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Welcome to Science Saturday, where the Overnight News Digest crew, consisting of founder Magnifico, regular editors jlms qkw, maggiejean, wader, Oke, rfall, and JML9999, alumni editors palantir, Bentliberal, and ScottyUrb, guest editor annetteboardman, and current editor-in-chief Neon Vincent, along with anyone else who reads and comments, informs and entertains you with this week's news about science, space, and the environment.

This week's featured stories come from the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times.

Solstices and Equinoxes

Winter Solstice 2012: Myths and facts about the shortest day of the year

The world won’t end on December 21, but the 2012 winter solstice is still on the astronomical calendar.

On Friday at 6:12 a.m. (EST), Earth’s north pole will be at its maximum tilt away from the sun, marking the official start of winter and shortest day of the year for the Northern Hemisphere. If you’re looking for some bright sunshine to alleviate the winter blues, head south of the equator, which is now enjoying its longest daylight period of the year.

Think you’ve heard everything there is to know about the solstice? Let’s take a look at seven different statements to see what’s true and what’s not…

Lots of fun trivia about the solstice at the link.

Maya 'doomsday' may actually be Sunday, archaeologist says
By Daniel Hernandez
December 21, 2012, 12:36 p.m.

TULUM, Mexico – Hold on to your doomsday fever, folks, the Maya calendar date celebrated Friday as the “end of the world” might actually be off by two days – or a full year.

The end of the 13th baktun cycle of the so-called Long Count of the ancient Maya’s intricate, interlocking calendar system might correspond to Sunday, not Friday, said Carmen Rojas, an archaeologist with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History.

As “end of the world” hype swept the globe Friday, scholars pointed out that the Maya calendar hasn't been decoded enough to make exact correlations with the Gregorian calendar that we use.
One such inconsistency leads some Maya scholars to believe the 13th baktun cycle ends on Sunday, while others say it might be off by a full year or more.

Hat/Tip to annetteboardman for this story.

I'm with Grumpy Cat on this one.

Grumpy Cat thinks this is the worst Apocalypse ever.
More stories after the jump.

You must enter an Intro for your Diary Entry between 300 and 1150 characters long (that's approximately 50-175 words without any html or formatting markup).

Recent Science Diaries and Stories

Watch this space!

Women in Science: Rachel Carson 1907-1964
by Desert Scientist

Michael Mann sues NRO, Mark Steyn, Rand Stimberg
by seesdifferent

Christmas Treat Moon & Jupiter
by jim in IA

This week in science: Showboats
by DarkSyde


Causes of death for U.S. men 1970-2006
Causes of death for U.S. women 1970-2006
io9: Charting causes of death in America between 1970 and 2006
by Robert Gonzalez
December 21, 2012
Some damn fine data visualization (interactive data visualization, at that!) by the folks at the Institue (sic) for Health Metrics and evaluation.
Much more at the link.  Also see the articles from Bloomberg News and Scientific American under Science Policy.

Science News: Heart telltale
Engineered cardiac cells flash when they beat
By Tina Hesman Saey
Web edition: December 17, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO — A protein borrowed from Dead Sea microbes and re-engineered by researchers makes heart cells light up with every contraction. The flashing cells may offer a way to predict whether new drugs will cause heart problems in people, Harvard researchers reported December 17 at the American Society for Cell Biology annual meeting.

Adam Cohen and his colleagues took a protein that helps a Dead Sea microorganism harvest energy from sunlight and broke the molecule so it works only in reverse, giving off instead of absorbing light under certain conditions. When placed in heart cells, the protein — called archaerhodopsin 3, or Arch for short — flashes dim red light when heart cells get an electrical signal to beat, Cohen reported. A different version of the Arch protein blinks blue when calcium enters the cell or is released from storage depots inside the cell to trigger heart muscle contractions. (Click here to view a movie of the protein in action.)

The idea for the flashing cells came from a new field of research known as optogenetics, in which researchers use flashes of light to control the activity of nerve cells. The new technique doesn’t alter the way the heart cells function; it simply allows Cohen and his colleagues to monitor the beating of human heart cells.

NASA Television on YouTube: Further Up Yonder: A Message from ISS to All Humankind

NASA Television shares this inspiring production by Italian videomaker, Giacomo Sardelli, about the International Space Station, its inhabitants, and its role in space exploration. Sardelli writes of the video, "I'm not the first one to use NASA's pictures taken from the International Space Station to craft a Timelapse video. You can find many of them on the Internet, that's where my inspiration came from. What I wanted to do, though, was to look beyond the intrinsic beauty of those pictures, and use them to tell a story and share the messages sent by the astronauts who worked on the station in the last 11 years."

NASA Television on YouTube: Happy Holidays, NASA TV Style!

Our wish for a happy holiday season, and a healthy and prosperous 2013!

NASA Television on YouTube: ScienceCasts: Christmas Sky Show

The Moon and Jupiter are converging for a heavenly sky show on Christmas 2012. Got a telescope? Something extra-special is happening on Jupiter that makes it an appealing target for backyard optics.

