Dec 31, 2012

Happy New Year

Just wanted to take the time and wish all you readers a very happy new year. Hope that you all will have a great new year.

From A Magical Journey

Dec 30, 2012

Hubble Eyes the Needle Galaxy: IC 2233, One of the Flattest Galaxies Known

Like finding a silver needle in the haystack of space, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has produced a beautiful image of the spiral galaxy IC 2233, one of the flattest galaxies known.

Typical spiral galaxies like the Milky Way are usually made up of three principal visible components: the disk where the spiral arms and most of the gas and dust is concentrated; the halo, a rough and sparse sphere around the disk that contains little gas, dust or star formation; and the central bulge at the heart of the disk, which is formed by a large concentration of ancient stars surrounding the Galactic Center.

However, IC 2233 is far from being typical. This object is a prime example of a super-thin galaxy, where the galaxy's diameter is at least ten times larger than the thickness. These galaxies consist of a simple disk of stars when seen edge on. This orientation makes them fascinating to study, giving another perspective on spiral galaxies. An important characteristic of this type of objects is that they have a low brightness and almost all of them have no bulge at all.

The bluish color that can be seen along the disk gives evidence of the spiral nature of the galaxy, indicating the presence of hot, luminous, young stars, born out of clouds of interstellar gas. In addition, unlike typical spirals, IC 2233 shows no well-defined dust lane. Only a few small patchy regions can be identified in the inner regions both above and below the galaxy's mid-plane.

Lying in the constellation of Lynx, IC 2233 is located about 40 million light-years away from Earth. This galaxy was discovered by British astronomer Isaac Roberts in 1894.

Read more at Science Daily

Scientists Challenge Current Theories About Natural Habitats and Species Diversity

How can a square meter of meadow contain tens of species of plants? And what factors determine the number of species that live in an ecosystem? Science journal has defined this as one of the 25 most important unresolved questions in science, both for its importance in understanding nature and due to the value of natural ecosystems for humankind. The value of goods and services provided by natural ecosystems is estimated to exceed the GDP of our planet.

For over 50 years, conventional ecological theories have predicted that the number of species that can coexist in a given area increases with the heterogeneity of the environmental conditions in the habitat. This premise was examined in a study conducted by research students Omri Allouche and Michael Kalyuzhny, guided by Prof. Ronen Kadmon from the Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in collaboration with Prof. Gregorio Moreno-Rueda and Prof. Manuel Pizarro from Universidad de Granada.

The researchers claim that in a heterogeneous environment -- where there are many different types of habitats -- there are fewer resources and less suitable area available to each species, making them more vulnerable to local extinction. This leads to the hypothesis that excessive habitat heterogeneity may actually reduce the number of species.

This hypothesis was examined using mathematical models and empirical analyses of natural ecosystems. Its predictions were examined with a meta-analysis of tens of datasets of plant and animal species from various localities worldwide.

Both the theoretical results and the data analyses supported the researchers' hypothesis that habitat heterogeneity may increase the rate of species extinctions and therefore reduce the number of species that inhabit the ecosystem.

These findings are very important for the conservation of biodiversity, since the current practice is to conserve areas of maximal habitat heterogeneity and even to take measures to increase habitat heterogeneity. The study shows that this conventional approach may lead to negative results, especially in the case of landscapes of limited size, which is typical of nature reserves.

Ecosystems and the species they consist of are under increasing pressure of human activity. In these conditions, skillful and intelligent management of natural landscapes is vital. This study provides scientists and policy makers with important insights for the selection and management of areas for conservation.

Read more at Science Daily

Dec 29, 2012

The Sceptical Award

The past years I've been giving away an Sceptical Award to someone(s) who has been working in the scientific or sceptical era and this year I was asking the readers of A Magical Journey if they could suggest anything but you didn't! This means that I had to deside for myself again!

This years winner is last years runner up is Arab Atheists!
They have been inspired by swedish sceptics and been recieving death threaths but survived and they deserve all the support they can get! All atheists and sceptics are all behind you! you are safe with us!

Danny Boston from A Magical Journey

Dec 28, 2012

Cave Dwelling Nettle Discovered in China

South West China, Myanmar and Northern Vietnam contain one of the oldest exposed outcrops of limestone in the world. Within this area are thousands of caves and gorges. It is only recently that botanists have sought to explore the caves for plants. This exploration is yielding many new species new to science, that are known only from these habitats.

The current study was published in the open access journal PhytoKeys.

Kew botanist and nettle expert Alex Monro says, "When my Chinese colleague Wei Yi-Gang from the Guangxi Institute of Botany first mentioned cave-dwelling plants to me, I thought that he was mis-translating a Chinese word into English. When we stepped into our first cave, Yangzi cave, I was spell-bound. It had an eerie moonscape look to it and all I could see were clumps of plants in the nettle family growing in very dark condition."

The plants do not grow in complete darkness but do grow in extremely low light levels, deep within the entrance caverns of the caves (sometimes, in as little as 0.04% full sunlight). The British and Chinese authors have been collecting plants from the Nettle family in this limestone landscape for several years and have just published a paper describing three new species, one from a cave and another two from deep gorges.

The cave-dwelling nettle species in question, was found growing in two caves in the Guangxi province of China. Of the species discovered in gorges, one is known from an unusual and striking rock mineral formation called petaloid travertine. Petaloid travertine is a form of limestone deposited by mineral springs that over time forms large petals of rock, in this case clinging to the vertical walls of a gorge.

Read more at Science Daily

Oldest Known Depiction of Pharaoh Found

The oldest known representation of a pharaoh has been found carved on rocks at a desert site in southern Egypt, according to new research into long forgotten engravings.

Found on vertical rocks at Nag el-Hamdulab, four miles north of the Aswan Dam, the images depict a pharaoh riding boats with attendant prisoners and animals in what is thought to be a tax-collecting tour.

"We don't know with certainty who the king represented at Hamdulab is. We can guess on paleographic and iconographic grounds," Maria Carmela Gatto, associate research scholar in Egyptology at Yale University and co-director of  thee Aswan-Kom Ombo archaeological project in Egypt, told Discovery News.

Indeed, the style of the carvings suggests that the images were made at a late Dynasty date, around 3200-3100 B.C. This would have been the reign of Narmer, the first king to unify northern and southern Egypt, thus regarded by many scholars as Egypt's founding pharaoh.

Dating back more than 5,000 years, the rock drawings appear to feature the earliest known depiction of a pharaoh, according to Gatto and colleagues.

"There are depictions of local rulers since the first half of the fourth millennium B.C., but Hamdulab seems by date to be the earliest datable representation of a king wearing one of the recognizable crowns of the ruler of all Egypt, engaged in a labeled royal ritual," John Darnell, professor of Egyptology at Yale University, told Discovery News.

 Discovered in the 1890s by the archaeologist Archibald Sayce, the carvings remained unnoticed for over a century. In the 1960s, Egyptian archaeologist Labib Habachi photographed Sayce's drawings of the rock images, but never published them.

When one of Habachi's pictures resurfaced in 2008, Gatto investigated the site, discovering an entire rock art gallery.

"Sayce's imperfect hand copy did not concern a single rock art scene, but was rather an excerpt from one of a number of scenes located at short distances from each other," Gatto, Darnell and Belgian archaeologist Stan Hendrickx, wrote in December's issue of the journal Antiquity.

The researchers investigated a total of seven carvings, which feature scenes depicting hunting, warfare, and nautical festival events.

The most extensive rock art picture, nearly 10 feet wide, shows five boats, one of which carries an anonymous king holding a long sceptre and wearing the White Crown, a conical shaped headpiece that symbolized rulership of southern Egypt.

The king is followed by a fan-bearer and preceded by a dog and two standard-bearers. A falcon standard appears below the king, while three of the boats boast a standard with bull horns.

"Both the falcon and the bull are royal symbols, emphasizing the royal character of the boats," the researchers wrote.

At the bottom of the tableau, another boat features a decorated vaulted cabin, which according to the researchers represents a shrine. The vessel is then transformed into a "divine boat," placing the tableaux in a religious context.

In front of the royal boat are four bearded persons holding a rope, likely representing people towing the ship.

"The entire scene depicts the moment that the religious procession of pre-Dynastic Egypt became the triumphant tour of a tax-collecting monarch," the researchers said.

A four-sign hieroglyphic inscription labeled the imagery as a "nautical following."

According to Gatto and colleagues, this is likely related to a royal and ritual event known as the "Following of Horus"-- a biennial tax-collection tour of the king and his court to demonstrate royal authority throughout the land.

