Science News: 10/30/12

Hurricanes in October! Earthquakes and tsunamis!  Sharks falling from the skies of California! Science news has gone wild this week!

Hurricane Sandy, a.k.a. the Frankenstorm, is wreaking havoc all over the east coast of the US and Canada. My new favorite websites are the U.S. wind map and the Hurricane Photos twitter feed. Here’s hoping all our Persephoneers are safe, dry, and haven’t lost power.

A 7.7 magnitude earthquake that struck off the coast of Canada prompted a tsunami warning in Hawaii, but fortunately only small waves were reported and there was no major damage. Speaking of earthquakes, six seismologists and a government official in Italy were convicted of manslaughter for failing to predict the 2009 quake in L’Aquila that killed about 300 people. Ailanthus-Altissima summed up the case with far less profanity than I would have used.

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule returned to Earth safely on Sunday after its (mostly) successful first mission to the International Space Station. A recovery crew will retrieve the capsule from its Pacific Ocean landing spot so that the experiments it brought back can be analyzed. Many of the experiments were completed more than a year ago, but with the grounding of NASA’s shuttle fleet last July, this was the first mission to the ISS that was able to bring back material.

The picture below may look like an ordinary (if beautiful) shot of the center of our galaxy, but it’s so much more. The full version, stitched together from thousands of small images, contains nearly 9 billion pixels and depicts 84 million stars. A zoomable version is available, and the detail you can see is absolutely astounding.

The central parts of the Milky Way Galaxy.
The Milky Way, as seen by the Vista survey telescope at the European Southern Observatory’s Paranal Observatory in Chile. Credit: ESO/VVV Consortium; Acknowledgement: Ignacio Toledo, Martin Kornmesser

The discovery of a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B, part of the triple star system that’s our closest neighbor, has fueled dreams of the possibility of visiting another world. At 4.4 light years away, it’s still far beyond our reach with current technology, but there are  several proposed methods that, if they worked, could send a spacecraft there in less than a human lifetime. All-around badass Mae Jemison is in charge of a project to advance interstellar travel; fingers crossed we figure it out.

A cool project is under way to determine if screams really can be heard in space. While the Cambridge University Spaceflight Society is mostly doing this to get young people interested in space, we’ll have to see if they actually manage to discover anything.

An explosion on the surface of the sun a couple weeks ago may look small, but material was actually ejected about 100,000 miles. That’s nearly half the distance to the moon.

People are most familiar with the massive extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs, but they were only able to become the dominant species because of an extinction at the end of the Permian era that killed 80-90% of species on Earth. New evidence shows that temperatures for the first few million years of the Triassic period that followed were so hot that even more species were killed off and the survivors were the ones who lived in polar regions and later spread and evolved when the Earth cooled off again. Summer highs may have reached 50-60°C (122-140ºF) on land, and the surface of the ocean was about 40ºC (104ºF).

New research shows that dinosaur feathers not only evolved earlier than scientists previously thought, but that feathers and wings might have initially just been used in courtship displays. Congrats, birds, you only exist because millions of years ago dino ladies thought feathers were sexy. I love evolution.

Paleontologists have wondered why many triceratops fossils showed evidence of tyrannosaurs biting the bony collar that protected their necks (after all, there’s no meat there). Well, they figured it out: T. rexes would bite the collar in order to rip the triceratops’ heads off so that they could get to the meat behind the skull easier. Best diagrams ever at the link (not for the faint of heart!).

Prehistoric human news! Newly discovered fossilized shoulderblades of an Australopithecus afarensis show that while Lucy and other members of her species walked upright, they also still had the ability to easily climb trees like other apes. Slate has a somewhat amusing analysis of who would win in a fight, modern man or a Neanderthal? And jumping forward quite a ways through history, archaeologists have tested the plausibility of one theory of how the giant Easter Island heads were moved across the island.

WTF? news of the day: Last Monday a live leopard shark fell from the sky and landed on a golf course 5 miles from the Pacific Ocean in San Juan Capistrano. No, they haven’t learned to fly! Based on puncture wounds on its back, it looks like an osprey or peregrine falcon had caught the two-foot long shark and later lost its grip on it. The story has a happy ending, though; golf course employees put the shark in a bucket of water and drove it back to the ocean, where it swam away safely.

Fish (and other marine life) news! Radiation levels are still high in the fish near Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactors, though it’s unclear if the caesium-134 is still leaking into the ocean, if it had collected on the ocean floor, or if levels are just naturally higher in the summer due to warmer water temperatures. A new study shows how silver fish have skin that reflects light in such a way to make them virtually invisible to predators. A tiny species of seed shrimp that had been thought to be extinct for 40 million years turned up in a cave in South Korea. I love stories like that! Finally, a type of marine worm known collectively as priapulids or “penis worms” have upended an entire branch of the tree of life that explains how different species are related. Dicks.

Good news for the orangutans of Sumatra. While their numbers have been devastated in recent years and the 6,600 remaining apes live in a few isolated patches of forest, new studies show that males travel long distances to mate, ensuring continued genetic diversity. Unfortunately, they’re still at risk for further deforestation.

Hyenas and farmers are living in remarkable harmony in northern Ethiopia, despite the fact that the majority of the hyenas’ diet comes from livestock being raised in the area. Americans, however, are in general less fond of the coyotes that are increasingly scavenging in urban and suburban neighborhoods. Fortunately, Project Coyote has developed techniques to discourage coyotes from frequenting populated areas without resorting to killing them.

Finally, while I may have complained recently about the lack of scientists (or even members with a basic grasp of scientific concepts) on the House committee that sets science policy for the United States, other places are doing much better on that front. Eight presidents of African nations have a background in science or engineering, with many more lower-level elected officials also having backgrounds in these fields. Awesome.

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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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