Welcome back to Science Saturday, where the Overnight News Digest crew invites you to join us in a celebration of science and the environment.  As usual, we begin the festivities with a slide show of this week's news in science, courtesy of the New York Times.

Frogs and Dead Stars

Also depicted are methane-eating microorganisms called archea, the Antenna Galaxies, coral reef gobies, and skin bacteria.

More on these and other science stories after the jump.


National Geographic:  Living Color

Toxic nudibranchs—soft, seagoing slugs—produce a brilliant defense.


N.Y. Times:  Galaxies Twice as Bright as They Seem, Study Finds

The universe, it seems, has been operating with a dimmer switch.

The galaxies are actually twice as luminous as they appear to us in the sky, according to a new study by an international team of astronomers led by Simon Driver, of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Dust, however, blocks half the light from getting out.

The results, which have just been published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, resolve a longstanding problem with the energy budget of the cosmos.

National Geographic:  Youngest Supernova in Milky Way Found

Stephen Reynolds, an astrophysicist at North Carolina State University, and his team suspected that supernova G1.9+0.3 was very young.

So they compared 2007 images of the object from NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory with radio observations from the mid-1980s—and their suspicions were confirmed.

Estimated at just 140 years old, G1.9+0.3 is at least 200 years younger than the next oldest known supernova, Cassiopeia A, which was discovered in the 17th century A.D.

Science Daily:  Wandering Poles Left Scars On Jupiter's Moon Europa: Could Life Exist Beneath Icy Crust?

Washington, D.C.--Curved features on Jupiter's moon Europa may indicate that its poles have wandered by almost 90°, report scientists from the Carnegie Institution, Lunar and Planetary Institute, and University of California, Santa Cruz in the 15 May issue of Nature. Such an extreme shift suggests the existence of an internal liquid ocean beneath the icy crust, which could help build the case for Europa as possible habitat for extraterrestrial life.

Science Daily:  Key Molecule Discovered In Venus's Atmosphere

Venus Express has detected the molecule hydroxyl on another planet for the first time. This detection gives scientists an important new tool to unlock the workings of Venus’s dense atmosphere.

Hydroxyl, an important but difficult-to-detect molecule, is made up of a hydrogen and oxygen atom each. It has been found in the upper reaches of the Venusian atmosphere, some 100 km above the surface, by Venus Express’s Visible and Infrared Thermal Imaging Spectrometer, VIRTIS.

National Geographic:  Any Possible Mars Water or Life Is Deep Below Surface

New radar mapping of Mars's north pole shows that the planet's current ice caps are probably only about five million years old and that in the intervening years the Martian climate has undergone several major fluctuations.

The scientists also found unusually flat bedrock under the ice, suggesting that liquid water and life—if they exist at all on Mars—are a lot deeper below the surface than previously thought.

National Geographic:  Mars Lander Team Prepares for "Seven Minutes of Terror"

After years of planning followed by a ten-month journey, the Mars Phoenix Lander is slated to touch down near the red planet's north pole on May 25.

If successful, the probe will be the first lander to reach a Martian pole and the first to actually touch the planet's water ice.

What's more, it could settle the debate over whether Mars was once a habitable world.

International Herald Tribune:  Vatican astronomer cites possibility of extraterrestrial 'brothers'

VATICAN CITY: The Vatican's chief astronomer says there is no conflict between believing in God and in the possibility of extraterrestrial "brothers" perhaps more evolved than humans.

"In my opinion this possibility exists," said the Reverend José Gabriel Funes, head of the Vatican Observatory and a scientific adviser to Pope Benedict XVI, referring to life on other planets.


N.Y. Times:  A Gene Map for the Cute Side of the Family

When scientists announced last week that they had deciphered the complete genetic playbook for the duck-billed platypus, the public reacted with considerably more enthusiasm than it had accorded similar bulletins about the sequencing of, say, the mustard plant, the mosquito or the wild chicken. A "fantastic response," said Jennifer Marshall Graves of the Australian National University in Canberra, a principal author on the report. "More than I expected."

