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Science News

Proton's radius revised downward

Surprise measurement may point to new physics
ProtonBy Andrew Grant

Only in physics can a few quintillionths of a meter be cause for uneasy excitement. A new measurement finds that the proton is about 4 percent smaller than previous experiments suggest. The study, published in the Jan. 25 issue of Science, has physicists cautiously optimistic that the discrepancy between experiments will lead to the discovery of new particles or forces.

“Poking at small effects you can’t explain can be a way of unraveling a much bigger piece of physics,” says Carl Carlson, a theoretical physicist at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., who was not involved in the study. “And this case is particularly intriguing.”

For years, physicists have used two indirect methods to determine the size of the proton. (Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a subatomic ruler.) They can fire an electron beam at protons and measure how far the flying particles get deflected. Alternatively, physicists can study the behavior of electrons in hydrogen atoms. They shoot a laser at an atom so that the one electron jumps to a higher, unstable energy level; when the electron returns to a low-energy state, it releases X-rays whose frequency depends on the size of the proton. Both methods suggest the proton has a radius of about 0.88 femtometers, or 0.88 quadrillionths of a meter.

False beliefs persist, even after instant online corrections

Someone is wrong on the InternetPsychology & Sociology

It seems like a great idea: Provide instant corrections to web-surfers when they run across obviously false information on the Internet. But a new study suggests that this type of tool may not be a panacea for dispelling inaccurate beliefs, particularly among people who already want to believe the falsehood.

"Real-time corrections do have some positive effect, but it is mostly with people who were predisposed to reject the false claim anyway," said R. Kelly Garrett, lead author of the study and assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University.

"The problem with trying to correct false information is that some people want to believe it, and simply telling them it is false won't convince them."

For example, the rumor that President Obama was not born in the United States was widely believed during the past election season, even though it was thoroughly debunked.

The prospect of correcting falsehoods like this online before they have a chance to spread widely has obvious appeal, Garrett said.

In fact, it has already been attempted: A team from Intel and the University of California, Berkeley, developed Dispute Finder, a plug-in for web browsers that was released in 2009 and would alert users when they opened a webpage with a disputed claim. That project has ended, but Garrett said similar efforts are under way.

Technology News

Telecoms to lawmakers: Lift cold-call restrictions

cold-callThe Associated Press

Idaho landline phone companies contend a 13-year-old law forbidding them from cold-calling existing customers is crippling their ability to market high-speed Internet.

Frontier Communications, headquartered in Minnesota, and Louisiana-based CenturyLink are pushing to revamp Idaho's 2000 law to halt unwanted phone solicitation. The law restricted phone companies from calling existing customers who requested telemarketing peace.

At the time, long-distance carriers such as Sprint pushed for that restriction, arguing Idaho's main phone company at the time, US West, would otherwise enjoy the unfair advantage of continuing to contact its 500,000 Idaho customers to market services.

Frontier and CenturyLink insist those long-distance wars are history – and that they'll use any new calling privileges appropriately to not anger customers they want to buy faster Internet. The telecoms also argue that Idaho's cable companies, their fiercest competition for Internet services, aren't bound by the same restrictions, which tilts the playing field.

"We're basically asking to be treated like any other commercial service provider," said Jack Phillips, a Frontier spokesman in Burnsville, Minn., whose company has 100,000 rural customers in northern Idaho. "It's especially important where we're making high-speed Internet available in new markets, and we're limited in not being able to inform customers by phone."

Study: Digital Information Can Be Stored In DNA

DNAMalcolm Ritter, AP Science Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- It can store the information from a million CDs in a space no bigger than your little finger, and could keep it safe for centuries.

Is this some new electronic gadget? Nope. It's DNA.

The genetic material has long held all the information needed to make plants and animals, and now some scientists are saying it could help handle the growing storage needs of today's information society.

Researchers reported Wednesday that they had stored all 154 Shakespeare sonnets, a photo, a scientific paper, and a 26-second sound clip from Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. That all fit in a barely visible bit of DNA in a test tube.

The process involved converting the ones and zeroes of digital information into the four-letter alphabet of DNA code. That code was used to create stands of synthetic DNA. Then machines "read" the DNA molecules and recovered the encoded information. That reading process took two weeks, but technological advances are driving that time down, said Ewan Birney of the European Bioinformatics Institute in Hinxton, England. He's an author of a report published online by the journal Nature.

