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Welcome to Science Saturday, where the Overnight News Digest crew informs and entertains you with this week's news about science, space, and the environment.

This week's featured story comes from MSNBC.

Kyoto Protocol in its death throes, 200 countries gather for climate talks
Ideas on table include a carbon surcharge on air tickets and levy on international financial transactions
November 28, 2011

DURBAN, South Africa — Countries will make a last-ditch effort to save a dying Kyoto Protocol at global climate talks starting on Monday aimed at cutting the greenhouse gas emissions blamed by scientists for rising sea levels, intense storms and crop failures.

Kyoto, which was adopted in 1997 and entered into force in 2005, commits most developed states to binding emissions targets. The talks are the last chance to set another round of targets before the first commitment period ends in 2012.

Major parties have been at loggerheads for years, warnings of climate disaster are becoming more dire and diplomats worry whether host South Africa is up to the challenge of brokering the tough discussions among nearly 200 countries that run from Monday to December 9 in the coastal city of Durban.

There is hope for a deal to help developing countries most hurt by global warming and a stop-gap measure to save the protocol. There is also a chance advanced economies responsible for most emissions will pledge deeper cuts at the talks known as the Conference of the Parties, or COP 17.

But the debt crisis hitting the euro zone and the United States makes it unlikely those areas will provide more aid or impose new measures that could hurt their growth prospects.

More stories over the jump.

Recent Science Diaries and Stories

Watch this space!

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In the Shadow of the Bell Curve: Let's Play the Mythbusters Race Science Game
by chaunceydevega

This week in science: RIP to a wingnut talking point
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Rhinoceros
by palantir

Slideshows/Videos

MSNBC: Holiday calendar: Ornament in space
By Alan Boyle
December 1, 2011

To paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi, that's no Christmas ornament ... it's a moon. Our moon, of course, hanging above Earth's limb in a picture taken from the International Space Station. It's the first holiday goodie in our Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar, which will unveil a new picture of Earth as seen from space every day from now until Christmas.

Our second annual photo calendar takes its cue from a traditional Advent calendar, which is built to hide one sweet treat beneath each of 25 doors that are opened sequentially on the appropriate day. The idea is give kids something to sink their teeth into during each day of the holiday season, and build up the anticipation for the big treat on the 25th.

MSNBC: Holiday calendar: Masses in Mecca
By Alan Boyle
December 2, 2011

'Tis the season for religious holidays, including Hanukkah for Jews and Christmas for Christians. But the Muslim world has already marked its biggest religious observance of the year, with an orbiting satellite as a witness.

Today's offering for the Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar adds an Islamic twist to the holiday countdown: Here's a picture from DigitalGlobe showing thousands of people gathering around the Kaaba shrine in Mecca on Nov. 2, just before the annual Hajj pilgrimage.

MSNBC: Holiday calendar: Santa's shrinking domain
By Alan Boyle
December 3, 2011

Few places on Earth have more of a connection to the holiday season than the North Pole: After all, that's where Santa Claus hangs his hat. That's the address most kids write on their Christmas letters. Even NORAD lists that locale as Santa's home base.

But if I were Santa, I'd start thinking about real estate: Over the years, satellite measurements have pointed to a shrinkage in ice extent and thickness in the Arctic, due to rising temperatures. In September, experts at the National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that Arctic sea ice had declined to its second-lowest level in the past 32 years, and researchers at the University of Bremen in Germany said the ice coverage had fallen even below the 2007 minimum.

MSNBC: Robot recognizes self in mirror
By John Roach

A robot that looks like a little green Martian in a snowsuit has learned to recognize itself in the mirror — and is pleased with what it sees.

MSNBC: Electromagnetic catapult launches fighter jet
By John Roach

An electromagnetic catapult successfully launched a fighter jet in a demonstration of two futuristic technologies, the U.S. Navy announced Monday.

The electromagnetic aircraft launch system, as the electromagnetic catapult is formally known, is being developed to replace the steam catapults that have launched fighter jets off Navy carriers for more than 50 years.
...
The system, according to the Navy, is an improvement over of steam catapults, which are unable to generate the power needed to launch heavier and faster next generation fighter jets.  The catapult also causes less wear and tear on aircraft and is easier to maintain.

