Science News: 8/28/12

Wow, science has been busy the last couple weeks! (Serves me right for taking a week off.) We’ll say farewell to Neil Armstrong, catch up on Curiosity’s latest activities, check out a new species of owl that’s just begging to be turned into a meme, watch some cool videos, and get updated on the latest health news. And much more!

Official NASA portrait of Neil Armstrong in his space suit, with a photo of the moon as a backdrop
Neil Armstrong, August 5, 1930 ““ August 25, 2012. Image courtesy NASA

Astronaut Neil Armstrong passed away Saturday at the age of 82 after complications from recent heart bypass surgery. As a member of the Apollo 11 team, Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969. To read more about Armstrong and his contributions to science and our world, check out this post from Ailanthus yesterday.

Curiosity news! On August 19th, the rover blasted a rock with a frikkin’ laser beam. This is not only totally awesome, but also heats the rock enough to form plasma which can be analyzed with spectrometers to determine the composition of the rock. Three days later, Curiosity went on its first test drive on the Martian surface, going a total distance of 23′ in 16 minutes (15′ forward, 8′ backwards, and a lot of stops to take pictures along the way). It’s a short trip, but a big relief to know that the rover is functioning as planned. Not content to rest on their laurels, NASA has also announced their next mission to Mars. The InSight spacecraft will launch in 2016 and instead of a rover, it’ll be a stationary platform that studies the interior makeup of Mars to give us a better idea how rocky planets form and why Mars’ geology is so different than the Earth’s.

The most unexpected bit of NASA news comes from back here on earth, in the form of recently discovered dinosaur footprints on the campus of their Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD. The footprint appears to be from an armored dinosaur in the nodosaur family, and a smaller footprint overlapping it appears to be from a juvenile who may have been following its mother.

To the poles! The Arctic Ocean is on pace to set a new record for the melting of the polar ice cap by the end of August, and the melt is likely to continue for several more weeks into September. The current record was set in 2007, and surpassing the record this quickly is leading to fears that the current estimate that the Arctic will be largely ice-free in summer by 2100 could be overly optimistic and that we might reach that milestone much sooner. Meanwhile, the Antarctic Peninsula is experiencing rapid warming, with average temperatures about 3C (more than 5ºF) warmer than they were in 1958. A new study of ice cores shows that this sort of warming is not without precedent, as the region was even warmer 15,000-20,000 years ago but then cooled again. The previous warming was likely due to a slight fluctuation in the Earth’s tilt or orbit, whereas the current warming is almost certainly due to human activities.

Scientists have found a new possible explanation for tsunamis, particularly why they can sometimes accompany relatively weak earthquakes. While it was previously thought that the waves were caused when one plate pushed another upwards and displaced the water above, it now appears that in several recent tsunamis the waves were caused by sediments trapped in a wedge between the plates that was forced upward with the movement of the plates below. Studying known faults with submersibles could give us a better way of predicting which quakes are likely to cause the devastating waves.

A Canadian energy company is proposing a new liquid pulsing method of extracting small quantities of oil and gas from rocks that are incompatible with conventional drilling. An alternative to fracking, this would involve sending pulses of water through deep rocks without fracturing them, in the hopes of pushing trapped oil and gas toward collection wells. Testing at five wells showed a production increase of 2.5%, but no word yet if it carries the same safety concerns as fracking.

Brand new animal news! Scientists have discovered a new spider in Oregon and California that isn’t just a new species or genus, it’s the first known example of an entirely new family of spiders. Dubbed Trogloraptor, it has a mix of evolutionary old and new features. (If you’re squeamish about spiders, do NOT click the link; there’s a large picture.) Wired has a slideshow of ten recently-discovered species of amphibians from around the world. (Some of which are surprisingly cute; though a few, well, not so much.) Also, ten new owl species have been discovered in the Philippines; scientists used recording devices to capture and differentiate their calls. Eight were previously thought to be subspecies of known owls, and two were entirely new discoveries.

Ninox-Reyi owl, found in Tawi-Tawi, on the Philippines island of Mindanao
I kinda love him. And check out the slideshow at the link for an even creepier little fucker. Image credit AFP Photo/Robert Hutchinson

I’m pretty sure every science news site I looked at this week covered the sea slug sex story. Out of all the things that happened this week I’m not really sure why this was what everyone decided to focus on, but then again, how often do you get to write about hermaphrodites increasing their reproductive success by repeatedly stabbing each other with translucent penises that have hooks and spines? And yes, there’s a picture. Another popular story was a study on how gibbons vocalize after breathing in helium. Apparently they modulate their larynx to sing in a similar manner to opera sopranos. (No word on how sopranos feel about learning that they sing like apes, and I’m certainly not going to be the one to tell them!)

