Archive for March, 2010

Even Antisocial Tortoise Hermits Learn From Each Other

By Smriti Rao | March 31, 2010 5:19 pm

WATCH_AND_LEARN_When it comes to picking up clever tricks and learning to do something the way everybody else does it, social animals like humans, birds, and monkeys excel. One individual looks at what others in the group are doing and quickly learns to follow suit—an invaluable skill that scientists previously thought evolved in step with communal living.

But what about an individual that doesn’t live in a group and spends most of its life in solitude–would it still have that ability to watch and learn? Cognitive biologist Anna Wilkinson set out to answer that question by studying the red-footed tortoise, one of the loneliest beasts on the planet. These South American tortoises grow up without parents or siblings, and adults rarely cross paths. If a head-bobbing display determines that a stranger is of the opposite sex, the two will mate perfunctorily–otherwise they just ignore each other [ScienceNOW]. Yet in a new study published in Biology Letters, Wilkinson showed that even these hermits possess the ability to learn by watching others.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Mind & Brain

Obama Proposes Oil & Gas Drilling in Vast Swaths of U.S. Waters

By Andrew Moseman | March 31, 2010 1:56 pm

OffshoreOilOffshore oil and gas drilling is coming to much of the east coast. Today President Obama announced plans for energy exploration through 2017 that would open up drilling in coastal areas off the southeastern United States, and potentially some areas near Alaska.

Under the proposal, 167 million new acres in the Atlantic Ocean from Delaware to Florida, as well as new swaths in the Gulf of Mexico, would be opened to energy development. Parts of the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea, both of which are north of Alaska in the Arctic Ocean, could see drilling after 2013 if viability studies give them the go-ahead. But not all areas that energy companies would like to explore are available in the plan.

No areas off the west coast would be made available. Obama also said proposed leases in Alaska’s Bristol Bay would be canceled. He would also limit any oil and gas drilling off the coast of Florida to no closer than 125 miles from the shore [USA Today]. Bristol Bay has been off-limits since the Exxon Valdez incident in 1989, when the tanker spilled at least 10 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean. President George W. Bush’s energy plan, which Obama overturned upon taking office, would have opened the bay to drilling.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology

Google Exposes a Cyber Attack on Vietnamese Activists

By Smriti Rao | March 31, 2010 11:24 am

computer-virusIs the Vietnamese government following China’s example, and muffling online dissent to pursue its own political ends? Internet giant Google seems to think so. Writing on the company’s online security blog, Neel Mehta of Google’s security team has revealed that tens of thousands of Vietnamese computers were subject to a potent virus attack this week–and that the attack targeted activists who are opposed to a Chinese mining project in Vietnam.

Google writes that the activists mistakenly downloaded malicious software that infected their computers. The infected machines could be used to spy on the users, and were also used to attack Web sites and blogs that voiced opposition to the mining project. This cyber attack, Google says, was an attempt to “squelch” opposition to bauxite mining in Vietnam, a highly controversial issue in the country. The computer security firm, McAfee Inc, which detected the malware, went a step further, saying its creators “may have some allegiance to the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” The Vietnamese Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment [Moneycontrol].

Google’s current spat with China began with a similar accusation, when the company accused Beijing of hacking into and spying on Chinese activists’ gmail accounts. Just this week, journalists in China said their email accounts were compromised because of yet another spyware attack.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology

Toads—Yes, Toads—May Know When an Earthquake Is Coming

By Andrew Moseman | March 31, 2010 9:08 am

Bufo_BufoThe wave of high-profile seismic activity so far in 2010 has been another reminder that we humans could use all the help we can get in predicting earthquakes. This week in the Journal of Zoology, biologist Rachel Grant suggests a new way: Watch the toads.

Taking cues from the animal kingdom is not itself a new idea (not by a long shot): Reports of animal earthquake prediction are legion and they date back to at least 373 BCE, when historians record that animals including rats, snakes and weasels flocked out of Helice just days before a quake devastated the Greek city. More recently there have been reports of catfish moving violently, bees leaving their hive in a panic, and fish, rodents, wolves and snakes exhibiting strange behaviour before earthquakes [Nature]. While these anecdotes grab the imagination, the scatter-shot nature of earthquakes previously prevented anyone from documenting such animal behavior before, during, and after a quake.