MSNBC: Video: Wingsuits flights that make you go 'wow'
By John Roach

Gravity junkies may have flipped the switch to skiing and snowboarding over the Thanksgiving holiday, but for a brief reminder of what's possible when the snowy slopes are green, check out this video of wingsuit man Odd-Martin Helgestad's exploits from this year in Norway and Europe.

MSNBC: Gallery: Take a visual tour of the cosmos

See a lunar base in miniature, launches and landings and other outer-space visions from November 2011.

MSNBC: Thawing permafrost 'speeding' up warming, experts warn

'Arctic permafrost has been like a wild card,' says polar scientist

Space.com: A Tour of Spaceport America, New Planets in Space and Curiosity Goes to Mars
December 3, 2011

From the discovery of 18 new planets to a tour of Spaceport America, it was a busy week in space.

LiveScience: Best Science Photos of the Week - Dec. 3, 2011

This week in science saw the discovery of the oldest hairy microbe, the announcement of the winners of a science-art competition, an explanation for a space explosion that occurred last Christmas and more. Check them out.
NOAA PMEL on YouTube:Arctic Report Card: Update for 2011 - Tracking recent environmental changes, with 23 essays on different aspects of the environment, by a team of 112 international authors, and independently peer-reviewed by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme of the Arctic Council.

Astronomy/Space

Space.com via MSNBC: Ultra-red galaxies may be cosmic 'missing link'
NASA's Spitzer space telescope sees them at the far reaches of the universe
December 2, 2011

Scientists have spied a new type of ultra-red galaxy lurking at the far reaches of the universe, a new study reports.

Using NASA's Spitzer space telescope, the astronomers spotted four remarkably red galaxies nearly 13 billion light-years from Earth — meaning it's taken their light about 13 billion years to reach us. So researchers are seeing the galaxies as they were in the early days of the universe, which itself is about 13.7 billion years old.

NASA's Hubble space telescope has imaged even more ancient galaxies, but the four ruddy objects seen by Spitzer are a breed apart, researchers said.

"Hubble has shown us some of the first protogalaxies that formed, but nothing that looks like this," study co-author Giovanni Fazio, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said in a statement. "In a sense, these galaxies might be a 'missing link' in galactic evolution."

Space.com via MSNBC: Observe a star just before it explodes — that's the goal
Astronomers tantalizingly close to spotting massive supernovas as deaths near
December 1, 2011

Astronomers seeking to observe a star just before it explodes have come tantalizingly close to achieving their goal, a new study reports.

For the last three years, the researchers have been scanning 25 nearby galaxies for stars that brighten and dim in unusual ways, with the aim of catching a few about to die in massive supernova explosions. This past summer, they saw one star in a binary pair dim noticeably before the other one went boom, the scientists said.

While the astronomers don't think they managed to get any direct observations of the star that exploded, the find is encouraging nonetheless, they said.

"Our underlying goal is to look for any kind of signature behavior that will enable us to identify stars before they explode," study co-author Christopher Kochanek of Ohio State University said in a statement. "It’s a speculative goal at this point, but at least now we know that it’s possible."

Space.com via MSNBC: Alien planet rolling over, forces others to do same
Four sibling planets being dragged along for topsy-turvy ride, study suggests
By Nola Taylor Redd
December 2, 2011

A huge alien planet turns super-slow somersaults as it hurtles through space, dragging its four sibling planets along for the topsy-turvy ride, a new study suggests.

The giant exoplanet, known as 55 Cancri d, gets tugged by a faraway companion star as it orbits its own parent star. As a result, the planet performs a flip over the course of millions of years, and the other four planets in the system follow suit, researchers said.

"It kind of shepherds along the other planets," study lead author Nathan Kaib, of Queen's University in Canada, told SPACE.com.

Space.com via MSNBC: Newfound alien planet is hot enough to melt iron
December 1, 2011

Astronomers have found an alien planet not much bigger than Earth, but so blisteringly hot that life has no shot of gaining a foothold there.

The exoplanet, known as Kepler-21b, is just 1.6 times bigger than our home planet, making it a so-called "super Earth." But it orbits so close to its parent star that astronomers estimate its surface temperature to be about 2,960 degrees Fahrenheit (1,627 degrees Celsius) — hot enough to melt iron.

Researchers found Kepler-21b using NASA's planet-hunting Kepler space telescope. Kepler spots alien worlds using what's called the "transit method," which looks for telltale dips in a star's brightness caused when a planet crosses in front of the star's face from Kepler's perspective, and blocks some of its light.

