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Science News

Too little money, too much borrowing

Poverty may narrow attention in ways that undermine financial choices
ScarcityBy Bruce Bower

Scarcity — of money, time, food or anything else — focuses the mind on immediate concerns and discourages taking a broader perspective. This “scarcity mindset” helps to explain why poor people often save too little and borrow too much, and it presents policy makers with an opening to encourage better financial decisions among low-income individuals, a new study concludes.

Some researchers, however, regard these findings as vague and far from ready for policy prime time. They suggest that the study’s lab-based results may have little relevance in the real world. And with a nod toward the recent financial meltdown, some note that inadequate saving by the poor ought to be of less concern than financial recklessness on the part of the wealthy.

When money is scarce, each current expense looms large and draws attention away from less pressing expenses, say psychologist Anuj Shah of the University of Chicago and his colleagues. For instance, poor people tend to focus on how to pay for groceries today while neglecting to budget for their next rent payment, the researchers propose in the Nov. 1 Science.

For the study, the group tested volunteers who received generous or limited amounts of time and numbers of tries on lab games. Participants, most in their late 20s and early 30s, were recruited from an online site for job seekers.

First ever family tree for all living birds reveals evolution and diversification

Bird family treePaleontology & Archaeology

The world's first family tree linking all living bids and revealing when and where they evolved and diversified since dinosaurs walked the Earth has been created. Experts used the family tree to map out where the almost 10,000 species of birds live to show where the most diversification has taken place in the world.

Researchers, from the University of Sheffield, Yale University, University of Tasmania and Simon Fraser University, say the creation of new species has speeded-up over the last 50 million years. Surprisingly, species formation is not faster in the species rich tropics, but was found to be faster in the Western Hemisphere compared to the Eastern Hemisphere as well as on islands.

As well as being the first time scientists have created a family tree for birds, it is hoped the research could help prioritise conservation efforts in a bid to save the most diverse species from extinction.

Fairly Simple Math Could Bridge Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity

A framework that relies on college-level mathematics could describe what happens to particles in so-called spacetime rips, gravity fluctuations such as those that occur during the birth of a black hole
Image: wylieconlon/FlickrBy Eugenie Samuel Reich and Nature magazine

Could an analysis based on relatively simple calculations point the way to reconciling the two most successful — and stubbornly distinct — branches of modern theoretical physics? Frank Wilczek and his collaborators hope so.

The task of aligning quantum mechanics, which deals with the behaviour of fundamental particles, with Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which describes gravity in terms of curved space-time, has proved an enormous challenge. One of the difficulties is that neither is adequate to describe what happens to particles when the space-time they occupy undergoes drastic changes — such as those thought to occur at the birth of a black hole. But in a paper posted to the arXiv preprint server on 15 October (A. D. Shapere et al. 2012), three theoretical physicists present a straightforward way for quantum particles to move smoothly from one kind of ‘topological space’ to a very different one.

Elephant Speaking Korean Documented By Researchers

Image Credit: BirDiGoL / ShutterstockLee Rannals for

What is cooler than a monkey that can do sign language? An Asian elephant that can speak Korean, which is exactly what one elephant named Koshik has learned to do.

Researchers wrote in the journal Current Biology that they have confirmed that Koshik has learned how to speak Korean by vocalizing it with his trunk in his mouth.

Koshik currently knows how to say hello, sit down, no, lie down, and good in Korean. These language skills could provide insights into the biology and evolution of vocal learning, the researchers said.

“Human speech basically has two important aspects, pitch and timbre,” said Angela Stoeger of the University of Vienna. “Intriguingly, the elephant Koshik is capable of matching both pitch and timbre patterns: he accurately imitates human formants as well as the voice pitch of his trainers. This is remarkable considering the huge size, the long vocal tract, and other anatomical differences between an elephant and a human.”

Technology News

Power play: Wireless charging at a distance arrives

Someday soon, your parking space could charge your car
WiTricity gives Computerworld a demo of its Prodigy wireless charging unit, which can charge devices up to about 10 inches away. With a passive repeater, this distance can be extended to feet, and can even power devices through solid objects.By Lucas Mearian

Computerworld - It feels a bit like being at a magic show, watching David Schatz hold a light or smartphone feet above a power pad to demonstrate how magnetic resonance wireless technology can charge any device over distance.

Schatz, director of business development at WiTricity in Watertown, Mass., can even show off the wireless "room of the future," where lamps, cell phones - you name it - can all be powered through the air, no matter where they are in the room.