Read more at Discovery News

Genesis II: Extraterrestrial Oceans Could Host Life

NASA's battle cry behind the small armada of orbiters, landers and rovers dispatched to Mars is "follow the water!" Where there's water, there could be life, which needs a solvent like water to assemble the complex macromolecules needed for living systems.

Mars is covered with geological evidence that it was once a soggy planet. But no longer. One of the most exciting findings to date from the roving field geologist, the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity, was the detection of a dried up ancient stream where water once flowed billions of years ago.

The irony is that if you travel a couple hundred million miles beyond Mars' orbit you cross the solar system's frost line, the boundary beyond which there is plenty of water preserved from the planets' birth.

At least six outer moons have subsurface oceans that could potentially be cozy places for life: Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, Titan, Enceladus and Triton. Each of them could have as much if not more water than found in all of Earth’s oceans. In fact Earth is a comparatively dry world.

The idea of a stellar habitable zone, where water can remain stable on a planet's surface, was scientifically spelled out and popularized by Michael Hart in the late 1970s. Since such a zone is a narrow slice of the solar system's real estate, Hart used his widely cited research paper to support the Rare Earth hypothesis: that the evolution of complex life would be hard to replicate in the cosmos.

Today, the concept of a habitable zone is old fashioned says Ken Hand of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "The Goldilocks scenario is outdated. There are new ways to mediate habitability via tidal interactions."

This new paradigm is further bolstered by the emerging realization that there is a tremendous diversity of life on Earth in extreme environments. In fact, the so-called "exteremeophiles" were probably the first inhabitants of Earth -- and will be the last survivors 1 billion years from now.

Finding samples of life in extraterrestrial oceans is no small task. It requires burrowing through miles of a thick ice shell. But in actuality that would be far less difficult than sending an industrial drilling rig and astronaut crew to Mars to penetrate deep into subsurface aquifers.

More importantly, finding life in a Europa ocean would unequivocally prove that a Genesis II took place in the solar system. And that would mean that life is an inevitable spinoff of an evolving universe.

Even more profoundly, if Europan microbes incorporated RNA and DNA into their biological machinery it would demonstrate that the concept of convergent evolution beats out contingent evolution that favors a purely random sequence of events (as in the Rare Earth hypothesis).

Convergent evolution predicts that the universe defaults to the same molecular template for life regardless of the initial starting conditions and biological constraints. No doubt creationists would embrace such news as evidence for intelligent design.

Why can't finding Mars microbes lead us to the same solution? The problem is that if Martians were found to use DNA and RNA, it would be tempting to think that they are really our cousins. The early solar system may have seen planetary cross-fertilization via dispersal of hitchhiking microbes between Earth and Mars meteorites. Or, less likely, Mars may have been contaminated by poorly sterilized spacecraft from Earth.

This would not be the case for any of the outer solar system oceans that have been encapsulated for billions of years.

The Saturnian moon Enceladus is one of the most promising places to go "microbe fishing" though it is a staggering one billion miles away. The Enceladus ocean "jumped out at us," says Hand. Geyser-like plumes spewing off the moon from slush fill surface cracks contain water and organics. The moon is tidally heated and this has been brewing an ocean for billions of years.

At half Enceladus' distance, the Jovian moon Europa seems a better destination for astrobiology hunting. Europa has two to three times more water than Earth. Where Earth's oceans average a depth of a few miles, Europa's ocean is at least ten times deeper.

The European Space Agency's planned Jupiter Icy moons Explorer (JUICE) will tour all three Jovian ocean worlds, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto beginning in 2030. Looking beyond 2030 the mother of all sample returns would be to land on Europa and dispatch a nuclear-heated cryobot probe to melt its way though a thin portion of the ice shell. Ultimately, samples of the Europan ocean would be returned to Earth for study at a class 5 biocontamination lab.

Sterilization would be no problem because the probe would be irradiated in Jupiter’s seething radiation belts. The moon's hydrogen peroxide would further sterilize the probe as it burrowed through the ice.

Read more at Discovery News

Saber Toothed Cats Didn't Starve Into Extinction

The fearsome felines of the Ice Age in California don’t show signs of starving immediately before their extinction. Teeth of saber-toothed cats and the American lions didn’t have wear marks that would have suggested the cats were gnawing on bones in hunger near the time of the cats’ extinctions.

"Tooth wear patterns suggest that these cats were not desperately consuming entire carcasses, as was expected, and instead seemed to be living the 'good life' during the late Pleistocene, at least up until the very end," said lead author Larisa DeSantis of Vanderbilt University in a press release.

Tooth wear patterns did reveal previously unknown differences in the two cat species behavior. Saber-toothed cats, also known as Smilodon, appeared to have regularly crunched bones, and showed no increase in this dietary distinction toward the end of their reign, which spanned from 30,000 to 10,000 years ago. American lions however, were more finicky and seem to have avoided bones, much as modern cheetahs do.

The extinction of the predators remains a mystery. Some have suggested that the changing climate at the end of the last Ice Age along with an influx of animals from Asia, including the ferocious Homo sapiens, may have left Smilodon with nothing to grin about.

From Discovery News

Dec 27, 2012

Two New Species of Orchid Found in Cuba

Researchers from the University of Vigo, in collaboration with the Environmental Services Unit at the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park (Cuba), have discovered two new species of Caribbean orchid.

The Caribbean islands have been natural laboratories and a source of inspiration for biologists for over two centuries now. Suffice to say that the studies by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in the tropical archipelagos contributed to the emergence of the theory of evolution.

In this case, a Spanish research team from the University of Vigo has discovered two new species belonging to the orchid family (Orchidaceae: Laeliinae) in Cuba. They have been called Tetramicra riparia and Encyclia navarroi. The two plants were found in the eastern and western zones of the island respectively.

"The first species described, Encyclia navarroi, is an orchid with considerably large flowers. A year later we discovered the Tetramicra riparia species, with very small flowers. The latter is so named because it grows on the banks of stony streams in the mountains of Baracoa, one of the rainiest and least explored areas in Cuba," as Ángel Vale explained. Vale is a researcher at the University of Vigo and co-author of the studies published by the journals Systematic Botany and Annales Botanici Fennici.

Darwin was very much drawn to the orchid family, and used it to propose certain hypotheses about the importance of the relations between flowers and pollinators for biodiversity. Between 25,000 and 30,000 species of these plants are estimated to exist. However, the mechanisms that explain this amazing variety are only now being discovered.

"We could highlight their extraordinary capacity to interact with different types of pollinators. Contrary to most plants, many orchids do not produce nectar or other substances to compensate insects and birds that visit them," explained the researcher.

Orchids' deceit pollination

Despite this, floral visitors are attracted by orchids' colours and shapes, which enables the plants' sexual reproduction. This is known as deceit pollination.

The University of Vigo Plant Ecology and Evolution research team, which Vale belongs to, is studying the ecological and evolutionary consequences of deceit pollination in orchids that are endemic to the Greater Antilles: Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. One of the mysteries they aim to solve is if the deceit orchids have a greater taxonomic and genetic diversity than other nectar-producing species.

Vale and his team are drawing up studies in the Antilles not only to reconstruct the evolutionary history of orchids but also to analyse the effect of pollinators in the reproduction of plants, and how this interaction has modelled the colourful aspect of these Caribbean flowers.

"Despite the fact that T. riparia's flowers have a complete central petal, just like other species that make up a subgenre endemic to Cuba; the way they grow is very similar to a more widespread group that seems to have diverged on the neighbouring island of Hispaniola. Our work provides molecular evidence of the greater relationship of T. riparia with these species on the neighbouring island. This is in consonance with the geological history of the Caribbean islands, according to which the eastern end of Cuba was in close contact with that land," pointed out Vale.

Scientists are currently trying to estimate how many millions of years ago this and other Caribbean species saw the light of day. This will enable them to test whether the ancestor of this species was already in Cuba, or if on the contrary, it evolved from an ancestor that colonised the island from neighbouring archipelagos.

Read more at Science Daily

Study Hints That Stem Cells Prepare for Maturity Much Earlier Than Anticipated

Unlike less versatile muscle or nerve cells, embryonic stem cells are by definition equipped to assume any cellular role. Scientists call this flexibility "pluripotency," meaning that as an organism develops, stem cells must be ready at a moment's notice to activate highly diverse gene expression programs used to turn them into blood, brain, or kidney cells.

