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Science News

An Arbitrary Number of Years Since Mathematician Paul Erdős’s Birth

Today would’ve been the 100th birthday of the Hungary-born mathematician who published so many papers--and many with such great impact--that a playful measure of one’s academic affiliation with him has been created
Paul Erdős at a student seminar in Budapest, Fall 1992.By Calla Cofield

I take issue with the celebration of Paul Erdős’ 100th birthday.

Not the celebration itself, but the number. Why 100? The number 100 was chosen, of course, because 10 is the base unit of our number system: We have 10 unique symbols (0-9) that can be combined to represent any conceivable number. Ten units of 10 is 100, so it’s a nice, neat factor. If we used a base 12 system, we would have 12 unique symbols, and we’d be celebrating anniversaries of 144 years. But I can’t find any particular significance about 100 for Erdős.

Erdős was born in 1913 in Hungary to Jewish parents, both mathematics teachers. He moved to Manchester, England, in 1934 for a post-doctoral appointment, but also spent time (unofficially) working in London, Cambridge and Bristol--establishing a trend of bouncing from institute to institute that would continue for the rest of his life. Erdős did not return to Hungary until 1945, after Soviet troops liberated Budapest from the Nazis. Throughout his life he spent time living in the US, Israel and Britain, and visited Hungary often. But he had no permanent residence. He lectured, taught and worked at dozens of universities, but never held a permanent position at any of them. He died in 1996 of a heart attack while attending a conference in Warsaw.


How the Higgs Boson Might Spell Doom for the Universe

Under the simplest assumptions, the measured mass of the Higgs could mean the universe is unstable and destined to fall apart. But don’t worry—it won’t happen for billions of eons
A reconstructed particle collision in the CMS detector of the LHC.By Saswato R. Das

Physicists recently confirmed that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, the particle physics laboratory in Geneva, had indeed found a Higgs boson last July, marking a culmination of one of the longest and most expensive searches in science. The finding also means that our universe could be doomed to fall apart. "If you use all the physics that we know now and you do what you think is a straightforward calculation, it is bad news," says Joseph Lykken, a theorist who works at the Fermilab National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois. "It may be that the universe we live in is inherently unstable."

The Higgs boson helps explain why particles have the mass they do. The Higgs particle that the LHC has found possesses a mass of approximately 126 giga-electron volts (GeV)—roughly the combined mass of 126 protons (hydrogen nuclei). (One GeV equals a billion electron volts.)



Technology News

Console on the cheap, games on the free with $99 Ouya (hands-on)

Fits in the palm of your hand.CNET editors

After seeing it in person this week, I can safely say that the Ouya game console does indeed exist. Now, will it quickly piggyback its way into millions of living rooms thanks to its low price and free-to-try games or assume a place in the pile of wouldbe consoles that failed to mount a legitimate challenge gaming’s mainstream? My bet’s on it finding a comfortable place somewhere in the middle; however, having only spent an hour with the console this week, it wouldn’t be fair to make any final judgments.

What I will do is attempt to answer as many questions as possible about the Ouya system itself and what Ouya, the company has planned for it.

What excites me most is what Ouya represents: an near unobstructed conduit into indie gaming. Whether that’s playing games made by the increasingly interesting indie development community or -- because every Ouya console doubles as an Ouya development kit -- building your very own games and getting them onto actual televisions. That feels significant. Just don’t expect much in the way of graphical sophistication.


Egypt's military arrests divers cutting undersea Internet cables

Coast-guard patrol arrests three divers in the act of sabotaging communications cables that connect Africa with Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, a military representative says.
by Steven Musil

Egypt's naval forces arrested three divers cutting through an undersea Internet cable today, the country's military representative said, raising the possibility that saboteurs are behind severed lines and days-long Internet disruptions.

A coast-guard patrol stopped a fishing boat near Alexandria and arrested three men "while they were cutting a submarine cable" line belonging to Telecom Egypt, the country's main communications company, Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali said on his official Facebook page. The page offered no details on the divers' identities, according to published reports.

