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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 stories come from Reuters and Nature by way of Scientific American.

In a rarity, a meteor hit and an asteroid near-miss on same day
By Irene Klotz
February 15, 2013

BOSTON (Reuters) - An asteroid half the size of a football field passed closer to Earth than any other known object of its size on Friday, the same day an unrelated and much smaller space rock blazed over central Russia, creating shock waves that shattered windows and injured 1,200 people.

Asteroid 2012 DA14, discovered just last year, passed about 17,200 miles from Earth at 2:25 p.m. EST (1925 GMT), closer than the networks of television and weather satellites that ring the planet.

"It's like a shooting gallery here. We have two rare events of near-Earth objects approaching the Earth on the same day," NASA scientist Paul Chodas said during a webcast showing live images of the asteroid from a telescope in Australia.

Scientists said the two events, both rare, are not related -the body that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, at 10:20 p.m. EST Thursday (0320 GMT Friday) came from a different direction and different speed than DA14.

Russian Meteor Largest in Century
The explosion rivaled a nuclear blast, but the space rock was still too small for existing advance-warning networks to spot
By Geoff Brumfiel and Nature magazine

A meteor that exploded over Russia this morning was the largest recorded object to strike the Earth in more than a century, scientists say. Infrasound data collected by a network designed to watch for nuclear weapons testing suggests that today's blast released hundreds of kilotons of energy. That would make it far more powerful than the nuclear weapon tested by North Korea just days ago and the largest rock crashing on the planet since a meteor broke up over Siberia's Tunguska river in 1908.

"It was a very, very powerful event," says Margaret Campbell-Brown, an astronomer at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, who has studied data from two infrasound stations near the impact site. Her calculations show that the meteoroid was approximately 15 meters across when it entered the atmosphere, and put its mass at around 40 tons. "That would make it the biggest object recorded to hit the Earth since Tunguska," she says.

The meteor appeared at around 09:25 a.m. local time over the region of Chelyabinsk, near the southern Ural Mountains. The fireball blinded drivers and a subsequent explosion blew out windows and damaged hundreds of buildings. So far, more than 700 people are reported to have been injured, mainly from broken glass, according to a statement from the Russian Emergency Ministry.

Scientific American's own reporting appears in What Do We Know about the Russian Meteor?

More stories about the meteor, the science of Valentines Day, and other topics after the jump.

Recent Science Diaries and Stories

Scientific American Gives Details on the Russian Meteor
by Troubadour

On Mars: A Milestone in Science
by LeftOfYou

Drone warfare comes to America?
by Cartoon Peril

God's Gnarly Game of Billiards
by Joieau

This week in science: Cosmic rain
by DarkSyde

I include all science diaries, including the bad ones.  Case in point below.

Cosmic Coincidence, or fair warning from the 'Universe'
by JustBecauseImOnPoint

Mr. President, you can be a Climate Change champion!
by julesrules39


Scientific American: The Real Power of Crystals: Attesting to Atoms [Video]

The exact angles of crystals reveals their underlying structure as given by repeating lattices of atoms and molecules, as explained in this video by geometer George Hart.

Scientific American: Everything is (Old/New) Energy
By Melissa C. Lott
February 12, 2013

The world’s energy is primarily rooted in fossil fuels – oil, natural gas, and coal. Add in nuclear power, and you have the fuels behind the vase majority of the world economy. And, we have not really changed the fundamentals of how we harness energy in over a century.

But, according to Roger Duncan – the former general manager of one of Texas’s major utilities, Austin Energy - this does not mean that our energy systems are stagnant. Rather, these systems are changing fast – from conventional 1-direction energy flows and a disconnected transportation system to a unified energy system.

Here is Duncan at the Texas Renewable Energy Industry Association (TREIA) explaining what he sees as the future of energy.

PBS NewsHour on YouTube: Meteor Explosion of Atomic Strength Injures 1,000 in Russia

Paul Davies of Independent Television News reports that 10-ton meteor that fell over Russia with atomic bomb power. The meteor caused a fireball, blowing out windows and injuring 1,000 people.

PBS NewsHour on YouTube: Asteroid Careens by as Meteor Delivers 'Buzz Cut' to Earth

On the same day as a meteor hit Russia, an asteroid careened towards Earth. Jeffrey Brown talks to astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson about this cosmic coincidence, how the meteor and asteroid came so close to Earth, what risks it poses and why this is a 'wake-up call.

NASA Television on YouTube: Bye-Bye, Flyby on This Week @NASA

It may have been small, appearing so even in the best optical telescopes on Earth, but the flyby of asteroid 2012 DA14 was anything but a minor event to astronomers. Never feared as a threat to anyone or anything on or around our planet, DA14, about the size of half a football field, did come within 17-thousand miles of Earth, about 5-thousand miles close than many of our satellites in geosynchronous orbit. Also, POTUS on STEM; Mohawk Guy Goes to Washington; Two-Chute Test; Antares Hotfire; AJAX, for Cleaner Air; How to Become an Astronaut; and more!


