Science News: 10/16/13

Welcome back to science news! This week, we’ve got a rundown of all the awful things the government shutdown has done to scientific research and more men who won Nobel Prizes (sorry, ladies!), but also a lot of cool findings from ancient history (the cave painters were ladies!) and some awesome videos about supervolcanoes on Mars and a SpaceX Grasshopper launch.

Science hasn’t escaped the government shutdown.

  • The three U.S. research stations in Antarctica have been shifted into “caretaker status,” shutting down all research projects on the continent and its surrounding waters and leaving only a skeleton staff in place to maintain the stations. Given the ridiculously complicated logistics involved in supporting research there, it’s unlikely that research will be able to occur even if funding is restored today. The shutdown is screwing up the data set for some studies that have been going on for years, grounding a NASA program to map remote ice sheets, and shutting down research on the continent’s subglacial lakes (which had already been drastically reduced due to sequestration). Also, I have a friend at McMurdo Station who is part of the emergency staff keeping things running, and this is making his job even more dangerous than usual. So yeah, I’m pissed.
  • 97% of NASA’s employees have been furloughed, leaving pretty much just the two American astronauts currently on the International Space Station and their support staff at Mission Control. However, Curiosity is still up and running despite earlier reports to the contrary; it’s controlled by the Jet Propulsion Lab, whose employees work for Caltech. The Mars MAVEN has also been deemed an essential mission, which is fantastic since a delay in its planned Nov. 18th launch would have caused it to miss its window; the planets wouldn’t be aligned right again until 2016.
  • The NIH is turning away about 200 patients a week from clinical trials, including little kids with cancer. They were able to admit only 12 critically ill patients during the first week of the shutdown.
  • Mental Floss has a good list of affected programs and some of the other unexpected side effects, like scientists who had to euthanize their lab mice since they wouldn’t be able to care for them. Insert angry gif here.
  • And now for some comic relief — Employees of the Anchorage National Weather Service who are working without pay snuck a subliminal message into a public weather forecast. Except that it’s not funny that they have to work without knowing when their paychecks will show up.
Weather forecast in which the first letter of each line spell out "Please pay us."
Please freaking pay them!


The Messenger spacecraft has photographed a rock formation on Mercury that kind of looks like Han Solo encased in carbonite. Awesome.

Mars might have once had supervolcanoes.

Scientists once believed that Pluto’s highly elongated orbit would cause its atmosphere to collapse and freeze as it moved farther away from the sun, but new observations show that that isn’t happening. The proposed cause for the atmosphere’s relative stability is a permanent ice cap on the planetoid’s north pole; we’ll learn more when the New Horizons probe reaches Pluto in July 2015.

Researchers in the Sahara have found the first evidence of a comet striking Earth. The comet exploded over Egypt about 28 million years ago, melting sand into yellow glass that was much later used in jewelry, including a brooch found in Tutankhamun’s tomb.

A massive eruption in 1257 scattered ash across the globe and caused “a year without a summer” across parts of Europe in 1258, but until now, no one knew precisely which volcano was responsible. New evidence points to Samalas volcano on Lombok Island in Indonesia.

The retreat of the Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska has uncovered remarkably well-preserved trees from a forest that was encased in gravel and then covered by ice about 1,000 years ago.

A new island appeared off the coast of Pakistan in the wake of the 7.7 magnitude earthquake that struck Balochistan on Sept. 24th. It may have been caused by the displacement of sediments on the sea floor or by a mud volcano, but it will likely erode away fairly quickly.

The discovery of 240 million-year-old pollen grains in drilling cores in Switzerland means that flowering plants evolved 100 million years earlier than was previously believed.

Analysis of hand stencils found amongst Neolithic cave paintings in France and Spain shows that most of the artists were likely women. Until now, it had been assumed that the paintings were made by men. (Because really, don’t we usually assume that men did things until proven otherwise? Maybe we should stop that.)

About 20 skulls dating to the Roman occupation of London were found during digging for a new rail line.

A nuclear reactor in Sweden had to be shut down for several days after jellyfish clogged up a pipe that draws in cold seawater to cool the reactor.

After a research trip to Africa, a U.S. biologist found what may be a previously unknown species of tick. In his nose. And as it turns out, high-res photos of baby chimps show that they also have ticks in their nostrils, and this may be how some diseases are transferred from apes to humans. I see an Ig Nobel Prize in this guy’s future.

Speaking of which (sorta), the Nobel Prizes were just announced!

Recommended Reading

  • The Los Angeles Times will no longer be running op eds from global warming deniers who claim that humans have had no impact on our climate. Yes!
  • Popular Science closed down commenting on all their articles because studies show that pseudoscientific malarkey and ad hominen attacks in the comments can actually undermine people’s trust in the facts laid out in articles. Trolls ruin everything.
  • There’s now an asteroid named after xkcd creator Randall Munroe. Awww.
  • Marvel and Natalie Portman just launched a mentor program/contest called the Ultimate Mentor Adventure to encourage high school girls to connect with women working in STEM fields.
  • The distances at which people can detect the smell of peanut butter with each nostril can serve as an early indicator of the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • SpaceX has successfully launched its Grasshopper rocket to the highest altitude yet, 744 meters, before returning it to its launch pad. The video is freaking awesome (ok, I’m biased because the facility is in the countryside near my late grandparents’ house and lord only knows how many times we drove past those fields when I was a kid).


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.

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