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Science News

Maybe mean girls' mental games have a purpose

Science is just beginning to tap the wellspring of female competition
Female topi antelopes fight over prime males. Scientists are taking a closer look at female aggression in many species, including Erika Engelhaupt

Human nature has a dark and violent side. And that means you too, ladies. A new set of studies suggests it’s a Mean Girls world out there, and aggressive competition may be rooted deep in evolution.

We humans are fascinated by women willing to duke it out. Witness Jerry Springer’s career. We love to hate women who go ballistic and throw chairs at female rivals. But we also tend to marginalize aggressive behavior in women, dismissing it as aberrant. As with many of the unsavory topics I write about here, we are mesmerized and yet repulsed. We can’t look away, but there’s little rigorous scientific study,  perhaps because we are afraid to look too closely.

Evolutionary biology, for example, is often described in terms of nature “red in tooth and claw.” Yet aggression, and in particular aggressive competition for mates, has long been viewed as the domain of males. Sure, in many species the males put on spectacular displays of chest-thumping, all-out aggression. It’s the rams that ram, after all. But females have their own agendas, and their competition with one another can be no less fierce. Female topi antelopes head-butt in fights over males much like rams do, and female chimps sometimes even kill each others’ newborns.

Nobel’s sharp cuts

How Gerald Guralnik just missed the physics prize
Gerald Guralnik, left, celebrates at CERN on July 4, 2012, the day scientists announced the discovery of the Higgs Andrew Grant

On July 4, 2012, Gerald Guralnik was in a packed room at CERN savoring the discovery of the Higgs boson, which confirmed a theory he proposed nearly 50 years ago.

No such celebration occurred Oct. 8. Guralnik was home when he learned online that physicists François Englert and Peter Higgs had won the Nobel Prize in physics for formulating the same theory. “I’m happy for Englert and Higgs, but it does sting a little bit,” he says. “Physicists are only human.”

Presumably, Englert and Higgs got the nod because they published their 1964 theories of a mass-bestowing field first, before Guralnik and two colleagues. (Nobels have a maximum of three recipients.) Guralnik had come up with the gist of the Higgs field in 1962, during his doctoral research, but an adviser forced him to take that portion out, saying “I don’t know what’s the matter with it, but it’s not right.”

Technology News

FAA green-lights gadget use during entire flight

Agency expects airlines to begin letting you use your electronic devices -- in airplane mode -- from departure to arrival by the end of the year.
(Credit: American Airlines)by Lance Whitney

Airline passengers will soon be able to use their mobile devices during an entire flight from takeoff to landing.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced the new ruling Thursday. Implementation will vary among airlines, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. But many carriers are expected to allow passengers to be able to use their devices -- in airplane mode -- from departure to arrival by the end of the year.

In its press release, the agency outlined some of the specific details and conditions:

Passengers will eventually be able to read e-books, play games, and watch videos on their devices during all phases of flight, with very limited exceptions. Electronic items, books, and magazines, must be held or put in the seat back pocket during the actual takeoff and landing roll. Cell phones should be in airplane mode or with cellular service disabled -- i.e., no signal bars displayed -- and cannot be used for voice communications based on FCC regulations that prohibit any airborne calls using cell phones. If your air carrier provides Wi-Fi service during flight, you may use those services. You can also continue to use short-range Bluetooth accessories, like wireless keyboards.

Path to Success for One Palestinian Hacker: Publicly Owning Mark Zuckerberg

By Alice Su
Khalil Shreateh. Photo: Alice Su

YATTA, West Bank – “You’ve no idea what I’ve done,” Khalil Shreateh said, bursting into the kitchen of his family’s stone-and-concrete house in the South Hebron Hills. The stocky 30-year-old Palestinian ran a hand through his already haphazard hair. “I just posted on Mark Zuckerberg’s wall.”

“You’re kidding,” said his sister, 22-year-old Nibal. She’d just tried sending her brother a message over Facebook, and was surprised to find his account mysteriously deactivated. Now she could guess why. “Stay away from big people, brother!”

“I’m going to take a nap,” Shreateh shrugged. “Hopefully they’ll give me back my page when I wake up.”

It was August 14, and Shreateh had just reached halfway around the world to pull off a prank that would make him the most famous hacker in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. He’d discovered a Facebook bug that would allow him to post to another user’s wall even if he wasn’t on the user’s friends list. Demonstrating the bug on Zuckerberg was a last resort: He first reported the vulnerability to Facebook’s bug bounty program, which usually pays $500 for discoveries like his. But Facebook dismissed his report out of hand, and to this day refuses to pay the bounty for the security hole, which it has now fixed.

Environmental News

Tiny shells hint at hidden ocean warming

Pacific waters are heating up 15 times faster than in earlier eras
By studying shells from tiny organisms found in the Flores Sea, researchers have shown that the Pacific Ocean has warmed much faster in the last few decades than it did in previous Ashley Yeager

Calcium and magnesium in the shells of single-celled, bottom-dwelling creatures have given scientists evidence that the middle depths of the Pacific Ocean warmed 15 times faster in the last 60 years than they did in the previous 10,000 years during natural warming cycles.

Reporting the result October 31 in Science, researchers argue that the faster warming of the water could indicate that the oceans are absorbing some of the excess heat humans have created through industrial processes, which have contributed to global climate change.

The heat absorption of the oceans could explain the recent decrease in the rate of global warming in Earth’s atmosphere, which the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted in its September 2013 report. The oceans will not be able to absorb excess heat forever, the authors of the new study caution.