One reason for the glowing reviews is that people love platypuses the way they love penguins and panda bears, as adorable, clumsy and nonthreatening creatures that remind them of kids playing dress-up. But the platypus trumps its plush-toy costars by adding a kind of Dada prankishness to the equation, what with its bill that looks like a Charlie Chaplin shoe, the leathery, thumb-sized eggs it insists on laying, the Daffy Duck webfeet outfitted with venomous spurs and the milk that dribbles down its unnippled chest. That the genetic code of the platypus proved to be as bizarrely pastiched as its anatomy enhanced the popular appeal of the report, published in the journal Nature.

Yet for researchers in the burgeoning field of comparative genomics, the real beauty of having spelled out all 2.2 billion chemical letters of the platypus’s genetic blueprint lies not with the freak-show charm of the animal but rather with its sublime ordinariness, positioned as almost a platonic abstraction of a mammal, yet one with enough specifically derived features to remind us that it is just an animal trying to make its way in the world. It is archaic and post-modern, primitive and refined. By studying the platypus and its close relatives, scientists hope to better understand the genesis and evolution of the entire mammalian family tree.

Science Daily:  Parrot Fossil 55 Million Years Old Discovered In Scandinavia

Palaeontologists have discovered fossil remains in Scandinavia of parrots dating back 55 million years. Reported May 14 in the journal Palaeontology, the fossils indicate that parrots once flew wild over what is now Norway and Denmark.

Science Daily:  Rapid, Dramatic 'Reverse Evolution' Documented In Tiny Fish Species

Evolution is supposed to inch forward over eons, but sometimes, at least in the case of a little fish called the threespine stickleback, the process can go in relative warp-speed reverse, according to a study led by researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and published online ahead of print in the May 20 issue of Current Biology.


The Telegraph (UK):  International bio-diversity body put on hold

A three-year French-led effort to set up a powerful international scientific body advising on the threats to the variety of life on Earth has ended in embarrassing stalemate.

The organisers of the process had been hoping to use the new panel to bring new urgency to preventing further loss of biodiversity - the decline of species, genetic variety and ecosystems - matching the success of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), joint winners of this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

But at the insistence of American representatives, the final meeting of the initiative in Montpellier agreed only on the "further and urgent consideration" of ways to improve the use of biodiversity science in decision-making, with no commitment to establish a new institution.

National Geographic:  Myanmar Cyclone a "Catastrophe" for Wildlife

The human tragedy resulting from the cyclone that struck Myanmar earlier this month is staggering, with perhaps 100,000 people dead or missing and 1.5 million people facing hunger and disease.

The cyclone's impact on the country's wildlife, however, is far less clear and may never be properly known, conservationists say.

Myanmar (also known as Burma) is home to a wide range of threatened species, including the critically endangered Irrawaddy river dolphins.

National Geographic:  U.S. Major Importer of Illegal Asian Timber, Study Says

In a report released in March, the U.K.-based nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and its Indonesian partner Telapak warned that the illegal timber trade is threatening some of the last intact forests in Southeast Asia, especially in Laos.

"Despite wide awareness of the problem of illegal logging and a series of political commitments to tackle the issue, demand for cut-price wood products is still fuelling the illegal destruction of some of the worlds most significant remaining tropical forests," said Julian Newman, head of the EIA's forest campaign program.

It is currently legal in the United States to import illegally sourced wood products. But legislation now under consideration in the U.S. Congress would ban imports of wood products derived from illegally harvested timber.

National Geographic:  Mysterious Ailment Could Wipe Out U.S. Northeast Bats

This summer scientists hope to finally crack the case of the mysterious ailment afflicting bats in the U.S. Northeast—before time runs out for the animals and the local environment.

The emergence of pregnant females from their wintering grounds should provide vital clues to the extent and transmission mode of the affliction, known as white-nose syndrome.

First identified in February 2007 among hibernating bats in caves outside of Albany, New York, the ailment has became especially troubling this year, with signs of the illness spotted at more than two dozen caves and mines used by hibernating bats around New England and New York.

National Geographic:  Polar Bears Listed as Threatened Species in U.S.

After delaying a decision for several weeks, the U.S. government today listed the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), creating new protections for the bears in their Alaskan habitat.

But officials emphasized that the decision will not be used to determine U.S. climate policy.

