Science World

Science Scanner: Hundreds of Newly Discovered Species at Risk

There’s been a lot of buzz  lately about the discovery of more than 300 new species in the Philippines. Two of them appear to be garnering the most attention:  the Inflatable Shark and the Laughing Cicada.

The find was the result of a survey – by researchers from the California Academy of Sciences – to document life found there on land, air and sea.

The new species of life the international team came across include a cicada that makes a distinctive “laughing” call, a deep-sea swell shark which inflates its stomach with water to bulk up and scare off other predators and a starfish that exclusively eats sunken driftwood. They also found three new lobster relatives that squeeze into crevices instead of carrying shells on their backs, a crab whose pincers are lined with needle-like teeth and a worm-like pipefish that hides among colonies of soft coral.

New species are being discovered all the time. The World Wildlife Fund found 1,060 new species in New Guinea from 1998 to 2008.

The WWF’s newly released study, Final Frontier: Newly Discovered species of New Guinea (1998 – 2008) shows that 218 new kinds of plants – close to 100 of which are orchids – were found. They also identified 43 reptiles and 12 mammals – including a unique snub-fin dolphin – on the island nation over the 10-year period.

In addition, the study noted 580 invertebrates and 134 amphibians, 2 birds and 71 fish – among them an extremely rare 2.5m long river shark.

The scientists express concern that many of these unique creatures are at risk, due to what they describe as poorly planned and unsustainable development, particularly from logging and forest conversion to agriculture.

>>> Read more…

Close Encounters of the Space Junk Kind

The crew aboard the International Space Station had a bit of a scare on Tuesday after a close encounter with a bit of this space debris.

The ISS crew had to briefly take seats in escape capsules as a safety measure, according to Mission Control at the Russian Federal Space Agency.

Mission Control spokesman Valery Lyndin said that the six crew members spent about a half hour Tuesday in two Soyuz escape capsules docked at the station before the space junk passed by without jeopardizing the station.

The station periodically must deal with space debris, and engineers normally adjust the station’s orbit to reduce the probability of impact.  But, if monitors fail to spot the space junk in time to perform the maneuver, the crew is ordered to board the capsules.

We’ve been lobbing rockets, satellites and other space gear into orbit around our planet for over 50 years.

Think about it, just above our atmosphere, in space, along with operating hardware, there’s a half-century’s worth of space junk floating around.

>>> Read more…

Possible New Tool in Battle Against Sleeping Sickness

A new oral drug to combat human sleeping sickness – African trypanosomiasis (HAT) –  is one step closer to production.

The Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative along with its partners Anacor Pharmaceuticals and SCYNEXIS, Inc. made the announcement.

Pre-clinical studies – testing and studies prior to human testing – of the new compound (SCYX-7158, also registered as AN5568) have been successful.

The scientists say their research will soon advance to the first phase of human clinical trials. If it proves successful in advanced testing, this new compound could become a major weapon in controlling sleeping sickness.

Human African trypanosomiasis is a fatal and, according Doctors Without Borders, much-neglected disease plaguing parts of Africa. The disease is transmitted by the tsetse fly, which is found in 36 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, putting 60 million people at risk.

The World Health Organization says that trypanosomiasis affects between 50,000 to 70,000 people each year.

>>> Read more…

Wildfire Nears Los Alamos Nuke Lab

Here in the US, there’s concern over a New Mexico wildfire that’s nearing the Los Alamos laboratory – the desert birthplace of the atomic bomb.

With thousands of outdoor drums of plutonium-contaminated waste stored there, authorities stepped up their efforts to protect the site and monitor the air for radiation.

Los Alamos officials say the dangerous materials are safely stored and capable of withstanding flames from the fire, which at one point, was just 50 feet from the property.

However, Joni Arends, executive director the anti-nuclear group, the Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, expressed concern that the drums will get so hot from the fire that they’ll burst.  “That would put this toxic material into the plume,” she says. “It’s a concern for everybody.”

Those in charge at the nuclear lab say there is very little risk of the fire reaching the drums of low-level nuclear waste, since the flames would have to jump through canyons first. Nevertheless, the officials say that they are ready to coat the drums with fire-resistant foam if the blaze gets too close.

