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Welcome to Science Saturday, where the Overnight News Digest crew, consisting of founder Magnifico, regular editors jlms qkw, maggiejean, wader, Oke, rfall, and JML9999, alumni editors palantir, Bentliberal, and ScottyUrb, guest editor annetteboardman, and current editor-in-chief Neon Vincent, along with anyone else who reads and comments, informs and entertains you with this week's news about science, space, and the environment.

This week's featured story is from Reuters: Doha climate talks throw lifeline to Kyoto Protocol
By Regan Doherty and Barbara Lewis
DOHA | Sat Dec 8, 2012 2:44pm EST

(Reuters) - Almost 200 nations extended a weakened United Nations plan for combating global warming until 2020 on Saturday with a modest set of measures that would do nothing to halt rising world greenhouse gas emissions.

Many countries and environmentalists said the deal at the end of marathon two-week U.N. talks in OPEC-member Qatar would fail to slow rising temperatures or avert more floods, droughts, heatwaves and rising sea levels.

Environment ministers extended until 2020 the Kyoto Protocol, which obliges about 35 industrialized nations to cut their greenhouse gas emissions until the end of 2012. That keeps the pact alive as the sole legally binding climate plan.

But the 1997 treaty, 23 days away from expiry, has been sapped by the withdrawal of Russia, Japan and Canada and its remaining backers, led by the European Union and Australia, now account for just 15 percent of world greenhouse gas emissions.

More stories after the jump.

Recent Science Diaries and Stories

I am going to disagree slightly with Charles M. Blow
by teacherken

This week in science: To the moon!
by DarkSyde


Shamengo on YouTube: A microalgae lamp that absorbs CO2!

Shamengo pioneer Pierre Calleja has invented something truly remarkable--an algae lamp that absorbs CO2 in the air--at the rate of 1 ton PER YEAR, or what a tree absorbs over its entire lifetime! While development is still needed to make a cost-effective product, the microalgae streetlamp has the potential to provide significantly cleaner air in urban areas and revolutionize the cityscape.
Hat/tip to mieprowan for this video.

University of Michigan on YouTube:

University of Michigan professor Barry Rabe says that a majority of Americans think that government should address climate change and favor renewable energy standards and increased gas mileage.
Credit: The University of Michigan
Also read the article on the report this video accompanied under Science Policy.

Science News on Vimeo: Gravity survey reveals churned-up layers just beneath moon’s surface

A detailed map of the moon’s gravity reveals variations across the lunar surface. The map shows huge rings around impact craters (red represents areas of high mass concentration; blue, low mass).
Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio
Also read the article about this map under Astronomy/Space.

NASA: NASA-NOAA Satellite Reveals New Views of Earth at Night

Scientists unveiled today an unprecedented new look at our planet at night. A global composite image, constructed using cloud-free night images from a new NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite, shows the glow of natural and human-built phenomena across the planet in greater detail than ever before.

NASA Television on YouTube: New Rover to Mars on This Week @NASA

NASA will launch a new rover to Mars in 2020. That plan was among the science news NASA made at the 2012 Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. Also, Voyager 1 travels "magnetic highway"; Van Allen Probes reveal structures and dynamics in Earth's radiation belts; Kelly and Kornienko on mission; new ISS crew; astro Joe goes social; Curious in Times Square; fainting booms; Climate Day; and, more!


Science News: Voyager crossing superhighway to solar system exit
Latest frontier may be last before spacecraft reaches interstellar space
By Tanya Lewis
Web edition: December 4, 2012

On its way out of the solar system, the Voyager 1 spacecraft has encountered a “magnetic highway” of charged particles — a hint that the spacecraft may not have far to go before reaching the brink of interstellar space.

This so-called highway lies where the sun’s magnetic field and the interstellar magnetic field meet. Particles blown outward by the solar wind are speeding in one direction, while particles from cosmic rays generated outside the solar system are racing inward.

“This was a major unexpected result,” Voyager scientist Stamatios Krimigis of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory said in a December 3 teleconference hosted by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Voyager has surprised us.”

Science News: Mars rover deploys final instrument
Soil analysis finds organic compounds of uncertain origin
By Alexandra Witze
Web edition: December 3, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO — It took more than three months, but NASA’s Curiosity rover has sent back its first complete tests of Mars’ windswept soil. In it, mission scientists have spotted chemical compounds that include chlorine, hydrogen and, tantalizingly, carbon.

Organic compounds contain carbon and are sometimes associated with life. But scientists can’t say yet whether the carbon Curiosity detected came from Mars or was carried from Earth by the rover.

Curiosity also found that the Martian surface is five times richer than Earth’s in deuterium, a heavy version of hydrogen that contains an extra neutron. Radiation probably blasted water containing the lighter version of hydrogen into space early in the planet’s history, mission scientists reported December 3 at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

Reuters: NASA aims to launch Mars rover twin in 2020
By Irene Klotz
Tue Dec 4, 2012 9:11pm EST

SAN FRANCISCO - NASA plans to follow up its Mars rover Curiosity mission with a duplicate rover that could collect and store samples for return to Earth, the agency's lead scientist said on Tuesday.