Nature: Cosmic rays originate from supernova shockwaves
The remnants of self-destructing stars can accelerate particles to higher energies than world's most powerful accelerator.
Maggie McKee
15 February 2013

It's a cosmic whodunnit that has been puzzling astronomers for 100 years. What is shooting protons through our Galaxy at energies up to thousands of times greater than those in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva, the most powerful particle accelerator on Earth? Two new sets of observations again implicate the leading suspects: supernova remnants, the expanding shrapnel from stellar explosions. But they may not be the only culprits.

Protons make up about 90% of the high-energy charged particles, or cosmic rays, that constantly rain down on Earth. But directly tracing their origin has been impossible because magnetic fields threading through the Galaxy push the charged particles off their original paths.

Nevertheless, astronomers have long assumed that supernova remnants act as the Galaxy's particle accelerators. That is because the expanding stellar debris creates a shockwave when it slams into the surrounding gas, compressing and enhancing any magnetic fields present. Charged particles traveling through the shock front can get accelerated, and some also get deflected back by the magnetic fields. Some particles may travel back and forth across the front — and gain energy — for thousands of years before escaping as cosmic rays.

Nature: Proto-planet was shaped by massive collisions
Simulations suggest cause of Vesta's lopsided form.
Geoff Brumfiel
13 February 2013

One of the largest bodies in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter may have been the victim of a double hit and run. Models suggest that Vesta has been hit twice by planetary-scale objects, leaving huge scars on its surface.

But the theorized smash is causing a clash among scientists, who disagree over what it might say about Vesta's structure. A paper describing the models is published today in Nature1.

Scientists think that Vesta, which is some 530 kilometres in diameter, formed more than 4.5 billion years ago, just a few million years after the Solar System began. It seems to be covered in volcanic rock similar to that seen on Earth, and a huge crater in its southern hemisphere hints at a violent past.

Scientific American: Macaque and Dagger in the Simian Space Race
Why does the U.S. suspect Iran of faking their monkey space flight? Because we did it first.
By Eric Michael Johnson
February 14, 2013

It was a blistering hot summer, as it usually is in that part of the world. The monkey’s arms and legs were tightly strapped to a metal chair as the forlorn creature was pushed into the narrow confines of the rocket’s nose cone. Scientific instruments dominated the compartment and the young rhesus macaque’s head was wrenched downwards in order to fit. As the launch countdown approached zero it was clear that something was wrong. There was no indication of heart action or respiration. But it was too late to stop the experiment.

The decommissioned rocket shook violently as alcohol and liquid oxygen ignited in the burn chamber, pushing twenty-eight thousand pounds of steel and fuel upwards against the force of gravity. After reaching a height of 37 miles the nose cone separated from the now depleted rocket but the parachute system malfunctioned sending the capsule and its occupant plummeting back towards Earth. After slamming into the desert sands at more than two thousand miles per hour the capsule was so badly deformed that even if the monkey had survived the initial ascent his death would have been a foregone conclusion.

The United States’ first attempt to put a monkey into space ended in failure on June 11, 1948 at a remote military launch site in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Albert I, named after the rhesus macaque on board, would soon be joined by Alberts II – VI as one monkey after another died because of mechanical failure or miscalculation.

Sixty-three years later a similar fate appears to have befallen Iran’s first primate to be shot into space.


Climate Wire via Scientific American: Scientists Detail Severe Future Impacts of Climate Change
At a U.S. Senate hearing, scientists warned that New Orleans, Florida and other places will be radically transformed if global warming is allowed to continue unabated
By Tiffany Stecker and ClimateWire
February 14, 2013

In a probable scenario for climate change, New Orleans will no longer exist. Neither will Atlantic City, N.J. Boston will look much like it did in the 17th century, before the city was dredged up to build a port. And Florida will no longer keep its distinct appendage shape.

These geographical changes due to sea-level rise are only the beginning, scientists bluntly stated at a briefing yesterday convened by Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

"Today's talk underscored what I already knew, but gives me more facts," said Boxer. "We have to act because our children and our grandchildren need us to act."

Reuters via Scientific American: Drought Joins U.S. Farmers in the Field for Spring Planting
By Charles Abbott
February 15, 2013

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. farmers will plant crops this spring under the shadow of a persistent drought that grips prime farmland from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, with grain supplies already tight from drought losses in 2012.

In all, 56 percent of the contiguous United States is under moderate to exceptional drought, twice the usual amount, the Senate Agriculture Committee was told on Thursday.

Arid weather was expected to run until May in the wheat-growing Plains and in the western Corn Belt, where corn and soybeans are the major crops.

Fast Company via Scientific American: Can Air Pollution Start Wars?
By Terry Tamminen
February 15, 2013

Mixed up in the current spat between China and Japan is an accusation that Chinese pollution is damaging Japan.

In recent months, Japan and China have blustered over disputed islands that don't appear to have any real economic or territorial benefits for either nation. Jets have scrambled and radars locked on opposing vessels, all signs of increasing tension. But the two Asian powerhouses have now begun to argue over a shared threat that actually does have impacts on the health and future of their respective populations--air pollution.