Staffers at the Los Alamos lab are closely watching at least 60 air monitors for radiation and other hazards. New Mexico’s Environment Department is also monitoring the air and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been asked to do the same.

>>> Read more…



Why Antarctica is Melting so Fast

Scientists believe they’ve discovered why Antarctica’s ice is melting so fast.

They say stronger ocean currents beneath West Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier Ice Shelf are eroding the ice from below.

Last week, we told you about a recent study noting that  sea levels have risen at the fastest rate in more than two millennia. Among the contributing factors to this rise in sea levels is the melting polar ice, especially in Antarctica.

Although global warming is seen as the chief culprit, the study released this week sheds more light on glacial melting.

The researchers noticed the erosion after discovering a rapidly-growing cavity, which has formed beneath the ice shelf and is allowing more warm water to melt it.

According to the study, the glacier is sliding into the sea at a rate of four kilometers (2.5 miles) a year, while its ice shelf is melting at about 80 cubic kilometers annually. That’s about 50 percent faster than it was in the early 1990s.

One day, while on an expedition in the Antarctic, researchers observed the strength of the melting process as they watched ice cold, seawater appear to boil on the surface.

That observation suggests that deep colder water, boosted by added water from the fresh glacial melt, rose to the surface in a process called upwelling, says study lead author Stan Jacobs, an oceanographer at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Upwelling can be described as an oceanographic phenomenon where warmer surface water replaces colder deep water and vice-versa.

Researchers have found evidence over the past several decades that Antarctica is getting windier, which may also help explain the changes in ocean circulation.

Dr. Jacobs says that stronger circumpolar winds would tend to push sea ice and surface water north, which would then allow more warm water from the deep ocean to upwell onto the Amundsen Sea’s continental shelf and into its ice shelf cavities.

Over the past decade or so, there’s been growing concern over the impact of rising sea levels, especially since most of the world’s population lives in coastal regions.  Millions of people are threatened with the possible consequences of high sea levels, such as an increasing number of floods.

Did Life on Earth Begin on an Asteroid?

Can life on Earth be traced to asteroids that crashed into our planet over the millenia?

A recent research project provides evidence to support that theory.

The study indicates that Earth-bound asteroids not only delivered the life-starting organic compounds, but also that these compounds evolved over time.

A research team, led by University of Alberta geologist Chris Herd, examined and analyzed one of the most pristine meteorites ever recovered and found that the composition of the organic compounds it carried had changed during the early years of the solar system.

These modified organics were then preserved for billions of years in outer space before the meteorite crashed to Earth.

The meteorite the team studied was one that fell near Tagish Lake in northern British Columbia in 2000.

Upon initial examination, the researchers found that variations in the geology of the meteorite samples were visible to the naked eye which, to them, indicated that the meteorite’s originating asteroid had gone through some substantial changes.

After examining these geological variations, the researchers turned their attention to looking for variations in the meteorite’s organic chemistry. Dr. Herd says that the researchers were then able to get a glimpse of the process that altered the composition of organic material carried by the asteroid.

Among the organic compounds found on the meteorite were amino acids and monocarboxylic acids, two chemicals believed to be essential to the evolution of the first simple life forms on Earth.

This weekend on the “Science World” radio program, Dr. Herd talks about this study and why he thinks that this finding shows the importance of asteroids to Earth’s history.

Listen to it here…

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Other stories we cover on the “Science World” radio program this week include:

Science Scanner: Human GPS, Bat Planes and Rising Seas

Do humans have natural built-in GPS systems?

Probably not. But new research suggests we might have the ability to sense the Earth’s magnetic field, like many migratory animals.  University of Massachusetts Medical School scientists have found that a chemical produced by humans possesses, at least a molecular level, the capability to function in a magnetic sensing system.

Migratory animals, such as certain birds and sea turtles, are said to be able to sense the Earth’s magnetic field and then use this ability to navigate their long-distance migration journeys.

For their study, the scientists removed a chemical called the human cryptochrome 2 protein (hCRY2) from a human retina and then implanted it into a fly species called Drosophila.

By using a previously developed behavioral system, the researchers found that these now-transgenic flies were able to sense and respond to an electric coil-generated magnetic field and could do so in a light-dependent manner.

The findings should lead to further study and exploration of human sensory biology, which then may pave the way for further investigation into human magnetoreception.

