Science World

Prehistoric Man Stayed Home While Females Roamed

Our ancient ancestors might have been shaking up gender roles back in the day.

Colorado researchers found that, in two hominid species that lived on the South African savanna over a million years ago, the males preferred to stay close to home while the females were more likely to roam about.

The study team, led by Professor Sandi Copeland, looked at the social organization of distant human ancestors.

Copeland and her team were able to draw their conclusions by studying teeth from the ancient hominid groups.

Dr. Copeland tells us about this research and what her team learned on the “Science World” Radio program this weekend.

Listen to the interview here…

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

Blackberry’s Tablet Computer Set to Go Global

The maker of  the Blackberry smart phone recently took on Apple’s IPad with the release of its tablet computer, the Blackberry Playbook.

Research in Motion released the Playbook in the U.S. and Canada on April 19.  And now a number of international markets are getting ready for the Playbook as well.

The countries where the Playbook is scheduled to debut include the United Kingdom and the Netherlands (June 16), Australia (June 20), India (June 23) and the United Arab Emirates (June 25).

PlayBook has a dual-core 1GHz processor, a new operating system called the BlackBerry Tablet OS which is based on the QNX Neutrino system and runs BlackBerry Java apps, Flash (unlike the IPad) and via an emulator program Android apps.

Although the Playbook received mixed reviews prior to its release, the response since then has improved.

The Playbook is reportedly racking up some impressive sales figures. On launch day, approximately 50,000 units were sold, exceeding expectations. Outside sources estimate the Playbook sold 250,000 units in its first month and expect 500,000 units will be sold in its first quarter.

Science Scanner: Sun Unleashes Spectacular Solar Storm

A massive solar storm on the sun was observed by NASA scientists on Tuesday.

The US National Weather Service’s Space Weather Prediction Center says that an M-2, or medium-sized, solar flare was seen by a NASA space observatory. The storm could cause disruptions to a variety of communications systems and electrical power over the next day or so.

According to the scientists,  this blast of energy from the sun released solar radiation on a level possibly not witnessed since 2006.

They were able to make their observations through high-definition pictures and video taken by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, which launched last year.

The solar eruption was described as spectacular but the Space Weather Prediction Center says that, since it was not pointed directly at Earth, the effects should remain “fairly small.”   >>> Read more…

Periodic Table Gets an Update

Chemists and other scientists throughout the world are all abuzz over the latest discovery of two new elements recently added to the periodic table of elements.

The new elements are called Ununquadium, with the atomic weight of 114 and Ununhexium, carrying the atomic weight of 116.

The periodic table is a graphic table that lists the chemical elements.

Among the information included within the table are the scientific symbols for the elements, along with their full names, and atomic numbers (the number of protons found in the nucleus of an element’s atom).

Until recently there were 112 natural or synthetic elements listed in the periodic table.

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry announced the new elements that were the result of collaborative work between scientists from the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia and from Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California.

There are a couple of interesting aspects of these new elements.

Element 116 (Ununhexium)lasts for only milliseconds before it decays then becomes element 114 (Ununquadium).

This element also has a brief lifespan, lasting for about half a second before it too makes a transformation and turns into element 112 (Copernicium), which was added to the table in 2009.

>>> Read more…

Hot Hot Hot

Last summer was said to be one of hottest summers ever and, according to researchers at Stanford University, that might not be a fluke but rather a sign of what could lie ahead.

A new climate study based on this research suggests the tropics and much of the Northern Hemisphere are likely to experience an irreversible rise in summer temperatures within the next 20 to 60 years  – if atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations continue to increase.

In the study, the Stanford team concluded that many tropical regions in Africa, Asia and South America could see “the permanent emergence of unprecedented summer heat” within the next two decades.

Middle latitudes of Europe, China and North America – including the United States – are likely to undergo extreme summer temperature shifts within 60 years.

Results of this study, authored by Noah Diffenbaugh, an assistant professor of environmental Earth system science and fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford and Stanford research assistant Martin Scherer, will be published later this month in the journal Climatic Change Letters.