Japanese media and environmental authorities have accused China of being the source of increasing levels of soot in the air (particulates 2.5 microns or smaller, which can lodge deep in the lungs and bloodstream, called PM 2.5). That PM 2.5 in the air comes largely from diesel exhaust, causing asthma and other respiratory diseases. It is also linked to heart disease and, therefore, more than 6 million premature deaths every year, according to the World Health Organization. China shot back that the cause is Japan's switch from nuclear power to new dependence on burning coal and trash for energy.

Scientific American: Pill to Gill: Antianxiety Drugs Flushed into Water May Be Making Fishes Fearless
Levels of human drugs commonly found in the world's waterways may be altering the way fishes behave
By David Biello
February 15, 2013

Antianxiety drugs may be making fishes more aggressive. New laboratory tests reveal that even extremely low concentrations of the calming drugs benzodiazepines—more commonly known as Valium, Xanax and others—cause fishes to become less timid and to feed faster, among other effects.

"This is an essential drug that is used around the world," said chemist Jerker Fick of Umea University in Sweden at a press conference preceding publication of the research in Science. Benzodiapines calm people with anxiety by stimulating the GABA receptor, enhancing the sedative effect of that neurotransmitter. The drugs are then excreted in urine, often as the compound oxazepam—a drug that is produced when the body breaks down some benzodiazepines. Then there are all the compounds are flushed down the toilet.

But humans are not the only animals with GABA receptors. "It is present in almost all vertebrates. All fish have these," Fick added.


Nature: Sea slug loses penis after sex but grows another the next day
Invertebrate may discard organ like a dirty needle to avoid carrying competitors' sperm.
Matt Kaplan
13 February 2013

The astounding warning colours of the nudibranchs, a diverse group of sea slugs, are certainly enough to attract attention — but even they pale in comparison to the gripping news that one species of the soft-bodied molluscs has a habit of discarding its penis.

Nudibranchs are hermaphrodites, meaning that they carry both male and female reproductive organs. Moreover, when they mate, they can perform the male role of donating sperm and the female role of receiving sperm at the same time. This process involves two penises and two vagina-like organs, and sperm transmission effectively happens simultaneously during the encounter.

This is a relatively standard arrangement among nudibranchs, so the creatures' sexual organs might all be expected to look roughly the same. But the animals show incredible sex-organ diversity, and it was during an exploration of this diversity in the species Chromodoris reticulata that researchers made their jaw-dropping discovery.

Scientific American: Whale Sharks in the News: Citizen Science, Migration Revelations and High Fashion
By John R. Platt
February 14, 2013

What do the world’s biggest fish and the Big Dipper have in common? Believe it or not, the answer is math. One of the same algorithms developed to help astronomers study the stars in the sky is being used to conserve and understand whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) under the sea.

It turns out that each whale shark has a unique pattern of spots located behind its gills. By studying photographs and videos of whale sharks—often taken by vacationers—and running those images through the algorithm, scientists can identify individual sharks and track them as they swim through the ocean.

The idea dates back to a paper published in the Journal of Applied  Ecology in September 2005 which showed that algorithms first developed by astronomers to study images from the Hubble space telescope could be used to identify individual whale sharks with 90% accuracy.

Scientific American: Rinjani scops owl: New owl species discovered in Indonesia
By Becky Crew
February 13, 2013

A new species of owl called the Rinjani scops owl has been discovered, and it’s unique to the tiny Indonesian island of Lombok.

Until fairly recently, it was common practice for scientists to identify owl species based largely on their plumage and morphology. Both features are important in distinguishing all kinds of birds, but can be unreliable, as owls often change their colouring to better blend in with their environment. The same species of spocs owl living in different geographic regions can have noticeably different plumage colours and patterns, which had led to what Smithsonian ornithologist Joe T Marshall referred to in 1978 as “several embarrassing misalignments”.

Marshall had been sent to Thailand in the late ‘70s to fix up some messy taxonomy of its endemic owls, and it was here that he became the first researcher to propose that vocalisations were a more reliable identifier of scops owl species than variations in morphology and plumage. Using this new technique,  he went on to completely revise the classification of the scops owl genus Otus.

Scientific American: Giant Pandas at Risk from New Chinese Forestry Policies
By John R. Platt
February 13, 2013

China’s efforts to conserve and grow its populations of endangered giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) are at odds with its own changing forestry policies, which could damage or destroy up to 15 percent of the pandas’ habitat, according to conservationists writing in the February 1 issue of Science.

At the heart of the matter is a long-brewing reform of China’s collective forest tenure system, which since the 1950s has put control of plantations and second-growth forests under local governments known as village collectives. As explained in a 2009 report from the World Forest Institute... the state owns all forests in China but villages can allocate the right to use small plots within collective forests to individuals and households, who harvest them for timber, firewood, food and medicine, all of which are vital to rural livelihoods.

Unfortunately, the collective forest system is no longer in synch with China’s growing economy. The need for timber and paper has soared and state-owned forests (which are not under collective control) cannot keep up. For more than a decade China has been moving more of its logging operations into plantations instead of natural forests and importing more and more wood from other countries. About 50 percent of all lumber shipped worldwide is now destined for the Chinese market.