The new rover will use spare parts and engineering models developed for Curiosity, which is four months into a planned $2.5 billion mission on Mars to look for habitats that could have supported microbial life.

Replicating the rover's chassis, sky-crane landing system and other gear will enable NASA to cut the cost of the new mission to about $1.5 billion including launch costs, John Grunsfeld, the U.S. space agency's associate administrator for science, said at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco.

Science News: Violent past revealed by map of moon's interior
Gravity survey reveals churned-up layers just beneath lunar surface
By Alexandra Witze
Web edition: December 6, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO — The moon is cooling and shrinking today, but early in its history it actually got bigger, scientists have found.

As the moon expanded, molten rock rose from its deep interior to cool and solidify into long gashes buried beneath the surface. For billions of years these fiery scars remained hidden, finally revealing themselves to a pair of spacecraft flying overhead.

The probes, named Ebb and Flow, spotted the rock formations by their gravitational pull. And not just that: the NASA mission has revealed a host of other discoveries, both on the moon’s surface and below it. In producing the best gravity map ever compiled of any planet or moon — Earth included — the mission illustrates how violently the moon’s crust was pummeled by meteorites over eons.

Science News: Extraterrestrial chorus heard in radiation belts
Van Allen probes capture sound of electromagnetic disturbances
By Alexandra Witze
Web edition: December 5, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO — Is it alien birds singing alongside crickets? Or the sound of radio waves sweeping through Earth’s magnetosphere? A recently released recording is a little bit of both.

The soundtrack captures “chorus” waves, electromagnetic disturbances that ripple through belts of charged particles that surround Earth. The chorus becomes audible to the human ear when translated into sound waves, as heard in a recording made by space physicists at the University of Iowa.

Ham radio operators have known about this chorus for decades, but scientists now have a lot more data on it thanks to a pair of satellites known as the Van Allen probes. NASA launched them in August to fly through and study Earth’s two main radiation belts, called the Van Allen belts — an inner one made mostly of protons and an outer one made mostly of electrons. The electronics on most spacecraft get fried if they spend too much time in these belts, but the Van Allen probes are built with components that won’t fritz out when charged particles hit them. via Scientific American: A "Gem" of a Meteor Shower Is Coming up Next Week
The Geminid Meteor Shower offers stargazers a host of slow, bright fireballs and lasts for two to three days
By Joe Rao and
December 7, 2012

If you were disappointed with the meager showing put on by this year's Leonid Meteor Shower, don't fret.  What potentially will be the best meteor display of the year is just around the corner, scheduled to reach its peak on Thursday night, Dec. 13: the Geminid Meteors.

The Geminids get their name from the constellation of Gemini, the Twins.  On the night of this shower's maximum the meteors will appear to emanate from a spot in the sky near the bright star Castor in Gemini.

The Geminid Meteors are usually the most satisfying of all the annual showers, even surpassing the famous Perseids of August. Studies of past displays show that this shower has a reputation for being rich both in slow, bright, graceful meteors and fireballs as well as faint meteors, with relatively fewer objects of medium brightness. Geminids typically encounter Earth at 22 miles per second (35 kilometers per second), roughly half the speed of a Leonid meteor. Many appear yellowish in hue. Some even appear to travel jagged or divided paths.

Reuters: SpaceX lands first U.S. military launch contracts
By Irene Klotz
Wed Dec 5, 2012 7:13pm EST

SAN FRANCISCO - Startup rocket company Space Exploration Technologies, which flies NASA cargo to the International Space Station, has landed its first launch contracts for the U.S. military, the company said on Wednesday.

The U.S. Air Force will pay $97 million for a Falcon 9 rocket to launch in 2014 the Deep Space Climate Observatory, a solar telescope that will be operated by NASA. It will also pay $165 million for a Falcon Heavy rocket for the military's Space Test Program-2 satellite, which is expected to fly in 2015.

Both spacecraft will be launched from Space Exploration Technologies' Cape Canaveral, Florida, site.

Reuters: Private firm plans "affordable" lunar mission for $1.5 billion
By Irene Klotz
Fri Dec 7, 2012 12:29am EST

SAN FRANCISCO - A Colorado start-up run by former NASA managers plans to conduct missions to the moon for about $1.5 billion per expedition, a fraction of what a similar government-run operation would cost, company officials said on Thursday.

"Our vision is to create a reliable and affordable U.S.-based commercial human lunar transportation system," said former Apollo flight director Gerry Griffin, who serves as chairman of the firm, named Golden Spike.

The expeditions would use existing rockets and spacecraft now under development to fly NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.

