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Science News

Pruney digits help people get a grip

Wrinkling may have evolved as an adaptation to wet conditions
The wrinkles that form on people's hands and feet after soaking in water may have evolved to help humans handle wet objects more efficiently.By Tanya Lewis

Scientists have an answer to the pressing question of why hands and feet get wrinkled after too much time in the bath: Pruniness may have evolved to make it easier to handle wet objects.

The smooth skin of human hands and feet becomes furrowed after extended periods in water. Though often assumed to be a result of water passively seeping into the skin, the phenomenon is actually caused by the nervous system constricting blood vessels. As early as the 1930s, surgeons noticed that no wrinkling occurred if a finger nerve had been severed, so furrowing has been used as a medical indicator of nerve function. But what evolutionary purpose wrinkling serves, if any, remained a mystery.

In 2011, a team of researchers proposed that the grooves in wet fingers might function as “rain treads” that improve grip by channeling water away, much like car tires on a wet road do. Now, researchers at Newcastle University in England have tested that theory.

New clock revolves around an atom's mass

Study claims that time can be gauged by a particle's heft
atomBy Andrew Grant

It’s part clock, part scale: A newly developed atomic clock measures time based on the mass of a single atom. The research, published online January 10 in Science, is controversial but could provide scientists with more precise methods of measuring both time and mass.

“This is the first clock based on a single particle,” says Holger Müller, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley. “Its ticking rate is determined only by the particle’s mass.”

The idea for the clock stemmed from the quantum principle that particles also behave as waves, and vice versa. In particular, Müller and his colleagues wanted to determine how frequently the wave form of a single atom oscillates, a quantity that in quantum mechanics is inherently linked to the atom’s mass. Then the researchers could use those oscillations like swings of a pendulum to create a clock.

The snag in Müller’s plan was that it’s impossible to directly measure the oscillation frequency of waves of matter. The frequency of these waves is about 1025 hertz, 10 orders of magnitude higher than that of visible light waves. So Müller and his colleagues came up with an apparatus that creates two sets of waves — one based on a cesium atom at rest and another on the atom in motion. The researchers measured the frequency difference between the waves and then used that number, a manageable 100,000 hertz or so, to calculate the much larger oscillation frequency of cesium at rest.

Technology News

Technology enables 42-in. flat panel TV to consume less electricity than a 60-W light bulb

Sensors enable TV to exceed Energy Star 6.0 proposals while delivering highest quality viewing experience, including 3D

Unterpremstaetten, Austria and Las Vegas (January 7, 2013) - ams (SIX: AMS), a leading worldwide designer and manufacturer of high-performance analog ICs and sensor solutions for consumer & communications, industrial & medical and automotive applications, today announced the availability of technology that enables a 42” flat panel TV to use less than 60 watts of power, while delivering an optimal viewing experience. ams will demonstrate this advancement during CES using an off-the-shelf television enhanced with ams’ Digital Ambient Light Sensor technology and smart LED drivers. The result is a TV that uses up to 50% percent less energy than standard 42” models – exceeding Energy Star 6.0 guidelines – while providing the highest picture quality, even in the lowest light conditions.

In addition to the direct consumer benefits of combining these ams technologies, there is a significant environmental benefit as well. Based on the average daily television viewing in the United States, adopting ams’s intelligent sensor-driven backlighting technology would result in a reduction in CO2 consumption equivalent to removing more than 1 million cars from the road.

A study by the Consumer Electronics Association showed that when it comes to TVs, two items at the top of consumers’ wish lists are a low-power HDTV, and better picture quality. Yet with new Energy Star Guidelines being introduced in the spring of 2013, delivering both items on the wish list will become more challenging. Energy Star 6.0 calls for a 42” TV set to consume just 62.9 watts of power, and the maximum any TV can consume – regardless of size – is just 85 watts. Additionally, the measurement of power usage will cover four levels of ambient room light, as most consumers prefer to watch television in living rooms with low light levels.