WiTricity, however, won't be selling any of the wireless products it demonstrates. Instead, the company's future is in selling licenses for others to use its patented designs to build products. WiTricity has few, if any competitors, for its flavor of wireless charging, which it calls highly resonant wireless power transfer.

"They were one of the first to showcase this resonance wireless power transfer, which offers greater distances between coils versus inductive charging, which requires tight coupling between transmitter and receiver," said Jason dePreaux, a principal analyst for the Power & Energy Group at IHS Research. "My impression of WiTricity is that they're keeping it very open [for the market]."

Plastic fantastic seals in speeding projectiles

Layered polymer nanomaterial wraps around penetrating particles
A nanosized glass bead traveling 1.5 kilometers per second is halted by a polyurethanelike material, seen here in cross-section. Red indicates locations where the material has been most compressed on impact.By Rachel Ehrenberg

You don’t have to be a caped superhero to stop a speeding bullet. Scientists have created a material that demonstrates how common plastics can bring projectiles traveling faster than a kilometer per second to a screeching halt. Similar materials might be used to make supertough lightweight body armor, or coatings to protect jet engine components or spacecraft from flying debris.

“This may provide a way to make new materials that are more durable,” says Catherine Brinson, a specialist in advanced materials at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., who was not involved with the work. “There may be applications for anything that is impacted at high speeds — body armor, satellites — anything that you don’t want destroyed.”

Experiments that shoot projectiles into the new material at breakneck speeds suggest that it goes through a weird, liquidlike phase that envelops the miniature bullets without cracking the material. The ballistics tests suggest that the material’s parallel layers of glassy and rubbery ingredients enhance its bullet-stopping power by 30 percent, an international team reports in the upcoming Nature Communications.

Out to Crunch: U.S. Energy Department Unleashes Its Titan Supercomputer

When fully operational, Titan will use a combination of computer and graphics processors to surpass the world's fastest supercomputers
TITANIC: When fully brought up to speed Titan will be capable of more than 20 quadrillion calculations per second, or 20 petaflops. One of Titan's roles will be to help Oak Ridge researchers visualize reactor core simulations.By Larry Greenemeier

In 2005 engineers at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DoE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory unveiled Jaguar, a system that would later be upgraded into a world-beating supercomputer. By 2011 it had grown to a room-size system that used seven megawatts of energy, ran nearly 225,000 processor cores and had a peak performance of 2.3 petaflops, or 2.3 quadrillion calculations per second. Topping Jaguar, albeit necessary to deliver ever more complex modeling of sophisticated energy challenges, would not be easy.

Simply adding more CPUs, or central processing units, to scale Jaguar to 20 petaflops would require enough energy to power 60,000 homes. To best their own record, the Oak Ridge engineers instead turned to video games—or more precisely, to the graphics processors used in Microsoft Xboxes, Nintendo Wiis and other video game systems.

Amputee to climb building's 103 flights with mind-controlled leg

This weekend, Zak Vawter could take a huge step for amputees everywhere -- and for a state-of-the-art prosthetic device that affords a more natural gait.
Zak Vawter practices walking on the thought-controlled bionic leg in preparation for this weekend, when the limb will face its biggest test Leslie Katz

This Sunday, amputee Zak Vawter will stand at the foot of Chicago's Willis Tower and focus his thoughts on climbing. If all goes according to plan, his bionic leg will listen to those thoughts and he'll ascend 103 flights without a hitch.

Vawter, who lost his right leg in a motorcycle accident in 2009, will be wearing a cutting-edge, thought-controlled prosthetic that's about to make a very public debut. He'll head up the 1,451-foot skyscraper (also known as Sears Tower) as part of SkyRise Chicago, an indoor stair-climbing fund-raising event for the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC). About 2,700 other climbers will join him.

Following his amputation, Vawter underwent a surgical procedure called "targeted muscle reinnervation" originally pioneered by the RIC's Center for Bionic Medicine for upper-arm amputees.

The operation reassigns nerves that once controlled a lost limb, allowing amputees to have more natural control of prosthetic devices. In Vawter's case, this meant rerouting the residual nerves that normally would carry signals to his lower leg by attaching them to his hamstring.

Environmental News

Ozone hole at smallest size in decades

Warm Antarctic temperatures help preserve UV-protecting layer
On September 22 (right), the hole in the ozone layer (blue and purple) above Antarctica reached its smallest maximum size in two decades, covering 21.2 million square kilometers. The largest ozone hole on record occurred on September 9, 2000 (left), measuring 29.9 million square kilometers.By Erin Wayman

There’s good news from Antarctica this fall: The seasonal hole in the ozone layer above the continent reached its smallest maximum extent and second smallest average in 20 years thanks to warm air temperatures.

