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 story comes from Reuters via Scientific American.

2012 was among 10 warmest years in global record: NASA/NOAA
By Environment Correspondent Deborah Zabarenko
January 16, 2013

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Last year was among the top 10 warmest in the modern global record, two U.S. climate-watching agencies reported on Tuesday, less than a week after 2012 was declared the hottest ever in the contiguous United States.

The U.S. space agency NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration jointly issued two reports on 2012 world temperatures. NASA ranked last year the ninth-warmest since record-keeping began in 1880, while NOAA found last year was the tenth-warmest.

The difference in the two rankings may be due to NASA's extrapolation of temperatures in areas with no weather stations, particularly near the poles, according to James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York.

The 2012 global surface temperature, including land and water, was 1 degree F (.56 degree C) warmer than the 1951-1980 average. That was enough to increase extreme high temperatures last year, Hansen reported.

More stories after the jump

Recent Science Diaries and Stories

Federal Investment = Better Flu Vaccines (or why the GOP is wrong on medical research cuts)
by Steven D

This week in science: Serious as a heart attack
by DarkSyde


LiveScience: Best Science Photos of the Week

Scientific American: Seeking Antarctica’s Huddled Masses: Humans Make First Contact with Emperor Penguin Colony [Slide Show]
Explorers venture into uncharted territory to help scientists map Antarctica’s emperor penguin population from space
By William Ferguson

Alain Hubert slowly made his way down an icy crevasse on Antarctica’s Princess Rangnhild Coast to a large plain of snow and ice early last month.

Spread across the frozen tundra before him, 9,000 members of a never-before-visited colony of emperor penguins huddled together for warmth against the subzero temperatures of the world’s coldest continent.
Scientists with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) first uncovered evidence of the colony back in 2009 while scanning the white snow and ice of Antarctica by satellite. They noticed strange brown splotches they couldn’t initially identify. “After a while, we came to the conclusion that it was guano from an emperor penguin colony,” says Phil Trathan, head of conservation biology for the survey group. “We said ‘Hey, if we can see this one, we can see others.’”

Discovery News on YouTube: Electric Rides of the Future

Electric cars aren't the only green way to get around. There have been electric planes and now there's plans for an electric ferry! Trace counts down the three coolest all-electric transporters.

Discovery News: Don't Fear the Flu Shot

If the influenza virus changes each year, does the flu shot even work? And what is the flu vaccine anyway? Trace explains.

Discovery News: Scientists VS Internet Trolls!

Scientists on the cutting edge vs pessimistic web trolls! All across the Internet, scientists are forced to continually defend their work against a group of people discounting their research. What's so controversial about their work, and why the attention? Trace puts a spotlight on all the haters and gets some answers!

NASA Television on YouTube: Inauguration Weekend on This Week @NASA

Two Open Houses at Headquarters in Washington kicked off NASA's participation in the city's Presidential Inaugural activities. Public visitors to the James Webb Auditorium could hear from Administrator Charles Bolden, Deputy Administrator Lori Garver and other agency officials about NASA's current and future plans, programs and missions. Also, Bigelow's BEAM; ESA and Orion; Curiosity Update; Robotic Refueling; Next ISS Mission; Monitoring Air Quality; Draper Medal Winner; and more!
Space.com lists more events related to the inauguration in NASA's Presidential Inaugural Weekend Event Schedule and has a slideshow of President Obama at NASA.  Also see the article under "Science is Cool."

NASA Television on YouTube: NASA ScienceCasts SMD "Science Mission Directorate"

Astronomers are keeping a close eye on a newly-discovered Comet ISON, which could become visible in broad daylight later this year when it skims through the atmosphere of the sun.


Space.com: Celestial Wonder Looks Uncannily Like a Manatee
by Clara Moskowitz, SPACE.com Assistant Managing Editor
Date: 19 January 2013 Time: 09:30 AM ET

A watery-looking nebula in deep space is being renamed after the sea creature it strongly resembles: a manatee.

The nebula is the leftovers from a star that died in a supernova explosion about 20,000 years ago. Before it died, the giant star puffed out its outer gaseous layers, which now swirl in green-and-blue clouds around the dead hulk of the star, which has collapsed into a black hole.

Known officially as W50, the celestial object is being dubbed the Manatee Nebula  by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), during a ceremony today (Jan. 19) at the Florida Manatee Festival in Crystal River, Fla. The NRAO will also unveil a new photo of the nebula taken by the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope network in New Mexico.

Scientific American: Cassini Spacecraft Reveals Unprecedented Saturn Storm
By John Matson
January 17, 2013

Just as regions of our planet have monsoon season, or tornado season, so too does Saturn have its own stormy season.

Once every Saturn year or so—which corresponds to roughly 30 Earth years—a giant, churning storm works its way through the clouds of Saturn’s northern hemisphere, sometimes encircling the entire planet like a belt. Lasting a few dozen days or more, these storms have been documented as far back as 1876.

The sixth giant Saturnian storm on record arrived a bit early, kicking off in late 2010, just 20 years after the previous storm. The timing proved fortuitous for planetary astronomers, who currently have a dedicated orbiter called Cassini stationed at the ringed planet. And Cassini’s ringside seat, so to speak, has afforded the NASA spacecraft quite a show.

Scientific American: Veins, not Flowers, on Mars
By Caleb A. Scharf
January 18, 2013

NASA’s Curiosity rover is preparing to drill for the first time, into what appears to be sedimentary rock criss-crossed by mineral-filled veins.