>>> Read more…

Future Bat Plane?

Speaking of natural navigational ability, have you ever seen a bat track and pursue its dinner?

It’s fascinating to watch these flying creatures zigzagging through the air, quickly changing direction and speed. Do you wonder how they do that?

A research team from the University of Maryland did and now thinks it has uncovered a secret to the bat’s aerodynamic abilities.

One of the reasons for the bat’s uncanny navigation skills may be the rows of microscopic, domed hairs on their wings, which act as built-in speedometers and stall indicators.

According to the study,  the research team found empirical evidence of what other scientists have long suspected: that the tiny domed hairs are actually an array of sensors that transmit airspeed information to bats’ brains, helping them control their flight and avoid stalling.

The study findings will be be incorporated into work being done at Oregon State University on bat wing-inspired sensors which, eventually could be used to develop a new generation of air speed and stall detectors for aircraft.

>>> Read more…

Messenger to Earth

After nearly three months in orbit around Mercury, the Messenger space probe is providing lots of new information about the planet closest to the Sun.

The treasure trove of data produced by Messenger includes thousands of sharply-focused images of the planet. Up until now, those exploring Mercury had to settle for comparatively low resolution pictures.

The spacecraft is also transmitting measurements of the chemical composition of Mercury’s surface, as well as maps of the planet’s topography and magnetic field.  All of which provide important insights into Mercury’s origin, how the planet  functions and its geological history.

NASA launched Messenger on August 3, 2004 and it entered orbit around Mercury on March 18, 2011. The purpose of the mission is to perform the first complete reconnaissance of the planet’s geochemistry, geophysics, geologic history, atmosphere, magnetosphere and plasma environment.

>>> Read more…

Glug glug glug…

Yesterday we learned that our oceans are on the brink of a series of mass extinctions due, in part, to global warming. Today, there’s word scientists have noted the fastest sea level rise in more than two millennia, and again point to – you guessed it – increasing global temperatures as the cause.

To make their determination, researchers developed the first continuous sea-level reconstruction for the past 2,000 years and then compared variations in global temperature to changes in sea level over that time period.

The team found that sea level was relatively stable from 200 BC to 1,000 AD.

Then they found that, in the 11th century, sea level rose by about a half-millimeter each year for 400 years, which coincided with a period of warm climate known as the Medieval Climate Anomaly.

Following the era of warm climate, researchers noted a second period of stable sea level, which took place during a cooler period called the Little Ice Age. The sea level remained steady until the late 19th century.

Since then, the scientists say that sea level has risen by more than two millimeters per year on average, the steepest rate in more than 2,100 years.

>>> Read more…

Ocean Faces Massive Extinction

Our oceans are facing an ecological catastrophe which could wipe out a significant amount of sea life.

That’s according to a just-released report summary by scientists and ocean experts who warn action must be taken now to ward off the disaster.

According to the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO), the oceans of the world are close to entering a phase of marine species extinction that is unprecedented in all of human history.

The study, produced by 27 experts from 18 organizations in 6 countries, finds that a number of marine species and entire marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs, could be extinct within a single generation.

The study goes on to stress that, unless action is taken now, the effects of climate change, over-exploitation, pollution and habitat loss could produce the next globally significant extinction event.

Scientists list five mass extinctions over 600 million years – most recently when the dinosaurs vanished 65 million years ago after an apparent asteroid struck.

The report follows a high-level workshop IPSO convened at the University of Oxford earlier this year. In the first inter-disciplinary international meeting of marine scientists of its kind, the gathering considered the growing impact of multiple threats to the ocean,  including warming, acidification and overfishing.

The full findings on the state of the ocean will be released later and presented to the United Nations.

Watch a video on this from the International Programme on the State of the Ocean

New Internet Address Endings on the Way

Move over dot-com.  Untold numbers of new Internet address endings are about to hit cyberspace.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which manages and oversees the complex structure of the Internet, announced today that it will soon be offering new Generic Top Level Domains (gTLDs) for use on the Web.

You probably know these gTLDs as the suffixes – such as dot-com, dot-edu or dot-org – used at the end of every Web address.

Meeting in Singapore, ICANN’s board of directors approved the plan to dramatically increase the number of Internet domain name endings.

