Friday, December 2, 2011

Weekly Highlights #14

Students are busy ? there is a lot of excellent stuff to highlight this week:

Ritchie King, of NYU, in New York Times:

A Closer Look at Teeth May Mean More Fillings:

Until 2010, Amelia Nuwer, 22, visited the same dentist every year in Biloxi, Miss., her hometown. And every year she came back with a clean bill of dental health: no fillings necessary.

Then, as a junior at the University of Alabama, she saw a new dentist who delivered her first negative diagnosis: two cavities. Six months later, the dentist told her she had two more. Earlier this year, he once again had bad news: yet another cavity.

Somehow, in 12 months she had gone from perfect oral health to five fillings. ?It felt wrong to me,? she said?

Skills in Advanced Angling, From Another Age:

Hidden in the coral terraces that line the eastern shores of East Timor are troves of artifacts and skeletal remains that tell a story of coastal activity going back tens of thousands of years ? to the time when humans first settled nearby Australia. ?

Different Strokes With a Baby on Board:

When bottlenose dolphins swim ? at a cruising speed around six miles an hour or a sprinting speed about twice that fast ? they are constantly fighting against the water?s drag, which only gets worse as they swim harder. ?

A Bacterial Platoon With Fungi Engineers:

Bacteria and fungi ? microbiology?s classic enemies ? constantly fight over the rhizosphere, the enriched underground environment created by nutrients leaching from the roots of plants into the surrounding soil. ?

Stephen Craft of MIT:

The Computer That Didn?t Blush:

The Whirlwind computer was a nudist. In contrast, today?s computers come sheathed in plastic; we?re unaware of and unconcerned with the electrons zipping through their wires, hidden as they are behind matte gray or glossy white cases. These are prudish machines?.

Sarah Jane Keller of UCSC:

ScienceShot: Urban Bird Behavior May Divide a Species:

Humans aren?t the only species to rapidly adapt to urban hustle and bustle. A new study reveals that when European blackbirds (Turdus merula) move from their native forest into the city, they migrate shorter distances than their country cousins?a behavioral change that could eventually split the populations into separate species. Researchers studied 168 blackbirds along a 2800-kilometer path in and around seven cities from Spain to Estonia. When blackbirds eat and drink throughout Europe, different atomic varieties of hydrogen become incorporated into their beaks and feathers, which give clues to their migration patterns. The data revealed that urban blackbirds in northern Europe, which started moving into cities in the 1930s, stay closest to home during the winter. Meanwhile, their forest-dwelling counterparts still take to the wing each year for warmer climes, traveling to southern Europe or as far as northern Africa, the team reports online this month in Oikos. Cities tend to stay warmer than the countryside and there?s lots of food within easy reach ? factors that may keep urban birds lazing about town. The migratory divide could explain genetic differences that have already arisen among the urban and rural blackbird populations ? a possible first step to a species split.

Katie M. Palmer from NYU:

Intellectual Ventures Invents Beam-Steering Metamaterials Antenna:

Since 2008, frequent fliers have relished the luxury of on-board Internet connections. Service today relies on a fixed antenna that picks up signals from a nationwide network of cell towers. But that method offers low bandwidth at sometimes ridiculous prices. New antennas based on metamaterials, though, may soon rescue Web-addicted travelers from expensive connections in the air and elsewhere, and a group at the patent-licensing firm Intellectual Ventures (IV) thinks that it can implement the new technology by 2014?.

Bryony Frost of Imperial College London:

Push Start to Create Hysteria:

Halo: Reach, a first-person-shooter video game published by Microsoft Games Studios, launched on 14 September 2010 and grossed $200 million in a day. Such numbers make video games mainstream news. However, in the television coverage of the Halo: Reach launch on BBC News, the anchors called the game ?Nintendo?s new shoot ?em up? (incorrect publisher and incorrect genre) and remarked jokingly, but with apparently genuine surprise, that the on-location interviews with fans queuing to buy the game had revealed these gamers to be articulate and to have friends. While the coverage was being shown, I posted my observations in the online forum for Edge ? a quality video-game magazine. The first response was ?Welcome to Earth?. ?

