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Science News

Megavolcanoes tied to pre-dinosaur mass extinction

Along sea cliffs in southern England, geologist Paul Olsen of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory samples rocks from near the 201,564,000-year Triassic extinction boundary.Paleontology & Archaeology

Scientists examining evidence across the world from New Jersey to North Africa say they have linked the abrupt disappearance of half of earth's species 200 million years ago to a precisely dated set of gigantic volcanic eruptions. The eruptions may have caused climate changes so sudden that many creatures were unable to adapt -- possibly on a pace similar to that of human-influenced climate warming today. The extinction opened the way for dinosaurs to evolve and dominate the planet for the next 135 million years, before they, too, were wiped out in a later planetary cataclysm. In recent years, many scientists have suggested that the so-called End-Triassic Extinction and at least four other known past die-offs were caused at least in part by mega-volcanism and resulting climate change. However, they were unable to tie deposits left by eruptions to biological crashes closely in time. This study provides the tightest link yet, with a newly precise date for the ETE--201,564,000 years ago, exactly the same time as a massive outpouring of lava. "This may not quench all the questions about the exact mechanism of the extinction itself. However, the coincidence in time with the volcanism is pretty much ironclad," said coauthor Paul Olsen, a geologist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who has been investigating the boundary since the 1970s.

Magma Could Be Earth’s Natural Lubricant For Tectonic Plate Movement

Image Credit: Photos.comredOrbit Staff & Wire Reports

Scientists from the University of California, San Diego’s (UCSD) Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) have discovered a liquefied layer of molten rock in the planet’s mantle – a substance which could be acting as a lubricant of the sliding motions of the Earth’s tectonic plates.

The magma layer was discovered at the Middle America trench offshore Nicaragua during a 2010 expedition aboard the US Navy-owned research vessel Melville. Using several different types of seafloor instruments, the researchers recorded natural electromagnetic signals in order to map the crust and mantle.

In the process, they managed to locate magma in a most surprising location – a discovery which is detailed in the March 21 issue of the journal Nature.

“This was completely unexpected,” Kerry Key, co-author of the study and an associate research geophysicist at the SIO’s Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, said in a statement.

“We went out looking to get an idea of how fluids are interacting with plate subduction, but we discovered a melt layer we weren’t expecting to find at all – it was pretty surprising,” he added.

Technology News

3G and 4G USB modems are a security threat, researcher says

Researchers showed how to attack 3G and 4G USB modems at Black Hat Europe
USB modemBy Lucian Constantin

IDG News Service - The vast majority of 3G and 4G USB modems handed out by mobile operators to their customers are manufactured by a handful of companies and run insecure software, according to two security researchers from Russia.

Researchers Nikita Tarakanov and Oleg Kupreev analyzed the security of 3G/4G USB modems obtained from Russian operators for the past several months. Their findings were presented Thursday at the Black Hat Europe 2013 security conference in Amsterdam.

Most 3G/4G modems used in Russia, Europe, and probably elsewhere in the world, are made by Chinese hardware manufacturers Huawei and ZTE, and are branded with the mobile operators' logos and trademarks, Tarakanov said. Because of this, even if the research was done primarily on Huawei modems from Russian operators, the results should be relevant in other parts of the world as well, he said.

Tarakanov said that they weren't able to test baseband attacks against the Qualcomm chips found inside the modems because it's illegal in Russia to operate your own GSM base station if you're not an intelligence agency or a telecom operator. "We'll probably have to move to another country for a few months to do it," he said.

Hackers can cause traffic jams by manipulating real-time traffic data, researcher says

Google and Waze navigation systems can be
traffic jamBy Loek Essers

IDG News Service - Hackers can influence real-time traffic-flow-analysis systems to make people drive into traffic jams or to keep roads clear in areas where a lot of people use Google or Waze navigation systems, a German researcher demonstrated at BlackHat Europe.

Google and Waze both offer turn-by-turn navigation in smartphone apps and use information derived from those phones for real-time traffic analysis. However, because of the tradeoff between user privacy and data gathering, hackers can anonymously influence navigation software to trick the real-time traffic system into registering something that isn't there, said Tobias Jeske, a doctoral student at the Institute for Security in Distributed Applications of the Hamburg University of Technology, during the security conference in Amsterdam.

