Urban Light Causes Birds to Bloom Early

By Breanna Draxler | February 14, 2013 12:02 pm

European Blackbird (turdus merula). Image courtesy of IbajaUsap / shutterstock

City lights at night make pretty views from space, but they’re not so good for sleeping. To overcome a messed up inner clock, many urban dwellers have learned to use light-blocking curtains or eye masks. But people aren’t the only ones who have to adjust to this unnatural illumination. Blackbirds, too, are exposed to this nighttime glow, and it actually makes them mature and moult sooner.

Reproduction is a seasonal ritual for birds, hence the term mating season, and they take their cues from their environment. Light is one of the factors that impacts the initiation of sexual maturity, and being exposed to light during the night appears to throw off this natural cycle.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Top Posts

Look at This: Colorful Birthplace of Galaxy’s Youngest Black Hole

By Breanna Draxler | February 14, 2013 10:18 am

This highly distorted supernova remnant may contain the most recent black hole formed in the Milky Way galaxy. The composite image combines X-rays from Chandra (blue and green), radio data from the Very Large Array (pink), and infrared data from the Palomar Observatory (yellow). Image courtesy of NASA.

This colorful supernova remnant is called W49B, and inside it astronomers think they may have found the Milky Way’s youngest black hole. It’s only 1,000 years old, as seen from Earth, and 26,000 lightyears away.

From a vantage point on NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers observed and measured the remnant and determined it to be very unique. The supernova explosion of this massive star was not symmetrical like most, and instead of collapsing to form a telltale neutron star at its center, this supernova seems to have a black hole.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Top Posts

Protein “Filmed” Unfolding for the First Time

By Gemma Tarlach | February 13, 2013 5:14 pm

“Snapshot” of the unfolding of CylR2 protein from Enterococcus faecalis. If the protein is cooled from 25°C to -16°C, it successively breaks down into its two identical subunits. The latter are initially stable, but at -16°C they form an instable, dynamic protein form, which plays a key role in folding. © Zweckstetter, Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry & German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases

­­Proteins — tools of living cells — can’t do their job if they’re not in shape. Literally.

And a new study is the first to image the various stages of a protein’s undoing, which will lend valuable insight to treatment of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Those are just two of the diseases caused by proteins that are misfolded — their amino acid chains are not arranged correctly, resulting in a misshapen three-dimensional structure. When misfolded, these proteins don’t work and, in the case of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, gunk up the brain and eventually destroy nerve cells.

Understanding how proteins fold is crucial to developing ways to prevent and treat these diseases. Previous attempts to document the process have involved heat or chemicals, creating conditions under which the proteins quickly unraveled and thus limiting observation of the in-between states.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

To Read Better, Dyslexics May Need to Speed Things Up

By Breanna Draxler | February 13, 2013 2:40 pm

Image courtesy of Singkham / shutterstock

“Slow down. Sound it out.”

This is the mantra for most dyslexic students learning to read. But results from a new computer training program suggest that the opposite may be true for dyslexics once they’ve learned to read—going faster could improve reading skills and comprehension.

Researchers in Israel compared the reading skills of dyslexic and non-dyslexic university students, before and after using a custom computer training program. The program’s premise is this: a sentence appears on the computer screen, which the participant is supposed to read silently. One by one, the letters disappear off the screen, from left to right, pushing the reader through the sentence. When the entire sentence has been removed from the screen, the user is prompted with a question about the content of the sentence he or she just read. This ensures that the participant did not just read the sentence, but actually understood what it meant.

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Asteroid Will Make Close Pass by Earth on Friday

By Breanna Draxler | February 12, 2013 9:24 am

This image shows a close-up view of Eros, an asteroid with an orbit that takes it somewhat close to Earth, though not nearly as close as 2012 DA14 will be on Friday. Image courtesy of NASA/JHUAPL

On Friday, February 15, astronomers will get an unusually good look at a near-Earth asteroid called 2012 DA14. It will be the first time a known object of this size will come this close to Earth—a mere 8 percent the distance between us and our moon.