NASA Television on YouTube: NASA Seeks to Debunk Doomsday Prophecy

As 2012 draws to a close, many websites, books and cable television shows are erroneously predicting the end of the world. These claims range from fears that a rogue planet is heading toward Earth, to solar flares torching our planet. David Morrison, a senior scientist and astrobiologist at NASA's Ames Research Center is working to inform the public that each of the claims are false and there is no reason that December 21, 2012 will be different from any other day on Earth.
After that, I think we need a good laugh.

NASA Television on YouTube: "NASA Johnson Style" ("Gangnam Style" Parody)

NASA astronauts and scientists are among those in this educational parody of Psy's popular music video. "NASA Johnson Style" was created, written and produced by the Houston center's co-op students who volunteered for the project " to inform the public about the amazing work going on at NASA and the Johnson Space Center."


Science News: Glimpse at early universe finds expansion slowdown
BOSS project looks at acceleration rate before dark energy hit the gas
By Andrew Grant
Print edition: December 29, 2012; Vol.182 #13 (p. 9)

New measurements have captured the universe’s expansion when it was slowing down 11 billion years ago, before a mysterious entity called dark energy took over and began spurring the cosmos to expand faster and faster. The measurements, reported online November 12 at arXiv.org, are an important step toward understanding what dark energy is and how it works.

About 15 years ago, astronomers discovered that the universe’s expansion is accelerating by cataloging spectacular stellar explosions called type 1a supernovas. Because each explosion emits almost exactly the same amount of light, astronomers can use a supernova’s observed brightness to determine its distance, and then measure its redshift, or how much its light is stretched, to determine how fast the supernova is moving away from Earth. Astronomers Adam Riess of Johns Hopkins University, Saul Perlmutter of the University of California, Berkeley and Brian Schmidt of Australian National University shared the 2011 Nobel Prize for their work using this technique to reveal that the universe’s expansion is currently accelerating and has been for the last 5 billion years or so.

But as bright as supernovas are, they are difficult to see deep in the cosmos, at distances corresponding to the time when the universe was only a few billion years old. So an international team of scientists with the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey, or BOSS, employs a different method. They use the 2.5-meter Sloan telescope at New Mexico’s Apache Point Observatory to collect light produced by feasting supermassive black holes that thrived a couple billion years after the dawn of the universe 13.7 billion years ago.

Science News: News in brief: Possible planet looks habitable
Candidate body pushes limit of astronomical detection
By Alexandra Witze
Web edition: December 19, 2012

The closest single star like the sun — Tau Ceti, 12 light-years away — may harbor five planets slightly more massive than Earth. One may even lie in the star’s habitable zone.
According to the analysis, Tau Ceti is surrounded by five planets that weigh between two and six Earth masses and take between 14 and 640 days to orbit the star. The one reported in the habitable zone is a five-Earth-mass planet with a period of 168 days.

Science News: California meteorite a scientific gold mine
Sutter’s Mill rock preserves rare, fresh material from outer space
By Alexandra Witze
Web edition: December 20, 2012

A meteorite that fell where California’s gold rush began has triggered a similar gold rush for scientists: to study one of the freshest, most unusual space rocks around.

The Sutter’s Mill meteorite turns out to be a rare, carbon-rich type known as a carbonaceous chondrite. Its insides are a jumble of different primitive space materials mashed together in a single rock.

“It’s a real hodge-podge,” says Monica Grady, a meteorite expert at the Open University in Milton Keynes, England. “It tells you that the asteroid it came from has had a very interesting history.” Grady and her colleagues describe the Sutter’s Mill find in the Dec. 21 Science.


BBC: Fighting may have shaped evolution of human hand

Fighting may have shaped the evolution of the human hand, according to a new study by a US team.

The University of Utah researchers used instruments to measure the forces and acceleration when martial artists hit a punch bag.

They found that the structure of the fist provides support that increases the ability of the knuckles to transmit "punching" force.

Details have been published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Hat/Tip to annetteboardman for this story.


Science News: Victorian zoological map redrawn
Patterns that inspired Darwin and Wallace get an update
By Susan Milius
Web edition: December 20, 2012

With a new planet-wide analysis of vertebrate life, an international team has used 21st century science to update an iconic 1876 map of Earth’s zoological regions.

By incorporating data on 21,037 species of mammals, birds and amphibians, Jean-Philippe Lessard, now at McGill University in Montreal, and his colleagues have revised a zoological map created by Alfred Russel Wallace, an oft-overlooked cofounder of the theory of evolution. Wallace’s map divided Earth’s landmasses into six major regions, each with its own distinctive blend of vertebrates.

Over the years scientists have redistricted Wallace’s wildlife precincts several times, mostly to fit the growing trove of information on what species live where. Lessard and his colleagues, however, use not just species distributions but family tree relationships. Incorporating degrees of kinship revives the evolutionary spirit of Wallace’s original map, Lessard and colleagues say online December 20 in Science.


