Science News: 4/9/13

Between three oil spills, a chemical spill, melting glaciers, and a sexist obituary in the New York Times, the news is on notice this week. Hopefully the cool news will outweigh the infuriating! If nothing else, I found a few headlines and stories guaranteed to make you giggle like a 12-year-old.

To Mars! We won’t be hearing from Curiosity for the rest of the month because Mars is currently hidden behind the sun, which can cause communication glitches. The rover will remain parked until May 1, collecting weather and environmental data and sending back periodic “beeps” to let us know it’s still functioning. Comparing photos of the same crater from last year to more recent ones shows evidence that the surface of Mars is still changing; new gullies were formed on the crater rim due to the seasonal freezing and sublimation of carbon dioxide. The HIRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has found unusual evidence of the winds on Mars–Curiosity’s parachute has changed positions on the surface, as seen in the gif below. (Y’all know how much I love educational gifs!)

Seven frames showing the change in position of the parachute that lowered Curiosity to the surface of Mars
Curiosity’s parachute shifting in the wind.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

NASA’s getting $100 million to start planning a mission to capture a small asteroid to study it up close. Phil Plait breaks down why that’s freaking cool, and why it’s also freaking difficult.

Jupiter’s moon Io has 25 times more volcanic activity than Earth, but for some reason its volcanoes are in the wrong place. Scientists are trying to figure out why the volcanoes are significantly offset from the areas of greatest internal heating.

If the Earth were 100 pixels wide, how many pixels away would Mars be? A really cool animation visualizes the journey at Distance to Mars. Also, if you’re browsing in Google Chrome, check out Google’s awesome 3D map of the Milky Way.

New analysis indicates that the meteorite strike that killed the dinosaurs likely caused a global firestorm as superheated rock that was blasted off the surface reentered the atmosphere.

Ancient human news! A 7 million-year-old skull discovered in Chad is now thought to be the oldest human ancestor ever found. The skull is apelike in appearance, but a new scan of its braincase shows that while its brain was much smaller than those belonging to modern humans, the brain had many characteristics that are more similar to us than to chimps. A 30,000-40,000 year old skeleton found in northern Italy seems to be the first human-Neanderthal hybrid ever found. Genetic analysis of mitochondrial DNA found that the individual’s mother was a Neanderthal, but the jawbone seems to be an intermediate between a chinless Neanderthal and a human with a protruding chin, which would indicate that the individual likely had a human father. How did some members of the Botocudo tribe of south-east Brazil wind up with Polynesian DNA? The tribe was pretty much exterminated by the Portuguese colonists in the 19th century, but a few members’ bodies were preserved in museums and new genetic analysis shows that some show evidence of gene sequences only known to exist in Polynesians. Several hypotheses have been proposed to explain this, but the true origin of the mystery genes is currently unknown. Finally, it looks like settlers on Pacific islands caused the extinction of nearly 1,000 bird species in the last 12,000 years.

Speaking of birds, here’s one of my favorite headlines of the week (and the opening paragraph is pretty awesome too): “Pretty great tits make better mothers.” Great tit females with attractive markings raised bigger babies with stronger immune systems, even if their offspring were switched with those from less attractive mothers.

A duck who was injected with chicken germ cells (the cells that grow sperm and eggs) while an embryo has grown up to father a baby chick after breeding with a hen. This technique could help bring back extinct species.

When embryonic skinks detect danger from possible predators, they can hatch several days early and run for cover as soon as their eggs open. This was initially discovered when a couple researchers tried to measure some eggs and chaos erupted as they picked them up.

An unusual Antarctic fish is the only known vertebrate whose blood contains no hemoglobin, making it clear. Freaky!

An annual toxic red algae bloom has killed a record number of manatees this year; at least 241 of the roughly 5,000 that live in Florida’s waters.

The fairy circles of the Namibian desert have defied explanation – until now. It appears that the strange circles are due to sand termites eating the roots to kill patches of grass, which allows water to collect in the sand in the middle rather than being lost to the plants.

Fruit bats are the only animals other than humans who are now known to engage in frequent oral sex. Bat fellatio was first observed in 2009 in short-nosed fruit bats, and now cunnilingus has been seen in Indian flying foxes. In both cases, oral sex leads to longer penetration. Videos at the link!

Should we be spending taxpayer money to study duck penises? Fox News doesn’t think so, so the researcher who’s running the study wrote a passionate defense of the importance of funding basic science, not just applied science. It’s definitely worth a read. (And there are videos there too! Of  huge corkscrew-shaped duck penises!)

