Archive for December, 2010

What Were Your Favorite Stories This Year? Actually, You Already Chose

By Andrew Moseman | December 20, 2010 9:00 am

New sea creatures, humongous stars, and cockroach antibiotics: Those are just a few reader favorites from this year in science. As 2010 comes to a close, we bring you a dozen of the most popular 80beats posts of the year.


For more great stories from the year in science, check out DISCOVER’s Top 100 Stories of the Year.

Ten Tricky Elements Force a Periodic Table Upgrade

By Andrew Moseman | December 17, 2010 5:22 pm

Periodic_TableThe weights, they are a-changin’.

What we’re taught in school science classes is a streamlined version of a muddier and more complicated reality, and it’s no different with something as iconic as the periodic table of elements. This week the venerable chart’s overseers decided to fiddle with the atomic weights of 10 elements, changing their values from a single set number to a range of numbers, which is messier but more accurately resembles the messy real world.

The reason for the change is that atomic weights are not always as concrete as most general-chemistry students are taught, according to the University of Calgary, which made the announcement, and the snappily named International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry‘s Commission on Isotopic Abundances and Atomic Weights, which oversees such weighty matters. [CNET]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math

LHC’s Lack of Black Holes Rules Out Some Versions of String Theory

By Jennifer Welsh | December 17, 2010 4:22 pm

CMSYou know those black holes the Large Hadron Collider was going to make and kill us all? Well, not only are we still here, but the LHC doesn’t seem to be making black holes at all—their decay signature is markedly absent from the data collected so far.

While that is good for those of us who want to keep living (we jest—the hypothetical micro black holes posed no danger), it’s also helping physicists make up their minds about how many dimensions there are in our universe. The lack of black holes at the LHC nullifies some of the wackier versions of string theory which depend on multiple dimensions.
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Space

Researchers Tap Google Books to Create the Word Cloud for Human History

By Andrew Moseman | December 17, 2010 11:34 am

NYC_Public_LibraryHumanity’s legacy of millions upon millions of books represents an unparalleled reservoir of data, precisely detailing the changes in language and culture over the centuries. Now, if only a search engine giant were digitizing that history…

Oh, right. Google has been doing just that, and now scientists are beginning to tap that treasure trove of data.

From Ed Yong:

Together with over 40 university libraries, the internet titan has thus far scanned over 15 million books, creating a massive electronic library that represents 12% of all the books ever published. All the while, a team from Harvard University, led by Jean-Baptiste Michel and Erez Lieberman Aiden have been analysing the flood of data.

Their first report is available today. Although it barely scratches the surface, it’s already a tantalising glimpse into the power of the Google Books corpus. It’s a record of human culture, spanning six centuries and seven languages. It shows vocabularies expanding and grammar evolving. It contains stories about our adoption of technology, our quest for fame, and our battle for equality. And it hides the traces of tragedy, including traces of political suppression, records of past plagues, and a fading connection with our own history.

Do yourself a favor and check out the rest of Ed’s extensive post—including fascinating examples like the “half-life” of any given year being mentioned in literature—over at Not Exactly Rocket Science. And try out Google’s search to see the prevalence of any phrases or phrases over the years.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: The Dawn of Urban Civilization: Writing, Urban Life, and Warfare
80beats: The Brains of Storytellers and Their Listeners Actually Sync Up
Not Exactly Rocket Science: New Languages Evolve in Rapid Bursts
Not Exactly Rocket Science: The Evolution of Past Tense: How Verbs Change Over Time

Image: Wikimedia Commons (New York Public Library)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Technology

California Blazes a Trail With the First U.S. Carbon Trading Program

By Andrew Moseman | December 17, 2010 10:57 am

carbonemissionsCap-and-trade is coming to California. The market-based system intended to cut greenhouse gas emissions is the key part of the Golden State’s effort, set into law four years ago, to cut its emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Yesterday the California Air Resources Board finally approved the complex set of rules, which will go into effect in 2012.

Power plants, refineries and other industrial facilities that emit carbon dioxide and can’t cut their emissions by the required amount will be able to obtain pollution allowances from the state or buy them from other emitters with excess allowances. [Wall Street Journal]

Cap-and-trade is widespread in Europe, but California‘s plan would be the first large-scale, legally mandated version of this idea to get going in the United States.

“We’re inventing this,” said Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the state’s air quality board. “There is still going to be quite a bit of action needed before it becomes operational.” She said California is trying to “fill the vacuum created by the failure of Congress to pass any kind of climate or energy legislation for many years now.” [USA Today]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment

Presidential Commission Gives Synthetic Biology the Green Light

By Jennifer Welsh | December 16, 2010 6:24 pm

biologyIn its first official report, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues recommended that the budding field of synthetic biology remain unregulated.

In the report‘s (pdf) 18 recommendations, the commission does suggest that synthetic biologists should self-regulate their work and be required to take ethics training. It also recommends that the president’s office better coordinate government agencies to oversee the work. But it stopped short of calling for a halt on research that creates organisms not found in nature.