Impecca's tablet friendly Bluetooth bamboo keyboard

Impecca's bamboo Bluetooth keyboard will soon be available in a more compact, tablet friendly version for around $99.CNET

LAS VEGAS--At CES, some of the fun is going around trying to find interesting smaller items. In that vein, I came across this compact Bluetooth keyboard made of mostly biodegradable bamboo from Impecca.

The company also makes standard sized bamboo keyboards and mice, but this one's geared toward tablet owners and its keys have a nice smooth feel. An Impecca rep said those keys have a finish that prevents them from looking worn over time (since I haven't used one for more than a few seconds I can't verify that).

The new keyboard should be shipping soon and carries a retail price of $99.

Environmental News

Centralia Mine Fire, at 50, Still Burns With Meaning

Saved From the Void
Centralia Mine FireJoan Quigley

Hours after plunging into the Earth, Todd Domboski stares at the abyss that briefly swallowed him—a hole swirling with toxic gases from an underground mine fire.

On February 14, 1981, 12-year-old Domboski sank into a cave-in that ruptured the soil in his grandmother's backyard in Centralia, Pennsylvania, where an abandoned coal mine had smoldered for 19 years.

The Centralia blaze, still burning more than 50 years after it began, ranks as the worst mine fire in the United States. But it is by no means the only one. More than 200 underground and surface coal fires are burning in 14 states, according to the U.S. Department of Interior's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

And with worldwide demand for coal surging, especially in industrializing nations such as India and China, mine fires have emerged as a global environmental and public health threat. Thousands of coal fires rage on every continent but Antarctica, endangering nearby communities. The blazes spew toxic substances such as benzene, hydrogen sulfide, mercury, and arsenic, as well as greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide. (See related story: "Seeking a Safer Future for Electricity's Coal Ash Waste.")

Lower Nitrogen Losses With Perennial Biofuel Crops

This is an aerial of the bioenergy farm near South First Street in Champaign. (Credit: University of Illinois photographer David Riecks)University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences

Jan. 10, 2013 — Perennial biofuel crops such as miscanthus, whose high yields have led them to be considered an eventual alternative to corn in producing ethanol, are now shown to have another beneficial characteristic -- the ability to reduce the escape of nitrogen in the environment. In a 4-year University of Illinois study that compared miscanthus, switchgrass, and mixed prairie species to typical corn-corn-soybean rotations, each of the perennial crops were highly efficient at reducing nitrogen losses, with miscanthus having the greatest yield.

"Our results clearly demonstrate that environmental nitrogen fluxes from row-crop agriculture can be greatly reduced after the establishment of perennial biofuel crops," said U of I postdoctoral research associate Candice Smith."Because of the establishment variability, we were able to compare annual row crops with perennial crops. Although in the first two years, nitrate leaching remained high in the non-established miscanthus crop, once a dense, productive crop was established in the second year of growth, nitrate leaching in tile drainage quickly decreased."

Medical News

Updated Pap smear detects ovarian, uterine cancers

Genetic analysis added to procedure offers way to reveal malignancies
Pap smearBy Nathan Seppa

A multipurpose version of a Pap smear can detect genetic signs of ovarian or uterine cancer in women, researchers report. When applied to the cervical swabs, the experimental analysis spotted genetic mutations in every sample from uterine cancer patients and in many from those with ovarian cancer.

The test is far from clinic-ready. But if confirmed in larger studies and developed into a usable “Papgene” test, as the study authors propose, the new approach could change cancer testing in women. The study appears in the Jan. 9 Science Translational Medicine.

Although the genetic screen caught uterine cancers more consistently, it is more apt to have a major impact on diagnosing ovarian cancer, says Shannon Westin, a gynecologic oncologist at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston who wasn’t part of the study team. While uterine cancers are often found due to vaginal bleeding and diagnosed with ultrasound tests, ovarian cancers remain hidden because they lack obvious symptoms and reliable screening tests. That makes the cancer deadly, she says.

Flu Hits U.S. Early and Hard

Health officials say the outbreak has not yet peaked so getting vaccinated even now will still help
Image: CDC FluViewBy Christine Gorman

U.S. health officials announced early in December that this year’s influenza season had started early and they predicted it would hit hard. Unfortunately, as reports from around the country make clear, they were right.