Conor Myhrvold of MIT:

Nepotism study proves life really is unfair:

Many of us have wondered how the slacker bureaucrat who made our lives difficult, in the government or corporate office, successfully got through the hiring process?and whether it was a fair occurrence or a result of inside connections, wheelings and dealings?

Rose Eveleth of NYU, currently intern at Scientific American:

The Hidden Potential of Autistic Kids: What intelligence tests might be overlooking when it comes to autism:

When I was in fifth grade, my brother Alex started correcting my homework. This would not have been weird, except that he was in kindergarten?and autistic. His disorder, characterized by repetitive behaviors and difficulty with social interactions and communication, made it hard for him to listen to his teachers. He was often kicked out of class for not being able to sit for more than a few seconds at a time. Even now, almost 15 years later, he can still barely scratch out his name. But he could look at my page of neatly written words or math problems and pick out which ones were wrong?

Mass Appeal: To Study Backward-Finned Dolphin, Researcher Sources Crowds for Cash: One scientist?s quest to understand some funky fins taps a new crowdsourcing model to funding his project:

No, it?s not photoshopped?that dolphin?s fin really is on backward. It is a type of spinner dolphin that lives in the eastern tropical Pacific. The really peculiar thing about these cetaceans is that only the adult males have backward fins. The juveniles and females of the species look completely normal?

Kristina Bjoran, recent graduate from MIT, now intern at Wired:

Most Dangerous Object in the Office: Mo-Tool Ax:

Multitools generally don?t come with axes?probably because that would be absurd. The only way to make it work would be to combine an ax that?s waaay too small with a multitool that?s waaay too big. So, seriously, Brook & Hunter, what were you thinking with this $50 Mo-Tool monstrosity? In addition to a hammer (!), wire cutter, and can opener, it has a 2-inch-long ax head (and a safety sleeve so you don?t open your femoral artery when you shove it into your pocket). It?ll really come in handy when we?re ? um, when we?re repairing doll houses? When we?re clear-cutting bonsai? Oh, Brook & Hunter, we can?t stay mad at you. Look at it?it?s a friggin? multitool with an ax. Just don?t call it a hatchet.

Mexican Mine Crystals: 36 Feet Long, 1 Million Years Old:

Watching grass grow is heart-pounding excitement compared to monitoring gypsum crystals. A team of researchers from Spain and Japan have discovered that these giants in Chihuahua, Mexico, had the slowest growth rate ever recorded for crystal: In a century, they grew just 0.04 millimeter?about the width of a human hair. Some are 36 feet long but may have taken, oh, you know, about a million years to get there. Before it was pumped out for mining in 1975, the cavern was filled with consistently hot calcium-sulfate-rich water?perfect for these crystals, which form only in a 129- to 136-degree-Fahrenheit window. But now that the cave is dry, the crystals have stopped growing. Despite its icy appearance today, the grotto hovers around 113 degrees, too hot for anyone to stand around measuring for long?

Tanya Lewis of UCSC:

Stanford joins BrainGate team developing brain-computer interface to aid people with paralysis:

Stanford University researchers are enrolling participants in a pioneering study investigating the feasibility of people with paralysis using a technology that interfaces directly with the brain to control computer cursors, robotic arms and other assistive devices?

Scientists identify defect in brain cell channel that may cause autism-like syndrome:

Neuroscientists at Stanford University School of Medicine have homed in on potential differences in autistic people?s brain cells by studying brainlike spheres grown in an elaborate process from skin cells. The scientists studied cells from patients with Timothy syndrome, a rare genetic condition that is associated with one of the most penetrant forms of autism: In other words, most people with the Timothy syndrome mutation have autism as a symptom, among other problems?