National Geographic:  Fewer Caribou Born as Warming Causes Missed Meals

Greenland's caribou work up quite a hunger during their long migrations. But global warming now has the animals arriving late for dinner—and paying a heavy price.

Fewer caribou calves are being born in the western part of the Danish island, and those that are born have slimmer chances of surviving, a new study reports.

The declines are tied to availability of the willows, sedges, and flowering tundra herbs that caribou and their newborns feed on in spring.

National Geographic:  Pilot Whales Are "Cheetahs of the Sea," Study Finds

Short-finned pilot whales off the Canary Islands race like cheetahs after prey over long distances in the deep Atlantic waters, new research reveals.

National Geographic:  Climbing as Easy as Walking for Small Primates

Climbing trees is no sweat for small primates, a new study reveals.

Squirrel monkeys, lemurs, and other tiny species use no more energy climbing vertically than they do walking on the ground.

But large primates, including humans, tend to remain terrestrial for good reason.

National Geographic:  China Tree Frogs Sing Ultrasonic Duets, Study Finds

A team of Chinese and American scientists found that the frogs communicate their symphony of mating calls ultrasonically.

The researchers, led by Shen Junxian of the Chinese Academy of Science, used microphones to record the mating calls emitted by female torrent frogs on rainy nights just before ovulation.

When the ultrasonic recordings were played back to a group of male torrent frogs, they responded by singing in synchrony with the female lead and then leaping toward the source of the call with pinpoint accuracy.

N.Y. Times:  A Pest Without a Name, Becoming Known to Ever More

HOUSTON — Look out, Texas Gulf Coast, here comes Paratrechina pubens, or something like that.

Scientists do not quite know what to call them, they are so new. But folks in the damp coastal belt south of Houston have their own names (some of them printable) for the little invaders now seemingly everywhere: on the move underfoot; infesting woodlands, yards and gardens; nesting in electrical boxes and causing shorts; and even raising anxiety at Hobby Airport and the Johnson Space Center.

L.A. Times:  Roy Snelling, 73; renowned entomologist was an expert on ants

The world Snelling dedicated his life to understanding is one that most people know only vaguely, and then only as an annoyance: a buzzing, stinging, crawling menace to picnics and backyard barbecues.

During his 30-year career at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County -- the last six as collections manager -- Snelling became a leading expert in all things hymenoptera. He amassed a premier research collection of ants, his specialty.


N.Y. Times:  Mosquito Thrives; So Does Dengue Fever

On a recent visit to Cambodia, outside a children’s hospital a block from my hotel, I saw a large red-and-white sign that warned of a severe epidemic of dengue hemorrhagic fever. Years ago, the disease killed our tour guide’s 5-year-old brother.

My tripmates and I managed to escape even the milder form of this mosquito-borne viral infection — we all slept in an air-conditioned hotel and each day applied insect repellent with 30 percent DEET on our exposed skin. But I have since learned that I could have been infected on several previous trips abroad and even in parts of the United States.

Dengue (pronounced DEN-gee) fever has increased rapidly in tropical and subtropical areas worldwide in recent years, thanks to factors both natural and manmade.

N.Y. Times:  Oral Cancer in Men Associated With HPV

The sexually transmitted virus called HPV, for human papillomavirus, is well known to lead to cervical cancer in women — which is why the federal government recommends that all girls be vaccinated for HPV at 11 or 12, before they become sexually active.

Now researchers are finding that many oral cancers in men are also associated with the virus.

A clinical trial testing therapies for advanced tongue and tonsil cancers has found that more than 40 percent of the tumors in men were infected with HPV. If there is good news in the finding, it is that these HPV-associated tumors were among the most responsive to treatment.

N.Y. Times:  Rough Transition to a New Asthma Inhaler

Millions of people with asthma and other lung diseases will have to switch inhalers by the end of the year. And for many, the transition will not be smooth.

The change — mandated by the federal government in 2005, to go into effect next Jan. 1 — is to comply with the 1987 treaty to protect the earth’s ozone layer. It bans most uses of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, which are used as propellants in many inhalers.

CFC-free inhalers have been available for more than a decade. But four million to five million users have yet to switch, according to the consumer advocacy group Allergy and Asthma Network Mothers of Asthmatics.