Science News: Twin towers dust tied to some cancers, not others
Medical registry data shows 9/11 rescue and recovery workers have higher rates of three types of malignancies
By Nathan Seppa
Web edition: December 18, 2012

Rescue and recovery workers exposed to airborne debris from the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York are, overall, no more likely to develop cancer than unexposed people are, a new analysis of medical data shows. But a closer look at the records finds that three malignancies stand as exceptions: cancers of the thyroid and prostate and a blood cancer called multiple myeloma.

Meanwhile, bystanders and other people exposed to the dust have so far experienced no increased risk for any of 23 cancers, researchers report in the Dec. 19 Journal of the American Medical Association. The study was based on data from a registry that includes 55,000 New York residents exposed to the dust from the twin towers’ fall.

Why three cancers showed up in workers and the other 20 didn’t is unclear, says study coauthor Steven Stellman, an epidemiologist at the New York City Department of Health and Columbia University.

Science News: Pressure keeps cancer in check
Physically confining malignant cells prevents runaway growth
By Tina Hesman Saey
Web edition: December 18, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO — Putting the squeeze on lab-grown tumor cells makes them behave like healthy ones, a new study shows. The discovery won’t lead to treatments that poke and prod tumors in patients, but it might help researchers develop new drugs that keep mutated cells from growing out of control.

Breast cancer cells suspended in gel and then briefly compressed form orderly balls, just like normal breast cells do when squeezed, Gautham Venugopalan, an engineer and cell biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, reported December 17 at the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology. “We’re not adding any drugs. We’re not changing any genetics,” Venugopalan said. “All we’ve done is basically kicked them and said, ‘you need to be normal now.’”

The cells still carry the genetic changes that led them to become cancerous, but after the big squeeze they act as if they are healthy.

Scientific American: Intensive Weight Loss Programs Might Help Reverse Diabetes
By Katherine Harmon
December 18, 2012

Type 2 diabetes has long been thought of as a chronic, irreversible disease. Some 25 million Americans are afflicted with the illness, which is associated with obesity and a sedentary lifestyle, as well as high blood pressure. Recent research demonstrated that gastric bypass surgery—a form of bariatric surgery that reduces the size of the stomach—can lead to at least temporary remission of type 2 diabetes in up to 62 percent of extremely obese adults. But can less drastic measures also help some people fight back the progressive disease?

A new randomized controlled trial found that intensive weight loss programs can also increase the odds that overweight adults with type 2 diabetes will see at least partial remission. The findings were published online December 18 in JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association. “The increasing worldwide prevalence of type 2 diabetes, along with its wide-ranging complications, has led to hopes that the disease can be reversed or prevented,” wrote the authors of the new paper, led by Edward Gregg of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
After two years about one in 11 adults in the intervention group experienced at least partial remission of their diabetes, meaning that a patient’s blood sugar levels reverted to below diabetes diagnosis levels without medication. Only about one in 60 in the control group, which received only basic support and education, saw any remission after two years. The findings suggest that “partial remission, defined by a transition to prediabetic or normal glucose levels without drug treatment for a specific period, is an obtainable goal for some patients with type 2 diabetes,” the researchers noted.


Scientific American: Arctic Sea Ice Hits Record Low
Greater ice loss could cause harsh winters in the U.S. Northeast and Europe
By Mark Fischetti
December 22, 2012

It might seem counterintuitive to link Arctic sea ice that disappears in the summer to a colder winter in the northeastern U.S. and Europe, but scientists have reason to believe the connection is real and will make itself felt this upcoming season.

Less sea ice in summer means the Arctic Ocean warms more. It radiates much of that excess heat back to the atmosphere in winter. That release disrupts typical atmospheric conditions, thereby affecting how the jet stream behaves. The net result is a greater chance for unusually cold winters, or at times unusually warm ones, in the northeastern U.S. and Europe, according to an article by Cornell University Earth and atmospheric scientist Charles Greene in Scientific American’s December 2012 issue.

Scientific American: Could Climate Change Boost Toxic Algal Blooms in the Oceans?
Preliminary research hints that ocean acidification may promote some types of algal blooms that make people and animals sick
By Valerie Brown
December 21, 2012

Physical and chemical conditions cause populations of algae to wax and wane in cycles. Out of the vast diversity of plankton in the oceans, the worst offenders are a few species of diatoms, dinoflagellates and cyanobacteria, collectively called harmful algae. For example, some diatoms make domoic acid, which causes vomiting, cramping, headache and even seizures and memory loss; some dinoflagellates produce saxitoxin, which causes numbness, staggering and respiratory failure, among other symptoms.

Toxic blooms can occur naturally when deep, nutrient-rich water wells up in places like the west coasts of North and South America. They can be amplified by land runoff of fertilizers and other chemicals that provide nutrients such as phosphorus. Algal blooms have been increasing in coastal waters nearly everywhere.