Depending on how many customers sign up, the company said it could be ready to fly its first mission by 2020. It did not elaborate on any existing or pending contracts with customers or suppliers.


Science News: Contender for world’s oldest dinosaur identified
African specimen suggests lineage may have arisen 15 million years earlier than thought
By Tanya Lewis
Web edition: December 5, 2012

What may be the most ancient dinosaur ever found — or at least a very close relative to the oldest currently known examples — could push the appearance of the awesome beasts back to 243 million years ago.

Paleontologist Rex Parrington of the University of Cambridge in England discovered the fossil in the early 1930s, preserved in a rock formation known as the Manda Beds in Tanzania’s Ruhuhu Valley. Now, a team of scientists has taken a fresh look at Nyasasaurus parringtoni. It lived during the Anisian age of the Middle Triassic period, about 10 million to 15 million years earlier than the oldest confirmed dinosaurs. The finding suggests dinosaurs evolved and diversified over a longer time frame than scientists thought, the team reports online December 4 in Biology Letters.

So far only fragments of the creature’s backbone and upper arm bone have been found, but these bear telltale features of dinosaurs, such as rapid bone growth. More fragments are needed to determine whether the fossil is in fact the oldest dinosaur or a member of the nearest sister group.

Science News: Among bass, easiest to catch are best dads
Recreational fishing may be inadvertent evolutionary force
By Susan Milius
Web edition: December 4, 2012

The same qualities that make a largemouth bass an easy mark for anglers make him a successful dad. So recreational fishers, a new study suggests, may be accidental forces of evolution, selecting against the best in male fish parenting.

“Does that mean that bass populations are imminently in danger of becoming too hard to catch and at the same time totally inefficient at reproducing? Not really,” says study coauthor David Philipp of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Does it mean that we are impacting populations of bass in ways that we never envisioned and don’t understand well at all? Most certainly.”

Among the prized sports fish Micropterus salmoides, it’s the dads that do the child care. They go for weeks without food to guard their nests from predators or to swim protectively nearby as tiny fry start exploring the big wet world.

University of Michigan: Monkey business: What howler monkeys can tell us about the role of interbreeding in human evolution
December 7, 2012

ANN ARBOR—Did different species of early humans interbreed and produce offspring of mixed ancestry?

Recent genetic studies suggest that Neanderthals may have bred with anatomically modern humans tens of thousands of years ago in the Middle East, contributing to the modern human gene pool. But the findings are not universally accepted, and the fossil record has not helped to clarify the role of interbreeding, which is also known as hybridization.

Now a University of Michigan-led study of interbreeding between two species of modern-day howler monkeys in Mexico is shedding light on why it's so difficult to confirm instances of hybridization among primates—including early humans—by relying on fossil remains.


Our Amazing Planet via Scientific American: 66 Coral Species Nominated for Endangered List
Federal protection could slow the destruction of coral reefs, which are devastated by increasing water temperatures and the rise of ocean acidification
By OurAmazing Planet
December 3, 2012

A federal agency has proposed listing 66 species of coral under the Endangered Species Act, which would bolster protections of the animals.

The proposed listing comes after a 2009 petition by the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group, asserting that the federal government needed to do more to protect coral species.

Under the proposal, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would list seven coral species as endangered and 52 as threatened in the Pacific, with five endangered and two threatened in the Caribbean.

Scientific American: Why Florida’s Giant Python Hunting Contest Is a Bad Idea
By Kate Wong
December 7, 2012

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has announced that it will hold a month-long competition starting January 12, 2013,  “to see who can harvest the longest and the most Burmese pythons” from designated public lands in southern Florida. The goal is to raise awareness about the threat this invasive species poses to the Everglades ecosystem, and to generate “additional information on the python population in south Florida and enhance our research and management efforts.” Python hunting permit holders, as well as members of the general public, are invited to compete for the cash prizes of $1500 for the most pythons killed and $1000 for the longest python killed.

The Burmese python is one of the largest snakes in the world. (In August researchers at the University of Florida reported the capture of a 17.7-foot-long specimen—the biggest one ever found in the state.) And there’s good evidence that these constricting snakes, which are native to Asia, are bad news for the Everglades ecosystem. In January researchers published a paper implicating the python in the dramatic decline of raccoons, bobcats and other mammals there.

But allowing anyone over the age of 18 to register and go out and hunt giant snakes on public lands? What could possibly go wrong?


Science News: Drug breaks up Alzheimer’s-like deposits in mice
Failed human trials of similar approach fuel skepticism
By Laura Sanders
Web edition: December 6, 2012

A new therapy busts up deposits of sticky plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease in the brains of mice. Further tests with the experimental drug could help settle the question of how important the plaques are to the disease, and might even lead to a treatment for its most advanced stages.