DNA could be useful for keeping huge amounts of information that must be kept for a long time but not retrieved very often, the researchers said. Storing the DNA would be relatively simple, they said: Just put it in a cold, dry and dark place and leave it alone.

Environmental News

Lake Trout Are Bad News for Yellowstone Lake

Ospreys, bears, and especially cutthroat trout suffer because of non-native fish.
Yellowstone cutthroat trout (pictured) are declining thanks to pressure from larger invasive lake trout.Cathy Newman

It's a case of trout versus trout, and in the face-off between native Yellowstone cutthroats (Oncorhynchus clarkii bouvieri) and the intruders on the scene, lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush), the judgment handed down is a no-brainer. The lake trout must go.

The problem, explained Pat Bigelow, a fisheries biologist at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, emerged in 1994 when lake trout were discovered in Yellowstone Lake. Why lake trout were introduced into the lake is a mystery. Perhaps, biologists speculate, some anonymous angler wanted to diversify the fish population in the lake but didn't think through the consequences. "It's an example of bucket biology," said Todd Koel, supervisory fisheries biologist for the park. (Related pictures: Trout vs. Trout in Yellowstone Lake.)

A Yellowstone cutthroat—coppery in color, back peppered with spots, a blush of pink by the gills—is a thing of beauty. But it is outmatched in size and outlived by the lake trout, which weighs in at over 50 pounds (23 kilograms) and can reach the ripe old age of 20-plus years, about twice the span of cutthroats. More to the point, lake trout eat cutthroats.

10 Ways Obama Could Fight Climate Change

Scientists weigh in after the President vows climate change action.
President Barack Obama speaks during the presidential inauguration at the U.S. Capitol January 21, 2013.Dan Stone

One of the biggest surprises of President Barack Obama's inaugural address on Monday was how much he focused on fighting climate change, spending more time on that issue than any other.

"We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations," Obama said.

The President pointed out that recent severe weather supplied an urgent impetus for energy innovation and staked the nation's economic future on responding to a changing climate.

"We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries—we must claim its promise," Obama said. "That's how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure—our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God."

So what could the President reasonably do to deliver on that vow? National Geographic asked experts in climate research, energy innovation, and oceanography. Here are ten of their suggestions:

Medical News

Digestive juices implicated in shock

Enzymes may leak outside intestines and cause deadly condition
StomachBy Nathan Seppa

Digestive enzymes that escape from the intestines into adjacent tissues and the bloodstream may be a key player in triggering shock, the dangerous condition that sometimes occurs after major medical trauma. A new study finds that giving enzyme inhibitors to rats in the throes of shock can alleviate the potentially lethal condition.

The findings could shed some much needed light on shock, which typically shows up as the end result of some other medical problem such as hemorrhage, sepsis, a heart attack or a systemic allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. In all cases, blood pressure plummets, sabotaging circulation and threatening tissue viability.

The new study, in the Jan. 23 Science Translational Medicine, suggests that digestive enzymes play a role in this crisis. The enzymes normally help break down food, but they need to be confined to the ducts in the pancreas, where they are made, or the small intestine, where they digest food. If not, the enzymes can digest a person’s own tissue.

A mucosal lining in the intestines keeps the enzymes from escaping the gastrointestinal tract and from damaging the intestines themselves. But hemorrhage, sepsis and other conditions disrupt blood flow to the intestinal wall and hinder maintenance of this barrier, says Geert Schmid-Schönbein, a bioengineer at the University of California, San Diego in La Jolla. If digestive enzymes stray into the rest of the body, he hypothesizes, they could damage vital organs and trigger massive inflammation.

When hearing goes, mental capacity often follows

Cause of declines difficult to pinpoint
ListeningBy Laura Sanders

Older people with hearing loss may suffer faster rates of mental decline. People who have hearing trouble suffered meaningful impairments in memory, attention and learning about three years earlier than people with normal hearing, a study published online January 21 in JAMA Internal Medicine reveals.

The finding bolsters the idea that hearing loss can have serious consequences for the brain, says Patricia Tun of Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., who studies aging. “I’m hoping it will be a real wake-up call in terms of realizing the importance of hearing.”

