under the study’s logic could also reduce warfare. But Hendrix has his doubts about this, too: “we can’t change human nature” [New Scientist], he says.

Related Content:
80beats: West Africa is Prone to “Mega-Droughts,” But People Aren’t Prepared
80beats: CO2 Emissions Are Rising. Or Falling. Actually, It’s Both
DISCOVER: The 9 Industries That Will Be Most Screwed By Global Warming (photo gallery)

Image: iStockphoto

MORE ABOUT: Africa, global warming, PNAS, war

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