In mid-December 2012 recreational mussel harvesting was closed along the entire Oregon coast because the mussels were contaminated with paralytic shellfish toxins. In 2002 razor clam harvesting was prohibited for the full season in Washington State because of high domoic acid levels. Florida’s coastline has frequent outbreaks of the toxic dinoflagellate Karenia brevis, whose toxins can escape into the air and cause severe respiratory distress. Today in the U.S. alone such incidents cause $82 million in public health costs and economic damages to fisheries and tourism annually, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). These costs include emergency room visits and other medical treatment, lost work productivity, and fewer dollars reaching local businesses if beaches and sport or commercial fishing is curtailed.

Now scientists are investigating whether climate change could contribute to toxic blooms.

Science News: Pandas' home range may move as climate changes
Warming might force animals’ food source, bamboo, to higher elevations
By Alexandra Witze
Print edition: December 29, 2012; Vol.182 #13 (p. 8)

China’s famous Qinling pandas may run out of their favorite food by the end of this century. Scientists have simulated how three bamboo species native to central China’s Qinling Mountains might move around as climate changes. And the news is bad for hungry pandas: All three plant species shrink in range.
Maps of different scenarios for bamboo survival revealed that if the bamboo species manage to spread well and temperature increases stay small, then “a considerable amount of panda habitat is projected to persist over the entire century,” the scientists write online November 11 in Nature Climate Change.

But more likely is a fragmenting of panda habitat and overall bamboo shortages.


Science News: Antarctic test of novel ice drill poised to begin
It’s a chance to get the kinks out before an American team deploys the system in January to bore for the first time into a pristine, subglacial lake
By Janet Raloff
Web edition: December 15, 2012

Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica--Any day now, a team of 40 scientists and support personnel expects to begin shoveling ice and snow into a melting bin. Over the next 24 to 36 hours, they’ll send the resulting 90 degree Celsius water down through a clean hose that they’ll unspool from above. They’ll use the warm, high pressure jet to bore a 30 centimeter hole through 83 meters of ice. Once it breaks through to the sea below, they’ll have a few days to quickly sample life from water before the hole begins freezing up again.

It’s only a test. But if all goes well, the group will immediately pack up their 13 vans and cargo containers and begin hauling them in a tractor-drawn caravan over the ice to a spot 700 miles away — to just past where the floating ice shelf meets the Ross Ice Sheet. At the site they’ve chosen, 800-meter-thick glacial ice is slowly advancing across land to the sea. Here, the ice doesn’t just cover rock. It also overlays a network of subglacial lakes.

And at some point in mid-January, the intrepid research crew representing a consortium of U.S. universities expects to unpack its equipment and unspool some 1,000 meters of hose to again drill through the ice. This time, they hope to puncture into Lake Whillans, searching for freshwater life that may have been living for eons outside even indirect contact with Earth’s atmosphere.


Science News: Hitting streaks in baseball may be contagious
Teammates of a batter on a streak also hit better than average
By Nathan Seppa
Web edition: December 21, 2012

Like a popular politician with long “coattails,” a baseball player on a hitting streak seems to lift the performance of those around him. Teammates who play regularly with a streaking player hit at a pace above their own average during those games, a mathematical analysis shows.

“We don’t prove that hitting is contagious,” says study coauthor Joel Bock, an engineer at Scalaton, a software engineering firm in La Mesa, Calif. “But the data show there is something there.”

Streakiness in sports is a controversial topic in science. Some scientists point to a lack of evidence showing that a player can have a true “hot hand” that predicts subsequent success, such as the likelihood that a hot basketball player will make the next shot (SN: 2/12/2011, p. 26). Even less is known about whether a hot hand can extend to others.

Nature Medicine via Scientific American: Depression Surpasses Asthma as Top Disability Problem among U.S. and Canadian Teens
New data show an increasing contribution of mental and behavioral disorders to deterioration in the health-related quality of life among teens in the U.S. and Canada over the past two decades, and increases elsewhere around the globe
By Yevgeniy Grigoryev and Spoonful of Medicine

The recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, perpetrated by 20 year-old Adam Lanza, has intensified the discussion about how mental health is handled and documented in the US. Officials have not provided information about Lanza’s motivation and state of mind, and many are rightfully quick to point out that it is wrong to equate mental illness with the fatal sociopathic actions of a small group of individuals. The conversation about access to mental health care should, however, take into account new data showing an increasing contribution of mental and behavioral disorders to deterioration in the health-related quality of life among teenagers in the US and Canada over the last two decades, and increases elsewhere around the globe.