Speaking of which, a new study shows that when a group of women were asked to rate the attractiveness of different computer-modeled male bodies (with identical faces and skin tone), they preferred the tall ones with broad shoulders and large penises. How well this translates to actual humans, the study couldn’t say.

Another fantastic headline: “Researchers Rearrange Nuts In Low Gravity.” The “Brazil nut effect” explains how, in a container of differently sized items such as a can of mixed nuts, the large pieces (like Brazil nuts) will tend to rise to the top and the small pieces will accumulate at the bottom. Researchers ran a simulation in low-gravity conditions and found that the items still separated, though at a slower rate.

Ice news! Arctic sea ice reached its maximum extent on March 15, and has now begun retreating. This year’s maximum was lower than average, but there was a record-setting growth in sea ice due to the extremely low amount of ice that was left after last summer’s melt. Meanwhile, sea ice in the Antarctic has been expanding year-over-year. New evidence shows that this is due to melting freshwater beneath the ice shelves, which tends to stay near the ocean surface since it’s less dense than seawater and then refreezes easily when air temperatures drop. Moving inland, glaciers that took at least 1,600 years to form in the Andes have disappeared in only 25 years.

A massive storm was captured by satellite images during the last week in March. It ranged across the North Atlantic from Newfoundland to Greenland to Ireland to Portugal and then all the way back down to Cuba and the Caribbean.

Satellite image of an enormous storm in the Atlantic Ocean
That’s some Day After Tomorrow shit right there. Image credit: NASA

Oil/chemical spill news. Sigh. First to Arkansas, where on March 29 a rupture in the Pegasus pipeline sent anywhere from 157,500 gallons (Exxon’s estimate) to possibly nearly 300,000 gallons (an EPA estimate) of tar sands oil flowing through the streets of Mayflower, displacing residents and damaging nearby wetlands. AlterNet has a good roundup of what you need to know about the spill. Next to Canada, where on April 3 a train derailment caused an estimated spill of 63,000 liters (roughly 16,800 gallons) of oil near White River, Ontario. Then to Texas, where a leak in a Shell pipeline caused a spill of almost 30,000 gallons of crude oil, some of which entered a bayou that connects to the Gulf of Mexico. Finally, to Louisiana, where a leak at an Exxon refinery in Chalmette released 100 pounds of hydrogen sulfide and 10 pounds of benzene. For fuck’s sake.

17-year-old Sarah Volz won the 2013 National Intel Science Talent Search (and a $100,000 scholarship) for her research into algae-based biofuels in a lab she built in her bedroom. Pretty freaking badass, if you ask me.

Finally, rocket scientist Yvonne Brill died on March 27 at the age of 88. The propulsion system she developed to help communications satellites stay in orbit won her a presidential National Medal of Technology and Innovation, but you’d never know that from the original opening paragraph of her New York Times obituary.

She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “˜The world’s best mom,’ her son Matthew said.

It has since been rewritten, but really? REALLY? Show some damn respect.

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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.

5 thoughts on “Science News: 4/9/13”

  1. On the Yvonne Brill issue, some great analysis:

    “Family Man Who Invented Relativity and Made Great Chili Dies”
    http://www.lastwordonnothing.com/2013/04/01/guest-post-physicist-dies-made-great-chili/

    (avoid the comments, full of mansplainers and ‘PC-gone-mad’-ers)

    The Finkbeiner test for writing about women in science;

    ” To pass the Finkbeiner test, the story cannot mention

    The fact that she’s a woman
    Her husband’s job
    Her child care arrangements
    How she nurtures her underlings
    How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
    How she’s such a role model for other women
    How she’s the “first woman to…” ”
    http://www.doublexscience.org/the-finkbeiner-test/

    Benevolent sexism and what’s wrong with it even when it’s “so nice!”

    “Because they weren’t calling her incompetent or unworthy, none of them were willing to recognize it as sexism, even when explicitly told that that’s what it was — even though, based on research, we know that this sort of behavior has actual, meaningful consequences for society and for gender equality.”

    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/psysociety/2013/04/02/benevolent-sexism/

  2. You were correct: SO MANY reasons to giggle like a 12 yr old. That was awesome. Especially the fruit bats. And the duck penises. And the great tits. And…

    However, the duck being able to father a chicken is… kind of creepy. I work in conservation genetics and totally see the ridiculous value it would have for seriously depleted populations, but… creepy. (Although, usually the low effective population size of many endangered species comes from a lack of females rather than a lack of males. Same technology with turtles, maybe?)

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