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Science News: 12/20/13

It’s time for one last quick dose of science news before the holidays. 

China has landed on the moon! The Chang’e-3 mission launched on December 1, with the unmanned lunar module touching down on the 14th. The module was carrying the Yutu (“Jade Rabbit”) rover, which will study the moon’s soil and crust. Check out the landing below.

(Cool fact—your eyes may want to trick you into thinking those are bumps on the surface of the moon, but they’re craters. Since the sun is behind the lander, it makes an optical illusion.)

Meanwhile, NASA announced plans to germinate turnip seeds on the moon in a special module by 2015. Any other week, this would seem cooler.

A period of global cooling that led to famine and the first widespread outbreak of the plague in Europe 1500 years ago may have been caused by Halley’s Comet, specifically a piece that broke off and later struck the Earth.

Hubble has spotted five exoplanets with watery atmospheres, though since they’re gas giants, they’re unlikely to harbor life. Three other exoplanets have been directly imaged; the vast majority have only been detected by how they affect the light from their host star.

A group is petitioning NASA to upload a crowd-sourced message from humanity to the New Horizons probe en route to Pluto. The first 10,000 to sign will get their name included in the message (if NASA goes along with it, of course). Fun!

Another, even cooler, petition, this time to the International Astronomical Union: To change the name of planet HD 106906 b to Gallifrey. The reasons are spoilery if you haven’t seen the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who, but it’s awesome!

Melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica have redistributed the Earth’s mass enough that the North Pole has shifted eastward by about 1.2 meters since 2005. (Other forces also cause our center of rotation and thus poles to move around slightly, but this is new.)

It snowed in Cairo last week.

The enormous magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is about 2.5 times bigger than we thought (and we already thought it was pretty huge). Fortunately, the odds that the supervolcano will actually explode anytime soon are vanishingly small.

A 4.5 magnitude earthquake struck central Oklahoma on December 7. Coincidentally, the Dallas Morning News published two op-eds about the link between fracking and increased seismic activity that same weekend. (Technically the larger quakes are caused by the wastewater injection wells, not the actual fracking, but they go hand-in-hand—banning fracking would eliminate the need for the wells. Potato-potahto.)

The American Museum of Natural History in New York has started scanning some of the dinosaur bones in its collection so that they can be 3D printed by other institutions that want to study them. Awesome.

Well then. Dino poop probably got eaten by ancient cockroaches.

Researchers have managed to sequence the mitochondrial DNA from a 400,000-year-old hominid bone found in a cave in Spain. While the remains at that location look similar to Neanderthal remains, they turned out to be more closely related to Denisovans.

A new study found that lemon sharks return to their birthplace when it’s time for them to reproduce. This is the first time such behavior has been confirmed in sharks, though many other animals, including salmon and sea turtles, have long been know to do so.

Oh fuck, wasps and honeybees can identify and remember (to some extent) individual human faces. Let’s hope they don’t hold grudges!

Even bigger oh fuck! Alligators and crocodiles use tools to lure their prey.

A new species of prehensile-tailed porcupine has been identified in Brazil.

Female primates have been found to have sex for reasons other than reproduction. Which doesn’t seem all that shocking, but you know, promiscuous ladies (even of other species) are Big News and we need to know why they do it. (NO idea what’s up with the image at the link. SMH)

New findings show that the composition of breastmilk varies based on the sex of the baby and the economic conditions of the mother.

An outbreak of bubonic and pneumonic plagues in Madagascar has killed at least 39 people.

Damnit, Katie Couric. She spent half an hour on her new daytime talk show on the topic of HPV vaccines, but only had one pro-vaccine doctor to counter another doctor who’s skeptical of the vaccine and a couple moms with sob stories of their daughters getting sick or dying shortly after having the shots, but with zero proof that Gardasil was actually to blame. She didn’t challenge any of the guests on statements they made that were patently false. The vaccines are safe, and though she later apologized for the lack of balance given to the issue, she didn’t apologize for letting people spout anecdotes in the first place.

And oh yeah, there were three times the usual number of people with measles in the US this year (and the year ain’t over yet). Get your damn vaccines, people! If you aren’t sure if you need a booster, you can get a blood test to check your immunity.

Recommended Reading

  • “Science” is Merriam-Webster’s word of the year; lookups were 176% higher this year than last. Hopefully people will learn more from the dictionary than from mere googling, since the autocompletes for “Scientists are” are fucking depressing.
  • An op-ed in the New York Times discusses ways to make math classes less boring so more students will be interested in STEM careers. (I was on the math team and yet all my teachers ever told me was, “You could be an engineer!” There are so many other options I wish I’d known about.)
  • My favorite headline of the week: “In Space, No One Can Hear You Fart.” 
  • Bless smart people on Tumblr who have no patience for anti-vaxx bullshit.
  • Stop taking multivitamins; they aren’t helping you and may even harm you. (Specific vitamins for specific diagnosed conditions are a different story. Just randomly popping supplements because they say they’ll ward off diseases doesn’t work because they don’t.)
  • And this is why I love cats—they give zero fucks.
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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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