Science News Roundup: 7/10/12

What a week, y’all. We found out that the Higgs boson is real and that mermaids aren’t (I wish I were kidding about the latter, on multiple levels). And for the second time, I have to link to a BBC article about penguin poo. I’m starting to think they’ve got a fetish. Off we go!

Of course the biggest news is the confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson (or at least, a particle that behaves very similarly to the predicted model of the particle). Scientists have been searching for the Higgs boson for 45 years, so this discovery is freaking huge. The announcement from CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) came after the initial discovery at the Large Hadron Collider was duplicated at other supercolliders. Part of the Standard Model of particle physics that describes subatomic particles and how they interact, the Higgs boson is thought to impart mass to elementary particles like electrons. It may not work alone, however, and there could be several other particles that work with it that have yet to be discovered. For more info, check out this cool slideshow, but don’t worry if you still don’t understand it. No one else does either. Our resident biologist, Ailanthus-altissima, wrote about the Higgs boson yesterday, if you want even more information.

Flowchart concluding that unless you are Peter Ware Higgs, you don't understand the Higgs Boson (and if you are him, you only sorta understand it after a few drinks)
(found on I Fucking Love Science’s facebook page)

In much less high-brow news, the National Ocean Service actually issued a press release last week confirming that we have never found any evidence to support the existence of mermaids. Good to know. Apparently a few people wrote letters to them after the Discovery channel aired a “documentary” about mermaids. Oy. (Unicorns are still real though, right??) (Ed. Note: They must be because we get paid in unicorn giggles.)

Whale news! The International Whaling Commission just wrapped up its yearly conference, and the results were mixed. They had hoped to involve the United Nations in curtailing whaling around the world, but after heavy opposition from nations that still hunt whales, the bid had to be abandoned. Many countries have come under fire because whales killed for “research” or hunted by Inuit populations that claim to require them for subsistence have instead been sold commercially or in tourist restaurants. In some good news to come from the conference, Panamanian officials unveiled a plan to restrict shipping lanes in and out of the Panama Canal after a study showing the overlap in current ship routes and areas frequented by humpback whales breeding in the Pacific Ocean near the entrance to the canal. Confining ships to a narrow corridor and reducing the speeds at which they can move during the whale’s breeding season would reduce the likelihood of whales being struck by ships, and would also protect small fishing boats operating in the area. Sri Lankan conservationists are hoping for similar protections for the blue whales that congregate just offshore. Not much is known about the whale population there since the country was embroiled in a 25-year-long civil war that only ended in 2009, making it too dangerous for researchers to work there until recently. Studies are currently underway to figure out exactly what the whales eat and where they feed so that the areas busy shipping lanes can hopefully be moved to protect the whales.

Scientists have captured the first-ever photograph of an atom’s shadow. Atoms have been photographed before, but since light waves are much larger than atoms there had been no way to make a single atom cast a shadow until now. The researchers figured out the exact wavelength that would interact with an ytterbium atom and fired a specially built laser at an atom suspended in a vacuum. The result, seen below, is pretty awesome (the concentric rings around the shadow are a result of light bending around the atom, not it’s electron shell).

Shadow cast by an ytterbium atom in orange light
(image from the Centre for Quantum Dynamics at Griffith University)

Health news! Last week the FDA announced the approval of the first at-home HIV test. After a simple mouth swab, results are available in 20-40 minutes, whereas previous home tests required users to mail a blood sample to a lab and wait for results. It isn’t foolproof, with about 1 in 5,000 home users getting a false positive and 1 in 12 infected users getting a false negative (mostly since it can take up to 3 months post-exposure for antibodies to build up in the blood stream enough to be detectable). The tests are expected to be available in stores and online by October, with the price as yet undetermined.

A study of health records of more than 1.3 million Swedes born between 1973 and 1985 has shown an increased likelihood of future serious mental illnesses (such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression) developing in premature infants who were born at less than 32 weeks gestation. Since the overall risk is very low, even more than doubling the risk doesn’t mean parents of premature babies should panic, since most will be fine. The two most likely explanations are damage to the fragile preterm brain or genetic conditions activated by early birth. The study authors admit that there could be factors for which they couldn’t control, but the likelihood of a causal relationship was high.

Remember the news about a strain of bacteria that purportedly used arsenic instead of phosphorus in its DNA and caused a minor frenzy in the media, with many jumping to conclusions about its implications for extraterrestrial life and others immediately raising questions? Looks like it’s just a fairly ordinary little bacterium like all the rest. Two new studies of the organism have shown that it does not in fact use arsenic in its DNA, though it can tolerate it in higher quantities than most other life forms. Just goes to show the importance of due diligence before announcing any truly outrageous scientific discoveries.

The eagerly awaited penguin poo news! So there’s this moss that grows in parts Antarctica and scientists hadn’t been able to figure out how it survived since there aren’t really any nutrients in the soil there because it’s just sand and gravel. They chemically analyzed the moss to see if they could figure out what it was made of, and found a particular form of nitrogen that’s indicative that it came from something that was digested by a seabird. But no birds live there. At least, no birds live there now. Turns out that in the location where the moss found there was a penguin colony about 3,000-8,000 years ago, and it’s so cold that their poop froze instead of biodegrading, and that’s where the moss gets nutrients. Nature is freaking weird sometimes.

Finally, Scientific American has a fascinating article up this week about all the ways in which humans have changed the evolutionary paths of other species. Very cool!

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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.

12 thoughts on “Science News Roundup: 7/10/12”

      1. So did everyone else, because the released the info like a day after the Higgs people, and everyone was still agog about that (with good reason)!  I have no idea why they didn’t delay it at least a couple of days — maybe there were people in town that they wanted there and couldn’t adjust the schedule?  It’s a shame, because it’s SUPER COOL (large scale structure of the universe!  gravitational lensing!  weird types of matter that we know very little about!) but only like five people noticed it.

  1. So many cool stories, as always.

    Can anyone with a public health perspective comment on the effect of the HIV at-home test on tracking the disease? A radio report on NPR seemed to suggest that the at-home tests may lead to less/worse quality information about the incidence rates and spread of HIV, but I would expect these individuals to get picked up by the system if/when they sought treatment or a second test. It sounds like only good things will come from this new test – after all, without the stigma or inconvenience of a clinic visit, people may be more likely to take the test and thus be aware of their true HIV status.

    1. I think the instructions tell people to follow up with a doctor to confirm the results of the test since there are some false positives/negatives. I imagine people who get positive results are more likely to actually do this; we just have to hope that people who get negative results retest periodically so that the people who tested too soon actually do eventually find out that they’re infected.

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