Archive for January, 2011

Chile's Disastrous 2010 Earthquake Didn't Dissipate the Seismic Stress

By Patrick Morgan | January 31, 2011 6:16 pm

Chile’s earthquake woes seem to know no end. Geologists are now saying that Chile’s deadly 2010 quake may have actually increased the risk of another destructive one.

The 8.8-magnitude earthquake that struck last February relieved seismic stress in some areas–such as southern Santiago–but not in an area dubbed the “Darwin gap,” which lies on the coastal area near Concepcion, according to a study published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

To see if the 2010 quake might have helped release pent-up stress in the Darwin gap, scientists modeled how it might have affected the gap by analyzing tsunami readings gathered by gauges in the water and land observations taken by satellite, GPS and the human eye…. The investigators found the earthquake ruptured only part of the Darwin gap. An area of stored energy remains unbroken there, and the 2010 earthquake might have actually stressed it further…. [Said study coauthor Stefano Lorito]: “A new magnitude 7 to 8 earthquake might be expected in that region.” [OurAmazingPlanet]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment

A Mineral You’ve Never Heard of Could Create Next-Gen Electronics

By Eliza Strickland | January 31, 2011 6:04 pm

When experts talk about discarding today’s silicon-based computer chips and building next-generation electronics out of new materials, they’re usually talking about graphene, and for good reason–the one-atom-thick layers of carbon can behave like semiconductors and have already been used in experimental transistors. But researchers from a Swiss lab think they have a material that can trump both silicon and graphene. World, meet molybdenite.

The researchers from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) note that the mineral looks similar to mica, and has a layered molecular structure that allows it to sheer off easily into thin sheets.

Molybdenite, the researchers said, is abundant in nature and is currently used in steel alloys and in lubricants, but it has not previously been studied for use in electronics. “It’s a two-dimensional material, very thin and easy to use in nanotechnology. It has real potential in the fabrication of very small transistors, light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and solar cells,” said EPFL Professor Andras Kis, adding that molybdenite (MoS2) is far more compact than silicon, while still allowing electrons to circulate freely. [PC Pro]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology

States and Feds Rush to Outlaw Drugs Sold as “Bath Salts”

By Patrick Morgan | January 31, 2011 2:17 pm

Bath products never sounded so dangerous before. Two methamphetamine-like drugs that are being sold as mere “bath salts” have been linked to hallucinations and suicides, and lawmakers around the country are cracking down. Three states have already banned the substances, and this weekend Senator Charles Schumer announced that he’ll introduce a bill to outlaw the substances at the federal level.

“These so-called bath salts contain ingredients that are nothing more than legally sanctioned narcotics, and they are being sold cheaply to all comers, with no questions asked, at store counters around the country,” said Schumer, a New York Democrat. [Reuters]

The drugs, mephedrone and methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), can be snorted, injected, or smoked. They have no connection to real bath salts–the scented powders and crystals added to bath water for relaxation. The drugs are commercially labeled with such innocuous names as TranQuility, Blue Silk, and White Lightning, but authorities agree that the effects are anything but innocuous:

Psychotic reactions to snorting the “bath salts” reportedly led one woman to swing a machete at her 71-year-old mother in an attempt to behead her, Panama City Beach police said. Also, a man high on the brand Blue Silk tore up the backseat of a patrol car with his teeth after seven Bay County Sheriff’s Office deputies wrestled the crazed man into the cruiser, the agency said. [Los Angeles Times]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain

How Egypt Shut Down the Web—and How Egyptians Are Fighting Back

By Andrew Moseman | January 31, 2011 10:23 am

Supplies are dwindling, journalists are being arrested, and protests continue in Egypt today, with a mass demonstration planned for tomorrow. And still, the nation is Internet silent—almost. We remarked on Friday about this historic act of government internet censorship, but just how did the Egyptian government manage to shut down nearly all Internet communication coming out of the country?

It wasn’t a “kill switch,” experts say—the Egyptian government didn’t push a button and take down the country’s Internet service providers. Rather, Egyptian ISPs all must have licenses with the state and follow the government’s regulations, however draconian they may be. So if the Telecommunication Regulatory Authority called and told them to shut down, they didn’t have much choice.