The estimation of ‘years lived with disabilities’, or YLDs, is used as a collective metric to determine how much a particular disorder deprives the population of healthy years of life during a particular window of time. In 2010 just as in 1990, depression ranked as the number two contributor of YLDs, affecting 4% of the global population, eclipsed only by back pain that affected almost 10% of population worldwide. Among 10 to 14 year olds, the top contributor worldwide is iron deficiency. Asthma had been the largest contributor to YLDs for youths in that age range in the US and Canada in 1990, but the study published in The Lancet on Thursday led by researchers at the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, Seattle showed that in this group depression surpassed asthma to claim the number one spot in 2010. In that group, the collective number of ‘years lost to disability’ grew from about 140,000 in 1990 to almost 180,000 in 2010, a 30% increase. Notably, global figures for the same age group show that the number of years lost to disability from depression grew from 4.9 million in 1990 to 5.5 million in 2010, a 13% increase as shown in the graphs below.


Wired UK: Teeth reveal migration patterns of ancient humans
By Olivia Solon
19 December 12

A team of dental physical scientists have been using x-ray diffraction to study the development of children's teeth in order to track migration patterns of our ancestors.

The team has been using the festively-named XMaS facility (X-ray Magnetic Scattering) at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble to perform detailed analysis of tooth structure and composition. The work will make it possible to re-interpret archaeological records of ancient human migrations and may also help scientists to regrow human teeth lost due to disease or age.

The composition of enamel -- the hard outer-coating on teeth --is affected by diet. Archaeologists are able to study the ratio of elements such as strontium and lead present to find markers of the geology in the soils where the plants the person ate were grown. These variations can show a change in eating habits brought on by a migration when the person was a child, when their enamel was still forming.

These studies have been used to map human migrations right back to Neanderthal times. They are based on the widely accepted theory that tooth enamel grows uniformly outwards, creating incremental growth lines a bit like tree rings. However, this theory has never been put to the test, and results of the XMaS studies have shown that in reality, tooth enamel is much more complex.

BBC: King Ramesses III's throat was slit, analysis reveals
By Michelle Roberts Health editor, BBC News online

Conspirators murdered Egyptian King Ramesses III by slitting his throat, experts now believe, based on a new forensic analysis.

The first CT scans to examine the king's mummy reveal a cut to the neck deep enough to be fatal.

The secret has been hidden for centuries by the bandages covering the mummy's throat that could not be removed for preservation's sake.

The work may end at least one of the controversies surrounding his death.

The Mainichi (Japan): Ancient armor-clad skeleton discovered in Gunma Pref.

SHIBUKAWA, Gunma -- The skeleton of a man in armor dating from the early sixth century has been discovered in a layer of volcanic ash here, the Gunma Archaeological Research Foundation announced on Dec. 10.

The armor-clad remains were found at the Kanai Higashiura ruins here during archaeological excavations accompanying road construction. According to the foundation, the armor is the first set from the Kofun (burial mound) period ever discovered on the body of its owner. The only other pieces of armor from the period have been found among grave goods in tombs. The man is thought to have been caught in the eruption of Mt. Haruna's Futatsudake, a nearby volcano.

"The find is a valuable clue for learning about the life, habits and disasters of the time," said a foundation representative.

BBC: Staffordshire Hoard: Gold fragments found in Hammerwich

About 90 more pieces of gold and silver believed to belong to the Staffordshire Hoard have been found.

The discovery was made by archaeologists in the same Staffordshire field at Hammerwich where 3,500 pieces were found in 2009.

Some of the new pieces are fragments that fit with parts of the original hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver.

Guardian (UK): King Richard III's medieval inn recreated by archaeologists

Blue Boar inn rises again in model and digital form, recreated from detailed drawings found in Leicester family's archives

The medieval inn in Leicester where King Richard III slept before riding out to meet his fate at the battle of Bosworth has been recreated by the team of archaeologists and academics who dug up a local car park this summer searching for his bones.

News of their discovery of the remains of a man with a twisted spine and a gaping war wound, in the foundations of a long demolished abbey, created ripples of excitement around the world. Results of the scientific tests on the remains have not been announced, though there have been rumours that they proved inconclusive. Although DNA has been extracted from far older bones, the success of the technique depends on the quality of their preservation.

Dorset Echo (UK): It's a real coo as 'unbreakable' war code is cracked with help from Portland pigeon expert
By Joanna Davis
10:00am Saturday 15th December 2012 in News

IT’S a real coo. Portland pigeon fancier Neville Walbridge has helped crack a coded message from the Second World War.

Mr Walbridge, 74, has now received a decoded version of the 1944 message, which was found strapped to the leg of the remains of a carrier pigeon.

Last month the Echo reported that Mr Walbridge persuaded Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) to delve into the mystery of the bird’s message, which was found in a blocked chimney in Surrey.

The intelligence agency recruited Canadian researchers the Lakefield Heritage Research to decode it.

Hat/Tip to annetteboardman, who sent in the above articles.


