Archive for November, 2009

China Puts 2 Men to Death Over Tainted Milk Scandal

By Andrew Moseman | November 24, 2009 5:36 pm

PowderedMilk220China has dished out justice in the tainted milk case, and severe justice at that. The country has executed two men, Zhang Yujun and Geng Jinping, convicted  in January of crimes connected to last summer’s powered milk and infant formula contamination incident, which killed six children and sickened about 300,000 people in total.

Zhang, a farmer, produced some 770 tonnes of the powder from July 2007 to August 2008 which was laced with an industrial chemical, melamine, used in the manufacture of plastics and fertiliser [The Telegraph]. Geng was convicted of selling the powder to dairy brokers. The Supreme Court reviewed the cases before the executions, now done with lethal injection, took place. Nineteen other people were convicted of crimes; three got life sentences.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Scientists Discover a Perfect Blue Pigment—Entirely by Accident

By Brett Israel | November 24, 2009 2:38 pm

blue-pigmentScientists say that a thousand-year quest–one that you probably didn’t even know about–has accidentally come to an end. Painters and fabric makers can rest easy because Mas Subramanian and his research team at Oregon State University have created a near-perfect blue pigment. Blue pigments of the past have often been expensive (ultramarine blue was made from the gemstone lapis lazuli, ground up), poisonous (cobalt blue is a possible carcinogen and Prussian blue, another well-known pigment, can leach cyanide) or apt to fade (many of the organic ones fall apart when exposed to acid or heat) [The New York Times].

The new pigment popped up when the researchers were mixing manganese oxide, which is black, with other chemicals and then heating them up to high temperatures to study their electronic properties. One day, Subramanian was poking around in his lab when he noticed a graduate student removing a sample from the furnace that was brilliant blue.

The 2,000-degree-Fahrenheit furnace created a crystal structure that allowed the manganese ions to absorb red and green wavelengths of light while reflecting blue wavelengths. White yttrium oxide and pale yellow indium oxide are also required to stabilize the crystal structure. Subramanian said the pigment is safe, but far from cheap, since indium is quite costly, so they are trying to substitute cheaper oxides for indium. “Basically, this was an accidental discovery,” said Subramanian. “We were exploring manganese oxides for some interesting electronic properties they have, something that can be both ferroelectric and ferromagnetic at the same time. Our work had nothing to do with looking for a pigment” [UPI]. Regardless, their research appears in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

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Image: Oregon State University

MORE ABOUT: chemistry, light

A Silent Hell: For 23 Years, Man Was Misdiagnosed as a Coma Patient

By Andrew Moseman | November 24, 2009 1:27 pm

brain 200From 1983 to 2006, the Belgian man Rom Houben was misdiagnosed as a coma patient. In fact, doctors say, he was conscious for all those years, but incapable of communicating with doctors or family members who leaned over his bedside. But neuroscientist Steven Laureys finally caught the 23-year mistake. Laureys just published a paper on the case in BMC Neurology, spurring  wonder at the remarkable case—and skepticism that Houben is truly “communicating” now.

Houben was paralyzed in 1983 after a vicious car crash, and doctors incorrectly diagnosed him as being in a persistent vegetative state until 2006. An expert using a specialized type of brain scan that was not available in the 1980s finally realized it, and unlocked Houben’s mind again [AP]. Houben indeed had an almost normal brain, his PET scan showed, and doctors say they clinched his consciousness by having him move his foot and then spell words on a touchscreen.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain
MORE ABOUT: brain, coma, neuroscience

Darwin Goes Digital for 150th Anniversary of "On the Origin of Species"

By Andrew Moseman | November 24, 2009 10:09 am

darwinToday’s the day—the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin‘s On the Origin of Species, the most famous work of the great 19th century naturalist. And to mark the occasion, the Darwin Manuscripts Project is uploading Darwin’s original drafts—10,000 pages worth—into an online archive. Look for the material to go online later today.

