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Science News

Young insect legs have real meshing gears

Tiny teeth on hiplike structures keep legs in sync
Natural cog teeth mesh on the upper curves of the rear legs of young Issus planthoppers, the first intermeshing functional gears discovered in nature.By Susan Milius

People's proud invention of gears was preceded by mindless evolution: The tiny points on the legs of juvenile planthopper insects move like intermeshing cogs.

Those cogs in young Issus coleoptratus planthoppers touch at the upper parts of the legs, says neurobiologist Malcolm Burrows of the University of Cambridge in England. And when the planthopper leaps, gear teeth on one leg catch the teeth on the other in sequence. Meshing cogs get legs quickly moving in sync, enabling energy-efficient leaps, Burrows and Gregory Sutton at the University of Bristol in England say in the Sept. 13 Science.

“Imagine that we’ve got on our thighs — heaven forbid — projecting teeth from a gear wheel,” Burrows says.

Guinness Record: World’s Thinnest Glass Is Just Two Atoms Thick

A microscopic photo of a sheet of glass only two atoms thick blends with an artist's conception to show the structural rendering. (Credit: Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science)Cornell University

Sep. 12, 2013 — At just a molecule thick, it's a new record: The world's thinnest sheet of glass, a serendipitous discovery by scientists at Cornell and Germany's University of Ulm, is recorded for posterity in the Guinness Book of World Records.

The "pane" of glass, so impossibly thin that its individual silicon and oxygen atoms are clearly visible via electron microscopy, was identified in the lab of David A. Muller, professor of applied and engineering physics and director of the Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science.

The work that describes direct imaging of this thin glass was first published in January 2012 in Nano Letters, and the Guinness records officials took note. The record will now be published in the Guinness World Records 2014 Edition.

Just two atoms in thickness, the glass was an accidental discovery, Muller said. The scientists had been making graphene, a two-dimensional sheet of carbon atoms in a chicken wire crystal formation, on copper foils in a quartz furnace. They noticed some "muck" on the graphene, and upon further inspection, found it to be composed of the elements of everyday glass, silicon and oxygen.

Technology News

Ray Dolby, sound pioneer and Dolby Laboratories founder, dies

The man responsible for groundbreaking work in noise reduction and inventing surround sound has passed away at age 80.
Sound pioneer Ray Dolby.by Dara Kerr

Sound visionary and founder of Dolby Laboratories Ray Dolby died Thursday at his home in San Francisco. He was 80.

The company said that Dolby had been living with Alzheimer's disease in recent years and was diagnosed with acute leukemia in July.

Dolby is credited with revolutionizing how people experience sound with his multitude of audio technology inventions. Besides his pioneering work in noise reduction, Dolby also invented surround sound. He held more than 50 US patents.

"Today we lost a friend, mentor and true visionary," Dolby Laboratories President and CEO Kevin Yeaman said in a statement. "Ray Dolby founded the company based on a commitment to creating value through innovation and an impassioned belief that if you invested in people and gave them the tools for success they would create great things. Ray's ideals will continue to be a source of inspiration and motivation for us all."

Teen Drops $33K on Historic Wikileaks Server Using Dad’s eBay Account

The former Wikileaks server. Photo: BahnhofBy Robert McMillan

After 10 days and 93 bids, an historic server used to host Wikileaks’ treasure trove of secret documents has sold on eBay — to a 17-year-old who used his dad’s email account without permission.

Swedish ISP Bahnhof, which had hosted Wikileaks for about eight months starting back in 2010, decided to sell the server last week, hoping to raise money for two charities: Reporters Without Borders and the 5th of July Foundation, a digital rights group.

The winning bid was $33,000. But according to Bahnhof CEO John Karlung, soon after the auction closed this morning, he got a message from the buyer, saying he wants to back out of the deal. His son bought the item without his knowledge or permission.

According to eBay’s records, the boy initially bid $10,200 for the server, back on September 7. He then bid seven more times as the auction heated up.

Environmental News

News in Brief: Humpbacks make a comeback in British Columbia

Whale numbers double at a feeding site in Canada
Numbers of humpback whales around Gil Island in British Columbia, Canada, have doubled in recent years.By Jessica Shugart

Humpback whales in a region of British Columbia doubled in number between 2004 and 2011, a study finds. The Gil Island waters, a labyrinth of fjords, has been proposed as both critical habitat for the creatures and a construction site for new ports.

Prior to a whaling ban in 1966, the North Pacific humpback population fell from an estimated 15,000 individuals to 1,400; a study published in 2011 suggests numbers have rebounded to 20,000.

Researchers surveyed the Gil Island whales over eight summers, using small boats to navigate the fjords and taking photographs of humpbacks.

Underlying Ocean Melts Ice Shelf, Speeds Up Glacier Movement

The Pine Island Glacier expedition deployed multiple, unique sensor packages, developed by NPS Research Professor Tim Stanton, through 500 meters of solid ice to determine exactly how quickly warm water was melting the massive glacier from beneath. Pictured is the drill camp at the Pine Island Ice Shelf. The galley is on the left, hot water drill equipment in the center left, surface infrastructure tower mid right, and the seismic sled on the right. (Credit: Image courtesy of Tim Stanton/NPS)Penn State

Sep. 12, 2013 — Warm ocean water, not warm air, is melting the Pine Island Glacier's floating ice shelf in Antarctica and may be the culprit for increased melting of other ice shelves, according to an international team of researchers.

"We've been dumping heat into the atmosphere for years and the oceans have been doing their job, taking it out of the air and into the ocean," said Sridhar Anandakrishnan, professor of geosciences, Penn State. "Eventually, with all that atmospheric heat, the oceans will heat up."