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Magnetic Zaps to the Brain Can Alter People’s Moral Judgments

By Smriti Rao | March 30, 2010 4:47 pm

brain-200Beauty may lie in the eyes of the beholder, but morality, apparently, lies just behind your right ear–in an area scientists call the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ).

In a study that helps explain the mechanics of morality, neuroscientist Liane Young and her colleagues found that activity in the RTPJ is linked to the types of moral judgments we make–and those judgments can easily be tinkered with using a mere magnet. The researchers found that by delivering magnetic pulses to the RTPJ they were able to impact moral judgments; the magnetic pulses made people less likely to condemn others for attempting but failing to inflict harm [Nature]. The findings were published in journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Says Young: “You think of morality as being a really high-level behavior. To be able to apply a magnetic field to a specific brain region and change people’s moral judgments is really astonishing” [BBC].

Most of us make moral judgments based on not just what the consequences of an action were, but also on what the person’s intentions were. So little children and people with mental illness aren’t judged as harshly for their actions, because their intentions usually aren’t bad. It’s not just a matter of what they did, but how much they understood what they were doing [Nature].

The process of figuring out how much blame to attribute to a person involves the RTPJ. So for this study, scientists used a non-invasive technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to deliver small magnetic pulses to the RTPJ; the pulses temporarily stop brain cells from working normally. Then the researchers asked their subjects questions based on different scenarios while monitoring brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain

A Sweet Smashup: The LHC Shatters the Collison Energy Record

By Andrew Moseman | March 30, 2010 12:15 pm

lhc-220The smashing has started. Now the science can commence.

Last week we reported that the Large Hadron Collider’s operators at CERN targeted today to attempt the highest energy particle collisions ever. And to show the world that yes, in fact, the LHC can meet a deadline, today they slammed together the two proton beams, each carrying 3.5 trillion electron volts, to produce 7 TeV collisions. As the first data from the impacts were announced, physicists who had gathered at CERN applauded, jumped up and down, and clutched laptops displaying images of the collisions to their chests as if the computers were newborn babes [National Geographic].

While the physicists enjoy their moment of euphoria, they caution that it will be some time before the LHC’s collisions translate into new data that could reveal deeper secrets of the universe. “Major discoveries will happen only when we are able to collect billions of events and identify among them the very rare events that could present a new state of matter or new particles,” said Guido Tonelli, a spokesman for the CMS detector at the LHC. “This is not going to happen tomorrow. It will require months and years of patient work” [BBC News]. This round of collisions should last a year and a half or so. After a planned shutdown, the physicists plant to crank up the collider to its full power of 14 TeV.

For more about the long road to now and the future of LHC physics, follow DISCOVER blog Cosmic Variance.

Related Content:
Cosmic Variance: LHC Physics Begins!
Cosmic Variance: Highest Energy Ever
80beats: Rumors of the LHC’s Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
80beats: LHC Beam Zooms Past 1 Trillion Electron Volts, Sets World Record
80beats: Baguettes and Sabateurs from the Future Defeated: LHC Smashes Particles
DISCOVER: A Tumultuous Year at the LHC

Image: CERN


Court Strikes Down Patents on Two Human Genes; Biotech Industry Trembles

By Aline Reynolds | March 30, 2010 11:51 am

DNA-genetic-test In a far-reaching judgment that could have major implications for the biotech industry, a federal judge in Manhattan has struck down patents related to two human genes linked to hereditary breast and ovarian cancers, BRCA1 and BRCA2.

Myriad Genetics held the patents, and women who want to find out if they have a high genetic risk for these cancers have to get a test sold by Myriad, which costs more than $3,000. Plaintiffs in the case had said Myriad’s monopoly on the test, conferred by the gene patents, kept prices high and prevented women from getting a confirmatory test from another laboratory [The New York Times]. In his decision, United States District Court Judge Robert W. Sweet found that the company’s patents were invalid because the genes are “found in nature,” and products of nature can’t be patented. In essence, he agreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that the genetic code contained in each human being’s cells shouldn’t be private property.