Back in September last year the Mars Science Laboratory carried by the rover found a rocky outcrop on the wall of Gale Crater that was full of a crusty mix of cemented pebbles. It matched signs of an alluvial-fan feature seen from orbit and was some of the very best evidence so far of significant historical water flow across the martian surface.

Now Curiosity has entered Yellowknife Bay, a terrain that exhibits all the signs of a different type of water presence. In fact this depression in the landscape seems to be entirely distinct from the earlier Gale Crater landing site about 500 meters away.

Space.com: NASA Eyes 'Hedgehog' Invasion of Mars Moon Phobos
by Elizabeth Howell, SPACE.com Contributor
Date: 19 January 2013 Time: 10:35 AM ET

A daring, "Angry Birds"-like NASA mission could bombard a Martian moon with robotic "hedgehog" probes in the next few decades, scientists say.

The space hedgehogs are actually small, spiky, spherical rovers that form part of a novel mission idea called Phobos Surveyor. The rovers would take advantage of the low gravity on the Mars moon Phobos, its sister moon Deimos, or asteroids in the solar system. Engineers have designed the devices to work in concert with a nearby mother ship.  

The hedgehogs would work well in the low gravity of the 16-mile-wide (27 kilometers) Phobos, a force 1,000 times weaker than the gravity on Mars itself, where NASA's Curiosity and Opportunity rovers currently explore, said researcher Marco Pavone of Stanford University. Gravity on Mars is about one-third that of the Earth.


Scientific American: California Megaflood: Lessons from A Forgotten Catastrophe
A 43-day storm that began in December 1861 put central and southern California underwater for up to six months, and it could happen again
By B. Lynn Ingram
January 19, 2013

Geologic evidence shows that truly massive floods, caused by rainfall alone, have occurred in California every 100 to 200 years. Such floods are likely caused by atmospheric rivers: narrow bands of water vapor about a mile above the ocean that extend for thousands of kilometers.

The atmospheric river storms featured in a January 2013 article in Scientific American that I co-wrote with Michael Dettinger, The Coming Megafloods, are responsible for most of the largest historical floods in many western states. The only megaflood to strike the American West in recent history occurred during the winter of 1861-62. California bore the brunt of the damage. This disaster turned enormous regions of the state into inland seas for months, and took thousands of human lives. The costs were devastating: one quarter of California’s economy was destroyed, forcing the state into bankruptcy.

Today, the same regions that were submerged in 1861-62 are home to California’s fastest-growing cities. Although this flood is all but forgotten, important lessons from this catastrophe can be learned. Much of the insight can be gleaned from harrowing accounts in diary entries, letters and newspaper articles, as well as the book Up and Down California in 1860-1864, written by William Brewer, who surveyed the new state’s natural resources with state geologist Josiah Whitney.

Reuters via Scientific American: No relief in sight for drought-stricken Plains
By Sam Nelson
January 18, 2013

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Dry weather should continue through at least the end of January in the drought-stricken U.S. Plains and a blast of Arctic cold air in the Midwest early next week poses a threat to unprotected livestock and possibly some wheat, an agricultural meteorologist said on Friday.

"The hard red winter wheat belt in the Plains looks quiet, dry and cooler next week, but there shouldn't be a cold air threat in the Plains," said John Dee, meteorologist for Global Weather Monitoring.

Dee said temperatures would fall to zero (degrees Fahrenheit) or below early next week in the northern Midwest, roughly north of Interstate 80. Coldest readings will be in the northern states of North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, northern Iowa, Illinois and Michigan.

"There's not a lot of snow cover so there is the potential for some damage. Zero readings could reach as far west as Nebraska," he said.

Environmental Health News via Scientific American: Mercury Emissions Threaten Aquatic Environments
New mercury emissions seem to be more of a threat than the mercury already out there from previous emissions, according to some scientists
By Brian Bienkowski and Environmental Health News
January 18, 2013

As United Nations delegates end their mercury treaty talks today, scientists warn that ongoing emissions are more of a threat to food webs than the mercury already in the environment.

At the same time, climate change is likely to alter food webs and patterns of mercury transport in places such as the Arctic, which will further complicate efforts to keep the contaminant out of people and their food.

University of Wisconsin researchers recently found that mercury added to a lake reached top predators faster than the mercury that already existed in their environment.

“It was amazing how fast the mercury got into the fish,” said James Hurley, project researcher and director of the university’s Water Resources Institute in Madison.

Reuters via Scientific American: Beijing's Toxic Smog Was Years in the Making, Had Many Sources
By David Stanway
January 16, 2013

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese leaders dazzled the world by clearing the skies as if by edict before the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008. Fast forward to January 2013, and the government seems powerless against those same skies, tarnished by an opaque, toxic cloud that has smothered the city for nearly a week.

The number-two leader in the country's Communist Party hierarchy, Li Keqiang, appealed this week for Beijing's 20 million residents to show patience during what he said would be a "long-term" clean-up.

Lower-level officials took emergency steps to cut traffic and factory emissions to clear the worst outbreak of smog on record, but the moves are likely to bring only temporary relief from a chronic problem that has been years in the making.

Why have conditions deteriorated so drastically?


Nature via Scientific American: The Man Whose Dynasty Changed Ecology
Bob Paine showed that keystone species can radically reshape their ecosystems, and he fathered an academic family that had done the same for ecology
By Ed Yong and Nature magazine
January 16, 2013

Bob Paine is nearly 2 meters tall and has a powerful grip. The ochre sea star, however, has five sucker-lined arms and can span half a meter. So when Paine tried to prise the creatures off the rocks along the Pacific coast, he found that his brute strength simply wasn't enough. In the end, he resorted to a crowbar. Then, once he had levered the animals up, he hurled them out to sea as hard as he could. “You get pretty good at throwing starfish into deeper water,” he says.

