Archive for December, 2009

Physicists Find Hints of Dark Matter But No Clear Discovery

By Andrew Moseman | December 18, 2009 10:34 am

CDMS425If you were following Cosmic Variance yesterday, you saw its live blogging of one of the most anticipated recent announcements in physics: the team from Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (CDMS) telling the world whether a Minnesota detector spotted evidence of dark matter. The answer? Maybe (pdf).

CDMS scientists use super-cooled detectors made of germanium and silicon to search for weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs), one of the leading suspects for what could make up dark matter. The detector is deep underground in the Soudan mine in Minnesota, which scientists also use to hunt for neutrinos. WIMPs streaming in from space would very rarely jostle the germanium nuclei, some 800 meters underground in the Soudan mine, generating a tiny amount of heat and slightly altering the charge on the detectors in a characteristic pattern [Science News].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math

The Mutations That Kill: 1st Cancer Genomes Sequenced

By Brett Israel | December 17, 2009 6:27 pm

dna-sequence-webThe genomes of lung and skin cancer have been decoded by scientists at the UK-based Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute near Cambridge, which is the first time an entire cancer gene map has been created.

The scientists say they have pinpointed specific DNA errors that may cause tumors in these two cancers, both of which have direct known causes—smoking for lung cancer and sun exposure for skin cancer. Researchers predict these maps will offer patients a personalized treatment option that ranges from earlier detection to the types of medication used to treat cancer. The genetic maps will also allow cancer researchers to study cells with defective DNA and produce more powerful drugs to fight the errors, according to the the study’s scientists [CNN]. News reports are heralding the new research as revolutionary, however it will be years, perhaps decades, before the full implications of the work are understood.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Copenhagen Roundup: Protests, Walkouts, and the Money Wars

By Andrew Moseman | December 17, 2009 4:18 pm

copenhagen220Things are getting a tad testy in Denmark as the Copenhagen climate summit lurches toward its conclusion tomorrow. Contrary to rumors that he would skip the event because of the growing pessimism about reaching an agreement, President Barack Obama says today that he’s on his way for the conference’s decisive day.

Yesterday was protest day, as 4,000 people marched around the Bella center and police arrested 260. Activists tried a variety of methods to enter the conference centre, approaching in large groups from several directions and, at one point, sending several hundred people running with seven giant lilos [air mattresses] to bridge a moat next to the centre [The Guardian].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment

A Hack of the Drones: Insurgents Spy on Spy Planes With $26 Software

By Brett Israel | December 17, 2009 3:51 pm

predator-drone-webThe U.S. military does not think much of Iraqi militants’ technological capabilities. How else to explain the fact that their Predator drone surveillance planes used unencrypted links to send down to their military operators? The lack of encryption means that the drones’ data is less secure than most home wireless internet networks, a serious vulnerability in the unmanned aerial network.

According to a story in The Wall Street Journal today, video feeds from Predator drones have been intercepted by militants in Iraq.  Senior defense and intelligence officials said Iranian-backed insurgents intercepted the video feeds by taking advantage of an unprotected communications link in some of the remotely flown planes’ systems. Shiite fighters in Iraq used software programs such as SkyGrabber — available for as little as $25.95 on the Internet — to regularly capture drone video feeds, according to a person familiar with reports on the matter [The Wall Street Journal]. Officials are saying that they don’t believe militants were able to take control of the drones, but by downloading the videos they were able to keep up with which areas were being monitored.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology

Study: Like Earthquakes & Financial Markets, Terrorist Attacks Follow Laws of Math

By Andrew Moseman | December 17, 2009 1:04 pm

iraq220For soldiers and civilians alike, insurgency wars are not only deadly but also frustrating in their apparently random spikes of violence. In a study in Nature, however, researchers put forth a mathematical model that shows terrorist attacks and insurgencies are not so scattershot as they seem.

