Welcome back to your weekly installment of science news! We’ve got massive storms on Saturn, Neanderthals in need of a good flossing, a medieval brassiere, baby manatee kisses, and some guys voluntarily standing under a nuclear explosion. Seriously.
Astronaut Sally Ride died Monday at the age of 61, 17 months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The first American woman to go into space, she made two trips into orbit on the Challenger and was scheduled for a third that never happened due to the shuttle’s explosion in 1986. Ride was one of the first women to join NASA when they started admitting women to the shuttle program in 1978. She later taught physics at the University of California, San Diego, was head of the California Space Institute, and wrote several books. Sally Ride was an inspiration to a young girls who dreamed of following in her footsteps.
Despite searching for 13 months at the Gran Sasso Laboratory in Italy, researchers have once again failed to produce any evidence of a theorized type of dark matter called WIMPs (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles). The particles are thought to be widespread in the universe, but since they almost never interact with other particles, they’re almost impossible to detect despite flying through us constantly. The test involved looking for particle interactions in a vat of pure liquid xenon buried deep underground and heavily shielded, but only two reactions were detected and both could have been from normal background radiation. The failed test doesn’t rule out the existence of WIMPs, it just may mean they’re even harder to detect than we thought.
The Hubble Telescope has spotted the oldest spiral galaxy ever detected, dubbed BX442. Scientists had previously thought it was impossible for this sort of galaxy to form so early, just 3 billion years after the Big Bang, because gravity wouldn’t have had enough time to pull the stars into a thin disc. However, a dwarf galaxy spotted orbiting BX442 may have helped the galaxy form into a spiral.
Photos were released last week of an astounding storm captured on Saturn by the Cassini spacecraft in 2010. The storm grew until it wrapped all the way around the planet, with a maximum length of about 180,000 miles. For scale, the front of the storm as seen in the picture below is about the same size as the entire Earth. Even more remarkably, Cassini managed to record images of lightning strikes within the storm from its position in space about 2 million miles away. The universe is pretty fucking awesome.
More news from prehistoric teeth! Examing the plaque on 50,000 year old Neanderthal teeth found in a cave in El SidrÃ³n, Spain, shows that the individuals not only had a largely vegetarian diet, but also used medicinal plants. Researchers found chemical evidence that the individuals had chewed chamomile and yarrow, which even today are used as anti-inflamatories and antiseptics but taste bitter so are unlikely to have been eaten for food. There was also evidence that the Neanderthals cooked their food.
The oldest ever modern-style bra was found at Lengberg Castle, East Tyrol, Austria. Dating to the 15th century, it’s more than 400 years older than previously known bras with formed cups. Shown below side-by-side with a very similar modern version, it actually looks pretty comfy (at least, compared to corsets and whatnot).
The FDA has officially banned BPA from use in baby bottles and children’s sippy cups. Long controversial for its estrogen-mimicking properties, its sale has already been banned by major retailers. Manufacturers have stopped using it for these products due to public outcry, but the ban ensures it won’t be reintroduced in the future. BPA can still be used in food packaging, including containers of formula, but that use is still under review by the agency. For more on BPA, you can check out my earlier article about it here.
For the first time, a gene therapy drug may be approved for use in patients. The European Medicines Agency has recommended that Glybera be approved for the treatment of a rare genetic mutation called lipoprotein lipase deficiency. Patients with the disorder lack an enzyme that breaks down fatty particles in the blood, but after a single round of injections of the new drug that contains a correct version of the mutated gene, their bodies are able to produce the enzyme for several years. The drug was only tested on a small number of people, so if it does gain final approval for use in Europe it would need to be closely monitored to see how well it works on a larger scale. Scientists hope to one day treat or even cure many diseases with this sort of gene therapy, but the drugs have proved difficult to develop.
Sad news. An unusually high number of dolphin deaths in the Gulf of Mexico in early 2011 may be linked to the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill along with an influx of cold freshwater from snow runoff deep inland. While dolphins are usually able to adapt to the cooler waters that enter the Gulf each spring, studies of the dolphin population in Louisiana showed that they were underweight and anemic, possibly due to the oil spill’s effect on their food supply, which left them more vulnerable to change than usual.
Happy baby news! A manatee who was rescued in June after becoming entangled in fishing gear has given birth to a calf at her new home at Sea World Orlando! Momma and baby are both doing well and are being monitored to ensure that they remain healthy. More pics at the link, but check out the kiss! I want one!
A large freshwater aquifer has been found underlying northern Namibia and could contain enough water to meet the region’s needs for 400 years at current rates of consumption. There’s a salty aquifer overlying it, so care must be taken in drilling to make sure the fresh water isn’t contaminated, and researchers want to ensure that water isn’t pulled out so fast that the aquifer can’t replenish itself. Namibia is the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa, and this discovery could go a long way to helping the 800,000 residents of the area adapt to future drought conditions and expand agriculture.
Sixteen-year-old Azza Abdel Hamid Falad of Alexandria, Egypt, has found a new catalyst that has the potential to use plastic waste to create biofuel. She found that aluminosilicate catalyst can break plastic down and produce methane, propane and ethane gasses that can be converted into ethanol. Egypt alone produces about a million tons of plastic waste each year, so this discovery could both produce large amounts of fuel and reduce the amount of waste in landfills and our oceans. For her discovery, Falad won the European Fusion Development Agreement award at last year’s European Union Contest for Young Scientists, and she is in the process of having her discovery patented.
Finally, ever wondered what happens if you stand directly underneath an atmospheric detonation of a 2 kiloton nuclear bomb? Five Air Force officers and a camerman found out firsthand in 1957! Ah, the simpler days when we didn’t know that radiation is really bad for you (but these guys seem to have been little the worse for wear).