It was a ritual that began in 1963, on an 8-meter stretch of shore in Makah Bay, Washington. The bay's rocky intertidal zone normally hosts a thriving community of mussels, barnacles, limpets, anemones and algae. But it changed completely after Paine banished the starfish. The barnacles that the sea star (Pisaster ochraceus) usually ate advanced through the predator-free zone, and were later replaced by mussels. These invaders crowded out the algae and limpets, which fled for less competitive pastures. Within a year, the total number of species had halved: a diverse tidal wonderland became a black monoculture of mussels.

By re-engineering the coastline in this way, Paine dealt a serious blow to the dominant view in ecology of the time: that ecosystems are stable dramas if they have a diverse cast of species. Instead, he showed that individual species such as Pisaster are prima donnas, whose absence can warp the entire production into something blander and unrecognizable. He described these crucial creatures, whose influence far exceeds their abundance, as keystone species, after the central stone that prevents an arch from crumbling. Their loss can initiate what Paine would later call trophic cascades — the rise and fall of connected species throughout the food web. The terms stuck, and 'keystone' would go on to be applied to species from sea otters to wolves, grey whales and spotted bass.

Scientific American: Amazing Hawaiian Plant Loved by Tourists but Endangered by Climate Change
By John R. Platt
January 17, 2013

Every year up to two million people visit Haleakala- National Park in Hawaii, the only habitat for the endangered Haleakala- silversword (Argyroxyphium sandwicense macrocephalum), a spectacular and unusual plant that is now threatened by climate change. According to research published January 7 in Global Change Biology, these silverswords have suffered a dramatic population decline in the past 20 years due to increased air temperature and reduced rainfall in their montane habitat. Unlike many species, which go extinct when no one is looking, the silversword might disappear while it is in plain sight.

Haleakala- silverswords have been a protected species since 1992, although their decline began long before then. The amazing plant—one of a handful of silversword species endemic to Hawaii—grows up to 1.8 meters tall and only flowers at the end of its life cycle, which can occur anywhere between 20 and 90 years after it first takes root in the rocky ground around Haleakala- volcano (aka East Maui volcano). When the plant finally does flower it produces up to 600 flower heads. Silverswords were initially endangered by the activity of people who unwittingly limited propagation by gathering the striking red blooms. Also, a variety of invasive species damaged the plants and their habitat. In the 1930s, when the national park was established as a protected site, silversword populations were as low as 4,000 plants. That number rebounded to about 65,000 by 1991 but today has fallen to somewhere in the 30,000 to 40,000 range.

Lloyd Loope, research biologist with the USGS Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center and a co-author of the new research paper, explains some of the history of his association with the plants. “I came to Haleakala- National Park in 1980 as the first National Park Service ‘research scientist’ assigned there,” he says. “The park was then still being heavily damaged by feral goats and pigs, which were largely disposed of over the 1980s by fencing and removal—a tremendous task which was accomplished by park managers with amazing success.”

Nature via Scientific American: Barnacles Mate via "Spermcasting"
Oversize penises are not always enough to let these immobile crustaceans mate if the animals live in solitude, so they release sperm into the sea, which allows other barnacles to capture it and thus fertilize eggs
By Daniel Cressey and Nature magazine

It can be hard to find a sexual partner when you are glued to a rock.

Barnacles famously get around this problem by having penises longer than their bodies, so that they can seek out relatively distant mates. But now it seems that some adopt another strategy, entrusting their precious bodily fluids to the currents.

Some of these crustaceans live alone, with no neighbors near enough to have sex with. In the case of the gooseneck-barnacle species Pollicipes polymerus, this presented a mystery: although some barnacles are thought to self-fertilize, scientists have never been able to witness reproduction of solitary P. polymerus, so these animals were thought to have to mate.

But Richard Palmer, a marine biologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, and his team have now shown that the barnacles are capable of capturing sperm released into the sea, which gives them another route to procreation.

In case this article makes for dry reading, try Friday Weird Science: Slutty Sloppy Barnacle Spermcasting at Scientopia.  It has photos and a video.


Scientific American: Fetal Genome Screening Could Prove Tragic
Unborn children will soon have their genes mapped. Without proper guidance for parents, the tests could prove calamitous
January 18, 2013

In a few years you will be able to order a transcript of your entire genetic code for less than $1,000. Adults cannot do much to alter their biological lot, but what if parents could examine their unborn child's genome? Without proper guidance, they might decide to take drastic measures—even to end the pregnancy—based on a misguided reading of the genetic tea leaves.

Two different university laboratories have developed tests that will reveal the entirety of a fetus's genetic code using just a blood sample from the mother (or that sample plus a drop of saliva from the father). Prenatal whole-genome sequencing will provide volumes of information beyond the currently available tests for genetic disorders such as Down's syndrome or Tay-Sachs disease—assays that parents now use to decide how to respond to a pregnancy. The three billion units of code furnished in the new tests will also dwarf the relative trickle of information provided by consumer gene-testing services such as 23andMe, which currently look (postnatally) only at perhaps about one million locations in the genome.

Any woman who undergoes such a test will quickly learn that there is no such thing as a perfect baby. Parents will encounter hundreds and, as the science progresses, thousands of instances in which a particular variant of a gene may statistically suggest (but not guarantee) their child's future. Will the child-to-be one day suffer from melanoma or diabetes? What about obsessive-compulsive disorder? Moreover, clues will emerge in whole-genome scans about not only health prospects but personality as well—whether she is likely to become an introvert or be able to carry a tune or star in high school sports. Whole-genome scans will tell parents a story about a particular future for their child—a future that those parents may not be rooting for.