MSNBC: Could Titan's seas harbor life?
By Alan Boyle

A fresh photo from the Cassini orbiter shows the hydrocarbon-rich seas and dunes of Titan, a Saturnian moon that might be capable of sustaining life as we don't know it.

The picture, published today on the websites of NASA's Saturn mission and Cassini's imaging team, shows the huge sea known as Kraken Mare as a dark spot on the northern edge of Titan's disk. The dark Senkyo dune field is front and center. Cassini's narrow-angle camera captured the view in near-infrared wavelengths from a distance of 1.2 million miles (1.9 million kilometers) on Sept. 14.

Titan is totally shrouded in smog, but Cassini's camera filters are set up to pierce through the haze and spot details on the surface below. The cold condtions on the moon are such that hydrocarbons such as ethane and methane can exist in liquid form. This rare picture from Cassini shows the glint of sunlight off the sheen of Kraken Mare, which is larger than the Caspian Sea on Earth. (And yes, Kraken is named after the mythical sea creature. "Mare" is Latin for "sea.")

Space.com via MSNBC: Oops ... NASA comes clean on Mars rover Curiosity slip-up
Final ultra-cleanliness step for drill bits skipped in deviation from planetary protection plan
By Leonard David
December 1, 2011

All NASA spacecraft sent to other planets must undergo meticulous procedures to make sure they don't carry biological contamination from Earth to their destinations.

However, a step in these planetary protection measures wasn't adhered to for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity, now en route to the Red Planet, Space.com has learned.

The incident has become a lessons-learned example of miscommunication in assuring that planetary protection procedures are strictly adhered to.

Space.com via MSNBC: Is Phobos-Grunt dead? Europeans end rescue effort
Calls to Russian spacecraft go unanswered; question now is, where will it fall?
By Denise Chow
December 2, 2011

The European Space Agency announced Friday that it will stop trying to contact the beleaguered Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, which has been stuck in the wrong orbit for almost a month now.

Russia's Phobos-Grunt probe launched Nov. 8 on a mission to collect and return samples from Mars' moon Phobos. But the spacecraft's thrusters malfunctioned shortly after launch, leaving it stuck in a low orbit around Earth rather than on a course for the Red Planet.

A signal from Phobos-Grunt was picked up last week by a European tracking station located in Australia, and since then, the European Space Agency has been helping Russia's Federal Space Agency with efforts to rescue the troubled probe.

However, all subsequent attempts to call Phobos-Grunt have failed, and on Friday, ESA said it will cease trying.

Space.com via MSNBC: Month of amazing skywatching awaits us in December
Look for total lunar eclipse, Mercury-moon encounter and planetary tour de force
By Geoff Gaherty
December 1, 2011

A total lunar eclipse, a close encounter between Mercury and the moon, and a planetary tour de force are just some of the amazing sights skywatchers can see this month. Here are the most exciting skywatching targets for December 2011:

Evolution/Paleontology

LiveScience via MSNBC: World's oldest tiger species is discovered in China
By Charles Q. Choi
December 1, 2011

The oldest extinct species of tiger known yet has been discovered in China, scientists say.

Although the skull of the more than 2-million-year-old fossil is smaller than most modern tigers, it appears very similar in shape, researchers added.

The tiger (Panthera tigris) is one of the largest living cats, a giant predator native to Asia reaching up to 13 feet (4 meters) in length, including its tail, and weighing up to 660 pounds (300 kilograms). The beast's origins are under intense debate, with suggestions it arose in north-central China, southern China or northern Siberia.

Now scientists have discovered a new skull and jaw from an extinct jaguar-sized tiger in northwestern China dating back 2.16 million to 2.55 million years, predating other known tiger fossils by up to a half-million years. This represents the oldest complete skull hitherto found of a pantherine cat — the lineage that includes tigers and all other living big cats.

Biodiversity

MSNBC: World's biggest bug? That depends...
By Alan Boyle

Is this the world's biggest bug? As with all superlatives, it depends on your definition. But the sight of a New Zealand giant weta chomping down on a carrot surely has to give you the creeps, even if it's rivaled by other giant creepy crawlies.