Simons Science News via Scientific American: Black Hole Firewalls Confound Theoretical Physicists
If a new hypothesis about black hole firewalls proves correct, at least one of three cherished notions in theoretical physics must be wrong.
By Jennifer Ouellette and Simons Science News
December 21, 2012

Alice and Bob, beloved characters of various thought experiments in quantum mechanics, are at a crossroads. The adventurous, rather reckless Alice jumps into a very large black hole, leaving a presumably forlorn Bob outside the event horizon — a black hole’s point of no return, beyond which nothing, not even light, can escape.

Conventionally, physicists have assumed that if the black hole is large enough, Alice won’t notice anything unusual as she crosses the horizon. In this scenario, colorfully dubbed “No Drama,” the gravitational forces won’t become extreme until she approaches a point inside the black hole called the singularity. There, the gravitational pull will be so much stronger on her feet than on her head that Alice will be “spaghettified.”

Now a new hypothesis is giving poor Alice even more drama than she bargained for. If this alternative is correct, as the unsuspecting Alice crosses the event horizon, she will encounter a massive wall of fire that will incinerate her on the spot. As unfair as this seems for Alice, the scenario would also mean that at least one of three cherished notions in theoretical physics must be wrong.

Nature via Scientific American: Magnetism Confirmed to Control the Flow of Heat
A validation of a long-predicted quantum effect points the way to tiny, highly efficient heat engines or information carried by heat exchanges instead of electrical ones
By Edwin Cartlidge and Nature magazine

The strange world of quantum mechanics just got a little stranger with the discovery that a magnetic field can control the flow of heat from one body to another. First predicted nearly 50 years ago, the effect might some day form the basis of a new generation of electronic devices that use heat rather than charge as the information carrier.

The research stems from the work of physicist Brian Josephson, who in 1962 predicted that electrons could 'tunnel' between two superconductors separated by a thin layer of insulator — a process forbidden in classical physics. The Josephson junction was subsequently built and used to make superconducting quantum interference devices (SQUIDs), which are now sold commercially as ultra-sensitive magnetometers.

In the latest work, Francesco Giazotto and María José Martínez-Pérez at the NEST nanoscience institute in Pisa, Italy, measured the devices’ thermal behavior — that is, how the electrons inside them transfer heat. The duo heated one end of a SQUID several micrometers long and monitored the temperature of an electrode connected to it. A SQUID consists of two y-shaped pieces of superconductor joined together to form a loop, but with two thin pieces of insulating material sandwiched in between (see figure); as the researchers varied the magnetic field passing through the loop, the amount of heat flowing through the device also changed. The effect was in line with a theory put forward by Kazumi Maki and Allan Griffin in 1965.

The device worked by partly reversing the heat transfer, so that some would flow from the colder body to the warmer one.


Science News: Repellent slime has material virtues
Threads from hagfishes' defensive goo demonstrate superior strength and flexibility
By Rachel Ehrenberg
Web edition: December 19, 2012

Step aside spiders. Threads made by another creepy-crawly — the eel-like hagfish — may lead to superior new fibers for parachutes, packaging and perhaps even clothing. A new study that examines the mechanical properties of threads made from hagfishes’ slimy mucus finds the fibers are both strong and stretchy, and may serve as a model for creating superior new materials.

“The tensile properties approach those of spider silk, and that’s very exciting,” says biomaterials specialist Douglas Fudge of the University of Guelph in Canada. Synthetic fabrics such as nylon are derived from petroleum, notes Fudge, so studying hagfish threads may lead to renewable “green” materials for making all sorts of things.

To study the threads, Atsuko Negishi, a researcher in Fudge’s lab, collected buckets of slime from Atlantic hagfish (Myxine glutinosa). The long, slender jawless creatures have lines of slime pores that run down the sides of their body; some species have more than 100 such pores. When hagfish are provoked or stressed, the pores eject copious amounts of slime, which gets caught in the gills of predators — including sharks — making them gag and back off.


Reuters via Scientific American: California agency raises issues over proposed solar project
December 21, 2012

California Energy Commission staff on Friday said BrightSource Energy's proposed 500-megawatt Hidden Hills solar thermal power project would have "significant" impact on the environment.

In a statement on the final staff assessment, the state's primary energy planning and policy agency cited impacts on "biological resources, cultural resources, land use, and visual resources" even if recommended mitigation measures are implemented.

BrightSource said the company is looking forward to the formal evidentiary hearings upon which the Commission will base its final decision.

Science, Space, Health, Environment, and Energy Policy

Bloomberg: American Gun Deaths to Exceed Traffic Fatalities by 2015
By Chris Christoff & Ilan Kolet
Dec 19, 2012 2:23 PM ET

Guns and cars have long been among the leading causes of non-medical deaths in the U.S. By 2015, firearm fatalities will probably exceed traffic fatalities for the first time, based on data compiled by Bloomberg.

While motor-vehicle deaths dropped 22 percent from 2005 to 2010, gun fatalities are rising again after a low point in 2000, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shooting deaths in 2015 will probably rise to almost 33,000, and those related to autos will decline to about 32,000, based on the 10-year average trend.

As the nation reels from the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the shift shows the effects of public policy, said Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis.

