Dec 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

Here from A Magical Journey I just wanted to wish you all a very Merry Christmas!

From your own sceptical Santa

Christmas: how to cheat at pulling crackers

Ever wanted to make the perfect snowball, win the Christmas cracker novelty every time, and impress your festive guests by creating snowflakes indoors? Science correspondent Richard Gray asks the experts who can show you how…

As demonstrated by the weapons experts at QinetiQ, the defence agency which, when they’re not developing technology for the MoD, like to experiment with Christmas table decorations.
* Hold your end lower than the other person’s, so the cracker tilts downwards towards you.
* To prevent the cracker tearing, use a firm, two-handed grip.
* Apply a slow, steady pull, rather than a swift tug, which will only compromise the integrity of your section of the cracker.
* Avoid twisting, as this will add stress to the cracker wrapping. For the same reason, avoid laughing too hard at Uncle Bob’s annual ‘joke’ about ‘pulling a cracker’.

Read more at The Telegraph

Meet the Brit man who is set to marry his Christmas tree!

“A Brit man is set to fulfill his desire of marrying his Christmas tree.

Andy, also known as Mr Christmas, has admitted many will think he’s had too much sherry but that hasn’t stopped him drawing up plans for the ceremony.

“I love my Christmas tree more than anything else, so that’s why I want to marry it,” the Sun quoted the 47-year-old divorcee from Melksham, Wilts, as saying.

“I’ve already got a ring, although I’m not sure yet which branch I’ll want to hang it on. The only problem seems to be finding a vicar who is willing to do the ceremony,” he said.

He said that although he’d only had the plastic tree for two years, he felt it was like “his best friend” and he never tired of seeing it sitting in his living room.

“I can’t see why we can’t be joined in matrimony. I’ve heard of other people marrying their pets and so on, so why can’t I get hitched to my tree?” he added.”

Read more at Sify News

Dec 23, 2010

Placebo Effect Works Without the Bluff

A fake pill can make patients feel better, even when they know it's nothing but inert ingredients, according to a new study.

It has been known for decades that patients taking a dummy pill or receiving a fake treatment they believe is real can still show improvement of their symptoms. This placebo effect is strong enough that more than half of doctors admit to prescribing drugs strictly to capitalize on the patients' placebo reaction to taking a pill.

But this practice raises ethical questions, nor can doctors prescribe fake pills while telling a patient they are taking a real drug.

A new study shows that there may not be need for deception. In certain situations, doctors may be able to invoke the same benefits of placebos even if the patients know they are taking a pill with no active ingredients.

"There's a universal belief in medicine that placebos are only effective if you fool the patient into believing they are receiving the medicine," said Ted Kaptchuk at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School in Boston. "We decided to test if this is true. Do you really have to lie to get a placebo effect?"

The study involved 80 volunteers with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), half of whom were assigned to receive no treatment while the other half received placebo pills.

The pills were presented as "placebo pills made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes." (This description was true.)

The patients were also told that the placebo effect is powerful; that the body can become conditioned to respond to placebo pills like Pavlov's dogs were conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell; that a positive attitude helps but is not necessary; and that taking the pills faithfully is crucial.

"We built up expectations in the sense that we explained that the placebo effects are real, they happen automatically and you don’t have to believe in them," Kaptchuk said. "We also tried to suspend the patients' disbelief."

Read more at Discovery News

Some of the Universe's Biggest Stars are Loners

Feeling lonely this Christmas? Spare a thought for some of the most massive stars in our universe that shine so bright, but live all on their lonesome.

One would think that to build the biggest stars, you need a really big star factory, like a bubbling and churning stellar nursery stuffed full of plump baby stars gulping down as much nebulous gas a possible. However, according to a University of Michigan study, some of the biggest stars can reach a ripe, massive age in isolation.

Using the Hubble Space Telescope, the Michigan astrophysicists analyzed eight stellar monsters -- each 20 to 150 times the mass of the sun -- in the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC). The SMC is one of the Milky Way's nearest galactic neighbors.

Five of the massive stars had no neighboring stars and the other three lived in small clusters of ten or less stars. This finding suggests this sample of stars grew fat in a region of space with few stellar siblings.

