Archive for November, 2010

Iran's Nuclear Program: Scientists Attacked, Documents Wiki-Leaked

By Andrew Moseman | November 30, 2010 5:50 pm

Nuclear IranBetween murders and leaked documents, there’s disarray and intrigue all around Iran’s burgeoning nuclear program.

Yesterday, two prominent nuclear scientists in Iran were attacked in car bombings.

According to [Iranian new service] Fars, scientists Majid Shahriari and Fereydoun Abbasi were parking their cars in separate locations near the university campus about 7:45 a.m. local time when they were attacked.Witnesses said each car was approached by a group of men on motorcycles, who attached explosives to the vehicles and detonated them seconds later, the news agency reported. Shahriari was killed instantly. Abbasi was wounded. Both men were with their wives, who were also wounded. [Washington Post]

Unsurprisingly, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad quickly pointed the finger of blame at the West and Israel. Both of the targeted scientists are reportedly connected to the Iranian nuclear program, which the government maintains is for the purpose of energy, but the United States and other nations oppose out of fear of an Iranian bomb.

Abbasi-Davani, whose handful of publications on neutron physics are mainly in Iranian journals, is a key figure in Iran’s nuclear programme. He is reported to be a scientist at the country’s defence ministry, and a member of Iran’s revolutionary guards since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He was also named as being among “Persons involved in nuclear or ballistic missile activities” in the 2007 UN Security Council Resolution 1747, which imposed sanctions on Iran over its refusal to stop enrichment of uranium. [Nature]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Technology

Russia Will Spend $2 Billion on a Space Drone to Tidy up Orbit

By Jennifer Welsh | November 30, 2010 4:33 pm

space-junkYesterday, the Russian space agency Roscosmos confirmed news from last week that they are pursuing plans to spend $2 billion cleaning up space debris. In a striking contrast to the secrecy that once cloaked space programs, the confirmation came via an announcement on Roscosmos’s official Facebook page:

Russia will build a special orbital pod that would sweep up satellite debris from space around the Earth.The cleaning satellite would work on nuclear power and would be capable to work up to 15 years. Energia said in a statement that the company would complete the cleaning satellite assembly by 2020 and test the device no later than in 2023.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology

Picked-On Marmots May Inherit Their Low Social Position

By Andrew Moseman | November 30, 2010 1:45 pm

marmotIn the rigid social universe of Revenge of the Nerds-style 1980s movies, jocks beget jocks beget jocks, and the bespectacled geeks they push around beget generations of the same. But could being a victim of social bullying actually be inherited? A new study of DISCOVER’s favorite rodent, the marmot, shows that at least in the animal kingdom, the answer can be yes.

Daniel Blumstein and colleagues tracked yellow-bellied marmots that make their home in the Colorado Rockies for a five year period, from 2003 to 2008. For their study out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team tracked the family relationships of the individual marmots, as well as who antagonized whom.

Marmots don’t have Facebook yet, but animals living among clusters of burrows in Colorado do interact enough for observers to plot networks with each marmot as a node. An exchange might be friendly, such as a marmot grooming a neighbor or settling down tranquilly nearby. Or a social interaction might go sour, with one marmot nipping or chasing another. “Marmots are grumpy with each other,” Blumstein says, but rarely cause serious injuries. [Science News]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

Are Antibiotic-Infused Products Causing Allergies in Kids?

By Jennifer Welsh | November 30, 2010 12:44 pm

soapCleanliness is a virtue, but it’s possible to overdo it–that’s the message from a new study, which found that antibacterial soap may be doing teenagers more harm than good. The study found that the more teenagers are exposed to the antibiotic triclosan, the more likely they are to suffer from allergies and hayfever.

The researchers also looked at the effects of the widely used plastic chemical Bisphenol A (BPA), and found signs that teenagers with more BPA exposure may have immune system problems. The study was the first of its kind to examine the link between these two chemicals and immune dysfunction, which had only previously been studied in animals. Both chemicals are endocrine-disruptors, which means they may mimic or interfere with the body’s natural hormones.

“Many research studies show an association between exposure to environmental chemicals and different disease outcomes. There is a lack of data, however, examining whether exposure to these chemicals may affect our immune systems,” Erin Rees Clayton, a researcher from the University of Michigan school of public health said in an email. [The Montreal Gazette]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Health & Medicine

LHC Creates Cosmic Primordial Soup and Probes Strange Particle Jets

By Andrew Moseman | November 30, 2010 10:29 am

ALICEquarkGplasmaNow that the Large Hadron Collider is smashing lead, the discoveries are coming fast and furious.

Earlier this month CERN’s smashing machine switched from sending protons zinging around its ring to sending heavy lead ions at relativistic speeds. Those energetic collisions, the physicists now say, have allowed them to use the LHC’s ALICE experiment to glimpse quark-gluon plasma, the “primordial soup” present just after the Big Bang.

During this time, the Universe would have been so hot and energetic that the particles making up the elements we know today were unable to form, leaving the constituents to float “free” as a primordial soup. Quarks and gluons were only able to condense into larger particles when universal energy conditions were low enough. Hadrons (i.e. particles made from quarks; including baryons like neutrons and protons) were only allowed to form 10-6 seconds after the Big Bang. [Discovery News]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math

Study: Oxytocin Can Change How You Remember Your Mom

By Andrew Moseman | November 29, 2010 5:17 pm

mother talking with her sonYou’ve probably heard oxytocin referred to as the “love hormone,” but a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reminds us that there’s much more to it than that. Jennifer Bartz and colleagues treated men either with nasal sprays that included oxytocin or placebo sprays that didn’t, with peculiar results.