“The commission thinks it imprudent either to declare a moratorium on synthetic biology until all risks can be determined and mitigated, or to simply ‘let science rip,’ regardless of the likely risks,” the report says. “The Commission instead proposes a middle ground — an ongoing system of prudent vigilance that carefully monitors, identifies and mitigates potential and realized harms over time.” [The New York Times]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Technology

Gallery: The Best Mars Photos From a Record-Breaking Odyssey

By Andrew Moseman | December 16, 2010 5:44 pm

The plucky rovers Spirit and Opportunity and the ice-finding Phoenix Lander have perhaps drawn more attention, but it’s the craft that’s been in steady, silent orbiter that has them all beat for longevity. The Mars Odyssey mission just clicked off its 3,340th day in orbit of Mars yesterday, making it the longest-running human mission to the Red Planet. The Mars Global Surveyor, another orbiter, held the record previously.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Top Posts

Study: We Still Have a Chance to Save the Polar Bears

By Andrew Moseman | December 16, 2010 12:54 pm

polar-bear-1
Polar bears, the poster-species for climate change, have been the subject of reports about new or growing threats in 2010: One story noted that the warming Arctic is pushing grizzlies north into polar bear territory, while another questioned whether polar bears can change their diet as their icy habitat melts. But the journal Nature this week brought an antidote to all that doom and gloom. A study modeling the Arctic climate suggests that it’s still not too late to protect the polar bear habitat, and therefore save the polar bear. The world just needs to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

The question is one of tipping points: Is the total demise of the Arctic summer sea ice already inevitable, or could a slowing of emissions also slow down the ice loss?

The dramatic retreat of Arctic sea ice in the summer of 2007 prompted some researchers to warn that the system may have reached a tipping point that would lead to the disappearance of summer sea ice within the next several decades, regardless of actions humans took to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. That concern, in turn, helped elevate the polar bear to climate-icon status and reportedly fed into then-President George W. Bush’s decision in 2008 to list the bear as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The new study, however, finds no “tipping point” now or in this century in Arctic sea-ice decline, but rather a relatively steady fall-off in ice extent as average temperatures increase. [Christian Science Monitor]

Study author Steven Amstrup, formerly of the U.S. Geological Survey and now at Polar Bears International, modeled five different scenarios for greenhouse emissions in the future. He saw a linear relationship between rising temperatures brought on by those emissions and the retreat of Arctic ice. What he didn’t see was a sharp sudden drop, a point at which crossing some temperature boundary led to an irrevocable disappearance of the ice that would doom the bears.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World

Scientists Identify Mummified Head of a Murdered French King

By Andrew Moseman | December 16, 2010 10:35 am

HenriIVIt’s a hard life (and death) being a French king. Even if you’re popular, you’re assassinated. Revolutionaries disinter your body long after your death and make off with your mummified head. And then finally, 400 years after your death, your head supposedly turns up in the garage of a collector.

This week a team led by Philippe Charlier reports to have identified the head of the monarch in this story, France’s King Henri IV. The researchers report their find in the Christmas issue of the British Medical Journal, which is known for its tradition of bizarre topics and occasional spoof articles, but Charlier and company appear to be on the level about identifying the remains of the first Bourbon king.

Known as “the green gallant” in his time, Henri’s extraordinary popularity didn’t prevent him from being whacked in 1610—then having his remains ransacked by revolutionaries nearly 200 years later. Reports of his head passing between private hands have surfaced over the centuries, most recently after one collector bought it for three francs in 1919, then tried—and failed—to have it authenticated for display in French museums. It came into possession of an 84 year-old man who has kept it stashed in his garage since 1955. [TIME]

Charlier and colleagues say they could not recover uncontaminated samples of mitochondrial DNA, which would have allowed for genetic testing. So, as an alternative, they found several ways to compare what was left of the embalmed head to what historians know about Henri IV (not to be confused with Henry IV of England, subject of two Shakespeare plays).

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Cutting Through the Hype Surrounding One Man's HIV "Cure"

By Andrew Moseman | December 15, 2010 2:08 pm

HIVbuddingPerhaps you’ve seen the story of the 44-year-old American man reportedly “cured” of HIV in Germany–it’s been making the rounds over the past week. What’s actually happening here?

The Procedure

This is a story that dates back a few years; in fact, 80beats blogged about this case years ago when it first made the news. Back in 2007, the man—Timothy Ray Brown—was an HIV-positive patient suffering from acute myeloid leukemia. When standard chemotherapy couldn’t help him, his docs in Germany turned to a bone marrow transplant, with one twist.

Brown’s oncologist decided to look for a bone marrow donor who had a had a special genetic mutation that made the stem cells in it naturally resistant to HIV infection. His physician, Dr. Gero Huetter, was able to find this rare match and Brown got the bone marrow transplant.  He needed a second stem cell transplant because the cancer came back. Today, he appears to be cancer free and doctors can’t find traces of the virus that causes AIDS either. [CNN]

Brown’s treatment made a splash in the news in 2008, when the doctors first reported on it. It has resurfaced this month because the researchers published a new study in the journal Blood updating his condition.

The researchers confirmed that Brown seems to have maintained his resistance to HIV for three years, confounding their expectation that he would become reinfected. They concluded that a “cure of HIV has been achieved in this patient.” [New Scientist]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
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