Using one of the better analogies I've read in a press release, Joel Lamb, a doctoral student in the Department of Astronomy, likened these big stellar loners in small clusters to big fish in small ponds.

"My dad used to fish in a tiny pond on his grandma's farm," Lamb said. "One day he pulled out a giant largemouth bass. This was the biggest fish he's caught, and he's fished in a lot of big lakes. What we're looking at is analogous to this. We're asking: 'Can a small pond produce a giant fish? Does the size of the lake determine how big the fish is?'"

"Our results show that you can, in fact, form big stars in small ponds."

Read more at Discovery News

Missed the Lunar Eclipse. Here it is in stop motion.

Winter Solstice Lunar Eclipse from William Castleman on Vimeo.

Dec 22, 2010

Neanderthal Relative Bred With Humans

A previously unknown Siberian group, the Denisovans, left fingerprints in some humans' DNA.

Neanderthals need to make room for a new kid sister in the early human family.

By sequencing the full genome of a girl's fossil finger bone found in a Siberian cave, researchers conclude that there must have been a closely related sister group of Neanderthals living in central Asia about 40,000 years ago. The data also show that, like Neanderthals, the mysterious group interbred with modern humans, in this case leaving behind a genetic fingerprint in modern-day Melanesians of Papua New Guinea and Bougainville Island, nearly 10,000 kilometers (6,213 miles) from where the fossil was found.

The new genetic information, reported Dec. 23 in Nature, underscores the fluidity of human evolution and hints that even more groups are waiting to be uncovered, says paleoanthropologist Milford Wolpoff of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "We're just scraping the outside of what's probably a much more complex picture."

As recently as a year ago, evidence suggested that modern humans spread throughout the world in a single migration out of Africa that wiped out any genetic traces of other early hominids. But the new study suggests that the lineage of modern humans is much more intertwined.

"This is quite exciting," says genomicist Webb Miller of Pennsylvania State University in University Park. "A lot of people are going to hate it and a lot of people are going to love it."

The presence of the ancient group's genes in modern-day humans suggests that the new group, christened "Denisovans" after the Denisova Cave in southern Siberia where the finger bone was found, was once widespread throughout Asia.

"This was a place where Neandertals and modern humans were already known to be living, right in this region," says study co-author David Reich of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Mass. "Now there's a third group that's neither Neanderthal nor modern human."

Earlier this year, researchers reported sequencing the mitochondrial DNA from the finger bone, leading them to conclude that the girl belonged to a new group that split from the line leading to modern humans about a million years ago, before the Neanderthal-human split about 270,000 to 400,000 years ago. But mitochondrial DNA, a small loop of genetic material inherited only through the female line, isn't as informative as the DNA packed into cells' nuclei. So Reich and his colleagues decided to sequence the entire nuclear genome.

Read more at Discovery News

Beatles' Abbey Road Crossing a Historic Landmark

A legendary London zebra crossing featured on the cover of The Beatles' album "Abbey Road" has been designated a heritage site, the British government said Wednesday.

Heritage minister John Penrose said the decision to list the black-and-white crossing in north London was a "fantastic testimony to the international fame of the Beatles".

Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr are seen walking across the road in the picture on the sleeve of their 1969 album. The crossing is outside the Abbey Road studios where it was recorded.

McCartney welcomed the news, which comes in a big year for the band after their songs went on sale on Apple's iTunes for the first time.

"It's been a great year for me and a great year for the Beatles and hearing that the Abbey Road crossing is to be preserved is the icing on the cake," McCartney said.

It is the first time that Britain has given so-called Grade II status to a site that is not a building.

"It is a fantastic testimony to the international fame of the Beatles that, more than 40 years on, this crossing continues to attract thousands of visitors each year, trying to mimic their iconic Abbey Road album cover," Penrose said.

Read more at Discovery News

Indian Man Marries and Then Sells 60 Wives To Brothels

In Darjeeling, a mountainous tea-growing district of the eastern state of West Bengal, a 27 year-old man has been arrested for duping 60 women into marrying him and then selling them into prostitution.

Bikky Biswarkarma pretended to be a well paid army officer home on holiday when over a five year period, he married at least 60 girls and then sold them to brothels in Mumbai and Pune, cities in the western state of Maharastra, for 70,000-100,000 rupees ($1,500-$2,000).