The team searched for statistical similarities across nine historic and ongoing insurgencies including those of Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland [BBC News]. That meant compiling more than 50,000 acts of violence. And despite the fact that these events happened in different countries in different times, Neil Johnson and his team found a relationship between the size of an attack in casualty terms and how often it occurs.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math
MORE ABOUT: math, war

New Super-Earth: Hot, Watery, and Nearby

By Andrew Moseman | December 17, 2009 11:18 am

Waterworld220And the exoplanet count marches on. A few days ago astronomers announced they had found a handful of new planets around sun-like stars, some only 29 light years away. Now, in a study published today in Nature, a team led by David Charbonneau unveils a new super-Earth that’s hot, watery, and only 2.68 times the size of our own world.

The planet currently bares the name GJ 1214b, and while Charbonneau says it’s probably not habitable (because of the 400-degree Fahrenheit surface temperature), it’s not too far off the mark. Geoffrey W. Marcy, a planet hunter from the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in an accompanying article in Nature that the new work provided “the most watertight evidence so far for a planet that is something like our own Earth, outside our solar system” [The New York Times].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space

Injured Vet Receives Transplanted Pancreas Grown From a Few Cells

By Brett Israel | December 16, 2009 5:42 pm

Doctors at the University of Miami have developed an improvised way to perform a long-distance organ transplant involving the islet cells of the pancreas, which produces insulin and other enzymes the body requires.

A 21-year-old Air Force enlistee, Tre Francesco Porfirio, was shot while on duty in Afghanistan and his pancreas was essentially destroyed. With an injury like that, Porfirio’s prognosis was very difficult: If he could survive long enough to get to a specialized transplant center, he could perhaps get a transplant of islet cells from a deceased donor and take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of his life. Or doctors could remove his pancreas, leaving him completely dependent on insulin. Either way, an early death from complications of Type 1 diabetes was highly likely [Los Angeles Times].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Scientist Smackdown: Are Unnecessary CT Scans Killing People?

By Andrew Moseman | December 16, 2009 3:12 pm

Ct-scan425Are CT scans putting thousands of people in unnecessary jeopardy for cancers and death? That was the suggestion by two new studies out this week, leaving radiologists scrambling to explain the true level of danger to worried patients.

A CT scan, also known as computed tomography, gives doctors a view inside the body, often eliminating the need for exploratory surgery. But CT scans involve a much higher radiation dose than conventional X-rays. A chest CT scan exposes the patient to more than 100 times the radiation dose of a typical chest X-ray [Reuters]. However, a study out of the University of California, San Francisco says, we might not have as good a handle on CT radiation as we thought. The researchers found that radiation differed greatly between machines, and some emitted 13 times more than others.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Gravity Satellites Show a Huge Groundwater Loss in California

By Andrew Moseman | December 16, 2009 12:37 pm

CaliforniaSat220Groundwater levels around the country have been sinking as wells for drinking water and irrigation pull water out of aquifers faster than they can naturally recharge. Now, using gravity-measuring satellites, NASA and California researchers have documented the extent of water loss in California’s Central Valley, and the results aren’t good.

The measurements show the amount of water lost in the two main Central Valley river basins within the past six years could almost fill the nation’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead in Nevada [AP]. The total is about 30 cubic kilometer; one cubic km contains more than 264 billion gallons of water.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology

Myopia Mania: Americans More Nearsighted Than Ever

By Andrew Moseman | December 16, 2009 11:25 am

eye220A new study comparing Americans’ vision today to what it was like nearly 40 years ago says that our nation’s eyesight is getting worse as myopia, or nearsightedness, continues to become more prevalent. The study, led by Susan Vitale, appears in the Archives of Ophthalmology.

Vitale and colleagues used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) to compare the percentage of black and white Americans aged 12 to 54 with myopia in 1971-1972 and 1999-2004 [Reuters]. In the early 1970s only a quarter of people were nearsighted, but by the study’s 1999 to 2004 window that number had shot up to 42 percent.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
MORE ABOUT: computers, eyes, senses, vision
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