Lauren Maurer of MIT:

Stalking E.O. Wilson:

So, anyone who?s known me for more than five minutes knows I?ve had what one would call a ?nerd-crush? (technical term, that) on E. O. Wilson for years?

Sarah Fecht of NYU, currently intern at Scientific American:

Why Pioneers Breed Like Rabbits: Families that colonized the Canadian frontier contributed more genetic material to the modern population than folks who stayed home, says a new study:

In the classic book series, Little House on the Prairie, Pa?s wanderlust repeatedly drives the Ingalls family westward past the edges of civilization. That craving for open space is probably what drove Homo sapiens to leave Africa in the first place and spread across the globe. According to new research, the desire to expand into new territory may have provided an evolutionary advantage to those who had it over those who lacked it?

Rayner Simpson of Imperial College London:

Infected with Meaning:

I love a good virus movie. From the cold war fancies of ?The Andromeda Strain? to the zombie romp ?28 days later? ? show me a face mask, latex gloves and a quarantine riot and I?m munching away happily on my cinema popcorn. Yet Steven Soderbergh?s new virus drama ?Contagion? has injected a whole new strain of scientific reality into my fictional pandemic apocalypse. The film is painstakingly researched, personally focused yet global in political and social reach. It draws on recent virus scares such as SARS and H1N1, and boasts an eminent epidemiologist as a technical adviser. I found the film absorbing, intelligent and thought provoking. But most of all, I found it a compelling piece of science communication?

Madhumita Venkataramanan of NYU, at Nature:

Pfizer braces for big hit after generic versions of Lipitor hit the market:

It?s the end of an era for the pharmaceutical industry. Tomorrow, the most popular prescription drug in the world, Lipitor, is due to go off-patent in the US. And no product looks set to equal or surpass the cholesterol-lowering agent?s peak annual sales of $13.7 billion, which it achieved back in 2006.

Hannah Krakauer from MIT:

The Shape-Shifting Bat:

Some bat species can dramatically change the size and shape of their ears faster than humans can blink an eye, researchers have shown. Scientists already knew that bats could change the direction of their ears depending on where a sound was coming from, like shining a flashlight around a room. New data now show that bats can also reshape their outer ears, stretching their ears to pick up sound from a wide field and then focusing back to tiny targets very quickly?

Joseph Castro of NYU, now Staff Writer at LiveScience and Life?s Little Mysteries:

New Picture of Bats? Acoustic Sense Emerges:

By sending out high-frequency calls and analyzing the echoes that come back, bats can essentially ?see? the world around them. Scientists have long thought that bats judge the size of a nearby object based on the strength of this echo, but a new study shows that echo intensity alone does not paint the whole picture?

Would a Mars Science Laboratory Launch Accident Pose a Radiation Risk?:

NASA?s Mars Science Laboratory is slated to launch this Saturday (Nov. 26) from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida, and like all other rocket launches, there is a chance of failure. Unlike previous Mars mission launches, an accident during NASA?s upcoming liftoff poses an additional risk: the spread of radioactive plutonium, which is used to power the new rover, Curiosity. Some people are concerned that an explosion during launch, and the possible release of plutonium, would harm them. But should they really be worried??

Nadia Drake, graduate of UCSC, now at ScienceNews:

Christmas gamma-ray burst still puzzles :

The unusually bright and long-lived gamma-ray burst that appeared on December 25, 2010, is an enigmatic holiday gift that isn?t quite unwrapped yet. After nearly a year, scientists trying to catch the culprit behind the perplexing explosion have arrived at two completely different answers, both presented in the Dec. 1 Nature. One theory involves a small object, such as an asteroid or comet, passing too close to a neutron star and going out in a gamma blaze of glory. The other theory suggests that a gnarly stellar merger ? followed by a dim supernova ? delivered the bizarre Christmas burst?