It was not immediately clear if the divers were responsible for recent disruptions to Internet traffic over several lines that connect Africa with Europe, the Middle East, and Europe. Meanwhile, an executive for Telecom Egypt told TV network CBC that the disruptions were due to cable damage caused by a ship, according to the Associated Press.



Environmental News

Fungi pull carbon into northern forest soils

Organisms living on tree roots do lion’s share of sequestering carbon
The fungus Cortinarius armillatus pulls carbon-rich sugars from tree roots in exchange for water and nutrients. Fungi store substantial amounts of carbon belowground in boreal forests, new research shows.By Meghan Rosen

Sequestration may be questionable fiscal policy, but it means good news in the context of carbon cycles. Vast underground networks of fungi may sequester heaps of carbon in boreal forest soil, a study suggests. By holding onto the element, the fungi do the environment a favor by preventing carbon dioxide from escaping into the atmosphere and warming the planet.

Mycorrhizal fungi, which grow underground in and on tree roots, hold 50 to 70 percent of the total carbon stored in leaf litter and soil on forested islands in Sweden, researchers report March 28 in Science. The new findings poke holes in a long-held idea that carbon in boreal forests accumulates mainly above ground in a litter of pine needles, mosses and leaves. The researchers suggest instead that trees direct carbon deeper into the soil via their root systems.


Kansas was unbearably hot 270 million years ago

Temperatures soared to nearly 74 degrees Celsius, research suggests
During the Permian period, the continents came together to form Pangaea (map of supercontinent's configuration 280 million years ago shown). Air temperatures near the equator might have been as high as nearly 74 degrees Celsius.By Erin Wayman

The Permian period was hot, hot, hot: Around 270 million years ago, air temperatures near the equator may have soared to almost 74º Celsius or 165º Fahrenheit, scientists report March 18 in Geology. That’s far hotter than anywhere on Earth today.

“I can’t even imagine what it would have been like,” says Neil Tabor, a sedimentary geochemist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, who wasn’t involved in the research. The intense heat may explain why plants and animals vanished from parts of the tropics at this time, he says, a disappearance that preceded the mass extinction that ended the Permian period 252 million years ago. Only microbes that thrive under extreme conditions could have survived such temperatures.

Evidence for the sweltering heat comes from Kansas, which was near the equator during the Permian, when the continents fused to form Pangaea. Previous work showed that, in the middle Permian, western Kansas was a desert where lakes of brine repeatedly formed, evaporated and left behind salt deposits. Geologist Kathleen Benison of West Virginia University in Morgantown and a colleague had determined that air temperatures there reached 50º C, no hotter than California’s Death Valley today.



Medical News

Hepatitis C drug goes after patients’ RNA

Compound targets genetic material that virus uses for replicating
Hepatitis virusBy Nathan Seppa

No matter what medications doctors throw at hepatitis C, it continues to defy treatment in some patients. But a new compound offers an approach quite apart from the rest: It assaults a kind of RNA that is implicated in allowing the virus to gain a foothold.

In most of a small group of patients who took the experimental drug, virus levels were knocked down, sometimes below the threshold of detection. The drug does this by targeting genetic material in the liver called microRNA-122. The hepatitis virus normally attaches to this RNA, gaining the stability it needs to propagate while hiding from immune system patrols.

The new drug, called miravirsen, binds to microRNA-122, sequesters it and indirectly thwarts viral replication, says study coauthor Harry Janssen, a hepatologist and physician at the University of Toronto. Janssen and colleagues report the findings March 27 in the New England Journal of Medicine.


Gut microbes may be behind weight loss after gastric bypass

Mice slim down after receiving bacteria transplanted from rodents that had the surgery
Schematic of gastric bypass using a Roux-en-Y anastomosis. The transverse colon is not shown so that the Roux-en-Y can be clearly seen.By Tina Hesman Saey

Intestinal bacteria may be responsible for at least part of the fat-shedding effects of a popular weight-loss surgery, a new study in mice suggests. Those naturally occurring bacteria not only trim the tummies of mice that have had the surgery but, when transplanted into mice that have not had surgery, cause them to lose weight as well.