This particular species of the cricketlike creature — known as a giant weta or wetapunga to the Maori, and as Deinacrida heteracantha to scientists — is found only in protected areas such as New Zealand's Little Barrier Island. That's where Mark ("Doctor Bugs") Moffett, an entomologist and explorer at the Smithsonian Institution, found the specimen after two nights of searching.

"The giant weta is the largest insect in the world, and this is the biggest one ever found," Britain's Daily Mail quoted Moffett as saying. "She weighs the equivalent to three mice. ... She enjoyed the carrot so much she seemed to ignore the fact she was resting on our hands and carried on munching away. She would have finished the carrot very quickly, but this is an extremely endangered species, and we didn't want to risk indigestion."

Click on the link in the headline to see a photo of the weta.  For an insect, it's huge!

LiveScience via MSNBC: Shell-shocked! Wandering sea turtle makes long trip home
It accidentally wandered into frigid North Sea, but is now back in warmer waters
By Stephanie Pappas
November 30, 2011

When Johnny Vasco de Gama showed up in the Netherlands three years ago, he was a nameless, frigid sea turtle with little chance of surviving much longer in the icy waters of the North Sea. But now, this accidental world traveler is back in the United States and will soon be released into the warm waters his species calls home.

The turtle, dubbed "Johnny" by rescuers in the Netherlands, had "Vasco de Gama" appended to his name in Portugal, where marine biologists at the ocean theme park Zoomarine nursed him back to health. The turtle is a Kemp's ridley sea turtle, a critically endangered species and the rarest of all sea turtles. For that reason, an international team of conservationists has worked hard to bring Johnny back to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

On Tuesday, Johnny arrived at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., where staff checked him out and placed him in a holding tank in preparation to release him into the Gulf.

Biotechnology/Health

MSNBC: 'Arsenic life' debate still percolates
By Alan Boyle

It's been one year since researchers shook up the scientific world by claiming they bred bacteria that used arsenic in place of phosphorus, and the controversy is still simmering: The lead researcher and her critics say they're taking a closer look at the microbe at the center of the "weird life" claims.

After hitting the highs and the lows of academic acclaim, Felisa Wolfe-Simon has left her original research group and joined up with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California to continue her research into the bacterium known as GFAJ-1, which gets its name from the acronym for "Give Felisa a Job." (No joke!)

"There is so much work to do we're focusing on that and look forward to communicating our efforts in the coming months," Wolfe-Simon told me in an email this week.

MSNBC: 3-D printers may soon fix broken bones
By John Roach

3-D printers are moving from the whimsical fringe of printing out chocolates, cheeseburgers and bikinis to serious life-saving stuff such as rescue robots and, now, a bone-like material scaffold that can help heal real broken bones.

This latest use comes from researchers at Washington State University. They used a commercially available 3-D printer designed to make metal objects and optimized it so it can spray a bone-like ceramic powder into whatever 3-D shape designers draw on a computer.

New findings on the technology are reported in the journal Dental Materials where the team describes how the addition of zinc and silicon to the mixture more than doubled the strength of the main material, calcium phosphate.

Climate/Environment

Christian Science Monitor via MSNBC: Global warming creates 'new normal' in Arctic
By Pete Spotts
December 2, 2011

Global warming has brought a "new normal" to the Arctic, with warmer air and ocean temperatures, thinner and less expansive summer sea ice, and greener vegetation in coastal regions abutting the open water.

In addition, longer periods of open water during the annual sea-ice melt season is allowing the ocean to take up more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, leading to seasonal bouts of ocean acidification in some areas.

These broad observations, along with more-detailed looks at some 32 environmental indicators, appear in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's 2011 Arctic Report Card, released Thursday.

Geology

Space.com via MSNBC: Could natural nuclear reactors have boosted life?
By Clara Moskowitz
December 2, 2011

While modern-day humans use the most advanced engineering to build nuclear reactors, nature sometimes makes them by accident.

Evidence for a cluster of natural nuclear reactors has been found on Earth, and some scientists say our planet may have had many more in its ancient past. There's also reason to think other planets might have had their own naturally occurring nuclear reactors, though evidence to confirm this is hazy. If they did exist, the large amounts of radiation and energy released by such reactors would have had complicated effects on any life developing on this or other worlds, experts say.

Natural nuclear reactors occur when deposits of the radioactive element uranium build up in one spot, and eventually ignite a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction where uranium divides, in a process called fission, producing other elements. The reaction releases a powerful punch of energy.