That comports with the data published by Renesys, a net monitoring firm, which saw individual ISPs go dark within minutes of one another. “First impressions: this sequencing looks like people getting phone calls, one at a time, telling them to take themselves off the air,” wrote Renesys’s chief scientist James Cowie. “Not an automated system that takes all providers down at once; instead, the incumbent leads and other providers follow meekly one by one until Egypt is silenced.” [Wired]

The fact that so much censorship happened so quickly is a result of the relative simplicity of Egypt’s Internet, Cowie said in an interview with Scientific American.

“If you look at a complex system such as those in the United States or Canada, you might ask, ‘How many phone calls would I have to make to shut it down?’ It probably wouldn’t be possible. Most of the people you would call operate independent of the government and wouldn’t even listen to you. In a place like Egypt there’s a lot less diversity in that ecosystem. There were just a few key providers, they’re all licensed by the government.” [Scientific American]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology

Chemical Dispersants Used in the BP Oil Spill Lingered in the Ocean Depths

By Patrick Morgan | January 31, 2011 10:02 am

The oil stopped spilling from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead months ago, but the Gulf of Mexico’s environmental saga continues. Researchers have investigated the chemicals used to disperse the oil flow in the first place, and found that these “dispersants” didn’t disperse. The effects of this massive chemistry experiment, however, are still unknown.

“The dispersants got stuck in deep water layers around 3,000 feet [915 meters] and below,” said study leader David Valentine, a microbial geochemist at the University of California, Santa Barbara…. “We were seeing it three months after the well had been capped. We found that all of that dispersant added at depth stayed in the deepwater plumes. Not only did it stay, but it didn’t get rapidly biodegraded as many people had predicted.” [National Geographic]

In total, the response team pumped over 800,000 gallons of dispersants into the oil flow; dispersants break down oil into smaller droplets that can degrade more quickly. But the impact of the dispersants themselves has been up for debate. For the new study, scientists tracked the dispersants by following one of its ingredients: dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate (DOSS).

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment

Malaysia Unleashes Swarms of GM Mosquitoes to Combat Dengue Fever

By Patrick Morgan | January 28, 2011 4:34 pm

Swarms of genetically modified mosquitoes? This isn’t science fiction: The Malaysian government announced earlier this week that it unleashed 6,000 genetically modified (GM) skeeters into a forest as part of a plan to fight dengue fever, a potentially fatal affliction that can affect up to 100 million people each year.

The news appears to have caught the Malaysian media and public by surprise; many recent news stories reported that the study had been postponed after intense protests. As recently as 17 January, the Consumers’ Association of Penang and Sahabat Alam Malaysia, two groups opposing the use of GM insects, called on the National Biosafety Board to revoke its approval for the study. Scientists, too, were under the impression that the work had yet to begin, says medical entomologist Bart Knols of the University of Amsterdam. A 24 January blog post by Mark Benedict, a consultant at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta who monitors the field closely, mentioned that the Malaysian study was “planned.” [ScienceNOW]

The study itself included the release of 12,000 male mosquitoes in total: 6,000 unaltered and 6,000 GM Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. The goal was to track how well the two types survived and how far they spread. U.K. biotech firm Oxitec created the modified mosquitoes, which don’t produce viable offspring. Researchers hope that if these altered males mate with wild females, it will bring the overall mosquito population down. The strategy has been tried once before in the Grand Cayman Islands, and results from that experiment are due to be published soon.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Living World

Study: Evolution Education in U.S. Schools Is in a Sorry State

By Andrew Moseman | January 28, 2011 1:40 pm

Though attempts to teach creationism (or its twin sister, intelligent design) in the classroom have been struck down in court, these anti-science approaches still influence the teaching of evolution in American schools. Barely more than one-quarter of 926 high school science teachers who responded to a survey published in Science this week unabashedly taught evolution in their classrooms.

Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer of Penn State have been watching this story for years, tracking whether courtroom victories like 2005′s Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District truly freed up teachers to teach evolution without fear. In an early 2008 study, a book, and new results published in Science, the answer is a depressing “no”:

Only 28% of the 926 teachers surveyed, “unabashedly introduce evidence that evolution has occurred and craft lesson plans so that evolution is a theme that unifies disparate topics in biology.” … Most biology teachers belong to the “cautious 60%,” who are “neither strong advocates for evolutionary biology nor explicit endorsers of nonscientific alternatives,” the study says. [USA Today]

