Science News Roundup: 7/3/12

Happy Tuesday, science fans! I hope you all enjoyed the long weekend. Well, technically it was only one second longer than usual, due to a leap second being added to keep atomic clocks in sync with Earth’s slightly inconsistent rate of rotation. But I’ll take what I can get. 

Space news! Saturn’s frozen moon of Titan appears to have a layer of liquid water below the surface ice. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has been taking measurements of the surface tides of the moon as it orbits Saturn, and the fluctuations are much greater than would be expected of a completely solid body. While a few writers have had fun creating misleading headlines claiming that this means there could be life in those oceans (and going on truly laughable astrological tangents), NASA says this discovery doesn’t necessarily increase the likelihood of extraterrestrial life. It could, however, help explain the abundance of methane on Titan.

True-color photograph of Titan crossing in front of Saturn, with an edge-view of the rings.
Titan crossing in front of Saturn and its rings, as photographed by Cassini. Pretty. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Dinosaur news! The previously widely accepted theory of cold-blooded dinosaurs has been chipped away even further, with more evidence emerging that they could just as easily have been warm-blooded. Dinosaur bones have “lines of arrested growth,” similar to tree rings in that the bones grow in spurts. Such lines were previously only known in cold-blooded modern animals, but a new study of 41 different mammal species from vastly different climates showed that every single one had the same lines. While this on its own doesn’t mean that dinosaurs were warm-blooded, it does mean that the lines are irrelevant in making that determination.

Food news! The bland taste of supermarket tomatoes has been blamed on everything from  refrigeration to the way they’re stored and shipped, but it turns out that the gene behind their red color is to blame. A genetic mutation arose about 70 years ago that made ripe tomatoes turn red all over instead of keeping some green pigmentation. The variety became widespread because consumers thought it was pretty and growers liked that they could easily see when it was fully ripe. A new study, however, shows that the mutation also affected the production of sugars within the tomato, leaving it less sweet compared to greener varieties.

In prehistoric food news, it looks like some of our pre-human ancestors may have had a diet that included tree bark. Yum. Two 2-million-year-old Australopithecus sediba skeletons found in South Africa appear to have had a diet consisting of bark, tree leaves, and fruit. Most other similar species in the region ate grasses, so this is an interesting development in divergence of early hominid species and the evolution of our current dietary habits. No word yet on how this will affect the Paleo diet.

Geology is destiny. Believe it or not, the southern coastline of 100 million years ago affects presidential elections today. At that time, there was a shallow sea covering much of the present American continent, and the formation of thick layers of chalk in the shallow waters along the coastline led to a narrow band of incredibly fertile soil running from Louisiana through the South to the Carolinas. Historically cotton plantations were heavily concentrated in this band, leading to higher numbers of slaves than in the surrounding areas and higher percentages of their Democrat-leaning descendants today. You can see a clear delineation in the 2008 Presidential election results by county in the graphic below, but check out the link for more cool images.

Map of election results in the South during the 2008 Presidential election, with a clear swath of Obama-voting counties neatly aligned with the old coastline
100 million year old coastline, y’all. Electoral map originally from NY Times.

News that pisses me off! It looks like the Interior Department is about to give permission for Shell to begin drilling off the coast of Alaska. Apparently their claims that they would be able to clean up at least 90% of any oil spilled in a possible future blowout have met the government’s latest set of requirements for new exploratory wells. Construction permits were also granted last week for part of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to carry oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. If both projects are fully approved, they could be underway within weeks.

Health science news! A new vaccine is in development that, if successful, could stop the pleasurable effects of nicotine on the brain and make it easier to quit smoking. Researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College have created an altered virus that stimulates the body to produce antibodies that bind to nicotine, lowering the amount of the chemical to reach the brain by 85% in mice. It’s not yet known if the vaccine will work effectively in humans, or if the reduced pleasure will be enough to help people give up cigarettes.

Researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital have found a way to detect autism in children as young as 2 years old by performing EEGs. By comparing the brain scans of children with autism to neurotypical children, they were able to discern 33 specific patterns of brainwaves that were different in the autistic brains and could pinpoint which children had autism with 90% accuracy. The researchers are planning to study children with Asperger’s next to see if the patterns appear in them as well. If the technique bears out, it could revolutionize early detection and provide a way to compare how different treatments work.

The physics community is eagerly awaiting some good news, as a Wednesday press conference by CERN is expected to confirm the discovery of the Higgs Boson. We’ll have more on that next week!

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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: 7/3/12”

  1. I watched a quick news report on the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle yesterday with some of my older relatives. We were all trying to pay attention and I understood most of what the scientist said, but everyone around me was blank staring at the screen. My mom turned to me, confused asking “Wait, so what is the bang?” One aunt jokingly said “It’s the big bang particle because it is the bang” or some circular reasoning like that. I am still fuzzy on the details but YAY SCIENCE! That is an amazing discovery they made.

    Also – can they call the nicotine inhibitor a vaccine? I find using that term problematic, but perhaps I am mistaken?

  2. Warm-blooded dinosaurs? That’s a pretty exciting idea.

    I’ve never had green tomatoes that weren’t fried and dipped in cucumber sauce, so I’ll have to pick some up from the farmer’s market this week and see if they taste better than regular ones.

    1. I read a report on the tomato coloring earlier this week and my understanding was that it isn’t fully green tomatoes (I think those are a different strain altogether) but rather red tomatoes frequently had a ring of green or yellow around the stem when they were fully ripe. Customers and manufacturers of tomato-based products loved the all red so much that the growers bred them to get rid of the slight green pigmentation and forever ruined tomatoes!

    1. For the hardcore ones, Vaccines Are Evil, and the minute one of their hypotheses/assertions about “vaccine injury” is disproved, they moved on to another. It wasn’t thimerosol/mercury in vaccines that caused autism, so now it’s “toxins” and “too many too soon”… and when they’re debunked (if they haven’t been already) it’ll be another thing.

      Hopefully, though, this will be a way to actually help children with ASD access services earlier in their lives.

  3. Children with autism have been shown to exhibit differences in brain structure and visual behaviour by six months old. It’s my understanding that most two-year-olds with autism are already exhibiting behaviours that are consistent with ASD, even if the actual diagnosis is made much later.  That said, though, EEG is certainly a less expensive and involved way to screen for ASD (compared to MRI), as long as the measurements can be shown to be specific enough.

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