Science in the News

from Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society

Today's Headlines - February 24, 2012


Faster-than-Light Neutrinos Could Be Down to Bad Wiring

from BBC News Online

What might have been the biggest physics story of the past century may instead be down to a faulty connection.

In September 2011, the Opera experiment reported it had seen particles called neutrinos evidently travelling faster than the speed of light.

The team has now found two problems that may have affected their test in opposing ways: one in its timing gear and one in an optical fibre connection.

FDA Advisers Endorse Weight-Loss Drug Qnexa

from the Los Angeles Times (Registration Required)

A panel of medical experts voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to endorse the controversial weight-loss drug Qnexa, clearing the way for the Food and Drug Administration to approve a new prescription obesity medication for the first time since 1999.

The FDA will issue a final ruling later this year, but the agency typically follows the recommendations of its advisory committees.

The 20-2 vote in favor of Qnexa was a surprising reversal from 2010, when the same advisory committee decided that the drug's risks of heart problems and birth defects outweighed its weight-loss benefits.

Sudden Cardiac Death: Time of Day Link Found in Mice

from BBC News Online

How the time of day can increase the risk of dying from an irregular heartbeat has been identified by researchers. The risk of "sudden cardiac death" peaks in the morning and rises again in the evening.

A study published in the journal Nature suggests that levels of a protein which controls the heart's rhythm fluctuates through the day. A body clock expert said the study was "beautiful."

... As the chemistry of the body changes throughout the day, this can impact on health. US researchers say they have identified, in mice, how the time can affect the risk of sudden cardiac death, which kills 100,000 people a year in the UK.

What Heinrich Rudolf Hertz Taught Us about Nothingness

from the Christian Science Monitor

On Wednesday Google honored Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, the German physicist who, in his all-too-short career, taught the world invaluable lessons about optics, electromagnetism, and, in a contribution that is often overlooked, the science of nothingness.

"Horror vacui," goes the phrase, usually attributed to Aristotle's fourth book of Physics. Nature abhors a vacuum. True or not, it's certainly the case that those studying nature have long struggled with the concept of empty space. Aristotle thought that, because space empty of all matter offers no resistance, objects moving within it would move infinitely fast.

Thus the objects surrounding any void would instantly fill it before it could form. Emptiness, he concluded, was therefore impossible. Every part of the universe must be filled with something, even if we can't detect it.

Genetic Maker of Men Is Diminished but Holding Its Ground

from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Men, or at least male biologists, have long been alarmed that their tiny Y chromosome, once the same size as its buxom partner, the X, will continue to wither away until it simply vanishes. The male sex would then become extinct, they fear, leaving women to invent some virgin-birth method of reproduction and propagate a sexless species.

The fear is not without serious basis: The Y and X chromosomes once shared some 800 genes in common, but now, after shedding genes furiously, the Y carries just 19 of its ancestral genes, as well as the male-determining gene that is its raison d'être. So much DNA has been lost that the chromosome is a fraction of its original size.

But there are grounds for hope that the Y chromosome has reached a plateau of miniaturized perfection and will shrivel no more. Researchers led by Jennifer F. Hughes and David C. Page of the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Mass., have reconstructed the Y chromosome's past and find that its gene-shedding days seem to be over. Men are not living on borrowed time after all, they reported on Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Sirtuin Protein Linked to Longevity in Mammals

from Nature News

At last, a member of the celebrated sirtuin family of proteins has been shown to extend lifespan in mammals--although it's not the one that has received the most attention and financial investment.

Sirtuin genes and the proteins they encode have intrigued many researchers who study ageing ever since they were first linked to longevity in yeast. Results published today [February 22] in Nature suggest that the overexpression of one gene, called sirtuin 6 (SIRT6), can lengthen lifespan in male mice by as much as 15.8%.

For years, another member of the family, SIRT1, has hogged much of the spotlight because it is the mammalian member of the sirtuin clan most closely related to the longevity-linked yeast gene.

New Melanoma Drug Doubles Survival Time, Study Shows

from CBS News

Advanced melanoma is often considered a death sentence, since patients will live only six to ten months by the time it's diagnosed. A new study of a recently-approved drug called vemurafenib offers hope, because it nearly doubled life expectancy of patients with metastatic melanoma to 16 months.

Metastatic melanoma is skin cancer that spreads to other parts of the body, such as to the lungs or bones. About half of patients with melanoma have a genetic mutation on the BRAF protein. Vemurafenib, which is sold by Hoffmann-La Roche as Zelboraf, was approved by the FDA in August for treating melanoma patients who possess the mutated protein.

