Archive for November, 2011

Ever Enter a Room & Forget Why You Went There? Blame The Doorway.

By Douglas Main | November 22, 2011 11:35 am

New research suggests the mere act of walking through a doorway helps people forget, which could explain many millions of confusing moments that happen each day around the world. A study published recently in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology found that participants who walked through doorways in a virtual reality environment were significantly more likely to forget memories formed in another room, compared with those who traveled the same distance but crossed no thresholds.

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Helpful Mouse Fetuses Naturally Send Stem Cells to Mom to Fix Her Damaged Heart

By Valerie Ross | November 21, 2011 2:23 pm

Cardiomyocytes damaged by a heart attack

What’s the News: Scientists are devoting countless research hours to treatments based on embryonic stem cells, differentiating these blank-slate cells from embryos into brain cells, light-sensing retinal cells, blood cells, and more to replace damaged or destroyed tissues in the body. Now, a new study in mice shows such that nature has arrived at just such a solution, too: When a pregnant mouse has a heart attack, her fetus donates some of its stem cells to help rebuild the damaged heart tissue.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

Hyperactive Visual Cortex Neurons May Cause Orange "O"s and Purple "P"s

By Valerie Ross | November 18, 2011 2:36 pm

The colors that letters and numbers appear to a synesthete

What’s the News: For most of us, our senses stay relatively separate: that is, we hear what we hear and see what we see. People with synesthesia, however, actually see words as colors, taste a particular flavor when they hear a familiar song, or experience other strong, automatic linkages between senses. The neurological underpinnings of the condition—how the brain connects two usually distinct senses—have remained a mystery. But researchers have now found a possible cause, they reported yesterday: neurons in the area responsible for the second sensation, such as the color that goes with the word, may be unusually excitable.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts

Mongolia to Cool Capital City During the Summer with a Giant Ice Cube

By Veronique Greenwood | November 18, 2011 8:45 am

ice cube
A naled, or aufeis, in the flesh. Er, ice.

It sounds like science fiction, but, like so many science fiction-ish ideas in the age of radical adaption to climate change, it’s real: Mongolia is launching a $750,000 geoengineering project to freeze vast quantities of the Tuul River in order to cool its capital city of Ulan Bataar during the sweltering summer, and to provide drinking water as the ice melts, as well. While specifics about exactly how the cooling will work are scarce, details about the freezing process are not, as it will mimic a natural process that already occurs on rivers in the north.

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What Is Synthetic Pot, and Why's It Causing Heart Attacks in Teenagers?

By Douglas Main | November 18, 2011 8:44 am

What’s The News: Three 16-year-old  teenage boys in Texas had heart attacks shortly after smoking a product called k2, or Spice, according to a study published this month in the journal Pediatrics. The report highlights a growing public health problem: the increased availability and use of synthetic cannabinoids, which when smoked mimic the effects of marijuana but typically can’t be detected in drug tests. While the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency secured an emergency, one-year ban of five synthetic cannabinoids in March of this year, most of the hundreds of such chemicals remain basically legal, widely available, little understood, and potentially harmful.

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Satellite Photos Show Ancient Saharan Fortresses of a Lost Empire

By Valerie Ross | November 17, 2011 4:05 pm

New satellite images have revealed more than a hundred ancient fortified settlements still standing in the Sahara. The settlements, located in what today is southern Libya, were built by the Garamantes, a people who ruled much of the area for nearly a thousand years until their empire fragmented around 700 AD. Information about the Garamantes is relatively scarce: Other than the accounts of classical historians (who aren’t known for careful accuracy) and excavations of the Garamantian capital city in the 1960s, archaeologists haven’t had a lot to go on. During the decades-long reign of Muammar Gadhafi, antiquities and archaeology weren’t exactly a national priority; the fortresses were largely ignored. As David Mattingly, the British archaeologist who led the project, said to OurAmazingPlanet of the discoveries: “It is like someone coming to England and suddenly discovering all the medieval castles.”

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When Data is Beautiful: A Collection of Colorful Volcano Maps

By Veronique Greenwood | November 17, 2011 1:01 pm

crater lakeThe Crater Lake caldera shows a particularly striking pattern of lava flows.

Sometimes, the results of science can be a little cryptic. But other times, data can be as beautiful as it is information rich. Betsy Mason over at Wired Science has a gallery of geological maps of volcanoes that demonstrate exactly that, with a rainbow of colors indicating different types of rock and lava flows from millennia of eruptions. Which mountain is your favorite?

