Science News: 4/23/13

News in the real world has been pretty terrible recently; mercifully, science has brought us some things to smile about. Mars probably isn’t gonna get smacked by a comet after all, wet washcloths do interesting things in space, and it’s ok to have the occasional drink when you’re pregnant!

Good news (mostly)! A closer analysis of the orbit of Comet Siding Spring has reduced the odds of an impact with Mars in October 2014 to virtually nil. While an impact would have put on a good show and could have provided valuable insight into what happens when large objects strike rocky planets, it also could have endangered NASA’s missions on the planet. We certainly don’t want Curiosity and the other rovers and orbiters getting blasted to smithereens, though if the comet’s tail is long enough there could still be some smaller impacts.

A solar flare with a coronal mass ejection occurred on April 11, and NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured a really cool photo of it. Many hoped that the CME’s arrival at Earth would cause the aurora borealis to be seen much farther south than usual, but no such luck.

False color image of a solar flare
M6.5 class solar flare on April 11. Image credit: NASA/SDO

The Kepler Space Telescope has found a star that has two Earth-like planets in its Goldilocks Zone (the area at the right distance from a star for liquid water to be possible). Unfortunately, the star, Kepler-62, is about 1,200 light years away, so current technology can’t give us any real details about the planets.

Speaking of which, the New York Times has an amazing infographic of all exoplanets with known sizes and orbits thus far discovered by Kepler. I highly recommend scrolling around it for a few minutes.

The rain in space falls mainly from Saturn’s rings, following the lines of its magnetic fields to impact on the surface of the planet.

Are we heading for another space race? Russia has announced plans to increase funding to their space program by more than 50% (though still spending far less in total than we do), while Obama’s proposed 2014 NASA budget slightly cuts their overall funding, with some important programs being cut by up to a third.

Orbital Sciences Corporation had a successful launch of their Antares rocket over the weekend, which should clear it to make unmanned cargo missions to the International Space Station.

Ever wondered what happens if you wring out a wet washcloth in space? Two Canadian high school students posed the question to the ISS’s Commander Chris Hadfield, and the result is pretty freaking cool.

Denmark now gets 25% of their power from wind energy, with plans to double that number within the next eight years. Awesome.

The force of waves pounding the East Coast during Hurricane Sandy generated microseisms strong enough to be detected on seismometers across the United States.

Baby dinosaur news! Paleontologists in China have uncovered the oldest collection of dinosaur embryos ever found. More than 200 bones were found amid eggshell fragments; the researchers found preserved collagen which is the oldest organic material ever found from terrestrial vertebrates, and the bones show signs that they grew rapidly inside the eggs and may help explain how some dinosaurs were able to grow so large. Also, a study that compared fossilized Troodon eggshells to modern crocodile and bird eggs found that the species likely incubated their eggs by sitting on their nests in the sand rather than just burying them and leaving.

A new theory has been proposed to explain the diminutive stature of Homo floresiensis, the so-called Hobbit people who lived on the Indonesian island of Flores until about 12,000 years ago. Previous theories proposed that they were modern humans whose growth had been stunted by a wasting disease of some sort, or possibly descendants from a small ape-like creature. A new study shows that the island could have been populated by Homo erectus who gradually shrank thanks to a process known as “island dwarfism,” where limited resources make it easier for smaller individuals to survive and reproduce.

Woolly monkeys in the South American rainforests can apparently tell from visual or behavioral cues when a human entering their territory is a hunter versus a gatherer or researcher and will hide accordingly.

Australia’s koalas have been listed as a threatened species due to widespread chlamydia infections (which affect about half of all koalas in the wild) coupled with a rise in an HIV-like retrovirus that further compromises their immune systems. However, researchers have found a gene that helps some koalas resist infection, leading to hopes of a future treatment or vaccination.

Great white sharks are mostly known as fearsome predators, but observations of four whale carcasses that appeared in the shark-dense False Bay in South Africa shows that they also engage in scavenging, and without any aggressive “feeding frenzy” behavior.

Young birds may be willing to put themselves in danger to blackmail their parents into feeding them more. Hungry fledgling pied babblers were more likely to leave the relative safety of the nest in favor of moving to the ground and making more noise, and the parents gave more food to them, presumedly to make them shut up and not attract attention from predators.

Woohoo! Having one or two small servings of alcohol a week during pregnancy seems to have no effect on the development of the fetus or the child’s later behavior or mental capacities. An earlier study shows that children with particular variants of four genes that regulate alcohol metabolizing had slightly lower IQs (on average, a loss of 2 points per variant they possessed) if their mother had 1-6 drinks per week during pregnancy.

The amount of HIV present in the milk of breastfeeding mothers is very low while nursing exclusively, but new research on unmedicated HIV-positive mothers in Zambia found that the average viral load per milliliter of milk is 6 times higher when the babies start adding solid food to their diet and a whopping 54 times higher on average two weeks after starting to wean. Since babies who were weaned early in the study also became infected at a higher than expected rate, the researchers recommend exclusive breastfeeding until 6 months of age and then pumping and dumping milk during weaning.

Two African students have invented an anti-malarial soap using locally sourced ingredients, and for their efforts have won $25,000 from the Global Social Venture Competition.

Nature has a great article on the efforts to fully eradicate polio by tracking down and vaccinating Nigerian nomads.

The HPV vaccination program in Australia is working – since its implementation in 2007, the country is seeing lower rates of genital warts in young men and women, and fewer cases of abnormal cervical cells as well. Vaccines work, y’all!!

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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.

18 thoughts on “Science News: 4/23/13”

  1. HA! I argued with someone MONTHS ago about the pregnancy thing. It ended with me apparently being a pro-life liberal who wanted to kill ALL THE BABIES. (No, seriously.) When I brought studies to the table, I was told they were inconclusive and I was putting the lives of unborn children at risk.

    It’s so nice not being evil.

      1. Also we like beer. And probably, given the looonng European history of drinking wine and beer almost exclusively, we’re probably one of the most likely populations in the world to show no or small effects on fetuses from drinking alcohol (because anything causing major damage would have been selected against). It might be different for people descended from populations with no history of alcohol use.

        I wonder if that study was WEIRD-biased?

        1. probably. Did you see that article (podcast maybe?) about basically ALL the sociological/psychological/logic&reasoning theory has been based on WEIRD, and they’re only NOW figuring out that, wait, other cultures do not act like Westerners. Please stop using your college students as test subjects and biasing every result ever.

          This also gives me hope that I can still eat soft cheeses when pregnant- which is apparently a *very serious concern* of natural-birth-style ladies in the US.

          1. There were a few floating about six months ago. Crazy, eh!

            If I have a kid I think I’d like to err on the side of low-intervention pregnancy and birth, but so much ‘natural parenting’ discourse is whacky. I’ll fight you for my cheese!

    1. I read a similar study (from Denmark, maybe?) when I found out I was pregnant in December. We pregnant ladies are expected to live in a bubble while pregnant (at least in the US/Canada)… no raw fish, no raw-milk cheeses, no alcohol, no caffeine, no deli meats, avoid sick people, etc. I’ve given up a lot of food or drinks to have a healthy baby, but really, a couple of beers over the 40 weeks I’m pregnant, yeah… not really going to affect him. Nice to see it in writing, though. Pass the Guinness.

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