The study, described in the Dec. 6 Neuron, tested an antibody called mE8 in the brains of older mice that had been genetically altered to accumulate amyloid-beta, a protein that forms plaques in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. “We removed 50 percent of the plaque,” says study coauthor Ronald DeMattos of Eli Lilly and Co. in Indianapolis. “This is a big deal.”

The scientists haven’t yet looked for any behavioral improvements in the mice. Nor is it clear that the drug would work the same way in people. But DeMattos and his Lilly colleagues are hopeful that the therapy will lead to new treatments for patients in later stages of Alzheimer’s, who carry large amounts of plaque in their brains.

Science News: Smoking hurts teen girls' bones
Lower density likely in adolescents who smoke cigarettes
By Nathan Seppa
Web edition: December 5, 2012

High school might be a bit early to start thinking about bone loss and osteoporosis, but a new study finds that teenage girls who smoke may put themselves on a trajectory to accrue less bone mineral than those who don’t light up.

Osteoporosis is a loss of bone density that predisposes people to fractures and leaves many elderly people — particularly women — hunched over. While bones regenerate and remodel nonstop over a lifetime, the teen years are crucial to developing a strong, dense skeleton.

“This age group is when you should gain about 50 percent of your bone accrual,” says study coauthor Lorah Dorn, a developmental psychologist and pediatric nurse practitioner at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Failing to build adequate bone strength in adolescence could jeopardize a young woman’s ability to fully accumulate a “bone bank” that will be needed when she someday reaches menopause and begins to lose bone mass, she says.

Science News: Gut bacteria may affect cardiovascular risk
Antioxidant-producing microbes may keep atherosclerotic plaques in place
By Tina Hesman Saey
Web edition: December 4, 2012

Though atherosclerosis is an artery problem, microscopic denizens of the intestines may play a surprising role in how the disease plays out.

A new study suggests that different mixes of intestinal microbes may determine whether people will have heart attacks or strokes brought on by break-away plaque from the arteries. Compared with healthy people, heart disease patients who have had strokes or other complications of atherosclerosis carry fewer microbes that make anti-inflammatory compounds. These patients also have more bacteria that produce inflammation-triggering molecules, researchers report online December 4 in Nature Communications. Inflammation is thought to promote cardiovascular disease.

The findings may help explain why people with higher levels in their body fat of antioxidant molecules like beta-carotene and lycopene have a lower risk of developing heart disease, but simply feeding people dietary supplements containing the compounds doesn’t help. It may be that a lifelong, intimate association with antioxidant-producing microbes helps some people stave off some of the worst consequences of hardened arteries.


Reuters via Scientific American: Extreme Weather Is New Normal, U.N. Secretary-General Says at Climate Talks
By Barbara Lewis and Alister Doyle

DOHA (Reuters) - Extreme weather is the new normal and poses a threat to the human race, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Tuesday, as he sought to revive deadlocked global climate change talks.

Ban's intervention came as efforts to agree a symbolic extension of the U.N. Kyoto Protocol, a treaty that obliges about 35 developed nations to cut their greenhouse gas emissions, looked to be faltering.

In a speech to almost 200 nations meeting in Doha to try to get a breakthrough, Ban said a thaw in Arctic sea ice to record lows this year, superstorms and rising sea levels were all signs of a crisis.

"The abnormal is the new normal," he told delegates at the November 26-December 7 talks. He said signs of change were apparent everywhere and "from the United States to India, from Ukraine to Brazil, drought (has) decimated essential global crops".

"No one is immune to climate change - rich or poor. It is an existential challenge for the whole human race - our way of life, our plans for the future," he said.

Nature via Scientific American: Arctic Report Card: Dark Times Ahead
By Richard Monastersky and Nature News Blog

Conditions in the Arctic are slipping rapidly from bad to worse as the pace of climate change accelerates in that region. That’s the message from an annual environmental assessment of the far North, released on Wednesday.

“Conditions in the Arctic are changing in both expected and sometimes surprising ways,” said Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The changes are having an impact far beyond the far North, she added. “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t always stay in the Arctic. We’re seeing Arctic changes that affect weather patterns in the US,” Lubchenco said at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, where the Arctic Report Card was previewed. The online report was written by 114 scientists from 15 countries.

According to the report, the Arctic broke a string of environmental records this past year. The summertime sea ice pack was the smallest ever seen. The amount of Northern Hemisphere snow in June hit the lowest mark on record. Virtually the entire Greenland Ice Cap showed some evidence of surface melting for the first time in observations going back to 1979. And permafrost temperatures on the North Slope of Alaska topped previous highs, said Martin O. Jeffries, a co-editor of the Arctic report and the Arctic science advisor at the Office of Naval Research. “If we’re not there already, we’re surely on the verge of seeing a new Arctic,” he said.