Tuesday’s decision, if upheld, could have wide repercussions for the multi-billion dollar biotech industry, which is built on more than 40,000 gene patents. Already, about 20 percent of the human genes have been patented. The decision, however, is not binding on other federal courts and other judges may or may not abide by it. But it does the set the stage for years of litigation over other gene patents. Myriad Genetics plans to appeal the judgment.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Tiny "CubeSail" Could Ease the Clutter of Space Junk in Earth's Orbit

By Andrew Moseman | March 30, 2010 10:36 am

CubesailEvery time a space shuttle or the International Space Station has a near miss with a piece of space junk, we’re reminded just how much of the stuff litters the area around our planet—millions of total pieces amounting to more than 5,500 tons. The orbital debris includes everything from old rocket stages to shed paint flakes, and the situation worsened last year when two satellites collided, sending forth showers of debris. It’s a problem that grows steadily worse without an apparent solution, but now University of Surrey scientists say they’ve developed a possible solution: a tiny clean-up device with sails.

To help tidy up Earth’s orbit, the device could be attached to any piece of space-going technology. The CubeSail, which would measure more than 16 feet square when unfolded, is packed into a compartment that measures 4 inches wide and deep, and a foot long. When the sail is deployed, metal strips that are wound up inside the container straighten out and pull the sail flat. Despite its small size, the system could deorbit an object of up to 1,100 pounds, Surrey scientists say. CubeSail works by pulling against the small amounts of atmospheric gases present at orbital heights. Although the density of air molecules is low, it’s enough to make the sail act like a parachute, slowing it down, dragging the dead satellite to a fiery reentry much sooner than it would have done otherwise [Discovery News].

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Could Turning the Oceans Into a Giant Bubble Bath Cool the Planet?

By Smriti Rao | March 29, 2010 6:07 pm

3163703464_6c86794de2As heated global warming debates continue, scientists are also investigating ways to get our planet to cool off if the politicians can’t figure out how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The latest geoengineering scheme involves turning the world’s oceans into a giant bubble bath, with hundreds of millions of tiny bubbles pumped into the seas. This would increase the water’s reflectivity and bring down ocean temperatures, according to Harvard University physicist Russell Seitz. As the creative physicist said to the assembled crowd at an international meeting on geoengineering research: “Since water covers most of the earth, don’t dim the sun…. Brighten the water.”

Seitz explained that micro-bubbles already occur naturally, with bubbles under the ocean’s surface reflecting sunlight back into space and mildly brightening the planet. What Seitz imagines doing now is artificially pumping many more bubbles into the sea. These additional micro-bubbles would each be one five-hundredth of a millimeter and would essentially serve as “mirrors made of air.” The scientists say they could be created off boats by using devices that mix water supercharged with compressed air into swirling jets of water. “I’m emulating a natural ocean phenomenon and amplifying it just by changing the physics—the ingredients remain the same” [ScienceNOW], Seitz said.

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Rats Fed on Bacon, Cheesecake, and Ding-Dongs Become Addicted to Junk Food

By Smriti Rao | March 29, 2010 3:45 pm


Do you often feel the need for a sweet sugar rush or a moment of bacon-induced bliss? A new study offers evidence that that surge of pleasure is similar to a heroin high, and that eating junk food regularly can significantly change the brain’s chemical make-up, creating junk food addicts who are driven to overeat.

Lead researcher Paul Kenny says it had previously been unclear whether extreme overeating was initiated by a chemical irregularity in the brain or if the behavior itself was changing the brain’s biochemical makeup. The new research by Kenny and his colleague Paul Johnson, a graduate student, shows that both conditions are possible [Scientific American].

For the study, published online in Nature Neuroscience, Kenny and colleagues headed to the grocery store. “We basically bought all of the stuff that people really like — Ding-Dongs, cheesecake, bacon, sausage, the stuff that you enjoy, but you really shouldn’t eat too often,” he said [Reuters]. One set of lab rats was allowed unfettered access to these high-calorie foods, while another rat group was allowed just one hour of access to the junk food per day. Both sets of rats also had the option of eating standard healthy lab rat fare. Finally, a control group of rats were kept on a healthy diet.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain

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