"You don't need special equipment for this and you can manipulate traffic data worldwide," Jeske said.

Both Google and Waze use GPS as well as Wi-Fi in phones to track locations. If Wi-Fi alone is enabled, only information about wireless access points and radio cells in the surrounding area will be transferred, which lets the navigation systems approximate the location of the user, Jeske said.

Environmental News

Atmospheric Nitrogen Levels Have Remained Stable Over Past 500 Years Despite Widespread Emissions

Image Credit: Photos.comBrett Smith for

Despite widespread use of fertilizers and nitrogen emissions by industrial processes, the amount of atmospheric nitrogen has remained consistent over the past 500 years, according to a new study in Nature.

“People have been really interested in nitrogen in current times because it’s a major pollutant,” said study co-author Kendra McLauchlan, an assistant professor of geography at Kansas State University. “Humans are producing a lot more nitrogen than in the past for use as crop fertilizer, and there is concern because excess levels can cause damage. The mystery, though, is whether the biosphere is able to soak up this extra nitrogen and what that means for the future.”

About 15,000 years ago, many glaciers and ice sheets began to melt as the Earth entered a global warming period. As temperatures rose, the Earth experienced an 8,000-year decline in nitrogen availability as both carbon and nitrogen became locked up in newly exposed soils. According to researchers, the interactions between the nitrogen cycle and the carbon cycle during this time period could be important in understanding the climate of the near future.

“What happened in the past might be a dry run for Earth’s future,” said co-author Joseph Craine, a research assistant professor in biology. “By looking at what happened millennia ago, we can see what controlled and prevented changes in nitrogen availability. This helps us understand and predict how things will change in the future.”

Monarch Butterflies Hit New Low; "Worrisome" Trend

Insects found in only about three acres of habitat, report says.
Butterflies in Mexico's Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve drink from a stream.Christine Dell'Amore

The king of the butterflies may reign no more: Monarch butterflies are experiencing a steady decline, a new report says, with the insects occupying the smallest area of land in one Mexican butterfly reserve than they have in two decades.

In December 2012, scientists surveying monarch habitat in Mexico's Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve found the insects occupied 59 percent less land than the previous year—the smallest area recorded in 20 years. (Watch a video of monarch butterflies.)

Nine butterfly colonies were found in just 2.94 acres (1.19 hectares) of land, compared with 7.14 acres (2.89 hectares) in 2011 and a high of 44.9 acres (18.19 hectares) in 1997, according to the report, released March 13.

vhe insects are plummeting due to two main causes: widespread loss of a plant called milkweed, which their young rely on for food; and extreme climate fluctuations, including freezing temperatures and heavy rain.

Medical News

Early malnutrition bodes ill for adult personality

Food deprivation in infancy may promote negative traits at age 40
malnutritionBy Bruce Bower

Malnutrition in the first year life, even when followed by a good diet and restored physical health, predisposes people to a troubled personality at age 40, new research suggests.

The study of 77 formerly malnourished people represents the first evidence linking malnutrition shortly after birth to adult personality traits. The traits in some cases may foretell psychiatric problems, says a team led by psychiatrist Janina Galler of Harvard Medical School in Boston and psychologist Paul Costa of Duke University Medical Center in Durham.

Compared with peers who were well-fed throughout their lives, formerly malnourished men and women reported markedly more anxiety, vulnerability to stress, hostility, mistrust of others, anger and depression, Galler’s team reports March 12 in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Survivors of early malnutrition also cited relatively little intellectual curiosity, social warmth, cooperativeness and willingness to try new experiences and to work hard at achieving goals.

Previous studies of people exposed prenatally to famine have reported increased rates of certain personality disorders and schizophrenia. Another investigation found that malnutrition at age 3 predisposed youngsters on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius to delinquent and aggressive behavior at ages 8, 11 and 17.

Disrupted brain chatter produces schizophrenia-like symptoms in mice

By quieting part of the thalamus, researchers create rodents with cognitive deficits
Mouse brainBy Meghan Rosen

Shushing neural chitchat in mouse brains can spark schizophrenia-like symptoms, a new study suggests. The findings are the first to demonstrate — at least in mice — that curbing communication among neurons in certain parts of the brain can cause some of the cognitive problems associated with schizophrenia.