This energy could prove beneficial and highly detrimental to developing life, depending on the circumstances.

 

Our Amazing Planet via MSNBC: Is ozone gas an earthquake precursor?
December 2, 2011

Stories abound of animals behaving oddly in the moments before an earthquake: dogs bark incessantly, birds gather in tight flocks, toads flee their ponds. What could they be sensing that humans don't?

That question led a group of University of Virginia physicists to start grinding rocks and measuring gases in a lab experiment designed to mimic an earthquake and see what might be setting the animals off. What they found was dramatic: The rocks they crushed produced ozone gas at levels up to 100 times higher than a smoggy Los Angeles day.

"Even the smallest rock fracture produced ozone," team member Catherine Dukes told OurAmazingPlanet. "The question is, can we detect it in the environment?"

If that answer is "yes," the ozone signal Dukes and her colleagues saw might someday be used to warn of impending quakes.

Our Amazing Planet via MSNBC: Japan tsunami survivors didn't realize danger they faced
By Charles Q. Choi
December 1, 2011

By talking with survivors of the devastating tsunami that hit Japan earlier this year, scientists may now have a better idea as to how to help prevent fatalities from such events in the future.

The catastrophic magnitude 9.0 quake that hit Japan in March killed 19,508 people. The resulting tsunami reached heights of up to 100 feet (30 meters) along the coast of northeastern Japan.

In the 115 years before the disaster, a trio of tsunamis hit the region, with one causing 22,000 deaths. In response, many efforts were undertaken to protect against further tsunamis, such as numerous breakwaters  — that is, coastal barriers — as well as annual tsunami evacuation drills. Still, the March tsunami claimed many lives, causing up to about 20 percent of deaths from the quake in some areas, said researcher Masataka Ando, a seismologist at Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan.

To understand why the waves killed so many people despite the precautions, researchers interviewed 112 survivors at public evacuation shelters in six cities in Japan in April and June. The aim was to see why many did not immediately evacuate areas endangered by the tsunami.

Psychology/Behavior

Discovery News via MSNBC: Wasps never forget a face — at least those of other wasps
Recognition research offers insight into how insects become good at specialized tasks
By Emily Sohn
December 1, 2011

Certain wasps have a remarkable ability to recognize the faces of other wasps. And much like humans, these stinging insects are more attuned to those faces than they are to any other shape, including the caterpillars they eat, a new study has found.

The findings, which adds to the list of amazing abilities social insects have, offer insight into how animals become good at specialized tasks. The study also touches on a raging debate about how and why humans are so attuned to sets of eyes, noses and mouths.

The wasps are "phenomenally better at learning wasp faces than anything else we tested them on," said Michael Sheehan, a graduate student in evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "They're not just good at faces. Like people, the way they learn faces is different from the way they learn other images."

MSNBC: The crowd called to decipher whale songs
By John Roach

The collective wisdom of the crowd is being called upon to help scientists decipher the language of pilot and killer whales in a project that could help us operate our machines in harmony with the ocean giants.

To participate, log on to Whale.fm, a project sponsored by Zooniverse and Scientific American, and try to match up similar sounding whale calls.

The researchers behind the project hope that the wisdom of the crowd will more accurately match the calls than one user can alone.

Archeology/Anthropology

MSNBC: Pits add to Stonehenge mystery
By Alan Boyle

Researchers say they've found two pits to the east and west of Stonehenge that may have played a role in an ancient midsummer ceremony. The discovery suggests that the 5,000-year-old circle of stones we see today may represent just a few of the pieces in a larger geographical, astronomical and cultural puzzle.

The previously undetected pits could provide clues for solving the puzzle.

"These exciting finds indicate that even though Stonehenge was ultimately the most important monument in the landscape, it may at times not have been the only, or most important ritual focus, and the area of Stonehenge may have become significant as a sacred site at a much earlier date," Vince Gaffney, an archaeology professor at the University of Birmingham, said in a news release issued over the weekend.

annetteboardman is taking the week off.