ICANN’S plan for the new gTLDs allows for the use of almost any word in any language as well as different scripts, such as Arabic, Japanese and Cyrillic.

The change could impact how people find information on the Internet as well as how businesses plan and structure their online presence. Businesses, organizations and individuals will be able to market and publicize their own brand, products, community or cause in new and creative ways.

Instead of being limited to the same old Internet address ending used by everyone else, those applying for the new Web suffixes will be able to create and use ones which are unique to their specific needs.

Companies like Toyota, Philips or McDonalds would be able to create an Internet address that ends with .toyota, .philips or .mcdonalds.

Not only would businesses be able to promote their companies in this way, but they could also structure Web addresses to be brand specific – .toyota.camry, philips.dvd or mcdonalds.hamburger.

But those who want to take advantage of the change had better get busy because there’s a limited window to apply for these new domain-enders. ICANN will accept applications from Jan. 12, 2012 to April 12, 2012.

What do you think about ICANN’s plan?  Do you like it? Hate it? Do you think this will greatly help those who use the Web or will it lead to confusion?

Let us know your thoughts.

Can We All Get Along?

An important part of life is being able to get along with each other.  But conflicts and misunderstandings, unfortunately, do happen.  While resolving disagreement and discord can be difficult for even those of us who share a common nation, language or culture, doing so between people who don’t share such commonalities can be even harder.

How can we achieve cross-cultural understanding?  What do we need to know to bring people with different backgrounds together?

A new international study led by University of Maryland Psychology Professor Michele Gelfand may provide some insight and explain these differences that could bridge the gaps and help us better understand people of all backgrounds and cultures.

Dividing countries into those that tend to have restrictive societies and others with less restrictive societies, Professor Gelfand and her colleagues looked at the differences and similarities of nations, the factors that determine how permissive a country is,  and – in the end – how we might better learn to get along with each other.

This weekend, on the “Science World” radio program, Professor Gelfand talks about this study and tells us that the more threats a society has been exposed to, the more likely it is to be restrictive.

Listen to an excerpt of our interview here:

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Other stories we cover on the “Science World” radio program this week include:

Science Scanner: There Goes the Sun

For years, scientists have said the sun should be in a state called “solar maximum” at around 2012. That’s  when the sun experiences the greatest solar activity within its solar cycle; producing intense flares and experiencing an increase in sunspots.

However, the scientists have noticed – and are a bit perplexed – that the sun is relatively quiet and not displaying signs of the predicted increased activity.

Experts from the National Solar Observatory and US Air Force Research Laboratory have noticed a missing solar jet stream, fading sunspots and slower-than-usual activity near the poles.

According to three studies released Tuesday, scientists believe the sunspot cycle – instead of increasing as they expected – may be shutting down. The sun could be heading toward a period of inactivity the likes of which hasn’t been observed since the 17th century. That’s a time climatologists refer to as “The Little Ice Age”.

>>> Read more…

India Unveils Ambitious Solar Power Project

India has unveiled an ambitious plan to boost green energy production from nearly zero to 20 gigawatts by 2022.

To  kick off the program,  India is investing $2.2 billion in hopes of producing 700 megawatts of solar power starting in December.

The “Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission” is a major initiative of the Indian government and its localities, to promote ecologically sustainable growth while also addressing the country’s energy security challenge.

India’s Solar Mission plan is expected to raise a total of $70 billion in investments. The goal is to produce 1,300 megawatts by 2013, another up to 10 GW by 2017 and the rest by 2022.

The project should help India, the world’s number three carbon polluter, cut back on its use of coal in power generation while also helping ease the country’s power deficit.

>>> Read more…

A Million Bangladesh Households Embrace Solar Power

Meanwhile, India’s neighbor Bangladesh is also taking advantage of the sun’s energy to produce electricity.

According to the country’s Infrastructure Development Company (IDCOL), the number of households using solar panels has crossed the one million mark, making it the fastest expansion of solar use in the world.

Just about 7,000 households were using solar panels in 2002, but now more than a million households – some five million people – use the photovoltaic panels to gather solar energy.

The installation and use of solar panels serve two critical needs for the people of Bangladesh. Not only are they cutting back on the use of carbon-producing energy, but many who live in rural households aren’t connected to the state’s energy grid, so this gives them their first access to electrical power.