How much are animals like us? The new Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness explains how we can identify neurological consciousness in other species, even the octopus. For years it was thought that only humans were capable of complex thought processes, but we know now that many other animals have similar reasoning abilities. There’s also new evidence that animals mourn their dead. The specifics are pretty darn sad so I won’t go into detail here, but mourning behaviors have been seen in elephants, chimps, and most recently a mother giraffe with her calf. Mourning tends to be more pronounced for older offspring than newborns, showing that animals bond with their young more than was previously thought. Some species may even be musically inclined! Shanthi, a 36-year-old Asian elephant at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, has a predilection for making repetitive sounds and has recently taken up playing a harmonica that her keepers have affixed to her enclosure. She’s pretty good, too!

Neanderthals were probably predominantly right-handed, just like humans. Analysis of wear and tear patterns on the teeth of 18 fossils showed that 16 of them ate predominantly with their right hands. Preferential usage of one hand over the other indicates that the hemispheres of the brain have evolved to work independently, and since the left hemisphere of the brain both controls the right side of the body and plays the primary role in language, this may show that they were able to speak like us.

DNA news! While it was initially thought that RNA proteins emerged first from the chemicals of the ancient Earth, some researchers now think DNA might have also formed alongside it. RNA can make DNA, but since it’s a complicated process it makes sense that DNA formed independently and later joined forced with RNA. Scientists hope to synthesize it from scratch in the lab within the next few years. A test has been recently developed that may allow forensics labs to determine eye and hair color from DNA samples, particularly useful for narrowing down suspects from DNA evidence left at crime scenes. (Note to self: before committing any major crimes, be sure to buy colored contacts and dye my hair.) Genetic testing is also at the heart of a new ethics debate. What are researchers to do if, in the course of a genetic trial, they find information in subjects’ DNA that could put them at increased risk for a disease, perhaps one completely unrelated to the trial they signed up for (or what if their DNA shows that they would react better to some treatment options than others)? What if the patient doesn’t want to be contacted, but the info could save the lives of others in their family? There are no easy answers, and researchers are increasingly faced with impossible choices.

A new study is highlighting a previously unknown effect of BPA exposure: epigenetic changes that can be passed on for generations in mice that were exposed to levels equivalent to average human exposure. Rather than causing mutations in DNA, the chemical seems to change how existing genes switch on and off, leading to an inability to correctly process certain hormones which then led to behavioral problems similar to ADD/ADHD and autism in the mice.

Oh, dear, we’ve got autism news (or do we?). First up is a widely circulated study that blames aging fathers for the increased rate of autism and schizophrenia. While it’s nice to finally shift some blame away from mothers, the study didn’t have anywhere near enough data to actually support this claim, at least as it was reported in most non-scientific media. On average, men do pass on more new genetic mutations than women, and the number increases as they age since sperm are constantly being produced (whereas a woman is born with all her eggs so the number of mutations she passes on is pretty static). However, as explained by SFARI (Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiate), the study looked mostly at parents of children who had autism or schizophrenia, so further study would be needed to see what effect the father’s age would have in the overall population. Also, plenty of people inherit lots of mutations without any ensuing issues, and not all people with autism have genetic mutations that can be linked to developing the disorder. While further study may find a more definitive link, there is no need for older men to panic just yet. Next, there was an opinion piece in the New York Times linking autism to inflammation and/or infections suffered by the mother while pregnant. Emily Willingham does a much more thorough job dismantling the argument than I could possibly do, so I encourage you to go read it (and save the link for the next time an autism conspiracy theorist pops up in your life). It’s beautiful.

Chicken pox rates are down 80% in the Unites States since 2000 due to the varicella vaccine, with the sharpest drop-off coming after 2006, when a second shot was recommended in addition to one given at the age of 12-18 months. Vaccines work, suckas! Too bad we don’t have one for the West Nile virus; this year’s outbreak in the United States is off to an early start with 1,118 cases and 41 deaths already reported. If infection reports continue at the current rate, this could be the worst outbreak ever.

Fertility news! We may be one step closer to developing the elusive male birth control pill. Birth control for men is trickier because instead of suppressing one egg a month, you have to disable about 1,000 sperm a second. However, a new compound has been found that suppresses one of the proteins needed for sperm production in mice, so if it works in humans, we may finally get to share the burden of popping pills every day. Also, women who suffer multiple miscarriages may actually be too fertile. Lab tests found that non-viable embryos were more likely to implant in uterine tissue from women who had already miscarried multiple times than in tissue from women who had never had a miscarriage. Poor-quality fertilized eggs are likely to be expelled without most women ever knowing they could have become pregnant that month, while they apparently do implant in “super-fertile” women but are later rejected by the body when they fail to develop properly.

Science has figured out why we get brain freeze when consuming cold drinks or ice cream too quickly! The cold causes the major artery running through the brain to dilate, possibly as a protective measure to bring more blood to the brain to keep it warm, and the pressure from arterial swelling is what gives you a rapid-onset headache.

Finally let’s end with something totally freaking awesome. Some Canadian fishermen got an extremely up close and personal look at a humpback whale calf breaching. The language on the video is mildly NSFW, and similar words are likely to pop out of your mouth as you watch it.

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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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