“He used to pose as an army man on leave who…wanted to get married before returning to work. He would change bases frequently to lure girls from poor families in tea gardens and villages,” said district police chief, Debendra Prasad Singh.

It was difficult for the police to take action in this case because there were few if any complaints issued by the families of the girls who never knew they had been sold to brothels.

Emirates 247

Cache in Chinese Mountain Reveals 20,000 Prehistoric Fossils

A giant cache of nearly 20,000 fossil reptiles, shellfish and a host of other prehistoric creatures unearthed from a mountain in China is now revealing how life recovered after the most devastating mass extinction on Earth.

This research could help point out which species might be more or less susceptible to extinction nowadays, and how the world might recover from the damage caused by humanity, scientists added.

Life was nearly completely wiped out approximately 250 million years ago by massive volcanic eruptions and devastating global warming. Only one in 10 species survived this cataclysmic end-Permian event.

Much was uncertain regarding the steps life took to piece itself back together after this disaster, or even how long it took. Now the clearest picture yet of this recovery has been discovered by a team of researchers, who excavated away half a mountain in Luoping in southwest China to unearth thousands of marine fossils, the first fully functional ecosystem seen after the end-Permian.

"The pattern and timing of recovery can tell us something about how life today might recover after human-induced crises," said researcher Michael Benton, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Bristol in England.

A trove of fossils

The 50-foot-thick (16 meters) layer of limestone that held these fossils dates back to when south China was a large island just north of the equator with a tropical climate. A smattering of fossil land plants suggest this marine community lived near a conifer forest.

Read more at Yahoo! News

Dec 21, 2010

Ukraine to open Chernobyl area to tourists in 2011

“Want a better understanding of the world’s worst nuclear disaster? Come tour the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Beginning next year, Ukraine plans to open up the sealed zone around the Chernobyl reactor to visitors who wish to learn more about the tragedy that occurred nearly a quarter of a century ago, the Emergency Situations Ministry said Monday.

Chernobyl’s reactor No. 4 exploded on April 26, 1986, spewing radiation over a large swath of northern Europe. Hundreds of thousands of people were resettled from areas contaminated with radiation fallout in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Related health problems still persist. The so-called exclusion zone, a highly contaminated area within a 30-mile (48-kilometer) radius of the exploded reactor, was evacuated and sealed off in the aftermath of the explosion. All visits were prohibited.

Today, about 2,500 employees maintain the remains of the now-closed nuclear plant, working in shifts to minimize their exposure to radiation. Several hundred evacuees have returned to their villages in the area despite a government ban. A few firms now offer tours to the restricted area, but the government says those tours are illegal and their safety is not guaranteed.

Emergency Situations Ministry spokeswoman Yulia Yershova said experts are developing travel routes that will be both medically safe and informative for Ukrainians as well as foreign visitors. She did not give an exact date when the tours were expected to begin.”

Read more at NC Times

Fly Geyser – Not Quite Of This World

“They look as if they were taken on another planet, or at least on the set of a new and very expensive science fiction movie. Yet these pictures are of the Fly Geyser which is very much of planet earth (Nevada, US to be exact). However – and herein lies the surprise – it is effectively man made.

The geyser can be found in Hualapai Valley near Gerlach. It is a little seen phenomenon as the land upon which it sits is private. It can be seen from State Road 34 but unless you have permission the view from a distance is all you should attempt.

Back in 1916 the owners of the place were looking for water in the hope of creating rich farmland in this desert area of the state. They came across water, yes, and the well worked for decades. However, the drill that was driven down a shaft hit a geothermal pocket of water and the result was a geyser, if not quite made by man then certainly made possible by him.

Yet it is not the geyser you see in the pictures here. In the 1960s the water found another weak spot and a new, natural geyser was created. The older one no longer spouts at all. It is thought that the new geyser somehow diverted its water. Or perhaps it simply waits for another time to come when it can spring in to life again.”

Read more and see further photos at Kuriositas

Nasa captures stunning images of the far side of the moon

“These amazing pictures capture the moon’s cratered surface in the most intricate detail ever recorded.
The images, which were taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter (LRO), have boosted the resolution of images of the far side of the moon over 100 times.