Scientists from the lab of Stowers Investigator Ali Shilatifard, Ph.D., report in the December 27, 2012 online issue of Cell that one way cells stay so plastic is by stationing a protein called Ell3 at stretches of DNA known as "enhancers" required to activate a neighboring gene. Their findings suggest that Ell3 parked at the enhancer of a developmentally regulated gene, even one that is silent, primes it for future expression. This finding is significant as many of these same genes are abnormally switched on in cancer.

"We now know that some enhancer misregulation is involved in the pathogenesis of solid and hematological malignances," says Shilatifard. "But a problem in the field has been how to identify inactive or poised enhancer elements. Our discovery that Ell3 interacts with enhancers in ES cells gives us a hand-hold to identify and to study them."

In 2000, Shilatifard identified Ell3 as the third member of the Ell (for "Eleven-nineteen lysine-rich leukemia gene") family of elongation factors, proteins that increase the rate at which genes are expressed. "At the time, we didn't think much of Ell3 because it was highly expressed in testes," says Shilatifard, noting that then people thought that sperm were merely vessels used to carry paternal DNA to an egg and that associated factors would have little relevance to the regulation of future gene expression in the resulting embryo.

But a few years back, a curious Open University graduate student working in the Shilatifard lab, Chengqi Lin, started exploring a potential function for the neglected gene by initiating a global search for regions occupied by Ell3 in the genome of mouse embryonic stem cells. His search in collaboration with a bioinformatician in the Shilatifard lab, Alexander S. Garruss, revealed that Ell3 sits on more than 5,000 enhancers, including many that regulate genes governing stem cell maturation into spinal cord, kidney, and blood cells.

"What was interesting was that Ell3 marked enhancers that are active and inactive, as well as enhancers that are known as "poised," says Lin, referring to a transition state from inactive to active. "That indicated that Ell3's major function might be to prime activation of genes that are just about to be expressed during development."

The fact that silent genes can be "primed" for expression was no surprise: researchers knew that the enzymatic machine that copies DNA into the RNA blueprint for proteins -- a protein called Pol II -- often pauses at the start of a gene, presumably revving its engine in preparation to jump across the genetic start gate in response to a developmental signal. However, Shilatifard and colleagues showed several years ago that paused Pol II is not a prerequisite for rapid transcriptional induction.

The surprise came when researchers used a molecular trick to deplete mouse ES cells of Ell3 and then did a "genomic" survey. They found that paused Pol II vanished from the start sites of many genes in Ell3-deficient cells. This means that not only does Ell3 preferentially mark stem enhancers, but also that its presence there is necessary to keep an idling Pol II ready for action.

Most of the current study defines how, when the developmental time is right, enhancer-bound Ell3 cooperates with components of a big-boss elongation factor called the Super Elongation Complex to release Pol II from the start gate, allowing the expression of genes required for stem cell differentiation. Critical among those findings is their observation that mouse stem cells depleted of Ell3 failed to activate genes expressed in mature cell types.

These results alone are cause for any lab to start chilling the champagne, yet a surprising coda to the study, leaves readers with yet another revelation. Collaborating with Fengli Guo, Ph.D., head of the Stowers electron microscopy core, the team prepared highly magnified images of mouse sperm and observed that both Ell3 and Pol II were present, in sperm nuclei.

In mammals, gene expression regulated by Pol II, a process known as transcription, does not begin until the formation of a single-celled zygote, that is, well after the union of sperm and egg germ cells. "It is very significant that Ell3 and other factors that regulate transcription are found in sperm," says Lin, the study's first author. Lin is cautious in interpreting this finding, "but it would be very exciting to further investigate whether transcription factors found in sperm could contribute to the decondensation of sperm chromatin or even further gene activation after fertilization by serving as epigenetic markers."

Shilatifard is also cautious as questions remain to be explored, among them whether Ell3 and Pol II actually contact DNA inside sperm or whether similar processes occur in unfertilized eggs and function in this process. Nonetheless, he feels this finding has fundamental implications, not only for development, but also for where he's going next.

Read more at Science Daily

Mathematician's Century-Old Secrets Unlocked

While on his death bed, the brilliant Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan cryptically wrote down functions he said came to him in dreams, with a hunch about how they behaved. Now 100 years later, researchers say they've proved he was right.

"We've solved the problems from his last mysterious letters. For people who work in this area of math, the problem has been open for 90 years," Emory University mathematician Ken Ono said.

Ramanujan, a self-taught mathematician born in a rural village in South India, spent so much time thinking about math that he flunked out of college in India twice, Ono said.

But he sent mathematicians letters describing his work, and one of the most preeminent ones, English mathematician G. H. Hardy, recognized the Indian boy's genius and invited him to Cambridge University in England to study. While there, Ramanujan published more than 30 papers and was inducted into the Royal Society.

"For a brief window of time, five years, he lit the world of math on fire," Ono told LiveScience.

But the cold weather eventually weakened Ramanujan's health, and when he was dying, he went home to India.

It was on his deathbed in 1920 that he described mysterious functions that mimicked theta functions, or modular forms, in a letter to Hardy. Like trigonometric functions such as sine and cosine, theta functions have a repeating pattern, but the pattern is much more complex and subtle than a simple sine curve. Theta functions are also "super-symmetric," meaning that if a specific type of mathematical function called a Moebius transformation is applied to the functions, they turn into themselves. Because they are so symmetric these theta functions are useful in many types of mathematics and physics, including string theory.

Ramanujan believed that 17 new functions he discovered were "mock modular forms" that looked like theta functions when written out as an infinite sum (their coefficients get large in the same way), but weren't super-symmetric. Ramanujan, a devout Hindu, thought these patterns were revealed to him by the goddess Namagiri.

Ramanujan died before he could prove his hunch. But more than 90 years later, Ono and his team proved that these functions indeed mimicked modular forms, but don't share their defining characteristics, such as super-symmetry.

The expansion of mock modular forms helps physicists compute the entropy, or level of disorder, of black holes.

Read more at Discovery News

Growing Crystals in Microgravity

Japanese researchers have successfully grown helium crystals in a microgravity environment, using acoustic waves, providing an opportunity to study the dynamics of how such crystals form in much shorter time frames than can be done in terrestrial labs, and perhaps shed light on the underlying fundamental physics. Their results appeared earlier this month in the New Journal of Physics.

Airplanes have been used since 1959 to provide a nearly weightless environment -- mimicking the microgravity of space -- in which to train astronauts and conduct research. They have colorful nicknames like "Vomit Comet" or NASA's "Weightless Wonder."

Such an aircraft flies in a long parabolic arc, first climbing, then entering into a dive. By controlling the propulsion and steering, it's possible to cancel out any drag (air resistance), at least for about 25 seconds or so.

In that time, passengers on the craft feel as if they are free-falling in a vacuum -- as close to weightlessness as it is possible to achieve without venturing into space. And various experiments have been performed to study phenomena in this unique environment.

NASA has sponsored research in studying crystal formation in microgravity since the 1970s during the Skylab missions. Crystals are vital components in much of modern technology, including microchips, video cameras, radiation detectors, digital watches, and semiconductors.

But in order to be used in many of these applications, the crystals can't have too many defects. A better understanding of the processes by which they form would enable scientists to better control those growth conditions. Microgravity environments give scientists control over one important variable, gravity, so they can study how the process is altered under changing circumstances.

The Japanese researchers, from the Tokyo Institute of Technology, used a small jet plane provided by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to perform eight experiments on crystals during a two-hour flight.

They used a common growth process called Ostwald ripening, in which larger crystals continue to grow at the expense of smaller crystals. It often occurs in ice cream, making the frozen treat become crunchier over time.

The TIT team built a special refrigerator for the plane with a windows so they could watch the crystal formation in action. Then they placed large helium crystals in the bottom of a vacuum chamber and increased the pressure. When the crystals were zapped with acoustic waves, they crumbled into tiny pieces.

Normally it takes a long time to form crystals via Ostwald ripening -- unless you have access to a superfluid. The crystal pieces were splashed with a helium-4 superfluid -- a special state of matter with no viscosity, meaning it can flow without friction.

Per the paper's lead author, Ryuji Nomura, "Helium crystals can grow from a superfluid extremely fast because the helium atoms are carried by a swift superflow, so it cannot hinder the crystallization process." The low temperatures and high pressure in a microgravity environment didn't hurt, either.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 26, 2012

Fluctuating Environment May Have Driven Human Evolution

A series of rapid environmental changes in East Africa roughly 2 million years ago may be responsible for driving human evolution, according to researchers at Penn State and Rutgers University.

