Science News Roundup: 12/7

This week has brought a lot of really cool science news. Goldilocks planets! Rediscovering lost bumblebees! Toads that can predict earthquakes! Black holes ten times the size of our galaxy! Mapping Antarctica! Oh my! 

Topographic map of the surface of Antarctica
Antarctic BEDMAP (click for larger image at article)

(BBC News) Scientists have released a new map of the rock bed underneath the ice of Antarctica. An initial map was completed in 2001, but this updated version uses many more data points and is therefore much more accurate. Less than 1% of the rock base protrudes above the ice, so for years the actual topography has been a mystery. There’s even a mountain range in the center of the continent that has peaks reaching 3,000 meters in elevation, about the same height as the Alps, but they’re buried under another 1,000 meters of ice. There are also deep troughs that reach far below sea level.

(New York Times) Astronomers have reported the discovery of the two largest black holes ever found, measuring up to ten times the size of our entire solar system. The larger could weigh as much as 21 billion of our suns; the smaller, 9.7 billion Suns. Both sit at the center of galaxies over 330 million light years away. Scientists have posited that every galaxy is formed around a super-massive black hole, proportional to the size of the galaxy, but as yet don’t know how such massive voids come into existence. Studying these black holes could lead to a better understanding of the origin of our universe.

(BBC News) “Astronomers have confirmed the existence of an Earth-like planet in the ‘habitable zone’ around a star not unlike our own.” The Kepler space telescope was launched in 2009 and has been used to search for planets orbiting stars outside of our solar system by detecting the minute shift in light output from stars as planets pass in front of them and cast a shadow. Of particular interest are planets in the “Goldilocks zone;” an orbital distance that is neither too hot or too cold to support the existence of liquid water, which is necessary to life as we know it. Kepler 22-B, as the new planet is known, was first detected shortly after the telescope’s launch and has been confirmed by observations from other telescopes.

(BBC Nature) There is an abundance of anecdotal evidence that animals can predict earthquakes, and now researchers may have found an explanation for some of the unusual behaviors displayed in the days before tremors strike. R.A. Grant happened to be observing a toad colony in a pond near L’Aquila, Italy, as part of her PhD research, and in the days before an earthquake struck they all disappeared. Lab testing has since confirmed that rocks under immense stress release charged particles that, upon reaching the surface, can interact with organic matter in ponds, making the water toxic. When the toads sensed this, they abandoned their home lest they be poisoned. Further collaboration between biologists and geologists may lead to more discoveries of this kind, and maybe eventually to ways to predict earthquakes before they happen.

(UC Riverside) Entomologists from the University of California at Riverside have rediscovered a species of bumblebee that hadn’t been seen since 1956. The Cockerell’s Bumblebee is the rarest species in the United States; their habitat in New Mexico has an area of less than 300 square miles. First described in 1913, only 22 specimens had previously been collected, and scientists weren’t even sure it was a separate species or just an unusual coloration of a more common species. By studying three bees found near Cloudcroft, NM, in August 2011, they were able to confirm that it is, in fact, a distinct species. Bees have been disappearing in recent years, so the rediscovery of this species is good news.

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[E] Hillary

Hillary is a giant nerd and former Mathlete. She once read large swaths of "Why Evolution is True" and a geology book aloud to her infant daughter, in the hopes of a) instilling a love of science in her from a very young age and b) boring her to sleep. After escaping the wilds of Waco, Texas and spending the next decade in NYC, she currently lives in upstate New York, where she misses being able to get decent pizza and Chinese takeout delivered to her house. She lost on Jeopardy.

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