Science News: 6/4/13

We finally have proof that there used to be water on Mars, but we’ve also learned that it may be more dangerous than we thought to send astronauts to actually visit the planet. Dinosaurs turned into birds even earlier than we once thought, and you may have feet like an ape! Intrigued? Let’s go, it’s science news time!

Curiosity has found rounded pebbles on Mars that are identical in form to those found in streambeds on Earth, proving definitively that there had to have been running water on the planet’s surface in the past.

Manned missions to Mars would be extremely dangerous based on the amount of radiation astronauts would be subjected to on the 500-day-long trip. Before we can seriously consider them, NASA would need to develop light-weight shielding to protect the spacecraft, faster propulsion devices to make the trip shorter, or both.

The asteroid that zoomed past the Earth last Friday had its own tiny moon, a smaller asteroid locked in orbit around it. Fortunately Asteroid 1998 QE2 missed us by about 3.6 million miles (6 million km), since it’s about 1.7 miles (2.7 km) wide and an impact would have been catastrophic.

Animated gif showing a moon moving partway around a much larger asteroid
Radar image of moon orbiting Asteroid 1998 QE2. Gif courtesy NASA

There’s a Kickstarter campaign to fund a space telescope. At donations of $25 or above, you can upload a selfie that will be photographed on a screen on the satellite with the Earth in the background. I can’t quite decide if this is all completely ludicrous or absolutely brilliant.

Former astronaut Sally Ride will be posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama in a ceremony later this year.

Moss that had been covered in ice in the far north of Canada for about 400 years was able to grow and flourish after being uncovered.

Archaeopteryx is officially known asthe first species of bird to evolve from dinosaurs, but a new fossil that’s ten million years older may knock it off its perch. Aurornis xui was about the size of a pheasant and had downy feathers, but probably couldn’t fly.

A newly-discovered 260-million-year-old ancestor of modern turtles and tortoises gives new insight into how they evolved to have hard shells.

New research suggests that early hominids may have started walking on two feet due to the terrain they lived on. East and South Africa have abundant rocky cliffs, which would provide excellent shelter but would also require more upright climbing than trees.

About 1 in 13 people today have flexible, ape-like feet – and most have no idea.

Populations living at high altitudes around the globe have evolved different ways to cope with the lower concentration of oxygen.

An incredibly well-preserved female mammoth was found in Siberia last month. Reportedly, some of the muscle tissue looked like fresh meat and there was still liquid blood present even though she likely died 10,000 – 15,000 years ago. The team hopes that they may be able to find cells that are in good enough shape to attempt to clone the mammoth. However, some of the claims reported in news stories about the find are inaccurate or possibly exaggerated.

A gray whale has been spotted off the coast of Namibia; it’s the first time the species has ever been seen in the Southern Hemisphere. Gray whales were once thought to be extinct in the Atlantic Ocean, but this is the second time in the last three years that one has been seen outside the North Pacific. Both whales most likely accidentally swam through the Northwest Passage and then followed the coast of Europe south, thinking it was the Pacific coast of North America.

White tigers’ unusual coloration is the result of a mutation in a single gene.

Bacteria found in Arctic permafrost can survive extremely cold temperatures, with normal metabolism seen at -15°C (5°F) and signs of life detectable at -25°C (-13°F). Its existence gives hope that we may find bacterial life in other extreme environments in outer space.

Math professor Yitang Zhang has proven the “bounded gaps” conjecture about the distribution of prime numbers. The conjecture had long been assumed to be true, but he finally found the proof necessary to confirm it.

The process of extracting gold currently relies on a toxic solution of cyanide, but researchers accidentally discovered a way to extract it using cornstarch instead.

Chinese scientists have developed a vaccine that in trials protected 90% of children from developing hand, foot, and mouth disease after exposure to the virus responsible for most cases in that country. It doesn’t protect against other similar viral strains such as Coxsackievirus that can cause the same disease, but it could lower the number of severe cases in China.

The resurgence of whooping cough may be partly blamed on the switch from whole-cell to acellular vaccines in the mid-’90s in the U.S. The new form has fewer and less severe side effects, but also doesn’t provoke as strong an immune response, leading to incomplete protection if people are later exposed to the disease.

A single gene controls itching.

Kiera Wilmot, the Florida teen who was briefly expelled and facing criminal charges after a science experiment gone awry, has been granted a full scholarship to the U.S. Space Academy. Yay!

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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.

7 replies on “Science News: 6/4/13”

I love that flexible feet thing – especially this: “It’s good to understand the normal variation among humans before we go figure out what it means in the fossil record,”

STOP THE PRESSES – a range of normal mentioned in an evolutionary science news article!!!

(also I love it cos I think I have that kind of feet – or so my podiatrist complained. Heh. Must try them out on a nearby tree sometime…)

I just learned that about white tigers! I just saw one last weekend. So pretty.

The article mentions that some of them have deformities. People used to think that inbreeding created white tigers, and encouraged it with tigers in captivity. I bet that’s why some of them are deformed.

Most of the ones in captivity are pretty hideously inbred because the mutation is rare. Years ago one of my coworkers found a website with pictures of the ones that had such obvious issues that they couldn’t be put on display. Poor little cross-eyed things; it was so sad.

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