Archive for June, 2010

Newfound Fossils Suggest Multicellular Life Took Hold 2 Billion Years Ago

By Andrew Moseman | June 30, 2010 4:46 pm

GabonFossilsIs mulitcellular life like us just the new kid on the biological block, a latecomer to a world dominated by single-celled organisms like bacteria? Perhaps not—multicellular life could be nearly half as old as the Earth itself.

A new study out today in Nature identifies fossils from Gabon in Africa that date back 2.1 billion years. The organic material is long gone, but the scientists say these are the oldest multicellular organisms ever found. That date takes them way back before the Cambrian explosion 500 million years ago that made multiple-celled life widespread on the planet.

“We have these macrofossils turning up in a world that was purely microbial,” says Stefan Bengtson, a palaeozoologist at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm and a co-author on the report. “That’s a big deal because when you finally get big organisms, it changes the way the biosphere works, as they interact with microbes and each other” [Nature].

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MORE ABOUT: Africa, cells, evolution, fossils

A Toothy Predator of the Prehistoric Seas: Meet the Leviathan Whale

By Joseph Calamia | June 30, 2010 4:26 pm

Twelve million years ago, one sperm whale was king. Between 40 and 60 feet in length the beast scientists named Leviathan melvillei wasn’t any bigger than today’s sperm whales, but look at those teeth!


As described in a paper published in Nature today, Olivier Lambert discovered the whale’s fossils in a Peruvian desert. The creature’s name says it all:

[It] combines the Hebrew word ‘Livyatan’, which refers to large mythological sea monsters, with the name of American novelist Herman Melville, who penned Moby-Dick — “one of my favourite sea books”, says lead author Olivier Lambert of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. [Nature News]

The prehistoric sperm whale may have eaten baleen whales, and its largest chompers are a foot long and some four inches wide. For all the details, check out Ed Yong’s post on Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Related content:
80beats: Lady Humpback Whales Make Friends & Meet up for Summer Reunions
80beats: Whales vs. Navy: NOAA May Limit Sonar Tests, but Another Case Heads to Court
80beats: Primitive Proto-Whales May Have Clambered Ashore to Give Birth
80beats: Update: International Whaling Deal Falls Apart
80beats: Is the Whaling Ban Really the Best Way to Save the Whales?

Image: Nature


Honoring Justice John Paul Stevens, Savior of the VCR

By Andrew Moseman | June 30, 2010 3:02 pm

StevensThe nation’s political focus this week is on the plodding confirmation hearings for Elena Kagan to become a  Supreme Court justice. But if you need a break from choreographed political spectacle, it’s a good time to remember that the man she would replace, Justice John Paul Stevens, casts a long shadow over science and tech.

Ars Technica revisits Justice Stevens’ legacy—he was a onetime Navy cryptographer who helped Internet freedom by ruling against parts of the Communications Decency Act and opposing software patents. And if you still have drawers full of Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes you taped off TV, you have Stevens’ decision in Sony v. Universal to thank for that (as well as setting the precedent that stopped the music industry from suppressing mp3 players).

In that 1984 case, the Supreme Court came just one vote short of banning the Betamax VCR on the grounds that taping television shows off the air was an infringement of copyright. Justice Stevens wrote for a 5-4 majority that “time shifting”—the practice of recording shows for later viewing—was a fair use under copyright law. Stevens concluded that manufacturers were not liable for their customers’ infringement if their devices were capable of “substantial non-infringing use.” He noted that Congress was free to amend copyright law to give Hollywood control over VCR technology, but concluded that the courts shouldn’t do so unilaterally [Ars Technica].

You, sir, shall be missed.

Related Content:
80beats: Navy 1, Whales 0: Supreme Court Allows Navy’s Sonar Exercises
Discoblog: Movie & Music Trade Groups Suggest Orwellian Measures to Stop Piracy
DISCOVER: The Intellectual Property Fight That Could Kill Millions

Image: Library of Congress


Best Science Teacher Ever Tricks Students Into Joining NASA Mission

By Andrew Moseman | June 30, 2010 11:52 am

When Japan’s Hayabusa space probe returned home from a seven-year odyssey this month, we got to see the amazing video as it broke up in a brilliant flash in the atmosphere and deposited its sample container (hopefully containing asteroid material) in Australia. Three high school students from Massachusetts, however, got a much better view. They experienced it first hand, and helped make that video for the world to see, thanks to a little white lie told by their teacher.

Ron Dantowitz of Brookline, Massachusetts, gave the three a challenge: If you had to track an object entering the atmosphere at 27,000 miles per hour, how would you know where to look, how would you keep the camera trained on the careening object, and what could you learn about the temperatures the object encountered? After they worked on the project for half a year, Dantowitz let loose his secret—this was no hypothetical scenario. He and the three students got to fly on the DC-8 over Australia and help NASA film Hayabusa’s return.

“We had flown several practices, but when we took off for the real thing, I felt a surge of adrenaline,” says [James] Breitmeyer. “I was on the edge of my seat, anxious for our plane to arrive at the right place at the right time.”