Scientific American: Transplanted Bacteria Turn Up Testosterone to Protect Mice against Diabetes
By Christine Gorman
January 17, 2013

Anyone still laboring under the mistaken assumption that genes are the most important factor in determining destiny should take a look at research that is being reported in this week’s Science about a particular strain of mice that have a genetic predisposition to develop type 1 diabetes. It turns out that a key element in whether or not they actually succumb to the condition has to do with the type of bacteria that live in their intestines. The results reveal a complex interplay between gut bacteria (part of the animal’s microbiome), genes and, surprisingly, sex hormones.

Type 1 diabetes is the form of the disease in which the body’s immune cells launch a self-destructive attack on the pancreas, obliterating the organ’s ability to secrete insulin. (Such dysfunctional immune responses are the basis of autoimmune disorders in people as well as mice.)  By transplanting specific gut bacteria from one group of mice to another (don’t ask), the investigators, who hailed from Canada, the U.S., Germany, Denmark and Switzerland, were able to prevent some of the rodents from developing diabetes.

Environmental Health News via Scientific American: BPA Replacement Also Alters Hormones
Just like the controversial compound it's designed to replace, a chemical used in consumer products messes with the endocrine system, according to new research
By Brian Bienkowski and Environmental Health News
January 17, 2013

Just like the controversial compound it's designed to replace, a chemical used in cash register receipts and other consumer products messes with hormones, according to research published today.

The study by University of Texas scientists is the first to link low concentrations of bisphenol S (BPS)  – a bisphenol A (BPA) alternative  – to disruption of estrogen, spurring concern that it might harm human health.

Researchers exposed rat cells to levels of BPS that are within the range people are exposed to. And, just like BPA, the compound interfered with how cells respond to natural estrogen, which is vital for reproduction and other functions.

Previous studies already have shown BPS mimics estrogen, but the new study advances that by showing it can alter the hormone at low doses people are exposed to.

Scientific American: Coughs Fool Patients into Unnecessary Requests for Antibiotics
By Katherine Harmon
January 16, 2013

No one wants a hacking cough for days or weeks on end. But research shows that it generally takes about 18 days to get over a standard cough-based illness. Most of us grow impatient after a week or so and head to the doctor to get a prescription. The problem with that recourse, however, is that antibiotics are usually useless against typical respiratory infections that cause coughs.

A new analysis shows that even though antibiotics might be ineffective against a lingering cough, the timing of their prescription might be fooling people into thinking that the medication worked. This pattern might increase the frequency of these unnecessary prescriptions, a hazardous practice that can increase drug resistance across many bacteria strains. The findings were published online January 14 in Annals of Family Medicine.

A cough is one of the most common reasons patients go to the doctor. One quick fix, patients might assume, is a round of antibiotics. Not exactly, according to a randomized trial described last month in The Lancet Infectious Diseases. The trial showed little difference in the duration of lower-respiratory infections in people who got antibiotics and those who received placebos. Why? Like the full-blown flu, coughs are usually triggered by viruses—not bacteria—and thus are unaffected by antibiotics. Most often coughs and associated infections get better on their own. This happy outcome, however, can cause some confusion about the efficacy of antibiotics for treating cough-based sicknesses.


Scientific American: Chipmaker Races to Save Stephen Hawking’s Speech as His Condition Deteriorates
Intel is developing communication technology that can quickly process and respond to signals Hawking sends from the few muscles in his body that he can still control
By Larry Greenemeier
January 18, 2013

Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has long relied on technology to help him connect with the outside world despite the degenerative motor neuron disease he has battled for the past 50 years. Whereas Hawking’s condition has deteriorated over time, a highly respected computer scientist indicated at last week’s International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that he and his team may be close to a breakthrough that could boost the rate at which the physicist communicates, which has fallen to a mere one word per minute in recent years.

For the past decade Hawking has used a voluntary twitch of his cheek muscle to compose words and sentences one letter at a time that are expressed through a speech-generation device connected to his computer. Each tweak stops a cursor that continuously scans text on a screen facing the scientist.

At CES, Intel chief technology officer Justin Rattner noted that Hawking can actually make a number of other facial expressions as well that might also be used to speed up the rate at which the physicist conveys his thoughts. Even providing Hawking with two inputs would give him the ability to communicate using Morse code, “which would be a great improvement,” said Rattner, who is also director of Intel Labs.

Scientific American: Can Eye Movements Treat Trauma?
Recent research supports the effectiveness of "eye movement desensitization and reprocessing"
By Tori Rodriguez
January 18, 2013

Imagine you are trying to put a traumatic event behind you. Your therapist asks you to recall the memory in detail while rapidly moving your eyes back and forth, as if you are watching a high-speed Ping-Pong match. The sensation is strange, but many therapists and patients swear by the technique, called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). Although skeptics continue to question EMDR's usefulness, recent research supports the idea that the eye movements indeed help to reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Much of the EMDR debate hinges on the issue of whether the eye movements have any benefit or whether other aspects of the therapeutic process account for patients' improvement. The first phase of EMDR resembles the start of most psychotherapeutic relationships: a therapist inquires about the patient's issues, early life events, and desired goals to achieve rapport and a level of comfort. The second phase is preparing the client to mentally revisit the traumatic event, which might involve helping the person learn ways to self-soothe, for example. Finally, the memory processing itself is similar to other exposure-based therapies, minus the eye movements. Some experts argue that these other components of EMDR have been shown to be beneficial as part of other therapy regimens, so the eye movements may not deserve any of the credit. New studies suggest, however, that they do.