NOAA: State of the Climate: Contiguous U.S. warmer and drier than average for November, autumn
Drought persists, causing water resource issues for central U.S.; 2012 virtually certain to become warmest year on record for the nation
December 7, 2012

The average temperature for the contiguous U.S. during November was 44.1°F, 2.1°F above the 20th century average, tying 2004 as the 20th warmest November on record. The autumn contiguous U.S. temperature of 54.7°F was the 21st warmest autumn, 1.1°F above average.

The November nationally-averaged precipitation total of 1.19 inches was 0.93 inch below the long-term average and the 8th driest November on record. The autumn precipitation total for the contiguous U.S. was 5.71 inches, 1.0 inch below average.

The January-November period was the warmest first 11 months of any year on record for the contiguous United States, and for the entire year, 2012 will most likely surpass the current record (1998, 54.3°F) as the warmest year for the nation.

Reuters: Philippines declares state of calamity after deadly typhoon
Sat Dec 8, 2012 3:56am EST

NEW BATAAN, Philippines - Philippine President Benigno Aquino declared a state of national calamity on Saturday, four days after this year's strongest typhoon left nearly 1,000 people dead or missing mostly in the country's resource-rich south.

A price freeze on basic commodities was put into effect, and local governments were authorized to utilize their calamity funds for search, relief and rescue operations.

The national disaster agency put the death toll at 459 and a further 532 were missing, mostly in the Mindanao provinces of Compostela Valley and Davao Oriental.

Reuters via Scientific American: Rare tornado kills three in New Zealand's biggest city
By Rob Taylor

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Three people were killed and several injured after an unusual storm, described by witnesses as a "mini tornado", hit New Zealand's largest city of Auckland on Thursday, toppling trees and ripping debris from a construction site.

The tornado, driven by a powerful storm cell, tore concrete slabs from a building site and dropped them onto a truck, killing two people inside, a fire services spokesman said.

Rescue teams were searching a school site for workers thought to be trapped beneath fallen concrete blocks in the west Auckland suburb of Hobsonville, The New Zealand Herald newspaper reported.


LiveScience: Have Humans Caused a New Geological Era?
By Tia Ghose
Fri Dec 7, 2012 03:13 PM ET

SAN FRANCISCO — Humans drive trillions of miles in cars, clear-cut forests for agriculture and create vast landfills teeming with tin cans, soda bottles and other detritus of industrialization. There's no doubt that humans have radically reshaped the planet, and those changes leave traces in the Earth's geological record.

At the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union this week, geologists are grappling with how to define the boundaries of that human-centered geologic era, referred to as the Anthropocene. Despite our dramatic impact on the planet, defining our era has proven a difficult task.

"If it's to be a geological period, it has to be visible in the geological record," said Anthony Brown, a researcher at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, who is trying to define the boundary.

Agence France Presse via Discovery News: Tsunami Hits Northeast Japan After Strong Quake
Analysis by DNews Editors
Fri Dec 7, 2012 12:11 PM ET

A one-meter-high tsunami hit northeast Japan Friday after a powerful undersea quake struck off the coast, sending thousands fleeing to safety in a region that was devastated in last year's quake-tsunami disaster.

Broadcasters urged residents along the shoreline to remember the 2011 catastrophe and move to higher ground when the initial tremors rocked the region.

Telephone systems jammed up with the sheer volume of calls, complicating officials' efforts to evacuate exposed areas until the tsunami warning was lifted two hours later.

Discovery News: Ad Software Finds Quake Hotspots
Analysis by Tim Wall
Thu Dec 6, 2012 08:58 PM ET

The same technology that pesters you with targeted advertisements on the internet was adapted to help seismologists locate the planet’s earthquake hotspots. Data mining software was used to analyze data from 1,500 earthquakes.

"The method was originally developed for analyzing online user data," said Thomas Landgrebe, of the University of Sydney in Australia, in a press release. "The technique we apply is commonly used to find a few specific items which are expected to be most appealing to an Internet user. Instead, we use it to find which tectonic environment is most suitable for generating great earthquakes."

"We find that 87 percent of the 15 largest (8.6 magnitude or higher) and half of the 50 largest (8.4 magnitude or higher) earthquakes of the past century are associated with intersection regions between oceanic fracture zones and subduction zones," said Dietmar Müller of University of Sydney in Australia and lead author of the Solid Earth paper, in a press release.


Science News: Help Wanted: Must play well with high-powered coworkers
Shared interests can trump job skills for entry-level applicants at elite companies
By Bruce Bower
Web edition: December 3, 2012

Big-time investment banks, law firms and management consulting companies choose new workers much as they would choose friends or dates, zeroing in on shared leisure activities, life experiences and personality styles, a new study finds.

These elite firms recruit Ivy League students assumed to have basic job skills and then select those who jibe with the organization’s culture and personality, says sociologist Lauren Rivera of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Similarities in hobbies and outside interests have been proposed as keys to acceptance into exclusive groups for more than a century. In the December American Sociological Review, Rivera provides the first systematic look at how this effect influences the hiring process.