"The landscape early humans were inhabiting transitioned rapidly back and forth between a closed woodland and an open grassland about five to six times during a period of 200,000 years," said Clayton Magill, graduate student in geosciences at Penn State. "These changes happened very abruptly, with each transition occurring over hundreds to just a few thousand years."

According to Katherine Freeman, professor of geosciences, Penn State, the current leading hypothesis suggests that evolutionary changes among humans during the period the team investigated were related to a long, steady environmental change or even one big change in climate.

"There is a view this time in Africa was the 'Great Drying,' when the environment slowly dried out over 3 million years," she said. "But our data show that it was not a grand progression towards dry; the environment was highly variable."

According to Magill, many anthropologists believe that variability of experience can trigger cognitive development.

"Early humans went from having trees available to having only grasses available in just 10 to 100 generations, and their diets would have had to change in response," he said. "Changes in food availability, food type, or the way you get food can trigger evolutionary mechanisms to deal with those changes. The result can be increased brain size and cognition, changes in locomotion and even social changes -- how you interact with others in a group. Our data are consistent with these hypotheses. We show that the environment changed dramatically over a short time, and this variability coincides with an important period in our human evolution when the genus Homo was first established and when there was first evidence of tool use."

The researchers -- including Gail Ashley, professor of earth and planetary sciences, Rutgers University -- examined lake sediments from Olduvai Gorge in northern Tanzania. They removed the organic matter that had either washed or was blown into the lake from the surrounding vegetation, microbes and other organisms 2 million years ago from the sediments. In particular, they looked at biomarkers -- fossil molecules from ancient organisms -- from the waxy coating on plant leaves.

"We looked at leaf waxes because they're tough, they survive well in the sediment," said Freeman.

The team used gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to determine the relative abundances of different leaf waxes and the abundance of carbon isotopes for different leaf waxes. The data enabled them to reconstruct the types of vegetation present in the Olduvai Gorge area at very specific time intervals.

The results showed that the environment transitioned rapidly back and forth between a closed woodland and an open grassland.

To find out what caused this rapid transitioning, the researchers used statistical and mathematical models to correlate the changes they saw in the environment with other things that may have been happening at the time, including changes in the Earth's movement and changes in sea-surface temperatures.

"The orbit of the Earth around the sun slowly changes with time," said Freeman. "These changes were tied to the local climate at Olduvai Gorge through changes in the monsoon system in Africa. Slight changes in the amount of sunshine changed the intensity of atmospheric circulation and the supply of water. The rain patterns that drive the plant patterns follow this monsoon circulation. We found a correlation between changes in the environment and planetary movement."

The team also found a correlation between changes in the environment and sea-surface temperature in the tropics.

"We find complementary forcing mechanisms: one is the way Earth orbits, and the other is variation in ocean temperatures surrounding Africa," Freeman said. The researchers recently published their results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences along with another paper in the same issue that builds on these findings. The second paper shows that rainfall was greater when there were trees around and less when there was a grassland.

"The research points to the importance of water in an arid landscape like Africa," said Magill. "The plants are so intimately tied to the water that if you have water shortages, they usually lead to food insecurity.

Read more at Science daily

Death By Black Hole Firewall Incineration It Shall Be

Black holes are a perennial favorite among physics buffs, who by now have the usual facts about such objects down pat: Most black holes form when stars explode as supernovae; all that matter collapsing into a dense object from which nothing, not even light, can escape, because of the strong gravitational effects. Lurking deep within a black hole is a point that is infinitely small and dense called the singularity.

While nothing can escape a black hole once it crosses the event horizon, thanks to a peculiar quirk of the quantum vacuum, it evaporates over time, emitting radiation (Hawking radiation) in the process -- and how long it takes for the black hole to evaporate depends on its size (the bigger it is, the longer it takes to evaporate).

Oh, and if, say, an astronaut happened to accidentally cross the event horizon, he or she would technically be in freefall and thus wouldn't notice anything particularly unusual -- not at first. It's only as said astronaut approached the singularity that gravity would become so extreme, s/he would be "spaghettified."

Except now that might not be the case. There's a hypothesis currently being bandied about by theoretical physicists that, instead, the unfortunate astronaut would encounter a massive wall of fire as s/he tried to cross the event horizon and burn up before s/he got anywhere near the singularity.

Call it the 'Paradox of the Firewall.'

It started earlier this year at the Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, where string theorist Joe Polchinski is permanently ensconced. He'd been puzzling over a nagging suspicion that something wasn't quite right with the conventional picture of what happens at the event horizon for years, and was never quite able to put those misgivings to rest.

When Polchinski and a few colleagues started playing around with toy models, essentially running the argument for Hawking radiation in reverse, it brought a few salient issues into sharp focus.

The result was a controversial paper claiming that in order to not have a firewall at the event horizon, physicists would need to sacrifice another one of their cherished assumptions. Per a Simons Science News article (by yours truly):

At the heart of this particular puzzle lies a conflict between three fundamental postulates beloved by many physicists.

The first, based on the equivalence principle of general relativity, leads to the No Drama scenario: Because Alice is in free fall as she crosses the horizon, and there is no difference between free fall and inertial motion, she shouldn’t feel extreme effects of gravity.

The second postulate is unitarity, the assumption, in keeping with a fundamental tenet of quantum mechanics, that information that falls into a black hole is not irretrievably lost.
Lastly, there is what might be best described as “normality,” namely, that physics works as expected far away from a black hole even if it breaks down at some point within the black hole — either at the singularity or at the event horizon.

Want to get rid of the firewall? It'll cost you, per Polchinski et al., and that price is either conceding that information is lost (which should make Stephen Hawking and his collaborator Kip Thorne pretty happy, since they famously embraced this view in the 1990s), or modifying quantum field theory in some significant way.

Naturally, not everyone agrees. That paper spawned a flurry of others, many aimed at countering the controversial assertions, plus a couple of blog posts: one by Polchinski (over at Cosmic Variance) and another by Caltech physicist John Preskill. (There's also this latest take at Quantum Moxie.)

It's a complicated, multi-faceted problem, as the Simons Science News article makes clear, and much of the discussion is highly technical. But it's such an intriguing idea, it's worth sharing even just a few simple details.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 25, 2012

Gene Variants Affect Pain Susceptibility in Children

At least two common gene variants are linked to "clinically meaningful" differences in pain scores in children after major surgery, reports a study in the January issue of Anesthesia & Analgesia, official journal of the International Anesthesia Research Society (IARS).

"[O]ur study is highly suggestive of a genetic component in pain response among children," concludes the study by Dr Chantal Mamie and colleagues of Geneva University Hospitals, Geneva, Switzerland. But an accompanying editorial question the relevance of this and previous studies of pain-related genes for management of pain in individual patients.

Gene Variants Influence Pain Scores after Surgery …

The study was designed to explore whether several "candidate" gene variants affected pain scores in a group of 168 children undergoing major surgery -- either abdominal or bone and joint operations. The children and their parents were tested for variant forms ("polymorphisms") of six different genes previously reported as having a possible impact on pain.

The genetic results were compared with the children's pain scores, as routinely monitored during the 24-hour recovery period after surgery. During that time, the children had access to patient- (or parent- or nurse-controlled) analgesia with strong opioid (morphine-related) pain relievers.

Variants of two genes were related to "clinically meaningful" increases in pain scores -- at least four "peak" scores higher than six (on a ten-point scale) during the 24 hours after surgery. After adjustment for other factors, the risk of elevated pain scores was 4.5 times higher for children with a specific variant of the gene ABCB1, which affects the transport of opioid drugs to the central nervous system.

Risk of elevated pain scores was 3.5 times higher for children with a certain variant of the gene OPRM, a key target receptor for opioid binding. The associations with ABCB1 and OPRM variants remained significant after adjustment for patterns of gene inheritance from parents. Variants of two additional genes affecting pain perception -- NTRK and COMT -- were linked to more subtle, "subclinical" effects on pain scores.

… But Have No Effect on Use of Pain Medications

Surprisingly -- even though the gene variants affected pain scores -- they were unrelated to the total dosage of opioid medications used. The dosage of patient-controlled analgesia provides an important objective measure of pain and pain control after surgery.

"The present results are plausible given the known functionality of the candidate genes, and are consistent with the findings in adults," Dr Mamie and colleagues write. Although there has been a wealth of research on the genetic basis of pain in adults, the researchers add, "This first but small cohort study provides clues to further explore the genetic foundations of pediatric pain."