In a January 2011 study in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, for example, some patients with PTSD went through a session of EMDR while others completed all the components of a typical EMDR session but kept their eyes closed rather than moving them. The patients whose session included eye movements reported a more significant reduction in distress than did patients in the control group. Their level of physiological arousal, another common symptom of PTSD, also decreased during the eye movements, as measured by the amount of sweat on their skin.

Scientific American: Quails Demonstrate Mastery of Camouflage to Protect Their Colorful Eggs
By Katherine Harmon
January 17, 2013

A quail egg is like a protein-filled, free lunch, waiting on the ground to be spotted—and devoured—by a predator. But the Japanese quail (Coturnix japonica) seems to have mastered an impressive level of camouflage-manipulating behavior to keep her eggs off the menu.

Female Japanese quails tend to lay distinctive eggs that are specific to each individual quail. Some of the birds lay eggs that are deep gold and half covered with dark brown splotches; others’ eggs are a delicate pale yellow with just a smattering of gray spots. A new study suggests that the female selects a nesting area that is the best camouflage for her specific egg appearance before it is laid. The findings were published online January 17 in Current Biology.

Camouflage tactics in the animal world often take advantage of either blending—in which an animal resembles elements in their environment, such as a walking stick insect, for example—or disruptive coloration—in which a pattern on the animal makes it difficult to spot the animal’s outline, as in the case of the leopard. These Japanese quails take advantage of both for their eggs, depending on the situation, the scientists found.


LiveScience: Storms Reveal Iron Age Skeleton
by LiveScience Staff
Date: 16 January 2013 Time: 09:59 AM ET

A series of storms that hit Scotland's Shetland Islands over the holidays revealed what archaeologists believe could be 2,000-year-old human remains.

Police were initially called to the scene when storms eroded a cliff at Channerwick and exposed the skeleton, but officials soon determined that they wouldn't have to open a homicide investigation.

Local archaeologist Chris Dyer said the ancient skeleton looked as if it were contemporary with the remains of Iron Age structures revealed nearby. Researchers then identified evidence of one or possibly two more burials at the site, but another storm caused a further chunk of the cliff to crumble, covering up the discovery.

LiveScience: Storms Turn Up Lard from WWII Shipwreck
by LiveScience Staff
Date: 18 January 2013 Time: 01:44 PM ET

After storms lashed Scotland over the holidays, some strange World War II-era relics turned up on the country's chilly coast, including decades-old lard from a shipwreck and bunker blocks buried on a beach, local officials said.

At St. Cyrus Natural Reserve, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Edinburgh, four large chunks of lard washed up after the storms. Though their wooden containers disintegrated long ago, the lard chunks retained their barrel shape, and they were still bright white under a thick crust of barnacles, local officials said.

"The depth of the swell during the storms we had over the holidays must have broke apart the shipwreck some more and caused the lard to escape," Therese Alampo, manager at the reserve, said in a statement from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).

annetteboardman is taking the night off.


LiveScience: Stampeding Dinosaurs Were Actually Swimming
Tia Ghose, LiveScience Staff Writer
Date: 17 January 2013 Time: 01:39 PM ET

Fossilized track marks from a stampede of dinosaurs in Australia actually may have come from swimming animals, new research suggests.

The finding, published in the January issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, upends the traditional interpretation of the world's only dinosaur stampede.

Instead of a group of small dinosaurs trying to escape a massive carnivore, the fossils may reveal an ancient dinosaur "superhighway" or river crossing, said study co-author Anthony Romilio, a paleontologist at the University of Queensland in Australia.

LiveScience: Ancient 'Killer Walrus' Not So Deadly After All
Megan Gannon, News Editor
Date: 17 January 2013 Time: 10:59 AM ET

A "killer walrus" thought to have terrorized the North Pacific 15 million years ago may not have been such a savvy slayer after all, researchers say.

A new analysis of fossil evidence of the prehistoric beast shows it was more of a fish-eater than an apex predator with a bone-crushing bite.

Traces of the middle Miocene walrus, named Pelagiarctos thomasi, were first found in the 1980s in the Sharktooth Hill bone bed of California. A chunk of a robust jawbone and sharp pointed teeth, which resembled those of the bone-cracking hyena, led researchers to believe the walrus ripped apart birds and other marine mammals in addition to the fish that modern walruses eat today.


LiveScience: Deadliest Volcano Eruptions Listed in New Online Database
Becky Oskin, OurAmazingPlanet Staff Writer
Date: 18 January 2013 Time: 02:15 PM ET

Live on the East Coast? Thinking of escaping to a warm Caribbean island right now? You might want to check a new, open access database of the world's deadliest volcanoes first.

Though not intended as a travel advisory, the database does include several Caribbean volcanoes, such as Montserrat's Soufrière Hills volcano, which sent pyroclastic flows down the mountain in 2010. (The rest of the island remains a lush resort.) However, researchers do hope the public learns more about volcanic hazards in their region by accessing the records.

"The long-term goal of this project is to have a global source of freely available information on volcanic hazards," principal investigator Stephen Sparks, a volcanologist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, said in a statement.


Scientific American: Novel Solar Photovoltaic Cells Achieve Record Efficiency Using Nanoscale Structures
The devices could lead to better, cheaper solar power
By David Biello
January 17, 2013

Here's how to make a powerful solar cell from indium and phosphorus: First, arrange microscopic flecks of gold on a semiconductor background. Using the gold as seeds, grow precisely arranged wires roughly 1.5 micrometers tall out of chemically tweaked compounds of indium and phosphorus. Keep the nanowires in line by etching them clean with hydrochloric acid and confining their diameter to 180 nanometers. (A nanometer is one billionth of a meter.) Exposed to the sun, a solar cell employing such nanowires can turn nearly 14 percent of the incoming light into electricity—a new record that opens up more possibilities for cheap and effective solar power.