Scientific American: Fighting Cancer with Poxviruses
By Stephanie Swift
February 15, 2013

Recently, poxviruses have also been applied to address a long-standing problem affecting cancer patients undergoing tumour removal surgery. Particularly after long and complicated procedures, cancer patients naturally enter a bodywide state of repair, where most energy is diverted into the healing process. Perversely, this temporary disturbance in the natural biological balance actually encourages any missed bits of tumour to spread, causing new patches of disease to spring up. While the reason for this is not entirely understood, suppression of the normal immune response, in particular a specific population of immune cells known as, ‘natural killer’ cells, is at least part of the problem.

A team at the University of Ottawa, led by surgical oncologist Dr. Rebecca Auer, reasoned that applying an engineered poxvirus an hour before surgery, which would home to the tumour and deploy immune-stimulating payloads, could restore the balance of the immune system. As they report in the journal, Cancer Research, this happily proved to be true: the virus kicked the apathetic natural killer cells into upping their game, reinvigorated the surgically-stunned immune system and, in mice at least, prevented the surgery-induced spread of tumour material. Poxviruses were therefore blended seamlessly into a normal surgical regime with excellent results.

Since poxviruses have been so widely applied to humans in the smallpox vaccine, there is a huge amount of safety data to recommend their use in the clinic, and in the treatment of over 500 cancer patients, there have been no serious complications. Incorporating a naturally-adapted cancer-loving microorganism like poxvirus into the available arsenal of anti-cancer treatments is plainly a splendidly progressive choice.

Nature via Scientific American: Proteins Behind Mad-Cow Disease Also Help Brain to Develop
When not mis-folded, prions lend a hand in formation neuronal connections
By Mo Costandi and Nature magazine
February 15, 2013

Prions are best known as the infectious agents that cause ‘mad cow’ disease and the human versions of it, such as variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob Disease. But the proteins also have at least one known useful function, in the cells that insulate nerves, and are suspected to have more. Now researchers have provided the first direct evidence that the proteins play an important role in neurons themselves.

The team reports in the Journal of Neuroscience that prions are involved in developmental plasticity, the process by which the structure and function of neurons in the growing brain is shaped by experience.


Scientific American: Step into the Twilight Zone: Day 15 on Mars Time, or, Adventures in Extraplanetary Day Drinking
By Katie Worth
February 15, 201

Editor’s note: Researchers exploring Mars via rover and satellite have to adapt to the longer day on the Red Planet. Katie Worth, whose Can Earthlings Adapt to the Longer Day on Mars? for Scientific American describes the consequences of sleep-pattern changes, is trying it out herself. Follow her experiences in living on “Mars time” at this blog to see how it affects her sleep and behavior. This post is the fifth in a series.

It’s mighty hard not to feel immoderate when you sit down with a cocktail at 7:30 A.M., even if it’s technically a nightcap. Likewise, it’s hard to resist the allure of a beer at sunset, even if you haven’t had your morning coffee yet.

I’m on Day 15 of my Martian schedule experiment, in which I make like a NASA engineer and push back my bedtime by 40 minutes each day to replicate the 24.65-hour rotation of the Red Planet. At this point, evenings are my mornings, and mornings are my happy hours.

Among the many conundrums Mars time has presented is how to navigate a booze habit on an ever-changing schedule.

LiveScience: New Sexual Revolution: Polyamory May Be Good for You
Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience Senior Writer
Date: 14 February 2013 Time: 10:32 AM ET

On Valentine's Day, images of couples are everywhere. They're buying each other diamond rings, making eyes over expensive restaurant meals and canoodling over chocolate-covered strawberries and champagne. But two-by-two isn't the only way to go through life. In fact, an estimated 4 to 5 percent of Americans are looking outside their relationship for love and sex — with their partner's full permission.

These consensually nonmonogamous relationships, as they're called, don't conform to the cultural norm of a handholding couple in love for life. They come in a dizzying array of forms, from occasional "swinging" and open relationships to long-term commitments among multiple people. Now, social scientists embarking on brand-new research into these types of relationships are finding that they may challenge the ways we think of jealousy, commitment and love. They may even change monogamy for the better.

"People in these relationships really communicate. They communicate to death," said Bjarne Holmes, a psychologist at Champlain College in Vermont. All of that negotiation may hold a lesson for the monogamously inclined, Holmes told LiveScience.

LiveScience has more in 5 Myths About Polyamory, also by Stephanie Pappas.
Researchers estimate that as many as 5 percent of Americans are currently in relationships involving consensual nonmonogamy — that is, permission to go outside the couple looking for love or sex.

The boundaries in these relationships are remarkably varied, with some couples negotiating one-off "swinging" or partner-swapping experiences. and others forming stable bonds among three, four or five partners simultaneously. The latter is a version of polyamory, relationships in which people have multiple partnerships at once with the full knowledge of all involved.