The collection includes 34 of the original 36 draft leaves of the book, according to editor David Kohn. “I’ve sat in the Cambridge University Library since 1974, touching these documents, but this is the first time that anyone can do this — online in this quantity and with this quality,” Kohn said [MSNBC]. The project leaders intend to digitize more manuscripts down the road, and also reconstruct Darwin’s library.

Still, there are missing pieces. English Heritage, which operates Darwin’s former home as a museum, launched a mission to recover a crucial Darwin notebook that’s been missing for the last two or three decades and might have been stolen from the house. According to Darwin’s great-great-grandson, the author Randal Keynes, the notebook contains notes and descriptions of animals from Darwin’s Galapagos visit. Says Keynes: “The Galapagos notebook is of outstanding value for the history of science…. If Darwin had not posed the questions in that notebook, he might never have written On the Origin of Species” [BBC News]. Luckily, English Heritage still has microfilm of the notebook created in 1969.

While one Darwin artifact is lost, another is found: A British family turned up a first edition of On the Origin of Species in an unexpected location. Christie’s auction house said Sunday the book – one of around 1,250 copies first printed in 1859 – had been on a toilet bookshelf at a family’s home in Oxford [AP]. Christie’s expects the book to fetch upwards of $100,000.

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Image: Wiki Commons


DNA Scanner Proves That NYC Sushi Contains Endangered Bluefin Tuna

By Andrew Moseman | November 24, 2009 7:00 am

tunasushi220Sushi lovers, we’ve got some bad news. For a study that came out in PLoS One, researchers ordered sushi at restaurants across New York City and Denver, Colorado, and found that an alarming percentage wasn’t made from the fish it was advertised to be. More than half of the eateries weren’t completely clear and honest about the fish they offered, the study says. Some even mistakenly served up escolar, which can give people diarrhea and stomach problems.

Although their results were shocking, exposing sloppy sushi joints wasn’t their main goal. The scientists were trying to improve on a new species-identification technique, called DNA barcoding…. Their goal is to build a catalog of every fish species on earth so that anyone with a handheld DNA reader could definitively identify fish within minutes [].

One reason researchers investigated sushi is that so much of it has been made from endangered species like the bluefin tuna. In the restaurants that lead scientist George Amato checked out, the device showed 25 percent of what was labeled as tuna on sushi menus was bluefin, Amato said. The device also has been used to identify the presence of endangered whales in Asian markets and fraud in the labeling of caviar and red snapper [UPI].

This study comes in the wake of an international ruling that reduces the quota for bluefin catch from 22,000 metric tons annually to 13,500 for 2010. But that isn’t enough for many environmentalists, nor for The New York Times editorial board, which this weekend called for the United States to list bluefin under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The law effectively bars commercial trade in any listed species, and has been helpful in protecting other animals like elephants and whales [The New York Times].

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Image: flickr / avixyz

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World

Are Politics Skin-Deep? Liberal Voters See Obama as Lighter Skinned

By Brett Israel | November 23, 2009 5:49 pm

obama-skin-toneResearchers are making the case that a person’s political views cause them to see with a tinted perspective.

Scientists showed undergraduate students a series of digitally darkened or lightened photos of President Barack Obama last fall, and asked them which photos best represented him as a person. The results were striking: while self-described liberals tended to pick the digitally lightened photos of the president, self-described conservative students more frequently picked the darkened images. The more one agrees with a politician, in other words, the lighter his skin tone seems; the less you agree, the darker it becomes [Newsweek]. The study will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Ravenous, Leaping Asian Carp Poised to Invade Great Lakes

By Brett Israel | November 23, 2009 4:30 pm

asian-carpThe Great Lakes are under threat from an Asian carp invasion that could wipe out fishing stocks, and with it, the lakes’ billion dollar fishery. On Friday, officials from the Army Corps of Engineers reported that genetic material from the carp had been found for the first time in a nearby river beyond an elaborate barrier system, which has cost millions of dollars and was meant to block their passage [The New York Times]. There is concern that if carp make it into Lake Michigan, they will gobble up the plankton that native fish feed on.