Also see the graphic at the article, which I'm not reproducing here for copyright reasons.  Bloomberg may have an agenda, but the numbers don't lie.

Scientific American: More Guns Have Not Produced More Killings, But We Still Need Gun Control
By John Horgan
December 21, 2012

I found these stats in “Gun Control Legislation, “a report of the Congressional Research Service published on November 14, just a month before the Newtown massacre.

The number of guns in the U.S. surged from 192 million in 1994 to 310 million in 2009. That includes 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles and 86 million shotguns. There are now about as many firearms in the U.S. as people. These stats have been widely reported. What has not been so widely reported is that the number of firearm-related homicides fell from 17,073 in 1993 to 9,903 in 2011 (up slightly from 9,812 in 2010). Per capita, the gun-related murder rate has dropped by more than 50 percent over the past two decades.

This is a remarkable and somewhat mysterious trend. Some scholars have attributed the decline in gun-related homicides and other violent crimes to rising rates of incarceration; the U.S. has by far the highest rates in the world. But the decline has continued since 2007 as incarceration rates have fallen slightly and as the U.S. economy has tanked. “This would also be the last time to expect a crime decline,” legal scholar Frank Zimring told The New York Times last year.

So am I taking back my call for gun control? No. Rates of gun-related homicide in the U.S., in spite of the recent decline, are still unacceptably high, much higher than in any other developed nation. Moreover, according to an analysis by Mother Jones, there has recently been a rise, albeit erratic, in casualties from “mass shootings,” defined as incidents in which one or, more rarely, as in the case of Columbine, two shooters kill at least four people.

Nature: Transgenic fish wins US regulatory backing
A fast-growing salmon moves closer to approval after a fishy delay.
Amy Maxmen
22 December 2012

The first genetically engineered (GE) animal for human consumption — a fast-growing salmon — has come a step closer to the dinner table, with a piece of paperwork posted online today by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The FDA’s draft environmental assessment concludes that the fish poses no foreseeable risk to nature. After 60 days of public comment, the FDA may issue a final assessment and approval — at which time AquaBounty, of Maynard, Massachusetts, can begin selling the fish.

However, the draft assessment was dated 4 May, suggesting that the FDA had kept its conclusions under wraps for several months. Advocates on both sides of the issue speculate that political interference may be responsible. “I think it was controversial, and it was an election year,” says Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, a Washington DC group opposed to GE food animals. An FDA spokeswoman, Morgan Liscinsky, declined to comment on accusations that the process had been politicized, and says it’s possible that the agency could request further studies after the public comment period.

Science Education

Scientific American: Remembering Ramanujan: India Celebrates Its Famous Mathematical Son
India, home of the number zero, ends a yearlong math party in unique fashion
By Evelyn Lamb
December 22, 2012

December 22, 2012, marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of legendary Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. An intuitive mathematical genius, Ramanujan's discoveries have influenced several areas of mathematics, but he is probably most famous for his contributions to number theory and infinite series, among them fascinating formulas ( pdf ) that can be used to calculate digits of pi in unusual ways.

Last December Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared 2012 to be a National Mathematics Year in India in honor of Ramanujan's quasiquicentennial. Ramanujan's story is dramatic and somewhat larger than life. It is even the subject of an opera by Indian-German composer Sandeep Bhagwati, a novel and two plays . Largely self-taught, he dropped out of college, took a job as a clerk in Madras and attracted the attention of British mathematician G. H. Hardy through written correspondence in 1913. Although Ramanujan's mother believed that as a Brahmin (the highest class in the Indian caste system, which was in place at the time) he should not travel overseas, Ramanujan, aged 27, went to England in 1914 and spent the ensuing war years working with Hardy and other mathematicians  at the University of Cambridge. He grew quite ill in England, and in 1919 he returned to India where he died in 1920. Since his death at age 32 mathematicians have analyzed his notebooks ( pdf ), which are full of formulas but light on justification. Most of the formulas have turned out to be correct, and researchers continue to learn from his work while trying to understand and prove them.

India's mathematical heritage extends far beyond Ramanujan's time. The nation is considered home of the concept of zero. Babylonians had used a space as a placeholder (similar to the role of "0" in the number 101), but this space could not stand alone or at the end of a number. (In our number system, as in theirs, this could be problematic; imagine trying to tell the difference between the numbers 1 and 10 by context alone.) In India, however, zero was treated as a number like any other. India is also the home of our decimal numeral system.

Nature via Scientific American: Chicago's Field Museum Cuts Back on Science
Previous expansion projects force the natural history center to address shortfalls with $3 million in cuts to its annual budget for science operations. Zoology, botany, geology and anthropology departments will be dissolved
By Helen Shen and Nature magazine

After years of financial woes, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, is slashing US$3 million from its annual budget for science operations, which include a $10-million program for research on the institution’s collection of some 25 million specimens of fossils, plants and animals. Museum president Richard Lariviere unveiled the cuts to museum staff on 18 December as part of a plan to reduce the museum’s total budget by $5 million next year.