Polyamorous people have largely flown under the radar, but that's beginning to change as psychologists become intrigued by this unusual group. The first annual International Academic Polyamory Conference takes place Feb. 15 in Berkeley, Calif., and ongoing studies are examining everything from how jealousy works in polyamorous relationships to how kids in polyamorous familes fare. Though there's a lot left to learn, initial findings are busting some myths about how love among many works.

Scientific American: Be Mine Forever: Oxytocin May Help Build Long-Lasting Love
The hormone oxytocin increases empathy and communication, key to sustaining a relationship between mates
By Luciana Gravotta
February 11, 2013

If cupid had studied neuroscience, he’d know to aim his arrows at the brain rather than the heart. Recent research suggests that for love to last, it’s best he dip those arrows in oxytocin. Although scientists have long known that this hormone is essential for monogamous rodents to stay true to their mates, and that it makes humans more trusting toward one another, they are now finding that it is also crucial to how we form and maintain romantic relationships.

A handful of new studies show that oxytocin makes us more sympathetic, supportive and open with our feelings—all necessary for couples to celebrate not just one Valentine’s Day, but many. These findings have led some researchers to investigate whether oxytocin can be used in couple therapy.

The first bit of evidence that points to oxytocin as nature’s love glue comes from researchers who measured the hormone in couples. Psychology professor Ruth Feldman at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, spent years studying oxytocin’s role in the mother–child bond and recently decided to dive into the uncharted waters of romantic bonds by comparing oxytocin levels in new lovers and singles. “The increase in oxytocin during the period of falling in love was the highest that we ever found,” she says of a study she and her colleagues published in Psychoneuroendocrinology. New lovers had double the amount Feldman usually sees in pregnant women.


Nature: The last Medici may not have died of syphilis after all
Exhumed bones of Anna Maria Louisa de' Medici show no signs of late-stage syphilis.
Alison Abbott
14 February 2013

In 1743, the last member of the family that had ruled Florence for almost 300 years died a slow and painful death. Historical documents suggest that Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici suffered from syphilis or breast cancer. But a first look at samples of her bone suggests that syphilis may not have killed her.

In 1966, the tombs of the Medici family were swamped in mud during severe flooding of Florence, which many feared had damaged the bodies. But Anna Maria Luisa's skeleton was found to be mostly intact when it was exhumed last October as part of a research collaboration between the University of Florence in Italy and the Reiss Engelhorn Museum in Mannheim, Germany. The first pictures from the exhumation were released at a press briefing today.

annetteboardman is taking a well-deserved night off.


Scientific American: The Great (Ape) Taxonomy Debate
By Cadell Last
February 13, 2013

As an undergraduate studying primatology, I was always confused about great ape and human taxonomy.  Were we great apes?  Or were we hominids?  Or were we both?  What was the consensus and was there logical and scientific reasons for lumping or splitting?  To be completely honest, I never really resolved this internal dilemma.  In hindsight it seems ridiculous considering how much time I spent thinking about it.

However, as an evolutionary anthropologist I have been asked whether I consider humans to be great apes.  I always confidently reply that we are.  Upon reflection I think I have responded this way because of my early evolutionary science influences.  In college I read a lot of Richard Dawkins and Jared Diamond.  Both of these academics have popularized the notion that we are the “fifth ape”  or the “third chimpanzee.” (Diamond, 1992; Dawkins, 2004).  In fact, Wikipedia and modern taxonomic classification both support this claim:    

“The [great apes] form a taxonomic family of primates, including four extant genera: chimpanzees and bonobos (Pan), gorillas (Gorilla), humans (Homo), and orangutans (Pongo).” (Wikipedia: Hominidae (Great Apes))
So it seems to be an open and shut case right?  Why should I lose any sleep over this taxonomic grouping?  Humans are great apes.

However, I don’t think it is this straightforward.

Scientific American: Darwin Day: A personal offering
By Ashutosh Jogalekar
February 12, 2013

Two hundred and four years ago this day, Charles Darwin was born. The vision of life that he created and expounded on transformed humanity’s perception of its place in the universe. After Copernicus’s great heliocentric discovery, it was Darwin’s exposition of evolution and natural selection that usurped human beings from their favored place at the center of the universe. But far from trivializing them, it taught them about the vastness and value of life, underscored the great web of interactions that they are a part of, and reinforced their place as both actor and spectator in the grand game of the cosmos. Not only as a guiding scientific principle but as an all-encompassing element of understanding our place in the world, evolution through natural selection has become the dominant idea of our time. As the eminent biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky put it quite simply, nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. Evolution is a fact. Natural selection is a theory that is now as good as a fact. Both evolution and natural selection happen. And both of them owe their exalted place in our consciousness to a quiet, gentle and brilliant Englishman.

Today it is gratifying and redeeming to know how right Darwin was and how much his theory has been built upon, and frustrating to keep on realizing how those professing religious certainty threaten to undermine the value of his and others’ careful and patient discoveries. Especially in the United States evolution has become a bizarre battleground of extreme opinions and mudslinging, a development that seems to be in step with the tradition of coloring any and every issue with a political hue. In this country, it seems today that you can hardly utter an opinion without attaching a label to it. You cannot simply have an opinion or take a position, no matter how grounded in fact it is; your position has to be Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Neo-Conservative, Socialist or Atheist. if none of these, it has to be Centrist then.

