Science News: 10/31/13

It’s mostly fun stuff in this edition of science news! We’ve got good news regarding a possible asteroid hitting Earth, takedowns of some really dumb science, and cool videos of Mars, the Moon, and a rebuttal to climate change deniers. Plus, a special Halloween treat if you read all the way to the end!

OK, so technically the odds that Asteroid 2013 TV135 will strike the Earth in August 2032 have gone up from 1 in 63,000 to 1 in 14,000 since its discovery on October 8, but it’s still extremely unlikely to hit us. Phil Plait does the math to explain why the odds went up and why they’ll probably go back down as we learn more about its orbit.

Exoplanet news!

  • We’ve found a seventh planet in orbit around dwarf star KIC 11442793, making it the largest known solar system outside our own. The coolest part is that one of the planets was discovered by citizen scientists using the Planet Hunters website (which I’ve tried to use and it is tricky to figure out, so massive hat tip from me).
  • A 12-million-year-old planet recently discovered 18 light years away is floating freely in space instead of orbiting a star. Astronomers aren’t sure if it was somehow ejected from a solar system after forming or if it somehow formed in interstellar space contrary to everything we know about how planets are born.
  • Recent discoveries bring the total number of known exoplanets to more than 1,000. Twelve of them are potentially habitable.

Astronomers have discovered a galaxy that’s 30 billion light years away, the farthest known. We’re seeing it as it existed 13.1 billion years ago, only 700 million years after the Big Bang.

Want to see what it’s like to fly over Mars? The European Space Agency released a video that combines images from the Mars Express orbiter with topographical data.

A chunk of the Chelyabinsk meteor that streaked over the skies of Siberia in February has been dredged up from the bottom of Lake Chebarkul. It’s about a meter across and weighs in at 1,250 pounds.

Radiocarbon dating of moss recently uncovered by melting ice caps on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic show that some parts of the island had been covered with ice continuously for at least 44,000 years, possibly up to 125,000 years. Other mosses that were only covered by ice 5,000 years ago show that our current models of Arctic temperature swings might be drastically wrong and that temps could be rising twice as fast as we thought.

Climate change is real, and vlogger Hank Green destroys ten of the most common arguments made by global warming deniers. (popcorn.gif)

The asteroid or comet impact that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago also killed off most of the bees that lived at the time.

A high school student on a field trip in Utah discovered the most complete Parasaurolophus skeleton ever. It’s also the first juvenile of its species ever found.

A female mosquito fossilized in a shale deposit actually has traces of molecules found in hemoglobin in its stomach, making this the first direct evidence that they were blood-suckers even millions of years ago. Sadly, it’s far too old for there to be intact DNA (and it was only 46 million years old, so it isn’t dino blood anyway).

A 1.8 million-year-old hominid skull found in Dmanisi, Georgia (the republic, not the state) has some anthropologists rethinking whether many previously identified Homo species are actually distinct species that died off or if they’re all part of a single lineage that changed in appearance as it evolved. The skull is a “mosaic,” meaning it has some features we associate with older species and some from later Homo erectus. Of course, even in modern animals, it can be difficult to delineate and define species, so it’s understandable that there would be debate over our own evolutionary past.

Two mummies, an adult and a child, were found in an archeological dig in the suburbs of Lima, Peru. Researchers think the child might have been buried alive as a sacrifice to the gods more than 1,000 years ago.

Yetis are real! But no, they aren’t some sort of creepy snow-man. DNA testing of “yeti” hair samples found in the Himalayas are genetically identical to ancient polar bears, meaning the most likely explanation of sightings is an as-yet unidentified species of bear that descended from the same ancestor as polar bears or is a hybrid of the ancient polar bear and closely-related brown bears.

Southern grasshopper mice have evolved an extra protein that turns bark scorpion venom into a painkiller. In other species, stings from those scorpions are extremely painful and can even be fatal, but the mice are protected even from other sources of pain after being stung.

There’s a tiny Australian marsupial called an antechinus whose males are so driven to reproduce that they drop dead after having sex nearly nonstop for two to three weeks. Damn, son.

There are claims that common swifts can spend their entire lives in the air except when they’re breeding and incubating eggs. One ornithologist decided to test this by fitting six alpine swifts with data-loggers for a year. After recapturing three of them a year later, he found that while they roost at night during their breeding season in Switzerland, when they migrate to Africa for the summer, they apparently stay airborne for almost 200 days, eating and sleeping in the air.

So apparently, all mammals take roughly the same amount of time to pee. Relative bladder size and pressure and urethral diameter have evolved so that no matter how big a mammal is, it pees for about 21 seconds. (The link goes to a video which is probably NSFW and, well, maybe a bit gross given the subject matter. I warned you! And good luck trying not to time yourself next time you pee.)

Recommended reading and fun stuff

  • Cracked has a fun list of science “facts” that we all probably learned at some point, but that are wrong.
  • Jacob Sullum has an awesome takedown of the “Oreos are as addictive as cocaine and heroin!!” study that was all over the news a couple weeks ago.
  • Speaking of MASSIVE WRONGNESS —No, Fox & Friends graphics person, bald eagles were not “extinct” before being saved by science. Critically endangered, yes. Not extinct!! New York Magazine has a hilarious take on how the segment could have gone down, or you can see how it actually happened (if you want to give Fox News the pageview; their videos can’t be embedded).
  • So, “traditional Chinese medicine?” Turns out it’s partly Maoist propaganda, partly Westerners misunderstanding a 1971 article in which a New York Times editor used acupuncture for pain management after an appendectomy in China (not as a replacement for anesthesia during the actual surgery), and partly desperation to provide at least some care when there weren’t enough Western-trained doctors to go around in rural China. Not so traditional after all.
  • There’s gold in them thar… trees?
  • Lots of fish participate in “mouth brooding,” in which the mothers hold fertilized eggs in their mouths until they hatch to protect them from predators. At least one species of cichlid gobbles up her eggs so quickly that they have to be fertilized in her mouth. You guessed it — via a sort of fish oral sex.
  • Good news! With the government shutdown finally over, many Antarctic science programs may be able to go forward after all. (And, you know, everything else that was shut down/delayed as well.)
  • There are a lot of cool opportunities for stargazers this weekend. NatGeo tells you the best ways to spot comet ISON, zodiacal lights, and a solar eclipse.
  • I’m suddenly very happy the moon isn’t actually as close to Earth as the ISS, but this video is awesome! (via Know More)

And now for some special Halloween science news!

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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