Science News: 1/22/13

Some of my favorite science bloggers have been hard at work this week explaining how recent “discoveries” are inconclusive at best or downright ludicrous and disingenuous at worst. Wondering if the news you heard this week was true or not? Find out below!

Curiosity is getting ready to drill into sedimentary rocks on Mars that are crisscrossed with veins of minerals. These veins usually form when water deposits minerals into cracks in rocks. Also, new evidence from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows that the McLaughlin crater may have once been a lake fed by groundwater!

There’s a cloud of alcohol in space that’s 288 billion miles long. Sadly, it’s methanol (rubbing alcohol), so it’s not drinkable. Damn! The cloud surrounds a stellar nursery, an area of space where new stars are being formed.

Telescope image of an alcohol cloud in space
Space alcohol! Image credit: JIVE

New analysis of data from the Kepler Space Telescope shows that Earth-like rocky planets are in orbit around nearly all of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy. That means there could be tens of billions of planets like ours in our galaxy alone. Mind-boggling.

We aren’t going to get hit by an asteroid! Apophis will pass very close to the earth in 2029, and scientists worried that our gravity would affect its orbit around the sun enough to cause a catastrophic collision in 2036. However, they were able to take more accurate measurements of its current path and it looks like we’re safe, even though the asteroid is now thought to be much bigger than we could estimate from previous pictures.

DNA news! Genetic analysis of Australian aborigines shows that instead of the continent remaining isolated after an initial wave of settlers, a second group from India may have arrived about 4000 years ago. It’s also likely that they introduced dingoes and new stone tools called microliths. Researchers have found a way to recreate people’s eye and hair color from DNA extracted from skeletons. And while we usually think of DNA as a double helix, scientists have found DNA in human cells that has a quadruple helix. More research is needed, but some think this formation may be related to cancer.

A large new species of flying frog was discovered in the forest outside Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Check out those webbed feet!

A green frog with long webbed toes
Helen’s Flying Frog (named for the discoverer’s mother). Image credit: Jodi Rowley

A group of killer whales that had been trapped in Canada’s Hudson Bay have been freed for now due to the sea ice opening up, but many worry that they may become trapped elsewhere in the bay as floes shift around.

Crabs and other crustaceans can likely feel pain, according to a new study of shore crabs in which they learned to avoid shelters where they had been given electrical shocks, even though searching for new shelter put them in increased danger from predators. For a long time it was assumed that crustaceans couldn’t feel pain, so we may need to rethink how we treat them in fisheries and the kitchen.

Climate change news! Parts of China have been experiencing the coldest winter in 27 years, while Australia has been gripped by a record-setting heat wave. This weekend Sydney set a new record high of 45.8°C (114.4°F) and the nearby town of Penrith hit 46.5°C (115.7°F). Worldwide, 2012 was one of the ten hottest years on record. Sigh.

A Russian team has successfully removed a sample of ice from Lake Vostok in Antarctica after drilling through the more than two miles of ice that have buried the subglacial lake for about 20 million years. Scientists hope that the lake supports life, and if bacteria or other tiny organisms are found in the sample, it could show us a lot about how organisms evolve in such a long period of isolation.

Lakes near the tar sands in Canada have shown an increase in carcinogens due to oil drilling. The lakes are still less polluted than urban lakes and there’s no evidence yet that there is any danger to fish and other aquatic life or to people, but the trend is still worrisome.

The chemical dispersants used to break up the oil slick that formed in the Gulf of Mexico after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon prevent coral polyps from settling on reefs, endangering their chance of survival.

More than 140 countries have adopted a United Nations treaty to reduce mercury emissions. Terms of the treaty have been negotiated for the last four years, and it will likely take another three to four years for enough countries to ratify it and allow it to go into effect.

And now for the takedowns of bad science!

Reports that fossilized diatoms (microscopic algae) were found in a meteorite last month seem to be, well, wrong, and Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy pretty well eviscerates the claim. There are diatoms in the rock in question, but they’re known species and aren’t fossilized. The report can’t in any way link the rock to the shooting star sighting that they claim was the meteorite’s entry into our atmosphere. Hell, the rock in question doesn’t even look like a meteorite; it’s likely a regular old earth rock.

It’s been widely reported in the last few days that a new study shows that chimps understand the concept of fairness, but as Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science explains, the issue is far from settled. Only six chimps were studied, and it’s not clear that they really understood the game or that we could even draw any conclusions from such a small sample.

Do our fingertips wrinkle because that helped early humans grasp items in a wet environment? A new experiment shows that people are better at moving wet marbles with wrinkly fingers than dry ones, but there’s quite a debate over whether this actually granted an evolutionary advantage to our ancestors or if it’s just something that happens for no reason (or one we haven’t yet figured out).

And lastly, are pubic lice really going extinct due to the rise in popularity of Brazilian bikini waxes? It’s impossible to say. The story was all over my Facebook feed and hit all the major news sites (people love an excuse to talk about pubes!), but there really wasn’t any evidence to back up the claim. As Sex and the 405 explains, the whole story is based on a single Australian clinic that hasn’t seen anyone with pubic lice since 2008, but there’s no evidence that they’re dying out worldwide (or even in Australia, since OTC remedies are now available so infected people wouldn’t have to visit a clinic to deal with them) or that a particular style of pubic topiary would be the sole factor if they were. It’s rubbish, really.

By [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.

2 replies on “Science News: 1/22/13”

space booze! if only.

My son has a National Geographic book, “The Big book of Why’, which explains why the fingers/toes wrinkle- lack of sebum (waterproofing). It doesn’t talk about why they may not have those oil glands. Huh. I can’t imagine walking on wet feet that weren’t a little wrinkly- something to think about!

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