Physics

Not Even Wrong Blog at Columbia University: A 125-126 GeV Higgs?
December 2, 2011

Some more detail on Higgs rumors I’ve been hearing recently. Evidently the latest ATLAS data shows an excess in the gamma-gamma channel around 126 GeV, of the size expected if the Higgs is there, and CMS is also seeing an excess (2 sigma?) around 125 GeV in the same channel. I haven’t heard anything about confirmation of this in other channels. Independently, someone has posted a similar rumor at viXra log, and Philip Gibbs is writing about it here. This looks to be still not a conclusive Higgs signal, but the closest thing yet. More details may or may not emerge before the public talks on December 13.

Chemistry

MSNBC: http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/12/01/9144420-fl-and-lv-headed-for-periodic-table
By Alan Boyle

Years after their discovery, the super-heavy elements 114 and 116 have finally been christened by their Russian and American discoverers. Say hello to flerovium and livermorium, also known as Fl and Lv.

The two names received recommendations for addition to the periodic table from the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, or IUPAC. But don't add Fl and Lv to your periodic-table tattoo quite yet. The names still have to go through after a five-month public comment period, and then there'll have to be a couple of official sign-offs. Three other super-heavy elements — darmstadtium, roentgenium and copernicium — just completed the full process this month.

MSNBC: German pilsner? Spanish lager? Test has answer
By John Roach

Beer snobs wishing to know the provenance of their favorite European pilsners and lagers are in luck: Scientists have developed a new chemical test that can tell you where the brew originated.

Though such tests have long existed for products such as wine, spirits, coffee and tea, one hasn't been developed yet for beer, noted Jose Marcos Jurado, a chemist at the University of Seville in Spain.

"That surprised me because beer is one of the most consumed beverages in the world," he told me in an email today.

Energy

MSNBC: Will poo-powered lights get you in the mood?\
By John Roach

Soft-glowing lights powered by energy harvested from human waste could soon set the mood everywhere from nightclubs to living rooms, according to an electronics company.

The lights, designed by Philips, are hand-blown glass cells filled with a culture of bioluminescent bacteria that are fed via silicon tubes connected to a source of methane gas harvested from food and body waste.

The system, called the Bio-Light, is part of what Philips calls the Microbial Home, a project to recycle waste and reduce environmental impact.

Science, Space, Environment, and Energy Policy

Innovation News Daily via MSNBC: How NASA could get its groove back
Insight Labs wants space agency control its destiny based on authority, achievements
By Jeremy Hsu
December 1, 2011

NASA's better days can appear long past to the public. The U.S. space agency that once landed a man on the moon now wrestles with questions of existential crisis after retiring its space shuttle fleet this year. But it may still have enough leftover mojo to boldly set new goals to go where no man has gone before — if it can shake off its instinct to always look for guidance from the president and Congress.

A chance exists for NASA to declare a new vision for space exploration, said Jeff Leitner, founder and dean of Insight Labs. His nonprofit group wants to help the space agency control its destiny based on the authority of its "smartest, badass scientists" and spaceflight achievements, rather than acting as a political football for lawmakers while waiting for someone to decide its next mission.

"If they were in Silicon Valley, we'd be worshiping them," said Jeff Leitner, founder and dean of Insight Labs. "But they're NASA, so we're cutting their budget."

MSNBC: Coke, Grand Canyon bottled water controversy gets murkier
By Miguel Llanos

The National Park Service chief has said that his decision to block a ban on selling bottled water at Grand Canyon National Park was based on safety and contracts, but emails released Friday indicate an early concern was how Coca-Cola, a major water vendor as well as parks funder, would react.

"While I applaud the intent, there are going to be consequences, since Coke is a major sponsor of our recycling efforts," NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis said in the email exchange posted by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The watchdog group obtained the documents through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Jarvis then directed two deputies to further "talk about this before GRCA pulls the plug" -- GRCA being shorthand for Grand Canyon. He further noted that the president of the National Park Foundation, through which Coca-Cola and other private entities help with funding, "would like to host a meeting of the beverage reps, which makes some sense to me."

MSNBC: Ringling circus paying big fine over animal case
By Miguel Llanos

The parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus said Monday that it had agreed to settle U.S. government claims that its handlers had mistreated animals.

Feld Entertainment, which for years has been criticized by animal activists for its treatment of elephants, is not admitting any wrong doing but will pay a $270,000 civil penalty, the largest ever slapped against an exhibitor under the federal Animal Welfare Act.

"This settlement sends a direct message to the public and to those who exhibit animals that USDA will take all necessary steps to protect animals regulated under the Animal Welfare Act," Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. "The civil penalty and other stipulations in the settlement agreement will promote a better understanding of the rights and responsibilities of all exhibitors in maintaining and caring for animals under their care."