Scientific American: Darwin: Geologist First and Last
By Dana Hunter
February 10, 2013

Shall we play a word-association game? I’ll say “Darwin.” And chances are, you’ll say “Origin of Species,” or “Evolution,” or “Biology.” Charles Darwin laid the foundation for modern biology. He changed our whole conception of how species come to be, why a single simple organism could be the root of a riotously-branching tree, how “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.” Of course we associate him with biology. Rightly so.

But I have got a different word associated with him now: “Geology.”

Darwin was one hell of a biologist. But he began and finished with geology, and geology is at the heart of The Origin.


Scientific American: Interlude: What Vehicles Say About Temperatures Within a Volcanic Blast
By Dana Hunter
February 14, 2013

In our previous installment regarding the effects of the May 18th, 1980 Mount St. Helens directed blast on vehicles, we learned a valuable lesson. I will call upon commenter Angusum from Boing Boing to sum up: “The main thing we learn from studying vehicles trapped in the path of a volcanic eruption is that you should try very hard not to get trapped in the path of a volcanic eruption.” Indeed. Ah, but I see Pip_R_Lagenta’s hand is still waving: “If we learned anything from Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, it is that volcano research is, like, totally stupid.” Absolutely. Governor Jindal is completely correct. No need to do any sort of volcano monitoring whatsoever. Volcanoes don’t kill people, people with volcanoes kill people. Or something like that. Anyway, it’s a proven fact if we ignore things, all danger from them magically disappears. Besides, the private sector. And stuff.

Here endeth the snark. Well, mostly. You know how I am. But I’m not being at all snarky when I extend a heart-felt thank you to Maggie Koerth-Baker for featuring our last installment on Boing Boing. Go read all of the comments – they’re wonderful. So are the ones left here. It’s apparent a statistically significant number of you like demolished vehicles. The good news is, I haz moar! And they’re hawt.


Scientific American: Guest Post: Burning Buried Sunshine
Oil – The Least Efficient Source of Energy
By Scott McNally, posted by  Melissa C. Lott
February 14, 2013

Solar energy is often criticized for its inefficiency – that only about 10% of the sunlight that hits a common commercial solar panel will be converted into electricity. Similar criticisms are voiced against biofuels, which have a solar energy to biofuel conversion efficiency of less than about 2%.* But how do these efficiencies compare to other sources of energy, like oil? Turns out – solar and biofuels do pretty well.

First consider this; we truly have three primary sources of energy: nuclear, geothermal, and solar**. Solar energy is the original source of energy for wind, biomass, fossil fuels, and even hydroelectric. The sun creates temperature gradients on the surface of the Earth, which creates wind. Biomass photosynthesis is powered by solar photons, and sometimes that biomass falls to the ground, gets buried, and cooked into fossil fuels. Hydroelectric dams harness the potential energy of water, but the water has to get “uphill” somehow. This happens when the sun lifts the water through evaporation, which is later released as rain.

These ‘sources’ of energy – wind, biomass, and hydro – are not true sources; they are really just different ways to carry, or convert solar energy. When comparing these types of energies, it is useful to think about how efficiently each type converts solar energy into a useful form of energy. In the cases of wind, hydro and solar, the useable form of energy is usually electricity; with biomass and oil, we get some sort of liquid fuel that can be used to either move your car or generate electricity. For the sake of simplicity, we will say that all of these sources end up as electricity.


Scientific American: Physics Week in Review: February 16, 2013
By Jennifer Ouellette
February 16, 2013

We’re re-introducing a weekly feature, offering links to the most interesting physics-ish stories around the Web.

Scientific American via Nature: A vacuum can yield flashes of light
"Virtual particles" can become real photons under the right conditions.
Charles Q. Choi
13 February 2013

A vacuum might seem like empty space, but scientists have discovered a new way to seemingly get something from that nothingness, such as light. And the finding could ultimately help scientists build incredibly powerful quantum computers or shed light on the earliest moments in the universe's history.

Quantum physics explains that there are limits to how precisely one can know the properties of the most basic units of matter—for instance, one can never absolutely know a particle's position and momentum at the same time. One bizarre consequence of this uncertainty is that a vacuum is never completely empty, but instead buzzes with so-called “virtual particles” that constantly wink into and out of existence.

These virtual particles often appear in pairs that near-instantaneously cancel themselves out. Still, before they vanish, they can have very real effects on their surroundings. For instance, photons—packets of light—can pop in and out of a vacuum. When two mirrors are placed facing each other in a vacuum, more virtual photons can exist around the outside of the mirrors than between them, generating a seemingly mysterious force that pushes the mirrors together.