Image courtesy of USGS


What Is the SOPA Bill, and Why Is It Causing Such a Ruckus?

By Veronique Greenwood | November 17, 2011 1:00 pm

SOPA infographic
An infographic produced by the organizers of American Censorship Day describes one of the arguments against the SOPA bill.

It’s been a busy couple of days in the discussion of free speech in the United States, and if you’re a regular reader of tech blogs, chances are you’ve begun to hear about one of this week’s issues: the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. This bill, intended to help stem online piracy and backed by companies like Disney, Viacom, and Time Warner, has set off the alarms of many sites and companies on the internet because it essentially allows the government and private corporations to censor entire sites that they fear are illegally distributing copyrighted material. Many companies—including Google, Twitter, Facebook, AOL, Zynga, Mozilla, LinkedIn, and Ebay, which took out a full-page ad in the NYTimes with a letter to the congressmembers involved—and numerous sites and civil-liberty groups—including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Demand Progress, Creative Commons, Wikimedia, and others—have spoken up against the act. Some sites that would likely be among the blocked, including Tumblr, are self-censoring in protest. A coalition of Internet civil liberty and IP groups declared Wednesday, November 16—the day that hearings began on the SOPA bill—American Censorship Day and are orchestrating a campaign to have people contact their representatives to speak against the bill. They developed this infographic that explains why they are worried about the bill (excerpted above).

The gist of the opponents’ argument is this: While the problem of online piracy is real, the way this law is written, it means that the government may make email companies and internet service providers monitor links you send through email or on social networking sites. It also means that someone from the government or a private corporation can cause a whole site to be removed from Google results and block people from viewing it, as well as preventing online payments from being made to the person who owns the site. It is, essentially, a law that creates a government blacklist, a la the Great Firewall of China.

For more details, check out coverage at The Atlantic Wire, BoingBoing, Ars Technica, Business Insider.


How San Francisco's Massive New Suspension Bridge Will Withstand Megaquakes

By Veronique Greenwood | November 16, 2011 3:28 pm

One cable holds the bridge up.

San Francisco has its share of massive earthquakes, but the Bay Bridge, one of the city’s main transit arteries, is not as quake-safe as you’d hope. That’s why, alongside it, the state is building a massive new replacement structure—the largest self-supporting suspension bridge ever built. Jim Giles at New Scientist went to visit the bridge and provides a primer on its engineering:

In a regular suspension bridge, the cables that support the roadway are hung between two or more towers, like a hammock between trees, and anchored at each end by a connection to land. The new bridge is more like a sling. A single cable loops under the roadway, over the tower and beneath the roadway on the other side of the tower. The enormous forces placed on the cable by the road cancel out, leaving a structure that is balanced but not directly supported by a land anchor…

As the [road] segment fell into place it revealed the full length of tower that stands behind it, an elegant structure made up of four concrete pillars. These drop into enormous steel foundations, parts of which were built in Texas and shipped to California via the Panama canal. The pillars are connected by “shear beams”—relatively weak steel components that are designed to break if the towers move. The two roadways, one each for east and westbound traffic, hang from the cables but are not attached directly to the tower. This arrangement means that the four pillars and two roadways will sway when a quake hits, but remain intact even through the strongest shaking that geologists expect the region to experience over the next 1500 years.

Read more at New Scientist.

Image courtesy of Bay Bridge Information Office.


Did Parasites Drive Human Evolution?

By Veronique Greenwood | November 16, 2011 12:37 pm

Hookworms are longer-lived than viruses and bacteria;
they could have had a more significant effect on human evolution.

Humans live in all sorts of places—high deserts, tropical lowlands, frigid tundra. Over the millennia, you’d expect each population’s assortment of genes to evolve to reflect the demands and dangers of its home environment: those who live in the deserts would possess genes for extra skin pigments to help keep their tender integument from burning (like African peoples), and those who live in sub-zero climes much of the year would have genes that keep them well-insulated in fat (like the Inuit). But what if factors other than climate, like the food available nearby or the viruses, bacteria, and parasites native to the area, also had an effect on various human populations’ genetic toolkits?

It’s a fascinating question, but, given that we have to reconstruct all this supposed evolution from the current state of modern genomes, finding an answer isn’t easy. A recent paper takes an important first step by looking for correlations between 500,000 different genetic markers and certain environmental characteristics, like humidity, temperature, the local diet, and the prevalence of parasites and other pathogens.

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