Compared with other senses, hearing is often overlooked, Tun says. “We are made to interact with language and to listen to each other, and it can have damaging effects if we don’t.”

Frank Lin of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and colleagues tested the hearing of 1,984 older adults. Most of the participants, who averaged 77 years old, showed some hearing loss — 1,162 volunteers had trouble hearing noises of less than 25 decibels, comparable to a whisper or rustling leaves. The volunteers’ deficits reflect the hearing loss in the general population: Over half of people older than 70 have trouble hearing.

Space News

Weird Spinning Star Defies Explanation

An artist's illustration of the pulsar PSR B0943+10, a spinning star 3,000 light-years from Earth that shifts between beaming out X-rays and radio Elizabeth Howell, Contributor

Scientists have discovered a puzzling spinning star that is spontaneously switching between two very different personalities, flipping between emitting strong X-rays and emitting intense radio waves.

While radio frequencies are known to vary as the star changes personalities, the newfound star is the first time example of variability in X-rays as well. The star, called a pulsar because it appears to pulse, has astronomers perplexed.

"When we look now to what is so far published in papers, nothing at this moment can explain what is happening," said the study's lead author, Wim Hermsen of the Netherlands Institute for Space Research and the University of Amsterdam.

Hermsen and his multinational research team suspect that changes in the spinning star's magnetosphere, or magnetic environment, are behind the switches. Those changes, however, is poorly understood.

NASA's First Disaster Happened on the Launch Pad

Grissom, White and Chaffeeby Amy Shira Teitel

In NASA’s early years, the agency learned by doing; developing tests and procedures as programs wore on. One test developed and used in the Mercury program was the “plugs-out test,” a prelaunch test of the spacecrafts systems through a simulated countdown on launch. It was never considered a dangerous test, but on Jan. 27, 1967, Apollo 1′s plugs-out test claimed the lives of the crew.

Typical for the first flight of a new program, the plan for Apollo 1 was a simple shakedown cruise. The crew – Mercury astronaut Gus Grissom, Gemini veteran Ed White, and rookie Roger Chaffee – would take just the Command and Service Module (CSM) into Earth orbit.

The plugs-out test started out routinely with the flight-ready spacecraft mounted on its unfueled Saturn IB rocket. The umbilical power cords that supplied power were removed — the plugs were out — putting the spacecraft on its internal batteries and the crew cabin was pressurized with 16.7 pounds per square inch of pure oxygen.  As the crew entered the spacecraft around 1pm that afternoon, a full launch-day staff of engineers in mission control took their positions for the test. There was also a staff of men in the White Room; the room that gave the astronauts passage to the spacecraft remained attached to the vehicle.

For the first five hours, minor things interrupted the test. Grissom complained of a foul odor like sour buttermilk in his oxygen unit and at one point a high oxygen flow rate in the astronauts suits tripped an alarm. But these were minor problems compared to the persistent communications problems. Static made conversations between the crew and mission control nearly impossible. Grissom, frustration rising, remarked that they’d never get to the moon if they couldn’t talk between two or three buildings.

Odd News

Dung beetles steer by the Milky Way

Planetarium experiments show that the insects need only starlight to orient themselves
Researchers fitted dung beetles with tiny blinders for experiments showing that the feces-eating insects can use the Milky Way to navigate.By Susan Milius

Even a collector of animal waste can keep its eyes on the stars. By tracking the dung beetles skittering across a darkened planetarium, researchers have shown that like seals, birds and people, the feces-eating insects are capable of celestial navigation.

“This is the first time we have shown that insects can use stars to guide them for orientation,” says neuroethologist Marie Dacke of Lund University in Sweden, “and it’s also the very first proof that animals can use the Milky Way for their orientation.” She and her colleagues report the results January 23 in Current Biology.

Dung-rolling insects are excellent for studying navigation because they collect their prized food source and single-mindedly roll it as directly as possible away from competitors and predators. Putting the beetles in weird get-ups during experiments doesn’t deter them. “They are so attached to their dung balls,” Dacke says, “that under all circumstances they just want to roll the ball in a straight line.”

Earlier work showed that beetles can orient using the sun and moon as beacons or by the patterns of polarization in sunlight and moonlight. Beetles don’t use landmarks like rocks and trees — or, scientists thought, starlight.

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