Archive for January, 2010

Daredevil Plans to Jump to Earth From 23 Miles Up—for Science!

By Andrew Moseman | January 25, 2010 10:36 am

baumgartnerAre you ready for some free fall?

Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner officially announced that sometime this year, he intends to jump from a balloon at a height of nearly 23 miles, breaking the 50-year-old world record for the highest parachute jump held by retired U.S. Air Force pilot Joe Kittinger. Kittinger is the Stratos mission’s capcom (short for capsule communicator), which means that he will be the voice in Baumgartner’s helmet. Kittinger’s advice to his successor: “Have fun, enjoy it, and tell us all about it when you get down” [Scientific American].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology

Study: Uranus & Neptune Have Seas of Diamond—With Diamond Icebergs

By Andrew Moseman | January 22, 2010 5:47 pm

neptuneBoth Uranus and Neptune have quirky magnetic poles—they’re located about 60 degrees off the geographic pole rather than very nearby, like ours is. The reason, researchers suggest in a new Nature Physics study, could be that oceans of diamond—yes, oceans of diamond—cover our solar system’s two most distant planets.

The diamond idea isn’t a new one, but it’s a terribly hard question to study because you have to get diamond to melt in the lab to study it, and this experiment was the first to document the pressure and temperature at which that happens. The mineral is notoriously hard, of course, but there’s something more: Diamond doesn’t like to stay diamond when it gets hot. When diamond is heated to extreme temperatures it physically changes, from diamond to graphite. The graphite, and not the diamond, then melts into a liquid. The trick for the scientists was to heat the diamond up while simultaneously stopping it from transforming into graphite [Discovery News].

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How the Tobacco Plant Outwitted the Hawkmoth

By Smriti Rao | January 22, 2010 4:00 pm

tobaccoIt always helps to have good timing. And no one seems to understand that better than the tobacco plant Nicotiana attenuata, which grows in Western United States and flowers at night [The New York Times]. Normally, the tobacco plant is pollinated by hawkmoths that visits its flowers every night. But when these hawkmoths leave eggs behind that develop into leaf-chomping caterpillars, the plant’s self-defense snaps into place and switches to flowering in the day. That attracts a different pollinator, the hummingbird.

Ecologist Danny Kessler noticed this change when he was trying to get a picture of the plant being pollinated for a study. He saw that the plant was not just flowering in the day but also that they had changed their flowers to make them more attractive to hummingbirds: they emitted less of a chemical that attracts moths; they had less sugar in the nectar, which is the way hummingbirds prefer it; and they were more tube-shaped, making them friendly to a hummingbird’s long, thin beak [ScienceNOW Daily News].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World

Hillary Clinton to China: Internet Censorship Is an "Information Curtain"

By Andrew Moseman | January 22, 2010 2:02 pm

googlechinaIt’s been little over a week since the beginning of the spat between Google and China over censorship and hacking attacks. But that was more than enough time for the fracas to escalate into international political tensions and name-calling.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined in today. In a wide-ranging speech in Washington, Mrs Clinton said the internet had been a “source of tremendous progress” in China but that any country which restricted free access to information risked “walling themselves off from the progress of the next century” [BBC News]. In taking a foreign policy stand on information freedom, she also singled out other countries that she says harass bloggers or promote censorship and called on other companies to follow Google’s lead in taking a stand against restrictive governments.

“A new information curtain is descending across much of the world,” she said, calling growing Internet curbs the modern equivalent of the Berlin Wall [Reuters].

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MORE ABOUT: China, Google, internet

Brainless Slime Mold Builds a Replica Tokyo Subway

By Andrew Moseman | January 22, 2010 10:52 am

SlimeMoldWhen scientists talk up learning about transportation networks from nature, it’s often ants that get the praise for being so much more organized and efficient than we humans with our silly gridlock. But a team of Japanese researchers found, for a new study in Science, that you don’t even need a brain to be to a traffic genius. Single-celled slime molds, they found, can build networks as complex as the Tokyo subway system.

The yellow slime mold Physarum polycephalum grows as a single cell that is big enough to be seen with the naked eye. When it encounters numerous food sources separated in space, the slime mold cell surrounds the food and creates tunnels to distribute the nutrients [Science News]. To test how efficient the mold could be, Toshiyuki Nakagaki’s team duplicated the layout of the area around Tokyo: They placed the slime mold in the position of the city, and dispersed bits of oat around the “map” in the locations of 36 surrounding towns.