Feld also "agreed to develop and implement annual AWA compliance training for all employees who work with and handle animals, including trainers, handlers, attendants and veterinarians," the USDA statement said.

Science Education

MSNBC: Bam! How comics teach science
By Alan Boyle

Can you really learn relativity from a comic book? The Japanese have been using manga for decades to teach complex subjects, and now Americans are doing it too.

No Starch Press, a San Francisco publishing house, puts out a whole line of manga-style books on math and science, picked up from the original Japanese and translated for the American market. Yes, there's a "Manga Guide to Relativity," as well as calculus, linear algebra, biochemistry and other head-banging subjects.

The plot lines may sound sappy to grown-ups. Usually they involve a cute schoolgirl or schoolboy who's challenged by an equally cute teacher to master a seemingly impenetrable subject. But Bill Pollock, the founder and president of No Starch Press, says the books get the job done, especially for students who are at a crucial age for math and science education.

"We're not out to publish the best manga ever," Pollock told me. "The manga is a vehicle."

Science Writing and Reporting

MSNBC: Can physicists crack the big puzzle?
By Alan Boyle

In his new book, "The Infinity Puzzle: Quantum Field Theory and the Hunt for an Orderly Universe," Oxford physicist Frank Close reviews decades' worth of brain-teasing theories and looks ahead to puzzles yet to be solved.

Close traces the decades-long effort to find the deep connections between the fundamental forces of nature and resolve the "infinity puzzle" — that is, the fact that the mathematics of quantum theory came up with nonsensical numbers. That puzzle was eventually solved, as Close describes in the book, but an even bigger puzzle remains: Why is the cosmos built the way it is?

Some clues could emerge from Europe's Large Hadron Collider, where physicists are looking for a mysterious particle known as the Higgs boson. Close delves into the strange role that the Higgs plays in contemporary physics, but he emphasizes that his latest book is about much more than the science.

"'The Infinity Puzzle' is not just another story about the physics of the LHC," he told me this week. "It's focusing on the people. Science is a pure ideal, but the scientists who do it are people. And we all have the same desires and pressures. ... There are heroes and villains in science, as there are everywhere."

Science is Cool

MSNBC: How to make a profit in politics
By Alan Boyle

How many stockbrokers can boast about a trade that brought in more than 200 times their investment over the past six weeks? Political pundits could, if they had the foresight to "invest" in GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich's prospects back in October.

The Iowa Electronic Markets make it possible to do such a deal: The IEM operation, sponsored by the University of Iowa's Tippie School of Business as a economic research project, is the only market in the country that has the tacit blessing of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to let traders lay real money down on political predictions. In other contexts, this might be known as a "bet."

Here's how it works: You can buy up to $500 worth of shares in a political proposition — for example, the proposition that Gingrich will finish either No. 1 or No. 2 in January's Iowa GOP presidential caucus. If the proposition pays off, you'll be paid $1 for each share. If it doesn't, the shares are worthless. Thus, the share price on a given day should reflect the traders' assessment that the prediction will come true.

Researchers have reviewed the IEM's record since the Bush-Dukakis faceoff of 1988 and report that political prediction markets are at least as accurate as traditional political polling. During the 2008 presidential campaign, traders leaned toward a Democratic win more than a year before the actual election. Not much changed in the market after that year's party conventions.

I've been following the IEM since 1992, when it was called the IPSM (Iowa Political Stock Market) and have been very impressed with its ability to forecast during the election year.  In fact, I could see the rise in McCain stock prices the last week of December 2007 and used that to predict that McCain would be the Republican nominee.

MSNBC: Team claims $50,000 for decoding shredded messages
By John Roach

A team of San Francisco-based sleuths claimed a $50,000 prize from the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency today for correctly reconstructing a series of five shredded documents.

The accomplishment comes just 33 days after the DARPA Shredder Challenge was announced in a bid to improve the ability of warfighters to glean information quickly from confiscated, shredded documents.

The challenge also provides insight to the potential vulnerabilities in the current practice of shredding sensitive national security documents, not to mention your own financial statements and personal notes.

Originally posted to Overnight News Digest on Sat Dec 03, 2011 at 09:05 PM PST.

Also republished by SciTech.

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