In an accompanying editorial, Drs Debra Schwinn and Ruth Landau of University of Washington, Seattle, put the findings in perspective. A decade ago, researchers thought that the discovery of genes affecting pain perception and opioid responses would soon play an important role in "individualizing" pain control after surgery. Subsequent studies have shown that the situation is more complex, and that the inheritance of pain susceptibility and opioid responsiveness is "probably less straightforward and predictable than previously foreseen."

Read more at Science Daily

New Map of Earth's Animals

Alfred Russell Wallace was beaten to the punch in describing evolution by Charles Darwin, but Wallace’s contributions to biology have been just as long-lived. Wallace drew a map of the Earth divided into regions by where animals live. Now, his map is evolving too, with an update including a total of more than 20,000 mammals, birds and amphibians.

"Our study is a long overdue update of one of the most fundamental maps in natural sciences. For the first time since Wallace’s attempt we are finally able to provide a broad description of the natural world based on incredibly detailed information for thousands of vertebrate species,” said co-lead-author, Ben Holt of the University of Copenhagen, in a press release.

The global map data can be used to make regional maps on a smaller scale, not just the planetary scale shown above.The data can even be fed into Google Earth or a Geographic Information System program, the authors noted in the study published in Science Express.

The planetary map was divided into 11 realms, such as Neotropical and Sino-Japanese, and subdivided into 20 "zoogeograghic" regions. The unusual creatures of Madagascar got their own realm. Overall, the map data shows greater biological diversity in the Southern Hemisphere than in the Northern. Currently, only mammals, birds and amphibians are represented. Other classes of animals will be added as the data becomes available.

The new map made use of resources barely imaginable in Wallace’s time. Genetic analysis helped to define species in the modern map along with the classical anatomical descriptions Wallace used. It took 15 researchers and 20 years of data compilation to update Wallace’s original magnum opus of biological geography.

Developing a map of where species live may prove invaluable as a changing global climate, habitat loss and invasive species are rearranging animals’ home ranges.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 24, 2012

How Excess Holiday Eating Disturbs Your 'Food Clock'

If the sinful excess of holiday eating sends your system into butter-slathered, brandy-soaked overload, you are not alone: People who are jet-lagged, people who work graveyard shifts and plain-old late-night snackers know just how you feel.

All these activities upset the body's "food clock," a collection of interacting genes and molecules known technically as the food-entrainable oscillator, which keeps the human body on a metabolic even keel. A new study by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) is helping to reveal how this clock works on a molecular level.

Published this month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the UCSF team has shown that a protein called PKCγ is critical in resetting the food clock if our eating habits change.

The study showed that normal laboratory mice given food only during their regular sleeping hours will adjust their food clock over time and begin to wake up from their slumber, and run around in anticipation of their new mealtime. But mice lacking the PKCγ gene are not able to respond to changes in their meal time -- instead sleeping right through it.

The work has implications for understanding the molecular basis of diabetes, obesity and other metabolic syndromes because a desynchronized food clock may serve as part of the pathology underlying these disorders, said Louis Ptacek, MD, the John C. Coleman Distinguished Professor of Neurology at UCSF and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.

It may also help explain why night owls are more likely to be obese than morning larks, Ptacek said.

"Understanding the molecular mechanism of how eating at the "wrong" time of the day desynchronizes the clocks in our body can facilitate the development of better treatments for disorders associated with night-eating syndrome, shift work and jet lag," he added.

Resetting the Food Clock

Look behind the face of a mechanical clock and you will see a dizzying array of cogs, flywheels, reciprocating counterbalances and other moving parts. Biological clocks are equally complex, composed of multiple interacting genes that turn on or off in an orchestrated way to keep time during the day.

In most organisms, biological clockworks are governed by a master clock, referred to as the "circadian oscillator," which keeps track of time and coordinates our biological processes with the rhythm of a 24-hour cycle of day and night.

Life forms as diverse as humans, mice and mustard greens all possess such master clocks. And in the last decade or so, scientists have uncovered many of their inner workings, uncovering many of the genes whose cycles are tied to the clock and discovering how in mammals it is controlled by a tiny spot in the brain known as the "superchiasmatic nucleus."

Scientists also know that in addition to the master clock, our bodies have other clocks operating in parallel throughout the day. One of these is the food clock, which is not tied to one specific spot in the brain but rather multiple sites throughout the body.

The food clock is there to help our bodies make the most of our nutritional intake. It controls genes that help in everything from the absorption of nutrients in our digestive tract to their dispersal through the bloodstream, and it is designed to anticipate our eating patterns. Even before we eat a meal, our bodies begin to turn on some of these genes and turn off others, preparing for the burst of sustenance -- which is why we feel the pangs of hunger just as the lunch hour arrives.

Scientist have known that the food clock can be reset over time if an organism changes its eating patterns, eating to excess or at odd times, since the timing of the food clock is pegged to feeding during the prime foraging and hunting hours in the day. But until now, very little was known about how the food clock works on a genetic level.

What Ptacek and his colleagues discovered is the molecular basis for this phenomenon: the PKCγ protein binds to another molecule called BMAL and stabilizes it, which shifts the clock in time.

Read more at Science Daily

Tau Ceti e: Another Interstellar Target?

Tau Ceti recently crashed into the headlines after it was announced that a system of five worlds may be in orbit around the star. Although the exoplanets have yet to be confirmed, this discovery is profound in that one of the worlds, a "super-Earth" designated Tau Ceti "e" -- may be sitting inside the star's so-called habitable zone.

The habitable zone is considered the perfect location in a star's orbit for a world to support liquid water (it's not too hot and not too cold), a substance essential for the evolution of life as we know it.

If this world is proven to exist -- follow-up studies by other observatories are required to confirm its orbit and size -- the 4.3 Earth-mass world will become famous for being the smallest world discovered within the habitable zone of another star.

Within Reach?

Not only is Tau Ceti's "super-Earth" a curious objective for astronomers to seek out extraterrestrial life, the nearby star could be within the reach of a future interstellar mission.

Tau Ceti may well be in our proverbial "cosmic backyard," but it is still 12 light-years from Earth. The energies and speeds needed to make a hypothetical (unmanned) probe a reality aren't possible using current technologies, but according to Paul Gilster, co-founder of the Tau Zero Foundation and author of the book Centauri Dreams (and writer for the blog of the same name), such a feat may not remain "impossible" for too long.

"Pushing a 'lightsail' by beamed laser or microwave propulsion (leaving the 'fuel' at home) may be able to get us up to ten percent or so of the speed of light, which would give us a mission to Tau Ceti of a bit over a century," Gilster told Discovery News.

"Fusion prospects of the kind studied by Project Icarus (one of the projects managed by the non-profit organization Icarus Interstellar) are also an option, though sails have already been demonstrated in space and are further along in their development."

There's also the possibility of using antimatter to get "maximum bang for the buck," Gilster points out, but we have yet to develop a means of generating enough antimatter for it to be used as an interstellar fuel. And then there's the tricky matter (no pun intended) of storing the stuff and controlling the reactions inside a hypothetical antimatter engine.

But this is the reason why we should be researching multiple avenues of research when it comes to the possible modes of interstellar travel.

"The Tau Zero Foundation hopes to advance the human prospect for interstellar flight by defining the issues and keeping all the propulsion options on the table," Gilster points out. "It is simply too early to down-select to a single propulsion system.

"Instead, incremental advances across the spectrum of possibilities will help us, over time, learn which methods will offer the soundest prospects. We'd like to encourage and, when it becomes possible, assist in the funding of such research.

"A second goal is to keep the idea of interstellar flight in front of the public through education, so that the relevant research is not only highlighted but supported through both philanthropy and government."

Going Interstellar By Public Demand

The selection of propulsion methods is one thing, but interstellar advocates agree that when we do detect that bona fide habitable world -- with hints of a biosphere and presence of liquid water -- the public will demand further study.

And that means physically going there.

"In the event a habitable planet around a nearby star like Tau Ceti is confirmed, the best next step would be a space-based observatory specifically targeting nearby stars (Kepler's targets are much more remote in order to take the statistical pulse of the planet population)," said Gilster. (Targeted searches have been carried out by SETI, in the hope of detecting a radio signal from a hypothetical alien civilization in the Tau Ceti system -- but none have detected any artificial transmissions.)