For the new study, published in the Feb. 22 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, 132 patients with stage IV melanoma who hadn't responded to other treatments were given Zelboraf. The researchers found 53 percent of the patients responded to the drug and saw at least a 30 percent reduction in tumor size.

D-Wave Defies World of Critics With 'First Quantum Cloud'

from Wired

Geordie Rose has a PhD in quantum physics, but he's also a world champion in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and a Canadian national champion wrestler. That may seem like an odd combination, but this dual background makes him the perfect fit for his chosen profession.

Rose is the CTO and founder of D-Wave. He calls it the world's only quantum computer company, but the world's quantum computer experts don't agree with him. The result is a nearly 10-year fight to prove each other wrong, and at least in some ways, Geordie Rose is winning. "I'm not okay with losing at anything," he says, "at all."

The quantum computer is the holy grail of tech research. The idea is to build a machine that uses the mind-bending properties of very small particles to perform calculations that are well beyond the capabilities of machines here in the world of classical physics. But it's still not completely clear that a true quantum computer can actually be built.

How Kodak Succumbed to the Digital Age

from Spiegel

Robert Shanebrook pulls his Dodge minivan up to an immense building in snow-covered Kodak Park, in Rochester, New York, and says: "These days they make spaghetti sauce here." He takes pains to sound morose, as if he wanted his words to bridge the entire period since the day, more than 40 years ago, when he first came to Kodak as a young engineer.

Back then, the company was building the camera that would capture the images of the Apollo 11 mission, which delivered perhaps one of the greatest "Kodak Moments" of all time, or pictures of the first men on the moon and of our planet seen from space.

Shanebrook, a tall, gray-haired man with a scraggly beard, wears hiking boots. He's kept active since retiring from Kodak in 2003. For 35 wonderful years, he had the privilege of working--and traveling the world--for the company. He was at Kodak in the 1990s, when its shares were worth as much as $70 (€54) each. He was there in the 1980s, when the company employed more than 30,000 people in this city on Lake Ontario. At that time, the employees' biggest worry was finding a parking spot near where they worked on the sprawling campus of 195 buildings.

Ancient Elephants Followed the (Female) Leader

from ScienceNOW Daily News

When a herd of prehistoric elephants walked through mud in the Arabian Desert about 7 million years ago, its members unwittingly left their footprints--and clues about their social lives--behind. Those prints now reveal how the herd behaved: Just like modern elephants, mature males meandered on their own while the rest of the herd apparently followed a female leader.

Researchers have long wondered when modern elephants began living in matriarchal groups in which females and young follow a female leader while males disperse when they reach sexual maturity. Today, both African and Asian elephants live in complex matriarchal groups, so scientists have hypothesized that their common ancestor 5 million to 7 million years ago also lived in a female-led herd of Proboscidea (the order that includes living elephants and several extinct families), says paleontologist William Sanders of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who was not involved in the new work.

With the discovery of a remarkable 260-meter-long trackway, researchers can now get a glimpse of how some prehistoric elephants moved across the landscape at the site of Mleisa 1 in the Al Gharbia region of Abu Dhabi. The tracks, which are the most extensive ever recorded for mammals, were made by at least 13 proboscidians of different sizes, according to a study published today [February 21] in Biology Letters.


"Science in the News" is produced daily by Sigma Xi as a service for its members and the public. It highlights science and technology news stories appearing in the mainstream media. The accompanying Web links provide access to the full text of the articles on the Web sites of the individual media outlets from which they are taken. For more about the service, visit American Scientist Online

If you experience any problems with the URLs (page not found, page expired, etc.), we suggest you proceed to the Science in the News section of American Scientist Online, which mirrors the daily e-mail update. If you have any questions or comments about subscription or content, please e-mail us at


SIGN UP TODAY for "Science in the News Weekly," an e-newsletter produced by Sigma Xi in conjunction with "American Scientist Online." The newsletter provides a digest of the week's top stories from "Science in the News," and includes breaking news and feature stories from each weekend not normally covered by "Science in the News." For more information, visit American Scientist Online.


Please follow these links for more information about Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society:

Sigma Xi homepage

Sigma Xi Public Understanding of Science Program

American Scientist Online

Follow us on Twitter, and visit our Facebook page!

Send feedback regarding this e-newsletter


If you do not wish to receive any further e-mails, please click here to manage your subscriptions.