From Ed Yong:

Before all of this, the men completed a series of widely used questionnaires to measure the state of their social ties. The questions assessed the nature of their bonds with their families and friends, how sensitive they are to rejection, how comfortable they are at being close to other people, how much they desire that closeness, and more. Shortly after using both sprays, the recruits also answered questions about their mother’s parenting style.

Bartz found that when she averaged out the volunteers’ results, the sniffs of oxytocin hadn’t seemed to colour their memories of their mothers. But things changed when she looked at them individually. Those who felt more anxious about their relationships took a dimmer view of their mother’s parenting styles when they sniffed oxytocin, compared to the placebo. Those who were more secure in their relationships reacted in the opposite way – they remembered mum as being closer and more caring when they took the oxytocin.

For the rest of this post, check out DISCOVER blog Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Related Content:
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Can a sniff of oxytocin improve the social skills of autistic people?
80beats: The “Love Hormone” Oxytocin Helps People Recognize Faces They’ve Seen Before
DISCOVER: A Dose of Human Kindness, Now in Chemical Form examines oxytocin’s effects on generosity

Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Have Physicists Found Echoes From Before the Big Bang?

By Andrew Moseman | November 29, 2010 3:39 pm

WMAP ringsThe Big Bang was not the beginning, Roger Penrose believes.

The eminent Oxford physicist has long advocated the wild idea of “conformal cyclic cosmology,” a cyclical universe without beginning or end in which the Big Bang 13.75 billion years ago was simply one of many. This month, Penrose pushed his idea further: His team says it has detected a pattern in the cosmic microwave background—radiation left over from just after the Big Bang—that represents the echo of events that occurred before the Big Bang itself.

Penrose examined the data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), the mission that just completed nine years of surveying the cosmic microwave background across the sky. His study points to concentric circular patterns in the WMAP data where he says he found something surprising:

The circular features are regions where tiny temperature variations in the otherwise uniform microwave background are smaller than average. Those features, Penrose said, cannot be explained by the highly successful inflation theory, which posits that the infant cosmos underwent an enormous growth spurt, ballooning from something on the scale of an atom to the size of a grapefruit during the universe’s first tiny fraction of a second. Inflation would either erase such patterns or could not easily generate them. [Science News]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Top Posts

Age-Reversing Drugs on the Horizon? Not So Fast.

By Jennifer Welsh | November 29, 2010 3:06 pm

mouse-cuteResearchers have identified targets that could help produce old-age-defying drugs and a fountain of youth for the baby boomer population… but haven’t we heard this all before?

The study, published in Nature this week, used the enzyme telomerase to stop and actually reverse the aging process in prematurely-aged mice.

Telomerase keeps chromosomes structurally sound by beefing up telomeres, the repetitive segments of junk DNA at the ends of chromosomes. Telomeres act as protective buffers for the chromosome’s working genes during cell division, when the chromosome is shortened and genetic material at the tips is lost.

For the new study, researchers created special mice whose telomerase activity could be switched on and off. When telomerase was turned off, the mice aged prematurely.

These animals age much faster than normal mice–they are barely fertile and suffer from age-related conditions such as osteoporosis, diabetes and neurodegeneration. They also die young. “If you look at all those data together, you walk away with the idea that the loss of telomerase could be a very important instigator of the ageing process,” says [lead author Ronald] DePinho. [Nature News]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Mammals Supersized in a Hurry After Dino Die-Out

By Andrew Moseman | November 29, 2010 12:06 pm

MammalSupersizeThe demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago opened the door of opportunity for mammals to take over the Earth—that much is clear. What’s coming into focus, thanks to a study out in Science, is just how fast mammals maxed out their size once the terrible lizards were out of the way.

“For the first 140 million years of our evolutionary history we really did nothing—we were really kind of boring,” Felisa Smith, an associate professor of biology at the University of New Mexico and coauthor of the new study. … But across all of the major continents, during the first 25 million years after the dinosaurs were wiped out, mammals underwent an explosive growth spurt. By 42 million years ago, however, the researchers found, the intense growth had leveled off. [Scientific American]

Smith’s team surveyed fossils from around the world, including 32 different mammalian orders. No matter where they looked, she says, they saw the same pattern. Mammals that survived the extinction event were small, mostly rodent-sized. Then all over the planet they exploded in size during that period of 20 to 25 million years.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

Cassini Probe Detects a Wispy Oxygen Atmosphere on Saturn's Moon Rhea

By Andrew Moseman | November 29, 2010 9:56 am

rheaWhen the news comes from Saturn’s moons, the source is typically Titan—with its hazy atmosphere and frigid surface lakes of methane—or Enceladus—with its plumes of water ice. Last week, however, word came that Rhea, the second-largest Saturnian satellite, has some surprises of its own.

In Friday’s edition of Science, a study by Ben Teolis and colleagues confirmed that during a pass of the moon in March, when the ever-reliable Cassini spacecraft cruised over Rhea’s pole at an altitude of just 60 miles, it directly sampled tiny amounts of oxygen and carbon dioxide there.

“This really is the first time that we’ve seen oxygen directly in the atmosphere of another world,” said Andrew Coates, at UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, a co-author of the study. [The Guardian]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space
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