Each September and October the ozone layer, which shields Earth from ultraviolet radiation from the sun, thins over the South Pole. On September 22, the ozone hole grew to its biggest seasonal size: 21.2 million square kilometers, an area slightly smaller than North America. That’s the smallest the ozone hole has been at its annual maximum since 1990. Satellite and ground-based measurements collected by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration put the average size of the 2012 ozone hole at 17.7 million square kilometers, the smallest average since 2002.

Reactions with chlorine from human-made chlorofluorocarbon gas are largely responsible for destroying the ozone layer. Frigid temperatures help promote this destruction. But natural weather fluctuations led to warmer Antarctic temperatures this year, which limited the damage, NASA and NOAA scientists say.

People in Poor Neighborhoods Breathe More Hazardous Particles

Tiny particles of air pollution contain more hazardous ingredients in non-white and low-income communities than in affluent white ones, a new study shows
People in East L.A.'s Boyle Heights, which is more than 90 percent Hispanic, breathe air polluted with particles from freeways and businesses.By Cheryl Katz and Environmental Health News

Tiny particles of air pollution contain more hazardous ingredients in non-white and low-income communities than in affluent white ones, a new study shows.

The greater the concentration of Hispanics, Asians, African Americans or poor residents in an area, the more likely that potentially dangerous compounds such as vanadium, nitrates and zinc are in the mix of fine particles they breathe.

Latinos had the highest exposures to the largest number of these ingredients, while whites generally had the lowest.

The findings of the Yale University research add to evidence of a widening racial and economic gap when it comes to air pollution. Communities of color and those with low education and high poverty and unemployment face greater health risks even if their air quality meets federal health standards, according to the article published online in the scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Why Seas Are Rising Ahead of Predictions: Estimates of Rate of Future Sea-Level Rise May Be Too Low

Past and possible future changes in sea level. (Credit: Map by Emanuel Soeding, Christian-Albrechts University, using NOAA data)Geological Society of America

ScienceDaily (Nov. 1, 2012) — Sea levels are rising faster than expected from global warming, and University of Colorado geologist Bill Hay has a good idea why. The last official IPCC report in 2007 projected a global sea level rise between 0.2 and 0.5 meters by the year 2100. But current sea-level rise measurements meet or exceed the high end of that range and suggest a rise of one meter or more by the end of the century.

"What's missing from the models used to forecast sea-level rise are critical feedbacks that speed everything up," says Hay. He will be presenting some of these feedbacks in a talk on  Nov. 4, at the meeting of The Geological Society of America in Charlotte, North Carolina, USA.

One of those feedbacks involves Arctic sea ice, another the Greenland ice cap, and another soil moisture and groundwater mining.

"There is an Arctic sea ice connection," says Hay, despite the fact that melting sea ice -- which is already in the ocean -- does not itself raise sea level. Instead, it plays a role in the overall warming of the Arctic, which leads to ice losses in nearby Greenland and northern Canada. When sea ice melts, Hay explains, there is an oceanographic effect of releasing more fresh water from the Arctic, which is then replaced by inflows of brinier, warmer water from the south.

Researchers study effects of open-fire cooking on air quality and human health

Cooking fire University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) has just launched a study examining the impact of open-fire cooking on regional air quality and human health.

The study will look at atmospheric air pollutants and human diseases in terms of the effects of smoke from traditional cooking methods in households, villages, and entire regions particularly in northern Ghana.

There are many factors that force developing countries to rely on cooking food with open flame fires. For example, electricity and energy sources are extremely scarce and lead natives to use dried plant stalks and other mediums for fuel. Research suggests that the continued use of these open fire pits and stoves has the potential to create problems for local populations.

"Often when you visit remote villages in Ghana, they're shrouded in haze for many miles from all the fires used for cooking," says NCAR scientist Christine Wiedinmyer, an atmospheric chemist overseeing the project. "Given that an estimated three billion people worldwide are cooking over fire and smoke, we need to better understand how these pollutants are affecting public health as well as regional air quality and even the climate."

Medical News

Smoking laws limit heart attacks

County's ban on smoking in workplaces linked to one-third decline
No smokingBy Nathan Seppa

Perhaps living in a “nanny state” isn’t half bad. In a Minnesota county that banned smoking in public places in 2007, the heart attack rate dropped by one-third after the ban compared with the period just before the restrictions were phased in, researchers report in the Oct. 29 Archives of Internal Medicine.

The study is the longest analysis to date to measure a smoking ordinance’s effect on community-wide heart health, says study coauthor Richard Hurt, an internist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

“Our hope is that this will turn the page on this chapter, and whether secondhand smoke is associated with heart attacks,” Hurt says. “It is.”