By muzzling neurons in the mediodorsal thalamus, or MD — a cell cluster that sends signals to the brain’s outer layer — researchers hindered mouse memory and learning in much the same way that schizophrenia seems to do in humans, scientists report March 20 in Neuron.

Cognitive problems in schizophrenia have long been a mystery to scientists and a troubling symptom for people with the condition. The findings suggest that the problems stem from the thalamus, says neuropsychologist Neil Woodward of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, who was not involved with the new work.

People with schizophrenia suffer from a range of debilitating symptoms: hallucinations, delusions and social disorders, says study coauthor Christoph Kellendonk of Columbia University. Patients also have problems with short-term memory and learning. Unlike other symptoms, these cognitive problems have been nearly impossible to treat.

Space News

Slideshow: Apollo engine treasures recovered from ocean floor

F-1 Thrust ChamberSuzanne Deffree

About a year ago, billionaire Jeff Bezos went to NASA with plans to recover some of the F-1 engines that helped power Apollo astronauts beyond Earth orbit in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Armed with current day technology Bezos believed rivaled, in its own way, that of the Apollo missions technology itself, and with NASA’s blessing, he and a private team sent Remotely Operated Vehicles to a depth of more than 14,000 feet, tethered with fiber optics for data and electric cables transmitting power at more than 4,000 volts, to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean off of Cape Canaveral, Florida.

This week, he and his team have shared the findings.

“We’ve seen an underwater wonderland – an incredible sculpture garden of twisted F-1 engines that tells the story of a fiery and violent end, one that serves testament to the Apollo program,” Bezos said in an online statement after the findings were made public. “We photographed many beautiful objects in situ and have now recovered many prime pieces. Each piece we bring on deck conjures for me the thousands of engineers who worked together back then to do what for all time had been thought surely impossible.”

Universe is a teeny bit older than thought

Planck satellite reveals information from just after the Big Bang, largely confirming scientists' theories
The most detailed map of radiation left over from the Big Bang, courtesy of the Planck telescope. This leftover radiation is about 3 degrees above absolute zero, with the red and blue regions representing areas of the sky that are slightly warmer and colder, respectively. These small fluctuations in the early universe developed into the stars and galaxies we see today.By Andrew Grant

The universe is a little older and perhaps a bit stranger than previously thought, according to the best measurements ever taken of the radiation left over from just after the Big Bang. Presented March 21 at a press conference in Paris, the data from the Planck satellite combine to form a map of the remnant glow that largely affirms scientists' theories about the universe's early history. But the results also reveal a few quirks that scientists will have to explain.

“The clarity and precision of Planck’s map is stunning,” says Richard Easther, an astrophysicist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, who is not on the Planck team. “It’s as good as anyone could have hoped for.”

Launched by the European Space Agency in 2009, the Planck satellite scans the sky for the cosmic microwave background, radiation that dates back to about 380,000 years after the Big Bang. That radiation was originally about 2,700° Celsius but has cooled to a mere 2.7 degrees above absolute zero. Planck is essentially a supersensitive thermometer that can probe the temperature of this radiation to millionths of a degree.

Odd News

Penis-Snatching Panics Resurface in Africa

A psychological disorder called koro has mainly men hysterical about their genitals shrinking or retracting into their body, often believing a brush past a stranger caused the penis loss.Benjamin Radford, LiveScience Bad Science Columnist

In a recent issue of "Pacific Standard" magazine, Louisa Lombard, an anthropologist at the University of California at Berkeley, described visiting a small town in the Central African Republic where she encountered two men who claimed that their penises had been stolen.

It seems that the day before, a traveler visiting the town had shaken hands with a tea vendor who immediately claimed he felt a shock and sensed that his penis had shrunk. He cried out in alarm, gathering a crowd, and a second man then said it also happened to him.

This is not the setup to a joke; it is a real psychological disorder called koro in which victims (mostly men, but sometimes women) come to believe that their genitals are shrinking or retracting into the body. The concern is not only for their sexuality, but also for their lives, since they believe that the condition may be life threatening if not reversed. In order to prevent further shrinkage, victims have been known to securely tie their penises with string or metal clamps — even sometimes having family members hold it in relays until treatment can be sought, usually from shamen or traditional healers.

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