The asteroid, which measures 150 feet across, was first spotted by astronomers when it zoomed by Earth this time last year. This asteroid’s fly-bys occur about once a year since its orbit around the sun is very similar to our own.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Space, Top Posts

Crowdsourcing New Names for Pluto’s Moons

By Bill Andrews | February 11, 2013 1:54 pm

The power to name Pluto’s smallest moons, labeled P4 and P5 in this Hubble photo, rests in your hands! Credit: NASA, ESA, M. Showalter (SETI Institute)

Any mention of Pluto among astronomy buffs, around water coolers and in comments sections, is enough to spark controversy. When the diminutive world officially became known as a dwarf planet in 2006, many took the “demotion” personally. But an announcement today from the SETI Institute might just be cool enough to bring everyone together.

The discoverers of Pluto’s two smallest moons are reaching out to the world for help in naming them. Currently designated P4 and P5, these tiny satellites were discovered in 2011 and 2012, respectively, using Hubble Space Telescope data. These were always temporary labels, though, and the time has come to select their official names. There might be even more moons lurking around the former planet, but the thing about Pluto is it’s really, really far, and even for Hubble the entire system registers as little more than dots. Plus, these moons are really small, only about 20 miles across max, making others like them extra hard to spot.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: moons, Pluto

Salmon Navigate Home Using Earth’s Magnetic Fields

By Breanna Draxler | February 8, 2013 2:51 pm

Couple of sockeye salmon just prior to spawning. image courtesy of Vasik Olga / shutterstock.

Sockeye salmon put on a lot of miles during their short life. From the freshwater riverbeds where they hatch and spend their first couple years, juvenile salmon travel some 4,000 miles to the ocean where they fatten up for two years before turning around and retracing their steps.

But salmon can’t leave actual footprints, nor do they have the luxury of dropping waterproof bread crumbs so they can find their way back home. Scientists have long suspected that these big fish instead use the Earth’s magnetism to orient their inner compass. A recent study of 56 years’ worth of migration data presents pretty convincing evidence for this geomagnetic hypothesis and how it works.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Top Posts

Brain Connections Contribute to Our Unique Personalities

By Breanna Draxler | February 7, 2013 10:30 am

Brain differences between the 23 participants were quantified at each surface vertex. Values below the global mean are shown in cool colors while values above this average are shown in warm colors. Image courtesy of Sophia Mueller et al.

Every person thinks and acts a little differently than the other 7 billion on the planet. Scientists now say that variations in brain connections account for much of this individuality, and they’ve narrowed it down to a few specific regions of the brain. This might help us better understand the evolution of the human brain as well as its development in individuals.

Each human brain has a unique connectome—the network of neural pathways that tie all of its parts together. Like a fingerprint, every person’s connectome is unique. To find out where these individual connectomes differed the most, researchers used an MRI scanning technique to take cross-sectional pictures of 23 people’s brains at rest.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts

Bionic Man Has Fully Functional Mechanical Organs

By Breanna Draxler | February 6, 2013 12:45 pm

Here Rex is shown sitting down next to the apparatus he uses to stand. Image courtesy of Science Museum, London

With working organs and a realistic face, the world’s most high-tech humanoid made his debut in London yesterday and will be a one-man show at the city’s London Science Museum starting tomorrow.

The robot goes by Rex (short for robotic exoskeleton) or Million-Dollar Man (because that’s how much it cost to build him). Rex looks somewhat lifelike in that he has prosthetic hands, feet and a face modeled after a real man. That man is Swiss social psychologist Bertolt Meyer, who himself has a prosthetic hand. Such technology is now becoming more widely available to the general public.

But where Rex really breaks new ground is his suite of working organs. Read More

Listen as Solar Flare Engulfs Radio Waves

By Breanna Draxler | February 6, 2013 8:09 am

Spectrograph of the February 2 solar flare. Image courtesy of Richard Flagg, Windward Community College Radio Observatory

We’re not supposed to look at the sun, but no one said anything about listening. If you, like amateur astronomer Thomas Ashcraft, had your radio tuned to the right frequency last Saturday evening, you would have heard the garbled effects of a solar flare drowning out radio waves here on Earth after it erupted on the surface of the sun. For those of you who still want to listen after the fact, you’re in luck:

Thomas Ashcraft is an independent, self-taught radio astronomer who operates his own Heliotown Observatory in north central New Mexico. Using optical telescopes and radio instruments, Ashcraft keeps an eye (and an ear) on the Sun, Jupiter, meteoric fireballs and transient luminous events called red sprites. He recorded the sound of the solar flare this weekend and shared his methodology and thoughts with DISCOVER writer Breanna Draxler via e-mail.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology, Top Posts
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