>>> Read more…

Humans Outdo Volcanoes in Carbon Dioxide Emissions

Climate change skeptics often claim that the the amount of carbon dioxide expelled by world’s volcanoes greatly exceeds what is generated by humans.

But a new report  in today’s issue of Eos magazine finds exactly the opposite to be true.

The report indicates that human sources of carbon dioxide, such as what comes out of factory smokestacks and automobile tailpipes, put out as much CO2 in just two-to-five days, as the Earth’s volcanic activity emits in an entire year.

Past studies have shown that volcanoes throughout the world emit between 130 to 440 million metric tons of the greenhouse gas every year.

In comparison, humans were responsible for 35 BILLION metric tons of carbon dioxide in just 2010 alone.

In an effort to frame this comparison, scientists point to volcanic events, such as 1991’s nine-hour eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, which can produce CO2 at the same rate that humans do, but these volcanic eruptions only last for relatively short periods of time.  In other words, it would take more than 700 of those Mount Pinatubo eruptions over a year to expel as much carbon dioxide as people do.

>>> Read more…

Get Ready for 2011’s First Lunar Eclipse

If you live in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa or Australia, you’re in luck – you get to witness the first of 2011’s two total lunar eclipses.

However, those of us who live in North and Central America won’t be as fortunate. We’ll either have to watch the video or read about the eclipse because it won’t be visible to us.

This total lunar eclipse, expected to be the longest-lasting one since July 2000, begins at approximately 1724 UTC (Universal Time Coordinated) on Wednesday, June 15 and ends about five hours later at 2300 UTC .

What makes this particular lunar eclipse noteworthy is that the totality of it – when sunlight to the moon is completely blocked by the Earth – will last 100 minutes.

A total lunar eclipse happens when a full moon passes behind the Earth and completely blocks the sun’s rays from reaching the moon. For this to happen, the sun, Earth and moon must be aligned exactly, or at least very closely, with the Earth placed between the sun and moon.

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft, orbiting about 31 miles above the lunar surface, will get a front-row seat to the total eclipse.  A device on the LRO, the Diviner Lunar Radiometer, will record just how quickly different areas on the moon’s day side will cool off during the eclipse.

The second and last total lunar eclipse of 2011 is set to take place on December 10. It should be visible to all of Asia and Australia, will be seen as rising over eastern Europe and setting over northwest North America.

Want more of a background on lunar eclipses?  Watch this video from NASA.


Smokers are Thinner for a Reason

Have you ever noticed that people who smoke seem skinnier than those who don’t?  And that one of the top complaints for many who quit smoking is that they’ve gained weight?

Behavioral neuroscientist Marina Picciotto of Yale University decided to find out if there is an actual connection between smoking and body weight.  Her recent research reveals how nicotine works in the brain to suppress smokers’ appetites.

Researchers have found that nicotine can bind to receptors in the brain, which trigger various physical reactions such as the addiction to smoking,  increasing blood pressure or giving the smoker a feeling of relaxation.

While it’s known that nicotine causes a decrease in appetite, scientists have long suspected that this reaction worked through the receptors that were associated with reward and behavior reinforcement, since the brain looks at both cigarettes and food to be rewards. But, Picciotto’s new findings suggest that appetite has its own pathway.

The research team focused on one particular nicotine receptor, dubbed α3β4, which is said to have antidepressant effects on mice.  After giving their test mice drugs designed to specifically stimulate only the a3β4 receptors, team members noticed a unique side effect of the drug; the mice were eating less than half the amount of food as untreated mice.

The team went on to find that nicotine does, in fact, bind to the α3β4 receptors, which in turn tells the brain that the subject’s appetite was satiated and that this reaction is virtually indistinguishable from the signal the brain processes after eating a large meal.

As a result, the team found that the body fat of the test mice dropped from between 15 percent to 20 percent over 30 days.

Although the scientists primarily studied male mice for this study, past research shows that females tend to experience larger weight loss when they start smoking and gain a larger amount of weight if they quit.

This anomaly has the research team wondering if this means that the nicotine could be working through an additional, hormone-regulated pathway in the female brain that has yet to be discovered.

Picciotto says her group is repeating the experiments this time on female mice.  The study was recently published online in the journal Science.