The flu began spreading on the East Coast by early November and soon worked its way west across the country. On January 9, New York City Health Commissioner Thomas A. Farley asked residents with flu symptoms to call their primary doctor first before traveling to the city’s already crowded emergency rooms. Then Boston declared a public health emergency because physicians there were reporting a ten-fold increase in the number of flu cases, compared to last year’s much milder flu season.

Space News

NASA considering plan to capture asteroid, bring it into lunar orbit

NASA may give our moon its very own asteroid moon
Illustration of an asteroid retrieval spacecraft in the process of capturing a 7-m, 500-ton asteroid. (Image via Rick Sternbach/ KISS)BY NICOLETTE EMMINO

There seems to be a great interest in asteroids these days. Recently, Earth experienced a close encounter with asteroid 4179 Toutatis as it flew by at a distance of 4.3 million miles. The rocky body was considered a danger to earthlings. Now, NASA is considering dragging an asteroid into the moon’s orbit.

While NASA’s human flight space program has envisioned visiting an asteroid by 2025, there is now hope of taking the plan a step further. Why travel all the way to an asteroid when you can lasso one and bring it to you? The idea arose from a privately funded study sponsored by the Keck Institute for Space Studies at The California Institute of Technology (KISS). KISS composed a feasibility study, which was originally released in April 2012.

“The idea has been presented to NASA, and it does seem they are interested in looking at it more deeply,” said Louis Friedman, member of the Planetary Society and co-leader of the feasibility study.

In their study, KISS explored how possible it would be to capture and return an entire near-Earth asteroid (NEA) to lunar orbit by the middle of the next decade.

Long space missions may be hazardous to your sleep

Crew on simulated Mars trip moved less and slept more during 520-day project
Alterations to light inside space capsules, like the blue lights used in the Mars 500 project, may help crew members maintain better sleep schedules.By Laura Sanders

Astronauts on a months-long mission to Mars and back will have more to contend with than boredom and a lack of gourmet cuisine: Disrupted sleep may be a serious side effect of extended space flight, potentially changing crew dynamics and affecting performance on high-pressure tasks.

In an epic feat of playacting, a crew of six men lived for 520 days inside a hermetically sealed 550-cubic-meter capsule in Moscow. As the grueling experiment wore on, the crew drifted into torpor, moving less and sleeping more. Four men experienced sleep problems, scientists report online January 7 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Developed by the Russian Academy of Sciences, the “Mars 500” project was designed to test the feasibility of sending people on a journey to Mars and back. The simulation was realistic: The chamber was sealed, mission control was on standby 24 hours a day with built-in communications delays during parts of the mission, and the crew had specific jobs to do during transit and on a simulated landing on Mars.

Odd News

Researchers create robot that throws up to help prevent winter vomiting disease

Can a robot be the answer to the winter vomiting bug?
Vomiting Larry, a robot that throws up, in action. (Image via The Health and Safety Laboratory)BY NICOLETTE EMMINO

Just when you thought there were enough robots out there doing crazy and unthinkable things, designers invent a robot that vomits.

“Vomiting Larry,” as the robot was named, was developed by The Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) in England in order to assess the spread of fluid during a vomiting episode and develop new ways to prevent contamination.

Larry’s creation springs from desire to reduce the burden of the winter vomiting disease called the norovirus that so many people contract this time of year.

“As many as a million viruses can be contained within one milliliter of vomit produced from an infected individual and research has shown that individuals expel 0.4 to 1.35 liters of fluid during an episode of vomiting,” said Catherine Makison Booth, Larry’s creator.

How Larry works

Larry is a simple robot and, according to Booth, not your “typical” one. An authentic mannequin head is connected to a tube that is supposed to represent a human’s esophagus. This tube is connected to a closed cylinder representing Larry’s stomach. His stomach is filled with fluid that contains fluorescent dye in order to better indicate projectile spread. Using a piston pump arrangement, the HSL team manually operates Larry’s vomiting episodes from a controlled air chamber.

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