On the left: A mouse embryo preserved in para-formaldehyde. On the right: A mouse embryo soaked in Scale for two weeks.
What’s the News: The trouble with brains, organs, and tissues in general, from a biologist’s perspective, is that they scatter light like nobody’s business. Shine a light into there to start snapping pictures of cells with your microscope, and bam, all those proteins and macromolecules bounce it around and turn everything to static before you’ve gotten more than a millimeter below the surface. Scientists at RIKEN in Japan, however, have just published a special recipe for a substance that makes tissue as transparent as Jell-O, making unprecedentedly deep imaging possible.
What’s the News: In the long-running debate over the differences between men and women, one mental skill has emerged as being perhaps more biologically rooted than any other: the ability to solve problems involving physical spaces, shapes, or forms. Many studies have concluded that men simply seem to have an inherent advantage in this area. But a new study of two tribes in Northern India is suggesting that the gender gap we see in spatial skills may be partially due to culture rather than raw biology. This finding may affect the way researchers look at gender differences, but it will surely not settle the question, considering that it’s one study of a small group of people living in one limited environment.
For the first time, astrophysicists have created a computer simulation of the formation of a spiral galaxy like the Milky Way (above). Researchers at the University of California at Santa Cruz and the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Zurich modeled their galaxy, Eris, using a software platform called Gasoline, which allowed them to track the motion of 60 million particles of gas and dark matter for over 13 billion simulated years. Overall, the simulation required 9 months of number crunching on NASA’s Pleiades supercomputer, with supporting simulations on supercomputers at UCSC and the Swiss National Supercomputing Center.
Previous efforts to model spiral galaxies have failed, ending in disfigured galaxies with central bulges much too large for their disks, according to the researchers. But Eris’ bulge-to-disk ratio, stellar content, and other features fall in line with observations of the Milky Way. The researchers point to a realistic model of star formation as a key to Eris’ success—their high-resolution simulation allowed stars to form only in regions with a high density of particles, resulting in a more accurate distribution of stars. More than just a nice movie, the work supports the cold dark matter theory, which says that the gravitational interactions of dark matter drove the evolution of the universe. A paper detailing the Eris simulation will be published in an upcoming issue of the Astrophysical Journal.
Matternet’s design for a Medical Aid Quadcopter
What’s the News: Many of the unmanned aerial vehicles we hear about are flying off to war, laden with weapons or surveillance equipment. The tech start-up Matternet, however, is designing small quadcopter UAVs to carry peaceable payloads, delivering medical supplies and other necessities to areas dangerous or difficult to reach by road.
Children of older mothers, scientists have long known, are at higher risk for certain genetic disorders such as Down syndrome. But the father’s age is matters, too. As a father’s age increases, research shows, so does his child’s risk of mental illness, schizophrenia and autism in particular. In Scientific American, Nicole Grey explores the link between a father’s age and his child’s health, as well as the tricky questions about what mechanisms are behind the that link: genes, epigenetic changes, environment, or some combination of the three.
After several years of nail-biting delays and breakdowns, the Large Hadron Collider, one of the few science experiments to become a household name, got underway in March of 2010. The search for the Higgs boson, the elusive “God particle” that would resolve several problems in the Standard Model of particle physics, was front-page news.
But in the last 18 months, as the LHC has scanned through various energies, the Higgs has not showed itself. And at a conference in Mumbai on August 22, CERN scientists revealed news that set the physics community humming: in the energies so far explored, there’s a 95% probability that the Higgs doesn’t exist. Amir Azcel, writing in a guest blog at Scientific American, explains these numbers, considers the tumult in particle physics that will occur should the Higgs prove no more than theoretical, and asks whether Stephen Hawking has just won his infamous bet against the Higgs:
A few years ago, celebrated British physicist Stephen Hawking was widely reported in the press to have placed a provocative public bet that the LHC (along with all particle accelerators that preceded it) would never find the Higgs boson, the so-called “God particle” believed responsible for having imbued massive particles with their mass when the universe was very young.
Image courtesy of CERN
Artist’s concept of the pulsar and its planet. The system could fit into our Sun, represented by the yellow surface.
What’s the News: An international team of astronomers has found an exotic planet possibly made of diamond, located about 4,000 light-years away from Earth. The researchers believe that the unusual planet was once a sun-like star, transformed into its current state by its hungry stellar companion, a millisecond pulsar.
What’s the News: Researchers have now found a well-preserved fossil of the earliest known member of the animal group that encompasses today’s placental mammals, which includes humans. The shrew-like creature, named Juramaia sinensis, or “Jurassic mother from China,” dates back to 160 million years ago, 35 million years earlier than the oldest mammal fossil previously discovered. The Nature study gives some tangible support to genetic evidence suggesting that the two main types of mammals split well before the previous oldest mammal fossils.
The Eastern Seaboard is warily watching the progress of Hurricane Irene, wondering what course the storm will take and just how ferocious it will be. Predicting the path of a hurricane still involves some guesswork—but thanks to rapidly improving computer models and data-gathering abilities, Tekla Perry reports in IEEE Spectrum, scientists are able to make more accurate forecasts farther in advance than they were even five or ten years ago. In fact, the predicted track of a hurricane over the next 48 hours today is as accurate as a prediction for the next 24 hours was 10 years ago—a day that can make a big difference for people deciding whether to evacuate and how to prepare before the storm. Boosts in computing power mean scientists can run more, faster, and more detailed simulations of the storm, and technologies like Dopper radar provide detailed data on wind speed, air pressure, and temperature as storms progress.