It’s not that a wave of creationism is overtaking our biology teachers—just 13 percent of respondents said they advocated that viewpoint. What’s more likely, Berkman and Plutzer say, is a crisis of confidence. Says Berkman:

“The survey left space for [the teachers] to share their experiences. That’s where we picked up a lot of a sense about how they play to the test and tell students they can figure it out for themselves. Our general sense is they lack the knowledge and confidence to go in there and teach evolution, which makes them risk-averse.” [LiveScience]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

Blackout: Egyptian Internet Taken Offline by Government Crackdown

By Andrew Moseman | January 28, 2011 11:02 am

You know it’s getting serious when people aren’t using Facebook. The social networking giant now says it has noticed significantly reduced traffic from Egypt as a result of the Egyptian government’s attempt to shut down its country’s Internet this week to quash political protests. Though we’ve seen governments attempt to censor the Internet in times of uprising before (like during the 2009 Iranian election), Forbes says this is “the first time in modern history a major Internet economy is being shut down.”

Mobile phone networks have reportedly been disrupted, leaving millions without access to text messaging or phone calls. The country’s key Internet Service Providers are also off the air, says James Cowie, the chief technology officer of Internet monitoring firm Renesys on his blog. “Virtually all of Egypt’s Internet addresses are now unreachable, worldwide. [Forbes]

Indeed, Cowie says, this is something new compared to other government internet censorship:

Similar demonstrations and Web outages are occurring in Tunisia, though Cowie noted that the Egypt Internet downtime “is a completely different situation from the modest Internet manipulation that took place in Tunisia, where specific routes were blocked, or Iran, where the Internet stayed up in a rate-limited form designed to make Internet connectivity painfully slow.” [PC Magazine]

Thoughts of a government being able to just “turn off the Internet” has people in other countries frightened, but it was particularly easy to achieve in Egypt.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts

To Find the Future of Biofuels, Punch a Hole in a Cow

By Andrew Moseman | January 27, 2011 6:36 pm

We humans are great at making ethanol from grains. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years to make beer and liquor, and our expertise is one reason that corn ethanol has been the biofuel of choice so far. But the biofuels of the future, experts say, will come not from the starch in corn but from the cellulose in grasses and other abundant green plants. There’s just one problem: We’re not good at breaking down the tough structure of cellulose to get at the sugars inside.

But cows are.

Cows, like termites and leafcutter ants, love to eat tough plant material, and host bacteria with the molecular machinery to do so in their guts. Scientists, in their attempts to get better at breaking down cellulose, have tried to copy nature by studying the enzymes that allow those grass-eating animals to do their thing. And now researchers say they have found a treasure trove of new microbe-produced enzymes inside a cow that could help them in their quest.

In a study published Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Science, researchers described how they incubated bags of switchgrass inside cow rumens and from that found 27,755 “candidate genes” with the potential for efficiently breaking down plant cellulose into usable sugar that can then become ethanol. [MSNBC]

Eddy Rubin and his team executed this chemical excursion by surgically opening a hole into the first of the cow’s four stomachs.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Technology

Did Humans Migrate Out of Africa Via a Shallow Red Sea?

By Patrick Morgan | January 27, 2011 6:26 pm
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Early humans trekking out of Africa moved faster than we thought they did: New archeological evidence suggests they reached the Persian Gulf 50,000 years before we previously thought.

Archeologists excavating a rock shelter in Jebel Faya, in the United Arab Emirates, found a cache of hand axes and other tools that date back 125,000 years ago. Their age was established by dating the silicon in the chert tools, and also via comparison to other artifacts:

Team member Anthony Marks of Southern Methodist University, an anthropologist, said the tools were made in ways consistent with the 125,000-years-ago time period and therefore raise the inevitable question of how they got to the area near the Persian Gulf…. “Either these people came out of East Africa or they came from nowhere,” he said. [The Washington Post]

The team’s research, published in Science, posits that the area’s climate had a role in spurring mankind’s expansion around the planet. Climate records suggest that the Red Sea was much shallower during an ice age that lasted from 200,000 to 130,000 years ago, because much of the world’s water was trapped in glaciers. This allowed early humans to cross the now-shallow Red Sea for new land in the southern Arabian peninsula, the researchers say. After the crossing, these early humans would have found themselves in a surprisingly fertile place: Towards the end of that ice age, the deserts of Arabia experienced a brief “wet” era with rivers, lakes, vegetation, and wildlife.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins
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