Nature: Nuclear detectives sniff out North Korea
Radioisotopes may provide key details on nuclear test.
Geoff Brumfiel
12 February 2013 Corrected: 13 February 2013

With this morning's announcement by North Korea that it has conducted its third nuclear test, experts are closely watching a network of seismic monitoring stations for hints of what sort of test it was. Ratios of radioisotopes could help to verify the explosion and perhaps even provide clues about the type of device detonated — but only if the radioactive gases can be identified before they decay.

Seismic stations detected the underground blast at 11:57 a.m. local time. The data, from the US Geological Survey and the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), showed a sudden, strong earthquake occurring at a depth of about 1 kilometre from the surface in the same region as North Korea's two previous nuclear tests. The blast, which registered on seismographs at around 5.0 in magnitude, was roughly twice the power of the country's last test in 2009. That puts it in the range of several kilotonnes of TNT, according to Tibor Tóth, head of the CTBTO in Vienna, which monitors globally for clandestine nuclear testing.

The seismic signature, together with North Korea's open declaration of having conducted a test, are strong evidence for a nuclear detonation. But "the smoking gun will be the potential radionuclide release”, says Lassina Zerbo, who oversees the CTBTO's data centre. In particular, researchers will be looking for radioactive isotopes of xenon produced in the explosion.

Science Crime Scenes

Scientific American: Too Big to Succeed
By Chris Arnade
February 10, 2013

On December 20, 1994 Mexico’s newly installed president Ernesto Zedillo devalued the currency, the peso, by 15%. As a candidate he had said he would “defend the peso like a dog.” That day the peso went from 3.47, where it had been for a year, to 3.95 and the trading floors of Wall Street were filled with the sounds of barking dogs.

On that day I was in research working with the emerging markets trading desk of Salomon Brothers. They had invested heavily in Mexico, as had most of the major investment banks.

That afternoon the Salomon trading floor was giddy; the first drop in the peso had been profitable for the firm. That happiness was short-lived as it began to understand the complexity of its positions in Mexico.

Science, Space, Environment, and Energy Policy

Scientific American: Obama Takes Aim at Climate Change, Cyber Security
By Fred Guterl
February 12, 2013

After a campaign that avoided climate change like the plague, President Barack Obama gave a State of the Union speech that put climate change on center stage. Early in the speech he encouraged law makers to revisit cap-and-trade as a way of tackling emissions of greenhouse gases.
Obama peppered his State of the Union speech with references to several big science and technology issues. He called attention to the threat of cyber warfare and the need to protect the nation’s infrastructure from cyber attacks. Obama singled out the power grid, financial networks and air traffic control as being vulnerable to sabotage. Earlier in the day he signed an executive order to increase information sharing and set security standards, but on the podium he called on Congress to pass legislation “to give our government a greater capacity to secure our networks and deter attacks.”

Obama went out of his way several times to make jobs and national competitiveness into issues of science policy.

Reuters via Scientific American: Fracking in New York? Not for Another Year, If Ever
By Edward McAllister
February 14, 2013

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The fracking debate in New York state is hitting new heights as regulators delay a final decision on the controversial natural gas production method, but it looks increasingly clear that it will be a year - if ever - before drilling begins again.

Governor Andrew Cuomo missed a Wednesday deadline for completing a report on the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, that was to form the basis for new drilling rules.

As a result, a now-four year moratorium on shale gas drilling in the Empire State could extend into 2014 forcing companies such as Chesapeake Energy and a host of smaller independents to sit on their idle land leases and wait.

Scientific American: FDA Approves First Retinal Implant
By Larry Greenemeier
February 14, 2013

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Thursday approved the first retinal implant for use in the United States. The FDA’s green light for Second Sight’s Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System gives hope to those blinded by a rare genetic eye condition called advanced retinitis pigmentosa, which damages the light-sensitive cells that line the retina.

For Second Sight, FDA approval follows more than 20 years of development, two clinical trials and more than $200 million in funding—half from the National Eye Institute, the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, and the rest from private investors. The Argus II has been approved for use in Europe since 2011 and implanted in 30 clinical-trial patients since 2007. The FDA’s Ophthalmic Devices Advisory Panel in September 2012 voted unanimously to recommend approval.

The Argus II includes a small video camera, a transmitter mounted on a pair of eyeglasses, a video processing unit and a 60-electrode implanted retinal prosthesis that replaces the function of degenerated cells in the retina, the membrane lining the inside of the eye. Although it does not fully restore vision, this setup can improve a patient’s ability to perceive images and movement, using the video processing unit to transform images from the video camera into electronic data that is wirelessly transmitted to the retinal prosthesis.

Scientific American: A (Dimming) City of Light
By Melissa C. Lott
February 11, 2013

The French are taking a stand against light pollution. Starting this summer, most non-residential buildings in the country will have to shut off their lights at night in order to “reduce the print of artificial lighting on the nocturnal environment.”

According to France’s environment minister, Delphine Batho, this shift will reduce total annual energy consumption by the equivalent of 750,000 households. But, the main motivation behind the new decree is public health. According to Ms. Batho’s statement, artificial light can cause “significant disruptions on ecosystems” by disturbing sleep and migration patterns.