Digital elevation and terrain maps based on the new data reveal the heavily cratered and bumpy surface of the moon in all its complexity.

Dr Gregory Neumann of NASA’S Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said that digital elevation and terrain maps based on the new data ‘will be a fundamental reference for future scientific and human exploration missions to the moon.’ The brilliant, iridescent green concepts, pictured here, show the topography of different hemispheres of the moon.

Dr Neumann said: ‘After about one year taking data, we already have nearly 3 billion data points from the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter on board the LRO spacecraft.

‘We expect to continue to make measurements at this rate through the next two years of the science phase of the mission and beyond. Near the poles, we expect to provide near-GPS-like navigational capability as coverage is denser due to the spacecraft’s polar orbit.’”

Read more at The Daily Mail

Dec 20, 2010

Life on Earth Began Three Billion Years Ago

Life on Earth dramatically surged around three billion years ago, possibly when primitive forms developed more efficient ways to harness energy from sunlight, according to a study published on Sunday in Nature.

The conclusion is made by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who built a "genomic fossil," in essence a mathematical model that took 1,000 key genes that exist today and calculated how they evolved from the very distant past.

The collective genome of all life expanded massively between 3.3 and 2.8 billion years ago, and during this time 27 percent of all presently existing gene families came into being, the study suggests.

Investigators Eric Alm and Lawrence David said the great surge probably came through the advent of a biochemical process called modern electron transport.

This is a key biological function, involving the movement of electrons within the membranes of cells. It is central to plants and to some microbes, enabling them to harvest energy from the sun through photosynthesis and to breathe oxygen.

The big change, which Alm and David dub the Archean expansion, was followed some 500 million years later by a phenomenon known as the Great Oxidation Event, when Earth's atmosphere became progressively flooded with oxygen.

The Great Oxidation Event is possibly the biggest species turnover in Earth's history, as primitive or microbial lifeforms that were non-oxygen breathers died out and were replaced by bigger, smarter aerobic forms.

"Our results can't say if the development of electron transport directly caused the Archean Expansion," David admitted.

"Nonetheless, we can speculate that having access to a much larger energy budget enabled the biosphere to host larger and more complex microbial ecosystems."

Read more at Discovery News

UFO hunters claim alien incidents are 'US airmen covering up blunders'

There has been widespread and continuing belief that the mysterious lights and flying saucer seen in a remote forest next to a US Air Force base on Boxing Day 1980 were alien ships.

But now as the 30th anniversary of the bizarre incident approaches, locals have suggested the real explanation lies with an American helicopter crew who bungled the transfer of an Apollo space capsule and tried to cover it up with the UFO claim.

They believe the "alien spacecraft" was actually the crew pod from a space rocket which was accidentally dropped in Rendlesham Forest, Woodbridge, Suffolk by the helicopter from the nearby Bentwaters air base.

Witnesses reported seeing bright fast moving lights in the sky leading to speculation that it was a UFO.

Several badly-shaken American airmen gave detailed descriptions of the craft after it landed and security teams, guarding NATO nuclear weapons on the base, raced to investigate.

Read more at The Telegraph

Scientists find the sleep switch inside our brains

Researchers have discovered the mechanism that causes the brain to switch from being awake to sleeping, according to a study from Washington State University. The analysis is expected to help scientists focus on finding ways to develop new sleep aids and even treatments for strokes and brain injuries.

“We know that brain activity is linked to sleep, but we’ve never known how,” said James Krueger, WSU neuroscientist and lead author of a paper in the latest edition of the Journal of Applied Physiology. ”This gives us a mechanism to link brain activity to sleep. This has not been done before.”

In an interview with Postmedia News, Krueger said the way we sleep goes against what science believed previously. ”Our work also emphasizes that sleep begins as a local process driven by cell activity.” Krueger said the view is in contrast to the current sleep research that views sleep as being imposed upon the brain by sleep regulatory circuits.

“The problem with that view is that despite millions of cases of stroke (brain damage) or intentional lesions to those circuits, a sleepless human or animal has yet to be described (with exception of patients in a coma, which is neither a wake nor sleep state),” he said.