Rivera initially wanted to see how the sex and race of both job applicants and interviewers at top professional companies affected who got hired. She soon realized that cultural ties between applicants and interviewers primarily determined who got job offers.

“I was surprised at the power of shared culture in hiring decisions made by these employers,” Rivera says.

Science News: Families in Flux
As household arrangements take new directions, scientists attempt to sort out the social effects
By Bruce Bower
Web edition: November 29, 2012
Print edition: December 15, 2012; Vol.182 #12 (p. 16)

It’s enough to send chills down Ozzie’s and Harriet’s happily married, two-kids-and-a-backyard, 1950s-sitcom spines.

Census and survey data for 2010 show that only half of U.S. adults age 18 or older are married, a proportion that has steadily declined from 72 percent in 1960. Marriage rates have plummeted most dramatically among 18- to 24-year-olds and among adults without college degrees, mostly from lower- and middle-class households. With marriage in retreat, other living arrangements — unmarried adults cohabiting with or without children, single people living alone, single parents raising children, to name a few — are on the rise.

At the same time, couples that do commit for the long haul come to their unions with new motives and expectations, and a determination to generate their own definitions of what constitutes wedded bliss. Most notable, marriage is now becoming an option for some gay partners, with same-sex marriage currently legal in nine states and the District of Columbia.

“Traditional heterosexual marriage has already been destroyed,” says social historian Stephanie Coontz of the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. “People now decide for themselves who and when and whether to marry, and whether to have children and how to divide household tasks.”

Reuters: Scientists find gene link to teenage binge drinking
Mon Dec 3, 2012 5:28pm EST

LONDON - Scientists have unpicked the brain processes involved in teenage alcohol abuse and say their findings help explain why some young people have more of a tendency to binge drink.

A study published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal found that a gene known as RASGRF-2 plays a crucial role in controlling how alcohol stimulates the brain to release dopamine, triggering feelings of reward.

"If people have a genetic variation of the RASGRF-2 gene, alcohol gives them a stronger sense of reward, making them more likely to be heavy drinkers," said Gunter Schumann, who led the study at King's College London's Institute of Psychiatry.


Science News: Lines in the sand may have been made for walking
Celebrated desert drawings include a labyrinth
By Bruce Bower
Web edition: December 7, 2012

Famous line drawings etched into Peru’s Nazca desert plateau around 1,500 years ago are enduring puzzles. At least one of them is also a labyrinth, researchers say.

Archaeoastronomer Clive Ruggles of the University of Leicester in England discovered the labyrinth — a single path leading to and from an earthen mound, with a series of disorienting twists and turns along its flat, 4.4-kilometer-long course — by walking it himself. From the ground, little of the labyrinth is visible, even while ambling through it. From the air, it’s difficult to recognize the array of landscape lines as a connected entity.

In the December Antiquity, Ruggles and archaeologist Nicholas Saunders of the University of Bristol in England describe and map what they regard as a carefully planned labyrinth from the ancient Nazca (sometimes spelled Nasca) culture. Nazca civilization flourished in southern coastal Peru from around 2,100 to 1,300 years ago.

“This labyrinth was meant to be walked, not seen,” Ruggles says. “The element of surprise was crucial to the experience of Nazca labyrinth walking.”

Scientific American: Genetic Sequencing Traces Gypsies Back to Ancient Indian Origin
By Katherine Harmon
December 6, 2012

The Romani people—once known as “gypsies” or Roma—have been objects of both curiosity and persecution for centuries. Today, some 11 million Romani, with a variety of cultures, languages and lifestyles, live in Europe—and beyond. But where did they come from?

Earlier studies of their language and cursory analysis of genetic patterns pinpointed India as the group’s place of origin and a later influence of Middle Eastern and Central Asian linguistics. But a new study uses genome-wide sequencing to point to a single group’s departure from northwestern Indian some 1,500 years ago and has also revealed various subsequent population changes as the population spread throughout Europe.

“Understanding the Romani’s genetic legacy is necessary to complete the genetic characterization of Europeans as a whole, with implications for various fields, from human evolution to the health sciences,” said Manfred Kayser, of Erasmus University in Rotterdam and paper co-author, in a prepared statement.

annetteboardman is taking the night off.


Science News: LHC sees odd behavior in superhot particle soup
Coordinated motion observed in debris from lead-proton collisions
By Andrew Grant
Web edition: December 5, 2012

Strangely behaving subatomic particles at the world’s most powerful particle accelerator could lead to fresh insight into how matter behaves at the smallest scales and highest energies.

Ordinarily, the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva sends protons hurtling into each other at velocities approaching the speed of light. But for several hours in September, the machine collided protons into lead nuclei — tightly packed bundles of 82 protons and 126 neutrons. It was merely a test run, designed to calibrate instruments for future experiments.