Olmsted County prohibited smoking in restaurants on January 1, 2002, and expanded the ban to all workplaces, including bars, on October 1, 2007. Cigarette smoke inhalation increases heart attack risk, so Hurt and his colleagues calculated the rate of heart attacks during the 18 months preceding the enactment of the first ordinance and the 18 months immediately after the full ban went into effect.

Hepatitis E Vaccine Debuts

A Chinese biotech partnership's vaccine success raises hopes for prevention of overlooked diseases, including hepatitis E which claims 70,000 lives annually
Image: US AIDBy Soo Bin Park

Batches of the world’s first vaccine against the hepatitis E virus began rolling out of a Chinese factory last week, promising to stem a disease that every year infects about 20 million people and claims 70,000 lives. The vaccine is being hailed as a victory for an unusual public–private partnership that could set a precedent in China’s burgeoning biotechnology sector, and help to deliver other vaccines for diseases overlooked in the West.

The waterborne hepatitis E virus mostly occurs in developing countries that have poor sanitation, and it is particularly prevalent in east and south Asia. Although most cases cause only mild illness, it can lead to acute liver failure — the mortality rate reaches 4% in some regions and soars to 20% in women who are in the later stages of pregnancy. A severe outbreak of hepatitis E in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in northwest China, for example, caused almost 120,000 infections and more than 700 deaths between 1986 and 1988 (see ‘Hidden epidemics’). There is no treatment, and improved sanitation has so far been the most effective way to stem the disease.

Racial Differences Exist in the Link Between Consumption of Meat and Breast Cancer Risk, Research Shows

Breast CancerCancer Institute of New Jersey

ScienceDaily (Nov. 1, 2012) — In what is believed to be the first examination of African-American women and how their consumption of meat impacts their breast cancer risk, research from The Cancer Institute of New Jersey shows that there is a difference when compared to Caucasian women. The work will be presented as a scientific poster during the 2012 American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) Annual Research Conference in Washington, D.C., this week. The Cancer Institute of New Jersey is a Center of Excellence of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (RWJMS).

Previous research on meat intake and its relation to breast cancer risk has been limited to Caucasian women. Using data from a new case-control study based at The Cancer Institute of New Jersey, known as the Women's Circle of Health Study, investigators explored the association between meat consumption and breast cancer risk in African-American women.

Trickle-Down Anxiety: Study Examines Parental Behaviors That Create Anxious Children

Parent and childJohns Hopkins Medicine

ScienceDaily (Nov. 1, 2012) — Parents with social anxiety disorder are more likely than parents with other forms of anxiety to engage in behaviors that put their children at high risk for developing angst of their own, according to a small study of parent-child pairs conducted at Johns Hopkins Children's Center.

Authors of the federally funded study say past research has linked parental anxiety to anxiety in children, but it remained unclear whether people with certain anxiety disorders engaged more often in anxiety-provoking behaviors. Based on the new study findings, they do. A report on the team's findings appears online ahead of print in the journal Child Psychiatry and Human Development.

Specifically, the Johns Hopkins researchers identified a subset of behaviors in parents with social anxiety disorder -- the most prevalent type of anxiety -- and in doing so clarified some of the confusion that has shrouded the trickle-down anxiety often seen in parent-child pairs.

Space News

Astronomers spot leftover light from first stars

Photons leave their mark in high-energy radiation from powerful galaxies
Astronomers used 150 blazars (green dots) to detect photons from the universe’s first stars. The map shows the sky in gamma rays, with the Milky Way shown in orange.By Nadia Drake

Light from the universe’s very first stars still lingers in space. Now, astronomers have a new way to catch it: Distant, ultra-bright galaxies that act as cosmic beacons, capturing relict photons in a blaze of gamma rays.

But it’s not just these earliest photons that are snared; photons from every star that ever shone are vulnerable. “We now have constraints on the total number of stars that ever formed,” Volker Bromm, an astronomer at the University of Texas at Austin, says of the new way to see old light, described online November 1 in Science. “It provides us with a review of the entire history of cosmic star formation, including the very first epochs of star formation in the very early universe.”

Studying these stellar fingerprints will help astronomers learn more about the universe’s earliest years — and its first inhabitants, which are too far away to be seen directly. Now roughly 13.7 billion years old, the universe is thought to have switched on the first stars about 400 million years after the Big Bang.

“Detecting these stars is very important but currently impossible,” says astrophysicist Marco Ajello of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford and a coauthor of a the new study. “In this way, we are already able to set constraints on the amount and role of these stars in the early universe.”