Venus Unveiled:

Like many siblings, Venus and Earth bear a familial resemblance. Venus is similar to Earth in size, composition and gravitational pull. But some peculiar quirks, from sulfuric acid clouds to swirling polar vortices, make Venus a twisted sister indeed. New results from the European Space Agency?s Venus Express spacecraft, which has been orbiting the cloud-shrouded planet since 2006, suggest that beneath the acidic cloak lies an extreme world that provides an important point of comparison for understanding Earth?s evolution?

Lena Groeger of NYU, currently intern at Scientific American:

A Friend Like Me: When Given More Choices, People Pick Friends Similar to Themselves: Diverse social circles lead to friends who are alike, but not necessarily closer:

Whether it?s deciding what to eat or where to live, we like to have options. And the more options we have, the more varied our choices will be?right? When it comes to picking our friends, perhaps not?.

Tip Off: Solving the Curious Case of the Missing Fingerprints: A rare condition that causes a person be born without fingerprints can now be explained by a mutation in a single gene, a new analysis suggests:

Fingerprints are so familiar that they are mostly taken for granted. Except, however, for people who don?t have any at all. Although rare, such a deficiency poses a problem for immigration, the border patrol and the criminal justice system, which all rely on tools such as biometric scans and other devices that read these tiny, unique, markings found on the hands and fingertips of most people?.

Jordan Calmes of MIT:

With Help, Teens Can Manage Epilepsy:

When Etrudy Mitchell?s daughter had her first epileptic seizure at 16 months old, it started off looking like a run of the mill temper tantrum?

Douglas Main of NYU, currently Web intern at Discover Magazine:

Atmospheric Remnants of Nuclear Tests Reveal Antarctica?s Tiny ?Old-Growth Forests?:

Ah, Antarctica. A vast expanse of ice, interrupted by mountains, ice? and more ice (with the occasional penguin). But in the East of the continent and on the Windmill Islands near Australia?s Casey research station, bare ground can actually be seen during summer months. Here Antarctica?s endemic plants dwell: lichens, terrestrial algae, and mosses. These smatterings of bryophytes are amongst the hardiest flora in the world, providing a home for a variety of minute life. They survive being covered in snow most of the year, only growing briefly during the summer months, watered by snowmelt. Except for in-person observations made over the last two decades, little definitive was known about these oases of diversity, like their age or how they might respond to changes in climate?.

Garret Fitzpatrick of MIT:

Coffee Growers Take Note: Fungi Have Sex, Too:

Here?s news to researchers studying coffee rust, a fungal disease that has devastated coffee crops around the world for more than a hundred years: It was always assumed the coffee fungus reproduced asexually?meaning its cells split instead of fused with other cells from another host. But new research confirms they also reproduce sexually. ?

Helen Shen of USCS:

Researchers Freely Share LCLS Experiment Data on Public Database:

In 2009, when biophysicist Ilme Schlichting and her colleagues applied to use the X-ray laser at SLAC?s Linac Coherent Light Source, they added a radical idea to their proposal: They would make all the data they collected on two viruses and a nanoparticle available to the public one year after the experiment ended.

Their proposal is part of a nascent movement to re-distribute the wealth of data provided by ultra-bright lasers such as LCLS. Most scientists guard their data closely, fearing that other researchers taking a fresh look at the information will pre-empt them by publishing results first. But in the field of X-ray imaging, some say the risk is worth taking because data sharing speeds scientific progress?.

Rachel Nuwer of NYU, in New York Times:

After Rhino Horn Seizure, Conservationists Seek Enforcement:

Authorities at the Hong Kong International Airport made a record seizure of illegal rhino horns last week, estimated to be worth about $2.2 million, officials said?.

How Much Will the Earth Warm Up?:

Scientists say the Earth will warm in response to increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, but since the 1970s, they have not made much headway in narrowing down exactly how much it will warm?

The Power Politics of Water Struggles:

When you?re driving through a war zone, your instinct may be to roll up the car windows. Wrong move. A bullet is less likely to hit you than to strike the glass, which will shatter and probably cause injuries. It takes firsthand experience to learn these tricks of the trade, and for years, Mark Zeitoun has sought out such experience?


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