"I have often imagined the day when scientists directly image an Earth-like extra-solar planet," Icarus Deputy Project Leader Robert Freeland told Discovery News during an interview in October after the discovery of a small exoplanet orbiting Alpha Centauri (a binary star located only 4.4 light-years away). "We would be able to determine the planet's atmosphere and surface temperature from its spectrum, and we would thus know whether it might be able to sustain life as we know it.

"I suspect that once such a discovery hits the news, people worldwide are going to demand that we send a probe to determine whether the planet has life (of any type) and/or could be suitable for human habitation," Freeland added.

"Tau Ceti is about 12 light-years away, and with the right instrumentation, we will be able to make a spectroscopic analysis of the atmospheres of planets there," Gilster said. "If we discover a biosignature indicating life is present, this will clearly make such a planet a priority for any future probes. A probe like this could get into space in the next two decades if funding emerges."

A New Era

By extrapolating the energy we produce today, Gilster is realistic that an interstellar probe may be a long way off. But that's not accounting for unforeseen, disruptive technologies that may rapidly enhance our ability of sending a robotic emissary (and eventually a human mission) to a nearby star.

We are truly in a new era of space exploration. Not only are we discovering a multitude of extra-solar planets, we are also advancing the role that robotics play in space. It's only a matter of time that these machines become so advanced that they will become fully autonomous -- humans will be cut out of the loop. For a robotic interstellar probe, this will be a necessity as the vast interstellar distances will quickly generate unworkable time lags of years to send and receive commands.

The speed of light will quickly become a frustrating barrier (after all, should a probe make it to Tau Ceti, it would take 12 years for us to receive the first images of any "habitable" exoplanet), the probe would be by itself, exploring in the name of humanity.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 22, 2012

A Giant Puzzle With Billions of Pieces

Day after day, legions of microorganisms work to produce energy from waste in biogas plants. Researchers from Bielefeld University's Center for Biotechnology (CeBiTec) are taking a close look to find out which microbes do the best job. They are analysing the entire genetic information of the microbial communities in selected biogas plants up and down Germany. From the beginning of 2013, the Californian Joint Genome Institute will undertake the sequencing required. The biocomputational analysis will be performed at CeBiTec. Not an easy task, since the data will be supplied in billions of fragments stemming in turn from hundreds of organisms. Piecing together this huge jigsaw puzzle will be painstaking work.

In Germany, there are more than 7,000 biogas plants which can supply over six million households with power. The plants are filled mostly with plant biomass like maize silage but also with agricultural waste materials like liquid manure and chicken manure. One of the key research questions is how the production of biogas can be optimised. For this reason, Bielefeld scientists Dr Alexander Sczyrba, Dr Andreas Schlüter, Dr Alexander Goesmann, Professor Dr Jens Stoye und Professor Dr Alfred Pühler want to know what microbes are responsible for the decomposition of biomass -- and which of them do it best. "We are interested in discovering the microbiology that is really behind the processes going on in a biogas plant; what micro-organisms play which role at which stage," explains Andreas Schlüter, whose research at CeBiTec is in the field of biogas production.

First genome deciphered

The researchers' work has already borne its first fruit. "At CeBiTec, we have managed to deci-pher the complete genome sequence of Methanoculleus bourgensis, a methane producer," reports Professor Pühler. By doing so, Bielefeld has sequenced the first genome for a methane-producing archaeon from a biogas plant -- a single-celled primordial bacterium which plays an important role in certain biogas plants. Now, the researchers want to go even further.

Putting the puzzle together

The project is part of the Community Sequencing Program, a public sequencing programme financed at the Joint Genome Institute by the US Department of Energy. While previous biogas studies have concentrated primarily on certain marker genes, now the entire genetic information of the microorganisms is to be studied. The American institute will produce more than one terabyte of sequence data for this, which is equivalent in volume to approximately 300 human genomes. This data will be supplied in a countless number of fragments, however, since even the most modern technology is not capable of reading all at once the millions of bases of which a microbial DNA molecule consists. Instead, the sequencing technologies supply vast quantities of overlapping sections of about 150 bases.

The DNA sequences will then be returned to Bielefeld in billions of fragments, which is where Alexander Sczyrba's Computa-tional Metagenomics team comes into play. They develop bioinformatic procedures for the reconstruction of genome sequences. Their task is to compare the data, recognise the overlaps and use them to reassemble the base sequence. "We are trying to complete a puzzle made up of billions of pieces, which also includes hundreds of different puzzles all mixed up," explains Sczyrba.

Single-cell genomics promises new insights

Quite incidentally, the Bielefeld researchers will be breaking new ground in genomics. An estimated 99 per cent of all microorganisms cannot be cultivated in the laboratory. A brand new technology, single-cell genomics, is to provide insights here by determining the genome sequence from single microbial cells. Knowledge of the identity and functions of hitherto completely unknown microorganisms is expected to be gained. During the joint project, the Joint Genome Institute will sequence approximately 100 single-cell genomes.

The researchers have scheduled roughly two years for their project, in which also Bielefeld doctoral students of the Graduate Cluster in Industrial Biotechnology (CLIB) are involved. At the end, they hope to have discovered the optimal microbial community for biogas plants -- and thus be in a position to make this process of generating energy even more efficient.

Read more at Sceince Daily

News Sceptical Award

This year I'm going to do something special for all the readers of The Magical Journey! Past years I've been making the sceptical awards myself but this year it's all up to you! What blog, podcast or sceptical news thingy do you think is deserved to be awarded this year?

If you have any suggestions, please write in the comments with a link to the page and I will look it up! The winner will be awarded with The Sceptical Award 2012!

The Winner will be announced the 29th of December 2012 so hurry up!

Danny Boston from A Magical Journey

Dec 21, 2012

Hawaiian Islands Are Dissolving from Within, Study Says

Most of us think of soil erosion as the primary force that levels mountains, however geologists have found that Oahu's mountains are dissolving from within due to groundwater.

Someday, Oahu's Koolau and Waianae mountains will be reduced to nothing more than a flat, low-lying island like Midway.

But erosion isn't the biggest culprit. Instead, scientists say, the mountains of Oahu are actually dissolving from within.

"We tried to figure out how fast the island is going away and what the influence of climate is on that rate," said Brigham Young University geologist Steve Nelson. "More material is dissolving from those islands than what is being carried off through erosion."

The research pitted groundwater against stream water to see which removed more mineral material. Nelson and his BYU colleagues spent two months sampling both types of sources. In addition, ground and surface water estimates from the U.S. Geological Survey helped them calculate the total quantity of mass that disappeared from the island each year.

"All of the Hawaiian Islands are made of just one kind of rock," Nelson said. "The weathering rates are variable, too, because rainfall is so variable, so it's a great natural laboratory."

Forecasting the island's future also needs to account for plate tectonics. As Oahu is pushed northwest, the island actually rises in elevation at a slow but steady rate. You've heard of mountain climbing; this is a mountain that climbs.

According to the researchers' estimates, the net effect is that Oahu will continue to grow for as long as 1.5 million years. Beyond that, the force of groundwater will eventually triumph and the island will begin its descent to a low-lying topography.

Undergraduate student Brian Selck co-authored the study, which appears in the journal Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta. Unfortunately for him, he joined the project only after the field work in Hawaii took place.

Instead, Selck performed the mineralogical analysis of soil samples in the lab back in Provo. The island's volcanic soil contained at least one surprise in weathered rock called saprolites.

"The main thing that surprised me on the way was the appearance of a large amount of quartz in a saprolite taken from a 1-meter depth," Selck said.

Read more at Science Daily

A New Type of Nerve Cell Found in the Brain

Scientists at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, in collaboration with colleagues in Germany and the Netherlands, have identified a previously unknown group of nerve cells in the brain. The nerve cells regulate cardiovascular functions such as heart rhythm and blood pressure. It is hoped that the discovery, which is published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, will be significant in the long term in the treatment of cardiovascular diseases in humans.

The scientists have managed to identify in mice a previously totally unknown group of nerve cells in the brain. These nerve cells, also known as 'neurons', develop in the brain with the aid of thyroid hormone, which is produced in the thyroid gland. Patients in whom the function of the thyroid gland is disturbed and who therefore produce too much or too little thyroid hormone, thus risk developing problems with these nerve cells. This in turn has an effect on the function of the heart, leading to cardiovascular disease.

It is well-known that patients with untreated hyperthyroidism (too high a production of thyroid hormone) or hypothyroidism (too low a production of thyroid hormone) often develop heart problems. It has previously been believed that this was solely a result of the hormone affecting the heart directly. The new study, however, shows that thyroid hormone also affects the heart indirectly, through the newly discovered neurons.

