Science Scanner: Voters Say Pluto is a Planet, Sense of Touch Explored, Promising New Way to Stop Spread of Cancer, High-Tech Bracelet Secures Computers

Posted September 24th, 2014 at 7:48 pm (UTC-4)
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Computer-augmented map of Pluto in rotation (NASA/ESA)

Computer-augmented map of Pluto in rotation (NASA/ESA)

People Vote to Make Pluto a Planet Again

Until 2006, school children were taught – and most people considered the matter settled – that Pluto is one of the nine planets of the solar system.  But that year members of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) – which is responsible for naming and classifying celestial objects – voted to define the characteristics that officially make a planet a planet.

And according to the formally adopted definition, Pluto could no longer be considered a planet.  It was demoted to dwarf planet status.

The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts felt it was time to reexamine IAU’s definition of a planet by holding a debate that featured three leading experts in planetary science.

After listening to all sides of the debate, the audience voted on what a planet is or isn’t and whether or not Pluto is a planet.

The audience voted for a definition submitted by Dr. Dimitar Sasselov, director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative, who defined a planet as “the smallest spherical lump of matter that formed around stars or stellar remnants.” The also voted that Pluto was a planet.


(Agustín Ruiz via Creative Commons/Flickr)

(Agustín Ruiz via Creative Commons/Flickr)

Scientists Offer New Theory on How Our Sense of Touch is Produced

Have you ever wondered how our sense of touch is produced?

Neuroscientists from the University of Chicago, writing in the journal Trends in Neurosciences, said their research indicates a variety of different nerves and skin receptors which sense pressure, temperature, and vibrations on or around the skin all work together to produce our sense of touch.

The findings made by the Chicago scientists dispute long-held theories that indicate there are separate and distinct groups of nerves and skins receptors that are each responsible for various aspects of touch, such as an object’s texture or its shape.

To make their findings, the researchers analyzed more than 100 previously conducted studies conducted over the past 57 years.


New Therapy to Keep Cancer from Spreading Shows Promise

Stanford researchers develop protein therapy to stop metastasis (Stanford University)

Researchers at Stanford University may be close to developing a new way to slow or even stop cancer from spreading or metastasizing from one part of the body to others without the risks and severe side-effects of chemotherapy.

The California scientists, whose findings were published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology, developed what they call an ‘evolved’ protein therapy.

Their new metastasis prevention therapy interrupts the process that causes cancer cells to separate from original tumor locations, enter the bloodstream and travel to other locations throughout the body where the more aggressive and deadly cancer growths can form.

The researchers found that cancer spreads when two proteins – Axl and Growth arrest-specific 6 (Gas6) interact with each other.

To keep this interaction from taking place, the scientists created a harmless version of the Axl protein.  This harmless protein, acting like a decoy, attaches itself to the Gas6 protein within the bloodstream and keeps the harmful Axl protein from being activated.

The scientists said that they used their new experimental protein therapy to stop the spread of ovarian and breast cancer in lab mice.


Dartmouth College Scientists develop new system that continously protects computers systems from unauthorized users (US NAVY)

Dartmouth College Scientists develop new system that continously protects computers systems from unauthorized users (US NAVY)

New Bracelet Device Helps Keep Computer Systems Safer and More Secure

Keeping important and sensitive information safe and secure on computer and network systems is incredibly challenging.

Researchers at Dartmouth College say their Zero-Effort Bilateral Recurring Authentication (ZEBRA) method of computer security continuously confirms the identity of a user as they work at their terminal.

When the system detects that an authorized user is no longer working with the terminal, it automatically logs them out, preventing others from viewing or accessing their material.

The researchers said that despite the popular and effective authentication systems used today – such as those that rely on passwords, finger prints or eye scans – users often forget to logout when they step-away from their computer, leaving it open and vulnerable to security risks.

Users accessing ZEBRA-protected systems wear a specially designed bracelet that includes a built-in accelerometer, gyroscope and radio on their dominant wrist.  The bracelet interacts with the computer or terminal to continuously monitor and authenticate authorized use. Once the authorized user steps away from the computer for a predetermined length of time the system automatically logs the user out.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

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