Science Education

Scientific American: The LA County Science Fair Needs Help
By Jason G. Goldman
February 15, 2013

Empirical research on the effects of science fair participation seems scant, but the research that does exist suggests that participation is generally a positive experience for students, that participation increases scientific literacy, and, importantly, that participation results in an increased understanding the process of science.

One study conducted in Canada, for example, found that in their project notebooks, students “frequently attended to claims-making practices recommended in science education literature, especially involving argumentation and concepts of evidence,” and that their conclusions “were often supported through the use of replication, triangulation, and often statistical analysis, with their findings embedded in a broader research literature.” In other words, students appeared to be using the same sorts of reasoning processes upon which scientists rely. The researchers concluded that students who participated in science fairs successfully learned “many of the normative practices of science investigation.”

But that’s for students who are already participating in science fairs. It is perhaps of greater importance that science fairs be able to reach those students who might not already eagerly participate whether due to motivation or circumstance.

Fast Company via Scientific American: Biotech Company Run by High Schoolers Developing a "Flying Syringe"
By Ariel Schwartz
February 15, 2013

Provita, a company staffed entirely by kids under 18, is working on a project (with funding from the Gates Foundation) to use mosquitoes to help carry important vaccines.

Joshua Meier, CEO of biotechnology company Provita Pharmaceuticals, spends about 20 hours a week on research projects in the various labs at his disposal. In January, the company gave a presentation to the FDA on its work with the flying syringe, a tool that uses mosquitoes as a vector to deliver vaccines to those who need them. Provita has also submitted a grant idea to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But you might not recognize Meier as a CEO if you saw him walking down the street--he's 16. In fact, everyone on the 15-plus person Provita team, from research and development workers to finance officers, is in high school.

Provita was founded in 2008, before Meier--a junior and a finalist in the 2012 Google Science Fair--entered high school at the Bergen County Academies, a group of seven magnet high school programs that each hone in on different subjects, including a program focused on science and technology (where Meier is a student), a business and finance program, and a medical science and technology program. Provita emerged when some of the science-focused kids decided to collaborate with the business-minded students on a business plan competition for their research.

Science Writing and Reporting

Chronicle of Higher Education: How Rude! Reader Comments May Undermine Scientists’ Authority
By Paul Basken
February 14, 2013, 8:30 pm

Boston — Scientists have a hard enough time getting people to understand what they’re talking about.

Their thoughts can be complicated. Their sentences can be laden with jargon. And their conclusions can offend political or religious sensibilities.

And now, to make things worse, readers have an immediate forum to talk back. And when some readers post uncivil comments at the bottom of online articles, that alone can raise doubts about the underlying science, a new study has found. Or at least reinforce those doubts.

Scientific American has a commentary on this article in More on rudeness, civility, and the care and feeding of online conversations.

Scientific American: Improving Science News in the Black Media: Lessons learned from my Ebony Magazine Twitter encounter
By DNLee
February 14, 2013

On February 6, 2013, I got into a big Twitter chat with the esteemed Ebony Magazine (link here). For those of you unfamiliar, Ebony Magazine, founded by John H. Johnson, first hit the newsstands in 1945. It was THE source of news of relevant African-American issues, showcasing celebrities and highlighting the interests of this community in a positive and self-affirming manner.  My paternal family has subscribed to the magazine (and the sister publication Jet) since the beginning. I know Ebony. I grew up with Ebony. I love what it represents to my community. And even as I stopped reading it in college (I became bored with the articles and frequently frustrated with the over-representation of entertainment coverage) I still respect it as a beacon periodical in the African-American community.

It was in that spirit that I responded to the magazine. I am happy that things ended well, but I continued to reflect on the interaction, especially in light of my crusade to improve science news to African-American audiences.  And I learned some very important lessons.

Science is Cool

Fast Company via Scientific American: Find Out Exactly How Healthy You're Eating, From Your Phone
By Zak Stone
February 15, 2013

GoPure is an app that lets you know if the restaurant you're eating in uses local food, genetically modified ingredients, and even compostable take-out containers. And knowing is half the battle.

Yelp may point eaters in the direction of restaurants with the best or cheapest food, but it won't tell them which eatery is most sustainable.

A new restaurant-discovery website and mobile app called GoPure appeals to eaters whose questions about restaurants extend beyond price and quality to a line of inquiry that's familiar from a Portlandia episode: Are the ingredients genetically modified? Is the beef grass-fed? Is the takeout container compostable?

LiveScience: Democrat or Republican ... Who Buys Generic?
Chad Brooks, BusinessNewsDaily Contributor
Date: 14 February 2013 Time: 09:37 AM ET

Conservatives and liberals are as different when choosing groceries as they are when choosing political sides, new research finds.

The study, led by researcher Vishal Singh of New York University, discovered a relationship between political affiliation and buying behavior, suggesting that ideological differences are reflected in daily behavior, even at the unconscious level.

Researchers analyzed weekly sales data from more than 1,800 supermarkets across the United States between 2001 and 2006. Using statistics on voting history and religiosity — factors that are independently correlated with conservative values — they were able to determine the level of conservatism in each county.

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