"This discovery opens the possibility of a completely new way of combating cardiovascular disease," says Jens Mittag, group leader at the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology at Karolinska Institutet. "If we learn how to control these neurons, we will be able to treat certain cardiovascular problems like hypertension through the brain. This is, however, still far in the future. A more immediate conclusion is that it is of utmost importance to identify and treat pregnant women with hypothyroidism, since their low level of thyroid hormone may harm the production of these neurons in the fetus, and this may in the long run cause cardiovascular disorders in the offspring."

Read more at Science Daily

No Doomsday! The Quick Reference Guide

Still worried about flaming space rocks inextricably falling from the sky? Losing sleep over nonsensical "killer" solar flares? Got your knickers-in-a-knot over the non-existent Planet X?

If you answered "yes," you obviously haven't been paying attention. And no, this isn't a conspiracy or some fantasy coverup, the "great" Mayan Doomsday of 2012 is a hoax, a farce, a "marketing fallacy," a pink elephant, a lie, complete and utter bullsh*t (don't take my word for it, Penn & Teller said so).

But just in case there is any shred of doubt in your mind about Dec. 21 and the end of the world, here's a quick and dirty guide (plus links for further reading) to some of the key doomsday scenarios invented by a few questionable people who have been vying to make money out of your fear. I make no apologies for my sarcasm; I've been debunking this stuff for over four years -- I'm all Apocalypsed out.

1) Did the Maya predict doomsday? NO. If the ancient Maya didn't predict doomsday, then what's all this "Mayan Doomsday" baloney? Exactly. It's all made up, invented, fabricated, a big turd.

2) What about Planet X/Nibiru? Isn't some large planetary body predicted to zoom through the inner solar system causing all kinds of carnage? In a word: No. In two words: heck no. Anyone with good eyesight or a low-end telescope would have spotted an incoming planet (or brown dwarf) in the night sky a long time ago.

3) Any marauding asteroids or comets? As far as the world's asteroid-hunting programs are concerned, 90 percent of the massive, 1 kilometer-wide, civilization-ending asteroids have been discovered. No imminent smaller asteroids (i.e. ones that could cause regional/city-wide damage) have been detected. Of course, a bus-sized space rock could flatten your house tomorrow, but really, what are the odds?

4) What about a killer zombie hamster uprising? Now you're just being silly (although it does have potential to be the cutest doomsday scenario of all doomsday scenarios).

5) OK, will the Earth flip and swap poles? No. The Earth doesn't work like that (unless it got hit by something big -- refer to #2 and #3). What about a crazy geomagnetic shift? That could cause all kinds of mayhem! Um, no, not likely. Although the magnetic poles of the Earth tend to wander and they have changed polarity in the history of our planet, there's no indication of any rapid geomagnetic change any time soon.

6) Killer solar flares -- come on, that's a realistic doomsday scenario, right? Although the sun is reaching "solar maximum" -- a period in the sun's 11-year cycle when flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are more frequent -- there's no evidence to suggest that Dec. 21 will include the eruption of a any powerful solar flare. Sure, the sun might produce a flare that could cause radio interference in our atmosphere, but this solar cycle is a comparatively weak cycle, and nothing big is forecast. Space weather is a serious concern, however, as solar activity can interfere with satellites and power grids, but it certainly cannot generate "killer" solar flares. That is a serious misconception as to how the sun works.

7) I'm getting so bored with this. I need a vacation.

8) Galactic alignment? According to many doomsayers, the solar system is passing through the center of the galactic disk right now. They've nailed it down the a specific day -- right when the Maya Long Count calendar ends! While it's true there is some wobble in the sun's orbit around the Milky way, there's no real way of knowing when we go through the "center" of the galaxy's equator. Modern astronomy cannot pin that moment down to a year, let alone a day, so how the heck did the ancient Maya do it? Yeah, they were good astronomers, but they weren't that good. Some doomsayers also profess to some divine knowledge that when the sun eclipses the supermassive black hole (Sagittarius A*) at center of the Milky Way during this alignment, some magical force will influence Earth. The fact that the sun isn't even close to eclipsing the galactic center, let alone the presence of a made-up magical force, should reveal that it's all complete bunkum.

9) About that black hole in the center of our galaxy -- it's scary right? Not at all. It's located over 20,000 light-years from Earth. It's not going to suck us in any time soon.

Time to Party, Not Worry

To be honest, there are many more crappy doomsday scenarios based around Dec. 21, but each and every one is flawed. Some may have been spawned from a shred of scientific fact, but each have blown the significance of the Maya Long Count calendar out of proportion.

However, all doomsday scenarios are born from individuals who want to make money out of people's fear. They've been writing books and making movies all with one goal in mind: to scare you into buying into the hype so they can make money. It's a sinister marketing ploy that has been used for generations, but this "2012 doomsday" has been especially viral because the Internet has aided the spread of scientific disinformation.

So, as Friday arrives and we look forward to Christmas, in the future when you hear about another doomsday, please check the science and do your own research. Do not swallow the lies of a few crazed individuals who want to profit from your fear and confusion. No one has ever prophesized the future, and no calendar end date has signified the end of the world.

Read more at Discovery News

Welcome Winter

In the very likely event that we survive Friday's rumored Mayan apocalypse, those of us in the Northern Hemisphere will at least get to experience another cosmic occasion: the winter solstice.

On Friday, Dec. 21, the sun will appear to make its lowest, quickest trek across the sky all year, resulting in the shortest day of 2012 and the official start of winter.

Earth is tilted on its axis 23.5 degrees, so it leans one way as it spins around its axis while orbiting the sun. On Dec. 21, the top half of the planet (everything north of the equator) will face away from the sun, leaving the North Pole in complete darkness.

Since the summer solstice on June 20, 2012, the altitude of the midday sun (or its height above the horizon) has been getting lower as its direct rays have been gradually migrating to the south. Technically, after the exact moment the winter solstice occurs Friday — 6:12 a.m. EST (1112 GMT) — the sun will turn around and start on its journey back north. So starting Saturday, the days will slowly start getting longer, but that doesn't mean it will start getting warmer. In fact, the coldest days are yet to come.

Daylight in the mid-latitudes lasts for around nine hours close to the winter solstice, compared with about 15 hours around the summer solstice (when the Northern Hemisphere is tilted toward the sun). With less sunlight energy hitting us, temperatures plummet. And even though the days will get longer during January, Northern Hemisphere oceans continue to cool in the relative lack of the sun's rays, and ocean temperatures drive much of the weather on the continents.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 20, 2012

One Day Until the Mayan Apocalypse

It's the end of the world! Or not.

Despite the failure of a multitude of doomsday prophecies over the centuries, believers are at it again, this time with an interpretation of the ancient Mayan calendar that pegs the end of the world as tomorrow, Friday, Dec. 21.

The so-called 2012 apocalypse has spawned a Hollywood film ("2012," released with questionable timing in 2009), official responses from NASA and the closure of at least one mountain in France, which officials fear will be swamped with believers looking for a trip to safety on a flying saucer on Dec. 21. Friday also happens to be the official start of winter, or the winter solstice, when the top half of the planet faces directly away from the sun.

The rumors get their start because Dec. 21 in the Western calendar likely corresponds to the end of the 13th b'ak'tun of the Mayan Long Count Calendar, one of three calendars the ancient Maya used to count time. The calendar works by counting first days, then 20-day chunks of time, then 260-day periods and 7,200-day periods. Ticking up like a car odometer, the calendar finally keeps track of 144,000-day blocks of time called b'ak'tuns.

The thirteenth b'ak'tun

Thirteen b'ak'tuns would have been seen by the ancient Maya as a completed cycle of creation, but there were absolutely no apocalyptic predictions associated with this date. Just as an old 2012 calendar will be tossed for a new 2013 model, the Mayan calendar will continue on. In fact, the Maya had units for counting even larger chunks of time than b'ak'tuns -- their calendar is capable of tracking millions of years.

Rumors of an apocalypse linked to the Mayan calendar emerged only when Westerners got their hands on the numbers. Theories blew up, largely online, making the Mayan apocalypse one of the very few grassroots doomsday predictions in history.

Apocalypse rumors eventually became so pervasive that they brought the Dec. 21 back to the attention of the modern Maya, said Robert Sitler, a professor of Latin American studies at Stetson University in Florida. Few Maya had given much thought to the calendar, as it fell out of use more than 1,000 years ago. Now, however, many Maya are giving the day its due, Sitler told LiveScience, though not as the end of the world. Most groups interpret the end of the b'ak'tun as a time of change and enlightenment.