Officials also say that recreational boating may be affected–the carp can grow up to 4 feet long and weigh up to 100 pounds, and the massive fish will occasionally leap up and strike boaters. Since they were found to be moving up the Mississippi River in 2002, agencies have been trying everything they can think of to slow them down, including erecting the expensive electric barriers that cost around $9 million. The barriers work by sending low-voltage electric current through steel cables that are strung across the canal; this creates an electric field that’s uncomfortable for the fish and that’s supposed to prevent them from swimming across it.

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New Take on Titan Hints at More Fuel for Potential Life

By Andrew Moseman | November 23, 2009 1:35 pm

titan220With its thick atmosphere, chemical makeup, and an atmospheric pressure not too far from Earth’s, Titan is one of the most likely candidates for finding life elsewhere in our solar system. But at a temperature close to -300 degrees Fahrenheit, the surface of this Saturnian moon in anything but what we humans would call hospitable. Since this frigid place is far too cold for liquid water, any life there would need an alternative survival method. A new study published in Astrophysical Journal Letters suggests that the simple hydrocarbon acetylene, proposed as a possible energy source for life on Titan, could be much more abundant than scientists previously thought.

Titan has previously been shown to be dotted with lakes of liquid hydrocarbons, primarily methane and ethane. An estimate made in 1989 suggested bodies of liquid hydrocarbons on Titan would contain a few parts in 10,000 of acetylene. But an updated estimate based on data from the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn now suggests the lakes contain much more food for any hungry alien life-forms that might be present [New Scientist]. Lead researcher Daniel Cordier says the acetylene abundance could be as high as one part in 100, or 1 percent, of the surface lakes on Titan.

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LHC Flings Protons Once Again; Scientists Celebrate With Caution

By Andrew Moseman | November 23, 2009 10:15 am

LHCHackers. Leaking liquid helium caused by a faulty connection. International ridicule. And to top it all off, aerial attack by a wayward baguette. Yes, it’s safe to say that things haven’t gone according to plan at the Large Hadron Collider in the last 14 months, but the world’s largest particle smasher is finally—finally!—back online after its Friday restart, with proton beams circulating through this huge underground ring.

The first time protons circled the collider, on Sept. 10, 2008, the event was celebrated with Champagne and midnight pajama parties around the world. But the festivities were cut short a few days later when an electrical connection between a pair of the collider’s giant superconducting electromagnets vaporized [The New York Times].

The initial enthusiasm, it seems, was rather premature—scientists analysis of the failed connection revealed many more that probably couldn’t handle the strain of the energy needed to re-create conditions similar to the Big Bang. During 14 months of repairs dozens of giant superconducting magnets that accelerate particles at the speed of light had to be replaced [BBC News].

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Osmosis De-Debunked? Sound Effects Cue Sleep Learning

By Andrew Moseman | November 23, 2009 6:00 am

sleep narcolepsy220Amid mounting evidence that sleep is key for your memory, researchers published a paper in the journal Science last week suggesting that playing specific sounds while a person sleeps—sounds connected to something that the person is trying to memorize—could help the memory sink in.

The researchers taught people to move 50 pictures to their correct locations on a computer screen. Each picture was accompanied by a related sound — meow for a cat, whirring for a helicopter, for example [The New York Times]. Next the test subjects lay down for a nap, and while they slept the researchers played sounds relating to half the objects. When the subjects woke up, scientists tested them on how well they remembered where each object went. Participants didn’t know they’d been subjected to the sounds while they napped, but they fared better at placing the objects for which they heard sounds in their sleep than those they didn’t.

Lead researcher Ken Paller explains: “While asleep, people might process anything that happened during the day — what they ate for breakfast, television shows they watched, anything…. But we decided which memories our volunteers would activate, guiding them to rehearse some of the locations they had learned an hour earlier” [U.S. News & World Report].

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MORE ABOUT: brain, learning, memory, sleep

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