The researchers documented how ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the fundamental energy currency of cells, is released by active brain cells to start the molecular events leading to sleep. The ATP then binds to a receptor responsible for cell processing and the release of cytokines, small signalling proteins involved in sleep regulation.

Read more: Montreal Gazette

Four in 10 Americans Believe in Strict Creationism

Belief in evolutionary origins of humans slowly rising, however.

Four in 10 Americans, slightly fewer today than in years past, believe God created humans in their present form about 10,000 years ago. Thirty-eight percent believe God guided a process by which humans developed over millions of years from less advanced life forms, while 16%, up slightly from years past, believe humans developed over millions of years, without God’s involvement.

A small minority of Americans hold the “secular evolution” view that humans evolved with no influence from God — but the number has risen from 9% in 1982 to 16% today. At the same time, the 40% of Americans who hold the “creationist” view that God created humans as is 10,000 years ago is the lowest in Gallup’s history of asking this question, and down from a high point of 47% in 1993 and 1999. There has been little change over the years in the percentage holding the “theistic evolution” view that humans evolved under God’s guidance.

Americans’ views on human origins vary significantly by level of education and religiosity. Those who are less educated are more likely to hold a creationist view. Those with college degrees and postgraduate education are more likely to hold one of the two viewpoints involving evolution.

Read more at Gallup

Dec 19, 2010

World's first animal-to-human transplant approved

THE world's first xenotransplantation treatment - where animal cells are transplanted into humans - has been approved for sale in Russia.

The treatment, developed by Living Cell Technologies in New Zealand, is for type 1 diabetes. It consists of insulin-producing pig cells coated in seaweed, says Bob Elliott of LCT.

Type 1 diabetes occurs when insulin-producing cells in the pancreas are destroyed. Insulin is vital in controlling blood glucose levels, so people who lack the cells need daily insulin injections.

However, injecting the wrong amount of insulin can cause blood glucose levels to swing dangerously, causing fainting, and cardiovascular and nervous effects. These can reduce a person's life span, Elliott says.

LCT's treatment involves surgically implanting the replacement cells into the pancreas. The "seaweed" coating is alginate, which prevents the immune system from attacking the foreign cells.

Read more at New Scientist

How Will We Know if Planets Are Inhabited?

The recent and scientifically controversial announcement of arsenic-eating microbes in the eastern California desert has ratcheted up the expectation of finding life among the stars.

Add this to the building anticipation of the NASA Kepler mission’s promise to find “Earth-sized” planets in its survey of over 100,000 stars near the Summer Triangle.

Another Kepler data release is scheduled for February and once again there will probably be a flurry of blogs speculating if the mission has found the interstellar Holy Grail -- an Earth-sized planet in the balmy habitable zone about a sunlike star.

A term that's often kicked around is finding an Earth-analog. But what does that really mean? Does it imply something is living there? If so, the answer is very likely to be decades away, and full of uncertainty.

What Makes Earth Habitable?

The habitability of Earth depends on a lot more than just orbit location and its mass. Proponents of the Rare Earth hypothesis say that a long chain of unlikely events led to the emergence of complex life here. The Gaia hypothesis proposes Earth is nurtured and reshaped by life into a single mega-organism.

The flip side is the Medea hypothesis that says life is self-destructive and poisons a planet. For example, over 2 billion years ago blue green algae pumped out oxygen that was toxic to ancient bacteria. Microbes may have sucked enough greehouse gasses out of the atmosphere to trigger two "mother of all ice ages" at 2.3 billion years ago and again at 700 million years ago.

Based on current theories of planetary evolution, any extraterrestrials observing the solar system 4 billion years ago would have seen oceans on Venus, Earth, and Mars. Alien scientists would have cataloged all of them as potentially habitable.

Earth’s biggest advantage comes from having plate tectonics that stabilize the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that keeps Earth warm. Carbonic acid (essentially soda pop) dissolved in silicate rocks is transported to our oceans by rain. Sea life makes carbonate shells from this runoff. This makes carbonate sediments on the floor of the ocean that are subducted back into the Earth though plate tectonics. Volcanism recycles the carbonates into the atmosphere.

Read more at Discovery News