Science News Roundup: 2/8/12

Several interesting new scientific studies have been released in the last two weeks. Standards for science education in the United States have been examined and were largely found to be woefully inadequate, the mother of modern racehorses has been found, and the biggest mammal on earth shows no sign of stopping its growth. In addition, Russian researchers in Antarctica just announced that their drills have reached a subglacial lake that’s been sealed off from the outside world for 14 million years. Cool!

Map of State Science Standard Grades from the Fordham Institute
2012 State Science Standard Grades from the Fordham Institute

(Scientific American) The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has released a report that takes a comprehensive look at science education standards in the United States. Each state creates their own set of standards that cover what students are expected to learn at every grade level and in different high school classes, and multiple studies have shown that students learn more when the standards are high. Sadly, few states scored well on their standards. Only California and Washington, DC earned an A, with four more states receiving an A-. Twenty-six states got a D or F. The four main factors examined by the Fordham Institute were attitudes toward the teaching of evolution, specificity of the goals set for students, guidance for teachers on how to teach the history of science and the scientific method, and the amount of math instruction. If you’re curious as to how your state got its grade, check out the full report; it includes links to the reports for each state.

(Irish Times) DNA testing has found that the gene that gives racehorses the ability to perform well in short-distance sprints originated in a single mare that lived in the UK about 300 years ago. A mutant form of the myostatin gene alters muscle development; depending on whether a C or T protein is located at a specific point in the genome determines if the horse is more suitable for quick bursts of speed or longer endurance races (horses that inherit both versions, one from each parent, do well in medium-length races). By genetically analyzing modern racehorses, donkeys, zebras, and samples from a dozen historic racehorses whose remains are preserved in museums, genomics scientist Dr. Emmeline Hill was able to determine the likely timeframe for the introduction of this variant into the thoroughbred gene pool, along with another variant that stemmed from racing legend Nearctic, born in 1954, and was spread widely via the breeding of his son Northern Dancer.

(ABC Science Australia) A new study out of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, has found that blue whales, the largest mammal on earth, keep getting bigger. Evolutionary biologist Dr Alistair Evans and his colleagues studied the growth of hundreds of species over the last 70 million years by comparing fossil evidence to their modern equivalents. The study found that it took 5 million generations over the course of 30 million years for blue whales to evolve from their 25kg (55 lb) ancestor to their current size of approximately 190 metric tons (over 209 tons in US measurements). That’s double the rate for large land mammals such as elephants, probably because life in the water is more conducive to rapid growth since fewer body modifications are needed to support the extra weight. The study also found that most land mammals are smaller today than during the last major ice age. Many large species were hunted to extinction by prehistoric man, and large bodies aren’t as advantageous in warmer climates. Whales, however, have continued to get larger and larger.

(BBC News) Attempts by a team of Russian scientists to drill through two miles of ice to reach a hidden Antarctic lake have finally succeeded after over a month of drilling. Testing confirmed this morning that they have reached the surface of the lake and will soon be able to study its waters. Lake Vostok is buried under a glacier estimated to be 14 million years old. Scientists are anxious to examine Vostok and the many other subglacial lakes in Antarctica, but have to proceed very carefully as the drills approach the surface so as to not cause a geyser effect when the pressure on the lake is released. They are also concerned about introducing foreign bacteria into waters that have been sealed off for so long. It is currently unknown if any of the subglacial lakes support life forms or what adaptations they would have needed to evolve to survive so many millions of years in isolation. Teams from the United States and United Kingdom are hoping to drill into two other lakes later this year.

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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.

13 thoughts on “Science News Roundup: 2/8/12”

  1. Indiana is getting an A- in Science.  Hopefully it will stay that way, since the Creationism bill failed in the House.  (Can’t believe it got past the Senate.  Guys, seriously.  Teaching religious views in science has been held unconstitutional multiple times!)

        1. A real penguin for sure. My kids are obsessed with Antarctica and penguins. It’s always fascinated me too! I will never forget, years ago, I was showing a 3yr old the world map (Montessori preschool) & he told me Eskimos lived in Antarctica. I told him, no, they didn’t…and gave the whole speech about only scientists live there, everything is temporary, yada-yada…and he said, “I was talking about the Eskimos with really warm coats.” I nearly fell over.

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