Roux-en-Y, the most common technique for gastric bypass, diverts food around most of the stomach and upper small intestine. Some patients go on to lose large amounts of weight, and the surgery may produce other health benefits, such as improving symptoms of type 2 diabetes (SN: 9/10/11, p. 26). In mice, those benefits stem from a bacterial blend fostered by bypass surgery, researchers report March 27 in Science Translational Medicine.

The finding could be a first step toward “bypassing the bypass” as a means of treating obesity and diabetes, says coauthor Lee Kaplan, a gastroenterologist who heads Massachusetts General Hospital’s Weight Center. Possible treatments may include replacing or augmenting an obese person’s intestinal community.



Space News

Why a Mars Comet Impact Would be Awesome

Target on Marsby Ian O'Neill

When Jupiter’s tides ripped Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 to shreds, only for the icy chunks to succumb to the intense Jovian gravity, ultimately slamming into the gas giant’s atmosphere, mankind was treated to a rare cosmic spectacle (in human timescales at least). That was the first time in modern history that we saw a comet do battle with a planet… and lose.

But next year, astronomers think there’s a chance — albeit a small one — of a neighboring planet getting punched by an icy interplanetary interloper. However, this planet doesn’t have a generously thick atmosphere to soften the blow. Rather than causing bruises in a dense, molecular hydrogen atmosphere, this comet will pass through the atmosphere like it wasn’t even there and hit the planetary surface like a cosmic pile-driver, ripping into the crust.

What’s more, we’d have robotic eyes on the ground and in orbit should the worst happen.

I am, of course, talking about Mars. And the comet? C/2013 A1 — a fresh lump of dusty ice that was spotted by the Australian Siding Spring Observatory on Jan. 3 making its dive from the outermost regions of the solar system.


Cosmonauts Faced Cold, Snow After Dicey Landing

Astronautby Amy Shira Teitel

For the Soviet crew of Voshod 2, their landing back on Earth in an isolated, very snowy forest marked a harrowing start to a new mission: survival. Getting through the ordeal would end up requiring a gun to ward off wild bears, some tricks to staying warm in below zero temperatures and cross country skiing.

Long before they had returned Earth, Alexei Leonov and Pavel Belyayev had secured spots for themselves in history. While in orbit in their Voskhod 2 spacecraft on March 18,  1965, Leonov became the first man to perform an Extravehicular Activity or EVA.

It hadn’t been easy. In a vacuum his suit had become rigid and unwieldy, making his reentry into the spacecraft a slightly harrowing experience. But the drama of the mission was only just beginning.

The crew was coming up on the end of their 26-hour mission when things started going wrong. Just five minutes before their scheduled reentry, the cosmonauts noticed a problem with their automatic guidance system. It wasn’t working. The computer couldn’t orient the spacecraft.



Odd News

News in Brief: Termites, not fairies, cause plant circles in African deserts

Underground insect engineers create water traps, allowing rings of green grasses in the sand
Natural rings of perennial grasses manage to survive in parched terrain of NamibRand, Namibia, thanks to a termite that creates areas of moisture within the sand.By Susan Milius

The Namib Desert’s version of crop circles turns out to be the handiwork of sand-dwelling termites.

These “fairy rings” of perennial grass species dot arid, sandy sweeps from Angola to South Africa and have inspired ecological and mythological speculation about their origins. After 40 trips to study the water distribution and life around the fairy rings, Norbert Jürgens of the University of Hamburg in Germany concludes that the sand termite (Psammotermes allocerus) is the hidden force behind them.

Among the hundreds of species that thrive in these rings, the sand termite is the only one found throughout the range, he reports in the March 29 Science.

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