According to research published online in Science—and validated at Germany's Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems—this novel nanowire configuration delivered nearly as much electricity as more traditional indium phosphide thin-film solar cells even though the nanowires themselves covered only 12 percent of the device's surface. That suggests such nanowire solar cells could prove cheaper—and more powerful—if the process could be industrialized, argues physicist Magnus Borgström of Lund University in Sweden, who led the effort.

Scientific American: Food versus Fuel: Native Plants Make Better Ethanol
New research reveals that native grasses and flowers grown on land not currently used for crops could make for a sustainable biofuel
By David Biello
January 16, 2013

A mix of perennial grasses and herbs might offer the best chance for the U.S. to produce a sustainable biofuel, according to the results of a new study. But making that dream a reality could harm local environments and would require developing new technology to harvest, process and convert such plant material into biofuels such as ethanol.

Biofuels have become controversial for their impact on food production. The ethanol used in the U.S. is currently brewed from the starch in corn kernels, which has brought ethanol producers (and government ethanol mandates) into conflict with other uses for corn, such as food or animal feed. Already, corn ethanol in the U.S. has contributed to a hike in food costs of 15 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization blames corn diverted to biofuels for a global increase in food prices.

To see if nonfood plants could be a source of a biofuel the way corn is, researchers followed six alternative crops and farming systems in so-called marginal lands over 20 years, including poplar trees and alfalfa. Such marginal lands face challenges such as soil fertility and susceptibility to erosion.


Space.com: Right Again, Einstein! New Study Supports 'Cosmological Constant'
by Clara Moskowitz, SPACE.com Assistant Managing Editor
Date: 16 January 2013 Time: 06:50 AM ET

A new study of one of the universe's fundamental constants casts doubt on a popular theory of dark energy, scientists say.

Dark energy is the name given to whatever is causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate. One theory predicts that an unchanging entity pervading space called the cosmological constant, originally suggested by Albert Einstein, is behind dark energy. But a popular alternative, called rolling scalar fields, suggests that whatever's causing dark energy isn't a constant, but has changed through time.

If that were true, though, it should have caused the values of other fundamental constants of nature to change, too. And a new measurement of one such constant, the ratio between the mass of the proton and mass of the electron, shows that this constant has remained remarkably steady over time.


Scientific American: Hard Up: Nanomaterial Rivals Hardness of Diamond
A nanostructured and transparent form of boron nitride is harder than some forms of diamond
By John Matson

It’s only a matter of time before a movie villain pulling off the crime of the century needs a cutting tool that is harder than anything else on Earth. Perhaps it’s a burglary that involves cutting into a case made of diamond—which, as we have all learned from countless heist films, is itself hard enough to cut glass. Or maybe it’s a devious scheme predicated on boring a hole into the depths of the planet with the world’s hardest drill bit.

Whatever the plot details, scientifically minded scriptwriters would do well to turn their attention to cubic boron nitride, a material that in many ways resembles diamond. Boron nitride can be compressed into a superhard, transparent form—but unlike diamond and many other materials known for their extreme hardness, it is based not on carbon but on a latticework of boron and nitrogen atoms. Computer simulations have indicated that a rare crystalline form of boron nitride would resist indentation even better than diamond if it could be synthesized into large samples, and laboratory experiments have shown that more attainable forms of the stuff already approach the hardness of diamond.

Now a new set of experiments on a nanostructured form of boron nitride have yielded even greater measures of hardness than before. The new material exceeds that of some forms of diamond, according to the authors of a study reporting the findings in the January 17 issue of Nature. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) But quantifying the properties of superhard materials is a tricky business, and at least one leading researcher remains unconvinced that the study’s authors have found anything new.

LiveScience: Stain-Proof Material Can Repel Virtually Any Liquid
Jeremy Hsu, TechNewsDaily Senior Writer
Date: 18 January 2013 Time: 10:48 AM ET

Military leaders and laundry-plagued mothers both have reason to rejoice over an improvement in the development of liquid-repelling surfaces. For the first time, lab researchers have created a  "superomniphobic" coating that resists not only water and juice but everything from blood to hydrochloric acid.

Past coatings focused on resisting Newtonian fluids such as water or apple juice but had more trouble with oils and alcohols. The new coating can handle both Newtonian fluids and non-Newtonian fluids such as blood, yogurt and gravy — paving the way for truly stain-free clothing, suits that shrug off bacteria, even protective garments resistant to corrosive acid.

The new coating combines silicone with an organic-inorganic polymer to become virtually impenetrable by a huge array of liquids. Droplets bead up and roll off the surface. Jets of various liquids simply bounce off at an angle.

Science, Space, Environment, and Energy Policy

Reuters via Scientific American: U.N. clinches global deal on cutting mercury emissions
By Tom Miles and Emma Farge
January 19, 2013

GENEVA (Reuters) - More than 140 countries have agreed on the first global treaty to cut mercury pollution through a blacklist of household items and new controls on power plants and small-scale mines, the United Nations said on Saturday.

The legally-binding agreement aims to phase out many products that use the toxic liquid metal such as batteries, thermometers and some fluorescent lamps, through banning global import and exports by 2020.

The treaty will require countries with coal-fired power plants such as India and China to install filters and scrubbers on new plants and to commit to reducing emissions from existing operations to prevent mercury from coal reaching the atmosphere.