“We got to the rendezvous area 30 minutes ahead of time,” says Dantowitz. “So we practiced the rendezvous to make sure everyone knew which stars to line the cameras up with to capture Hayabusa’s re-entry. By the time we finished the trial run, we had only 2 or 3 minutes to go” [NASA Science News].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
MORE ABOUT: asteroids, Hayabusa, JAXA, NASA

Next from X Prize: An Award for Cleaning up BP's Oil Spill?

By Andrew Moseman | June 30, 2010 9:49 am

x-prizeBP can’t clean up its mess. Kevin Costner’s trying. But if you know how to clean up the leaking oil in the Gulf of Mexico, you could be a winner.

The X Prize Foundation says this week that it’s considering the creation of a multimillion-dollar prize for the solution to cleaning the BP oil spill. This is the same organization that put together awards of $10 million or more for private spacecraft and high mileage cars. The foundation’s Frances Beland announced the idea at an oil spill conference in Washington, D.C.

Beland said the foundation wanted to come up with a prize to find a solution to capping the well but found it was unable to obtain enough data to design such a challenge, so it opted to focus on the cleanup. “We’re going to launch a prize for cleanup, and we’re going to kick ass,” he said, to applause. Beland said 35,000 solutions to the Gulf crisis have been proposed to BP, the government and other organizations, including the X Prize Foundation [CNN].

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The Little Flying Car That Could… Get FAA Approval

By Joseph Calamia | June 30, 2010 9:29 am

transitionIt’s a car… It’s a plane… It’s a car-plane. Last March, we described the maiden flight of Terrafugia‘s new flying, driving machine, called the Transition. Now we’re one step closer to a Jetson’s reality: the Transition has just received FAA approval as a “light sport aircraft.”

Approval was not guaranteed, since the little guy is a bit husky, weighing more than the FAA’s “light sport aircraft” limit. As The Register reports, Terrafugia wanted to keep the plane in this classification to keep the vehicle available to more drivers/pilots.

[T]he plane-car was originally designed to fit within a weight limit of 1320 lb, meaning that it could qualify as a “light sport” aircraft. A US light sport pilot’s licence is significantly easier and cheaper to get than a normal private ticket, requiring only 20 hours logged, and red tape is lessened. [The Register]

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CSI Canine: Dog DNA Can Help Cops Nab Dog-Fight Criminals

By Joseph Calamia | June 29, 2010 5:42 pm

pitbullInvestigators are now swabbing dog cheeks. A dog DNA database–similar to the one the FBI keeps for criminals–may help to deter dog-fighting.

Dog-fighting is a federal crime and a felony offense in every U.S. state, but it’s difficult to detect and stop. Officers rarely catch fighters in the act, and the industry, as a multimillion-dollar business, makes money not only from gambling on the violent and often fatal matches, but also from breeding and selling champion dogs.

The New York Times reports that some dogs sell for as high as $50,000 dollars. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that there could be tens of thousands of people involved in dog fighting in the United States.

So where does the genetics come in?

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Oil Spill Update: A Tropical Storm, a Backup Plan, & Deliberately Flooding Farmland

By Andrew Moseman | June 29, 2010 1:20 pm

tropicalstormalexHurricane predictors warned us this season could be a bad one, and could bring unknown consequences for the ongoing BP oil spill. We may soon find out what those consequences are, as Tropical Storm Alex moves toward the Gulf and may reach hurricane status today.

More Delays

Supposing Alex reaches the spill, it might not be all bad.

Waves churned up by Alex — as high as 12 feet — could help break up the patches of oil scattered across the sea. The higher-than-normal winds that radiate far from the storm also could help the crude evaporate faster. “The oil isn’t in one solid sheet. It’s all broken up into patches anyway. It will actually work to break those patches down,” said Piers Chapman, chairman of the oceanography department at Texas A&M University [AP].

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Origami Robot: Don’t Bother, I’ll Fold Myself

By Joseph Calamia | June 29, 2010 10:31 am

Perhaps it’s a fitting tribute. The Japanese–designers of some of the world’s most ingenious robots–can now watch a traditional art form get a robotic makeover. As described in a paper published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, MIT and Harvard researchers have made self-folding origami that can mold itself into a boat or an airplane.

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Why? Origami is just a first step; researchers picture the “shape-shifting” robots used for everything from “smart” cups that could change from grande to venti based on how much coffee you need to a “Swiss army knife” that will bend to its user’s will, forming a variety of tools.

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Genetically Modified Salmon May Soon Land on Your Dinner Plate

By Andrew Moseman | June 29, 2010 10:06 am

Atlantic_SalmonComing soon: Salmon that grow to full size in half the time?

With all sorts of genetically modified crops on the market and in the grocery store in the United States, genetically modified animals have been the next step waiting to happen. The New York Times reports that salmon could be the first up: This year the Food and Drug Administration will weigh approval of a GM salmon created by the company AquaBounty, which could be the first GM animal eaten by Americans.

It is an Atlantic salmon that contains a growth hormone gene from a Chinook salmon as well as a genetic on-switch from the ocean pout, a distant relative of the salmon. Normally, salmon do not make growth hormone in cold weather. But the pout’s on-switch keeps production of the hormone going year round. The result is salmon that can grow to market size in 16 to 18 months instead of three years, though the company says the modified salmon will not end up any bigger than a conventional fish [The New York Times].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Living World

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