No doomsday

Many of the apocalyptic rumors surrounding Dec. 21 have focused on astronomical theories, such as a collision between Earth and an asteroid or a rogue planet. That's brought NASA into the fray. The agency has been working overtime to quash doomsday rumors, even maintaining its own debunking website.

Among the wilder theories is the idea that the magnetic poles of the planet will suddenly flip-flop, either destroying life on Earth or sending us back to the Stone Age. Not so, according to NASA. The North and South magnetic poles do gradually change and switch places, but the key word is "gradual." The process takes place over thousands of years and has happened many times without disrupting life on the planet.

Another theory holds that a rogue "Planet X" or "Nibiru" will swoop in from the outer solar system to collide with Earth. Fortunately, there is no Planet X. And if an object were set to hit the planet by tomorrow, you can bet it'd be visible in the sky by today.

Read more at Discovery News

Human Hands Evolved for Punching

Human hands evolved so that men could make fists and fight, and not just for manual dexterity, new research finds.

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, adds to a growing body of evidence that humans are among the most aggressive and violent animals on the planet.

"With the notable exception of bonobos, great apes are a relatively aggressive group of mammals," lead author David Carrier told Discovery News. "Although some primatologists may argue that chimpanzees are the most aggressive apes, I think the evidence suggests that humans are substantially more violent."

Carrier points out that while chimpanzees physically batter each other more frequently than humans, rape appears to be less common in chimpanzees, and torture and group-against-group forms of violence, such as slavery, are not documented in the animals.

"Chimpanzees are also known to engage in raiding welfare in which one group largely eliminates a neighboring group, but this is not comparable in scope to the genocide that has characterized human history," added Carrier, a University of Utah biology professor.

For this latest study, he and co-author Michael Morgan, a medical student, conducted three experiments. First, they analyzed what happened when men, aged from 22 to 50, hit a punching bag as hard as they could. The peak stress delivered to the bag -- the force per area -- was 1.7 to 3 times greater with a fist strike compared with a slap.

"Because you have higher pressure when hitting with a fist, you are more likely to cause injury to tissue, bones, teeth, eyes and the jaw," Carrier said.

The second and third experiments determined that buttressing provided by the human fist increases the stiffness of the knuckle joint fourfold. It also doubles the ability of the fingers to transmit punching force, mainly due to the force transferred from the fingers to the thumb when the fist is clenched.

In terms of the size and shape of hand anatomy, the scientists point out that humans could have evolved manual dexterity with longer thumbs, but without the fingers and palms getting shorter.

Gorilla hands are closer in proportion to human hands than are other apes' hands, but they and no other ape -- aside from us -- hits with a clenched fist.

The researchers additionally point out that humans use fists during threat displays. There is also a difference in body size between males and females, particularly evident with hands and arms. This, Carrier said, is "consistent with the hand being a weapon."

Human males tend to be more physically violent than women, with men being ten times more likely to commit homicide than females in the U.S., Carrier said. But the research, nonetheless, applies to women as well.

"The bottom line is that women need to fight and defend themselves too," Morgan told Discovery News. "Women need to fight off attackers and defend themselves from rape."

Read more at Discovery News

Mass Shootings Have Long History

He came along with a shotgun on his shoulder while a group of children were playing in front of the school. Without warning or provocation, he raised the gun to his shoulder, took deliberate aim, and fired into the crowd of boys.

Although it sounds sadly modern, the account was published in the New York Times more than a century ago.

Dated April 10, 1891, the article described an elderly man firing a shotgun at children playing in front of St. Mary's Parochial School in Newburgh, NY.

"None of the children were killed, but several were well filled with lead," the report said.

More than a century earlier, on July 26, 1764, a teacher and 10 students were shot dead by four Lenape American Indians in Greencastle, Pennsylvania, in what is considered the earliest known U.S. mass school shooting.

Indeed, killing or trying to kill a mass of people is not a modern phenomenon. For as long as there has been history, there have been gruesome mass murders.

"The terms amok, a Malayan word, and berserk, a Norse word, have been used to describe individuals going on killing sprees. Both terms have been around for centuries, which reflects the fact that mass murder is neither a modern nor a uniquely American phenomenon," Grant Duwe,director of research at the Minnesota Department of Corrections, told Discovery News.

Defined as bloody events that occur within a 24-hour period and that involve a minimum of four victims, mass murders have occurred all over the world, in different times, societies and cultures.

Some of the earliest recorded cases include the 1893 killing with guns and swords of 11 people (including an infant) in Osaka, Japan, the 1914 shooting of 7 people in the Italian village of Camerata Cornello, not to mention the case of German spree killer Ernst August Wagner.

In 1913, he stabbed to death his wife and four children in Degerloch, near Stuttgart, then drove to Mühlhausen an der Enz where he opened fire on 20 people, killing at least nine, leaving two animals dead and several buildings burned to the ground.

In 1927, South African farmer Stephanus Swart shot dead at least 8 people and injured 3 others in Charlestown, South Africa, before committing suicide.

In 1938 almost half of the population of the rural village of Kaio, near Tsuyama city in Japan, was murdered as 21-year-old Mutsuo Toi killed 30 people with a shotgun, sword and axe, injured three others and then shot himself to death.

Between 1954 and 1957, William Unek murdered a total of 57 people in two separate spree killings in the Belgian Congo.

He first killed 21 people with an axe, then shot dead ten men, eight women and eight children, slaughtered six more men with the axe, burned two women and a child, and strangled a 15-year-old girl.

More recently in the bloody timeline of shooting sprees, some of the most dramatic incidents include the 1987 Hungerford massacre in England, where gun enthusiast Michael Ryan shot 16 people dead and wounded another 15 before committing suicide, the 1996 Port Arthur massacre in Australia, where 28 year old Martin Bryant killed 35 people and wounded 21 before being caught by police, and the 1996 school shooting in the Scottish town of Dunblane.

There, failed shopkeeper Thomas Hamilton opened fire at a primary school, killing 16 children and a teacher before turning his gun on his mouth.

"I could have been one of those children," tennis player Andy Murray wrote in his autobiography, "Hitting Back."

Britain's highest ranked player, Murray was eight when Hamilton burst into the school and began shooting. He and his 10-year-old brother Jamie escaped the fire by hiding under a desk.

In the United States, two mass murder waves characterized the 20th century. One appeared in the 1920s and 30s and another in the mid-1960s, following a tranquil period in the 1940s and 50s.

The two waves, however, were qualitatively different, according to Duwe.

The author of "Mass Murder in the United States: A History," Duwe researched 909 cases of mass killing that occurred in the United States between 1900 and 1999.

"The first mass murder wave in the 1920s and 30s was comprised mainly of familicides and felony-related massacres, which, then as now, are less likely to garner extensive media coverage," Duwe said.

On the contrary, the second mass murder wave from the mid-1960s through the mid-1990s consisted of a greater number of mass public shootings, similar to the recent Aurora movie theater shooting and Newtown school shooting.

These incidents "have always captured a great deal of interest and concern," Duwe said.

Read more at Discovery News

Five Planets, One 'Habitable,' May Circle Tau Ceti

One of our solar system's nearest neighbors appears to have five planets circling the parent star, all closer than Mars orbits the sun.

One world, in particular has captured scientists' eye because it is located within the star's so-called habitable zone, a region where water, if it exists, could be in a liquid state -- a key ingredient for life as we know it.

The parent star is Tau Ceti, a sun-like star located less than 12 light-years from Earth, in the constellation Cetus.

The planet of interest is estimated to be about 4.3 times more massive than Earth. If confirmed, the planet would be the smallest yet discovered in a star's habitable zone, say scientists who will be publishing their research in an upcoming issue of Astronomy & Astrophysics.

"This discovery is in keeping with our emerging view that virtually every star has planets, and that the galaxy must have many such potentially habitable Earth-sized planets. They are everywhere, even right next door," astronomer Steve Vogt, with the University of California Santa Cruz, said in a statement.

"We are now beginning to understand that nature seems to overwhelmingly prefer systems that have multiple planets with orbits of less than 100 days. This is quite unlike our own solar system where there is nothing with an orbit inside that of Mercury. So our solar system is, in some sense, a bit of a freak and not the most typical kind of system that nature cooks up," Vogt added.

Astronomers used instruments on three telescopes to look for tiny wobbles in starlight coming from Tau Ceti caused by the slight gravitational tugging of its orbiting brood.

Read more at Discovery News