But when physicists with the Compact Muon Solenoid collaboration analyzed the data, they quickly noticed that something was amiss. When a proton and lead nucleus collide, they shatter into smaller particles that jet out in all directions. The movement of each piece of shrapnel should be almost completely random; the direction of one particle should provide no clue to that of any other. Yet during these collisions, the particles’ directions tended to correspond to one other. Even particles located far from each other seemed to be coordinating their paths of travel.


Nature via Scientific American: Graphene Towers Promise "Flexi-Electronics"
3-D graphene blocks—grown between forming ice crystals—add elasticity to the super strength and conductivity of sheets of graphene, a 2-D form of carbon first isolated less than a decade ago
By James Mitchell Crow and Nature magazine
December 4, 2012

It can support 50,000 times its own weight, springs back into shape after being compressed by up to 80% and has a density much lower than most comparable metal-based materials. A new superelastic, three-dimensional form of graphene can even conduct electricity, paving the way for flexible electronics, researchers say.

The team, led by Dan Li, a materials engineer at Monash University in Clayton, Australia, coaxed 1-centimeter-high graphene blocks or 'monoliths' from tiny flakes of graphene oxide, using ice crystals as templates. The work is published today in Nature Communications.
Li and his colleagues adapted an industrial technique called freeze casting to do just that. This involves growing layers of an oxygen-coated, soluble version of graphene called graphene oxide between forming ice crystals. On cooling the aqueous solution of graphene oxide flakes, a thin layer of the nanomaterial becomes trapped between the growing crystals, forming a continuous network that retains its structure once the ice is thawed.


Grist: Nearly 50 percent of new electricity generation capacity added in 2012 was renewable
By Philip Bump

Every month, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission puts out a report called the “Energy Infrastructure Update” [PDF]. It is done in Microsoft Word by someone whose first priority isn’t aesthetics.

But it does contain interesting information! Among which, this time: From January through October, 46.2 percent of new electricity generating capacity added in the U.S. was renewable.

University of Michigan: Fuel economy remains at record high, emissions now at record low
December 5, 2012

ANN ARBOR—Fuel economy of all new vehicles sold in the United States remains at its highest level ever, while emissions are at a record low, say researchers at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

Average fuel economy (window-sticker values) of cars, light trucks, minivans and SUVs purchased in November was 24.1 mpg, the same as in October and up from 23.8 in September and a full mile per gallon better than a year ago. The record-tying mark is a 20 percent increase (4.0 mpg) from October 2007, the first month of monitoring by UMTRI researchers Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle.

Science, Space, Environment, and Energy Policy

Reuters via Scientific American: Gore raps Obama on climate change in post-Sandy speech
By Edith Honan and Hilary Russ

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore on Thursday sharply criticized President Barack Obama, a fellow Democrat, for failing to make global warming a priority issue, saying action was more urgent than ever after the devastation in the Northeast from Superstorm Sandy.

"I deeply respect our president and I am grateful for the steps that he has taken, but we cannot have four more years of mentioning this occasionally and saying it's too bad that the Congress can't act," Gore told the New York League of Conservation Voters.

Gore was the surprise guest to introduce New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who spoke about the city's response to Sandy, which slammed into the city on October 29, killing 43 people, destroying homes, and knocking out power, mass transit and telephone service in huge swaths of the city.

Nationally, the storm caused at least $50 billion in damage and killed at least 131 people, officials said.

The majority of Americans surveyed think that government should take responsibility for addressing climate change. U-M study: Majority of Americans favor government addressing climate change
By Vince Lamb, Detroit Science News Examiner
Large majorities of Americans now favor all levels of government taking responsibility for addressing climate change, a University of Michigan study released Wednesday revealed.  The Fall 2012 climate change survey, one of the National Surveys on Energy and Environment (NSEE), showed that 73% of respondents thought the federal government should take at least some responsibility for reducing greenhouse gases, 72% felt that state governments should also do so, and 68% wanted local governments to shoulder some or a great deal of the responsibility as well.

"This represents a significant increase in public support from the past two years for all levels of government to address climate change," said U-M Professor Barry Rabe, director of the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy (CLOSUP) at U-M's Ford School of Public Policy in a press release. "This also coincides with findings of considerable support for some specific policy options to reduce greenhouse gases."

The study found two policy options intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions had overwhelming support, renewable electricity standards and mandatory increases in vehicle fuel efficiency.  Support for both options declined significantly when the cost of purchasing electricity or vehicles increased 10% as a result of the policy.  Despite the decreased enthusiasm because of higher cost, both proposals still maintained majority support.

A third policy option, increasing taxes on the burning of fossil fuels to reduce greenhouse gases, also called a carbon tax, had only a narrow plurality of support when cost was not mentioned, but was opposed by a majority if it increased the cost of energy 10%.  However, should such a tax be imposed, only 21% would favor repealing the tax, while the rest thought the money should be used to fund renewable energy research or lower the deficit.