The researchers looked at the remote Pine Island Glacier, a major outlet of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet because it has rapidly thinned and accelerated in the recent past.

"It has taken years and years to do the logistics because it is so remote from established permanent bases," said Anandakrishnan.

Medical News

Szechuan pepper taps at nerve fibers

The spice makes lips tingle at 50 beats per second
Vibration-sensing nerve fibers carry the tingle of Szechuan peppers, a new study finds.By Laura Sanders

As many Asian chefs know, a dash of Szechuan peppers delivers a lip-rattling experience. This fizzy, tingly sensation comes courtesy of specialized nerve fibers that detect physical vibrations, a new study suggests.

Szechuan peppers aren’t spicy, but chefs often pair them with hot chilies to elicit a devastating tingly hot culinary sensation. Although scientists had a good idea how Szechuan peppers affect mice, the new results are the first to describe how the peppers work in people, says Diana Bautista of the University of California, Berkeley. What’s more, she says, the pepper-induced tingle might be a good way to approximate painful conditions in which nerves tingle, such as carpal tunnel syndrome and diabetic neuropathy.

Study coauthor Patrick Haggard of University College London and his colleagues enrolled adventurous eaters to probe the sensation of the peppers in the lab. Sure enough, the 12 volunteers’ mouths began to tingle after researchers dabbed pepper extract on their lower lips. And this tingling felt very specific. Szechuan pepper elicited the sensation of a 50-hertz vibration, a frequency detected by a class of nerve fibers called RA1, Haggard and colleagues report September 10 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

News in Brief: Fructose may be key to weight gain

Mice that could not make or metabolize the sugar gained less than normal mice
Fat mouseBy Nathan Seppa

Mice lacking the ability to metabolize fructose don’t gain nearly as much weight as normal mice do, researchers report September 10 in Nature Communications.

Fructose, which some people blame for the obesity epidemic and its related health crises (SN: 6/1/13, p. 22), shows up in high-fructose corn syrup and in table sugar, or sucrose. The body also makes home-grown fructose by modifying glucose in a process involving an enzyme called aldose reductase.

Richard Johnson of the University of Colorado Denver and his colleagues gave mice sugary drinking water that was 10 percent glucose for 14 weeks. Normal mice gained weight and developed fatty liver and insulin resistance, but mice lacking aldose reductase showed less weight gain and less severe related conditions.

Space News

At last, Voyager 1 slips into interstellar space

Solar blast data provides definitive evidence that spacecraft has cruised beyond the sun’s clutch
Voyager 1, launched in 1977, crossed the border into interstellar space on Aug. 25, 2012, according to a new study.By Andrew Grant

Humankind has officially extended its reach to the space between the stars.

NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft exited the vast bubble of particles that encircles the sun and planets on August 25, 2012, mission scientists report September 12 in Science. At the time, Voyager was about 18.2 billion kilometers from the sun, or nearly 122 times as far from the sun as Earth.

“This is the beginning of a new era of exploration for us,” says Edward Stone of Caltech, who has headed the Voyager mission since 1972. “For the first time, we are exploring interstellar space.”

Confirmation of Voyager’s interstellar exploits came after determining that the probe is surrounded by a relatively dense fog of galactic particles rather than a thin mist of solar ones. It was a tricky measurement that required patience, clever detective work and a heavy dose of luck.

Meteorite that fell last year contains surprising molecules

Compounds in space rocks like the one that broke up over California may have helped seed life on Earth
Chemical analyses of Sutter's Mill meteorite fragments (one shown) suggest that space rocks hold the molecules necessary for life to develop.By Andrew Grant

A space rock that lit up the California sky last year has given scientists an unprecedented look at the complex chemistry that probably took place during the solar system’s infancy. Meteorites similar to this one likely delivered the raw materials to Earth that assembled into the molecules of life.

Scientists have been analyzing pieces of the Sutter’s Mill meteorite since it burst apart over northern California on April 22, 2012 (SN: 1/26/13, p. 5). When Arizona State University chemist Sandra Pizzarello and colleagues melted away some minerals with acid, a plethora of sulfur- and oxygen-containing organic compounds were left behind, several of which have never been identified in meteorites before. They detail their findings September 9 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The molecules likely formed several billion years ago in conditions similar to those on early Earth: warm and rich in water. “The study provides a little window into what kind of chemistry occurred on Earth before life,” says Jonathan Lunine, a planetary scientist at Cornell University who was not involved in the study. But the work also establishes that this complex chemistry took place long before rocks like this one deposited their molecular treasures on Earth, he says. Since the raw materials were more complex than previously thought, they could have combined more easily to form biological molecules.

Odd News

Twitter Analysis Can Help Gamblers Beat the Spread On NFL Games

TwitterCarnegie Mellon University

Sep. 12, 2013 — Analyses of Twitter feeds have been used to track flu epidemics, predict stock market changes and do political polling, but now that the National Football League season is underway, the natural question is: Can Twitter help beat the spread on NFL games?

The answer, say computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University, is yes. Or, at least it can help a little bit at certain times during the season. They will report their findings Sept. 27 at the Machine Learning and Data Mining for Sports Analytics conference in Prague, Czech Republic.

The study began as a class project by then-student Kevin Gimpel, now a research assistant professor at Toyota Technological University at Chicago. It ultimately encompassed three NFL seasons, 2010-2012. The researchers used automated tools to sort through a stream of tweets that averaged 42 million messages a day in 2012.

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