Reuters via Scientific American: Mayors focus on "local warming," urge Obama to act
By Valerie Volcovici and Patrick Rucker
January 18, 2013

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Reeling from an historic drought, the hottest year on record and more frequent wild weather, mayors from a number of U.S. cities urged the White House this week to take the lead on setting an agenda to address climate change.

City leaders said that only the federal government has the tools and clout to address greenhouse gases often blamed for warming the planet, while mayors focus on issues of "local warming" such as providing a reliable water supply or protecting citizens during dangerous weather events such as the 1995 Chicago heat wave that was blamed for over 700 deaths.

"We are fixing pot holes, dealing with transit issues," Seattle mayor Michael McGinn said while attending the U.S. Conference of Mayors' winter meeting. "But this can be a top tier issue for the president."

Scientific American: Fear of scientific knowledge about firearm-related injuries.
By Janet D. Stemwedel
January 17, 2013

In the United States, a significant amount of scientific research is funded through governmental agencies, using public money. Presumably, this is not primarily aimed at keeping scientists employed and off the streets*, but rather is driven by a recognition that reliable knowledge about how various bits of our world work can be helpful to us (individually and collectively) in achieving particular goals and solving particular problems.

Among other things, this suggests a willingness to put the scientific knowledge to use once it’s built.** If we learn some relevant details about the workings of the world, taking those into account as we figure out how best to achieve our goals or solve our problems seems like a reasonable thing to do — especially if we’ve made a financial investment in discovering those relevant details.

And yet, some of the “strings” attached to federally funded research suggest that the legislators involved in approving funding for research are less than enthusiastic to see our best scientific knowledge put to use in crafting policy — or, that they would prefer that the relevant scientific knowledge not be built or communicated at all.

A case in point, which has been very much on my mind for the last month, is the way language in appropriations bills has restricted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) research funds for research related to firearms.

Scientific American: Lithium-Ion Battery Fires Could Turn Boeing 787 Dreamliner into a Nightmare
By Larry Greenemeier
January 17, 2013

Boeing’s Dreamliner has likely become a nightmare for the company, its airline customers and regulators worldwide. An inflight lithium-ion battery fire broke out Wednesday on an All Nippon Airways 787 over Japan, forcing an emergency landing. And another battery fire occurred last week aboard a Japan Airlines 787 at Boston’s Logan International Airport. Both battery failures resulted in release of flammable electrolytes, heat damage and smoke on the aircraft, according to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The FAA on Wednesday ordered U.S. operators to temporarily ground the aircraft to avoid the risk of additional battery fires. Before any Dreamliners resume flight, operators of U.S.-registered 787s will have to demonstrate to the FAA that the batteries are safe. “These battery problems, if not corrected, could result in damage to critical systems and structures, and the potential for fire in the electrical compartment,” according to a statement issued by the FAA, which says it is investigating. The statement makes no mention of GS Yuasa Corp., the company that makes the 787’s batteries, nor does it call upon Boeing specifically to demonstrate battery safety.

In addition to reviewing the aircraft’s design, manufacture and assembly, the FAA says it also will validate that batteries and the battery system on the aircraft comply with the “special condition” the agency issued as part of the 787’s certification. This condition was that Boeing take a series of protective measures to ensure the batteries wouldn’t fail, causing the exact same problems the company now faces. The 787’s short history has been filled with battery and mechanical problems, as outlined in Patrick Smith’s “Ask the Pilot” January 16 blog post.

Reuters via Scientific American: Deal Struck to Reintroduce Wood Bison to Alaska Wild
By Yereth Rosen
January 17, 2013

ANCHORAGE (Reuters) - North America's largest living land mammals could roam the Alaska wilderness again by 2014, a century after they vanished in the state, under an agreement announced on Thursday to reintroduce wood bison to the lower Yukon River area.

State and federal officials said the deal used provisions of the Endangered Species Act to classify the bison as a "nonessential experimental population" in Alaska - meaning that protecting them would not hinder development, including oil drilling or mining. The animal is classified as threatened.

The population will be managed by Alaska state wildlife officials, who ultimately plan to allow limited hunts, officials told a news conference on Thursday.

Scientific American: What Science Should We Fund? Questioning New Policy on H5N1 Gain-of-Function Research
By Nicholas G. Evans
January 15, 2013

Science can be risky business, but it is important to know what those risks are. It is established wisdom that we need to experiment on viruses, for example, to better defend against emerging infectious diseases. But there is a fine line between creating a new strain of avian influenza to better understand how to defend against infectious disease, and using the same strain to cause a deadly pandemic.

Studies like this, which increase a virus’  ability to infect and kill, are part of a class of research known as “gain-of-function studies.” These studies, and others like them, are “dual-use.” That is, studies into highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N1 viruses, more commonly known as “bird flu,” are promised to raise awareness of the imminence of a bird flu pandemic in humans, improve disease surveillance, and aid in building better countermeasures against flu.

Despite these benefits, however, some fear the research could lead to the accidental or intentional release of a new, deadly strain of bird flu. Yet while recognizing dual-use research is easy, deciding what to do is a fraught exercise. How to regulate research so we capitalize on the benefits of new discoveries, while avoiding or mitigating the harms caused by the malevolent use of science and technology?

Science Education

Space.com: NYC Museum Launches New Space Shuttle Enterprise Exhibit
by Miriam Kramer, SPACE.com Staff Writer
Date: 17 January 2013 Time: 12:22 PM ET

NEW YORK — A floating Manhattan museum unveiled a temporary new exhibition devoted to the space shuttle Enterprise today (Jan. 17) while the prototype orbiter — NASA's first shuttle — is being restored after a devastating storm.