Reuters via Scientific American: Negotiators see glimmers of progress on farm bill
By Charles Abbott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With a week left to act, agricultural leaders in Congress are still deadlocked on two major issues for a new U.S. farm bill, cuts in crop subsidies and reductions in food stamps, said two of the four key negotiators on Thursday.

But the leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees suggested that recent talks had yielded at least some progress.

Without reauthorization, U.S. farm policy would revert to the provisions of the Agricultural Act of 1949, the last "permanent" farm bill and one crafted for an entirely different U.S. economy.

Among other things, if lawmakers do not agree on a new bill, milk prices in U.S. grocery stores could double next month under terms of the fall-back statute which would also limit plantings while pushing up farm subsidies by billions of dollars.

Reuters: Russia, China alliance wants greater government voice in Internet oversight
By Matt Smith and Joseph Menn
Sat Dec 8, 2012 9:20pm EST

DUBAI - A Russia-led proposal calling for sweeping new governmental powers to regulate cyberspace could enable countries to block some Web locations and wrest control of allotting Internet addresses from a U.S.-based body.

The proposal, co-signed by Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates, added to fears in some Western countries of a stalemate midway through a 12-day conference in Dubai to rewrite a longstanding treaty on international communications.

Russia and its supporters, which include many African and Arab states, seek to formally extend the remit of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to govern many aspects of the Internet.

The United States, Europe and other allies including Australia and Japan insist the treaty should continue to apply only to traditional telecommunications such as international wireline and wireless calls.

Science Education

Scientific American: Urban Legend: Can City Planning Shed Its Pseudoscientific Stigma?
Without a strong scientific foundation, urban design theory may find itself extinct within the coming decades
By Sarah Fecht

In 1961 urbanist Jane Jacobs didn't pull any punches when she called city planning a pseudoscience. "Years of learning and a plethora of subtle and complicated dogma have arisen on a foundation of nonsense," she wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Fifty years later the field is still plagued by unscientific thought, according to urban theorist Stephen Marshall of University College London. In a recent paper in Urban Design International, Marshall restated Jacobs's observation that urban design theory is pseudoscientific and called for a more scientific framework for the field.

Although urban design theory is unscientific, Marshall wrote, it is not because the ideas are based on nonsense—many of the classic urban thinkers used observations and small pilot studies to describe how cities work. Jane Jacobs, for example, proposed that a city needs four ingredients to be exuberant: mixed uses, short blocks, buildings that vary in age and condition, and a dense concentration of people. "At the core of this book is a four-part hypothesis that is demanding to be tested," Marshall says. "But when I went to look to see if it had been tested, there was virtually nothing." The problem with urban design, he adds, is that its theories are untested, yet accepted as fact. Marshall proposes to overhaul the way that urban design incorporates science into its fabric, calling for more and better urban science, and for the theories to be challenged with alternative hypotheses and rigorously tested.
Marshall says that if urban designers don't build themselves a more scientific foundation, then outside researchers will do it for them. To survive, the field needs to incorporate scientific training into its educational curricula, and cultivate "a concern for testing and validation, critical assimilation of scientific findings from disparate sources, and dissemination of the most reliable, up-to-date findings."

Science Writing and Reporting

Scientific American: Brains in Circulation
Scientists are collaborating across borders to an unprecedented degree, broadening opportunities in Big Science and Big Data projects and helping bridge the gulf between nations.
By Fred Guterl
December 7, 2012

Science has a way of transcending borders.  It has done so from the beginning, going back to the ancient Greeks, but as the world grows more interconnected in so many ways, the pace of international collaboration in science has in recent years picked up markedly.  To take just one indication of this trajectory, in 1996 25 percent of scientific articles were written by authors from two or more countries. Today it’s 35 percent and climbing.  As New York University president John Sexton points out in the essay that kicks off this special report, science today is more collaborative than it’s ever been. To cover this important trend, Scientific American and Nature teamed up to assess The State of the World’s Science.

Our Global Science Scorecard ranks nations as to how productive they are in science—not only on the quality and quantity of basic research but also on their ability to project that research into the real world, where it can affect people’s lives.

We also examine the movement of scientists and ideas, and how "brain circulation" is changing the way science is done, how it is funded and the kinds of questions it addresses.

Science is Cool

Trilobite Menorah
The Mary Sue: Things We Saw Today: Have a Happy Hanukkah With This Trilobite Menorah
by Rebecca Pahle
5:30 pm, December 8th, 2012
Etsy seller Trilobite Glass Works makes a menorah in the shape of a… wait for it… trilobite. Via Mental Floss’ list of 15 More Quirky Menorahs. Happy first day of Hanukkah, everyone!

Originally posted to Overnight News Digest on Sat Dec 08, 2012 at 09:01 PM PST.

Also republished by SciTech and Astro Kos.

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