Prairie microbes could aid region's restoration

The contrast between prairie and farmland doesn’t stop at dirt. It's in the ecosystems' soil microbes as Gabriel Popkin

Diverse tallgrass prairies once covered about 10 percent of the United States, but farming and grazing have reduced the habitats to a handful of small remnants.

Scientists studied the genes of bacterial communities living in some of those prairie remnants and discovered that the grassy areas have far more Verrucomicrobia, a little studied group of bacteria, than agricultural soils do. These bacteria are experts in breaking down complex carbon-containing structures such as the roots of prairie plants.

The finding, which appears in the Nov. 1 Science, could assist thousands of prairie restoration projects throughout the Midwest.

Medical News

Exercise seems to limit bad falls in elderly

Analysis of 17 trials suggests regular activities could stave off injury
Fall victimby Nathan Seppa

Elderly people who maintain a modest program of exercise are less likely to take a bad fall than those who do little physical activity. An analysis of 17 trials finds that people assigned to exercise regularly were substantially less likely to break a bone due to falling.

Falling in old age can be a life-changing event. People who fall are often frail to begin with, and an injury can compound their problems. In people over 75, for example, a broken hip worsens a person’s five-year survival odds dramatically, says Thomas Gill, a geriatrician and epidemiologist at Yale School of Medicine. Such patients rarely return to their pre-fall capabilities, he says.

People’s genes welcome their microbes

DNABy Tina Hesman Saey and Beth Mole

BOSTON — Humans may be in charge of which bacteria live in and on them, researchers report. Scientists used to think that what people ate and where they lived were the main determinates of the microbes that colonize human bodies, but the new studies suggest the immune system selects its microbial companions. Paradoxically, that control may make it harder to change which microbes call a person’s body home.

Studies of mice and humans presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics indicate that the genetic makeup of the host determines which microbes set up shop in the intestines, on the skin and in other parts of the body. And a paper appearing October 29 in Genome Research finds that people with immune disorders host a wider variety of bacteria and fungi, some pathogenic, on their skin than do healthy people.

Space News

Dark energy search gets murkier

Supernova measurements muddle scientists’ efforts to explain universe’s accelerating expansion
LOOKING DARKER  Using supernova measurements from the Pan-STARRS PS1 telescope on Maui, researchers calculated a cosmological parameter related to dark energy. If verified, the findings could force cosmologists to develop a new explanation for this energy, which pushes the universe Gabriel Popkin

New measurements of light from distant supernovas could complicate cosmologists’ already-frustrating attempts to explain the mysterious dark energy that is pushing apart the universe.

In the new analysis, scientists combined data from 146 recently discovered supernovas with previously published results and calculated an important cosmological parameter. Their result is inconsistent with the simplest explanation for the universe’s accelerating expansion, which suggests that the strength of dark energy has remained constant over the life of the universe.

If confirmed, the finding could imply that matter in the universe will eventually be torn apart, a scenario known as the Big Rip. But before reaching that conclusion, the researchers say they must ferret out potential sources of error and uncertainty in their measurements. “It’s very possible, and I think a lot of people would say likely, that one of the big measurements is off,” says study coleader Daniel Scolnic, an astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins University.

An Earth-sized hell circles faraway star

The recently discovered, very hot rocky planet is the smallest with known diameter and mass
SCORCHED  An artist’s impression of Kepler-78b shows its nearby star and blistering-hot Gabriel Popkin

A distant Earth-sized planet’s density suggests it is made of the same stuff as Earth. The planet, named Kepler-78b, is the smallest exoplanet for which researchers know both size and mass.

Kepler-78b, detected this year in data from NASA’s now-crippled Kepler spacecraft, is located 700 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus. The planet’s gravitational tug causes its star to shimmy back and forth slightly, which compresses or expands the wavelengths of light the star emits. Two teams of astronomers used the light’s changing wavelength to calculate the speed at which the stars wobbles; from this speed, they inferred the planet’s mass and, using previously published size measurements, calculated its density.

Reporting October 30 in Nature, one team estimates the planet’s density to be 5.3 grams per cubic centimeter; the other estimates 5.57 grams per cubic centimeter. Earth’s density of 5.515 grams per cubic centimeter falls between these two figures, suggesting Kepler-78b is, like Earth, made of rock with an iron core.

Odd News

Making a snake spectacle

Snakes control blood flow in their ‘eyelids’ to help them see
The better to see you with, my dear. A coachwhip snake can dilate and constrict blood vessels over its eyes to help it Bethany Brookshire

Snakes have blood flowing over their eyes. Technically, you do, too. But in your case, that blood is contained within the tiny blood vessels that send oxygen and nutrients to your eyelids. Eyelids that blink keep us from being blinded by the blood vessels and tissues making up our eyelids, while still allowing the eyelid to do its job. When you blink, your eyelids help keep dust and debris out of your eyes while keeping the surface moist.

Snakes aren’t so lucky. Instead of eyelids, snakes have what is known as a spectacle, an analogous piece of tissue. While our eyelids move, the snake spectacle is fused together. While this does help keep debris out of the eye and keeps the eye moist, it means that snakes have a tissue in front of their eyes. A tissue full of blood vessels, that never goes away. Instead, it acts like a window, and the snake’s eye can move freely underneath.

Now, this might seem OK. But blood vessels, you see, are solid little things. You can’t exactly see though them. So even though the blood vessels in the spectacle might be tiny, that close to the eye, they could interfere with what the snake is trying to see (like how you sometimes see “floaters” from the structures within your own eye). Blinded by its own blood.

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