Called "Space Shuttle Enterprise: A Pioneer," the exhibition debuted inside the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in response to the closure of the Enterprise pavilion after Hurricane Sandy, displays some never-before-seen artifacts from the space shuttle's history. The shuttle Enterprise itself is parked on the flight deck of the Intrepid, which is a retired World War II aircraft carrier.

"The exhibition is really looking at Enterprise, celebrating its history," Jessica Williams, curator of history at the museum said. "We'll be getting a little bit of background about the science of the space shuttle and the origin of the space shuttle program, but focusing on Enterprise specifically, what Enterprise accomplished. Also, we're taking a peek at some of the people involved with Enterprise and the pop culture connections as well."

Science Writing and Reporting

Scientific American: Health Care Rationing Is Nothing New [Excerpt]
In Health Care for Some, University of Chicago historian Beatrix Hoffman examines how health care rationing has actually been the norm in recent U.S. History, and how that might be starting to shift as more people accept the idea that health care is a right
By Beatrix Hoffman

During the national debate over health care in September 2009, former U.S. vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin claimed that reforms proposed by the Obama administration would bring "rationing" into the American medical system. Democratic proposals would "empower unelected bureaucrats to make decisions affecting life or death health-care matters," Palin warned. Just a few days later, Harvard Medical School researchers released a study concluding that 45,000 Americans die every year because they lack health insurance and access to health care.

Opponents of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act warn that the new health care law will lead to rationing, or limits on medical services. But many observers point out that health care is already rationed in the United States. "We've done it for years," said Dr. Arthur Kellermann, professor of emergency medicine and associate dean for health policy at Emory University School of Medicine. "In this country, we mainly ration on the ability to pay." In fact, because the supply of doctors, hospitals, and treatments is never unlimited, medical care is rationed in every country, whether by the government, the private market, or some combination of the two.

Why then does the idea of rationing seem so, well, un-American?

Scientific American: MIND Reviews: The Myth of Martyrdom
By Nina Bai
January 18, 2013

The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers
Adam Lankford

Palgrave Macmillan, 2013 ($27)

The dust had not yet settled after the 9/11 attacks when people began debating whether to call the hijackers cowards. Addressing the nation, President George W. Bush assigned cowardice to the 19 terrorists, articulating a worldview that equates courage with good. Others, including journalists Bill Maher and Susan Sontag, argued that the hijackers could not be cowards, no matter how despicable their methods, because it takes guts to die for a cause. No one, however, questioned the hijackers' dedication to their campaign, until now.

In The Myth of Martyrdom, author Lankford, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama, rejects the prevailing view of suicide terrorists as radicalized individuals who will do anything for a cause. Rather, he asserts, they are merely unhappy, damaged individuals who want to die. Terrorist organizations recruit people who are in desperate straits for suicide missions and call them martyrs, and we have bought into their propaganda.

Science is Cool

Space.com: NASA's 'Mohawk Guy' to March in Obama's Inaugural Parade
by Miriam Kramer, SPACE.com Staff Writer
Date: 18 January 2013 Time: 11:52 AM ET

When President Barack Obama takes his oath of office to begin his second term Monday, NASA will be there.

NASA's famed "Mohawk Guy" Bobak Ferdowsi will march in the Presidential Inaugural Parade on Monday (Jan. 21) along with life-size replicas of the space agency's Mars rover Curiosity and Orion space capsule.

Ferdowsi is a flight director at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory whose unique hairdo catapulted him to Internet fame after the spectacular Mars rover Curiosity landing last year.

Scientific American: Taking Pop Music Seriously
By John Covach
January 18, 2013

Since the rise of recordings and radio in the early twentieth century, music has been a constant and often integral part of American culture. Any comprehensive account of the history of the last one hundred years requires at least some understanding of how music fits into the picture. While it is certainly important to include the music of classical composers such as Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, John Cage, and Milton Babbitt in such considerations, it is also crucial to include the contributions of Scott Joplin, George Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim, Hank Williams, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, The Beatles, and Bob Dylan.

In fact, even for those who hate pop music, it is nonetheless impossible to gain a balanced understanding of most classical composers born after 1945 without some familiarity with the pop so many of these baby-boomer composers grew up on. William Bolcom, Michael Daugherty, and Christopher Rouse, to name only a few, have openly celebrated their love of pop in their concert works, as composers like Stravinsky, Milhaud, and Bernstein had done years before.  Clearly, pop matters.

Scientific American: How to Lose $3 Million in 1 Second
By Chris Arnade
January 14, 2013

Finance now is a complex field buttressed by hundreds of mathematical models. At its heart is the Black-Scholes equation for pricing of options.

Published in 1973, it slowly revolutionized finance, leading to a boom in financial contracts and new way of looking at markets in terms of relative value and models. It also changed the type of person who worked on Wall Street. It became people like me, with a PhD in Physics, who could build models, like Black-Scholes, to price complex products like options.
Economists Fisher Black, Myron S. Scholes, and Robert C. Merton derived an equation that valued options on most assets. They did this by making the assumption that assets move over time in a continues motion with a given volatility, so that the future price of an asset was a probability distribution. By finding a strategy of buying and selling the asset that exactly replicated the ownership of the option they derived an equation that specified the value of an option. The sole undetermined variable was the asset’s volatility.

The Black-Scholes model was revolutionary for two reasons. Not only did it put an exact value on the option, but also more importantly, it did so by showing traders how to decrease their exposure to changes in the value of the option. Buying or selling options was now less risky.

Originally posted to Overnight News Digest on Sat Jan 19, 2013 at 08:59 PM PST.

Also republished by SciTech.

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