>>> Read more…

Quicker Diagnosis of Degenerative Eye Disease Possible

Employing the same technology used to study distant stars and galaxies, scientists say they’ve been able to see through the murky distortion of the outer eye to examine the eye’s cellular structure in unprecedented detail.

Rods and cones are two types of photoreceptor cells in the eye which are key to our ability to see.

The scientists – from the University of Rochester in New York, Marquette University, and the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW), both  in Milwaukee – reported today that they have been able to clearly and directly image rods in the living eye for the first time.

The researchers say that this innovation will help doctors diagnose degenerative eye disorders sooner, leading to quicker intervention and more effective treatments.

The results of this research appears in two papers in the Optical Society’s (OSA) open access journal Biomedical Optics Express.

>>> Read more…

Attacking Mosquito-Borne Disease

Mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue and yellow fever kill several million people every year and sicken hundreds of millions more.

Scientists have been working for years to stop these lethal diseases by either eliminating the disease-carrying mosquitoes or reducing the risk of the bug’s infectious bites.

Researchers know that only female mosquitoes feed on blood; they spread diseases by first obtaining a meal from an infected person and later biting an uninfected person.

A number of theories have been offered over the years as to how these mosquitoes find human hosts to bite and spread disease.

One vital clue that scientists are considering is that the mosquitoes use exhaled carbon dioxide as a way of zeroing in on their targets.  If that’s so, disrupting the carbon dioxide detection machinery of mosquitoes could halt the spread of diseases they transmit.

In a the recent issue of Nature, a team of scientists led by Anandasankar Ray, assistant professor of entomology at the University of California Riverside, says it has identified three classes of odor molecules that can severely damage, if not completely disrupt, the mosquitoes’ ability to detect carbon dioxide.

The mosquitoes’ carbon dioxide receptors are located in tiny, antennae-like appendages called maxillary palps which are close to the mouths of the mosquitoes.

With these receptors, mosquitoes are extremely sensitive to even the smallest changes in carbon dioxide concentrations, sensing the carbon dioxide in our breath from long distances.

Once they come near a plume of carbon dioxide plume, the mosquitoes orient themselves and fly upwind, eventually targeting in on us.

For their study, the scientists researched three of the deadliest species of mosquitoes: Anopheles gambiae, which spreads malaria, Aedes aegypti, the vector that spreads dengue and yellow fever, and Culex quinquefasciatus, the species that spreads filariasis and West Nile virus.

The three classes of the odor molecules are:

> Inhibitors: Odor molecules, like hexanol and butanal, that inhibit the carbon dioxide receptor in mosquitoes and flies.

> Imitators: Odor molecules, like 2-butanone, that mimic carbon dioxide and could be used as lures for traps to attract mosquitoes away from humans.

> Blinders: Odors molecules, like 2,3-butanedione, that cause ultra-prolonged activation of the carbon dioxide sensing neurons, effectively “blinding” the mosquitoes and disabling their carbon dioxide detection machinery for several minutes.

The researchers point to the many advantages that these chemicals can offer in reducing mosquito-human contact, it’s thought that these findings can lead to the development of new generations of insect repellents and lures.

Watch a related video on this subject…

Bad Memories? Here, Take a Pill

Do you ever wish you could take a pill that would erase a really traumatic memory or at least help take the emotional pain away?

A recent study suggests researchers might be on to something like that.

The team from the Centre for Studies on Human Stress at the University of Montreal says the drug metyrapone could help those suffering from conditions such as Post-traumatic stress disorder.

On the “Science World” radio program this weekend, we talk with the study’s lead author, Marie-France Marin.

She tells us that metyrapone doesn’t actually eliminate the memory, but it does reduce the brain’s ability to re-record the negative emotions associated with bad memories.

Listen to the interview here… 

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

  • A somber anniversary as AIDS hits the 30-year mark
  • World health experts now say cell phones might cause cancer
  • China rejects Google claims that hackers in that country spied on email accounts
  • How technology is helping to improve access to health care in Senegal
  • Who would win a chess match in an Earth versus Space contest

Science Scanner: As One Mission Ends, NASA Readies Its Last

One down, one more to go…

This past Wednesday was a rather busy day at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The Space Shuttle Endeavour and her six-member crew flew home for the last time, landing at 2:34 a.m. EDT.