Hunting dark matter with DNA

Particle physicists propose a new way to detect dark matter using the molecule of life
In a proposed method for detecting dark matter, particles of dark matter would smack into gold, kicking off atomic nuclei that would sever strands of DNA in their paths.By Tanya Lewis

RALEIGH, N.C. — Physicists racing to detect the mysterious substance known as dark matter are thinking outside the box by looking inside the cell. A new proposal for tracking dark matter particles relies on strands of DNA.

All the ordinary stuff in the universe, from the atoms in people to the hot plasma in stars, makes up only about 5 percent of the universe’s mass and energy. Nearly one-quarter of the universe is composed of dark matter. (The rest is an even more puzzling entity known as dark energy.) Though several experiments claim to have detected dark matter, the results don’t agree and aren’t definitive.

Katherine Freese, a theoretical physicist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, proposed October 28 at the New Horizons in Science meeting that a new kind of DNA-based detector could not only spot a leading candidate for dark matter, called WIMPs, but could also determine incoming particles’ direction of flight. The proposal also appeared online earlier this year at

“It’s a very smart way to apply technology developed from biology to a fundamental particle physics problem,” says Jocelyn Monroe, a dark matter physicist at MIT and the University of London.

Asteroid belts of just the right size are friendly to life

asteroid beltAstronomy & Space

Solar systems with life-bearing planets may be rare if they are dependent on the presence of asteroid belts of just the right mass, according to a study by Rebecca Martin, a NASA Sagan Fellow from the University of Colorado in Boulder, and astronomer Mario Livio of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md. They suggest that the size and location of an asteroid belt, shaped by the evolution of the Sun's protoplanetary disk and by the gravitational influence of a nearby giant Jupiter-like planet, may determine whether complex life will evolve on an Earth-like planet.

This might sound surprising because asteroids are considered a nuisance due to their potential to impact Earth and trigger mass extinctions. But an emerging view proposes that asteroid collisions with planets may provide a boost to the birth and evolution of complex life.

Asteroids may have delivered water and organic compounds to the early Earth. According to the theory of punctuated equilibrium, occasional asteroid impacts might accelerate the rate of biological evolution by disrupting a planet's environment to the point where species must try new adaptation strategies.

Spacewalkers tackle coolant leak on space station

The Soyuz TMA-06M spacecraft carrying the International Space Station (ISS) crew of U.S. astronaut Kevin Ford and Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Evgeny Tarelkin blasts off from its launch pad 31 at the Baikonur cosmodrome October 23, 2012.By Irene Klotz

(Reuters) - A pair of spacewalking astronauts floated outside the International Space Station on Thursday to bypass a leak in one of the outpost's cooling systems.

Engineers suspect a micrometeoroid or tiny piece of space debris may have punched a hole no bigger than the width of a hair into one of the station's radiators.

The devices dissipate heat from batteries and other equipment aboard the solar-powered station, a $100 billion laboratory for biological, fluid physics and other science experiments now flying about 255 miles above Earth.

Station commander Sunita Williams and flight engineer Akihiko Hoshide left the station's Quest airlock around 8:30 a.m. EDT (1230 GMT) and returned 6.5 hours later after reconfiguring some ammonia coolant lines and hooking up a spare radiator.

"Suni and Aki, our heartfelt congratulations to you and the entire team," astronaut Mike Fincke radioed to the spacewalkers from Mission Control in Houston. "We've accomplished just about everything we set out to do today."

Odd News

People Stare Monsters in the Eye, Wherever It Is

Charles Choi, LiveScience Contributor

 One question is whether or not people are biased to look at the eyes of others, or simply at the middle of faces where the eyes happen to be. Different brain areas are involved in looking at different parts of the body — the region known as the superior temporal sulcus is biased toward the eyes, while the nearby fusiform face area is fixated on the middle of peoples' faces.Using the fantasy game Dungeons & Dragons, scientists now find one way that people can treat monsters like people too, looking them in the eyes even when those eyes are not located in their heads.

These findings could help researchers better understand autism, where people often fail to meet the eyes of others.

Animals, including birds, dogs, goats, seals, dolphins, monkeys and humans, follow the gazes of where others look. This act of literally seeing others' point of view may have played a key part in the evolution of human socializing.

One question is whether or not people are biased to look at the eyes of others, or simply at the middle of faces where the eyes happen to be. Different brain areas are involved in looking at different parts of the body — the region known as the superior temporal sulcus is biased toward the eyes, while the nearby fusiform face area is fixated on the middle of peoples' faces.

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