For some in the scientific community, the changes signal the end of an era. “It’s one of the great research institutions in comparative zoology, biodiversity and natural history, and it has been one of the leading centers of research for more than 100 years,” says James Hanken, director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “There’s no way the Field Museum will be able to maintain its position of prominence under those circumstances.”

Endowments for museums and universities across the country have been hit hard by the economic recession, but the Field Museum has been pushed to its financial limits in part by recent expansion projects, including the $65-million Collections Resource Center, a storage and laboratory facility that opened in 2005.

Science Writing and Reporting

Science News: Cell biologists hone elevator pitches
Competition challenges scientists to summarize their work
By Tina Hesman Saey
Web edition: December 19, 2012

A senator and a scientist walk into an elevator. If the scientist happens to be Navneeta Pathak or Kiani Gardner, science funding might also get a lift.

Pathak and Gardner won a contest at the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology that required competitors to describe their research in a one- or two-minute spiel that the general public could understand. The idea is to get cell biologists more comfortable with explaining their work to nonscientists, said Simon Atkinson, chair of the society’s public information committee. About 20 scientists entered the contest, recording their entries on smart phones or a video camera set up in the exhibit hall.

The exercise can be useful for graduate students who struggle to explain exactly what it is they do to their parents, family, friends and neighbors, But the public information and policy committees had a larger target in mind when they devised the contest, Atkinson said. Scientists never know when they might encounter a member of Congress in an elevator or other cramped space, and the researchers need to be ready to dazzle the captive lawmaker in order to garner more support for research funding.

Science is Cool

Irish Times: Newgrange solstice crowds disappointed

Scores of people gathered outside the Newgrange passage tomb in Co Meath this morning for the annual winter solstice.

Newgrange, located in the Boyne Valley, is a 5,000-year-old tomb famous for the winter solstice illumination which lights up the passage and chamber if weather allows and can be viewed by a select group of people inside.

Access to the chamber is limited and is decided by lottery each year.

BBC: Stonehenge crowds gather to mark winter solstice

More than 5,000 people have gathered to mark the winter solstice at Stonehenge.

The attendance was equivalent to five times the number that turned out at Salisbury Plain for last year's event.

More people had been predicted to congregate, as the date coincides with the end of the 5,125-year "long count" cycle of the Mayan calendar.

Druids and pagans are among those who head to Stonehenge each December to watch the sunrise on the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.

Hat/Tip to annetteboardman for these stories.

Scientific American: Mealworms: The Other-Other-Other White Meat?
By Katherine Harmon
December 19, 2012

Looking for the perfect holiday entrée? Something nutritious yet easy on the Earth? Something with a subtle, yet distinctive, je-ne-sais-quoi flavor? Have you considered the humble mealworm? What about the super superworm?

Before you click away in disgust, remember that the creeping, shelled, 10-legged crustacean we now so lovingly dip in butter (ahem, the lobster) was once considered so repulsive as to be inhumane to feed to prisoners. And in many parts of the world, insects are already a popular—and important—menu item.

A new study, published online December 19 in PLoS ONE, makes the case that the mealworm (Tenebrio molitor) and the superworm (Zophobas morio)—consumed as larval forms before they become beetles—are palatable (ecologically speaking) alternatives to traditional livestock products.

Scientific American: Confections sans Infections: How Candy Manufacturers Keep Chocolate from Killing You
Although large-scale food production carries some risks that can be minimized via hygiene and heat treatment, manufacturers have to take additional steps to assure consumer safety
By Evelyn Lamb

Most of us know it is unwise to use the same unwashed utensils on raw then cooked chicken or eat raw cookie dough (although we may cheerfully ignore the latter suggestion) because of the salmonella risk, but we aren't used to thinking of candy and nuts as potential pathogen sources. Yet chocolate can indeed pose a health risk due to contamination by the stomach-churning, usually nonfatal pathogen.

The last salmonella outbreak traced to chocolate was in 2006 in the U.K., but there have been two outbreaks due to peanut butter in the U.S. in the past four years. In both cases customers around the country suffered, and a few died. Even though the U.S. food supply is in general very safe, its vast distribution can mean that a large number of people in a wide geographic area can be afflicted by one bad batch of food, making consumers fearful.

Salmonella contamination in food generally originates in animals, albeit indirectly through contact with contaminated water or their feces. "[Cacao beans] are grown outside; they're taken out of their shells and left outside, covered by banana leaves. There are animals scurrying over them. It's a beautiful process, but it's open to the elements," said Laura Shumow, member of the National Confectioners Association's Chocolate Council, at a lecture on chocolate safety at the National Chocolate Show in Chicago in November. "Birds—they happen; animals—they happen; salmonella—it happens."

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to Overnight News Digest on Sat Dec 22, 2012 at 09:08 PM PST.

Also republished by SciTech and Astro Kos.

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