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Where in the World Will the Next Big Earthquake Strike?

By Aline Reynolds | January 22, 2010 9:48 am


In the aftermath of Haiti’s devastating earthquake, nervous citizens can be forgiven for wondering where the next Big One will hit. Major quakes strike with alarming regularity: Earthquakes of magnitude 7 or greater occur approximately 18 times a year worldwide. They usually originate near faults where tectonic plates —tremendous fragments of the earth’s crust—collide or push above or below each other.

Geologists suspect that Haiti’s destructive quake resulted from 250 years of seismic stress that has been building up between the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates. In fact, a group of U.S. geologists presented a study in the Dominican Republic (which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti) in 2008 saying that the region was at risk of an earthquake potentially even bigger than last week’s magnitude 7.0 quake. Part of their presentation is particularly chilling in light of what would happen less than two years later: “This means that the level of built-up stress and energy in the earth could one day be released resulting in an earthquake measuring 7.2 or more on the Richter Scale. This would be an event of catastrophic proportions in a city [Port-au-Prince] with loose building codes, and an abundance of shanty-towns built in ravines and other undesirable locations.”

Earthquakes are still impossible to predict with precision; in the words of one of the geologists who predicted the Haiti quake, “It could have been the next day, it could have been 10 years, it could have been 100… This is not an exact science.” But researchers have identified a handful of seismic zones around the globe that are storing up especial amounts of stress and are particularly hazardous. Browse through the gallery for a world tour of the planet’s most seismically vulnerable regions.

By Aline Reynolds

Image: USGS


Video: Fluorescent Bacteria Keep Time Like a Clock

By Andrew Moseman | January 21, 2010 6:14 pm

One small step for flashing bacteria, one giant leap for synthetic biology. In a new Nature study, molecular biologist Jeff Hasty and his team say they have created a line of E. coli bacteria that flash in fluorescent light and keep time like a clock.

Previously, scientists had engineered only single cells to become oscillators — devices that could count time by performing a particular activity on a cyclical schedule [Nature News]. Back in 2008, Hasty and his team created an oscillator for single cells that could be set to temperature or chemical triggers. But now the researchers have induced a whole host of bacteria to work together to keep time by taking advantage of the way they collaborate naturally: quorom sensing.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Living World

Globalized Pollution: Asian Smog Floats to American Skies

By Smriti Rao | January 21, 2010 6:13 pm

city-skyscraper-smog-air-neAmerica seems to be more and more linked to Asia–not just by complicated financial ties, but also by currents of air pollution that are boosting smog levels in American skies. For years scientists wondered why some rural areas in the western United States had high levels of ozone, when the areas had very little industry or automobile traffic. The answer, apparently, was blowing in the wind.

A new study, published in Nature reveals that springtime ozone levels in western North America are on the rise, because of air pollution coming in from south and east Asia.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Space
MORE ABOUT: asia, ozone, pollution, smog

Study: Madagascar's Weird Mammals Got There on Rafts

By Andrew Moseman | January 21, 2010 1:00 pm

madagascar425Just how did all the exotic mammals of Madagascar, like its unique collection of lemurs, originally reach the African island? Did they float there from the African mainland, or did nature provide a land bridge? The question has vexed biologists because both explanations have their problems. But a new study in Nature proposes an answer to the main problem posed by the floating-across-the-channel idea, suggesting that it is the most likely explanation.

Because of the narrow range of biology on Madagascar, most biologists favored the floating rafts hypothesis. But there has always been a problem with this notion: the currents swirling in the channel and the surrounding Indian Ocean would make it virtually impossible for a floating Noah’s Ark of vegetation to reach Madagascar’s shores [AFP]. Were those currents always this way, though? No, says a team led by Matthew Huber.

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Uncle Sam: No More Snakes on Planes, Already

By Andrew Moseman | January 21, 2010 10:38 am

burmese-pythonwebThis week federal officials said they want to ban the importation of nine large and exotic snake species. The move is designed to quell the spread of those slithering reptiles that have gotten loose and thrived in Florida and especially in the Everglades, and that threaten to spread further across the country.

More than a million of these snakes—including the giant Burmese python, boa constrictors, and several kinds of anaconda—have come to the United States in the last 30 years as pets. But invariably, over the years, some slithered loose — or were released by owners who found their reptile[s] more than they could handle. Today, many thousands nest wild in Florida’s suburban yards, parks and the Everglades [Science News]. At least one of the species, the northern African rock python, is considered dangerous to humans.

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