Guardian (UK):  Expert warns climate change will lead to 'barbarisation'

Climate change will lead to a "fortress world" in which the rich lock themselves away in gated communities and the poor must fend for themselves in shattered environments, unless governments act quickly to curb greenhouse gas emissions, according to the vice-president of the intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC).

National Geographic:  One Degree of Warming Having Major Impact, Study Finds

Human-induced climate warming is already having a dramatic effect on Earth's plumbing, plants, and animals, according to an exhaustive analysis of data from around the world.

The report's individual findings are familiar and widely cited, such as cannibalistic polar bears, melting glaciers, and earlier-blooming plants.

But this is the first time the data have been compiled in a single study and directly linked to human activity, the report authors say.

National Geographic:  Antarctic Melt Releasing DDT, Tainting Penguins

Poisonous chemicals that had been locked in ice for decades are now being released as climate change melts Antarctic glaciers, researchers report.

The chemicals, including the pesticide DDT, are seeping into the polar ecosystem and finding their way into wildlife populations.

N.Y. Times:  Obesity Promotes Global Warming?

As someone who commutes by bicycle into Manhattan, I would normally applaud any scientific rationale for more bike lanes. But some calculations in the new issue of the Lancet make me uncomfortable. The authors argue that policies promoting cycling and walking are good for the planet because they could reduce obesity — and obesity, the authors calculate, contributes to global warming.

Do we really need to give fat people one more reason to feel guilty?

International Herald Tribune:  Indians bristle at U.S. criticism on food prices

Criticism of the United States has ballooned in India recently, particularly after the Bush administration seemed to blame India's increasing middle class and prosperity for rising food prices. Critics from India seem to be asking one underlying question: "Why do Americans think they deserve to eat more than Indians?"

The food problem has "clearly" been created by Americans, who are eating 50 percent more calories than the average person in India, said Pradeep Mehta, the secretary general of CUTS Center for International Trade, Economics and Environment, a private economic research organization based in India with offices in Kenya, Zambia, Vietnam and Britain.

If Americans were to slim down to even the middle-class weight in India, "many hungry people in sub-Saharan Africa would find food on their plates," Mehta said. The money Americans spend on liposuction to get rid of their excess fat could be funneled to famine victims instead, he added.

N.Y. Times:  Los Angeles Eyes Sewage as a Source of Water

LOS ANGELES — Faced with a persistent drought and the threat of tighter water supplies, Los Angeles plans to begin using heavily cleansed sewage to increase drinking water supplies, joining a growing number of cities considering similar measures.

Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa, who opposed such a plan a decade ago over safety concerns, announced the proposal on Thursday as part of a package of initiatives to put the city, the nation’s second largest, on a stricter water budget. The other plans include increasing fines for watering lawns during restricted times, tapping into and cleaning more groundwater, and encouraging businesses and residents to use more efficient sprinklers and plumbing fixtures.

The move comes as California braces for the possibility of the most severe water shortages in decades.


AP via National Geographic:  China Quake Delivered Seismic One-Two Punch

The fault line that caused this week's devastating earthquake in China probably buckled in two stages, and the hardness of the terrain contributed to the wide reach of the damage, Japanese scientists said Thursday.

The magnitude 7.9 quake on Monday struck in Sichuan Province but rattled buildings as far away as Beijing, Shanghai, and Thailand. (See photos of the earthquake's destruction.)

The quake has affected ten million people and may have killed as many as 50,000, according to a revised death toll estimate released by the Chinese government today.

National Geographic:  Study Warned of China Quake Risk Nearly a Year Ago

Just ten months before a deadly earthquake struck Sichuan Province's Beichuan county on May 12, a scientific study warned that the Chinese region was ripe for a major quake.

After examining satellite images and conducting on-the-ground inspections of deep, active faults in Sichuan Province for more than a decade, scientists issued a warning.

"The faults are sufficiently long to sustain a strong ground-shaking earthquake, making them potentially serious sources of regional seismic hazard," the Chinese, European, and U.S. geoscientists wrote in the mid-July 2007 edition of the journal Tectonics.

National Geographic:  Pandas Sensed China Quake Coming?