Endeavour’s final mission, STS-134, lasted 16 days and covered more than 10,460,736 kilometers (6.5 million miles).

The mission’s accomplishments included the delivery and installation of an Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a cosmic ray detector, at the International Space Station.

The youngest of the space shuttle fleet, Endeavour first launched in 1992. Throughout its nearly 20-year career, she flew 25 missions, spent 299 days in space, orbited Earth 4,671 times and traveled 197,761,262 kilometers (122,883,151 miles).

Now that it’s Earth-bound for good, Endeavour will be fully retired, cleaned and shipped to the California Science Center in Los Angeles where it will be readied for display, hopefully by next spring.

Meanwhile, Atlantis is being readied for what will be the final overall flight of the space shuttle program. That launch is scheduled at the Florida space center on July 8.

Atlantis arrived at launch pad 39A early Wednesday morning and was secured there at 3:29 a.m. The space shuttle was delivered to the launch pad on top of a giant crawler-transporter.

The huge machine left the Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building the night before, at 8:42 p.m. EDT.  Traveling at less 1.61 kilometers per hour (1 mph), the transporter made the nearly 5.5-kilometer (3.4 miles) journey to the launch pad in approximately seven hours.

>>> Read more…


Your face looks familiar but I just can’t place you

Did you know that every time you see a person that you know, your brain processes a series of instructions that rapidly and – with what seems to be very little effort – recognizes that person by his or her face.

Researchers at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University say  they’ve uncovered just how the brain processes faces by identifying the neural system responsible for face recognition

The Carnegie Mellon team discovered that an entire network of cortical areas (outer areas of the brain) works together to identify faces.

A study based on the team’s research is published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The scientists involved in this discovery hope the findings will change the future of neural visual perception research and that others will use the findings to develop targeted remedies for disorders such as face blindness.

>>> Read more…


Did the Vikings in Greenland say, ‘It’s too cold, let’s get out of here’?

Severe weather might have helped doom the Vikings, according to new research.

Scientists have long wondered what became of the western settlements of the Vikings on Greenland and how they met their demise in the 14th and 15th centuries. While archaeological evidence might provide some insight, the lack of written evidence suggests the full story of how the Norse colony met its end will probably remain a mystery.

Climatologists have said that an extended severe cold snap, called the “Little Ice Age” gripped Greenland in the 1400s. This “Little Ice Age” has often been cited as a major cause of the disappearance of the Norse people.

Now research, developed by scientists from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island,  shows that the climate turned colder earlier, perhaps several decades earlier than previously thought, setting off what could have been the beginning of the end of the Greenland Norse.

However, researchers say the severe climate isn’t the only reason for the demise of the Norse Western Settlement.

The Vikings’ sedentary lifestyle, their reliance on agriculture and livestock for food, dependence on trade with Scandinavia and combative relations with the neighboring Inuit (indigenous people of the Arctic region) are also believed to be contributing factors.

The findings of this study were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

>>> Read more…


Getting to the root of childhood obesity

What’s behind childhood obesity? Can it be more than what the kids are eating?

According to the World Health Organization, childhood obesity is one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century. The global problem is steadily affecting many low- and middle-income countries, particularly in urban settings. The WHO also says the prevalence of childhood obesity has increased at an alarming rate.

A group of scientists from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champlain, representing a variety of disciplines, is teaming up to examine the factors that contribute to childhood obesity.

The team is taking a multidisciplinary approach because individual researchers have found that the problem is too complicated for any one of them to tackle alone.

The scientists are looking at a variety of factors such as genetic predisposition, the effect of breastfeeding, how much TV a child watches and even where the child lives.

The research will examine the problem of childhood obesity from the following angles: cell, child, clan (or family), community, country and culture. The research team published its paper detailing this unique approach in a recent issue of Child Development Perspectives.

>>> Read more…