In the minutes before a massive earthquake shook central China on Monday, captive pandas near the epicenter began acting strangely, according to an eyewitness account released today.

The observation, made by a British tourist who had been watching the pandas at the famous Wolong National Nature Reserve near Chengdu, mirrors previous accounts of animals "sensing" disasters before they occur.

Diane Etkins told the Associated Press that the pandas "had been really lazy and just eaten a little bit of bamboo, and all of a sudden they were parading around their pen.


N.Y. Times:  ‘Mad Pride’ Fights a Stigma

"Until now, the acceptance of mental illness has pretty much stopped at depression," said Charles Barber, a lecturer in psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine. "But a newer generation, fueled by the Internet and other sophisticated delivery systems, is saying, ‘We deserve to be heard, too.’ "

About 5.7 million Americans over 18 have bipolar disorder, which is classified as a mood disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Another 2.4 million have schizophrenia, which is considered a thought disorder. The small slice of this disparate population who have chosen to share their experiences with the public liken their efforts to those of the gay-rights and similar movements of a generation ago.

Just as gay-rights activists reclaimed the word queer as a badge of honor rather than a slur, these advocates proudly call themselves mad; they say their conditions do not preclude them from productive lives.


National Geographic:  At Ten, Dark Energy "Most Profound Problem" in Physics

What goes up must come down. Few on Earth would argue with the fundamental law of gravity.

But ten years ago this month the Astronomical Journal accepted a paper for publication that revealed there is a dark side of the force.


Physorg.com:  MIT Creates New Material For Fuel Cells, Increases Power Output By 50 Percent

MIT engineers have improved the power output of one type of fuel cell by more than 50 percent through technology that could help these environmentally friendly energy storage devices find a much broader market, particularly in portable electronics.

Science Education

N.Y. Times:  Two New Ways to Explore the Virtual Universe, in Vivid 3-D

The skies may be the next frontier in travel, yet not even the wealthiest space tourist can zoom out to, say, the Crab Nebula, the Trapezium Cluster or Eta Carinae, a star 100 times more massive than the Sun and 7,500 light-years away.

But those galactic destinations and thousands of others can now be toured and explored at the controls of a computer mouse, with the constellations, stars and space dust displayed in vivid detail and animated imagery across the screen. The project, the WorldWide Telescope, is the culmination of years of work by researchers at Microsoft, and the Web site and free downloadable software are available starting on Tuesday, at www.WorldWideTelescope.org.

The article also describes the advent of Google Sky.

Science is Cool

N.Y. Times:  Einstein Letter on God Sells for $404,000

From the grave, Albert Einstein poured gasoline on the culture wars between science and religion this week.

A letter the physicist wrote in 1954 to the philosopher Eric Gutkind, in which he described the Bible as "pretty childish" and scoffed at the notion that the Jews could be a "chosen people," sold for $404,000 at an auction in London. That was 25 times the presale estimate.

The Associated Press quoted Rupert Powell, the managing director of Bloomsbury Auctions, as describing the unidentified buyer as having "a passion for theoretical physics and all that that entails." Among the unsuccessful bidders, according to The Guardian newspaper, was Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, an outspoken atheist.

N.Y. Times:  Museum Kills Live Exhibit

One of the strangest exhibits at the opening of "Design and the Elastic Mind," the very strange show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that explores the territory where design meets science, was a teeny coat made out of living mouse stem cells. The "victimless leather" was kept alive in an incubator with nutrients, unsettlingly alive. Until recently, that is.

N.Y. Times:  This, From That

SAN MATEO, Calif. — The muffins are rolling.

The muffin cars, electric-powered vehicles built to resemble cupcakes, scoot around the open spaces of the San Mateo Event Center & Expo, a sprawling fairground about 20 miles south of San Francisco and, on this day, a million miles from normal.


At first blush, then, this festival, sponsored by Make magazine, is a gathering place of pyromaniacs and noise junkies, the multiply pierced and the extensively tattooed. But wander awhile, and the showy surface gives way to a wondrous thing: the gathering of folks from all walks of life who blend science, technology, craft and art to make things both goofy and grand.

Slideshow with audio here.

Originally posted to Neon Vincent's Massage Parlour on Sat May 17, 2008 at 09:27 PM PDT.

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